Monday, September 28, 2015

WINTER THUNDER: A NEW OLD GAME (Guest post by Brian Train)

Winter Thunder is an operational-level game of the Battle of the Bulge, the famous German offensive of December 1944 in the region of the Ardennes Forest. It is a substantial revision of Autumn Mist, an earlier design of mine on the Bulge. Among the many changes are: a newly researched order of battle, with revised counter values and reinforcement schedule, cleaned up rules including a solitaire play system, and a drastically revised map with a different ground scale and treatment of terrain. 

Winter Thumder map

We changed the title to reflect these changes and to relate it to Summer Lightning, a game on the 1939 invasion of Poland that Mark Walker cajoled me into designing and publishing w/’ Load in 2011. The two games share most systems, including similar time and unit scales, and in my view nicely bookend the beginning and end of the era of German “blitzkrieg” offensives.

Why do a game on the Bulge? There are already dozens and dozens of games on this battle, at all scales from squad level to corps. It all goes back to an opportunity that presented itself in the waning days of the Microgame Design Group, the first company to publish my designs. The company was approached in 2002-03 by a Spanish magazine that wanted to experiment with putting wargames into its issues, but they only wanted games on the “Big 5 Battles” – Waterloo, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Normandy, and the Bulge. A couple of designers in the “stable” took a swing at designing games with a newer take on the subject battles, but after the deal with the magazine fell through and the Design Group went on hiatus, only mine was picked up by an outside company, Fiery Dragon Productions, in 2004.

This was one of the few times when I have designed a game on something I wasn’t particularly interested in, but I had been working out a game system to handle corps/army operations, and here was an opportunity to get a quick publication. At the time I joked that there was an unwritten rule that every game designer had do to a Bulge game at some point in their career if they wanted to be taken seriously, and this one was mine. My original testbed for the system was to be a game on the 1945 Soviet offensive in Manchuria; after designing four games using this system (Autumn Mist, Summer Lightning, Balkan Gamble, Winter Thunder) I still haven’t gotten around to doing it!

The game’s sequence of play is made interactive by the HQ activation system. Each game turn chits for headquarters (HQ) units are picked randomly from a pool containing all chits from all sides. The corresponding HQ unit on the map can then put a certain number of units near it “under command”, enabling them to move and conduct combat. In 2003 this method was not very new but hadn’t been used in any Bulge game.

The combat system is what I call “near diceless”. The attacking and defending players secretly choose missions based on what they want to do, and what they think the enemy will do. The two are matched on the Mission Matrix Table, which will indicate any advances or retreats and whether one or both sides has to check for casualties, and if so with what modifiers. I am indebted to Jim Stahler for the essence of the Mission Matrix idea, which I have heavily modified, from his variant article for Blitzkrieg in the magazine The General volume 18, number 6 (March-April 1982).

Mission Matrix Table
The two armies represented in the game are differentiated within this system. The Germans have a larger number of HQ units in the pool to activate, and initial numerical superiority. But the Allies (in practice, the Americans: the British 30 Corps is represented fully in the game but enters the fray only if the German threatens the Meuse River crossings) have more divisions overall with more motorized units, faster strategic (road-bound) movement and generous groupings of heavy artillery and airpower. So it’s a question of the German making hay while the snow flies, then switching to a mobile defense when the Allied counterattack gets underway.

There is a campaign game scenario that runs from December 16 to January 3, a bit longer than many Bulge games. There is also a short “Home for Christmas” scenario which assumes the Germans launch an offensive with more localized aims and fewer resources. Also, because so many war games are designed for two but played by one, we included an optional solitaire play method.

I hope you enjoy this game. I appreciated the chance of a do-over, 12 years after its first publication.

Coming in October to Tiny Battle Publishing.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Winter Thunder is coming to Tiny Battle Publishing. It is an operational-level game of the Battle of the Bulge by designer Brian Train and it's a substantial revision of its former incarnation, Autumn Mist, which some of you may remember was published by Fiery Dragon Productions back in 2003. 

I thought you might like to have a peek at the exceptional art that John Cooper, artist extraordinaire, has done for the game.

First up is a section of the map.

American and German unit counters.

British, American, and Luftwaffe.

Some of the markers.

