David ThompsonUnited States
In the wee hours of the morning of January 9, 2019, Duncan Molloy reached out to me on Twitter with a cryptic question, "Hey David...can you have a think about how you excitingly portray sniper characters in tabletop and come back to me?" It took only a few minutes for me to formulate a general response based on research I had done for other games. I didn't know the context of the question, though, so it was just a rough sketch based on the role of military snipers in general. Duncan and I traded a few messages, then he emailed me.
Duncan had recently moved from Osprey Games to Rebellion, where he was establishing a tabletop division. Rebellion is one of Europe's biggest multimedia studios, with comics, TV, film, and especially video games. It seemed a natural fit to expand Rebellion into the tabletop world, and Duncan was the perfect man for the job. A few years earlier he had launched Osprey's board game division. In fact, that's how I knew Duncan. As Osprey's lead for board games, he took my pitch for Undaunted: Normandy way back at SPIEL '14. During the development for Undaunted, Duncan and I got to know each other pretty well. Apparently he trusted me enough to see what I could do with a sniper game.
Duncan's email was enlightening. He wanted to explore the idea of a tabletop adaptation of one of Rebellion's biggest video game IPs: Sniper Elite. He invited me to conceptualize what an adaptation might look like and pitch it to him. In truth, I'm not a huge video gamer. I knew of Sniper Elite but hadn't played it — but it was a very interesting opportunity.
I spent the day pouring over Sniper Elite videos and strategy articles. The next morning I replied to Duncan's email and told him I was interested in the idea and that my first inclination was a "1 vs. many hidden movement game". Duncan invited me to explore any game concept as long as accessibility was a core tenet.
The next step for me was to identify a design partner. There were two major reasons I wanted a co-designer. First, designing with a partner helps hold me accountable and on schedule. Second, there was the practical issue of designing and testing a hidden movement game; that would be much easier with two designers! The first person I thought of was my friend, Roger Tankersley. Roger and I had worked together in the UK from 2014-2018. During that time, we were part of the same gaming group, and he had also playtested many of my designs. Most important, though, was that Roger is a HUGE fan of hidden movement games. Once I had settled on hidden movement as the key mechanism in the game, I knew he was the perfect person with whom to partner. It also helped that Roger was much more of a video gamer than me.
Fortunately, Roger agreed to collaborate with me on the design of what became Sniper Elite: The Board Game. Our first step was the research phase. When I'm designing a historical wargame, I usually spend six months to a year conducting research before building out the model of a game. Designing a tabletop adaptation of a video game required a similar depth of research, albeit in a much different way. Roger and I dove in head first to the video game. We needed to identify the core elements of the gameplay experience so that we could evoke those elements in the model we created for our design.
Tension, objectives, stealth, the shot, alerted defenders, panic: these were our core elements, what the tabletop game had to evoke. From our first conceptualization meeting, Roger and I knew that the sniper's movement and the defenders' positioning were going to be the key facets of the game. We discussed a variety of models, but our primary goal was to keep the board layout as organic as possible, while also leveraging it to facilitate elegant movement and sniper shots.
Very early in the design process Roger conceived a fantastic solution. Quoting from our design notes:Quote:In Sniper Elite, the game board represents an operation-size area where the map is broken into different size spaces, with more spaces in land use types that are harder to shoot through. The map will be designed to offer both long chains of spaces for snipers to take advantage of long shots across the map, and busy clusters of sectors where the hunters can feel relatively safe because of the difficulty of the shot. Control of the spaces is key to the hunters' victory as they limit where the sniper can operate.This approach to the board never changed over the course of the game design. We started our playtests by borrowing a map from one of the levels in Sniper Elite 4 (Mission 3: Regilino Viaduct). We modeled the board on Roger's idea of congested, dense areas resulting in smaller spaces, while open areas had much larger spaces.Early board design concept
In our earliest discussions, we had considered numbering every space on the board to allow for a huge variety in objective locations. We quickly moved away from that model due to our desire to maintain a consistently high-quality experience across plays. In order to ensure that, we streamlined the number of potential objective locations to key spaces on the board.
In addition, we broke the board down into sectors, with each sector assigned to a group of defenders. Each group of defenders would consist of a leader and their soldiers. This board mock-up shows the changes to both the numbered objective spaces and the identification of sectors:Early board design concept
The board configuration was successful. It generated organic chokepoints for the sniper, resulting in the need for stealth movement, while also giving the defenders interesting options for positioning.One of the final maps: the Heavy Water Facility from the Eagle's Nest expansion
The next major challenge was the resolution mechanism for the sniper's shots. We began with a custom dice concept. The sniper would begin the game with a set number of dice and could grow the number of dice in their pool with successful attacks. The sniper would declare the number of dice they wanted to use for an attack, roll them, and have to achieve a number of successes equal to the distance of the shot. There were elements of this initial system that we liked, but it largely felt uninspired. It was also missing the tension of executing a carefully timed, critical sniper shot in the game.
