Sagrilarus and flim_flam recently sat down with Adam Starkweather (adamant), the driving force behind Multi-Man Publishing’s critically acclaimed International Game Series (or IGS) for a wide ranging discussion about upcoming wargames and the struggles of trying to bring fresh ideas and approaches to the wargamer community.
Sagrilarus: As I began this interview it became apparent that I was going to need a "player's aid" for those not familiar with all of the titles Adam was going to reference. He mentions plenty, and most of them are parts of series where the ordering is important as well. I'll detail each game when he first mentions them, but here's the master list in case you have trouble finding them as you go:
“Grand Tactical Series” Games – “GTS”
- The Devil’s Cauldron: The Battles for Arnhem and Nijmegen (2008)
- Where Eagles Dare (Late 2011)
- No Question of Surrender (shipping to preorders now)
“International Game Series” Games – “IGS”
- A Victory Lost (2006)
- A Victory Denied (2009)
- Fire in the Sky: The Great Pacific War 1941-1945 (2005)
- Storm Over Stalingrad (2008)
- Warriors of God (2008)
I'd like to start off with big congratulations on getting Where Eagles Dare (2011, Adam Starkweather designer – “WED”) onto the streets. $160 MSRP but it is quite the package. Have you gotten any feedback from the unwashed masses? (Ed. not actually referring to gamer hygiene) How's the reception been so far?
Adam: Thanks a bunch. I'm certainly happy it is finally out and getting played by gamers. Overall, I've b een ve ry happy with the response. It is a follow up on a very successful game (The Devil’s Cauldron: The Battles for Arnh em and Nijmegen, 2008, Adam Starkweather Designer – “TDC”) and that can mean trouble, but even considering that, I co u ldn't be more pleased. Sort of like A Victory Denied (2009, Adam Starkweather Designer – “AVD”) followed A Victory Lost (2009, Tetsuya Nakamura Designer – “AVL”). There are plenty of AVD fans out there and I'm very happy with the game, it suffers a bit from the little brother problem. One fun thing, on a more personal level, playing the Grand Tactical Series system a bunch as we approached publishing (No Question of Surrender as well as Where Eagles Dare) reminded me of how much I enjoy actually playing the game myself. That got me all excited to kick off the next game in the series, the D-Day games. My mind is now firmly in Normandy now.
I am thinking about some questions and comments about WED when it first came out that I thought I'd share my thoughts about which is better, TDC or WED? For me, as I have to play the game 50-75 times to test it all out and make sure it works, I vastly prefer the open-endedness, the quickness of play and the tenseness of WED. There are a ton more strategies and different ways the game can go. To me, TDC is pretty much the same after 10 or so plays and can become rather static. But for the average gamer (or even the very unusual gamer), who among them is going to play either of these games 50 times? For the gamer that will in all likelihood only play the games 5 or so times (and even that's a lot!), TDC has the more familiar narrative and well-known history so I can see why many might prefer that game. We'll see as WED gets more play but if TDC gets more accolades in the end, I'll get it and understand why.
flim_flam: The GTS series is your first with designer credits, right? Where is this series going next? No Question of Surrender is smaller scale than the Market Garden games. Is this smaller scale type of game where you want to go or will we see a return to the big, instant sell out monsters?
Adam: Yep, TDC is my first design. I have three out now: TDC, WED and A Victory Denied. Next up after No Question of Surrender is the first of the D-Day games covering the British Beaches. A big, 4 map game. It is actually on schedule to be out early next year. I'm hoping to do about one GTS game a year.
I did design TDC specifically to be a monster game. I kept the die rolling down and kept a very strong narrative to the game. I kept the former but ditched the latter for WED. So for D-Day, I'll be watching closely to see how it is received. Perhaps replayability and varied play isn't such a good thing in a big game? If you're only going to play the game a few times, perhaps staying tightly on historical tracks is the best idea? Although AVD had a lot more play variance than AVL, AVL is the more popular game. You just never know and I enjoy the experimental aspects of this work a great deal.
Along those lines, I will also be watching No Question of Surrender closely. A small game using a system made for a bigger one? It might fly just fine (with the added boost of TDC/WED success as its first booster stage) but who knows? Will there be enough play options and choice when a game can be finished in a short time and the need for more complete plays really matters? We'll see. I have the early work done on a game on Sedan in 1940 that would be one map. I'll do it at some point. I put up a poll of what people would like to see next (The Doomsday Project, Sedan, Warriors of America and A Victory Approaches) and Doomsday won out. So I'm working on that one first. I'm actually thinking that Doomsday will be a questionable choice. I have been talking about it for some time (I really wanted gamers to be a part of this now-fantasy history but very much about our gaming history) but people go sour on games when it's not out but it's talked about, so I'm now wondering if Doomsday is a good thing. I'll probably still do it, but it probably would have been better if I had stayed quiet about it.
