April 18, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Details, details, details!

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer 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:

How important are the ‘details’ to you? Do you want/need the historical designations of the units that hit the beach at D-Day, or do you just want to know that there’s a crapload of joes unloading into Normandy? Do you want unit symbols, icons, or portraits? Leader names, or just leader counters?
How many details are too many details? Do your players lose ‘immersion’ if you leave too many out?

David Thompson, (Award-winning!) designer / Undaunted Normandy, Castle Itter, among others

100% important. Arguably it’s the single most important aspect to me, but with a HUGE caveat – I only care about the details that are key to evoking the story I’m trying to tell. Take Castle Itter for example. There is one counter that features a special action called “Escape.” It allows the counter — which represents a French tennis player! — to attempt to escape from the castle, in line with historical precedence. To make this work, it requires a special action, a good chunk of text in the rulebook, and some extensive testing. But it’s critically important for me to let players experience these historic details.


Pete Bogdasarian, designer / Tank On Tank, Corps Command series

I believe that part of what separates wargaming, both tabletop and miniature, from other boardgames is the historical foundations beneath the hobby. In crafting a game, a designer must weight (a) playability, (b) the limits of his sources, and (c) his audience’s suspension of disbelief.

To use D-Day as an example, we could consider several possible approaches. There could be a D-Day game where the Allies and German units simply represent generic strength points, with no distinction made on the unit counter between the type of unit or its training. The capabilities of the two forces could be brought out through other mechanics (cards, yes, we see you, you may sit down now) and I bet you could get the general wargaming audience comfortable with that approach (other than that one guy, of course). But if the game set the number of Allied strength points to be equal to the number of German points and treated the Normandy campaign as a contest between equally sized and capable forces (as if it were a game of chess), then I suspect disbelief would fail (probably right around the point where the Luftwaffe had command of the skies) and the exercise would feel unrooted from history. The game might offer a pretty satisfying challenge, but the complete inattention to the historical balance of forces would probably cause it to fail to find an audience on the historical wargaming side of the hobby.

On the other hand, there comes a point where detail go awry and distort the big picture. Let us say that there is an Eastern Front game where units are ordinarily divisions and the designer comes to learn that one particular German Infantry division had an extra company of twelve assault guns assigned to it (taken from some Kampfgruppe, no doubt). If the designer’s instinct is to depict that company with its own counter or to otherwise call that division out by including a special rule to account for these twelve assault guns, then the evidence suggests that he has likely gone too far down the rabbit hole. Perhaps he adds a point to the unit’s combat strength and makes a note of it in his designer’s notes – that potentially sounds more reasonable, but you’d have to tell me how important that point is.

Now, let us consider the example of where detail may properly be accounted for in a game. Consider a game covering the battlefield clash between military systems in the 17th century. Cavalry trained to charge at the gallop, colliding with the enemy in close-quarters combat, pitted against German Reiters who intend to wear their opponent down with the caracole. A game should be able to depict these different military systems in a way that the players are both aware of the distinction and be placed in a position to draw conclusions about which was more effective (hint: by the end of the Thirty Years War, the combatants had adopted the former approach).


Byron Collins, designer & owner/Collins Epic Wargames

For design, there is a balance you must strike between detail and what mechanics you use to make it a game and keep it flowing and fun. Too much detail and it just bogs down. Too little detail and it feels too abstract. Immersion is a feeling I seek for all players that I believe occurs when they can fill in the details of what happens and see it in their head without it all spelled out or rolled out for them. If successful, immersion results in stories that can be told, with excitement, about what happened in the game.


Michael Eckenfels, senior writer/Armchair Dragoons & (newly-minted) developer/Compass Games

Personally, if I’m playing a game that’s based on history, I much prefer historical unit designations than generic ones. Games like the aforementioned Axis & Allies bothered me because there’s no clear size for each unit. I want the historic units that were involved in these campaigns to be represented on my game map.

I’ve always preferred the standard NATO unit counter designation to represent unit types; I’m not sure why, but looking at that ‘x’ in a rectangle instantly shows me an infantry unit more so than seeing a generic image of an infantryman. Though, a Leader counter, I think, is much better represented by a portrait of that Leader, rather than a HQ counter. The historic personalities that participated in a campaign should be present; this includes not just Leaders, but also, in the case of LnL games (such as LnL Tactical), having Heroes represented as special individuals that do amazing things on the battlefield is important, too.


Rob Crandall, designer / On Target Simulations (Flashpoint Campaigns)

I personally like a high level of detail as it greatly increases the immersion factor for me. I can go with abstract symbols – in fact I prefer them for readability – but yes, I really do want to know every historical unit designation, and if they are not provided then I will add them myself. As long as the map and counters are readable then load them up with detail!


Russ Lockwood, Staff Developer / Against the Odds

Well, we are trying to represent history, although some games’ units carry the same combat and movement factors. That said, the differences between unit types (the rock, paper, scissors of wargaming) are the most important aspects, although this depends on scale and complexity. Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery should work differently in a tactical Napoleonic wargame, but on a strategic level, where you deal with Corp-level units, the unit differences are less pronounced, but maybe the leadership factor is more pronounced.

Scale and complexity should help determine counter details. You only have so much real estate on a half-inch or 5/8-inch counter. Unit type and unit name form the basic block of information – then you add in factors in some sort of priority based on design objectives. HOW you come up with the factors is the art of design and play balance.


John Gorkowski, designer / In The Trenches series, Balance of Powers, plenty of others

You can never have too many historical details, but that does not require a certain form of art. So, you don’t need portraits, but unit numbers/names are great.


Steve Overton, designer/Fire Team: Red Elipse, and scenario developer for too many people to list

Yes. Take the time to do the research. I play wargames to increase my knowledge of the conflict. If the units aren’t right what else isn’t right?

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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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