Our solution was shifting to a "shot resolution bag". Quoting from our design notes:Quote:To successfully make a shot, a sniper must draw a number of success tokens from the shot resolution bag greater than or equal to the number of spaces between the sniper and their target, including the space that the target is in, but not including the space that the sniper is in. The sniper may draw any number of tokens from the bag, but they must announce how many they are drawing and then must complete their draw even after gaining the needed number of successes.
In addition to success tokens, the bag also contains blanks, noise tokens, and noise suppression tokens. If a sniper draws two or more noise tokens, they must place a marker on the space the sniper occupied when they took the shot. Noise suppression tokens cancel noise tokens. A sniper begins the game with 5 success, 3 noise, and 2 miss tokens in the bag. After completing an objective, the sniper adds a noise token; after killing a soldier, they add a success token; after killing an officer, they add a noise-cancel token. The sniper can never have more than 10 success tokens in the bag.The final production version of the shot tokens
This "shot resolution bag" concept provided exactly the type of tension we wanted. The impact of the result — success, failure, and misses — kept all players engaged throughout the game. We also made sure to allow for ample opportunities in the game for both the sniper and defenders to affect the composition of tokens in the bag.
With the game board layout concept and shot resolution bag completed, it was time to turn our attention to the most significant challenge of the design: making sure that each board was fun, engaging, and balanced. For that, we turn to Roger's account on the design of our first board: the Launch Facility, which was first posted in the forums on the game's BGG entry.•••
When David and I started designing a hidden-movement board game based on Sniper Elite, we knew the board designs would make or break the game. We thought about hidden-movement games that used point-to-point movement to create clear routes between objectives. One of our favorites used a continuous grid system of same-size spaces, allowing more freedom of movement. How could we make Sniper Elite stand out among these classics?
Right away we wanted the board design to capture shot difficulty and movement speed in the shape and size of the spaces themselves. We wanted to avoid fiddly rules like "if moving through a building" or "if shooting around obstacles". Pretty quickly we landed on the idea of variable size spaces. Large, open areas with large spaces that let the sniper player take shots from across the map, or cover large distances in only a couple of moves. Small, claustrophobic areas like alleys and building interiors with smaller spaces that slowed movement and made shots more difficult. We built the game around this core design decision.
I like to start with theme and then layer on mechanisms, so like every kid playing with toy soldiers, I grabbed some crayons and a sheet of paper!
We wanted to evoke the Peenemünde Army Research center, where V2 rockets were developed and tested. For Sniper Elite, we used the research center to get an idea of the types of buildings and objectives we should include, then built a board tailored to hidden movement. We quickly iterated to a slightly different scale — the breakthrough came at a time when all I had was literally the back of an envelope! That general arrangement of buildings can still be seen in the final board design.
We tried adding spaces and objectives using a vector-based design program, but it was very difficult to quickly make changes in shape size and arrangement — look at those gaps! Look at all the diagonal corners! A friend of ours, who happens to be a data scientist, taught us to use a spreadsheet to create groups of cells that became our spaces. One huge advantage was the ease of identifying diagonals and changing spaces to remove them (although sharp-eyed readers will see some stray diagonals in this early version). We could also quickly account for the number of moves between objectives, areas with long lines of sight, and cluttered alleyways that slowed movement. We iterated many, many times using this system, making sure we got the board exactly right.
Art transforms board spaces into places. David and I delivered a near-final board design with descriptions of all the buildings and features, then the artists from the Sniper Elite video games brought it to life. We love all the small details in the missile assembly building, the cluttered interior of the warehouse, and the way that lighting around the buildings evokes the feeling of creeping through the shadows.
So how does this design affect gameplay? Playing as the sniper, you should quickly identify your first objective and decide on how to get there. You can move quickly through open lanes, alerting defenders but moving past them and darting into the shadows. Or you can move more slowly to avoid detection and surprise the defenders by accomplishing your first objective — and then you better run!
As the defenders, it's important to spread out and block the main lines of movement so that you will be alerted when the sniper runs by. At some point you will commit to an objective and collapse your defenders to pin the sniper in. Use the doorways and roadways to restrict movement, and force the sniper to make a mistake. Just be sure not to over-commit. It's a bad feeling to surround objective 4 only to have the sniper complete objective 5!
