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Interviews by an Optimist # 25 - Jerry Taylor

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  • Tom Vasel
    Interviews by an Optimist # 25 - Jerry Taylor Jerry says this about himself... I am 41 years old and live in Alexandria, Virginia. My day job is director of
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 4, 2005
      Interviews by an Optimist # 25 - Jerry Taylor

      Jerry says this about himself...

      "I am 41 years old and live in Alexandria, Virginia. My "day job" is
      director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC
      (http://www.cato.org/people/taylor.html). In my free time, I enjoy my
      two-year old son, my lovely wife, gourmet cooking, skiing, chess, and, of
      course, wargames.

      I've been gaming since the mid-1970s. In the early years, Avalon Hill
      classics were my passion. I then had a brief fling with RPGs and then gave
      up on gaming altogether from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.

      Columbia Games' block designs brought me back. Eventually, I had a chance to
      meet CG's president, Tom Dalgliesh at a convention; and in the course of
      conversation, I suggested that the events depicted in the movie "Braveheart"
      would make a great game. "Sure they would - why don't you design it?" he
      asked. I think he was just trying to get rid of me, but from 1996 through
      2002, that's exactly what I did. The result was "Hammer of the Scots," the
      first game I ever designed. The second game in that line - "Crusader Rex,"
      which depicts the 3rd Crusade featuring Richard the Lionheart versus
      Saladin - will be out in a matter of months.

      Tom: Do you think that block designs are the best type of system for war
      games, and why or why not?

      Jerry: It depends upon the wargame: form must follow function. Blocks are
      very good at representing "the fog of war" and allow for an elegant means of
      tracking incremental unit losses. They are also more attractive than
      counters in my opinion, but that is of course subjective. There are,
      however, various ways that the same "fog of war" can be achieved with
      counters, and step-reduction with counters is also common enough.

      Blocks lose most of their utility when a LOT of units are called for
      (there's only so much wood you can put into a game), when the fog-of-war is
      minimal, and when you are designing a multi-player game (figuring out a way
      to slant blocks four or more ways on a board is awful tough).

      But "block games" have traditionally been about more than the wood. "Block
      games" have also tended to reflect a rather particular design philosophy -
      one that emphasizes elegant game mechanisms, easy to digest rules, and
      exciting play while seriously attempting to put the player in the same shoes
      as his historical counterpart. You can do all these things with counters, of
      course, but they are central to almost every block game design of which I am
      aware. They are only occasionally central to the design of modern
      counter-based games.

      Tom: If you were to list three things that must be present in a good
      wargame, what would you say?

      Jerry: It's a matter of taste and personal preference. For me, a good
      wargame must be fun to play, it must depict a dramatic struggle, it must be
      rich in tactical and/or strategic decision making, it should be reasonably
      balanced, it must be relatively easy to play without going to night-school
      to learn the rules, and it must do a decent job reflecting the real
      challenges faced by your historical counterpart. I know you asked for just
      three things, but those six things must be present for me to be interested
      in playing the game. All are equally important in my book.

      Tom: Can a good simulation be a good game, or vice versa? Are there
      wargames that you feel do too good of a job simulating, that they just
      aren't fun any more?

      Jerry: Sure, a good simulation can be a good game. But the key question is
      what are you simulating? Many wargames represent concerted efforts to model
      in detail this or that aspect of warfare. While those models may or may not
      be accurate (frankly, I'm skeptical that even the most detailed gaming model
      is particularly realistic), they often have little to do with simulating
      what you, as your historical counterpart, had to decide on the battlefield,
      or what you, as your historical commander, were really responsible for. A
      of games, for instance, "telescope" the player through various levels of the
      chain of command - which can be fun, no doubt - but have nothing to do with
      the decisions faced by your historical counterpart.

      The upshot of all this is that some games are concerned with presenting
      realistic models of this or that aspect of battle (artillery doctrine,
      weapons penetration, whatever) while other games are concerned with
      presenting a plausible simulation of what it might have been like to be your
      historical counterpart on the battlefield with all of the attendant
      uncertainty, fog of war, reliance upon the chain of command (perhaps
      competent, perhaps incompetent), and so forth.

      Tom: So you have no problem with drastic changes in history occurring in a
      war game?

