Interviews by an Optimist # 41 - Craig Besinque
- Interviews by an Optimist # 41 - Craig Besinque
Craig gives this info about himself...
"Age 58, live in New Denver BC, a small town in the middle of the
mountains of BC. We built our 3rd house here overlooking Slocan Lake.
Married, 2 kids Alex 18 and Sylvie 23, work as a school bus driver,
wife is a teacher.
Grew up in Arcadia Calif, BA Pomona College 1968. To Vancouver upon
graduation, worked a few years in electronics shop then a woodworking
shop. Moved to the country and lived a "back to the land" lifestyle
for many years, working mostly as a carpenter and school bus driver.
Other interests besides gaming: reading, music (play guitar in a
couple of local party bands), building & woodworking,
history/geography, politics/economics, physical sciences, playing golf
& tennis, camping & nature, following the NFL. Love good food, dark
beer, classic rock, the beach, John Le Carre and natural beauty."
Tom: Craig, can you tell us a little about the games you've designed?
Craig: I've been fooling around with game design since I first was
exposed to Avalon Hill games in the 60's.
As far as published games go, my first was Rommel in the Desert, which
was self-published with blessings and help from Tom Dalgliesh of Gamma
Two Games (the forerunner of Columbia). I first met Tom when I showed
him a tactical football game I had designed (which ironically used
wooden pieces). He wasn't really interested in sports games at that
point, but gave me a copy of Napoleon. I took it back home to the
Kootenays, and my friend Ronnie and I got completely hooked on it -
stayed up till dawn playing it at least once a week for a year. I have
played very few cardboard 2-player wargames since.
I had always wanted to do a Rommel game (it being such a great
strategy situation), and the block system was ideal for a game of
bluff and nerve, so Ronnie and I began developing a desert block game.
I proposed, and he disposed: I would come up with a scheme that I
thought would work, and Ronnie would demonstrate to me how it really
worked. Tweak and repeat. We made a good team that way: I was all
preconceptions and he had none. After a couple of years, we thought we
had it pretty together, so I approached Gamma Two about it; but at
that point they were not interested in wargames!!
Fortunately for me, another friend, Doug LeGood, was going back to
Vancouver to get back into the printing business. He showed me how to
produce 2-color pre-production artwork and offered getting the game
printed for cheap when the shop had nothing else going. Another
friend, Joan Young, did a nice 2-color cover, and that's what
happened. I sold it myself for a year or two until Tom offered to take
it over and "do it up right". But block games were not very well
respected back then, and it was a long struggle for acceptance,
resulting in a long lull before Columbia or I attempted another
wargame. [As you know, Rommel was just recently reprinted with all-new
artwork and a completely rewritten rulebook.]
EastFront came next. At first we tried to use a Rommel model, but
approaching publication, all of us agreed it had problems we couldn't
solve to our satisfaction. A major redesign occurred with Tom
contributing some crucial ideas, and the game was reconstructed in a
different form, which became the Front system. Of course at that time
we had no idea it would go that far (though I did have a WestFront map
sketched out enough to see it would be workable). It got a fantastic
reception (Alan Emrich was a major booster) and won several awards, so
WestFront was not far behind.
WestFront is viewed by most as the ugly little brother of EastFront
and has never been as popular. EastFront has such a great gaming
situation with the huge panzer breakthroughs and the summer/winter
back-and-forth. WestFront has more closed terrain and a more one-sided
situation. It has the tension of sea invasions and a great variety of
invasion possibilities, but the rules load is consequently heavier.
Nevertheless, a small minority including myself actually like
WestFront better than its older brother.
The two games could also be linked together to cover WW2 from '43 on.
This naturally led to MedFront and EuroFront, which filled out the
rest of the major theaters and years of the war in Europe. MedFront is
IMO very misunderstood. Among many BlockFront aficionados, the desert
game is highly prized as a quick and very challenging wargame. It was
very difficult to design a Rommel game at corps scale, and we
despaired at times but finally found something simple that worked
pretty well within the existing system. The Spanish Civil War, on the
other hand, came together almost magically, and some SCW buffs
consider it as accurate as anything out there.
