Brant Guillory, 15 February 2021
David Thompson is the anti-grognard: he’s a younger guy who doesn’t sit around grousing about how life was so much better back when we only had 3 ‘real’ wargame companies and they only made 2-color counters that you had to play uphill in the snow. What he has done is design some fantastic games with innovative, narrative, personal approaches to unique conflicts, from Castle Itter to Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms to the Undaunted series, and everything in between. The Armchair Dragoons stole a few moments of his time.
OK dude, you went from “who is that guy” to “celebrated game designer” in about 18 months. How the heck did that happen, and how do you feel about the the critical and commercial response to your games?
Celebrated game designer? Celebrated by whom? I can’t even get my kids to celebrate my birthday! Seriously, that’s kind of you to say. I am still relatively new to the hobby. I started playing board games around 2012, and started working on the design that would become Undaunted: Normandy in 2014.
It might seem like a flurry of activity from me in the last couple years, but that’s more of just a coincidence of timing, where games that have been in the works for years all released at once. The design for Undaunted began in 2014, Castle Itter in 2015, and Pavlov’s House in 2016, though all of those games (my first three published wargame designs) were released within the last couple years.
I’m super excited that the games have been well received, both critically and commercially, mostly because that’s given me the opportunity to push Undaunted to a crazy new level (just wait for the summer of 2022!) and it’s allowed me to continue to explore obscure topics for my solitaire designs.
Talk us through a little bit of the development of the “Valiant Defense” series. These all seem like deeply personal topics where the player gets a chance to identify with individual people on the battlefield. That can’t be an accident, right? What’s your inspiration behind putting the players in individual pairs of shoes in these seemingly-hopeless situations?
I began the design work on Castle Itter in 2015, as an entry into BGG’s wargame design contest. It seemed to me like an easy way to get feedback and playtesters on BGG was to make a solitaire wargame, as both of those communities have active playtest communities. I can’t even really remember where I first heard about the battle for Castle Itter, but it seemed the perfect theme for a solitaire wargame. It was an extremely thematic story with an unbelievable cast of characters, and it leant itself well to solitaire play. I mean, who wants to play SS just charging straightforward at a castle? Castle Itter was very well received, winning many of the categories in the contest.
That encouraged me to continue to explore the core mechanisms and structures in the game. I made a call to the wargame community for follow-up ideas, and someone pitched the idea of Pavlov’s House. Originally Pavlov’s House was intended to be a skirmish-level only design like Castle Itter, but during the design process I learned about all the operational-level elements that made the defense possible. That led to the integration of those elements in the design, resulting in its unique blend of skirmish, tactical, and operational-levels. Each design that has followed in the series (Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms and Lanzerath Ridge) have similarly been born from community member’s recommendations as perfect events to model through the game system.
Was the Valiant Defense set of games always intended as a series, or did you just go back to the system because you happened to find another story you wanted to tell after the first one was done?
Not at all. Castle Itter was just an exploration of a concept as a means of entering a game into a design contest. And Pavlov’s House was intended to be a sequel of sorts, but I didn’t know there would be a series until I saw how well Itter and Pavlov were received. Now I can say that the only thing holding the series back is lack from time from me. I have TONS of ideas I want to explore (including, potentially, different scales and time periods), but the list is long and I’ve got lots of competing priorities at the moment.
Both the Valiant Defense games, and the “Undaunted…” series have picked up fans from outside the usual wargaming world. Were you specifically aiming for some crossover appeal, or is that just a random occurrence that wasn’t intentional?
I think it’s more of where I came from as a designer. I could count the number of wargames I had played on one hand before starting the design work on Undaunted. And those that I had played came from the Euro-Wargame crossover world (like A Few Acres of Snow). So it’s really just that I was designing games based on my experiences and influences. Almost certainly if I had played a traditional hex-and-counter game prior to designing Undaunted and the Valiant Defense series, those games would have likely turned out very differently. Maybe better, maybe worse, but different for sure. I’m SUPER happy that both Undaunted and the Valiant Defense series have drawn players from other genres into the wargame hobby, though. The best feedback I get is when a wargamer tells me that they are able to enjoy one of my designs with their non-wargaming spouse, child, or gaming friends.
One interesting side comment on this question. If you take a look at my post-apoc wargame, For What Remains, you can see the impact that wargames have had on my designs. That game was my first ever attempt at game design, starting back in the mid-2000s. At the time I didn’t really know that the boardgame hobby existed. I knew about tabletop minis games, but that was about it. So that game was originally influenced by things like D&D, tactical RPG video games (like Final Fantasy Tactics), and miniature board games like Blood Bowl. Over the years it was signed by a couple different publishers that viewed it as a crossover minis/boardgame, but it was never published. Then a couple years ago, I re-worked it from the ground up, integrating concepts I borrowed from the wargame world such as chit-pull and counter-stacking. The game is MUCH better now (at least in my opinion), and it shows how wargame mechanisms should be influencing crossover designs (it doesn’t need to be the case that Euros are always the ones influencing crossover games).
What’s the craziest game design idea you’ve had that you haven’t gotten into circulation yet? What’s holding you back on it?
I have a loooooooooooong list of game ideas that I haven’t been able to explore yet just due to time constraints. In the last two years I’ve had 10 games released, and it looks like at least for the next couple years I’ll average about 5 games per year. That’s a lot for a guy with a day job and family (at least in my opinion).
The good news is that the success of games like Undaunted, War Chest, and the Valiant Defense series means that I have tons of games on contract for the next couple years. The bad news is that I have tons of games on contract for the next couple years!
Lol – so basically VERY little free time to explore new things. I really, really wanted to do a game on women’s suffrage in the US this year and wasn’t able to due to time commitments, but fortunately both Fort Circle Games (Votes for Women) and Hollandspiele (The Vote) released games on that important subject.
Thanks for joining us!
Thanks for inviting me to do this. It was a ton of fun!
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