How I write Skirmish games: Perilous Tales designer’s diary
About six to eight months ago Mike Hutchinson (designer of Gaslands) showed me an idea that he had, a solo skirmish wargame called ‘Perilous Tales’. I checked it out, it was good fun, the AI system needed beefing up and it was fairly bare bones, but it was fun. Mostly it was something that Mike wrote for himself and wanted to share with me as a friend. Since then he’s kicked it around, shipped it around publishers a little (you’d think that the author of one of the biggest selling award winning tabletop miniatures game of the last few years would have their next idea snatched up, you’d be wrong) and published a stripped down version of it as a magazine article. It’s been available as a beta test for feedback ever since. With the current lockdown new normal that we’re all living in a solo tabletop game by a popular designer has started picking up its own head of steam with the community. Mike and I ended up having a conversation, I’ve had a couple of successful Kickstarters so I’ve put together illustrators, graphic designers, manufacturers and fulfilment. We put two and two together and we decided to put together our own full version of ‘Perilous Tales’, Kickstarter it and publish it ourselves.
Actually, we decided to find out if that was possible, because at the time of the conversation, we had no idea. Turns out, it totally is, so we’re doing it. You can do that sort of thing when you stride the industry like a colossus as it turns out.
At the moment we’re knocking the game into shape. The skeleton is solid and the concept is right, you know as soon as you see it that it should exist and you’d like to take a look at it. That’s sort of what I want to write about here, because I would never have come up with it myself in a million years, because its not how I come up with skirmish games. In explaining why that is I need to explain how I decide if a game is a skirmish game or not.
I’ve written before about what a skirmish game is and is not, in the terms that I mean them and what their purpose is on the tabletop. Terms and definitions constantly bleed into each other in the tabletop industry. A game where you build a deck is not necessarily a ‘deckbuilder’, a game where you rely on luck is certainly not a ‘push your luck’ game and if you can find a single term to define a game like Malifaux, Saga or Warmachine you’re a better man than I. Tabletop is too wide a term, Miniatures game now makes people more than likely think of Kingdom Death, Wildlands has taken the term ‘Skirmish game’ officially into the boxed game territory and Wargame has long belonged to a world of abstract tokens and hex maps. So, I started wondering how I would define a Skirmish game, the way I meant it, what single element was actually unique to them. After a bit of thinking I’ve started calling them ‘Measures and Minis’ games, at least to myself, and I invite everyone else to join in. This is because what the humble tape measure represents to miniatures wargames is something very fundamental, it’s about truly analogue play. I’ll explain that.
In a board game the choices are discrete, digital. If you’re playing Monopoly you can’t land halfway between Go and Old Kent Road, you always have to take clean and defined choices, even when you are taking a massive number of them and they all combine in a very complex way, they remain finite. In the sort of game I’m talking about there will always be a choice that is theoretically infinitely divisible. I can move my trooper up to 4”, and any of the infinitely divisible parts thereof, I can pivot up to 90 degrees, or any of the infinite range of degrees that can be divided into. That divisibility is most easily represented by the function of a tape measure, I’m not moving four spaces or five, or moving to a new section, I’m moving 2.6”, then turning around a wall, then moving 0.4” along it, then moving 1” along the other side. These are games that define a game space that can be applied to a huge range of play situations, terrain, miniatures, games that don’t base their rule set on what is in a box, or an expansion to it, but on giving their players freedom to build. A game that builds itself around a tape measure and a miniature is a game that offers truly analogue choices.
The issue is that freedom of choice can be a double-edged sword. Some games flourish with freedom, but if a game effectively only offers you a relatively limited level of choices then not packaging those choices in a way that is convenient to the players is just leaving them unsupported. Freedom to choose between a hundred options is worthwhile, being forced to build one of five realistic choices yourself is just lazy design.
You might question why I care to define games that specifically, and part of the reason is that I don’t always know what a game is going to be when I start to develop it. Sometimes it looks like a boxed game, sometimes it looks like a minis and measures game. Then I have two general rules. If a boxed game doesn’t need its components, doesn’t justify their inclusion, its not a boxed game. If a minis game doesn’t justify its choices, its not a minis and measures game.
My approach to this is a mechanical one. For a game to justify moving a mini across a set of terrain with a tape measure then I want to see that moving it around that terrain by divisions of a degree gives interesting and satisfying mechanical choices. I want to know that it will be an interesting intellectual challenge to a player to discover that a mini can ‘see’ through a particular angle, can gain advantage by heading over difficult terrain or use a location to their advantage. Which brings me to Perilous Tales.
Perilous Tales is a game which allows you to take any mini in your collection and tell a story with it. If you’ve got a handful of cultist models that rarely see the light of the tabletop or a big gribbly monster, or a cool looking investigator it will offer a world of stories to slot them into. For that matter, if you’ve ever seen a mini at a convention and thought that it looked good but you’d never have a game for it, then Perilous Tales has you covered. What this means is that rather than having mechanics that justify its breadth of choices, its breadth of choices is what means that it requires the flexible mechanics of a non-boxed game. I would never come at the design of a game like this. I can honestly say that I have never in my life bought a mini without having a specific game to play with it, and I’m very comfortable with the level of play that the minis I own get. Which is the advantage of having a writing partner that you respect, because Mike is the sort of person who loves a nice mini, he has in the past bought minis just because they look cool, and I have no doubt that he will in the future. He is also the sort of person who will then look at that cool mini on the shelf and care that it doesn’t have a game which justifies putting it on the tabletop. Without that perspective, Perilous Tales wouldn’t exist, and Perilous Tales is a very cool thing.
I don’t know that I could design a game from that perspective, I’m certainly not going to try to force it. I come up with a mechanical question, something that I think might be an interesting mechanic, and then I test it to see if it is interesting, or that the answer to the question is worth looking into. We all write how we write, and neither approach is right or wrong. Have you ever tried to write a game from a perspective outside of your normal approach? Which end do you tend to write things from, creating a world for your minis to exist in, building a set of mechanics that needs measures and minis to explain them? Or something else? And if anyone has taken a look at Perilous Tales, I’d love to hear from you and which mini in your collection you’re most excited at having face its own ripping pulp yarn.