We are really happy with how the boards turned out and can't wait for players to get their hands on them. David and I think we struck a good balance for all playstyles — whether you want to run-and-gun, shooting all the defenders who get in your way; or creep along slowly in the shadows, increasing the tension as you near the time limit of your tenth move. One hallmark of a good hidden-movement game is the tension of both sides feeling "I can't possibly win this", and we think we've hit that mark with our board design!
Thanks for taking the time to read this design diary and check out our new game.
David and RogerFinal production copy of Sniper Elite
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archive for David Thompson
Designer Diary: Sniper Elite, or How to Turn a Stealth-Shooter Video Game into a Hidden-Movement Board Game
14 Jun 2022
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02 Dec 2021
David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin
Greetings, all. November 2021 marks the release of Undaunted: Reinforcements, the third title in the Undaunted series. We thought it would be a good idea to post a design diary to share some background info, design decisions, art, and more.
At SPIEL '17, we met with the folks from Osprey Games to officially sign Undaunted: Normandy. At the same meeting, we were asked to start thinking about a sequel, Undaunted: North Africa. In fact, the design for North Africa needed to be completed before Normandy was released so that North Africa could be ready for mid-2020. With that in mind, when we transitioned from designing Normandy to North Africa, we didn't have the benefit of player feedback to see what the community wanted. We decided we would change the scale and symmetry in North Africa — and we're still very happy with those changes — but we didn't have detailed insight into player response for Normandy.
As the release of Normandy neared in mid-2019, the game started generating buzz and Osprey asked us to start thinking about a third game in the series. Over the first couple months of Normandy's release, we paid close attention to the community. Even though Normandy has an exceptional amount of asymmetry based on starting decks, cards available during a game, and scenario design, players still wanted unique capabilities for the Americans and Germans — something to make each side feel unique. Meanwhile, the solo community eagerly adopted the game. It won the "best multiplayer game played solitaire" award in Board Game Geek's 1 Player Guild in 2019, and fans began designing their own solitaire systems. Lastly, we're huge fans of team-based play, and we wanted to see whether we could add a four-player team based option to the game.
Increasing Asymmetry in Normandy
One of the first goals we had in Reinforcements was to add an extra bit of asymmetry to Normandy to answer the call of fans who wanted their forces to feel special. We identified the riflemen as an opportunity to add some distinction to the forces, and we settled on giving the Germans access to submachine guns and the Americans access to rifle-mounted grenade launchers. These changes reflected historical distinction in each side's actual platoon capabilities, and it allowed for interesting gameplay differences for the players. We took this tweak one step further by ensuring players could go back and replay all twelve of Normandy's scenarios with these modifications to the riflemen.
Tanks, Tanks, and More Tanks!
One of our favorite additions to North Africa was the addition of vehicles. Early on in the design process for Reinforcements, we decided we wanted to add tanks to Normandy — but because of the scale difference between the two games, tanks needed to work differently. Normandy's scale allowed us to elegantly integrate tanks into the core cardplay of the game without the special vehicle system used in North Africa. We felt this was a positive as it allowed us to keep Normandy just a bit more streamlined and less complex for players new to the series. However, we did make sure that the tanks we added to the game offered unique capabilities, continuing to answer players' calls for increased asymmetry.
What About North Africa?
One of the earliest decisions we made for Reinforcements is that it would be an expansion for both games. We didn't need to increase the asymmetry in North Africa as the forces were already very different, so instead we wanted to continue to build on the strengths of the game. North Africa stresses movement to a greater degree than Normandy, and we felt it might be interesting to give players more control over affecting each others' mobility. This led to the creation of mines. They don't block movement — but they absolutely give players a lot more to think about.
Another addition to North Africa was to give the Italians more of a "commando" feel, similar to what the allies (the Long Range Desert Group) have access to in the North Africa base game. Now the Italians also have access to special units, like an expert marksman. Plus we've given them yet another aircraft for even more death from above!
New Units Need New Scenarios
In addition to all the new units we've added to Normandy and North Africa, we've also added eight new scenarios, four for each game. These scenarios tie back into the campaigns for each game. In Normandy, we see infantry and tanks working together, battling over the area around Mortain, France, during one of Hitler's key counterattack attempts. In North Africa, the addition of mines, new Italian commando units, and the new Italian aircraft creates the opportunity for even more scenarios with a "special operations" feel.
Instead of Two Players, What About Two Teams?
As we mentioned earlier, we're both huge fans of team-based games, so when given the chance to add a team option to Undaunted, we jumped at the chance. Team-based play requires little modification to the core gameplay: Players simply alternate use of the Platoon Sergeant (or Lieutenant in the case of the Long Range Desert Group) during the course of the game. The player with the Platoon Sergeant bids for initiative. Otherwise, changes to the game are minimal. All eight of the new scenarios in Reinforcements are suitable for team play.
