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Designer Diary: Sniper Elite, or How to Turn a Stealth-Shooter Video Game into a Hidden-Movement Board Game

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.

Board Game: Sniper Elite: The Board Game

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:
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.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
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:

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
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.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
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:
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.
Board Game: Sniper Elite: The Board Game
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!

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

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.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

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.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

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.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

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!

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

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 Roger

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Final production copy of Sniper Elite
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