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Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk game design.

A comparison of professional wargaming and recreational wargaming design processes

2019 was a very important year for professional wargames design, because it saw the publication of Graham Longley-Brown’s book Successful Professional Wargames, A Practitioner’s Handbook. This is not just a book about designing, developing and running professional wargames. It is THE textbook that every new practitioner should have to hand for immediate reference, and that every serious practitioner should have on their bookshelf to remind them that they don’t know everything.

I’ve been attending the Connections UK conference - the premier professional wargaming conference in the UK - down at Kings College London for a few years, back when we were allowed to gather en masse together inside. Primarily, I went to meet other wargames designers and to share ideas. I’m not a professional wargames designer myself, but rather a hobby or recreational games designer and perhaps a grognard. I like to design and play historical wargames. I like serious wargames – those that don’t just entertain, but also might, hopefully, give some insight into some aspect of their topic.

At Connections UK I learned a bit about the design process used by professional wargames designers, particularly as presented very cogently by Graham himself. If you’ve not indulged, then you might want to pause your reading of this article and nip over to this 37-minute YouTube video Successful professional wargames: The Movie, a recording of Graham’s presentation at the Connections Global conference, in which he gives you the highlights.

It seems that there are significant differences between the approaches and processes used by professional as compared with recreational wargames designers, the topic of this piece. I’m only addressing non-digital games here, primarily those called tabletop, board, and card games, not computer or video games. And, although I’ll mention megagames and Live Action Role Play games (LARPs), both of which are event-based game types like many professional wargames, my comments on hobby wargames refer mainly to shrink-wrapped commercial wargames, sometimes called COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) games.

Successful Professional Wargames lays out the stall for the professionals very clearly. By way of further background, you might want to look at Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming, which has a chapter on designing wargames covering both professional and recreational design in brief. There are relatively few books on the full design process in the recreational sphere, though I should mention Lewis Pulsipher’s How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, and my own minor contribution, a chapter on designing card and board games in New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case Book, edited by Alex Moseley and Nicola Whitton. This last is an excellent collection of articles on the use of games in education, but I digress.

For the avoidance of doubt, and I don’t want to get bogged down in dissecting definitions, what I mean by a ‘wargame’ is this:

a representation, not involving the operations of actual military forces, of a conflict situation that includes military and other supporting activities. It is mediated by a set of rules, data and other protocols, and its outcomes are influenced by the decisions of players.

This definition is quite close to Graham’s in his book. I think it can cover both professional and recreational wargaming. It avoids the inclusion of anything about the purpose of a wargame, and purposes do differ considerably in the 2 areas I’m writing about.

Then, you might ask, what’s the difference between a recreational and a professional wargame? My short answer is that a recreational wargame is purchased by a wargamer to play with friends or to play alone, while a professional wargame is purchased by a client, usually an organisation within or close to the defence industry or a component of the armed forces, so that colleagues can be persuaded to play it.

Figure 1: A COTS game - Siege, from way back in the 1980s

Recreational wargamers play wargames for enjoyment, for entertainment, to scratch a hobby itch, perhaps to immerse themselves in a historical period through the medium of game play using their imagination. I’ve resisted the use of the word ‘fun’, which is less than enlightening. In any case, many recreational wargamers are very serious about their wargaming, and have an immense amount of technical and historical knowledge; some really have done their research, and they may not be having ‘fun’ at all. However, the primary aim of playing the game is recreation, not education, not learning, not analysis, not historical research. The publishers of recreational wargames aim to satisfy this primary desire, and recreational wargames designers therefore tend to have their focus right there. That is not to say that recreational wargames design is any less serious or any less difficult, research-heavy or time-consuming than its professional counterpart. Players engage, because they choose to use a proportion of their leisure time, sometimes a high proportion, playing wargames.

Players of professional wargames do so for a variety of reasons, most of which boil down to ‘it’s part of my job’. The organisation of which they are a part have influenced them, cajoled them, strong-armed them or in some other way persuaded them, to participate. It might be a part of their job description, or at least an expected component of their professional duties. Here, players engage, because their job or role involves playing wargames. This is not to say that players of professional wargames are necessarily reluctant! Many players of professional wargames are also recreational wargamers or simply recreational gamers, and may need little persuasion.