Keep an eye out for more on Winter Thunder.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

DESIGNING "WE HAPPY FEW" (Guest post by Tom Russell)

When Mark and Mary asked me if I wanted to design a game for Tiny Battle, I leapt at the chance; I’m fond of both of them, Mary especially. For me, Agincourt was a natural choice, for a number of reasons:
  1. I already have a medieval period gaming system, Shields & Swords. Using an existing system greatly speeds up the process of designing and testing the game as I’ve already done most of the work and solved most of the problems. Now, because S&S is really built for the early medieval period, and 1415 is a substantially different animal, the system had to be heavily-modified, but even that’s still faster than doing it all from scratch. Now, medieval games don’t sell as well as other periods (ACW, WW2, Napoleonics), but...
  2. This October marks the 600th anniversary of the battle. Anniversaries can often translate into sales. You’ll often see wargamers in various forums asking, “How are you commemorating the famous battle of X?”, by which they mean, “What game on X are you going to be playing?” “Oh, there’s a new game on X? Maybe I’ll pick that up.” Cross-reference the uptick in ACW games sold between 2011 and 2014, and the renewed interest in the Great War. If ever there was a time to release a game about Agincourt, this is it.
  3. It’s a well-known battle, probably the best known from the period. I have other
    Medieval cow
    Shields & Swords games that might be appropriate for Tiny Battle, but all of them are comparatively more obscure. I say “comparatively” because while someone with an interest in medieval history has probably heard of the Battle of the Bouvines and wouldn’t consider it obscure, the general populace will think it’s got something to do with cows. Whereas most people have heard of Agincourt, and know the basics: “vastly outnumbered English bowmen beat the French”.
  4. Vastly outnumbered English bowmen beat the French! I love battles where there is a striking disparity in the type and strength of opposing forces. You basically have a handful of English archers up against a French host that’s four times* its size and comprised mostly of the best-armed, best-trained knights around. And the English win! (*Estimates vary wildly for Agincourt; 4:1 is the ratio I used as it both seemed the most plausible and best fit the parameters of the game.)
  5. It also let me do a test-run for a system I designed for a WWI game that is still deep in development. This system replicates “moving in the open against enemy fire” without resorting to Opportunity Fire. Modern tactical isn’t really my scale, and the reason why is that I get tired of moving one hex, asking if my opponent wants to shoot me, moving another hex, asking if my opponent wants to shoot me, and so on (partially this is because she always does). This mechanism avoids that by resolving enemy fire “automatically” with hits sustained for each hex entered within the enemy’s Approach Zone. It works really well for Agincourt, and “folds in” the muddy terrain conditions that hampered the French advance and made them such juicy targets.
Development and testing moved at a fairly brisk pace. Going in to it, I figured that the victory conditions would be the one thing that would change the most between the first test and the last, and I was not disappointed. Agincourt is a challenging battle not because the historical result was so lopsided, but because it was so lopsided in favor of the side that was outnumbered and desperate. The Approach Zone mechanism, and to a lesser degree command structure, went a long way toward replicating the historically decisive factors, but deciding at what point the game ended was difficult. If the English VP threshold was too low, the game would end too soon and the French would never have a chance. If the threshold was too high, it gave the French too much time, and made it too easy for them to win. (Likewise, the French VP threshold itself needed to be low enough to be attainable but high enough to be difficult.) It took some doing, and required some disparate conditions: the French win if they have 10VP, while the English win if they have at least 30VP more than the French Player. The English generally rack up some very nice VP early on, but the longer the game continues, the easier it becomes for the French to score VP.

Before the testing had concluded, we already had our artists in place. Alex Krumwiede, who I worked with before on my upcoming fantasy game Shadows in the Weald (Yaah! # 5), was asked to do the art for the counters. He’s not a wargamer himself, and so the actual layout of the counters, as well as the map, fell to the talented Jose R. Faura, who I also worked with on my game with White Dog, Von Moltke’s Triumph. Map art for the medieval period is especially challenging, because most battles were fought over very simple, often flat, terrain. It’s hard to make grass interesting, but Jose managed it in spades.

I had designed a cover for We Happy Few as I did for my other game in Tiny Battle’s initial line-up, Gaines’s Mill. But while the latter passed muster, Mark thought my We Happy cover was a little blah. So we asked Jose to come up with something a little more lively, and he turned in a nice cover crazy-fast. 

Original cover
Final cover

"We Happy Few" recreates one of the most famous battles of the Middle Ages by using the basic skeleton of the S&S system seen in such titles as Flying Pig Games’ "Stamford Bridge" and "A Hill Near Hastings", with important modifications to better suit both the later era and this specific battle. Chief among these is a clever, speedy, and diceless alternative to opportunity/reaction fire concepts that reflects the difficulties inherent in moving under missile fire. Shoot over to see it.

My goal was to make an Agincourt game that was both historically accurate given the chosen level of granularity and fun to play for both sides. Almost all games on Agincourt I’ve seen have either been one or the other but never both. One such game's designer basically threw up his hands and admitted in the rules that the French Player wasn’t going to be able to make any meaningful decisions anyway, and that you should just play the game solitaire. Nuts to that, man! While We Happy Few is perfectly suitable for solitaire play, it’s designed for two players, and keeps both of them engaged. It’s possible for a good French Player to pull off the win (or even a middling player; I’ve done it a couple of times now). It’s difficult, sure; it is, after all, the Battle of Agincourt, and not the Battle of Equally-Matched Armies Fighting to a Draw. Experienced gamers wanting to play with a new gamer will likely want to take the more challenging French side themselves. “Challenging”, not “hopeless and hampered by fiddly little idiot rules”.