EuroFront was a huge undertaking, but the most satisfying project to
me of all. We made a mistake in the first edition of including an
underdeveloped Free Game scenario that proved broken and poisoned the
experience of some. The historical game was pretty sound, though over
time gamers poked some holes in it too. MasterFront fixed the problems
and integrated all BlockFront system rules into one rulebook.
Currently I am working on Hellas, a strategic ancients game on the
Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which will be out this
summer. It is based on the Hammer of the Scots/Liberty system, with
provision for naval warfare and sieges. The design target is a
simpler, faster (12 page rules, 4 hours) but still high-quality game
with good period 'feel' on one of the more crucial military struggles
in western history.
Also nearly complete is EuroFront II, which finally incorporates
NorthFront (Scandinavia) and MidEastFront (Turkey and the Mideast)
into EuroFront. The MasterMap, which includes these areas in a
dedicated 48x76" EuroFront map, should also be ready for publication
Tom: You mentioned that "block games weren't well respected then..."
Any reason why, you think? And what changed matters?
Craig: We've talked about this a lot. Some of the factors may have been:
1) Early block games (Quebec, War of 1812, Napoleon) were a simpler
kind of wargame, and the hidden blocks were often characterized as
"Stratego-like." In the heyday of the SPI 'simulation' game, this
didn't come across well to wargamers.
2) Blocks were seen as 'toylike' compared to stacks of data-heavy
cardboard counters. Due to cost, block games had fewer game units than
gamers were used to. Due to block size, map resolution was coarser. It
was hard for gamers to believe that block games could be 'realistic.'
People were in love with data without realizing that the game system
actually has much more leverage on 'veracity'.
3) Gamers said they wanted limited intelligence, but when it came
right down to it, many were uncomfortable with partial intelligence in
practice. They like gaming better without a Fog of War.
4) Most people tend to stick with what they know. SPI was careful to
introduce new ideas in small increments, so that gamers already knew
most of each 'new' system that they introduced. Block games were
different in almost every respect, an alien species, with a
corresponding learning curve for those used to hex/counter/CRT games.
This made it more difficult for block aficionados to find opponents.
5) Cost. Block games are more expensive by nature. This forced
Columbia to emphasize physical quality overall: maps, labels, rules,
game boxes, etc. Cardboard games, in contrast, were almost throwaway
quality physically. To deliver value given expensive components,
Columbia's games had to be highly replayable, which meant great
development and strategic depth. But for a long time the gaming
mainstream could not credit this.
IMO, what finally changed things was EastFront winning 3 major
mainstream wargame awards in 1991 (CSR and Origins). Block games
gained credibility, and people were more willing to give them a try.
In addition, standard wargame mechanics had become pretty stale by
then, and the best game situations had been done to death. Block games
offered a new way to look at old battles. More people started to
appreciate what block games had to offer, and all the games benefited.
But even today many gamers have no time for block games. Different
strokes . .
Tom: What's the difference between a simulation and a war game?
Craig: Broadly, simulations model; wargames entertain. Simulations
purport to be accurate but do not have to be fun and wargames have to
be fun but do not purport to be accurate.
In practice, most of our hobby's simulation-wargames are a blend,
attempting both to some degree. It's a question of priorities for both
designers and gamers, because to a significant extent these goals are
contradictory, for example regarding "rules load". Other things being
equal, a game is better and more popular if the rules are simple. A
simulation, OTOH, attempts to mimic the historical movements and
interactions of military units on a map (and if it's good, also the
motivation of the actors). This inherently requires a complex system
with a lot of rules.
