Holiday Re-run: The Making of Battle of the Bulge

Beating the odds.

“Anything is possible – but when do you want it is the important question.”

Owen’s on holiday this week. This feature is the second-part of a two-part interview with some of the folks from Shenandoah Studio, the makers of Battle of the Bulge — last year’s Wargame of the Year. This feature originally ran on February 8th.

Shenandoah’s Kickstarter for their next project, American Civil War tactical game Gettysburg: The Tide Turns, is fully funded and closing up in just a few hours. You might want to jump in there to nab some of the backer rewards before it’s too late.

Continuing on from yesterday, this is the second part of my interview with three of the men behind Shenandoah Studio‘s justly acclaimed iPad wargame Battle of the Bulge: lead developer David Dunham, producer and studio co-founder Jeff Dougherty, and art director Patrick Ward.

This last segment of our conversation goes behind the scenes on some of the design choices that Shenandoah made that led to their mechanically distinct wargame, as well as how they prepared the business case for it all.

You’ll learn why Battle of the Bulge doesn’t have hexes but does have a historical appendix, how Disney animation and King of Dragon Pass influenced the game’s development, and more – after the jump.

Owen Faraday: Bulge seems to have been quite a success – fair to say?

David Dunham: It’s sold pretty well, we’re really happy. And for having never been featured on the App Store by Apple, we think it’s amazing.

Jeff Dougherty: We’ve done great. But it’s also important to remember that strategy games on mobile are a niche market. Next to N.O.V.A. or Rage or Soul Calibur, we’re pretty small-fry I think. Gotta keep your sense of perspective.

OF: When I talked to JD McNeil last year he told me that he thought the hardest thing about selling to wargamers and strategy gamers is that there’s no market research for that niche. You’re just going with your gut all the time.

JD: We did a little market research. Can you estimate the size of the [wargaming] hobby by looking at how many people go to Board Game Geek every month? That sort of thing.

Nice couches.

The Shenandoah team debriefs in January after Battle of the Bulge launched.

DD: To some degree we are the market. We know the sorts of games we like to play and we’re making them. Though I guess we did do market research. One of the reasons for our Kickstarter campaign was to test the waters in an indirect way. Eric [Lee Smith, Shenandoah's CEO], when he was originally thinking about doing Kickstarter he wanted to go out for ten thousand dollars.

OF: You ultimately went for twenty.

JD: The idea was to set the goal low and hopefully over-fulfill it. [Shenandoah CFO] Nick Karp at the time made a great point and said set it to $20,000. Nick said, ‘If we can’t raise $20,000 then we need to sit back and rethink this whole thing.’

OF: And you made almost double that.

JD: To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t worried about us not making our goal. We wanted to test our assumptions, though. It was also helpful in convincing our investors to stick with us and to show them that we were on the right track to finish the game. It was the first piece of really objective proof that there are people out there that will pay money for this. We could then argue pretty convincingly that if there were 1100 people willing to pre-order the project from a new company, there should be a lot more people ready to buy it with immediate delivery.

OF: And there was a lot of elements to Battle of the Bulge that the man-hours for must have been tougher to sell to the investors. You’ve got that lovely historical appendix in there that isn’t part of the game at all.

DD: The baseline we were coming from is the classic, historical war-game – it’s not Risk with pretty pieces. We some had advisors saying that it would sell more copies because of the educational, historical component – something I flat-out disbelieve.

Patrick Ward: I remember opening an old PC game like Red Baron and when you opened up the box there was a thick book on the history of flight. It added so much value to the game.

OF: Right, that was the time when games came with proper manuals. So that’s what you were trying to emulate with the appendix and those historical touches – the feeling of opening a game box and having all of these peripheral goods that added to the experience.

JD: Yeah, it’s funny because I can’t even remember why or when that idea was first included in the game because it was sort of always there, going back to when it was just Eric and I at the company making these outlines two or three years ago. We just assumed that our target market is historical wargamers – or at least the core of our target market – and people who bought this game will be interested in the history, or may become interested in the history. People who are already history nerds like us will love it and people who get into it will appreciate it.

PW: I like the idea of learning through play. I have a 13-year-old son who’s doing history at school. When he’s playing war-games with me he seemed to pick up an awful lot and was more interested in what really happened. For me, at least, that’s an important aspect of what we do.

OF: But even still it seems to me that historicity was sacrificed were to make sure that the game played well and was fun. I don’t think I’ve ever had a proper slugfest over Bastogne in any of the games that I’ve played.

[collective sucking in of breath]

DD: Sure.. I mean, the map for example, has a lot of liberties taken with it. You can find many of the places on the way they are on a real map. They got moved, the units themselves got moved a little bit for balance.

JD: We did end up splitting up the 1st SS Panzer Corps a lot more than they were historically because otherwise it was just this 13-factor juggernaut of doom that would be on the Meuse River before the Allies could even slow it down. You think the combat command in Malmedy has it bad now..

“I remember a thick book on the history of flight that came with Red Baron. It added so much value to the game.”