      Jerry: I would have a problem if a game allowed players to do things their
      counterparts couldn't possibly hope to do historically. I would also have a
      problem if a game's mechanics failed to reflect in some reasonable manner
      the fundamental aspects of the things they are hoping to model. But I have
      no problem whatsoever with a game that allows "changes in history." After
      all, if ever a strategic level WW2 game were designed to channel players
      into the historical decisions of their counterparts and forced an historical
      resolution to those decisions, what would be the point of playing the game? You
      already know who's going to win, and how they're going to do it. Heck, just
      read a book!

      Tom: What about things that are possible, but something that one would
      have chosen to do? Like the Americans siding with Germany against the
      British in World War 2...

      Jerry: Well, that would certainly fall under the category of me having a
      problem with a game that allowed players to do things their historical
      counterparts "couldn't possibly hope to do historically," wouldn't it? I
      mean, even if FDR got drunk one night and wanted to declare war on the
      French and English right out of the blue, it's not as if he could get away
      with it politically, now could he? Now, if we are happy to accept wildly
      implausible alternative histories (like those provided in Totaller Krieg to
      randomize the alliances at the start of the game), that's OK as long as the
      game is advertised as an exercise in "what if" scenarios. And I think that
      can be a lot of fun. But sitting the American player down in a game of
      something like AH's "Third Reich" and telling him he can choose to join
      either the Axis or the Allies is simply ridiculous.

      Here's a better example of what I mean regarding the tension between
      strictly modeling historical events and producing a good game (as far as how
      I personally define a "good game" that is). It comes right out of a design
      quandary I faced when working on "Crusader Rex."

      During the 3rd Crusade, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa led a large army of
      Germans across Europe in order to do battle with Saladin. It stayed together
      for the most part until it reached an area north of Tarsus in southern
      Turkey. There, Frederick drowned while crossing a river, and the army more
      or less disintegrated.

      So what do you do as a game designer? The German army did not show up
      historically, so if you are going to strictly "model" the 3rd Crusade, you
      don't include that army in your force pool. But on the other hand, Saladin
      was so fearful of the approaching German army that he essentially wasted 18
      months preparing for their arrival when he could otherwise have perhaps
      finished off the last of the Frankish garrisons along the coast at Tyre and

      So if you take the Germans out of the force pool, you aren't necessarily
      creating a realistic simulation of the 3rd Crusades because you, as the
      Saracen general, will go into the game KNOWING that the Germans won't show
      up and KNOWING that you will have a free hand in Palestine that your
      historical counterpart - Saladin - did not believe he necessarily had.

      OK, so let's assume that we're persuaded to include the Germans for the
      overall sake of the simulation even with the understanding that we're
      "violating history" in a narrow sense by putting them into the game. We're
      going to want their entry to be uncertain in order to reflect the historical
      situation. But how much flexibility should we include? From what I can tell
      through my research, Barbarossa's army was so large and so capable that had
      it showed up en masse (or, in other words, had Frederick not drowned in
      southern Turkey), it would arguably have been capable of driving Saladin out
      of Palestine.

      But do we really want some random die roll (or its equivalent) to either
      deliver the Germans or not? The Christians will have a much easier time of
      it if they "win" that German entry roll but be against the ropes if they
      miss it. Personally, I'm not inclined to play a game where the winner will
      be substantially determined by some random event outside the influence of
      either player.

      So in "Crusader Rex," I made German entry likely but by no means a given, I
      made it random, and I toned-down Barbarossa's army so that it's probably not
      capable of single-handedly winning the war. I also designed "Crusader Rex"
      so that, if the Germans show up, there's less of a chance that the French or
      English will show up. None of these decisions was "historical" in a narrowly
      construed sense. But all of them are very arguably realistic from a broader
      perspective. That is, we can't put you in the shoes of your historical
      counterpart and have you face the uncertainties and decisions he had to face
      if we DON'T violate the historical A-B-Cs of what actually happened.

      Tom: Besides your own games, what other war games best portray this same

      Jerry: Well, all of games that Columbia Games has in the catalogue that I
      did not design are exactly what I'm shooting for in a game. There are also a
      number of traditional "hex & counter" games that manage it as well, although
      it's been so long since I've played them that I hesitate to name titles with
      authority. The card-driven games that recently hit the market like "Swords
      of Rome," "We the People," and "Hannibal" are in the ballpark. I also like
      the system pioneered in GMT's "Blue vs. Gray."

