For this weeks wargame article we've got a treat for you - am interview session with Bowen Simmons, designer of two of the most innovative wargames of recent years: Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph. He's currently in the process of applying his system to the American Civil War for his next game, Guns of Gettysburg but he agreed to take some time away from the design desk to answer some questions for us.
Hi, and thanks for agreeing to take the time to do this Q&A session. Could we start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got into gaming?
Well, like all kids I played games, but gaming as a hobby started when I was about 12 and was introduced to wargames. I had been interested in military history before then so it was a very natural and easy interest to pick up. I bought and played many wargames through my teenage years. In high school, I started a wargames club (euphemistically called the historical simulations club or something like that to avoid offending delicate sensibilities) and made a lot of friends that way. While I was in high school, Dungeons and Dragons was published, and my group largely switched from wargames to D&D. Later still, during college, those from my group who were still local during the summers started playing simpler multi-player games like "Cosmic Encounters", "Dune", and so on. Overlapping that time, I joined a Napoleonic miniatures group, and enjoyed that until I moved away from the state.
What inspired you to decide not only to take the leap from being a game player to a game designer but to actually form a publishing company to produce your games?
I remember trying to make some of my own games as a kid even before I started wargaming. I hadn't been wargaming long before I started tinkering around with wargames. Sometimes I would just make additional boards and pieces for expandable games like Panzerblitz, and sometimes I would make entire games from scratch. They were quite informal, and for the most part I didn't really try to get other people to play them; it was just for my own satisfaction. When I was in the wargame group in high school, I did some wargames for the group: I did a heavyweight version of Risk, for example, called "The American Century", that was actually quite popular with my friends, but mostly the games I did were still just for me. One big non-wargame design was after my group had switched to D&D, I built a large-scale world (about a million square miles) and refereed it for the entire group. I did another big role playing game during one summer in college, which used my own RFP mechanisms (nothing from D&D), but have never gone back to RPG's since then. After college I was interested in a career in wargame design and actually published a game with SPI, "Thunder at Luetzen", but decided that the future for games were computer games and so tried my hand at programming. My computer game was never finished, but I found that I liked writing software and that actually became my career. My involvement in the miniatures group continued post-college, and I did the rules (tactical and strategic) for that group.
When I moved to a different state, that of course ended my connection with the miniatures group, which also cut my last tie with gaming. Work absorbed all the intellectual energy I had, I was no longer part of a social group that gamed, and so I neither played nor designed games. Later still I got married and started a family, and gaming still just wasn't a part of my life. It was after I more or less retired from software that I got interested in gaming again. Once I stopped doing software, however, my creative and intellectual energies needed an outlet and I went back and looked at some of the game ideas I had thought of during my time away from gaming but had never pursued. Somehow, in the time I wasn't gaming, I realized that I had developed an entirely new perspective on what wargames could be, and so decided to try my hand at publishing. I decided to publish, because first of all I didn't really think that the publishers of traditional wargames would be interested in what I was doing because it was so different from what they were doing, and second, I thought that if there was any money at all to be made (and I never had any illusions on this subject) it could best be made by publishing, not by designing for another publisher.
Your company is often held up as an example of what a wargame publisher can achieve during discussions on wargame component quality. Would you mind letting us in to the secret of how you manage to turn out such fantastic looking games at perfectly reasonable prices?
Wargame publishing has never been anything other than a marginal business. Nobody would ever do it to get rich; you do it because you love it and you hope to be able to get enough compensation for it that you will be able to continue doing it. I don't sell games at a loss, so it is a real business and not a hobby. I don't know that I can really answer your question though: not because I have any big secret but because I don't have enough insight into the cost structure of other companies to know why they don't offer better components. From having read their customer comments, though, I can say that one big part of it is that their customers don't seem to press them for more: why should a publisher pay for mounted boards if their customers are willing to buy games with paper ones?
The design notes for BaM indicate that you're obviously very concerned about achieving a high level of aesthetics in your designs. Do you feel generally that production quality is an issue in wargames, and that more wargame publishers should be aiming to provide games with high component quality?
