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.



  1. Tom - thanks for the information. This is good info to have. I don't have a game designed (yet) but this is certainly helpful.

  2. Aaaah! I'm a deviant!
    I'll try to do better in the future.
    I'm glad we could make some counters do double-duty between two games in Yaah! #2; you can even get a fair bit of mileage out of 88 counters with a generic scenario-based game.

    1. Oh, hush-- you're no deviant, sir! Far from it! Re: Yaah! # 2, You designed two great games for a specific format, for computer use, and we adapted them to our format.

  3. I just purchased "We Happy Few" and had a couple of questions:

    Initiative: in section 2.4, it says the English player starts with initiative. In section 3.0 it says the French player has Initiative and the first turn.

    The charts page uses the term "Suppressed". I assume this should be "Disrupted"?

  4. Ouch! I can't believe I missed those!

    2.4 is wrong. It's the French that have Initiative and the first turn.

    Yes, it should be Disrupted-- that's what I get for using the same charts as the other games in the series!

    1. I proofread game rules, if that's any help. My most recent work has been the "To the Strongest" ancient miniatures rules.

    2. Thanks, Kent. Might take you up on the offer.

    3. I found a couple of other things:

      - Fire modifications are positive in the text, but negative on the combat table.
      - There are two different modifiers listed on the combat table for attack against stakes.

    4. Thanks, Kent. That Player Aid Card is going to be the death of me!

      Regarding the Fire modifiers—this is another case where the game differed from the core series rules and Tom didn’t adjust it appropriately when he ported over the standard-issue Player Aid Card. In the core series, you modify the target number, and in this case, because the target number is always six, he went the opposite route to keep it simple. In theory, anyway. This is obviously very embarrassing for us, because it diminishes the usefulness of the Player Aid Card, and makes it look like we were asleep at the wheel. Thank you for spotting this, and for letting us know. We really appreciate it.

      Regarding the Defensive Stakes—this is correct, there should be two different modifiers. Per rule 7.4, it’s -1CC for most Units, and -2CC for Horse.

    5. Oh, I see the issue with the Defensive Stakes-- there are different (incorrect) modifiers listed on the modifier list! Oy vey. This will be corrected with the next printing, and I am posting corrected rules online.

      We will do better next time.