I would argue that there is actually a third gaming "dimension" to be
considered: strategy games (which aim to provoke deep strategic
thinking). Neither simulation games nor wargames necessarily aspire to
this. Simulations can be so tightly modeled after history that there
is little room for strategic maneuver: the optimum strategy is
programmed-in. Wargames are by definition strategy games, but can be
pretty shallow strategically (e.g., many computer wargames), depending
on combat and/or competition for interest. By strategy game I mean a
game meant to present a mentally demanding level of strategic
Columbia takes the attitude that first of all the games have to be
fun, but with strategic interest and historical value close behind,
say 40-30-30%. This fits with my profiles as a gamer. Abstract
wargames without historical reference are not that interesting to me.
Pure simulations are a lot more work, and have limited strategic
interest. They can show what happened in history but really only
demonstrate what the designer wishes to demonstrate. To me this is of
limited 'simulation' value because no game with perfect information
can simulate the reasons why decisions were made. Pure strategy games
(e.g., current Eurogames) are interesting to play, but not as
inherently interesting to me as a game with a real historical context.
To me, there are diminishing returns in going to an extreme in any of
these directions, and the ideal game is a balanced mix of the three.
Tom: What role does/should luck play in a war game? What are the
best methods for including random events?
Craig: To me the most important role of randomization is to "fuzzify"
the game system (in the sense of fuzzy logic). A game that is
completely deterministic (e.g. chess) is all contest and no adventure.
Now, I do not have the necessary mental rigor or discipline to be good
in chess, and that obviously colors my inclination, but to me a game
where nothing is certain is far more entertaining. Not only is
managing probability an interesting challenge, but it is also
certainly more in line with command reality.
Secondly, randomization adds play variety, which aids both game
tension and replayability (a high priority with Columbia, as
mentioned). For example, randomizing external events includes them in
the game while avoiding predictable timing.
And of course, combat in wargames really must be randomized for
simulation purposes. This is conventional wisdom, and I go along with
that. A side effect of this (as in real war) is that the best plan (or
the best general) does not necessarily win. I like this aspect,
because it gives everyone a chance to win, and because there is a
built-in excuse when your brilliant plan doesn't work out! It softens
the competitive edge to wargaming, which allows gamers to continue
playing with their game friends, which is a large part of the appeal,
Best Methods for Randomizing Events? Hmm, I'm not sure. My games use
dice, and Hellas will also have cards. EuroFront has Event tables. At
this point I would say that cards seem better to me for a more
game-oriented design, and dice/tables for more simulation oriented
designs, but my experience with cards is pretty limited so far.
Tom: Of all the games you've designed, which are you most pleased with?
Craig: Wow, that's a tough one, I'm pretty attached to them all. I
feel like a father that loves all his children equally, even if some
are more 'talented' (or less troublesome) than others. As a game,
EastFront is probably the most bang for the buck, rules wise. It kind
of magically worked without a lot of grief. Others, like MedFront,
were a lot of trouble, but I feel more pleased with them as a result
from a design point of view.
I think (based on the amount of energy I've put into it compared to
the external rewards) that I probably like EuroFront the best. It's
been a huge effort, and not the 'natural' that EastFront was; but
taking into consideration the ambitiousness of the concept, I'd have
to say it's the one I am most pleased with as a designer.
It's been a departure to try a simpler, quicker game, but I'm very
pleased with Hellas at this point. It's really minimalist, in that
with few units, everything really counts (which is a tougher design to
do). If we can bring a couple of rough spots into line, it has the
potential to become my favorite design. Simple is hard.
Tom: You said that EuroFront took some effort. Do you feel that
there are any famous battles/wars through history that are extremely
difficult/impossible to make a fun war game out of?
Craig: Definitely, lots. GulfWar 1&2, WWI/western front. I think it is
more the reverse: most battles/campaigns are not that interesting to
game, and relatively few are evenly balanced and strategically
interesting enough to make good games. Of course you can simulate even
the dirty little one sided drubbings, but it would be hard to make
them fun games. I also have a harder time with making modern wars
"fun": the tragedy is too close. Also, situations that are too static
are not fun to game.