      Tom: Well, how about some games that do NOT "fit the bill", so to speak?

      Jerry: I'd rather not single out games for particular criticism. Suffice it
      so say that there are a large number of games out there that advertise
      themselves as being the most realistic thing to hit the block in ages but,
      when you think about it, are anything but. They are reality detailed
      modeling exercises that may or may not successfully model what they set out
      to model but fall very short as reasonable simulations of command.

      Tom: What do you think about the wargame market as a whole? Are computer
      games hurting the hobby?

      Jerry: I'm not sure - I design games; I don't market them. My sense is that
      wargaming competes with a huge range of entertainment mediums - computer
      games, Playstation-type games, Euro games, traditional board games, sports
      activities, Texas Hold 'Em, billiards, bowling - you name it. All I can say
      is that the wargaming market is only a fraction of what it once was. Isolating
      which of the many competitive alternatives to wargaming is most responsible
      for this is hard to say.

      Wargamers shouldn't overly obsess about this much-ballyhooed decline of
      their hobby, however. With the internet, it's easier than ever before to
      find opponents - and even play your favorite boardgame over the web. Game
      designs today are far better than they ever have been in the past. There's a
      thriving convention circuit. There's a plethora of good games to choose
      from. Publication rates continue to run strong. So what's not to like?

      Tom: You mentioned the internet as a good place for wargamers to meet
      together. What are the best sites for such a thing?

      Jerry: BGG and Consimworld!

      Tom: Interesting response. Many wargamer friends I have tend to look down
      on BGG, scoffing at its war game information as compared to ConsimWorld.
      Your thoughts on this?

      Jerry: Some wargamers look down at Euros - but from my experience, most
      don't - they play them as well. The bottom line is that there's a heck of a
      lot of traffic here at BGG - probably even more wargamer traffic than at
      ConsimWorld. The latter is the redoubt of the grognards. The former is the
      more general clubhouse. Tastes and preferences are different, of course, but
      one should fish where the fish is.

      Tom: Are there any good print magazines, etc., that wargamers who are
      interested can seek out?

      Jerry: I don't read many. Paper Wars is a good mag for reviews, but with
      the internet, review mags are slowly becoming obsolete.

      Tom: Are you currently working on any new war games?

      Jerry: The beginning of any new wargame design project is research. Towards
      that end, I am reading-up on the 100 Years War. I'd like to make that my
      next game and use the system developed for "Crusader Rex," but that will
      depend upon whether I think there would be a good game somewhere in those
      long-ago events featuring Edward IV ("The Black Prince"), Henry V, and Joan
      of Arc. I suspect so, but it's unclear. The main feature of those campaigns
      were relatively small English armies terrorizing the countryside in an
      attempt to shake support for the French crown and French armies sitting
      around hoping they could wait the English out. Hard to make a fun game out
      of that.

      Another game I've been researching of late surrounds the Guadalcanal
      campaign. A proper game would have to incorporate air, land, and sea
      elements in nearly equal proportions, but doing so without doing violence to
      the scale involved is difficult. Another possible way of getting at this
      campaign would be to "zoom out" a bit and do a game on the entire New Guinea
      / Solomons / Bismark Islands campaign in the South Pacific, which would
      start with the Japanese drive on Port Moresby, the battle of the Coral Sea,
      Guadalcanal, and the final U.S. drive to isolate Raubul.

      I'm also very interested in a new series of games where each player commands
      the equivalent of a WW2 division. Blocks would be company sized. Individual
      games in that series would feature one division of interest (for instance,
      "Old Breed" - the 1st Marine Division, or "Hell on Wheels," the U.S. 2nd
      Armored Division) and allow multiple scenarios to fight that division
      throughout the war. The series would be based on a simplified version of
      Victory Games' old "Panzer Command" system, which was a brilliant design but
      too complex and detailed for my tastes now, and would ultimately
      involve U.S., German, Russian, and British divisional games.

      Finally, the War of the Roses is probably the "holy grail" for the medieval
      system we've developed in HotS and CR. At some point, I'll definitely do
      that. The order in which I tackle these projects depends entirely upon what
      I discover in my research - the campaigns, which would seem to make the best
      games, will go first.

