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Friday, August 11, 2017

Interview with a Game Designer: Hail of Fire

I've always been fascinated by creative people. Rules designers, especially for war games, have intrigued me. I imagine these people as dungeon dwelling uber-number-crunchers who rarely see the light of day as they delve into the piles of historical annals and ancient writings (of warriors long dead) that surround their dingy and dank work space.

So, I set out on an email quest to find a few of these folks who are involved in writing WWII based games. I wanted to hear from them what their processes in designing are, and how they go about finding the right balance of rules in their designs.

First up, is an interview with Brandon Fraley, author of the independent rules system, Hail of Fire.  The answers and photos were provided by Brandon. I've edited them only for clarity, and to avoid redundancy.

Q: Who is Brandon? How long have you been wargaming? Favorite games?

I’m a recent transplant from California to Virginia, where I work as a Video Producer for a technology company. I’m also a filmmaker, musician, and, of course, full-time tabletop gamer.

I’ve been interested in wargaming for as long as I can remember. From the earliest days of my friends and I just playing with our action figures to starting to create simple rules for plastic green army men, and eventually designing and fabricating an [American Civil War] ACW board game in middle school (in hindsight, basically a poor Battlecry imitation).

Soon I discovered 40k and invested in an army, but our [Friendly Local Game Store] FLGS was not very friendly to new players. As a result, for several years my models stayed packed away. When I moved to San Francisco I was stunned at how many amazing games stores there were in the area. There I found Flames of War and didn't look back. I became a huge Flames fan and made a bunch of friends in the NorCal tourney circuit.

Since I’d begun a collection of WWII models, I started investigating loads of indie published stuff out there to try (this is also around the time my board games collection started exploding as well). Seeing how so many game designers approached the same ideas in such different ways was very exciting to me. Finding Crossfire by Arty Conliffe was a revelation. It’s still possibly my favorite set of wargames rules.

Q: Many gamers say, at some point, "I can write better rules than that!" but few even attempt to apply butt to chair and fingers to keyboards to write any rules. What prompted you to do just that?

I enjoy it! I wrote my own miniatures rules to play with green army men long before I ever played a published ruleset, and I’ve been tinkering ever since. I think there is a long tradition of rules writing and tinkering in our hobby, much longer than the new tradition of tight tournament rules. I thoroughly enjoy the exercise of choosing a narrative and then exploring and discovering the best relationships between various game mechanisms to portray that experience, all while trying to make the mechanical aspects as simple, yet elegant as possible.

Q: If you didn't cover it above: what voids did you see in the WWII game market that you wanted to fill?

The Hail Of Fire project, in particular, started out very different than it is today. Originally, my goal was to make “Flames Of War in 2 pages!” I had a lot of non-wargamer friends who I wanted to share my hobby with but didn’t want to overwhelm them with rules. It was very influenced by FUBAR, even stealing its presentation. I worked on that in spits and spats for a quite a while, maybe two years? But two things kept happening; 1) I kept wanting to add to or change aspects from Flames Of War, and 2) those new ideas were not working as well as I’d like.

In the weeks leading up to Historicon 2016, I was participating in a bunch of discussions on TMP about the concepts of fire and maneuver, suppressing fire, close assaults, and how all of these are recounted in reports and memoirs and represented in games, and I really wanted to find a different way to tell the story of how that plays out and how players’ decisions are affected by the game rules. By this time I was also a huge fan of Ivan Sorenson and his 5Core series of games, even confiding in him during our conversations that I wondered why I was even bothering when his game 5Core Company Command already existed. His response, by the way, was that he felt exactly the same way about Crossfire while designing 5CCC.

In 5CCC (which I highly recommend to any and all wargamers), when you roll-to-hit, you resolve the effect, but also leave the rolled hit-die by the targeted team as a marker. When that team next activates, the player picks up that die and rolls it again just as his opponent had done earlier, either generating a new hit result or resulting in a “miss” reflecting a rallied unit. I absolutely love this idea for its thematic depth and its simplicity.

But it also suggested the idea of delayed combat results, and I really wanted to explore making that idea possibly the key concept of my entire game. A game where the main idea is to remove the player’s “God’s Eye View” so instilled in our tradition of wargaming, and also while keeping the rules overhead as minimal as it can possibly be. This is reflected in the hidden action points, mid game deployment, hidden morale strength, and of course the delayed combat results system.I decided I was onto something different and much more exciting.

So in a risky move, I took the elements of the new rules that felt the most exciting and using those as the baseline, I more or less started from scratch with only a couple of weeks until Historicon. The new game featured an entirely new turn sequence, the "hero points", a new approach to unit cohesion, and, most importantly, the delayed combat results concept. All of which remain now mostly as they did in that first draft.

Q: Describe the first few days in the process of starting to pull the rules together? Was their writing then play-testing, or testing, then writing? How do you get from ideas in your head to the basic rules in written form?

To start with it’s all writing. Writing is easy when compared to prepping the space, the models, the terrain, and getting a buddy to play with you (I hate play-testing by myself and avoid it if possible). For the most part, you can imagine how all these things play out with rare exceptions. Of course, those exceptions are game halting, so the need to playtest is always there. I don’t think my experience is unique, but I go in thinking about the story I want to tell, how I want the fight to unfold in certain scenarios, and then I consider what different mechanical ways to represent that excite me the most.