WW2 in Europe is very gameable: important, balanced, and interesting
strategically. The difficulty with EuroFront was trying to adapt an
existing (EF) system to work in all the necessary situations, to
integrate and balance them all with each other, and to maintain
control over the incredible number of resulting strategic options.
Tom: How do you perceive the war game market currently? Is it
growing, or are computer simulations causing it to decline?
Craig: I only know what I hear: that it is slowly declining; that "new
blood" is not replacing "attrition losses". Gamers still active,
however, seem just as enthusiastic as ever, so I don't think the hobby
is going to go away. The increased pace and workload of modern life
has also taken its toll. I hear often from gamers that they "just
don't have the time" to do much gaming these days. Young people do,
but they are more into computer gaming.
I see a couple of reasons for optimism. One, our generation is
approaching retirement, and we should find increased time and energy
for gaming as our work life ends and a more hobby-oriented lifestyle
begins. Many gamers have mentally active jobs and gaming would fill
that niche in retirement. Two, at least some of the vast crowd of
younger gamers who are currently addicted to adrenaline-oriented
computer games may become more attracted to slower, deeper games as
they age. I hope so, anyway.
Tom: What do you think are good ways, and good games, to introduce a
younger generation to war gamers?
Craig: Teach them a fun, easy, interesting game! Hammer of the Scots
or Napoleon would be perfect choices IMO.
Tom: Sometimes wargamers have a very negative, antisocial stereotype with many
people. Do you think this nerd-like stereotype is deserving, and how
can wargamers (and all gamers, actually) change people's perception of
Craig: Hmm, most of my game friends seem pretty balanced to me. I
guess we'll just all have to pretend to be more normal! : )
Seriously, I think non-gamers may look askance at the energy and time
we put into wargaming, but IMO we are lucky to have such a passionate
interest in life; and if others do not understand it, so what? I guess
it is an antisocial pursuit in the sense that we would much prefer to
play games rather than chat about Brad and Jennifer or last night's
Survivor. I see no reason to be ashamed of that. But a balanced life
I take more seriously the reservations people have with our fixation
on war. Part of it IMO is serious historical interest, but part of it
is also atavistic. This one is harder to explain to people, but I
usually just say that interest in war does not make one a warmonger.
On the contrary, most wargamers are far more educated and thoughtful
than average on the subject of legitimate justifications for, and the
historical consequences of, wars. War is ugly, tragic and cruel, but I
think it is legitimate to say that people who take dogmatic pacifist
positions are pretty ignorant of history. Offensive war is never
legitimate, but it only takes one to tango.
Tom: What do you think are the most interesting battles in history
that don't have a good war game out about them?
Craig: My knowledge of history is too narrow to give a good answer to
that. I guess you'll get one sort of answer to that when I design my
next game . . . : )
Tom: Can you tell us about any games you are currently designing?
Craig: Well, Hellas, a game about the Peloponnesian War between Athens
and Sparta around 400 BC is getting pretty close to ready. It's a
simpler, faster Hammer-style game with 12 pages of rules and a 3-4
hour playing time. Like Hammer, it includes two major scenarios and
uses cards, but it is a step up in complexity from there, with land,
naval and siege warfare included. With only 28 blocks per side on a
large map, play is tight: everything really counts. In line with the
Classical Greek worldview, fate looms large, and random events buffet
the best-made plans.
I'm also working on the next expansion to EuroFront, which includes
both NorthFront (Scandinavia) and MidEastFront (Turkey and the
MidEast). It's also pretty much there, but we are going to release
MasterMap first, which is a dedicated 48'X76" EuroFront map, including
both the expansion areas. I will be previewing both these at
MonsterCon (ConsimWorld Expo/Phoenix) in early June. EuroFront
blockheads should check it out.