From the perspectives of the clients, and paraphrasing a section of Graham’s book, the purposes of professional wargaming are many, and they mostly involve the delivery of experiential learning opportunities, the chance to ‘learn by doing’ in a safe environment with the freedom to fail. There are those games that focus on training personnel, so that they may practice, experiment and innovate safely. Others focus on education, so have wider learning objectives involving the development of deeper understanding and better decision-making skills within the players themselves or those other personnel looking at the outcomes. Planning wargames enable participants and analysts to develop and test plans to deal with specific occurrences before they happen. Executive decision-making wargames permit the analysis of potential future courses of events, in order to support critical decision-making and to generate insights about new situations, concepts and methods. These insights might then be applied to actual future military conflicts. These purposes are a far cry from the simpler world of recreational wargames.

If we compare the design processes of the designers of professional and recreational wargames, will it provide useful insights? I’m going to start to examine this question by comparing a model of a process from each one. All the usual caveats in the use of the word ‘model’ hereby apply. Just to note some critical ones: I’m going to present a diagram for each – the diagram is simply a graphical representation of the model, it’s not the whole thing; the models themselves are, like all models, partial representations of the larger, messy, complex and complicated reality, so bits are left out, and much is simplified; there are other viable, or perhaps better, models available, but I’m working with my own current state of the art. Naturally, I’m open to helpful criticism.

The Professionals

‘By ‘Wargame Lifecycle’, I mean the entirety of the wargame process from conception, design, through development and execution, and then validating the wargame post-execution and writing a final report that includes lessons identified (LI) and suggested refinements.’ (Graham Longley-Brown, Successful Professional Wargaming).

The Wargame Lifecycle is described in this diagram from the front cover of Graham’s book.

Figure 2: The Wargame Lifecycle, from Successful Professional Wargaming

The Hobbyists

‘What are the steps (processes) involved in designing games?

A game designer conceives the framework for a series of interesting challenges in the form of a ‘game’, devises mechanics (rules), creates (or communicates with others to help create) a working prototype, and repetitively and incrementally modifies the design (and prototype) in the light of playtesting, communicating these changes to those who actually make the game, and monitoring their success or failure, until it is a good game for the target audience – or until the deadline is reached and the game must be released!’ (Lewis Pulsipher, Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish).

Figure 3: Hobby Games Design Process, Alan Paull, March 2021

Comparing the diagrams

The diagrams are quite different. This derives from different diagramming approaches, and also a slightly different focus. Graham’s diagram covers the whole wargame lifecycle, so is zoomed out to include ‘Execution’, a more exact way of saying ‘playing the game’. This is important, because the ‘Purpose’ arrow leads round to lessons identified and best practice, whereas the arrows in the recreational diagram lead to ‘Publish’, the commercial endpoint. However, there are also some distinctive similarities. Both have some form of statement of what the game is intended to be, a design phase, a development phase, and iteration.

In the interests of maintaining some form of narrative, let’s compare the models by traversing their major components from start to finish.

In the Beginning… Initiation and Ideation

The Wargame Lifecycle model is a project approach – p199 of the text states: ‘All project management processes include an initiation phase.’ You could map a project management methodology like PRINCE2 quite merrily to the Wargame Lifecycle. A formal project, quite properly, has a formal initiation step, in which a project sponsor – in this case the client organisation – sets out the aim of the project, starts appropriate relationships (for example, with a proposed designer), defines the overall process, and establishes a team to start the project. Initiation will usually involve formal documentation and sign-off, because it will lead to allocation of resources, if only for defining the project in more detail. So, there will be a bureaucratic procedure as well as potentially generation of ideas and some creative actions. In fact, the people with the ideas and creativity will eventually need to mesh with the organisational structure in order to proceed. The purpose is most likely to have emerged from the organisational structure in the first place without the involvement of a designer or creative team, so either there would be a discussion between creative individuals and formal organisational ones, or the initiation step is simply a statement of the problem or issue that has surfaced from the client organisation. Part of initiation is to determine whether a wargame is an appropriate solution. Projects in organisations very often gain an inertia of their own, so this initiation step is critical. If it passes this step, the investment of individuals and groups in the project will give it momentum, and, if it’s a mis-step, it can be very difficult to stop it.