It isn't really for me to tell other publishers what they should do. I do think that collectively, wargames publishers have sort of pulled up the drawbridge and locked out the larger world through low component quality, long playing times, and high complexity. In general, wargames just aren't inviting games. Ideally, a game in play should present itself in such a way that it draws onlookers in rather than scare them off. A game that looks cheaply made, that plays so slowly that nothing seems to happen, and which an observer can't even begin to understand by watching, doesn't draw people in, it drives people away. I am interested in designing games that can contribute to expanding the hobby, and physical presentation is a big part of how I try to do it.
Your choice of battles to design for so far would seem to indicate you have a particular interest in 19th century warfare. What is it about this period that interests you and draws you to design games set therein?
I got interested in Napoleonics because the combined arms aspect made the period really interesting; infantry, cavalry, and artillery each had their own role to play, each excelled in some situations but was almost useless in others and that made for a lot of interesting tactical problems. Civil War combat, actually, doesn't have that, which makes doing a Civil War game much more of a challenge for me. There is something in there that can make for a good game and my current Gettysburg project is actually part of trying to figure out what it is and bring that out.
Tactically, at least, WWII and post-WWII combat tends to be about machines and hardware. The games on it tend to be built around many large tables of numbers which are utterly the opposite of what interests me in terms of game design. I actually did a lot of gaming in WWII (though not much post-WWII gaming) back in the day, and it may be that one day I will attack modern tactical gaming but if I do it won't be to do anything like what is generally being done. I say this not to boast about non-existent accomplishments, but because if I can't do anything very different from what I see being done today, I won't do anything at all. Of course the people who DO enjoy the games as they currently exist can and should continue to do so. I am only describing what I like, not what telling other people what they should like.
With regard to pre-nineteenth century warfare, there is a lot to like from a game design perspective and I hope one day to get into it. I've always found the musket-and-pike period really interesting and would love to do something with it someday.
Can you tell us a little bit about the differences you perceive between ACW and Napoleonic warfare and how you're planning to change the systems used in BaM and NT to suit the scenario of Guns of Gettysburg?
Well, it's a big subject, and one I'm still working on. What makes Napoleonic armies interesting to me is the interplay between the different arms (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) and the handling of the elite units (guards, grenadiers, cuirassiers, etc.). Well, in the ACW you don't really have those, at least not in the same sense. Tactically, ACW cavalry was a shadow of what it had been in the Napoleonic era, and elite units in the Napoleonic sense didn't exist in the ACW. In moving the BaM/NT rules to cover an ACW subject, you quickly find that their emphasis is in all the wrong places, and they don't work very well as a consequence.
While I think the general physical design of the BaM/NT games will work very well for Gettysburg, the rules need a lot of work. I really need to catch the variability of tempo that characterized Gettysburg, the importance of artillery and fields of fire, and the ability of the two armies to surprise each other with their movements. I have ideas on all of these and have been making satisfactory progress, although there is still much work to be done.
Another change, which isn't related to Napoleonic vs. ACW combat per se, is that I want this to be a simpler game than its predecessors. My previous games were not really suitable for pick-up games at game group meetings and so forth because the learning curves were just too steep. I would like to fix that this time around and make a game that holds up just as well to repeat play as BaM or NT, but which new players can pick up a lot faster
Similarly, your work so far is focused on games about particular battles, as opposed to wider conflicts. Is there something about that scale that you find especially inspiring?
Napoleonic tactical games actually just arose out of a sense of unfinished business. The last game design I had done before I had my long hiatus from gaming was the Napoleonic miniatures group tactical rules. Those rules were made by making one tweak after another to the basic design framework I took from "Wellington's Victory", but I kind of ran out of tweaks and the rules still weren't what I wanted. Really the whole thing needed to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. By the time I had come to this conclusion, however, I had stopped doing any design or gaming and so there was no follow-up. Once I returned to gaming, I just sort of picked up where I had left off years before. It was this from-scratch rebuild that became "Bonaparte at Marengo". "Napoleon's Triumph" was supposed to be just a low-effort second design, although it turned out to be anything but, and from there people had been begging for a Civil War version of the system and so I decided to turn to that.
