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Friday, September 29, 2017

BattleGroup: An interview with the designer

With Warwick Kinrade. All photos courtesy of Ironfist Publishing.

I recently had a chance to correspond with Warwick Kinrade, primary creator of the Battlegroup rules system, published by Ironfist Publishing and The Plastic Soldier Company.

Photo: Piers (left) and Warwick (right) performing historical research for a period other than WWII.

Warwick is the main game designer behind Battlegroup. He's had help along the way from Piers Brand, the other half of the Ironfist Publishing force. In what I've learned is true "Piers Fashion" he deferred all of my questions about the game design of Battlegroup to Warwick.

1. Which of you is the genius (or to blame - either motivation works) for creating the game? A joint effort, or more one than the other?

WK: The game was created by me (Warwick). With some help from my main gaming opponents, but it's 99% my work, over about a 10 year period. Piers has helped out with the supplements.

Photo LEFT: Warwick (left) and Wil from PSC --  Photo RIGHT: Gaming the Battlegroup way.

2. What kind of backgrounds do you have in either military, historical research, or game design?

WK: My background is in games design and publishing, for 15 years for Games Workshop. My history background is nothing more than a long-standing interest in military history since I was kid really.

Photo LEFT: Piers Brand in his paint studio. Piers paints many of the miniatures in the Battlegroup books, as well as painting the minis pictured on the PSC boxes.  Photo RIGHT: In addition to designing the game, Warwick is also responsible for the vast majority of the images in the Battlegroup books.

3. Is IronFist publishing your baby? Does someone else own it, how did that come about?

WK: Ironfist was set-up as a joint venture between the Plastic Soldier Company and myself.

4. What's the connection between BG and PSC? Did they commission the rules set from you, or did you approach them?

WK: Will, at PSC, asked if they could publish my game. He wanted a WWII game and really liked BG and the ideas behind it. I was going to publish my own rules anyway, so we did a deal...

5. In your own words, what is different about BG compared to other historical WWII and later period games?
What kind of player does it attract? Is there much of a tourney scene, convention play, or just blokes in garages and game shops having a fun afternoon?

WK: It was designed for me to play really, so middle-aged, knowledgeable, historical wargamers. It's not an intro game, it’s not about getting youngsters into the hobby etc (although they are welcome to play), it’s for those gamers that are serious about their historical fun and want games to feel that way too. I have no interest in a tournament scene (although others could create one, I won't),

I’ve seen up close what that pressure does to games design and development when rules get written with tournaments in mind, and I am very wary. Pick-up play, for evenings and afternoons, is the heart of BG, although I like an accurate historical refight occasionally too. But even those pick-up games still need to feel very much ‘of their time and place’, with the right forces, right scenario, etc. No anachronisms are allowed here (if we get it right).

Compared to other WWII games, I think it looks and feels a lot more authentic, the history is at its heart, not just a backdrop. Hardwired into the game. A knowledge of combined arms tactics, how to deploy a heavy machine gun for best effect, how infantry and tanks must work together, helps. It isn’t a guarantee of victory though, as in the real world, things need to go your way too (in Battlegroup terms, dice rolls and counter draws). There is a level of unpredictability which is more entertaining than in other games, which seem very predictable, even with the dice rolls (you generally get an average across a game).

6. As you work on the various Battle Books, what kind of criteria are you using to work on list building for each nation's forces? Are you looking for pure historical accuracy? If so, how do you balance that with the rules system? When looking at the special "flavor" of each nation's army, how do you decide what characteristics fit both the national flavor, as well as the playablity within the game system? Especially to avoid meta-creep in the system?

WK: Historical accuracy is very high on the agenda, as is the variety of forces and lots of options in the lists, mostly to facilitate collecting and using different and interesting models. Ambulances, radio trucks, motorcycle dispatch riders etc, that they have a role on the tabletop, even just a very small one. Then you can collect one, and enjoy painting it up. You don’t need them though, they don’t replace the tanks and infantry, just support them (like in real life).

‘Game balance’ (which isn’t the same as a fair game) is less important, as the core system is designed to cope with a lot of stresses. As said, it’s not for tournament play. There is no way to build a ‘killer’ army. Most players find a balanced force will always do well, so a bit of infantry, tanks and artillery support.

I’m not interested in that kind of ‘what you take’ game (ala X-Wing et al), I'm more for ‘what you do with what you take. I don’t like killer-combos or ‘bankers’, nothing is guaranteed in BG. The Battle Rating system offers very diverse forces a level playing field. The points values get players in the right ballpark, but its the BR system on which the game balances, not the points. BR is a simple system, impossible (I think) to break with power gaming. I haven't seen anybody do it yet.

There can be no ‘meta-creep’ (what is this ugly term?) as there is no ‘meta’ for BG (as I understand the term), the game is designed to avoid the pitfalls of this currently dominant ‘model’ of wargames, which is, IMHO, mostly only commercially driven, not about a better game. Battlegroup comes from a different place. It’s not about the rules selling more miniatures to people. Instead, Battlegroup is about providing a better gaming experience with those models. My ultimate aim was to have cool models, well-painted, on good historical terrain, in a game that felt historically right (from my knowledge) and was still fun and dramatic to play. That is what I wanted from my free time - the best of wargaming.

7. You issued a reprint of the main rules with, what? three minor changes? As you progress with the various battle books, do you foresee any major additional to the rules? Major revisions?

WK: No revisions, no new editions, no big rules changes, the core game is strong and I have no interest in doing all the work again. I poured my heart and soul into these rules and gave it my all, to create the best WWII rules I could, that won’t happen again (not with WW2 anyway). The game is the one I want to play and, beyond a very few minor tweaks, it won’t be revised.

Such revisions are, again, a commercially driven idea from big companies that need the income from ‘new stuff’ - to sell rulebooks again and again. BG isn’t that. That’s not BG’s approach… This is the WWII game I shall play for the rest of gaming days (I hope). We’ll just do different theatres and time periods from within the war… they provide new interest and can feel like entirely new games anyway - if we get it right.

8. Of course, you've announced a NORTHAG rules set in the works. We should do a piece or two on that system when it comes out. But, for now, how close is that rules system to the WWII version of the rules set? Is the core system getting revamped (EG: FoW ver 3 moving to Team Yankee - two different beasts)? Or, are the two systems staying close to each other?

WK: NORTHAG is miles away from being done. Work has only just started. Ultimately, it still has to be Battlegroup, the rules won’t be drastically re-worked. They will be tweaked though, and in some ways, subtle changes can make big difference and produce a very different feel to the game, which is the aim with all BG supplements. It can’t just be WW2 with different tank models, that’s not the BG-way. It has to feel like a very different game, although the core rules don’t change. That’s the trick… and the tricky bit.

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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