In contrast, what I’ve termed ‘Ideation’ in the recreational wargame design model is solidly located in the mind of the designer. In some cases, the idea behind the ensuing game may not be documented, but simply expressed in some loose fashion as a note or picture, or just formulated in thought. But the idea is not yet a game, nor yet even the basis of a game design. It’s a truism of game design that ideas are ten-a-penny. It’s not until the idea has been made concrete that it becomes the basis for a game design. So, while my model starts with the creation of ideas around a topic, often many, many ideas, it doesn’t become a game design idea until some game elements have been created either physically or mentally. For example, ‘I’d like to design an introductory wargame set in 1944 Normandy’ is an idea; if I then develop this into ‘it will be aimed at beginners, it will have a hex-and-counter map, corps level pieces, an operational focus, a duration of about 90 minutes, and will primarily address logistics and command issues’, at this point I have a game design idea with topic, audience, type, focus, and other context. Ideation is a continuous process for a lot of game designers. In my experience, most ideas fall by the wayside, a few will be recorded in some form, typically notes and diagrams, while considerably fewer will progress to the next step. This is because what we’re trying to achieve here is, although perhaps it could be seen as a bit flippant, ‘having a good idea that no-one else has had’, or in other words if we’re aiming at publication, we would like to end up with a wargame that will stand out, will appeal to our target audience and persuade them to part with their cash, and by automatic extension might appeal to a publisher.

This is the first major difference between the two processes. The initiation of a professional wargame project is geared to solving a problem identified by a client, whereas a recreational wargame idea emerges from a sea of ideas, and at least the designer thinks it might be a commercial success. Using Argyris’ garbage can model (diagram from Wikipedia) of problems, decision-points, and solutions, the professionals have a high concentration of problems, some defined decision-points (‘choice opportunities’ in the diagram to the left), and not yet many potential solutions. In contrast, the hobbyists have few problems, few decision-points, but lots of potential solutions. The hobbyists would love to have more problems (game slots in the publishers’ schedule), and I’m convinced that the professionals would love to have more potential solutions (wargaming techniques) in their toolboxes.

Let there be Design …

Both diagrams use the word ‘design’. However, the models are significantly different, when we dig a little deeper into the description of the model.

The professional wargame design model, as befits a project management approach, focuses on specific outputs, usually in the form of documents. ‘The output from the design phase should be a blueprint for all subsequent development work. This should also fulfil the audit trail requirement, although some additional documentation might be required.’ says the book. The blueprint is a game document, a guide for the development of the game. A critical activity in the design phase is the wargame design meeting, to which the sponsor brings their aims and objectives as the starting point for discussion with, at the very least, the game controller who will run the game, and perhaps (usually?) the designer or elements of the design team. It’s worth noting some of the descriptions of this phase – ‘frame the problem’, ‘start point for all wargame design’, ‘agreed and documented set of actions and their rationale’. Those involved will also consider design constraints, such as the type of scenario and topic to be addressed, whether there are simulation elements to be used and how, and the game venue (such games will often involve large numbers of participants and may require specific physical layouts of rooms). While this phase might address game mechanics, components, and game type, the purpose of the design phase is to specify the game’s parameters, and the process encourages flexibility in order to free up decision-making in the next phase (development). There is no game yet.

I’ve included ‘design brief’ in the recreational wargame design model. Very often, a recreational wargame designer will have a clear understanding of the purpose, audience, constraints and complexity level of the proposed wargame without necessarily having a written brief. Personally, I’ve found it quite helpful to have a document, even if subject to massive iteration and flexibility, that states what I’m thinking. I believe that the act of expression in writing, in diagrams or simply verbally, clarifies, and literally describes what you’re aiming it. Then you can work to that expressed purpose, or change it. A design brief or project brief is also a standard project management document, which looks very similar to the professionals’ ‘blueprint’. But in the recreational wargame design space, this design brief is often not formalised. That does not mean it doesn’t exist, or that it is necessarily a less important part of the process. It is less formal, because it does not usually require a formal sign-off by others. The exception is working on a commissioned product for a client publisher, in which case a normal part of the process would be to have a signed contract defining the envelope within which the wargame should sit, together with appropriate commercial arrangements. The design brief procedure is the equivalent of the professionals’ design phase. Again, there is no game yet.

In my recreational wargame design model, I describe the ‘design your game phase’ as: ‘…moving from the game idea to a working prototype, through personal playtesting to a finished design.’ For most recreational game designers I’ve encountered, this is usually a fluid, messy phase, mixing up research, creation of components, up to and including full prototypes, solo testing, some testing and discussion with close friends or co-authors, trying out new ideas, and a lot of detailed thought. Often, it’s a time of volatile change as bits are added, scrapped, and amended. You might carry out brainstorming to generate new ideas, draw diagrams or pictures to clarify specific issues, make pieces out of card for testing, and so on. My model identifies a spine of activity – Create, Test, Evaluate – that I think holds together this design process, though it may not feel like it at the time. For example, you might think of a variation to a mechanic, try it out in your head, identify a flaw and scrap it, without identifying these thoughts as an actual process. By the end of the ‘design your game’ phase, you’ll have a working prototype in your hands. In addition, you’ll usually have a coherent understanding of the rules, though they may or may not be written out coherently. This is a matter of style. The vital point is that the designer will be able to explain the prototype and how it works to the potential players, and the prototype will work as a game. It’s very unlikely to be perfect, and it might still break, but it should be a working prototype that others can play.