Actually, the decision to pursue a tactical Civil War game as the next game was not a foregone conclusion. I was interested in doing a strategic Civil War game, a strategic Napoleonic game, and a strategic World War II game. The strategic Civil War game, however, went nowhere because I couldn't figure out how to make it work. The strategic Napoleonic game was actually underway, but I decided to halt work on it in favor of the Gettysburg game. The strategic World War II game was the most exciting project because it really goes in a new direction from what I've done before and what other people have done before, but for now there are too many unresolved issues with it for now. It is a very great wish of mine, however, that after Gettysburg I will have thought through how to go forward with the WWII project, because I think the project has the potential to be very cool.
In the BaM design notes you state you never planned to make a game which stepped away from so many wargame conventions. The game clearly captures your stated design goals, but are you pleased by the fact that, as a byproduct, you were able to create such an innovative system?
Innovation cannot be a goal in and of itself. If you set out to create an innovative game as your goal, you're steering towards nowhere and everywhere. What I did was decide what kind of game experience I wanted to provide and let that drive the design decisions. I never decided to omit some wargame convention because it was a wargame convention. If I didn't use one, it was because it wasn't a way for me to do what I wanted to do. As it happened, there was essentially nothing I wanted to do that conventional wargame design did well. I am pleased that my games are good games. I am pleased that they give the gaming experience (mostly) that I want them to give. It is a temptation to be pleased that they are "innovative" in and of itself, but I see that as a snare as it can easily lead me in the future to reject game mechanisms that will neatly solve a problem I need to solve just because it isn't "innovative". For me, it is all about making the game work and doing whatever is needed to best make that happen.
The prevailing opinion amongst the F:AT writers who play wargames is that detailed simulation in a game is ultimately unfulfilling because all games are, ultimately, abstractions. Is this something you'd agree with? Is it - alongside your laudable goal to create quality wargames for the time-poor - something that has influenced your designs?
I don't know that I've ever considered it in quite that way, but I'm certainly aware of the inherent limitations of making a simulation that is also a game. My approach is that the simulation serves the needs of the game. I want to use the historical situation as raw material for the game and let the game derive interest from its subject, but I have no illusions about how much of a simulation can result. My goal is to make a good game that draws on what is interesting in the subject as the source of interest for the game, but not to sacrifice game play in an ultimately fruitless pursuit of making "the ultimate simulation" of the subject. So many "ultimate simulations" have been horribly broken games that it isn't even a goal I would shoot for. For me, it is all about studying the subject and making a good game out of it; I don't want the mass of detail in the subject to destroy the game nor force pre-conceived game ideas onto a subject and in so doing destroy the subject.
In your interesting essay on chance in Wargames (http://www.simmonsgames.com/design/Chance.html) you explore the use of random factors in wargame mechanics and simulation. But was the adoption of a chanceless combat system in BaM a deliberate design goal, or did it arise out of other factors and concerns?
I needed uncertainty in combat, but I really got that from having limited intelligence. It was never that I decided in advance not to have chance, it was a matter of that chance wasn't assumed as a design element: chance could come in only if I reached a point in the design process where I thought that chance was the solution to a problem I was trying to solve. This happened in French set-up, which is semi-random, but not anywhere else.
You've said that one mantra you used during the design of NT was "less chess, more poker". I find this an interesting simile. Do you have a lot of interest in "classic" games like poker, chess and others?
My simile really has to do with the kind of experience a game provides. Classic games tend to be classic games because they do such a good job of producing a particular type of gaming experience. Like everyone, I've played all the classic games at one point or another, but none of them has ever had the irresistible pull on me that they do on some people. Probably if there was any classic game that I could ever become obsessive about it would be Bridge. If I had a circle of Bridge playing friends I could easily see myself playing it on a regular basis, reading Bridge books, and so on.
