I think it’s best for all creative types to have side interests, whether that’s cooking, or brewing beer, or anime, or comics, or what have you. For me, that side interest is history. I love it. The heroes, the villains, the war, the diplomacy, inventions, triumphs, and great sadness. All of it.
War, for better or worse, is a big aspect of history and something of incredible interest to me. It also makes for some really excellent board games, including Memoir ’44, Stratego, 1812: The Invasion of Canada, or the Conflict of Heroes series. I’ve been pining to create a war game for a really long time. Field Marshals is my entry into the war gaming space and I’m really excited by it. But, before I talk about what Field Marshals is, I want to write about my design process.
My initial big idea was to create a team-based game in which one player on each team focused on the strategic side of play and the others focused on the tactical side of play. Basically, a Secretary of War in his capital giving orders to his Generals to carry out. I failed to solve a few problems with this design, including:
- How to make the game fun with fewer than 4 players?
- How to limit player communication in a way that was interesting but not detrimental to the social, board game experience?
- How to not over-complicate things, but provide enough interesting things for each player role to do?
I moved away from this idea, which is for the best, as it turns out Richard Borg has already done this with Memoir ’44: Operation Overlord. My mother always told me to never compete with Richard Borg in war game design.
I also wanted to do something interesting with custom six-sided dice. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that this is one of my obsessions that always keeps getting knocked aside. Alas, I couldn’t quite figure out something compelling that other great games haven’t already done. One idea I had was to roll a number of dice and choose a number of them IN order to carry out some sort of dramatic battlefield maneuver. For example, inspired by Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, what if I played an Artillery die, then two Infantry die for an Infantry Charge (i.e. bombardment followed by massed infantry advance).
This idea was neat but again, I couldn’t get the overall battle system mechanic to gel. I tucked this idea away (which was smart, because it evolved into one of the coolest parts of the game).
For a while I was obsessed with strange components, like magnets and white boards. What if a player wrote out his orders on a white board and passed them to another player? What if I placed the arrow to indicate my advance and then…something? This was silly, but while scrounging for neat components I stumbled across this set of numbered wooden tokens at an Aaron’s Brothers Frame Store.
I became obsessed with these numbered tokens. One idea I had was that players would draw 3 tokens from a bag of 20 (numbered 1-20) and would use them sequentially to plan their turn. Marching into certain countries would require you play a token above or below a certain number. Same with Diplomacy or other things. So, I might play a 3 to march over the mountain pass, then a 10 to negotiate with an NPC country, then finally an 18 to battle my opponent.
I liked the element of planning in a sequence and of being allowed to do some things, but choosing which things to do was difficult. However, the system was somewhat inflexible and too gated on chance. I hated the idea of players having multiple turns pass where nothing happened.
Last week, I finally had a breakthrough, which is good, because in 5 months of thought it helps to have a breakthrough. I played several games of Dragonheart with friends. Dragonheart is a 5-10 minute 2 player game where you play cards from your hand to complete sets and collect cards to score. It’s a game about timing, gauging probability, and luck. It’s probably one of my favorite games.
I thought about how interesting it was to hold onto a pair of cards in the hopes of drawing the third to complete a set, or playing one card in hopes of an opponent not having the second one in his hand. It just makes sense and it’s compelling.
The other game I played was Nanuk, a highly social bluffing game about Alaskan hunters. The game reminded me that social gameplay is some of the deepest, most satisfying gameplay you can design. It also reminded me that in Risk, even though there are no rules about diplomacy and alliances, it’s one of the best parts of the game.
Player 1: “Hey, if you let me have Africa you can have Europe.”
Player 2: “Sure thing!”
Player 2: “Hey…what are you doing in North Africa with all those units?”
Player 1: “Those? Don’t mind those. I’m going west to Brazil, you see.”
Player 2: “Oh, sure, that makes sense.”
And, the next turn Player 1 sends 60 units into Europe.
Cards and probability…social gameplay…and those damn numbered tokens from before…eureka!
Field Marshals will be a game that plays 2-6 players, in about an hour, and without dice. The game will be based on a fictional continent that features the Manifest Destiny obsessed soverignties such as the Green Federation, the Gray Republik, the Rot Protectorate (rot = red in German), the Yellow Caliphate, and others.
It has a few really cool features I’m excited to share:
- All players draw a numbered token, which they keep secret. This will determine the player order when all tokens are revealed. You’ll need to plan based on when you think you’ll take your turn. Over time, the used tokens will be placed on the board so the probability of things will become more precise.
- Each player has his own deck of 30 cards which feature just a few types of cards: Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, the Emperor’s Own, a General, and Fog of War.
- On his turn, the player will play up to 4 cards from his hand. Cards let you add a certain number of Units to the board, but if you play a set of cards (i.e. 3 Cavalry) you an activate a powerful Tactic. There are 5 Tactics in the game that let you fight and maneuver more decisively.
- Battles are decided in a predictable way, however tactics and sudden reinforcements will shake things up a bit.
- Certain territories convey a bonus to the player or players in control of it. There are 6 bonuses, but only 3 are randomly selected and allocated each game.
- I’m hoping there’s some excellent backstabbing and negotiations that result.
Here are the current rules for Field Marshals. Please keep in mind the game is in progress and far from finished. Here is the current distribution of cards in the decks. You can also view my collection of visual reference on my Pinterest board.
I have only conducted a single test, though it went well. Here are the things that I will be refining and solving in the coming months as I continue to test and refine this game.
- The map or maps: I want this game to work with a wide number of players. I may need to create a variety of maps (like Smallworld), but I imagine refining the map will be the hardest thing I do. I completely re-designed it after the first test!
- Designing and creating reasons for players to negotiate. I think that tweaking the initiative token/card probability features will really tie into this.
Stay tuned as the game develops.