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Interviews by an Optimist # 41 - Craig Besinque

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  • Tom Vasel
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30, 2005
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      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
      this summer.

      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,
      to me.

      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
      is best.

      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
      some day.

      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
      fall into?

      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.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games."
      May, 2005
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