I’ll state here that I never describe my game in whole or in part (or any other game) as “realistic.” Striving for realism is a fool's errand, first off because it’s impossible (as soon as you’ve included all the necessary variables, you’ve made it impossible to make decisions in anywhere near the amount of time a real commander would have), and secondly, because it wouldn’t be any fun. War is not fun, it’s horrible in every regard, and the less horrible parts are often the most boring. Rather than chase realism, I pursue a narrative.

My perspective and terminology might be influenced by my filming background (before moving to VA, I spent 10 years freelancing as a Cinematographer and Camera Op in California) as I tend to talk a lot about feel and narrative. So if the narrative you’ve chosen is as simple as “that enemy better be suppressed before you assault that house,” then fine. Whether you or anyone else deems that story “realistic” isn’t relevant, it’s the story that you want to tell. Now create the game that tells that story.

Q: When you were playtesting and tweaking the rules in the initial phase, what were some of the "that didn't work the way I thought it would..." moments?

In the original version, I had it so that in order to activate a unit, the player rolled, then modified the roll based on what percentage of the unit was suppressed. Failure in that activation resulted in a loss of initiative to the opponent. This never really worked the way I wanted it to. The result was that as a unit got shot up, it was far too risky to activate them and they basically became abandoned and fodder for the enemy to wipe out. I tried a few variations of this and it just never worked well within the other systems I had in place.

The same could be said, in a different way, about the assault rules that I had implemented in the re-designed version. It was meant to be very quick in how it resolved, with both players basically picking up all the dice generated in the fight and simultaneously rolling them and removing casualties. It was, however, a great "idea" that really only worked in very specific situations.

Most of the time an exception or two would pop up that my simple, fast mechanism really didn’t account for at all and really needed more rules to fully cover.

I finally decided to go with the current system (one that I’ve been discussing with playtesters for months) that doesn’t sound as fast on paper, and yet plays so much faster because it’s much more immediately understood and without nearly as many exceptions in game. You live and learn.

Q: Balance that with "Oh, Cool! Great Idea!" that you found to work into your game.

I love the emergent Fog of War that comes out of Crossfire’s very simple rules. Specifically how the non-phasing player can only react to the phasing player when they’re in line of sight. This means players can’t order their units to do things in response to an enemy’s actions those units wouldn’t be able to know about. Fog of War is represented in the game, without any additional rules doing the work. It is built into the turn sequence.

I had something similar (though not quite as impressive) happen when I was play-testing using the same delayed results system for vehicles that I’d been using for troops. I played out an exchange between tanks and one had been hit but didn’t blow up (one possible outcome), instead of receiving points to be resolved later.

I was immediately reminded of playing Advanced Squad Leader, where tanks can be hit but not blown up, taking several turns and rolls before revealing to the players that either the crew came back online (after fighting a fire maybe or possibly regaining consciousness) or the vehicle taking its time before brewing up. That, of course, all took many disparate rules to resolve in ASL, and I was giddy when the game revealed to me a similar story without me adding anything additional to the rules.

Q: As a game designer, in the two points above, what makes those moments? How do you tell a good rule concept for one that needs some tweaking?

First and foremost, I think it always goes back to “keep it simple.” Second, does it support your narrative? Finally, emergent gameplay, like the examples above, is (almost) always a sign of something really good.

Q: While you give some (for lack of better term) "Example Forces" you encourage players to pull from other historical gaming lists or create their own. How much attention did you pay to try to balance your rules with army lists from other games?

I already loved Flames of War so often used that for reference, designing for a game where the average size would be about 1000-1500 points in a game of Flames. I’ve also recently come up with a guide on translating Flames forces to HoF forces and used that to re-stat all the vehicles on my examples page. I’ll post the guide on the RetroBoom blog soon.

Q: What's next for Hail of Fire? Are you planning on working up a Forces or Scenario stat list? 

It’s still a work in progress, and fans will be well aware that it’s still evolving, with small tweaks coming out about every month. The good news is that everyone seems to think it’s improving as we go. I suspect we’re pretty close to the final core game. From there I’ve recruited a writer/editor and a graphic designer to help make something of a “deluxe” version with more optional rules for things like air attacks, snipers, minefields, more scenario types, etc. as well as more examples and diagrams to explain the rules.

It will be available for download as pdf for only a few dollars, as the goal has always been to make the game accessible for anyone who wants to play it, and I’ll keep updating the current version online as well, which will always be available for free. I’ve also had interest from writers to help create small, inexpensive pdf campaigns covering specific battles in WWII and introducing appropriate special rules and forces.

Q: How have you been getting the word out about your game? 

The nice thing is I enjoy playing the game and talking about it, which makes it easy to get the word out. I have a website and blog where I’ve shared AAR’s from players as well as posting my own. There's a Facebook page for RetroBoom, sharing news, blog posts, peoples AAR’s and pics from games. And the most enjoyable one is, of course, playing with people and hosting events in as many conventions as I can make it to.

Q: How can gamers find Hail of Fire? 

Retroboom website, or on Facebook, and on, where it’s been the most popular item on their "Free Stuff” section for almost a year.

Troy A. Hill is a recovering journalist, and recent transplant to Los Angeles, California. He's a long time gamer, and has played too many games to list. He even got to edit a D&D supplement for TSR back in the days of green computer monitors. He grumps a lot, especially before his second pot of coffee. If spotted in the wild you have an excellent chance to escape if you toss him bacon, or oatmeal-raisin cookies, and back away slowly while he's distracted.

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