10 March 2012

Battle Lab: Warfighter 101 Designer's Notes

Going waaaaay back in the archives here (try 7 freakin' years!) for the original set of designer's noted I wrote for a website that is now a mere shell of itself.

Warfighter 101 System

Greetings! This is my first stab at writing out my developer’s notes for any of my game designs, so bear with me a bit here.

The Warfighter 101 system came into being the in spring of 2001. I was a wage slave looking for something I could play on weekends with a few of my wargame-loving buddies in the National Guard. With summer fast approaching in South Carolina, we needed an entertaining indoor pursuit. All of us had played wargames throughout our youth, but had stepped away from the hobby over the years. It turns out that none of us left wargaming because of time, money, or availability of opponents. We simply couldn’t find a game we enjoyed playing. We had knocked around some games of Squad Leader and PanzerBlitz/PanzerLeader but we really wanted to play games with a modern theme to them. We tried MBT, and even though we are/were all armor officers, we just couldn’t stomach the system; it didn’t move fast enough for us.

much more after the jump!

So on a trip to Columbus, Ohio to visit my parents, I hit a few of the game stores – Columbus has several good ones – looking for something we could play. I didn’t find anything I really liked, but I also realized that we could just design our own. I had been writing and publishing my own role-playing games and supplements for several years, and it didn’t seem that a wargame would be that much more challenging. After all, with a wargame, you don’t have to write a lot of characters and storylines and motivations, like you do with a role-playing game.

Nostalgia alert
I’ve been playing wargames since I was about seven years old. I started in the late ‘70s playing with my dad. Dad was cool and I wanted to be just like him, and that meant learning German, wearing Army clothes, playing racquetball, and playing wargames. Even today, I contend that there are far worse role models I could’ve had than my dad. I designed my first wargame in 4th grade for a class project. It was a medieval game of knights, archers, and pikemen that was horribly unbalanced and used a square grid because I couldn’t find a hex grid. I got an “A” and the teacher kept my only copy of the game to show other teachers. It didn’t matter – the bug had bit. I’ve been designing games and scenarios ever since.
End of nostalgic digression.

On the long drive home, I started brainstorming some of the ideas I liked and wondered how I could incorporate them. I liked the old PanzerBlitz system of attack-defend-move-range values. I liked the idea of counters with pictures on them instead of tactical map symbols. To play the game at a level we would enjoy, we would need platoons and sections as the counters; after all, we were all commanders and staff officers in a tank battalion. We didn’t want to move entire companies and battalions around the map.

What developed on that drive home was about 80% of what is now the Warfighter 101 system, hereafter referred to as W101. I developed a variety of rules and concepts, and then cut them down considerably to simplify the initial game, and thus the Warfighter system became Warfighter 101, with plans to expand it into a more robust system (tentatively dubbed Maneuver Warrior).

I built the maps with 1000-meter hexes. This was a dual-purpose decision. First, military guys work primarily on maps with 1000-meter grid squares, so the mental conversions would be easier. Second, it allowed me to use my existing military maps to build my game maps.

The first draft of the counters had the four primary attributes of each unit arrayed on them. Damage was handled in two steps. The first step was limiting a unit’s actions on the battlefield. When a unit comes under fire, it generally stops movement and orients toward the direction of fire and tries to maneuver on the opponent. This step doesn’t necessarily inflict damage, per se, but it does reduce the overall combat ability of the unit. The second step was to actually eliminate part of the unit. A four-tank platoon who suffers casualties and fights on with only 2 tanks is less effective than a full-strength platoon. Working with these two concepts, I developed the idea of ‘stunned’ units and the mechanic of flipping over a counter when it takes damage.

With platoon-level counters, there were definite distinctions between big guns – tanks and ATGMs – and infantry weapons. Additionally, artillery was going to be a completely different animal. Out of this idea I developed the 3-line combat tables, with differing effects based on the type of weapon system in use. I also built in the ability of units with specific weapons – mortars, anti-air missiles – to fight in self-defense on a different line of the combat table, but at a reduced level of combat power. The combat tables included the various results for flipping, stunning, and killing counters, as well as the infantry forcing units to retreat from hexes.
After a test run or two, one of the guys (I think it was Andy) suggested the idea of frontal armor, which is a very relevant concept to tankers. After mulling it over and testing it with pen-and-ink changes to the first set of counters, I completely re-did the first countersheets to incorporate frontal armor on units for whom it was relevant.