More Amazing Art
One thing that is a constant across the Undaunted series is the brilliant, evocative art from Roland MacDonald. Undaunted has been able to bridge the divide between wargamers and gamers from the broader hobby, and certainly a huge part of that has been Roland's inviting style, which somehow straddles a place in both worlds. With Reinforcements, Roland is at it again, but in our opinion this is his best work yet, with Reinforcements showcasing even richer depth and detail than Normandy and North Africa.
Saving the Best for Last?
Many fans of Undaunted would argue that the biggest addition Reinforcements brings is an official solo system for the game. When we discussed the idea of adding a solo system of the game with Osprey, we told them that we'd prefer not to design it ourselves. (Trevor hasn't had much experience in designing solitaire systems, and David prefers to design games to be solitaire from the beginning rather than adapting a solo system to a multiplayer game.)
So Osprey turned to one of the top designers in the solitaire boardgame world: Dávid Turczi. Dávid set about designing the core solitaire system, eventually settling on a card-based system that tailors the AI for each unit in every scenario. While this system does a fantastic job of simulating the experience of playing against another human player, it also meant that every single scenario needed to be deconstructed for the creation of the tailored AI. This Herculean task fell to David Digby, who set about implementing the specific AI routines.
Anthony Howgego and Filip Hartelius (Osprey's game development team) were responsible for transforming David Digby's design concepts into an elegant card system. The end result is the "Enemy Unknown" system of playing Undaunted solitaire, a system that when combined with Normandy and North Africa allows you to play either faction in 31 different scenarios for 62 total different solo play experiences!
Undaunted: Reinforcements really brings the design for Normandy and North Africa to conclusion. It allows us to give players what they've been asking for from the first days of Normandy's release. From the both of us, as well as Dávid Turczi, David Digby, and the entire Osprey team, we hope you all are as excited to play Reinforcements as we are!
—David & Trevor
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29 Jul 2020
Undaunted: North Africa, the second game in the Undaunted series. We thought it would be a good idea to post a design diary to share some background info, design decisions, art, and more.
The Initial Concept
Undaunted: North Africa's origin is directly tied to that of its predecessor. At SPIEL '17, Trevor and I met with the folks from Osprey Games to officially sign Undaunted: Normandy. During that same meeting, we were asked to start thinking about a sequel. In fact, the design for the sequel needed to be completed before Normandy was even released in order to have the sequel ready for mid-2020.
We tossed around a few ideas. We knew we wanted a different theater and preferably different nationalities. There were tons of great options, but ultimately we settled on North Africa. It seemed like an interesting topic with lots of room to explore new thematic elements and gameplay concepts.
But What Role Do the Players Take?
Once we had chosen the setting, we needed to decide what roles the players would take. In our earliest discussions, which dated to February 2018, I had proposed to Trevor that we use either the Special Air Service (SAS) or the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The SAS had the benefit of being better known, but the LRDG were interesting in that they were more closely linked to their vehicles, which we knew we wanted to be part of the game. The LRDG was also a more interesting Commonwealth melting pot, including Brits, Scots, Indians, Southern Rhodesians, and New Zealanders.
We also briefly considered basing the game almost entirely around tank-on-tank combat. That would have meant a rather significant change in scale, and it would have also meant shifting the focus from people to vehicles. More important, the wide open tank battles in the North African campaign weren't an especially good fit for the Undaunted system. In the end, we came back to the LRDG as our focus — but now we needed their adversary.
During the North Africa campaign, the LRDG encountered both the Italian and German armies, but most of their skirmishes were with the Italians and their Libyan allies. After researching all the main LRDG engagements, we settled on the Italians as our second faction in the game.Men of the LRDG
From the beginning, we knew vehicles were going to play a critical role in the game. This is an excerpt of an early email discussion Trevor and I had about the vehicles. Here Trevor is laying out his vision for how vehicles should work:Quote:Here's the basic picture: There are no cards directly mapped to vehicles. Instead, vehicles are objects on the board which soldiers (Scouts, MGs, etc.) can use. Each vehicle has one or more positions: Driver, Gunner, Radio, etc. Soldiers spend an action to enter a vehicle, picking an unoccupied position in it. They can then spend a card to perform the action associated with that position — move, attack, etc. — or to leave the vehicle, or to switch positions. I have some more ideas around vehicle damage/repair, cover bonuses, and around position-based bonuses/restrictions (some soldiers could be better drivers than others), but that is the basic picture. It's super flexible, not too complex, and it allows us to maintain our thematic, narrative focus on the soldiers.What's remarkable about this is that it almost perfectly describes the way vehicles ended up being used in the final design. Typically Trevor and I work through countless iterations of ideas before finally settling on something we're both 100% happy with. In this rare exception, the initial conceptual sketch proved spot on.Early art by Roland MacDonald
An Issue of Scale
Unlike in Undaunted: Normandy, players do not have symmetric decks in Undaunted: North Africa — far from it. Both the LRDG and the Italians feature individuals, each with their own unique set of actions. In Normandy, tokens on the board represent small groups of men, with each man (generally speaking) tied back to a single card. In North Africa, each token on the board represents an individual soldier, and that soldier has four associated cards. The cards represent everything from the soldier's morale to their health.