Sagrilarus: I had another question on my mind but you swung a door open so I'm going to step in. You said "50-75 times" for playtesting. Number of plays has been knocked around on F:At recently and no one is talking about those kinds of numbers for big games. I tend towards the lower end. Short of particular favorite games, I'd wager the average gamer plays most of their titles no more than five or ten times over a lifetime, and that's considering much shorter plays than anything you're involved with. I appreciate you're in a unique position - you have to wring out the designs in order to refine them, but how many times would you guess most of your paying customers play any single game that you produced? TDC and WED are "short" by wargame standards, but how big an issue is "replay" when you're designing games that take 3-6 hours per session?
Adam: I'm not sure what you're asking here - how many times do I play a game or how many times should it be playtested? Me playing it is a different thing from playtesting. I'll assume you're asking about playtesting and run with that...
Sagrilarus: (This wasn’t the case, but Adam’s question is better than mine so I figured I’d run with it)
Adam: As for how much? That depends on how the game is testing and how robust the system is, is it positive or negatively balanced and how quickly does it play (how long does it take to finish a game). Shorter playing games are much harder to test and take a lot more testing than a big monster. The Twain quote of "I didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote a long one instead" is very true of wargame designing. You also need to know your testers and how talented are they at playing games. You need to design for poorer players too. A game can't be too hard or a weaker player will just bail on it in the first few turns and think the game is shitty. “Weaker players” includes solo only players as well. If it's too easy to play, average and talented gamers won't see replay in the game. It's one of the harder things to do in designing. If the system is robust and plays about the same every time regardless of the talent of the players, that doesn't need a ton of testing. If you're getting wildly different results in plays, you have to find out why and fix that, or at least address it. A replay in the rules can help too if you are wedded to a mechanic and weaker gamers are struggling with it. I did that with Fire in the Sky.
I remember testing AVL and I got pretty much the same results across the board except for one group. They gave me light info so I couldn't tell what was happening with them but their results were way off the curve. I had to disregard it in the end, but in retrospect, that test had value and if I had known what happened, the game might not be 60-40 pro Soviet as it is now.
As for how many plays does each game get? (Sagrilarus: This was my original question) Who knows...I assume most games are never played but if the shrink is removed, they're either played a fair amount or traded after a turn or two. But I have no idea. I would assume shorter time playing games get significantly more play than a monster. Just seems to make sense.
Sagrilarus: Years ago SPI did a survey and reported that most of the copies they sold were never played even once. It appears you don't think things have changed that much in the last few decades.
So how do you harvest the feedback from your playtesters? Do you get feedback in writing? A verbal post-game show? Multi-Man World Headquarters with its expansive R&D facilities is in Maryland and you're in New York City so I'm imagining most of your testers aren't playing while you observe them directly. And what does "good" feedback look like? What's the kind of thing you're looking for?
Adam: The answer is simple here. I use VASSAL exclusively for testing so I can see every move and comment made by the players – even their conversations and mood while playing. It’s a great tool for playtesting.
Sagrilarus: By modern standards Vassal a pretty brutal looking tool, but it gets the job done doesn’t it? I mean, for development it’s everything you need. But it accounts for a huge number of customer game plays too. In any other part of the gaming industry it would be insufficient, but wargamers are happy with electronic copies of old-fashioned chits and maps aren’t they? Wargamers are more about the content, less about the presentation. I mean, this is a bunch of guys with a pretty unique set of values for what they want from their games. They're a small subset within a small subset of the overall gaming industry. They're a fraction of the market of video games or even more mainstream board games.
Adam: I dunno. Vassal is all that's out there, it lets you move counters on a map and it's free. Any more and your jumping to another game genre I would think. Works fine for me. And I'll differ with you - wargamers are all about presentation. Perhaps you don't care for the conventions of the hobby but there is nothing that helps sales more than an excellent presentation.
Sagrilarus: Wow, Adam, from my point of view that sentence seems to contradict itself. I think the conventions of the hobby are part of what keeps things looking on the stodgy side. If it were up to me those chits would have kick-ass art on them instead of the traditional symbols. I appreciate a lot of games do that, but a lot don't, and I've seen push-back on innovative displays on ConSimWorld (CSW). This is an uneducated consumer's opinion, not a designer’s, but it seems to me that data visualization is a place where wargames are bringing up the rear. Size and shape and the color of the cardboard chits are printed on (i.e., the edge color) would embed additional information into the display.
Now maps; there's some KILLER maps in wargames and I'm big into map porn. I stumbled across Warriors of God in pre-pub when Mark Mahaffey posted a prototype of his map design on BGG. I pre-ordered because of that map. In fact I think the maps in the International Game Series could go toe-to-toe with just about anything in the business. Some are absolutely gorgeous. To be fair Warriors of God's counters are better than most (and bigger! A blessing as my eyesight wanes, so thank you for that design decision) but I've customized mine by touching the edges with a Sharpie so that I can read a stack without lifting it. It adds information to the game state without players needing to telegraph what they're considering for their move.
flim_flam: I have noticed that a large amount of the IGS line comes from Japanese designers. How did that relationship come about and what do you think is particularly compelling to you about how the Japanese designer approach wargames?
