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Subject: Staff Briefing #6 -- Design Philosophies rss

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Tim Taylor
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I often find it useful to understand a game designer's philosophy. Without understanding designers' goals there is really no way to fully appreciate their games. And sometimes disappointment results.

With that in mind, I'd like to discuss what To The Last Man! is all about, as well as what it is not. The best way to do this is, I feel, to address my design philosophy.

A lot of wargames on the market today are what I call "design-for-effect" games. The idea is to replay history right there on the mapboard. The rules produce effects that approximate historical events. Sometimes such games provide players with myriad complex rules which model the action in great detail. In such games everything that happens represents some aspect of the conflict directly.

Players' moves are formed by this "design-for-effect" and so while the historical progression of events may be totally correct, the players never get to "experience" the sort of decisions the generals faced.

Don't get me wrong, I like that type of simulation game as much as the next wargamer.

I'm just looking for something else; a different approach.

The idea is to recreate history in your own head -- to put you in the shoes of the generals. You call the shots just the way they did. I call this "design-for-experience."

As such, TTLM! does not slavishly model WW1; rather it presents the sort of decisions that the generals had to make -- decisions made without the benefit of 21st century hindsight. The generals on all sides weren't inept (as is often portrayed). They were simply operating in the unknown. They hoped for the best, but they prepared for the worst. There was a "trenchline mentality," sort of "the best offense is a good defense" attitude. In game terms, that's the reason why the front never moved for four years. The players were both very conservative in their play: attacking often but never too much, entrenchments across the board, saving cards...

From our point of view, WW1 armies were pretty tough and seldom destroyed. Because that's how those generals handled the situation. It could have all gone very differently, however.

Here's a specific example of this philosophy. Consider the 1915 scenario. From our vantage point, 94 years in the future, the 1915 frontline is not going to be breached no matter how massive the attack. The Germans did not have the troops to exploit their gas attacks at Ypres and the Entente attacks were doomed by too little artillery support and outdated tactics (as well as fashion). That is our point of view.

But that is not how the generals saw things. They were dealing with vulnerable armies and tremendous firepower. This is the feeling I wanted to convey. The horrifying losses. The uncertainty.

So front line breaches are possible in 1915. If TTLM! were designed so that no breakthroughs were possible in 1915, players would not feel like the generals; they wouldn't attack as readily. So in order to induce players into attacking, breakthroughs must occasionally be achievable.

With experienced play, breakthroughs are unlikely however, just as in history. On the other hand, new players will be shocked at how quickly they can lose. They are experiencing the generals' worst fears.

I know that's not World War 1 as it happened. It's the Great War as it might have been. The players make their own version of history by playing.

The Upside: To the Last Man! is a surprisingly exciting and fun grand strategic WW1 game which allows the players to explore the many "What ifs?" of the Great War in under three hours.

The Downside: To the Last Man! is not really a historical simulation unless both players want it to be so. But in this case, it is rather a good simulation. I mean, the combat system is based on historical casualty figures, after all. One hit equals 50,000 dead. It's important to remember that so you can more truly feel like the generals in charge.

TT 29/04/2009


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James Fung
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I heartily agree with your design philosophy. A couple years ago, I was toying around with a game about the events leading up to WW1 and the early stages of the war (why form a network of alliances that would cause a catastrophic war; why launch offensives when history tells us it will be bloody and come to naught). The powers did so because they thought they could win. If you want the players to do so, they should have the same illusion.

I play wargames for the why as much as the what because knowing why things happened the way they did gives meaning to what would otherwise be random facts. And players should ideally, if they recreate history, do it for historical reasons. If they do so because of some rule to keep the game on the rails, something is odd about the design.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to playing your game.
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