While the professional wargame designers are about to start the vital work to develop the mechanisms that will be used ‘on the day’, the recreational wargame designers already have a working prototype. In fact, there is perhaps more of a match between Design in the recreational model and Development in the professional model than between the two phases labelled Design. Much of the professionals’ Design phase is encompassed by the Design Brief stage in the recreational one. However, setting these structures to one side, I think a difference between the activities or tasks here is that there seems to be more messy creativity and more playful experimentation in the recreational model than in the professional one, and also less formal procedure or rather, less direction and focus. At this stage in my thinking, I’m not certain whether this difference is more apparent than real, or whether it has implications. It means, I tentatively suggest, that the recreational model can implement a ‘Fail Fast’ approach that might be more difficult for the target-driven professional model. It can scrap the whole thing relatively easily if it looks poor, while the professional model contains built-in momentum.

Development: separating the light from the darkness…

‘Playtest, playtest, playtest!’. Successful Professional Wargames

‘When you’re sick of playtesting and don’t want to see your game ever again… you haven’t finished.’ Designing Card and Board Games, New Traditional Games for Learning

In the professional wargame design model, the Development phase includes many technical aspects that are vital for running a wargame with a large number of participants, with perhaps very few players who are familiar with this type of game, over a long period and potentially in a large venue, or across many different venues. While some aspects, such as scenario creation, writing briefs for players, and development meetings with interested parties, are well known to recreational designers, others may be entirely foreign, such as data capture, the need for communications equipment, arrangements for supporting personnel, and room allocations. These differences are caused by the target of the professional wargame project: The Wargame Execution – playing the wargame at a specific venue, a set time, with pre-determined players and game staff, and in the expectation of generating outputs useable in the future, or for analysis. For a shrink-wrapped recreational wargame, these aspects are unnecessary, or at least not under the control of the designer or publisher. They may be very appropriate for what I have called event-based games, such as megagames, or LARP-style games, both of which are focused on a specific game event (perhaps only one, or rarely repeated).

Successful Professional Wargaming lays out a set of recommended procedures for playtesting that reflects the need to exert project control. These include the Internal Playtest by the design team, the Integrated Systems Test to check that the game works in totality, and most importantly the Test Exercise, to check that the game is robust, in effect to try to break the game. These are formal documented procedures.

In contrast, the ‘develop your game’ phase in the recreational wargame design model (for a shrink-wrapped game at least) is an almost continuous iterative process of amend, make, playtest, and evaluate. This process is such a vital part of recreational wargame design and development that some see it as the essence of game design and would deny the existence of a separate development phase at all. Others take the design phase up to the stage of handing the game over to a publisher, leaving the publisher’s team to carry out ‘development for publishing’. My own model suggests that the start of development is at the point where a more-or-less complete game exists, and the purpose of development is to improve the game until it is ready for pitching to a publisher, or sometimes until it is ready for publication (I am often both game designer and publisher!).

Playtesting and development in the recreational wargames world of shrink-wrapped COTS games seeks a level of refinement that may seem very alien to the professional wargames designer. This is because the shrink-wrapped wargame has to survive contact with the recreational wargamer, someone who will not tolerate imperfect rules, components below the high standards expected of modern commercial wargames, and who does not have access to a Game Controller or umpire to clarify inconsistencies or errors. The wargame may be played thousands, if not tens of thousands, of times, which will expose any imperfections and, particularly, any means through which it will break. Therefore, a COTS game is likely to have been playtested hundreds of times, often by select members of its target audience, as well as by the design and development team, their friends and associates, and by friendly game designers and professional developers. Good playtesters are the oft-unsung heroes of this development process, because their job is to find flaws, report back their sneaky strategies and wild tactical moves, and to tell the designer how they feel about the game. In my experience, playtesters are rarely paid, largely because such payments would render COTS game too expensive to produce. All of this playtesting feedback has to be recorded, collated and analysed, sometimes using similar methods to those of the professional wargames designer. I strongly suspect that the intensity and volume of playtesting is greater in the recreational wargame design community than in the professional one, simply because professional projects may not have the time and resources to devote to it.

