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. 

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