We discussed this issue of scale for a long time during the design process. It was important because it tied back to our concept that each member of the LRDG was an individual with unique characteristics, but it meant that the two games would be a different scale and would not be compatible. In the end, we decided a better experience for North Africa was more important that trying to force compatibility across the two games.LRDG soldier art by Roland MacDonald
From Design to Development
The actual design process for Undaunted: North Africa moved fairly quickly due to the fact that it was based on an established core. For the second half of 2018, we researched LRDG and Italian army skirmishes and crafted scenarios that evoked those battles. We pushed the Undaunted system in new directions, incorporating new victory conditions (such as escaping from the board) and new ways to claim objective points (through demolitions). Of course, introducing tons of new asymmetry required even more testing, but it was worth it in the end.
We delivered the initial design to Osprey in early 2019, then we shifted to the development process. Filip Hartelius and Anthony Howgego — the lead developers at Osprey — began putting the game through its paces and making suggestions for gameplay improvements. During this time, we primarily focused on getting the balance right for vehicles and soldiers who had an anti-tank capability, as well as improving the synergy for the Italian's tank crew.
Trevor and I delivered the final version of the design to Osprey in the middle of August 2019, right as Undaunted: Normandy was launching at Gen Con. It was awesome to see Normandy received so positively just as we were putting the final design touches on the second game in the series.
So that's the story of how Undaunted: North Africa came to be. It was a joy to see Roland MacDonald's gorgeous art throughout the design process, and it was great working with Filip and Anthony on the game. For more details, you can take a look at the rules in this video from Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules!
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23 Jul 2019
Osprey Games will release Undaunted: Normandy. I thought it would be a good idea to post a design diary to show off some of the background info, design decisions, art, and more.
The Initial Concept
In 2014, I moved from the U.S. to the UK. Just before the move, I started brainstorming the idea of combining elements of deck-building card games with the spatial elements of a board game. I knew I wanted the game to be a skirmish-level game, with the cards tied directly to counters on the board, but I wasn't sure what the exact theme would be. While I was working through some of the initial mechanical concepts, I went on my first vacation after the move — a visit to Normandy. My first stop was Omaha Beach, where my grandfather landed on D-Day +4 with the 30th Infantry Division.
Instantly I had my theme. The game would focus on the exploits of individual rifle platoons within the 30th Infantry Division as they made their way through France.My son and me at Omaha BeachMy grandfather
As SPIEL 2014 neared, I shared some of the initial design concepts for Undaunted on BGG. A user there — Eddy Sterckx — noticed the game and suggested Osprey would be a good fit for the design. Eddy reached out to Duncan Molloy at Osprey and set up a virtual introduction. I met Duncan in Essen and pitched the game to him. At the time, Duncan was just getting things going with Osprey's fledging board game division. He liked the design, but it was a while before he had the bandwidth to take the game on. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until SPIEL 2017 that we made the formal agreement.
Regardless, when I headed home from SPIEL 2014, I had a good feeling about the design. I had already conceived the campaign arc for the game — the 30th ID's actions in France following D-Day — and I had also sketched out some ideas for the first few scenarios, but to properly develop the scenarios and ensure the game was solid, I needed two things: a dedicated blind playtest community, and someone to help me develop the scenarios.
Calling in Reinforcements
The blind playtest community emerged primarily from two places: BoardGameGeek and a dedicated playtest page that I created on my website. Blind playtest reports began pouring in. Although some contained feedback on the core of the game, most of the reports provided invaluable insight about the scenarios that were being developed.
At the same time, I reached out to Trevor Benjamin. He and I had collaborated on other projects and developed a great relationship. It also helped that we were both part of a game designer and playtest group in Cambridge. While I thought the majority of our effort would be solely dedicated to scenario development, Trevor brought with him a fresh perspective and fantastic ideas for improvements to the core of the game.Trevor and I playtest Undaunted: Normandy at UK Game Expo 2015
Gameplay vs. Simulation
One challenge we had throughout the design process was the balance we wanted to strike between gameplay elegance and simulationism. We knew we wanted the game to be quick playing, and we wanted to rely on the overall deck-building mechanism and the multi-use cards to drive the action, while representing concepts like command and control and fog of war.
