Jim Owczarski, 26 December 2023
On the heels of the release of their new Thirty Years War game, and our podcast discussing the company as a whole with them, we’ve followed up Wargame Design Studio (WDS) with a deeper dive into the game, and other parts of the company, too.
1. So, for the unfamiliar, who are you and what do you do for Wargame Design Studio (WDS)?
My name is Rich Hamilton and I’m the COO at WDS… a fancy way of saying I run most of the Customer Facing aspects of the company – Help Desk, Store operations, etc. as well as manage about half of the portfolio of games – all pre-twentieth century content plus the two real-time series. David Freer, my partner, manages all the remain twentieth century+ titles. I’ve been a wargamer for almost four decades now and involved with John Tiller since the late 90’s.
Some of the answers here will be paired with responses from Rich White out of the UK, who was our Scenario designer for Thirty Years War.
2. I suppose because I always find such things interesting, how did you get involved in wargame design in the PC space?
RH: Being in the right place at the right time, really. I started interacting with John at the tail end of his involvement with Talonsoft and was part of his new involvement with HPS Simulations. I was single then and had an abundance of time to devote to new game creation, and I also began handling Support for the company – so I was embedded with multiple layers of the development process. It was a very busy time and John had numerous teams working with him creating content. If I remember correctly there was a few years there where we were publishing 6+ games a year, from various series.
3. I have been a strong cheerleader for the remarkable work that WDS has undertaken, particularly since the passing of Dr. Tiller, why do you think its projects have flourished?
RH: The core that we acquired from the John Tiller Software acquisition was very solid. While they were in need of updates at a variety of levels, the games worked well, the base of existing historical research was (and is) astounding, and they continue to have a very strong customer following after a little over 20 years. So, we have been able to come in and refine the products – not completely reinvent the wheel. For example, on the User interface we’ve implemented a “standard toolbar” layout that makes it easier for players to navigate between series, it is also adjustable to show more or less buttons as the player desires. We have also exponentially expanded the available Hotkeys, so you can have both your mouse and free hand working to move through the commands more quickly. We have also made improvements to the way you issue commands to units so that less clicks are required to get your formations to do what you want them to.
Graphics have also been an element that needed updating – and we have been making inroads there for sure. Bitmaps have bumped to 24-bit color depth, and many have been totally reworked. In our Squad Battles and Naval Campaigns series we have moved over to PNG files which gives us the ability to create more robust graphics with better shadowing and scaling for example.
The Head-to-Head value has always been very high with the games, but the need for improved AI has been noted. So, we are working on that as well, improving path finding, and force specific commands – more intelligent cavalry formation handling for example. Still a decent way to go, but progress is being made. So, tying back to your original question, it is easier to work with an existing system than it is to build one from scratch, in most cases.
All of that is pretty much due to the drive and commitment of our in-house development teams. We’ve got quite a few guys involved that are very enthusiastic and have helped moved things forward at a great clip. As far as reception from the community – since everything we have done has been rolled out for free to existing owners of the older games it obviously has been well received. 😊
We are however trying to shift more towards new content development as we enter into 2024. There’s still some noticeable items we need to address – namely updates for the balance of the Squad Battles games and we have a good update pending for the Strategic War series of games. But its our goal that moving forward we’ll have more new content released than update cycles.
4. To the topic at hand: World War II, the American Civil War, and Napoleonics (in reverse order, of course), always sell well. What in heaven’s name possessed you to try a project on the Thirty Years’ War?
Like we recently talked about in the podcast, we aren’t really a traditional company in the way we tackle new content. We are wargamers first, and the vast majority of what we do is driven by personal interest of team members – far more than what we’ll make a buck on. Thirty Years War was a natural fit for our Musket & Pike series of games. Rich White was the scenario designer for the first title of the series – Renaissance. And while he didn’t start the original TYW project, he was asked to pick it up when previous teams stepped aside.
Rich White chimes in: The TYW is effectively a follow-up title to Renaissance, which was very well received when it was released through HPS. Although the main focus of the TYW is Germany, the Dutch Revolt from Spanish rule and the ongoing rivalry between France and Spain are also included. They originate in the 16th century but are not resolved until the mid-17th century in conflicts that are closely linked to the TYW. So, to some extent at least, TYW is a sort of REN2, resolving the conflicts that were left unfinished at the point where REN ended.
RH: Along those lines, we have plans for an expansion pack or two as well for TYW fleshing out some of the conflicts that were only lightly touched on in the original release. There really is an immense amount of content that could have been included – but at some point you have to step back and let a project see the light of day.
Our games are unlike many that are on the market. Instead of one major battle and a few outlying skirmishes – or a generic handling of a topic – our titles go into significant depth covering an entire campaign, or in the case of TYW, multiple campaigns. 37 unique battles are covered between the 80 different stand-alone scenarios and 47 campaign based scenarios. Actions such as:
- White Mountain
- 1st Breitenfeld
- Rain, the River Lech
- 1st Nordlingen
- 2nd Breitenfeld
- 2nd Nordlingen
5. I think I have this straight from the promotional material, but this game will include all the major battles, 1618-48?
RW: Yes, all the main TYW battles are included, along with most of the minor ones and also various other battles, such as Rocroi and Lens, from the over-lapping Franco-Spanish conflict, which continued beyond the 1648 termination date for the TYW itself.
6. How big is the team on this one? Related, given the nature of the sources, how hard was it to build the OOBs?
RH: This project had a very long and winding road in development. It actually started back in 2001(!) and was passed between at least three different scenario designers over the years. In late 2020 Rich White took over the lead role and things sort of “reset”. Most of the content was completely re-done that was already in place and the structure was put into place for what you see now as the published game.