Of course, after I had redesigned and reprinted several sheets of counters, we started to develop the zone of control rules for the game. I never liked the idea of zone of control the way it was portrayed in the old SPI games like the Modern Battles II series. Just because you come near a unit you have to stop? What if that unit doesn’t care if you stop? Or worse, what if that unit wants you to keep moving? There was an old game called Grav Armor that I played once, in about 1987, that had an interesting mechanic where one player moved while the other one fired. I liked that idea, and the tactical possibilities it opened up. That idea became the basis for how I built the zone of control rules.

Our zone of control is one that is situational. As a player, you choose to activate your ZOC. When a unit moves into your ZOC (which may be ranged up to 3 hexes, depending on the unit) you can stop its movement by firing at it. If you stop its movement in this manner, you are obligated to fire at it during combat. And thus a new ZOC system was born.

I built the rest of the game stats around the idea that a typical infantry platoon was the lowest common denominator of combat values, and calculated everything from there. Vehicles all have consistent movement values; M1 tanks move the same speed regardless who’s driving them. Ranges were handled the same way – TOW missiles have the same range regardless of who’s pulling the trigger. Ditto the armor values. I differentiated the quality of the units in two other areas: firepower, and ZOC. Some units have better gunners and faster loaders than others. Some infantry units are better than their peers. Some tank platoons consistently shoot better than others. These realities are captured in the variations of a unit’s firepower and ZOC numbers. I created a master matrix of “norms” and allowed for deviation from the norm so long as in the end, the total value balanced across all units of that type. ZOC was handled in a similar way. Some units have low or normal ZOCs. A few have long-range ZOCs; one unit can reach out and hit an opponent at 3000m, before that unit is even in range of return fire!

Fleshing Out the Game
While we had a system of moving and shooting, we didn’t have much of an initial set of combatants. We ended up going with Fort Irwin – the Army’s National Training Center – for a variety of reasons. First, our brigade had recently completed a rotation to Fort Irwin (Summer 2000) and it was still fresh in our minds. Second, we knew that if anyone caught us grabbing a quick game during some downtime at the armory, we could make a pretty good case for the training benefits of the game. But our most important reason was the third one: we had the orders of battle down cold. The OPFOR orbat is not a secret, but even so, to an outsider it’s tough to replicate in a countermix. However, I’d been stationed at Fort Irwin while I was on active duty, and having been in the OPFOR, I knew their organization and was able to build a good orbat for them. The US forces were easier. I based the original tank battalion on my old unit from California, and the infantry battalion call signs came from a battalion in Germany. These were later combined somewhat in the final W101 set that went to press.

Our original playtest map was a very large area created to look like somewhere in Germany. It is not based on a real map, so don’t go looking for “Gr√∂hlstadt” on a map. However, if we were selling the OPFOR and a US unit, I needed to go back to the NTC.

I stuck to the 1000m hexes, and gridded out a very large area of Fort Irwin. I also adapted the terrain rules a bit for the desert environment, and included the numbers on certain hilltops because that’s how everyone refers to the hills at Fort Irwin. Although it has no effect on the game (it’s only one hex) I made sure I included the “racetrack” on the map, since it is also a significant landmark that everyone knows at Fort Irwin.

The rules were written out and took up about 10 pages. I had some friends help with some heavy editing to get it to about 6, and then started working on which rules could be cut. I cut all of the advanced/optional rules from W101 except the ZOC rules. I took out the engineer rules, since I had removed the engineers from the countermix for now. I also removed he recon rules, since they didn’t seem as relevant with fewer recon units in the game. Some of the recon rules are still in place, like the intel requirements that count toward your victory conditions at the end of the game.

I ended up with just over 4 pages of rules, and that’s when the graphic designer in me took over and I was able to edit things down to 4 pages by shifting graphic sizes and typography. Overall, the rules had a colorful – almost garish – look to them, but by the time I was done editing I didn’t really care. I was sick of looking at those rules by then and left the colors to get updated down the line.

