BUILDING SUPPLY LINES, PART 2 of 2 (by Tom Russell)

So, when last we saw our plucky, nerdy hero, it was late 2015 and he and his amazing, wonderful, action-hero wife were preparing to start up their own company. With that thought in mind, and with renewed confidence in his abilities honed by a dozen or so subsequent published designs, he turned again to Supply Lines of the American Revolution. There is however another version of this story, which goes: 

"Hey, Tom?"

"Yes, Mary, oh heart of my heart?" 

"You're going to do Supply Lines, right? For our company? Because I really like it." 

"Maybe, my lily among the brambles. I..." 

"No, it's not a question. I'm telling you. You're doing it. Why isn't it done yet?" 

"I'm working on it, sweet empress of my soul." 

(Note: I definitely 100% talk like this 100% of the time. I am super-romancy. I am the King of Romance, and Mary can vouch for this. Mary? 

Mary: ...)

Anyway: Supply Lines. There were three things that I identified as major problems with the game. First, there was the pace: thirty turns were too many, especially when maybe a third of them were turns in which the players were just ramping up their supplies in anticipation of the campaign season. Secondly, the fixed reinforcement schedule for the Patriot Player led to gamey situations: oh, well, I guess I'll move all my guys to these three "random" cities and, oh gosh, does that block your reinforcements this turn? Thirdly, the current turn sequence - three Movement Phases followed by a Combat Phase - made it too easy to cut off lines of retreat (coordinating that many different moving parts should be more difficult) and too hard to refuse battle. So, the kind of cat-and-mouse feel was there in the original design, but in practice was rare.

The original design also suffered from being somewhat scripted. The Crown Player would usually hold up in Boston until the Patriot Player played his Noble Train of Artillery Card. He would then play the New York Campaign and come back to take New York. Once Boston was clear, the Patriot Player would play the Declaration of Independence, and in the next Winter Turn, he would play the Battle of Trenton to "unlock" hit-and-run skirmisher tactics. Coming into 1777, the Saratoga Campaign card would come out, and a column of troops would start making their way down from Canada.

And while elements of these should be present in the game, and while New York and Albany are really the linchpins holding the Patriot supply lines together, I definitely wanted the game to be more open-ended. And, again, it's not that the original design didn't allow for experimentation. It's just that the sequence of Event Cards didn't really encourage it.

So, in addition to solving my three major problems, I also wanted to open up the game a bit, while allowing the victory conditions to take care of the historicity. Rather than have a card that would force the British out of Boston, I wanted the natural mechanisms of the game to encourage the Crown Player to evacuate of his own accord - should the Patriot Player be interested in using them, anyway.

And while I wanted to make the game easier to understand and easier to play, in the sense of being more streamlined, I didn't want the game to be easier to play well. I still wanted something that was brutally unforgiving and cutthroat.

First Problem: Pacing

I knew thirty turns were too many. I needed to eliminate the "empty" turns while still giving players opportunities to squirrel away supplies in anticipation of major campaigning. The first target on my list were the original design's six winter turns - three for the winter of 75/76, and three for 76/77. Movement was limited in these turns, and no one produced any supply. I reduced this to one Winter Turn each.

This still left me with twenty-four turns ostensibly set during the Campaign Season. I decided that since each Winter Turn represented about three months, that each Campaign Turn should represent about two or three (without being overly concerned about which months the turn actually represented). This gave me four non-Winter Turns per year (two in 1775), for a grand total of twelve turns.

In theory, this would be more manageable, but it was going to depend on what form those turns took, and how much activity was permitted in each turn. This would partially be dictated by the Sequence of Play, and partially dictated by the number of Supply Cubes in the system. The latter could and would vary from turn to turn: while each City produces a defined number of supplies per turn, the number of Cities that would be able to do so in a given turn would depend on the players. So in Turn 1, you might have seven cities producing Supplies, while in Turn 2 you might have more, or less.

In the original design, with its one-month turns, each producing City produced one Food Supply, and specific Cities might also produce an additional cube of War Supply. That obviously wouldn't be appropriate for a game with only twelve turns. At first I tried assigning different production capacities to different Cities, but this level of granularity didn't feel right for the game, and I didn't really like it.