We debated more than once whether there should be terrain effects to include impact on line of sight. Ultimately we decided that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. For example, if we said that river tiles prevented or hindered movement, what about woods or hills? Depending on the river's depth or width, it could actually be easier to cross than a hill would be to climb. If we introduced line of sight, we'd have to determine how it was drawn, add edge cases, etc. It was a slippery slope, with every one of these elements taking us further from what we wanted: an elegant design that centered on players' control of their platoons through the management of their decks, abstracting their command and control over the platoon.The components for Undaunted: Normandy
From Design to Development
Trevor and I turned over the design to Osprey in 2017. At that point, Duncan Molloy and Filip Hartelius (who has served as the lead designer for the game) began putting the game through its paces. Although there were few changes to the core rules, Filip and Duncan pushed us to improve some elements and polish the edges.
More than anything, though, they challenged us on some of the scenarios. They wanted to make sure that each and every scenario was as good as it could possibly be. Ultimately we had to strip out a few of the weaker scenarios, we improved many that we had already designed, and we added a few new ones.
The Game Comes to Life
By early 2019, the design and development was complete. We began seeing Roland MacDonald's beautiful artwork, which really made the game come to life. When our preview copies arrived in June, we could hardly believe that the game had become a reality.
So that's the story of how Undaunted: Normandy came to be. You can take a look at the rules in this video from Watch it Played, and over the next couple of weeks we'll add more articles to the BGG game page about how we modeled the rifle platoon in the game and how we based the game's scenarios on real world battles.
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26 Jul 2018
War Chest is a bag-building game with Euro, wargame, and abstract roots. At the start of the game, you raise your banner call, drafting several units into your army, which you then use to capture key points on the board. To succeed in War Chest, you must successfully manage not only your units on the battlefield, but those that are waiting to be deployed.
Each round, you draw three unit coins from your bag, then take turns using them to perform actions. Each coin shows a military unit on one side, and it can be used for one of several actions. The game ends when one player — or one team in the case of a four-player game — has placed all of their control markers. That player or team wins!A peak into the War Chest
This is a diary in three parts. The first is a peek into the design process by designers Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson. The second provides an overview of how the game went through development with AEG. The diary closes with a behind-the-scenes look into how Brigette Indelicato brought the game to life with her art.•••
Part 1: Design by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson
We have been developing games together for a few years now, and this is what we've learned. We both love sleek, modern euro-inspired wargames (affectionately called "waros" or "weuros"). We both love deck-building games. And most importantly, we both love trying to mesh these two things together. War Chest is the successful output of this shared passion.
Having said that, let's get two things straight. War Chest is not really a wargame, and it's not really a deck-building game. Instead, War Chest is a lean, almost abstract, medieval battlefield game built around multi-use "coins" (beautiful, chunky poker chips in the final version) and a "bag management" system reminiscent of Orléans. Each coin in your bag shows a military unit on one side (an archer, a knight, etc.). You play these coins in order to command the depicted unit (to move, to attack, etc.) or to add new coins to your bag, but you also play these coins onto the board to become the units themselves. This core "play and command" mechanism has been with War Chest since its inception, but, as is often the case, it took quite a while to find the best way of showcasing this. This diary tracks some of the key stages in this design and development process.
How Do You Win?
Inspired by the theme and by other abstract-ish war games — Chess, we're looking at you! — the initial goal of War Chest was to capture your opponent's king. We quickly realized the game needed some focal points on the board, so we added strategic locations and a second alternative victory condition based on controlling them.
As it turned out, the kings caused all kinds of problems, so we dumped them, leaving the single, control-based victory condition. This worked much better but took us quite some time to get right. For ages, the goal was to control five of the eight strategic locations on the board. The problem was that it was too easy to get four, but nearly impossible to get five. We spent weeks, and countless clunky mechanisms, trying to hit this mythical sweet spot of four-and-a-half points. We added differential values to the control points, we added tracks to accumulate points over time, we (re-)introduced other ways of getting points, etc.
Luckily, we eventually stumbled on the most obvious solution. We increased the number of available control points from eight to ten and the victory target from five to six. It worked a treat! Lesson learned: Try twiddling existing knobs before creating new ones.A very early prototype with the initial board layout; you can see the old king pieces for each player
How Do You Play?
Given that War Chest is a bag-building (or better, bag-management) game, we needed an economic system. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to keep the game as lean and elegant as possible, so we started with the constraint that all unit chips would cost the same.
We managed to keep this flat economy throughout the game's development, but again it took us time to settle on the final version. Remember the king? In the early days, each player started with three king chips in their bag. You could use these chips either to command your king on the board (move, attack, etc.) or to recruit another one of your units, adding its chip to your bag. This was actually a decent economic system, but we were forced to find an alternative when the king got axed for other reasons.
