April 20, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Engineers! (no, not those kind)

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 can you best portray what engineers are truly capable of on the battlefield in a wargame? What do engineers do well that hasn’t been accurately captured on the tabletop? What do they do poorly that’s yet to manifest as an actual penalty in a game?

David Freer, designer / JTS Simulations

I can’t really comment on tabletop games, but engineers within our computer games have a full range of unique capabilities such as bridge building, river ferrying, fortification creation, mine laying/clearing as well as enhanced assault capabilities. These are not generic to all engineers but can be tailored for each engineer type so that specialisation can occur. This is again the power of computer games in that a wide range of capabilities can be reflected and combined as necessary to create unique units, all policed by the game engine.



Paul Rohrbaugh, game designer / High Flying Dice Games

To me this should be handled in a way similar to that of command and logistics. The level of detail should complement, but not dominate, the play of any game. Sieges and games that concentrate on logistical or construction endeavors should of course extensively detail and feature these units; otherwise a designer needs to again keep the focus and player roles paramount.


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.

What is their role in the story? If the story’s about the movement and campaigns of armies, then the engineers are the guys who can get your troops across the river or into the fortress a little easier. If the story’s about engineers building a bridge under enemy fire, then the actions should be fairly detailed.


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

At a certain level, ease movement by creating a road or improving one


COL Eric Walters (R), USMC, wargame practitioner and podcast star

If we’re talking about combat engineers, pioneers, and sappers that’s one thing. If we’re talking about construction engineers, that’s another thing entirely.

Probably the best games I’ve played that did a good job of portraying military engineering functions of mobility and protection enhancements and countermobility at the tactical level would be GDW’s Bundeswehr expansion in the Assault series. In terms of simulating operational logistics enhancements that construction engineers provide, it would be SPI’s War in the Pacific (first edition). I’m sure there are other games that could compete, but these are the ones I know/remember best.


Jeff Horger, game designer / Laboratory H

My personal outlook is that engineers are best handled with some type of point system and/or through card play. Either of these methods allows designers to tailor the engineer capabilities to not only specific national abilities but even differentiate the types of engineers from the same nationality. The truth is it demands on the scope and goal of the game. If the game is about capturing bridges, then you tend to value and need those engineers that both destroy and build bridges. If the game is about positional warfare, then you need engineers to build, enhance, penetrate and destroy strongpoints. Having railroad engineers in a tactical game without a railroad on the board is as pointless as can be. Since every design needs to tell the story the designer wants, the topic and situation will determine what engineering skills are valued.


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

Engineers have seldom gotten the recognition that they deserve, and I daresay that throughout wargaming’s history, one of their prime roles has been as cheap, low-capability infantry, to be sacrificed in last stands and soak offs to let the real soldiers get away. This completely denigrates the value that they have as higher-quality, even elite, specialist units with special skill sets. I suspect that a lot of players were introduced to engineers too in the original Squad Leader (AH), as the Germans who got to use demo charges and flamethrowers to blow stuff up and burn it down. But that’s about it.

One of their biggest roles throughout history has been to build and oversee the siege of fortifications. Yet they seldom show up doing this, usually abstracted away in strategic games up to the Napoleonic era, and on lower levels, their role is diminished by the paucity of games on specific sieges. Marquis de Vauban, call your office.

In the World Wars and beyond, they have unrecognized roles in mobility and logistics. When I designed Inchon, from the very beginning I wanted to put this into the game, and sure enough, American engineers are indispensable to getting friendly units across the Han River, by then an otherwise impassable barrier, with all of its bridges down. No engineers, no river crossing. In other games, on a higher operational and strategic level, we see engineers extending railways, but in usually highly abstracted ways. The railroad conversion rules in a multitude of World War II East Front games are prime examples, as is Jim Dunnigan’s representation of German railway engineers, a true elite among their officer corps, to repair and operate railways in 1914 (AH). That was way ahead of its time.

Still, especially on a grand strategic level, we don’t see them enough. Did the Alaska Highway and the Ledo Road build themselves?

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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

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