I then tried applying some simple mathematics to the problem. If, in the original design, a special City produced nine cubes each of Food and War Supply over the same period of time represented by four turns, then each city should produce two or three such cubes per turn. I tried it with three first, but there was way too much Food Supply in the system, too soon. In one game, the Americans were able to scoot a killer stack right up the row of Forts to Canada, right at the start of the game. Two seemed right for the Food, but there was still too much War Supply in the system, resulting in some epic battles during what should have been the more touch-and-go 1775 turns. I tried reducing those special, War Supply producing Cities down to one War Supply per Turn, but now there wasn't enough War Supply.

At this point, I started to get a little frustrated, because, you know, I had a thing that worked (the original design), at least in terms of the balance of the supply generation, and in trying to fix another element of the game, I had broken it, and couldn't seem to put it back together. This is what's wonderful and frustrating about my chosen vocation: every little thing touches every other little thing; nothing exists in isolation.

So I set it aside for a couple of weeks while I banged my head against the wall with my other problem child, Agricola, Master of Britain. When I came back to Supply Lines, the solution seemed obvious. There would be no more "special supply" Cities. Instead, each City would be capable of producing exactly two Food Supplies and one War Supply, up to its storage limit of eight (down from ten in the original design). This allowed for more War Supply than in the "special cities produce one War" version (which was too few), but less supply than the "special cities produce two War" version (which was too many).

So, here's the funny thing about all this: the reduction of the game from thirty to twelve turns, and the requisite goldilocksing of the supply generation, definitely and immeasurably improved the pace and the feel of the game. But the game still takes the same amount of time to play. The original version took about three hours if played to completion, and the finished version takes three hours. It's just the rhythm within that time that's changed, largely due to how I solved problemo numero threeo.

But, before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this one...

Second Problem: Reinforcements

As I mentioned previously, the original design had a fixed schedule of reinforcements for the Patriot Player that was printed right on the map, so both he and the Crown Player knew exactly how many Units were going to pop up and exactly where and when. Partially I wanted to avoid the gaminess that can come with that level of perfect information, and partially I had just soured on fixed reinforcements in wargaming in the years since. Implementing semi-random reinforcements wasn't a huge design hurdle - add a chit-pull cup, and you're pretty much good-to-go - but getting the pace of the reinforcements right was the major challenge.

You see, one of the things that hampered the colonials in these early years of the war was the fact that there existed some resistance to the idea of a standing professional army, resulting in short one-year enlistment periods for many volunteers. At the end of 1775, many soldiers went home, resulting in the creation of essentially a new Continental Army in 1776, which itself was dissolved at the end of that year. This of course was no way to win a war with the premiere military power in the world, and the men who joined the army in 1777 enlisted either for three years, or until the end of the conflict.

So, I needed a nice, organic way to front-load reinforcements when the new army was formed, while still allowing them to trickle in during subsequent turns. But I also needed those reinforcements to (1) be tied to the support among the populace for the colonial cause, and (2) be capped; the Continental Army was never very large.

I also needed a way to deal with the British Reinforcements which, you'll recall, were handled via the jettisoned Event Card mechanics. The idea behind each of those cards is that every time the Crown Player called for more men and supplies, the Parliament across the pond would have increased expectations of success, changing the victory conditions for the Crown Player. I liked this and wanted to keep it without getting into Event Cards and the like.

What I ended up with in the latter case was a Crown Reinforcements Track, which has four chits. Each chit corresponds to a certain number of Reinforcements, Supplies per Turn (generated in Nova Scotia), and the number of Victory Cities the Crown Player needs to possess at Game End in order to win the game.

But requesting these Reinforcements also has the added effect of bolstering support for the Patriot cause, as represented on the Patriot Support Track. This track, which was not present in the original design, has a marker which moves up and down according to the successes and setbacks experienced by the Patriot Player. If he pushes it half-way up the track, he Declares Independence. This basically prevents the marker from falling too far back along the track. If he pushes it all the way to the end of the track, to the Treaty of Alliance space, he has won French Support for the Patriot cause, and thus the game.

The current position of the marker on the track dictates the number of Reinforcement chits that the Patriot Player will pull at the end of the Game Turn. Each of these chits indicates a City where two Units may appear, provided that City is friendly or unoccupied. If the Crown occupies that City, it doesn't get Reinforcements that Turn. If the City is still Crown-occupied at the end of the next Winter Turn, that specific Reinforcement chit is removed from the game altogether. Also during the Winter Turn, after the Continental Army disbands, the Patriot Player pulls the indicated number of chits plus two.

With only thirteen chits in the mix, if the Patriot Player is even a little bit successful, there will be one or two turns in the 1776 game year in which he doesn't get reinforcements, as he'll have already pulled them all for that year. The game's final Winter Turn is also the last turn in which Reinforcements are received, so there is some definite pressure on the Patriot Player to put himself in a good position for the last four Campaign Turns.