Our next solution was to replace the king chips with "coin" chips whose sole purpose was to recruit. (Think Copper cards in Dominion.) This wasn't great. Unlike the previous king chips, these coins had little value late game. And unlike Dominion's Copper, there was no way to remove them from your "pool".
The next (and final) solution came from fellow Cambridge-based designer Matthew Dunstan. Immediately after his first play of the game, he said, "Why not just let any chip be used to recruit?" Boom! That was it. Our old friend the multi-use "card" worked a treat, and we never looked back. (Okay, that's not strictly true. We did re-introduce a "coin" down the line, the "Royal Coin", in order to combat "small bagging", but that's another story...)Trevor (l) tests War Chest with Chris Marling, another Cambridge-based designer, in July 2016, not long after UKGE
War Chest ships with sixteen unique units: three mounted units, two ranged units, two battlefield commanders, and a slew of others (mercenary, war priest, and so on). This diversity was not our original intent. Once again striving for elegance (and again drawing inspiration from classical games like Chess), we originally gave each player a symmetric set of units: a king (see above), an archer, a cavalry unit, and a pair of footmen. While this played perfectly well and certainly helped in establishing the core systems in the game, we soon realized that the game allowed for, and indeed greatly benefited from, asymmetrical armies drawn from a larger pool of units. The problem then was balance. We wanted the winner to be the player who played better, not the player who drafted (or was randomly dealt) the better army.Comparison of a prototype design and a final unit card design
Balancing units is never easy, but we certainly didn't help ourselves here. Our goal of keeping War Chest as clean and elegant as possible drove us to make core, basic actions in the game "base 1": all units cost one to recruit; they all move one space; they all attack with the "strength" of one, and so on.
Anything that breaks this rule of one, such as the light cavalry's ability to move two spaces, would be handled as an exceptional case via the unit's special powers/attributes. This meant we could (largely) keep numbers out of the game (yay!), but it also meant we had very little leverage when balancing units (boo!). Unlike most other combat games, we couldn't increase the cost of a unit or reduce its stats if it turned out to be too strong. All we could do was tweak the unit abilities themselves and add restrictions to more powerful ones (e.g., archers can't attack adjacent units). That being said, one advantage which we did allow ourselves was the number of coins a unit has available in the supply. Most have five, but a few of the stronger units have only four.
With the balance ironed out, we turned our attention to pitching the game to a publisher. SPIEL was approaching, and we studied the list of publishers with whom we wanted to meet. AEG was at the top of the list. We had worked with them in the past, and we knew they would be able to transform our game into an incredible product. We scheduled a meeting with AEG and met with Mark Wootton. The meeting went well, and Mark asked whether he could take one of our prototypes back with him to assess. He seemed to be keenly interested in the game, and we were hopeful AEG would decide to publish it.The final prototype
We were thrilled to receive the news that AEG wanted to move forward with publishing War Chest. Working with them on this project has been an incredible experience and one we would gladly repeat in the future!•••
Part 2: Development by Mark Wootton
War Chest is a game that immediately grabbed my attention when I first saw it presented by designers Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson at SPIEL in 2016. There is an often-used phrase of "simple to learn, tricky to master", and I immediately saw some of that magic after one playthrough.
After returning home with the prototype, I discovered that it had the capacity to also hold my attention as it constantly hit the table in my playtesting group. With each replay came a different combination of units and possible strategies.
I immediately set about seeing whether the rest of the Alderac Entertainment team felt the same way. My belief was that the game was incredibly approachable, even for people who were not hardcore gamers, but the challenge was how to show that to our hardened team of gamers at one of our company planning events. I did the only thing that you can do in such situations: I enlisted the help of our accountant, Taylor, who is probably the best definition of "extended gamer family" at our company – someone who is not an avid gamer herself, but who enjoys them enough to play something that is straightforward to learn.
Rolling out the game with her in front of the other staff was a great eye-opener. Having played one game, which I managed to teach and play in less than 45 minutes, she immediately asked to play again as she could see some new possibilities. After the third game (and double-checking with her that she wasn't just being nice to me), I was happy that my initial view was correct, and, importantly, the other team members were looking on with interest.
The team then played several games, both two-player and four-player, and the game was a success with the more seasoned gamers, too! From there development began.
It was during the development process that I came across this article: "Iconic Viking grave belonged to a female warrior." Although further reading ("New evidence of Viking warrior women might not be what it seems") brought up questions about some of the initial assumptions in that article, the initial announcement became a strong inspiration throughout the development process.