DD: We want to give the illusion of historical-ness and tell the story of what happened. There’s this great book about the history of Disney animation called The Illusion of Life. If you actually look at how Disney animates characters frame-by-frame they’re totally unrealistic, but when you watch them moving on the screen they’re perfect. It’s the exaggeration for effect that makes the elements come to life.

So if we were completely historical it would be boring and nobody would learn anything. The Germans would lose every time.

OF: David – is that how you approached it, as telling a story as opposed to creating a history-themed combat sandbox? In the longer campaign especially you get the ebb and flow of the initial German advantage and then the reversal when their supplies dry up and they run out of commando raids – is that a little bit of your King of Dragon Pass user-driven story-telling coming through?

DD: Probably not directly, but we did want to give you the emotional feel of being subjected to a surprise attack as the Allies or that sense of being up against the wall when the Germans run out of gas. For just moving around counters, we put in as much story and emotion as we could.

OF: What’s on the cutting room floor that didn’t make it into the game?

DD: Uh-oh. Well, I’ve already apologised to Pat for one of them..

PW: There are a few things we had to cut. When you’re doing concept art you create things – intentionally – with no thought to how they’ll be produced. So I had planned out a huge review section, the end-of-campaign reward – about 60 to 75% of that got cut.

JD: There were going to be more statistics and more detail about what happened in the course of your battle, but when we showed that to David and Miguel [Nieves, senior developer at Shenandoah], they said ‘You want us to do what?’

DD: Well, we said ‘You want us to do what by when?’

[laughter]

JD: David has been training me as a producer. Anything is possible – but when do you want it by being the important question. There’s a certain tone of voice that David effects that I’ve learned to associate with, ‘You need to check your requirements.’

DD: There was a lot of game design that got cut, too. ‘All of the super-hardcore guys want fog of war’, for example.

OF: Fog of war would fundamentally change that game from the bottom up.

DD: It was just an optional rule? Not a big deal, right? [laughs]

JD: Fog of war was actually included in the original design document, with a little note saying ‘we can’t do this on a board, obviously, but we can test this when we get a computer prototype running.’ I keep that design document around just to laugh at it.

We are not a-Meuse-d.

“If we were completely historical it would be boring and nobody would learn anything. The Germans would lose every time.”

DD: Here’s a sneak preview of one thing we’re adding back in – the ability to continue a game after it’s been won. A lot of players asked for that.

OF: What you ended up with ultimately was a very polished video game but there’s nothing in there that you couldn’t replicate with a board game.

JD: That comes from our philosophy as a studio – we don’t want to make anything that we can’t test as a physical board game before it goes into production. If the game is bad, we can find out early in the board game stage and make whatever corrections we need before we write a line of code.

DD: Just because you’re making a computer game and you can add complexity.. you’re still dealing with human players who can only absorb so many rules so quickly. You can make a deep game without adding a lot of complexity.

JD: Testing things as board games instills a certain discipline in you because you can’t make a combat system so complicated that somebody can’t play it out manageably with dice and counters.

DD: We want to make an accessible game, one you can play with a significant other who isn’t necessarily a gamer.

JD: This is the Elise Test. [laughs]

DD: My wife was one of the playtesters – and a very useful one. She would never buy a wargame.

JD: We made changes based on Elise’s feedback. David was saying that we couldn’t just focus on our core audience, we had to consider their social groups.

DD: I brought a prototype of the game to Thanksgiving dinner and my brother-in-law and my nephew were playing it after dinner on one iPad. That was kinda cool.

OF: I did the same thing with my dad at Christmas. Do you think not having hexes made it more accessible?

DD: Yeah, definitely. People get turned off, visually, by hexes. They associate them with reading lots of rules and we would have lost customers.

OF: That’s interesting – so in some ways that was an image-driven decision. You didn’t want people seeing hexes on the App Store screenshots and jumping to conclusions about the game.

JD: I think that hexes are definitely associated with a certain type of game: lots of rules, lots of things to remember. Hexes kind of cause that. If you go with a hex grid, you’re dividing your map into all these equal segments – but not all terrain is made equally. If all your hexes are equal size, you have to make a series of terrain rules – how many movement points do you spend to cross a hex with a river? How many points to cross a hex in the rough? What about roads?

With area-based movement a lot of that goes away. If there’s a stretch of ground that’s easy to move across, you just make it a big area on the map.

OF: You have a lot of game concepts you’re kicking around for further down the road – you’ve been talking about them on your blog. So can we expect a greater volume of releases using that framework you’ve already built?

DD: Yes.

JD: Yes. Maybe. [laughs] We have a lot of stuff we want to do with the Bulge engine, assuming El Alamein does as well as Bulge did, and we have other things as well. But those are very early stage.

DD: We’re still a pretty small studio.

JD: Yeah. We have to be focused and disciplined. And we want to deliver on what we say we will. I’d rather be frustratingly Sphinx-like than promise the moon and not deliver on that.

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