After that I will be reopening an old design that was very popular
with playtesters but had some problems that I think I know how to
solve now. I'd rather not mention any more on this right now.
I also have an NFL-style football game design kicking around that I
keep working on. I know there are lots of football games already, but
it's such a great strategy situation that I'd love to do a game on it
Tom: Do you think that sports simulation games are related to
wargames? Are they similar in feel when designing?
Craig: The games I am interested in doing are. The play-calling (and
play designing) aspect of football is similar in my mind to the
Columbia psychological perspective on military strategy. I would say I
approach the designs similarly.
Tom: Are there other types of games besides war and sports that
interest you as a designer?
Craig: I designed an economics/business game once, but it wasn't very
interesting. I'm open to any good game idea that comes to me, but so
far only those two subjects have been sufficiently compelling. There
has to be something inherently dramatic to justify the extra time and
effort of a 'simulation' type game.
Tom: What tips would you give to aspiring war game designers?
Craig: Do something new and different, and don't quit your day job. : )
Tom: Can you tell us about any common pitfalls that amateur designers
Craig: One good thing to keep in mind is "less is more." There is
always a temptation to add more detail and complexity, but in general,
simpler is better, at least for the kind of games I like. The market
seems to be going that way also.
Tom: About how much time goes into the development of a game from the
idea to the finished product?
Craig: From idea to print, maybe 2 years if things go well. As far as
man-hours go, don't ask . . . ; )
Tom: Where do you get the ideas for the historical settings behind each game?
Craig: My research mainly comes from books, including both military
and geographic atlases. Once in a while I use an internet source, but
not much. Then it's mainly a matter of trying to isolate the salient
factors that are gameable.
Tom: Do you think that war games are useful as teaching tools for
history, or are they merely best as games?
Craig: I think if a game is done right, it will have something to
teach about the historical reality. Books tell you what happened;
games can tell you what might have happened: a much broader and deeper
picture of the historical reality. Once you've "been there," you have
a much more sophisticated view of the chances and choices that were
part of the flow of history. That is why important historical
junctures that could have gone differently appeal most to me as design
projects. At the same time, these games take a lot of time and
concentrated energy to play, and if they aren't interesting and
relatively streamlined, it's more like work.
Tom: So trying to attach a historical value to most wargames would be
a mistake? Would a student get a distorted view?
Craig: No, that's not what I meant at all. I think most wargames do
aspire to some historical relevance and most succeed. But simulation
value is not a function of detail and data: a simulation system either
succeeds or fails as a whole, which means the system interactions of
the data are far more important than the data itself. It is easy to
design a game in which all the rules make sense individually, and the
data is great; but the game system works all wrong.
A simulation should play out with the historical movements and actions
occurring on the map, at least in some cases. Some simulations are so
didactic that any other course of action is sub-optimal, giving
players little room for maneuver and little replay interest. IMO a
good simulation should portray the viable alternative strategies (each
with a historically convincing chance of success), with the historical
progression being a sensible and logical alternative. At the highest
level, a simulation should also have the players considering similar
quandaries to their historical counterparts when making decisions
(trade-offs, timing, priorities, etc.), so that some understanding of
the thought processes of the historical actors is gained. Again IMO,
games with hidden intelligence offer far more opportunity for this
kind of simulation. Where all data is known, it is pretty impossible
to reflect this.
I think it must be kept in mind that game systems are mechanisms that
do what they do, which might or might not have simulation relevance.
It is not automatic. I think most designers are knowledgeable enough
that they try to design games with valid lessons, but as with
everything else, one should not be an undiscriminating consumer.
Tom: Craig, thanks for taking the time to do this interview! Do you
have any final thoughts or comments for our readers?
Craig: Yes. I believe quality recreation is important in life, and so
is following your "star" (deepest interests). Game design has been an
engrossing and fulfilling pursuit, and I feel happy and lucky to have
had it in my life.
"Real men play board games."