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How To Begin Designing Skirmish Games


I’ve vaguely suggested in the past how get started on the path to writing skirmish games, but it occurred to me that while I’ve laid out a path on how to write a game, I haven’t said anything about what to do before that. As such I thought it might be useful to set out a little set of exercises with some directions to help people learn the ropes of becoming a skirmish game developer/designer. If you are interested in writing skirmish games you’re lucky because the rules are so much more modular and easy to tinker with than the most mod-able boardgame, however, step one is not to just write your own game.



Step One – Check-self prior to wreck-self


The very earliest step I can suggest is to do some internal checks. You might think you’d like to write a skirmish game, I think I’d like to write a novel, but I wouldn’t. There are some pre-dispositions that you should probably have and already be doing that are so minor that they don’t deserve their own step, but are worth a quick checklist:


· Do you play skirmish games on a regular basis?

· Have you read the rules sets of at least 5 different skirmish games?

· Have you read at least one set of rules that you recognise to be objectively bad?

· Do you regularly play the alternate versions, scenarios and campaigns of the skirmish games you regularly play?

· Do you understand/obsess over meta advantage and game breaking?

· When a game needs minor tweaks while playing, do you always end up making the tweaks?


If the answer to one or more of these questions is no, try changing it to yes and seeing if you still think you want to write your own. For the ones that you can’t seem to change, they might be signs that you lack some of the inherent inclination for some of the crunchier parts of game design. That can be overcome, in fact if you answered no to some of those questions you probably then know the guy in the group who answers yes. Welcome to collaboration.


The last one is the closest we can get to an actual exercise in this step, but if you’re struggling to answer it, try this. If your regular skirmish game has set rules for 2 players, imagine that a third person is at club and doesn’t have an opponent, and tweak the rules to include them fairly. If it has a set table size or shape, imagine that you’re stuck on a table smaller or weirdly shaped and re-write the rules for deployment and objective placement to remain fair and practicable. For many club gamers playing pick-up with random group numbers on pokey tables probably means that they’ve already done this sort of design tinkering themselves but if you’re lucky enough to always have played on 6’ by 4’s with friends who come in two by two, it’s a good exercise to start with.


You’ve mastered this step if you’ve managed to take a game designed for even numbers and tinkered it until you can play with an odd number of separate factions and no one suffers from being piggy in the middle or gets stranded out of the action.



Step Two – Scenario bashing


After step one you should be aware of some of the issues with tinkering numbers and deployment zones in scenarios, and you should be fairly comfortable with your own chosen system. Step two is to design your own entire scenario for your existing system. This is useful because it will teach you how games are paced (and that they are paced), also how to create rules that are accessible to a gamer at the table and how to work in the constraints of an existing system. You need to follow a few rules for your scenario:


· It needs to do something clearly distinct from the pre-existing scenarios for your chosen system, not just the same objectives re-mixed.

· It needs to have a clear background logic and have an understandable story, not just have people doing tactically interesting things just because.

· It cannot have more than three new rules or rules exceptions. Standard steps done in a new way are fine, such as, deploy in corners not table edges, but not new units or effects.


Then play the scenario with someone at a game night. Explain it to them once, at the table, as you would any other scenario that you’d just picked to play. Even better if you can wordlessly hand it to a couple of other players and have them play it. You have failed if:


· The scenario breaks. This is usually in something like victory conditions or game end conditions where you realise that your scenario never ends, or is best won by someone flinging all their troops off a cliff.

· Players say something to the effect of “Oh, I didn’t realise that” about a rule or effect more than once during the game. If they have to look up a rules interaction between your scenario and the main rules more than once during the game.

· If you were playing and the other player feels they could never win because they didn’t know the scenario as well as you.


You’ve mastered this step if people start to put your scenario into the normal rotation of games.



Step Three – Kit bashing


This is the step that most skirmish gamers took for their earliest foray into writing rules. Generally, they sit at home, writing a character or unit or some such for their own army, squad or team and them turn up with it to a friend’s game, only to be told that its horribly overpowered and no one would ever play against it. Which is often correct, or that its insanely complex, which is also often correct. Those naysayers were right and helpful by the way.


Well, you’ve moved on since then, so its time to write an upgrade, new unit or new character for your chosen system, but this time we’re going to do it right. Pick one of those three, or the appropriate equivalent for your system, and write a new one, in the game’s standard format. Couple of rules here:


· It shouldn’t be longer than the average entry of its type in the pre-existing system. Certainly not longer than the longest entry of its type.

· It shouldn’t do something that the factions its for doesn’t do. If the faction it goes into has no other shooting troops, it can’t shoot, for example. It also shouldn’t be the most x of its type in its faction, so not the fastest, or the most damaging for example.


Then offer this new element to other players at your local club or game night. You are not allowed to use it, ever. You have failed if:


· No one wants to use it.

· No one wants to play against it.


The most important thing here is to create something that you’d be okay playing against, but that people want to use. Doing one or the other is easy, doing both at once is what’s tricky.


You’ve mastered this if people actively ask you to write more.



Step Four – Master the Force


Much the same as step three, but on a bigger scale. Take your chosen system and write a new faction, alternate army list, sponsor or such like. It should:


· Use mostly pre-existing elements. This is partly because otherwise you’ve got no chance of having someone use it, but its not out of character for systems such as an alternative army list or faction.

· Do something that no other faction or army list does, while making sense in the universe of the system. So, a medieval force that uses palisades to gain cover bonuses that they can control is fine, one that uses teleporters is not.

· It needs to have a story of who the force is that matches the way that it plays, not just be a disparate group of forces with tactically interesting abilities.


Then offer it to other gamers. Again, you’ve failed if:


· No one wants to use it.

· No one wants to play against it.


Remember, you’re not writing for yourself here, you’re writing to get a player of a given system to be interested enough to pick up your force, and for reasons other than just crushing their enemies. Don’t be ashamed of writing a force that you know will lure in one of your friends, that’s just writing to a brief. If Frank always wanted to be able to use shadow magic with his high elves, feel free to figure out how that would work and do it.


It can be tricky to get people to use an entire alternate codex that you’ve written in an actual game, so you can take people’s word for it on this one. To be honest, if someone actually turns up unbidden with an army based on your faction and plays it and their opponent enjoys the game, you’ve mastered this one.



Step Five – Oh it’s a long road


Write a Campaign. I’ve written an entire blog on this, it’s a bit of a holy grail here, so just do your best. So, a campaign, a series of linking games to be played. It needs to have:


· A system to allow at least 4 players to play at least 4 linked games.

· A system to allow and measure the progress of at least one part of a force (it can be just a hero or a single unit).

· A manner of deciding an overall winner.


You’ve failed if:


· No one wants to start the campaign.


You’ve mastered this if everyone finishes your campaign. I know that sounds like a low bar but trust me, its not. The problems of foregone winners and avalanching are absolute bastards, if you get even 50% of your starting players to run out your campaign you’re doing well

Introductory course over:


There you have it, if you’ve completed all of these steps you’ve learnt everything you can without writing a full system. But on the up-side you’ve learnt to write to a brief, pace a game, create rules that are concise in the real word while avoiding contradictions and balance forces, which should stand you in good stead.

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