Mary Russell

I've been listening a lot lately to David Dokter's podcast Guns, Dice, Butter, in which he presents "conversations with members of the wargaming tribe". Several of his interview subjects were designers and developers for Avalon Hill and/or SPI. (Several of the SPI folks tell a story about Jim Dunnigan casually asking an underperforming employee if he was planning on coming in tomorrow? "Yes." Don't bother, quoth Dunnigan; you're fired.)

One thing the illustrious Mr. Dokter mentions is a philosophical divide between the games produced by Avalon Hill and SPI. Avalon Hill designs were more about providing a balanced competitive experience - a high-stakes chess match between superior intellects. SPI games, on the other hand, were more about the experience and the story, more about immersing you in the history. And while this divide wasn't necessarily codified by either party, folks from Avalon Hill generally agreed with Dokter that their aim was to provide that balanced intellectual challenge, and folks from SPI (who are better-represented in the interviews I've listened to) generally agreed that the story and the experience held primacy for their designs.

And though neither company is still producing wargames (SPI is long-gone, and though some form of Avalon Hill remains, its function now is to reprint and retool vintage non-wargames like Acquire and Diplomacy), that divide still exists today. When I started designing, though I aimed for a reasonably competitive game, I was still very much in the SPI camp. This probably had something to do with the fact that one of my entry points into wargaming was Dunnigan's Complete Wargames Handbook, and was exacerbated by my love of lopsided battles, which often make the best stories.

My first wargame, Blood on the Alma, was just such a lopsided conflict, with the Anglo-French favored to win over their Russian adversaries, and plenty of chrome-y rules that came together to tell the fascinating story of the Battle of the Alma. While Russian victory was possible - I had done it myself multiple times throughout playtesting - it was more difficult, requiring greater care. Given the factors being modeled, and the general philosophy of wargame design I had absorbed from reading Dunnigan, this seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. So I was surprised by some folks who complained about the difficulties inherent in the Russian position, and who felt that the game wasn't properly balanced - that is, that it didn't provide a 50/50 balance. After all, the history didn't provide a 50/50 balance, so why should the game?

At the same time though, the game was never a steamroller. While there were factors that favored the Anglo-French, there were viable Russian strategies that could result in victory. Alma had a strong timing element as well: the longer the game went on, the more the Anglo-French advantages would compound, eventually becoming decisive. The Russian Player therefore needed to win the game before that happened. There's a similar element in my Crimea follow-up Blood in the Fog, though there the Russians start with advantages that will disintegrate over time while inversely, Anglo-French advantages grow.

That sort of timing element is really compelling to me, which you probably know already, since I seem to mention it four times every week. It's something that's becoming increasingly important in my designs and in how I think about games. I'm also quite enamored of games where tempo factors highly, and fragile games where the slightest mistake can give your opponent the win. A game like Supply Lines or Optimates et Populares can either be very, very close, or a one-sided blow-out, depending on whether or not both players are equal in skill or cunning.

And that, to me, sounds very much like the Avalon Hill tradition of providing a supreme intellectual challenge, a cutthroat arena in which to demonstrate your mastery over your opponent, and gloat at his misfortune.

So, in which camp do I fall? Both, probably. As far as the history goes, I'm primarily interested in differences in technology, doctrine, and command structure, especially when those factors were decisive. But I simultaneously want to produce tense, taut, thrilling games in which both players must strive to maintain an uneasy balance between boldness and safety, where pressing your advantage leaves you supremely vulnerable. More and more, the games I design, the games I want to play, and the games I want to publish bridge the gap between these two traditions.


  • Hi Mike. Honestly, it varies. I did a game on the Franco-Prussian War, and the French have no way of winning the war, but can win the game by “losing less badly” and putting up more of a fight. That was necessary because for that particular game, and the factors that were being simulated, there was no way for the French to win. Whereas in my Inkerman game for Hollandspiele, Blood in the Fog, the Russian victory conditions are basically what the Russians would’ve had to accomplish to meet their own military goals, and to win the battle.

    Tom Russell

  • Interesting take, Tom.

    Do you ever (I have ordered your games, I have not played them yet) just mess with the victory conditions to “Balance” the game? Each side doesn’t have to win the battle in order to win the game. Or do you find that sort of balancing unnecessary? meaning, if you are looking for that sort of balance, maybe you should be playing a different game.


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