Finally, I needed to formalize the note-taking we’d done during our pickup games. Thus, the battle charts were born. These charts offered some additional flavor text on the units so gamers unfamiliar with the OPFOR or military call signs would gain some insight into the battlefield organization of a unit. The tacking charts on the flip side were designed to look like the synch matrices that are produced in volumes by every orders drill we do.

I wasn’t even done with the battle charts when the scenario idea hit me: operations orders. Rather than stick to the original scenario cards I’d written, which looked a lot like a Squad Leader card (hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best!) I decided to repackage them as Operations Orders, with the five paragraphs of an Army operations order, and a set of graphics guide the initial setup.

This proved very challenging. Army OPORDs are not about creativity and leeway in accomplishing missions, and it was hard to replicate an OPORD without tying the player’s hands to complete the mission using personal tactics. In the end, I think I tried to cram a little too much into the OPORDs to make them “realistic” instead of just introducing the scenarios and leaving the details out until later. Other than the outlandish colors in the rules, this is the one area of W101 I’m not 100% thrilled with. I fully intend to work out the bugs of the OPORD process before the next W101 set comes out.

Building the Sets
The first W101 set was dubbed “Movement to Contact,” since that’s a common battle at the NTC. The map was cropped down to focus on Hill 876, where many of those fights tend to take place. We did include part of the “German” map on the back, so players had something else to work with.
The production values of the first W101 set are not the greatest. There, I said it. I think it’s a great project for what it is: self-designed, self-published, and self-financed (with an assist on the money from my wife’s mother). We are fully intending to upgrade the production values for later releases, but until I pay mom back for this one, “future” releases will stay in the future. My wife and her sister spent a few days helping me hand-collate all the sets, and mount the counters. It was time-consuming, but there was no other affordable way to do it.

The Outcome
I am proud of the system and happy that it’s gotten such warm responses whenever I show it off. I am working on updating and revising the rules that were cut from the original set, specifically the recon and engineer rules, to add to future supplements. All of my rules are designed to be modular, so you can add them based on your preference. You do not need to add the recon rules to use the engineer rules, and vice versa. Later, I plan to develop a set of ‘battle command’ rules that have been germinating for several years, which will require the use of several other rules sets, but that’s a later project under the Maneuver Warrior moniker.

Additionally, I wanted to try and bridge the divide between wargamers and the military. Growing up with my dad in the military, there were a lot of wargamers to be found, especially from about 1977 to 1985 or so, when I can remember playing a lot of wargames. After 1985, though, it seemed as though the military gamers disappeared, and it was only the kids playing. Certainly the death of SPI hurt, but that couldn’t completely account for the drop in wargamers. By the time I joined the Army after college, in 1994, there were virtually no wargamers to be found. That’s where the inspiration for the battle charts and OPORDs came from. I wanted wargamers to get a greater level of authenticity (even it was purely cosmetic) than I saw in most commercial wargames. I wanted military guys to feel comfortable that although the system might be new – most training these days is computerized – they were still surrounded by familiar trappings.

The bottom line is that I created a game I wanted to play, and I was forced to create it because I couldn’t find something I enjoyed. Assault and Team Yankee came close, but they weren’t as elegant or playable as the original Squad Leader or PanzerBlitz. I recently read an online review of a very large WWII game, where the setup alone took 6 hours out of a weekend! I wanted a game that could be played 6 times in a weekend. I wanted to create a game where some friends could get together and take a few hours and play through the scenarios and enjoy a sociable game with a military theme. I think I’ve been able to do that. I just hope other people enjoy it, too.

By: Brant

1 comment:

Brian said...

I don't have the first W101 set, but I do have The Guards. I like what you've done here very much, and I wish you had more time to work on it!

You explained your rationale for 1000 m hexes; why didn't you just stay with 1000 m grid squares? Couldn't I just play this on an ordinary topo map? I know that the assumption for ranges is that the unit is in the centre of the hex, square, what have you, and that measuring the distance from centre to centre is 1.5 on the diagonal vs. 1.0 for an orthogonally adjacent square, but does that really matter? A tank platoon, actually most any platoon, would be dispersed over several hundred square metres inside that grid square, not clumped in its centre, and when we talk about ranges we are talking about effective ranges, not the proving-ground ones (this was the downfall of SPI's old Firefight game).

Anyway, thank you for designing these games!