One of the things the original article cemented for me was the sense that this game could have been invented a thousand years ago. Yes, it pays close attention to modern game design concepts, and I am sure a thousand years ago cards might not have been part of the content, but it has that elegant simplicity underpinning the more modern designs, an elegance that gives it an almost classical feel.
When I discussed this with AEG CEO John Zinser, we developed the idea that the game would come in a box that looked like an actual chest, and John penned a brief story of how the game might have been born in medieval times. We wanted something that had a classical look to go with the feel of the game, and after enlisting the help of graphic designer Brigette Indelicato, we came up with a Celtic theme. The intricate patterns and rich imagery of the Celtic genre seemed to be a great fit, and the two kingdoms got the symbol of the wolf and the raven.
In later discussions with Todd and Mara, these became the clans Byrne and Faol, the former derived from Irish Gaelic meaning of "the family of Bran" (Bran being a raven) and the latter being the Scots Gaelic word for wolf.The backstory for War Chest
Production manager Dave Lepore worked tirelessly to ensure that the components lived up to our expectations of a beautiful product.
Continued playtests resulted in one or two small changes in the abilities of the different units until we were happy with the final balance, with Nicolas Bongiu and Erik Yaple and their teams testing the game and its rules.
We added a snake draft mechanism for experienced players so that they can make more strategic decisions at the start of the game. In fact, the real secret of the "tricky-to-master" element is changing your gameplay from more tactical to more strategic. Players can move on from simple choices of dealing with what appears in front of them on the board to a deeper understanding of the composition of units in their bag, the importance of stealing initiative, the timing of attacks, the ability to capture key locations, and the knowledge of when to withdraw to safer ground.
And all the time you can sense the possibility that a game just like this was once buried somewhere hundreds of years ago with a Viking berserker, a Gaelic warrior, or a French knight...
In the end, we feel we have captured the essence of a slightly abstract war game that can represent the broad sweep of early medieval, dark ages, or even ancient battles, a game that might have been presented to a king, queen, or high-ranking warrior as a lesson in managing a battlefield and understanding the deployment, strengths, and weaknesses of different troop types.•••
Part 3: Art Direction by Brigette Indelicato
I've been working as a graphic designer for the past eight years and on board game graphic design for the last three. Board and card games are some of my favorite graphic design projects as I enjoy the unique challenges and creative problem-solving involved with the process. (Being an avid tabletop gamer myself also adds to the appeal!) The graphic design for a game not only needs to be attractive visually and communicate information effectively, it also needs to be intuitive to interact with, function well in three dimensions, look unique yet appealing in a marketing sense, and enhance the general experience of playing the game.
Mark Wootton, the lead developer for War Chest, contacted me looking for a graphic designer to be part of the brainstorming and production of the final graphic design for the game components, including icons, game board, cards, box/packaging, and rulebook. The goal of the graphic look was to mirror the simple elegance of the game mechanisms and create a sophisticated and eye-catching end product.
I created a quick mock-up/inspiration board for a few of the theme ideas that had been discussed, including one for the Celtic approach:
After that was decided as our direction, I continued to amass visual research on Celtic symbols, patterns, design motifs, stone carvings, and wooden chests. I usually create a private Pinterest board for each of my design projects to keep all my inspiration and informational links in one place for easy referencing.
To bring in some of that thematic inspiration, I incorporated the "shield knot" into the game logo, box, and the back of the tokens. I also did some research about Celtic mythology to choose the raven and the wolf (animals associated with war deities) for the main symbols of the two opposing sides.
I created preliminary versions of the various game components, and through rounds of feedback from Mark and the AEG team, refined the designs until we had a polished end product. One of the main challenges was designing the fourteen unique unit icons; they needed to be simple and clean enough that they would work well on the unit token and as an icon on the cards. I also designed the colors and icons to be different enough to be easily distinguished from one another, while still feeling like a cohesive set. Another task was refining the wood and metal textures on the cards, board, and box to make the graphics visually interesting without being overly busy.
Here's an example of the design stages of one of the unit cards, from the early rough mock-up to final card design:
It was clear early on that the game box should be designed to look like a wooden chest, which informed the card and board design as well. The box of a game is especially important since it's the first aspect of the game a potential player interacts with and can set the tone and expectation for what's inside. I incorporated imagery from the unit tokens and the warring factions into the carvings to bring all the elements together. Even the box went through some iteration when AEG received feedback from partners and retailers that the box could be more colorful and easier to see on a store shelf:
War Chest was a fantastic project to work on with Mark and the AEG team, and an exciting opportunity to create graphics for an enjoyable and versatile game design. Every project is a learning experience of tackling new design challenges, and I look forward to taking the lessons I've learned from this to future projects!•••
A final message from the design and development team:
Thanks for taking the time to read about War Chest's story. We hope you enjoy the game!
- [+] Dice rolls