Third Problem: Sequence of Play

The original game's Sequence of Play - again, a Supply Phase, followed by three Movement Phases, followed by a Battle Phase - was just a little too stately and procedural, and in retrospect worked against some of the game's stated aims. Or, to put it another way, the exciting stuff, the stuff that made the game really sing, happened in spite of that turn sequence, and not because of it. So I wanted to put something else in there that would emphasize the stuff I liked about the original design, jettison the stuff that was in its way, and would work to the benefit of the new twelve-turn time scale.

One of the things I liked about the original design is that it was somewhat chess-like: cerebral and abstract. So I thought it would be natural to extend that to the turn structure. In my new version, players would alternate activating a single stack of Units. You go, I go, you go, I go, until... until what? Until both players pass consecutively? I tried that, and it created a situation in which one player did all the passing while the other ran the board with impunity. Okay, so let's also have it end the turn when a certain number of "passes" have occurred.

At this time, I became acquainted, if only by reputation, with Eric Lee Smith's Civil War, which utilizes a die roll differential to determine the number of actions in a pulse, a concept that has shown up in a couple of recent designs. I didn't use that concept, per se, but the general idea got me thinking and resulted in the current Initiative mechanic that powers the game. At the start of each Turn, each player rolls a die. The highest result - not a differential as was the case in Smith's game - dictates where the Pass Marker is placed on the Pass Track, and the high roller goes first. If both players roll the same result, then the Pass Marker is automatically placed on the "5-6" space, and the tie is broken depending on whether or not Independence has been declared by the colonials. Each time someone passes, the marker slides down the track. When it gets to zero, or when both players pass consecutively, the turn ends.

Within that turn, the players alternate Impulses, which are usually used to move from one place to another. Marching into an enemy position will instigate a Battle. Technically, a Unit can be activated as many times in a turn as a player has supply. With early versions of this new turn sequence, Battles became quite numerous and there was a lot of back-and-forth. That didn't feel right, and so I needed a way to limit each side's capability to initiate combat. The addition of two to three Leader counters to a side, whose presence is generally required to start a fight, solved this problem. (Smaller Patriot "armies" can skirmish - hit-and-run - with or without a Leader.) It also gave the game a stronger historical flavor, as there's an incentive to track down an opposing Army (with Leader) and force them into a decisive conflict.

Some elements that were previously dealt with via Event Cards or special phases were folded into specific actions available to the players. For example, the Crown Player previously had a Burning of Falmouth card and a Shelling of Stonington card, which would be used to destroy those Cities, preventing them from generating Supply. Now, there's a general Destroy action they can use to target non-Victory Cities. Doing so will create further support for the enraged rebels, however - so it's an option that should be used with care.

Quite late in development of this new version, I became aware of a problem with the general passing mechanism. Originally, if neither player completed their Victory Conditions by game end, the Patriot Player would win by default. The problem is that the Patriot Player might just start passing every time he had an opportunity to do so, running down the clock. This was solved, easily enough, by removing the default victory altogether. Now, if neither player won, then neither player won. Three hours is a long time to play for a draw, so both players are encouraged to play for keeps as it were.


So, what did I end up with? It's still, at its core, a nerdy, cerebral game about supplies that punishes bad play and rewards good play. And many of the same elements from the original are present in the published version, but they've been folded into a more streamlined Sequence of Play that should make the game easier to learn, to teach, and to play. It's not going to be a game for every taste, but the end result removed as many obstacles to marketability as possible, while still being an unusual, idiosyncratic, and compelling design.

I hope you enjoy it.

See Part 1 of Building Supply Lines


1 comment

  • I learned about your game just recently from a fellow in our Montréal gaming group. I’m absolutely fascinated by your approach. I’ve had a lifelong yearning for the “perfect” Revolutionary War game. Washington’s War, Rebellion 1775 or Liberty or Death didn’t deliver what I’m looking for. Your seemingly abstract (or “weird”!) design delivers a very strong narrative. I can’t help to associate it with other “out of the beaten path” favorites such as Race to the Rhine, Wir Sind Das Volk and Polis. Also, as a game designer myself with a long in coming first title (Bayonets & Tomahawks), it’s very enlightening to learn about all the stages of your creative and development process for Supply lines. The wait will be long for my ordered copy! Best.

    Marc Rodrigue

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