Both BaM and NT certainly do have a heavyweight, cerebral, chess-like quality to the gameplay - more so than other wargames I've encountered. Was this a deliberate design goal when you put these games together? Do you feel that more wargames ought to be more intellectually challenging?
In terms of the physical aspect of game play, wargames in general tend to have a lot of busy work. There are a lot of pieces to be moved, lots of arithmetic, lots of die rolling, lots of markers, lots of tables, and so on. If you watch a wargame being played, gamers are physically pretty busy; they don't spend a lot of time just looking at the board thinking. Chess is the opposite: players spend almost all their time studying the board: once they decide on a move, it only takes them a second or two to make it, and then it's back to thinking again. Because managing playing time is one of my major design goals, my games don't have much physical overhead, which means that once a player decides what to do, it doesn't take him long to do it. This moves the experience sharply in a Chess-like direction, where time spent thinking has much more to do with how long the game takes to play than the time required to just move the pieces.
I wouldn't say that all wargames should be more like my games; there is more than one way to make a good game. I do think that wargame designers could collectively do more to ensure that their games are better games, which mainly means being a lot more attentive to what the player experience is like playing the game, and trying to explicitly design to produce a good experience. While there are some wargames that are excellent games, that make you want to play them again and again, far too many are disposable once-and-never-again games, and I think the lack of attention to the player experience is why.
In my experience it is difficult to design team games that actually encourage the players to work together as opposed to acting as individuals in pursuit of the same goals. NT manages to achieve this pretty well, but the design notes suggest the team game was an afterthought. Did you plan carefully to encourage teamwork, and are you pleased with how it's turned out?
The team rules in Napoleon's Triumph are the product of serendipity. Because the solitaire option of BaM was very popular, I wanted one badly for NT as well, but couldn't come up with one that worked. It occurred to me, however, that if NT was very difficult to convert into a solitaire game, it converted incredibly easily and naturally into a team game. The limits on communication were in part due to the desire to simulate the difficulty of coordinating command, but also because I wanted to ensure that each player would really get a chance to play without being dominated by another team member with more experience or just more force of personality. I think that the team aspect of it really comes out because of the way play can shift from offense to defense, either on particular sections of the front or across the whole front. You need to be sensitive and alert to what's going on in the other areas of the board because it can have a huge impact on what it is you're trying to do on yours. NT is never about just executing a pre-defined plan; it is about improvising when the unexpected occurs, and improvising is a lot more complicated when there are multiple players involved who have tight restrictions on what they can say to each other. I think the team game is very satisfying and I've been glad to see it used as often as it has been.
You've stated some interest in doing a WWII game. Can you tell us any more about it - what battle(s) it might cover, why you passed it over in favour of ACW for now and what sort of system(s) it might use?
I'm afraid I'm going to pass for now on explaining anything much about the WWII project. The reason I'm not doing it (yet) is because the concept just isn't ready yet; there are some really important open issues that need to be resolved. I have gathered research materials for it and look very much forward to pursuing it in the future, and hopefully sooner rather than later!
Finally I feel compelled to ask whether you'd ever heard of F:AT before agreeing to do this interview and whether you have any interest in or experience of playing "Ameritrash" games?
I had indeed heard of F:AT prior to the interview. It's a fun site which brings its own distinctive point of view and energy to the hobby. As I mentioned, in my gaming history, there was a time when I hardly played anything else besides Ameritrash (not that we had that name for them in those days). Years ago, I got rid of almost all of my old games from high school and college, but kept most of the Ameritrash games that had given me so much enjoyment, and that says a great deal right there.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Bowen once again for taking the time and effort to provide us with such in-depth answers. If any of you are wondering why I didn't ask more questions about the upcoming Guns of Gettysburg the answer is that he's already providing such a wealth of material in his design diary that it seemed to me to be something of a duplication of effort to do so!