July 18, 2024

Design x Dragoons: The Best Recent “Innovations”

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:

Think about wargame features that you’ve seen appear in games over the past 5-10 years (or as wargamers tend to say: “only just recently”). What’s your favorite “innovations” over that time period? Variable dice mechanics? Integration of role-playing elements? Minis-hexagon mix-and-match? Card-driven action? Look, I get it. There are a lot of “innovations” that aren’t technically “new”. Heck, Warrior Knights had the all-cards-no-dice thing nailed back in the early ’80s. But the Combat Commander model actually made it viable beyond a one-off fantasy game that lacked for tactics. What are some ‘innovations’ that you find interesting, fun, or compelling in today’s games?

Paul Rohrbaugh, game designer / High Flying Dice Games

I am quite proud of the standard card deck draw design approach that I’ve used in a number of games that vary in size and historical period. As a model maker and one who started out in historical wargames via toy soldiers, tanks and the like, I’m attracted to the growing use of miniatures in board games. I had a very bad experience 15 years or so ago when I discovered that a firm I was working with was making their miniatures in China using basically slave labor and with plastic that had high levels of toxins. I now will not work or purchase any games made or miniatures unless I know first how they were manufactured. I wish there was more concern about this ugly aspect of the gaming business and willingness to act (or more importantly not purchase) accordingly.


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.

The adoption of story-arc formatting as seen in role-playing games four decades ago or more. Every successful game of every genre tells a story. Wargames have only recently begun to reflect this; this is why they fell behind every new wave of games over that time span, because these new-fangled games told stories while many wargames asked you to count factors. They failed to suspend disbelief and engage the players in the story, to remind them that they’re making history right there on the map.


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

The way cards offer separate options of which you have to choose one when playing the card, like Paths of Glory. Also the way cards are constantly drawn for every separate kind of action and event and even die-rolls, like Combat Commander.


Tom Russell, designer & publisher / Hollandspiele

I’m not sure if I can zero in on a specific “innovation” as my favorite. In fact, there are some recent innovations – like the proliferation of solitaire bots – that I find pretty irritating. I think however that the last ten years or so has seen an embrace by both designers and players of impressionistic models – games that impart the feel of the thing – as opposed to brute force number-crunching: give me the gist of how this ship’s hull stood up to that ship’s firepower rather than having me count the guns and measure the inches. I could be talking out of my hat, but it seems like there’s a broader acceptance for meaningful abstraction these days, and that people are able to take it seriously without dismissing it out of hand with that old chestnut “a game, not a simulation”.

Call it an innovation in the “spirit” of wargame design, and how we approach them.This has not only resulted in what, to my mind, are often better and more useful models – insert handy-dandy George Box “all models are wrong” quote here – but has brought in new gamers from other parts of the hobby. Are they going to break out a panzer-pusher and start exploiting rule sub-case (b)? Probably not! But they’re still engaging with and thinking about history, and engaging with the idea that a game can make a serious argument.

That sounds obvious to you and me, but to people outside wargaming, it’s an utterly alien concept for which they have no frame of reference. I would argue that a more significant part of why wargaming is so niche isn’t that the rules are dense (have you seen some of those heavy euros?) or that people aren’t interested in history, but that people outside the hobby fundamentally misunderstand the “point” of them. Games that use simpler and more impressionistic models to express their thesis make that thesis easier to grasp.


COL Eric Walters (R), USMC, wargame practitioner (and owner of one of the best ‘war rooms’ in the world)

My favorite innovations “most recently” show up in the tactical-level ground warfare game, Armageddon War.  The way the game plays, it’s like the designer had not played any tactical level ground warfare game before but had heard someone talk about them in general. So there are familiar elements—here’s a hex map, here are cardboard pieces with combat, range, defense, and movement factors on them.  But the comparisons don’t go much farther than that.  Most everything else is different.

For one thing, chit-pull activations (a familiar element) completely replaces the turn.  In most games, there are turns, and chits are pulled from the mug to activate units in a different order each turn.  Once all the units have activated, the chits go back in the mug and a new turn begins.  Not so in this game.  Chits are pulled but there are no turns; chits go back into the mug when a logistics chit for that side is pulled out of the mug!

In combat, there are dice, but they are not the usual spotted ones; they come in various colors with symbols instead of dots on them.  The color of dice indicated the lethality of fire. Well, that’s not all that new, I suppose, but the way the symbols are printed on them show results for both outgoing and return fire in the roll!  In most games, when units shoot, it’s simulating only outgoing fire.  But not in this game!

Another thing I liked was how status markers were pentagon shaped and color-coded, so unit status could be determined at a glance without having to pick anything up—there were those little triangular tabs of various colors sticking out from the stack.

I’m also quite taken with the various solo modules that one can retro-fit to these tactical games; a few use card decks to provide “the ‘Bot” player with some really decent decision modeling. I’d seen AI decision flow charts from the GMT COIN series and they were “good enough” if not exactly great. But the tactical game solo modules make for some truly dangerous opponents and are great way to learn what to do in the game.  So they can actually serve as a kind of tutorial as well as an artificially intelligent sparring partner.


Jeff Horger, game designer / Laboratory H

I do enjoy cards for variation and I’m OK with abstraction. But my favorite innovation, and one that I think I used fairly well was a simplified dice mechanic that avoids lots of charts. I used it in Manoeuvre and will use it again in Fury and when I begin Division Commander I will use it again. Each time it gets implemented, I think it gets better. The key for me is using different dice sizes (4-6-8-10-12-20) for combat and enhancing those rolls with cards that play off each other. Changing dice and cards can make armies fight and move in ways that would normally require books of charts.


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

This goes back a little further, in fact to SPI’s War of the Ring, but the integration of cards into systems has really taken off.  CDG’s are the most visible, but cards have really cut into the territory once dominated by random events tables.  I’ll go so far as to say that if the production budget allows it, it is often or even usually better for a designer to use cards instead of dice rolls on a table.

Also, and again this is a more recent development of older ideas, well-constructed solitaire games. Dan Versen is really the once and future king of this, and DVG is the center.  But now a solitaire “bot” is more common in recent games from others, and there is more thought and attention paid to it.


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

3 thoughts on “Design x Dragoons: The Best Recent “Innovations”

  1. I guess I’m not understanding Tom Russell’s “irritation” with solitaire bots, as you can choose to use them or not use them. And, as they become more prolific, designers will become better at implementing them.

    The simple fact that a large percentage of gamers only play solitaire – that they’re more into problem-solving than head-to-head competition – seems rarely acknowledged in this hobby, as if it were some sort of terrible impurity that some people want to pretend doesn’t exist. It does, and that’s perfectly ok.

  2. I love solo games, and I love playing games solo, Ed. I despise bots. I made only a passing comment here, because it really wasn’t the point of the thing, but have discussed it at length elsewhere, and maybe Brant can have me on another episode of his podcast so I can go full grumpy-old-man on the subject.



  3. Hoi y`uns, as ‘moi’ believes that continual ’embellishments’/’improvements’/’advances’ shall then keep yet another’s ‘Game(s)’ in perpetual considerations. Earlier this year, then ‘moi’ contacted Lou Coatney in regards upon bringing forth a means for “Fog of War”-effects with uses of ‘Stand-up Hidden Components’ within his “Barbarossa VS Russia”, and so, these were manufactured. I’ve requested that HE publicly ‘post’ the imagery of them, while anyone else can request this VIA ’email’, if so desired.

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