Introducing Field Marshals

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 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.


Okay -- you have me with this one. I supported Farmageddon (a couple of times) and you know I was all fired up about the now-defunct "Up YOUR Missouri" ... but Poor Abby does not seem like my cup of tea.

But this ... this is right there on my table waiting for me to lose hours of time. :-)

As I tweeted to you, this has a number of similar elements to early takes on "Magistrate" (when it was first called "Uncivil") -- although I've removed just about all of those from that design. And it has a couple of things similar to what I hope to be doing with "Bellicose Islands".

I'll start by saying that I really think the level of simplicity you have here feels just about perfect ... but after a few rounds of testing and honing you may feel like you need to add-in a touch of spice.

Here are a couple of ideas that strike me off the bat from just reading through the rules (a half-dozen times):

1. 2 Actions per round instead of 1 ... The "draw a numbered token for turn order" is quite cool and I'm wondering if it wouldn't be even cooler to have each player draw 2 tokens each round and set down 2 actions to be taken with a central pool of cards to pick from. If so, then it would probably work best to have 3 actions available instead of 2: Maybe Reinforce would be its own action card in addition to March and Battle?

2. Hidden special power tokens, in addition to the "shared" ones now ... the hidden ones are randomly selected and placed face-down in either the same regions as the known/shared ones or in their own regions. Maybe even give 1 to each player to start. First player to set units in a region with a hidden token gets that token. Hidden tokens can only be used once -- reveal, use, discard from game.

3. A way to separate game-end condition from win condition. I always consider a way for the game to come to an end without knowing for sure if you're the winner. Sometimes it doesn't fit though: like Subtilla. And, since this one is also a "beat everyone else into submission" game -- perhaps it's not needed here either ... but it's always a thought for me in a more strategic game.

That's it for now ... I'd sure like to play this. There's starting to be more likelihood of me making a work-related trip out to the Bay Area in the not-too-terribly-distant future ... this would be a required item if that happens.


This is awesome stuff, Matt. I agree with you that the game might need a little more. I think as it stands the game would be fun for several plays, but it may need that twist to make it great for MANY plays.

Your idea for 2 Actions per player per round is excellent. I am absolutely going to try that. March, Battle, and Reinforce would be the three options and forcing players to choose between reinforce or Tactic could be incredibly compelling. Great suggestion, Matt.

I am absolutely not satisfied with the current win condition, but I wanted to nail the map layout and basic mechanics first. That's coming along well so I will put more thought into the end game.

Poor Abby won't be for everyone. I'm not sure I will be able to get a publisher excited for that one. Poor Abby is a deckbuilder, which you either love or don't care for. Although it has board game elements, it's definitely more of a card game and definitely a better 2 player experience. Poor Abby is basically my personal love letter to the deckbuilder genre and I'm not sure she'll ever be more than a free print and play. We'll see!

I've read through the rules about 1.5 times. You've got some interesting things going on here. I like the initiative mechanism and the tactics mechanism. I've only got one real suggestion at this point without having played the game, so I hope it isn't too off base.

If I read it right, Fog of War has no impact except bluffing, unless you combine them for a tactic. A more thematic way to implement this card would be to allow a FoW card to be replaced (if desired) by a card from the player's hand after cards are revealed. This would be especially interesting if you changed the costs of the tactics so that a FoW could morph a given set of played cards into more than one tactic (e.g. 3 cards are played, including a FoW, and the FoW could be swapped with either of the remaining 2 cards in hand to provide one of two different tactics). Also, it allows a player to save a good card (especially one-time use cards) if when their turn comes around it turns out they can get by without swapping out the FoW. I think heading down this path could yield more strategic potential for this game without adding much complexity. For it to really shine though, you'd need more tactics to choose from and more two- and three-card tactics.

I think expanding the tactics in this game may be a good idea anyway. One way to do this without making it too complex to remember all the tactics could be having two classes of tactics. Your current tactics require exact combos. You could expand the tactics by offering generic criteria for simpler tactics. For example, whenever two of the same card are played on the same turn, maybe it counts as an Intelligence tactic that lets the active player look at the top two cards of their deck and either return them in any order or put one at the bottom of the deck and the other back on top (super fun if they play 2 sets of doubles). Additional generic tactics could be triggered by playing 3 of the same card, 3 different cards, or a full house of 3 and 2. This also allows the same play to trigger multiple tactics.

Interesting stuff. I look forward to playing sometime!

Fog of War serves three purposes in the game:
1.) It gums up the player's deck, i.e. 5 of the 30 cards provide no value in Units or military superiority. You should have some hands when you don't have great stuff, which means you need to negotiate/bluff or plan for it.
2.) It can be used for the Tactic (and it's a really strong tactic at that).
3.) If you play it, you may bluff people (slightly) that you are playing more valuable cards.

Swapping the Fog for something else is interesting. I'll think on that and see if I can work it in. The upside is that you change the cards, the downside being you put the fog BACK into your hand and limit the better cards you may draw, so that's a compelling choice.

I don't want too many more Tactics, especially as there's only so much going on in the game. The tactics have already proven to be pretty decisive and in some events players get 2 Tactics in a turn and crazy stuff happens. It's pretty cool. That being said, every player will have a reference board with the Tactics listed, so I'm not worried about adding more as people won't need to remember them. Basically, all Tactics have a very specific purpose and value in the game right now. I only want to add additional Tactics if they too add value and purpose.

I don't have many 2 card Tactics precisely because I don't want them used every turn. One of the core choices in the game is "Do I play these cards now for their reinforcement value? Or do I hold onto it to hope I draw the card I need to complete the Tactic?" There's a bit of probability and luck that comes into play that leads to interesting gameplay.

Based on feedback from you, Matt, and my test group, I'm going to test the following changes:
1.) Players Play 2 of 3 Action cards on their turn before revealing the token. All players must do the Actions chosen and cannot change them.
2.) Action cards are Reinforce, March, and Battle.
3.) Players just pick which cards they play, but can change which cards they play from their hand when their turn comes around (so, you must pick which Actions to take, but not which cards to take for those Actions).

I'm really interesting in adding depth to the social mechanic, so finding ways to design the map and cards such that people are building fragile alliances is a big goal for me.