      Tom: For someone who is new to wargaming - say someone who has only ever
      played games on the level of Axis and Allies, with what war games would you
      recommend them to start?

      Jerry: Hammer of the Scots of course! That was my intent when I designed
      the game - to create a game that was a rich and challenging game experience
      that would appeal to both old-time wargamers and newcomers alike.

      Tom: And that is what many people on the 'net say. Nice to hear that you
      agree with them! What games introduced you to wargaming?

      Jerry: I first played AH's Tactics II. Then Stalingrad. And then, very
      quickly, PanzerBlitz, Anzio, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, 3rd Reich, Diplomacy,
      Luftwaffe, PanzerLeader, Blitzkreig, Russian Campaign and then - most
      everything out there. It didn't take me long after my first wargame to get

      Tom: Do you still think some of those original games that you've played,
      such as Tactics II, are still worth playing today? Or have they grown
      outdated with time?

      Jerry: No, most of those old games are hardly worth playing anymore.
      Compared with today's games, they are unrealistic and poorly designed. In
      almost every case, you can find a modern game on the same topic that will do
      a much, much better job with the subject.

      Tom: What is the role of dice (no pun intended) in a wargame? Or in other
      words, how much should luck play a factor?

      Jerry: It's a randomizer, which I generally favor, given how unpredictable
      combat can be as a general rule. But then again, my favorite board game is
      Chess, so one can play a game without randomized combat and still have a
      great time.

      In the games I've designed, I'm depicting medieval warfare, which was very,
      very unpredictable. To put the player in the shoes of his historical
      counterpart, you have to make combat a rather bloody, uncertain thing. Too
      much randomization, however, can bother many players, so I've had to strike
      a balance - as much randomization as I think players can stand. Luckily, the
      more randomization you have in a game, the more the luck factor tends to
      even out.

      But a lot of wargamers are control freaks, who are under the illusion that
      the guy with the "best plan" should and could win every campaign. And this
      brings me back to a point I made earlier - modeling systems so that players
      can, with study, fine-tune their battle plans and maximize their chances of
      success are, IMO, fundamentally unrealistic. The players simply know too
      much going in and too much about what's going on.

      Tom: Many people are in areas where they cannot find others who have the
      same interests as them when it comes to wargames. What advice would you have
      for these folk?

      Jerry: There are plenty of software programs out there that allow you to
      play your favorite boardgames over the internet. Most popular wargames will
      usually already have a module built for it, so you can start right up and
      play without the laborious task of creating your own custom module. Aide de
      Camp II, Cyberboard, and Vassal are the most popular. Most allow PBEM, but
      some (like Vassal) allow live play. ACTS and Above the Fields are also
      excellent programs for playing "Hammer of the Scots." Some cost money, but
      many are free.

      Tom: What about conventions? Are there any good ones you would recommend
      for wargamers?

      Jerry: The best wargame convention is probably the World Boardgaming
      in Baltimore, MD. But there are plenty of regional and game specialty
      conventions that are very good. You'll find all you need to know about them
      at ConsimWorld.

      Tom: From your opening biography, you indicate that Hammer of the Scots,
      arguably your most popular game, took six years to design. Can you tell us a
      little about the design process for that game?

      Jerry: In 1995 (I think) I found myself at the Origins Convention and made
      a point of meeting Tom Dalgliesh, president of Columbia Games, at the CG
      booth. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that the events
      surrounding the movie "Braveheart" would make an excellent block game. He
      agreed, but responded that there are lots of good ideas for games out there
      but not enough time to produce them all. "Why don't you design it?" he
      asked. Well, I had never designed a game in my life, but Tom said, "Look,
      just give it a shot, and I'll be happy to look it over once you are ready."

      In reality, I think he was just trying to get rid me! But I decided to give
      it a try and, four years later, I had a game to show him. I took HotS to
      various conventions for playtesting and publicity, and finally Tom agreed to
      sign a contract for it. It sat around CG's offices for about a year,
      however, until they decided to try to get it out the door in the summer of

      "Hammer" changed a lot from the time I submitted it, however, to the time is
      was published. It was originally a rather involved wargame with about 24
      pages of rules and all sorts of involved mechanisms. I thought it worked
      well and was rather historically accurate, but Tom said, "Nobody would want
      to play this - it takes too long and is too complicated." So he took the
      game, edited out a lot, and streamlined the rest and - that's the product
      that it is today.