Somewhat immodestly, the back cover copy declares that We Happy Few is “the only Agincourt game you’ll ever need”. I’m probably the least qualified person to make that determination, but it’s certainly more to my taste than other takes on the battle, and I hope it will be more to yours as well. 

Monday, September 21, 2015


Map of Antarctica with Neuschwabenland

I was looking for a new wargame to play, and I had a very precise idea of what I was looking for. I wanted streamlined, simple rules-- nothing too complex-- low counter density and a small map, solitaire friendly, easy quick combat resolution, and, finally, an awesome and unusual theme. Just a small game to have fun with, maybe in the vein of the old Micro-games from Metagaming Concepts, like OGRE or Chitin.

My search wasn't prosperous. When the theme was attractive and cool, the rules were too complex. When the rules were streamlined, the theme was uncool. Or the game wasn't in print. And so on.

Then I thought, why not design the game myself? And so here we are.

From the start, my theme was clear. I'm a fan of old sci-fi classics like The Thing from Another World and War of the Worlds, and I love weird conspiracy theories, like "the Nazis built a secret base in Antarctica". I combined the two interests, and thus the idea of the third Reich fighting Aliens in Antarctica was born.

Lobby card for The Thing From Another World

The next step was to research the arctic environment and arctic warfare. The book Mythos Neuschwabenland (Myth New Swabia) was very evocative in its descriptions of this fascinating landscape. I watched old training films and read books about Mountain Troops to learn more about warfare under severe climatic conditions.

I tried a few different dice-based combat systems for the game, but found the perfect one quickly. I drew inspiration from the heavy and light combat dice system in Space Crusade, a game from my childhood.

The real challenge was giving each of the two factions a different play style. I decided that the hive-minded Aliens should be built for close combat, while the Reich should rely more on ranged combat and special equipment. I solved my problem by using different activation systems: the Aliens activate all units, but have variable movement points, while the Reich can activate only some of their units, with fixed movement points. A side effect of these differences is that it made the game very suitable for solitaire play, which was one of my goals.

I know it's unusual for a designer to do his own art. I had done graphics for other games previously-- nothing professional-- but the past experience was helpful, and doing the art wasn't any kind of hindrance. I went with a light-hearted comic book look; I think I was playing a lot of Borderlands at that time. :-)

Sample counters for Sperling's Neuschwabenland

I had a lot of "interpretational freedom" in designing the game, as there is no "real world data" to consider for fictional units like the Tripods, Worms, and Haunebu. I drew inspiration from movies and books, but generally let my imagination run free. I had to be careful not to go overboard so as to keep everything balanced. Fun trumped realism every time.

After playtesting and writing the rulebook, the game was good to go. I had proofread professionally published rulebooks before, but writing a book was a different matter altogether. This was especially true with the English version of the rules, since English isn't my first language. Tiny Battle's Mary Russell, and her husband Tom, helped refine the English version of the rules, so this wasn't a problem. I have to thank them for their help and support. I also need to thank Mark H. Walker for the same. Without their professionalism and experience, a professionally published, physical copy of my game would not have been possible.

Hope you enjoy it!

Check out Christian's game at Tiny Battle Publishing

Neuschwabenland comes with six unique scenarios played on a single map, along with a Campaign Game that links the scenarios. Play time for each scenario varies from 30 minutes to an hour. The game's beautiful map, crisp rules layout, and gorgeous counters were all created by designer Christian Sperling, resulting in a uniquely cohesive experience. Ski over here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

DESIGNING TINY GAMES (Guest post by Tom Russell)

I edit Flying Pig's quarterly gaming magazine, Yaah!, and the pack-in games for that esteemed publication follow the same basic parameters as those preferred by its sister company, Tiny Battle Publishing: 88 counters and an 11x17 inch mapsheet. I've designed a couple of games for Yaah! myself, as well as a couple for Tiny Battle, so this kinda thing is old hat for me by now. But I've noticed some designers struggle with these confines, or misinterpret them, so I thought it'd be a good idea to lay it all out, and offer a few pointers.

88 Counters

Counters come in all sorts of sizes, and as you might expect, the size of the counters dictates the number of counters that will fit comfortably on a given countersheet. For example, 5/8 inch counters, like those used by Yaah! and TBP, result in 176 counters on a full-sheet, whereas larger 3/4 inch counters gives us 110 per full-sheet. A half-sheet for each would be 88 (our magic number) and 55, respectively.

