April 23, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Counterfactuals

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will chime in with their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.  You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

This week’s question:

What makes a good counterfactual game and how does one design the historical backstory such that it maintains plausibility and still creates a compelling game?

We tackled this topic on a previous episode of Mentioned in Dispatches, but here’s what our panel had to say, too


Paul Rohrbaugh, game designer / High Flying Dice Games

The history has be always in mind. All games are counterfactual as by their very nature players are being asked to experiment with historical alternatives. These need to be viable/understandable so that the game’s outcome makes sense, and reinforces and explains the actual history. Good games are teaching tools that can further historical understanding and appreciation. Those that don’t are consigned rather quickly to the book shelve, secondary game market (the dustbins of history).


COL Eric Walters (R), USMC, wargame practitioner (and legendary game hoarder!)

For me, when I think of counterfactual games I don’t necessarily imagine alternate universes (think NATO, Nukes, and Nazis (XTR) or Tomorrow: The World (XTR) so much as games that look at situations resulting from actual choices historical personages could have made that allow one to play them out in a wargame.  In other words, there might have been actual plans drawn up that were, for one reason or another, never put into execution.  Good examples of that include John Schettler’s Pas De Calais (Vanguard), Plan 1919 (Hollandspiele), as well as all those interwar games like Plan Orange (GMT), U.S. Navy Plan Orange (Avalanche Press), Czechoslovakia: 1938 (XTR)/Czechoslovakia Defiant (Schutze Games), and the like.  I’d also include hypothetical modern conflict games about wars, campaigns, and battles that never happened, but there were plans made in case they did.  We all know those games, usually positing World War 3, but I’d also include Flashpoint: Golan and Gulf Strike! (Victory Games), as well as a bevy of lesser known titles like Target: Libya (TSR), Light Division (3W), numerous Back to Iraq titles (XTR and Decision Games), among these as well.

To me, the better kinds of games in this genre succeeded more because of the attractive graphics production and clever gameplay, not because of the premise, which of course was the initial draw that got people to purchase and/or play it.

These are far more compelling to me as counterfactual games because they could have happened.  The historical backstory already exists in quite some depth, so the designer doesn’t have to invent much.  I’m very much a historical gamer first and foremost and a social gamer or competitive gamer a distant second and third after that, so it’s probably logical why these kinds of counterfactual games appeal to me.

In asking this question, however, one can readily assume you don’t mean these kinds of games.  You really are talking about the “alternative universe” titles, like Invasion: America, Invasion: Moscow, After the Holocaust, and Minuteman: The Second American Revolution, to mention a few better-known old SPI titles that did this.  To me, the better kinds of games in this genre succeeded more because of the attractive graphics production and clever gameplay, not because of the premise, which of course was the initial draw that got people to purchase and/or play it.  There only needed to be a relatively thin veneer of backstory there to go into it.  In more recent memory, Lock ‘N Load did this with their original World At War (First Edition) series games, that slowly but inevitably slipped players from the World War III battlefields of Europe into post World War III fighting in Texas!  Flying Pig Games had its post-apocalyptic world for its tactical game, Armageddon War.  Again, in these games, it is the experience of playing that is the draw, the backstory is pretty much window dressing or gift wrapping.  Only a minimum is needed as a rationalization for what’s happening on the game board.

Counterfactual games that needed more backstory typically were roleplaying adventure games, like Twilight: 2000 (GDW) and that ilk.


Jeff Horger, game designer / Laboratory H

Since that’s sort of my wheelhouse, I’ll just tell you what I do. I pick a point in time and research the forces available. If it is a strategic game I’ll look into the resource capabilities of the belligerents. Then I look at the goals that were laid out by the leadership and also the fears of what the other side was after. Where I can I search out alternate plans. Then I assign value to the various goals and objectives and then let the players step into the shoes of the leaders. If you want to really give the players the experience of a game, you have to let them make the call on how to achieve victory. Two of my favorite games like this are World in Flames and Axis & Allies. While they are extremely different in their scope and time to play, they both present players with a wide variety of ways to score points and allow the players to map out a strategy that will bring them victory. I have never had so much fun as I did in World in Flames as I did when we fought the length and breadth of World War 2 through proxy wars in Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia. 

The key to this is choices. Well-researched, logical, play-tested choices.


Chris Weuve, wargame practitioner, futuristic warfare consultant

“What makes a good game?” What’s “good” in this context? Plausible? Entertaining? It’s implied that you defined that in the second half of the question, but I think I am challenging that. Sometimes I don’t care about plausible, sometimes I care a lot. If I buy a wargame that postulates WW2 was fought with battlemechs, I’ve got the plausibility knob on a different setting than if I am playing hypothetical ASL scenarios.

But, taking it at face value, I would start with an analysis of the historical events and figure out where the branching point could have been. The Close Action players I know, for instance, do hypothetical scenarios that are branches off of real world scenarios: “Admiral Bob’s squadron was unable to find the convoy, but if he had, here’s the battle that would have resulted.” That’s a very tactical approach.


Jim Werbaneth, game designer & magazine publisher / Line of Departure

Back in prep school, my friends and I came up with an alternate scenario, in which TSR were to take over Avalon Hill, or SPI. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. The result was speculation of a game called Panzer Wizard: Magical Warfare on the Eastern Front.

Start with the game first, and how you think it should be, in terms of balance, ebb and flow, and basic systems. Then build a system and backstory around that. Plausibility will come, or it won’t. Nazis win World War II? That works, and we all know it from The Man in the High Castle, both the novel and series. Aliens invade? Cool, H.G. Wells and others showed that this is a compelling theme, in the right hands.