      To give you an idea of what it was like prior to CG's changes, I shall quote
      from the opening paragraph of a review of "Hammer of the Scots," that was
      published in "Perfidious Albion," a fanzine published by Charles Vasey, a
      rather prominent game designer / developer / major domo in the industry: "I
      was fortunate to have play-tested the original version of this game which
      had a great deal of interesting medieval detail. Armies came and went to the
      beat of a different drummer in a very medieval fashion. Seldom has the
      pre-industrial State been so neatly summarized. However, Columbia Games in
      their infinite wisdom decided it was too complex and too clunky. They have
      instead reduced it in size and improved the simplicity of its game play. The
      result is however surprisingly historical in feel if not always in producing
      a believable progression of events. Columbia has begun to resemble the old
      Avalon Hill where game play and history resided in cohabitation. Jerry
      Taylor (the designer) was, I think, very worried about this process but the
      game has emerged with much intact, and a base upon which those who prefer
      complexity or more detail can build but accessible to the many who do not."

      Tom: It mentions that you were very worried about the final design process.
      Now that you're more experienced, is the design process quite so drastic?

      Jerry: No. "Crusader Rex" has been much smoother going. I learned a lot in
      the course of producing "Hammer."

      Tom: With the demise of Avalon Hill, many other companies sprang up to fill
      in the gap. What company's wargames do you think are doing the best to
      follow the AH legacy?

      Jerry: Following AH's legacy may not be the smartest thing - they did go
      under, after all, and made some horrific business decisions (passing on
      Magic, for instance, and showing zero interest in D&D when they probably
      could have had the franchise if they really wanted it).

      GMT now seems to dominate the market in about the same manner that AH once
      did, but they have a personality all their own. Like AH, however, they
      publish a wide range of games with all sorts of different styles. As far as
      their games are concerned vs. AH's games, you'd have to talk to someone
      who's played more of GMT's catalogue than I have.

      Tom: What about you as a designer? Do you work exclusively with Columbia,
      or are there other companies you'll design for?

      Jerry: Well, so far I've worked exclusively with Columbia. I have nothing
      against other game companies, though - many of which appear open about
      publishing block games now. CG has done a good job developing my designs so
      far and, as long as that remains the case, I don't see any reason to change.

      Tom: What would be your response to war gamers who don't like the block
      game mechanics - saying that the fog of war is unnecessary to games?

      Jerry: Fog of war is certainly more central to the affairs of some battles
      than they are in others. Much depends upon scale. Reading military history,
      however, demonstrates to me that your average wargame allows the player WAY
      too much information of all kinds (even letting him know the power of his
      OWN units is usually too much!).

      But these are just games, after all, and people play them for different
      reasons. BGG types strike me as people who play games because they want to
      have some fun. A number of wargamers, on the other hand, play games because
      they think that doing so allows them to learn something about history. If
      you are in the former camp and think that fog-of-war ala blocks is not as
      fun as having perfect knowledge, then who am I go argue with you? Tastes are
      subjective. If you are in the latter camp and think that fog-of-war ala
      blocks gets in the way of learning what you want to learn about history,
      then again, who am I to argue what you should or should not want to learn?
      If you are a competitive player in either camp who can't stand the
      possibility that random luck can make the guy who SHOULD win actually LOSE,
      then who am I to argue that you should play games with a lot of randomness?

      My only beef is that sometimes wargamers can cop an attitude when looking at
      a game that doesn't try to model activity at some insane level of detail and
      conclude that, because it does not, it is not a realistic game. That's
      nonsense. In fact - as a general rule - the LESS detail in wargames, the
      more realistic they are if by "realism" you mean realistically putting you
      in the shoes of your historical counterpart.

      Tom: Jerry, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview! Any
      final words for our readers?

      Jerry: Sure - go to the Columbia Games website and pre-order Crusader Rex,
      now, this very minute, and get a 10% discount with a full money-back
      guarantee. How's that?

      Tom Vasel

      April, 2005

      "Real men play board games."

      (For a complete listing of Interviews by an Optimist # 1- 25, go to

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