Now, printers don't print a "half-sheet"; they print a full-sheet, then cut it in half. So, when we have a half-sheet game, we get the counters for two units in a single go. Now, Tiny Battle will sometimes publish some full-sheet games; my own Gaines's Mill uses a full-sheet, as does Brian Train's Bulge game Winter Thunder. But a full-sheet game is naturally going to cost more than a half-sheet game, and so will take longer to become profitable. The whole beauty of the 88-chit 11x17 model is that it keeps overhead down, making it easier for the publisher to stay in the black, and to keep publishing games.

So, 88 counters 95% of the time, 176 once-in-a-blue-moon, both of those work. You know what doesn't work? 90 counters. It's a completely impractical number, because in order to print 90 counters, the publisher needs to print a full-sheet of 176. That's 86 blank, wasted counters; that's paying twice as much for two extra chits. It just doesn't make sense. Likewise, 44 counters isn't very cost-effective either; a quarter-sheet of counters isn't a thing. Both of these examples are, embarrassingly, based on my own earlier misadventures in game design, before I really understood the importance of designing for specific, publishable formats, and it took some elbow grease to convert those titles into more practical formats. It's much easier and less stressful to get it right the first time.

11 x 17 inch map

I've gotten into the habit of saying "11 inch by 17 inch" when talking to prospective designers for Yaah! because so many of them, for whatever reason, assume that 11x17 means 11 hexes by 17 hexes, which is super-restrictive. Nope! It's eleven inches one way, and seventeen the other.

On the other end of the spectrum, I sometimes see maps that have way too many hexes. Usually this is because the designer designed the game with half-inch counters in mind. The printer we use for Yaah! and Tiny Battle doesn't print half-inch counters; the slightly larger 5/8 inch counters are the smallest he has. And I don't know about you, but my eyesight isn't getting any better as I get older. 5/8 inchers are easier to read than their half-inch counterparts, and I think as time goes on, half-inchers are going to be a thing of the past.

A hex grid built for half-inchers aren't going to be big enough for a 5/8 inch counter to fit comfortably. I've found that, for an 11x17 inch mapsheet, a hex grid should be no more than 13 hexes on the short axis and 23 on the long axis. Even that's a little cramped, though-- 12 hexes by 22 would be better, and there's no danger of the hexes running off the bleed area of the page when it comes times for the game's artist to do his or her thing. And you have to keep in mind that this isn't taking into account things like a Game Turn Record Track. If you're going to have that, then naturally you're going to have to cut a couple of columns or rows.

Do you need a Game Turn Record Track? Well, that depends on the game, of course, but it also depends on what's being tracked. And before you answer "the Game Turn", wiseguy: are there reinforcements? Are there special rules for weather that changes from turn to turn? Do used off-map artillery units become available after a certain number of turns? In my book, any of those reasons are reason enough to have a track. Don't hide it in the rulebook where the player can miss it. Playability, ease-of-use: these are key.

Whereas if it's simply a case of "after eight turns, the game ends", and nothing else, you might be able to get away without a track, or the player can move the Game Turn Marker along some edge-hexes labeled with the turn numbers.

As with the counters, I know that Tiny Battle will sometimes make exceptions to the 11x17 rule, going in for a double-sided map, or for a 22x17; Brian's Winter Thunder is one example. But, again, this is an exception, and deviance from the formula increases the costs associated with producing the game, and that kind of thing is taken into account when they decide whether or not to publish the game. Good games that are designed for the core format are more likely to get the green light, both for Tiny Battle and for Yaah!

Check out Tom's games at Tiny Battle Publishing Before Richmond is a series of games recreating some of the Seven Days Battles fought between George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under its daring new commander, Robert E. Lee. Tiny Battle Publishing is proud to present this series of quick-playing, medium-complexity games about these fascinating and overlooked battles of the American Civil War, starting with "Gaines's Mill. Reconnoiter it here."We Happy Few" recreates one of the most famous battles of the Middle Ages by using the basic skeleton of the S&S system seen in such titles as Flying Pig Games’ "Stamford Bridge" and "A Hill Near Hastings", with important modifications to better suit both the later era and this specific battle. Chief among these is a clever, speedy, and diceless alternative to opportunity/reaction fire concepts that reflects the difficulties inherent in moving under missile fire. Celebrate the 600th anniversary with the only Agincourt game you'll ever need. Shoot over to see it.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015


When the Cold War goes hot, it’s time to say tanks for the memories. STICKS AND STONES is World War IV mayhem as envisioned by FPG Game Commander Mark H. Walker, the designer of Night of Man. It's post-nukes, 1987: the Ruskies race to claim precious non-irradiated lands in Germany before the Americans can stop them. (And the Americans are heck-bent on stopping them.) STICKS AND STONES comes packed with four scenarios played on a single map. This apocalypse comes with armor, and plenty of it. Also, wire-guided missiles. Not very many sticks, nor many stones. So it goes.
Now available at the TBP online store. Find it here.