Basically, in my view, there is nothing too crazy for a science fiction or really left field conterfactual story. Back in prep school, my friends and I came up with an alternate scenario, in which TSR were to take over Avalon Hill, or SPI. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. The result was speculation of a game called Panzer Wizard: Magical Warfare on the Eastern Front. Now, will someone please design a board game based on the Iron Sky movies, in which a president modeled after Sarah Palin has to defend against space Nazis from the dark side of the moon?

When you get into plausible alternatives to real history rather than science fiction and fantasy, the crazy doesn’t work as well as that “Levitate Tank” spell. You need something that was planned for, by either or both sides, and which they considered plausible on our timeline. The one that jumped out at me from the beginning was Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, had the Luftwaffe won the Battle of Britain. That was a thing, one that came very close to possible, but for the efforts of The Few of Fighter Command. I wanted to explore that, and the result was my own design, Britain Stands Alone (GMT). There I wanted to extend the range of options usually shown in Sea Lion games, which usually involved the Germans attacking on the South Coast of England, primarily Kent. All it took was to enlarge the scale to include all of England and Wales, with off-map areas for Scotland and Northern Ireland. This seemed necessary because the British were planning for an invasion in East Anglia at least as much as Kent, and desirable to show why these were the invasion areas with the most probability of success.


Kim Kanger, game designer / Legion Games (mostly!)

Warsaw/NATO conflicts are really the only ones out there. There was a bunch of them in the 80s and, strangely enough, now as well. The only compelling and plausible that I can think of are optional scenarios and setups in historical games. Like optional French setups and mobilizations in 1940, like Avalon Hill’s France 1940


Mike Bennighof, President / Avalanche Press –  holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published many hundreds of books, games and articles on historical subjects.

Any well-made historical wargame becomes counter-factual the moment a player moves a piece in some way differently than his or her historical counterpart. Therefore every game needs to be able to represent not just what happened, but what could have happened.

A game that sets out from the start as a counter-factual requires a great deal of research behind it that, frankly, most “historical” wargames don’t possess. Clicking links on Wikipedia doesn’t make you “deeply read,” nor does reading 25 books (yes, I’m looking at you, Jared). The decision-makers of the past weren’t as stupid as we like to pretend. Most so-called “alternatives” weren’t taken not because the actors didn’t know about them or foolishly passed them by, but because those options weren’t possible or were stupid ideas.

So what does a good counter-factual game require? A deep backstory explaining exactly what got us to this point, explain not only the actual history but what decisions were made and what cultural, economic and social strictures underlay them. The past is a different country with a different people, who don’t always act like early-21st-century middle-aged white guys.

 And it has to have a compelling story – why are we playing it this way? There needs to be a substantial payoff in added fun (like a Japan able to match the United States, in Co-Prosperity Sphere, or massed battleship fleets backed by aircraft-carrying zeppelins in the Second Great War). Just creating the same game with different-colored pieces, but you got to make up the background without research, isn’t very compelling.


David Freer, designer / JTS Simulations

I have personally worked on several counterfactual games. John Tiller Software Panzer Campaigns Japan ‘45/Japan ’46 and Panzer Campaigns Moscow ’42 Fall Kreml operation.

The Japan titles covered the planned but never executed Operation Downfall with Japan ’45 covering Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu and Japan ’46 the landing around Tokyo in Operation Coronet. We were fortunate that planning for both sides had been almost complete for both operations with allocated Allied forces and all Japanese defensive preparations well documented. This allowed determining the order of battle as well as the positioning of all forces, easy for the initial setup of each operation. Probably the more difficult area was to postulate what happened after the landings and this is where we had to build out our own history. We were able to look at facsimile campaigns such as Normandy to see what impact Allied air superiority would have had on Japanese movement. We looked at what point Japanese counter attacks would have occurred, particularly based upon the change in Japanese tactics in Okinawa where defending on the beaches was eschewed for defending in depth in favourable terrain. Supply was also a key consideration with the Allied forces constrained by what could be bought over the beaches and the way that might impact any landing until workable port facilities are captured. With these real-world campaigns in mind, we were able to build out a two-month history post the initial landings as a storyboard for this counterfactual game.

Counterfactuals are great fun, but it is always much more plausible if you start with as much historical context as possible and then provide those advantages and limitations to the player and see how they perform.

The Fall Kreml operation was a misinformation campaign that impacted all Soviet deployments in the summer of 1942. As part of the cover for Fall Blau (the Axis push into Southern Russia to capture the Caucasus oilfields), the Germans leaked information on Fall Kreml (Operation Kremlin) that not surprisingly, indicated a resumption of the effort to capture Moscow. This would be quite credible considering that the previous effort had only failed 3 or 4 months earlier and that the Soviets viewed this as the most likely strategic operation the Germans would attempt. The Soviet deployments in May/June 1942 reflected this expectation with nearly all the newly created Tank Corps positioned in or around Moscow. Multiple defensive lines had all been created, something that was less evident further south where the Germans actually assaulted. The setup for this series of scenarios was based off all the actual deployments in June 1942. The Soviets are in their actual positions as they were anticipating an offensive towards Moscow. For the German, its similar with two changes. The German Panzer Divisions in Army Group Centre are rebuilt (historically they were denuded, and their Army Group South compatriots were reinforced) and Heeresgruppe Von Weichs is included as an additional formation in Army Group Centre. Von Weich’s forces were the northern arm of Fall Blau and essentially move north east in Fall Kreml rather than south east as was the case in Fall Blau. It was through play testing this large campaign that many of the additional counterfactual details were determined. Timing for crossing river lines, heroic last stands and the limitations of supply were all determined and built into the ‘historical’ background.

Counterfactuals are great fun, but it is always much more plausible if you start with as much historical context as possible and then provide those advantages and limitations to the player and see how they perform.

What do you think?  Have your say!

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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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