Adam: I talk about this in the Fire in the Sky designer's notes but my first contact was with a Japanese gamer, so that's where things started. It could have been anywhere, but once I had contacts established in Japan and saw some interesting games that had never been printed in English, I had something to sell to MMP.
flim_flam: Ah, Fire in the Sky. I just picked this beauty up the other day. To get back to Sag's earlier question about presentation, here is a game that radically departed from the traditional notion of what a war game should look like from photorealistic style map to the big counters with Japanese flowers on them. Another game that comes to mind is the highly regarded Warriors of God. Is this type of non-traditional art style/presentation something that you have purposefully set out from the beginning to bring into "traditionalist" war game hobby with the IGS line?
Adam: Graphics, yes, I do try and push the envelope as much as possible but people that pre-order want 1978 graphics. So it's sort of a catch 22. I think this is eating our young. Old-time graphics are killing our hobby by being too insular and too elitist. I can put a game down from 1978 and one from yesterday and my 25 year old son can't tell the difference in 35 years of graphic design. We can't see the forest from the trees. I'd go in a lot of different places if I could sell it. I remember seeing Mark Mahaffey's first stab at Red Star Rising. It had this really interesting 30’s monolithic feel to it. That impersonal, overly industrial period that so defines Nazi Germany's and Soviet Union's total disregard for individuality. MMP took one look and said, "No fucking way"...
This applies as much to all aspects of the production - from rules writing to topics. It's just easiest to see in graphics since that's what is right in front of you. That just means we gamers will stay the same old bunch until we all go away. It does upset me to watch my hobby die (as well as my job too), but that's our market model and that's what we're stuck with. A sensitive topic for me, so forgive the vitriol.
Sagrilarus: And I think that's the ringer that most wargame developers' tits are in right now. In today's desktop publishing market where EVERYTHING is slick, you're joined at the hip to people that don't want to see change. With P500 you essentially have to gain their permission to publish. P500 is really a two-edged sword. I understand why it's there, it reduces risk for the publisher and let's them work in a thin market. But it's shackles on the designer and publisher. Innovation drives success, but innovation is voted down by the P500 model.
Adam: This reminds me of when I first pitched The Doomsday Project. I had a conceptual model of using areas instead of hexes - but with abstract movement within the areas (so that overly controlled and organized modern warfare thing could come out). I was basically visited by a mob at my front door about not having hexes, so I junked the concept and gave in to the hex crowd. Then I was visited by another mob that was pissed I spent so much time on this area thing and just junked it. 30 minute ride on the subway in which I thought about the area idea - such a loss of resources. The world will never be the same again.
Sagrilarus: I think it's pretty obvious I would have been a part of crowd #2, and the thing that's most disappointing is that innovation like "abstract movement within areas" could produce something truly different and exciting. It could add new life into the genre and attract new interest. Big wins are made with big concepts, but P500's unintended consequences prevent that from happening. So it gets some games published, but stops others.
Adam: No, there was no one like you (if you are open to something new). No one wanted some new fangled thing. Some were just upset at all the time lost to make an area thingy (they still all wanted hexes). Just a “some are never happy” comment.
Sagrilarus: Alright then, I'm officially the first member of Group Number 3, the group that wants to see designers take things in entirely new directions. I'd wager I can get a few more people at F:At to sign up, but it's not going to matter because you need 500+ people to sign on to purchase "new and risky" sight unseen in order for it to be published, and I don't think that's going to happen. Such is the nature of the business.
Sagrilarus: How many wargamers do you figure are out there? When a real zinger of a game is released, how many copies can it reasonably be expected to sell? For games like yours in the International Game Series where (for the most part) each title is a standalone package, you need to make sales numbers in this small market. What constitutes success? What’s the sales goal?
Adam: How many wargamers are out there? I have absolutely no idea. Your guess is as good as mine. As for what is a success to me? I'm not a publisher so I want the games to sell out in 10 minutes. I want MMP to think they should have printed 3 times more of them than they did, to think, damn, this one is a hot one and to never have to fire sale them down the road. I finally saw one of mine on sale in this last MMP sale (I think it was Storm over Stalingrad). I was pretty proud that I lasted so long without one on sale.
Sagrilarus: And what's going now? What's hot in the IGS? What should we be looking at right now?
Adam: The pre-pub list on BGG is the straight up dope on what's happening with the line now. The line is in a bit of trouble with low pre-pubs and a dearth of things to publish in 2013-14 but 2012 however is going to be the best period ever for the game line. I have 6-7 games coming out over a 10-12 month span (Where Eagles Dare, Ukraine'44, No Question of Surrender, Angola, Tannenberg, War of the Suns - and maybe Last Stand) and I'm pretty excited about the short term. I think all of them are excellent games and span the gambit of what gamers would like. From the simple Ukraine ‘44 and Tannenberg to the complex beast of War of the Suns, or the one mapper of No Question of Surrender to introduce GTS to gamers, or the more obscure topic of Angola. I like the stuff coming a lot. This is easily my busiest period ever.
flim_flam: Ok, Adam, thank you for your time and insight. Give me a short pitch why ATers should care about the exciting stuff coming out of the wargame genre right now?
Adam: Why should any gamer try a wargame? It is a fundamentally different sort of game. I know a lot of gamers that don't care a bit about history but love the structure. Give it a try. You might like it.