RW: It wasn’t an easy task compiling the OOBs or attempting to double-check their accuracy. In some cases, even the chain of command and the grouping of forces is unclear and, consequently, a bit conjectural. The OOBs are mostly derived from Guthrie and / or original sources, especially the Theatrum Europeaum and the Swedish Intelligencer, since other secondary sources rarely go into sufficient detail on the OOBs. I did find a separate Czech OOB for White Mt. (used for one of the variant scenarios) and also additional OOB material for the Franco-Spanish conflict and some of the other battles. There are a few battles I’d have liked to have included – including one or two discussed in some detail by P. Wilson – but couldn’t find detailed OOBs for these. Unfortunately, Wilson doesn’t provide OOBs and often doesn’t refer to the original sources that might have provided them. It’s quite likely that detailed OOBs were never actually compiled (or else have been lost), particularly for smaller actions.
RH: So, Rich did the lion share of the research. In addition, Nick Bell worked on the project providing detailed map creation work and also battle feedback based on historic maps he uncovered during his research. We had a three-man graphics team and then around a dozen playtesters at various stages of the project. And last, but certainly not least, is our programmer for this series – Henrik – who has made a tremendous number of changes to make the engine more solid and accessible to players both new and old.
7. Every series Dr. Tiller or WDS begins comes with tweaks, revisions, &c., to the “basic” engine to reflect the period. The changelog for this one is huge and I certainly wouldn’t ask you to repeat it, but what are some of the biggest changes players can expect with this game over the others?
RH: One huge change was the refinements to how Stacking is handled within a hex, and what number of troops can conduct fire from a single hex at any given time. There’s only so much space facing the enemy, and while additional troops can stack up “in depth,” not everyone can bring their weapons to bear within a single turn. We feel these changes are a big step forward in more accurately representing combat of the time. And also the effects of combat – as a more tightly packed force will suffer loss from artillery fire, and also be subject to the ebb and flow of combat. For example, if you are standing elbow to elbow with a mass of men who panic and run for the rear, it’s likely going to cause your unit to turn tail too – or at bare minimum shake you (Disorder).
This series is also getting one update in the time the Napoleonic series has seen about 3 or 4 – so a boat load of AI changes are making their debt with the release of TYW that aren’t currently in the other games. Though, by the time people will be reading this the updates for the rest of the games will be out – moving to version 4.03.1. (These were released on December 15th for the balance of the Musket & Pike series.)
And then finally I would say – information management. We’ve made a plethora of changes in how information is conveyed to the player to make it much easier for you to understand what is happening. Many new “highlight” options that can be activated to easily spot units that are in a certain state, and those units that are related to them, for example. New tools like the Range Tool that can help plan unit placement, and march paths with just a few clicks. And so on… like you said, the change list is huge and can be viewed here
8. I was furtively involved in the playtest for Musket and Pike. Checking my notes, it has been a long time since its release. Why the delay?
RH: Well, a couple of things. John was primarily focused on his government contract work. And I started up a farm in 2010. So those two aspects kept both of us heavily involved for most of the decade between 2010 & 2020. Obviously some work still happened in those years, but the M&P series ended up taking a back seat for the most part with only Seven Years War being published in 2018. While there are quite a few hands involved in each project, up until 2021 John was the only full-time person. David and I have just shifted into full time focus since we took over the company.
9. The standard of graphics in your games has been steadily climbing. It appears that this game will be getting a user interface upgrade, but will the 2D and 3D graphics be improved over previous games in the series?
RH: Yes, I think players who purchased Renaissance back in the day and who pick up Thirty Years War now will see a marked improvement in the graphics. And as mentioned above, we will continue to refine that process over time as we know people want more than just “functional” graphics. Also, all of the 2D graphical enhancements and 3D terrain changes are rolled back to the older titles with the newest updates. So only the “unit” specific graphics for Renaissance and Seven years War haven’t been updated as of yet.
10. I am a multi-player gamer by strong preference, but I always get asked: How’s the A.I.? Put another way, will it be able to mount an attack?
RH: I touched on this before, but yes – the AI can mount an attack, and hold a decent defense. That’s not just my opinion, but feedback we have received from others. Will a veteran PBEM’er want to start playing against the AI a lot? Probably not… but it has experienced significant improvement in the last 24 months.
11. Dirty, sneaky 11th Question: Anything else you’d like to tell us about this one or what might be in the pipeline for near-future release?
RH: We talked about a fair bit in the podcast, but as I mentioned there too – I’m pretty tight lipped, as I don’t like vaporware! But I will say we will be making significant in-roads into the period of 1840 – 1910 in the coming years that we haven’t really touched on. With our programming resources we have involved now we feel we can do this time period justice. Can’t give you a date when you’ll start to see any of that though…
Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons and mounting up with the Regiment of Strategy Gaming.
You can find our regiment’s social media on Mastodon, BlueSky, Facebook, TwXtter, YouTube, and even Threads, if we could ever get an auto-post to it.
(We have an Instagram page and it’s really just a placeholder & redirect to our articles.)
You can support The Armchair Dragoons through our Patreon, also, and find us at a variety of conventions and other events.
Feel free to talk back to us either in our discussion forum, or in the comments below.
There once were Dragoons in their chairs,
Wargaming expertise beyond compares.
With passion they’d play,
Strategizing all day,
The Armchair champions, nobody dares.
In the hobby, they stand proud and tall,
Wargaming prowess, they enthrall.
In each tabletop fight,
They prove their might,
Armchair Dragoons, the best of them all!