Summarising the two development phases, the primary differences seem to be:

  • the grey area that exists between the definitions of development in the first place,

  • the stricter formality and the larger number of technical tasks in the professional sphere,

  • the greater amount of playtesting across wider groups of playtesters in the recreational sphere.

And there was evening and there was morning…

We have now passed the final place where the two models match. Wargame Execution is arguably the most important part of the professional process, because it’s where the lessons can be identified and the insights gained, while in the recreational one, I wouldn’t consider ‘play of the wargame by the public’ as part of the design process for a shrink-wrapped wargame – though a megagame or LARP is closer to the professional wargame, focusing on the execution event itself. Once a COTS game-in-a-box is out there, what happens to it is beyond the control of designer or publisher.

There are some remaining pieces of the jigsaw to have a little look at: Analysis, Refinement, Facilitation, and Validation from the professional wargame design model. The last 2 of these are very specific to play with some form of umpire or game control team and don’t generally apply to a game-in-a-box, unless that game is modified in some way; for example, for use as an educational or analytical tool. In professional wargames circles, analysis can be considered to be part of the wider context of tools to examine war. So, analysis is not specifically a wargaming tool, but rather a research tool; for an introduction to this, in addition to Chapter 8 in the book, you might want to have a look at Jon Compton’s YouTube video What is Analytical Wargaming. In addition to analysis of results, which is a particular concern of professionals, designers in both spheres will probably use analytical tools during the design and development processes – these tools would be useful for investigating play balance, probable outcomes prior to game play, and for looking at possible player actions and their interactions. Personally, I tend to use systems thinking tools rather than analytical ones, and I rely more on playtesting with real people than on formal analysis.

Refinement, in Graham’s diagram, most interestingly, comes at the end of the process, and as a lead-in to another iteration of the whole thing. This approach seems to me to be focused broadly on the idea of ‘progression’; the idea that new professional wargames will build on techniques and lessons learned earlier in a formal project management sense. As a sometime project and programme manager myself, I view this as a laudable but terribly difficult thing to pull off –something we need to put in the project documents, because it’s expected, but with little real expectation of delivery. Unless you’re using some of the same individuals in the new refined iteration of the wargame, it’s notoriously difficult to build on previous experience, because lessons (even when published) are often buried in the repositories of the past, so effectively inaccessible. Personally, I would encourage all wargame designers to read up on their history of wargaming (use John Curry’s History of Wargaming Project – an expanding treasure trove of What Has Gone Before; also, for an in-depth look, try Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games).

Refinement is therefore rather different from the iteration mentioned inside both our models, which is focused on the Amend > Make > Test > Evaluate procedure with respect to design and development. Refinement is between projects rather than within a single one. The equivalent in the recreational wargames industry is the production or publication of a new edition of an existing wargame, or for a megagame, a refined replay of one; with both megagames and LARPs, refinement prior to another play of the same game is as ubiquitous as in the professional world, because for each game instance, you’re usually creating all the materials afresh. For this to happen in the game-in-a-box industry, you need a new boxed set. Good examples of the latter include popular board wargames like the Squad Leader / Advanced Squad Leader series, Paths of Glory, Twilight Imperium, No Retreat: Russian Front, all of which have ‘refined’ later editions that change the games significantly, as a result of thousands or tens of thousands of real play sessions that often reveal flaws or areas for improvement.

If there’s a lesson to share between the recreational wargame industry and professional wargaming here, it is that recreational wargamers are keen, sometimes fanatically keen, to give their feedback on published games, and that this is very often acted upon to produce a new and better wargame. Feedback can be in the form of session reports, rules queries, house rules, reviews, and comments. For popular games this can be a veritable ocean of information (and data) that is published on sites such as BoardGameGeek, and therefore readily accessible to designers and publishers. To take just the example of No Retreat: Russian Front (ranked 34 out of 3,362 ranked wargames on BoardGameGeek), designed by Carl Paradis – initially published in 2008 by Victory Point Games, it received 2 expansions in 2009, was reimplemented in revised form in 2011 by GMT Games (amongst others), and is due for a re-print in 2021 with rules amendments (it uses the concept of ‘living rules’ to pick up both errata and approved changes). In total there have been over 1,500 forum threads for the main game, 580 comments on 1,485 individual ratings of the game, and 2,966 logged plays. This information led Carl Paradis and his publishers to revise many of the components and much of the game play.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day...

That concludes my initial comparison of the professional wargames design process and the recreational wargames design process. As you can probably tell, this piece is not a definitive statement, it’s more of a set of discussion points, hopefully the start of conversation. Feel free to respond with your own thoughts, or to lambast mine.


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