BUILDING SUPPLY LINES, PART 1 of 2 (by Tom Russell)


Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777: the only thing longer than its title is the time I've spent working on it. I started working on the game about seven years ago. As a result, the story behind the game, its genesis, and its evolution is something I remember only hazily, like the words to Greensleeves, or what I had for breakfast this morning. But here goes.

So, seven years ago, I had exactly zero published games to my name. At that time, I was mostly playing and designing Euro-style games. I had dipped my toe into the world of wargames, but that was mostly as a lark; at the time, I thought that it'd be something I'd dabble in, casual-like. As luck would have it, I was unable to get any of the Euro games to sell - some train games that I sold to Winsome being a wonderful exception - and it was the wargames that took off. And so I started putting all of my energy into that, and became a wargame designer who dabbles in train games. 

A lot of the things that held me back from succeeding with the Euro-style designs were things that actually made me a better fit for wargames. For example, a lot of Euro publishers, particularly the major ones, expect you to come and pitch the game to them at a convention. This is something I am manifestly terrible at. I generally clam up when there are a lot of people around, and when I get nervous, I tend to get flustered and to stammer rather severely. It doesn't make a great impression. Luckily, this is not an expectation that necessarily comes with wargames, as they're sufficiently complicated (at least, compared to Euro-style games) that no one expects you to have an elevator pitch ready. So much in Euro games depends on a clever move or a "big turn", while in most wargames, meaning is derived as an aggregate of various micro-decisions and phases.

banana game

One of Tom's Euro games, "Big Mike", all about the Gros Michel banana, aka Big Mike

A bigger problem with my Euro games is that they were very similar to everyone else's. As I've written elsewhere, my talents lie more in synthesis than in innovation. I'm better at taking bits and pieces of what others have done and rearranging them rather than coming up with anything brand new myself (though, hey, I do have my moments now and then). This kind of borrowing and building is par for the course with wargames, as the mechanics are, in the end, a way to deliver on the theme and the history behind that particular conflict. But in the Euro world, broadly if not entirely accurately speaking, the mechanics are everything. Who then would want to publish a game that played like something that was already on the market?

Now, to be clear, I wasn't just retheming existing Euro games. I was putting in the work, and doing some things that I thought, at the time, were interesting. I even had two or three new ideas. I think what the problem was, though, beyond my aforementioned tendency toward synthesis rather than innovation, is that I didn't fully explore what few new ideas I had - I didn't push them far enough.

This was in some ways a conscious decision. Before I got into board games, I had tried to make it as a filmmaker, a novelist, a cartoonist, a video game designer, and a politician. And while the stuff I did entertained myself, and a handful of others - even people who weren't related to me! - it never really reached a wider audience. I thought a big part of that was that my work was overly idiosyncratic and prone to digressions. Working in board games curbed this tendency, and turned another of my weaknesses - a sometimes overly schematic, systemic approach to narrative - into an asset. But I was very careful not to do anything too weird or "out-there", and like I said, I think this held me back and prevented me from being successful in the world of Euro-style games. (Though I think if I had been weird and out-there, I still would have belly-flopped as far as the Euros were concerned.)

And before you think that I forgot I was writing a designer diary for Supply Lines, let me assure you that all that hand-wringing actually comes into play in just a hop and a skip.

Anyway, there I am, aspiring Euro designer who dabbles in wargames, and I'm casting around for a topic with which to do said dabbling. Mary and I happened to be watching a documentary series about the American Revolution, and a passing mention of the ill-fated invasion of Canada, and especially Benedict Arnold's expedition, caught my interest. I thought, maybe there's a game in there.

Well, there wasn't - at least, not a game I could design, anyway. But during my research into that topic, I came across a wonderful little monograph called Redcoat Resupply by Major John A. Tokar. The money quote: "Nearly every time the British Army appeared ready to strike a blow... a shortage of reserve supplies and a lack of faith in resupply prevented action." Of course there is a great deal of difficulty inherent in supplying an army some three thousand miles from its mother country, but this was needlessly exacerbated by corruption and negligence. This realization - that the redcoats were just as hampered by supply issues as the colonials - struck me as something worth exploring as the primary focus of a wargame design.

map section

Section of the original Supply Lines map with plenty of spaces to store cubes. Tom and Mary played this again and again and again until Mary stopped breaking the game and Tom stopped changing the rules on Mary.

From the beginning, I wanted to take a somewhat abstract approach. My original design had no counters, just wooden bits - discs for the combat units, cubes in two colors for two kinds of supply. Food Supply allowed you to move your guys, and War Supply allowed you to fight with them. Specifically, War Supplies were expended to earn Battle Dice, on a 1:1 basis for defenders, and for attackers in open terrain, and on a 2:1 basis for attackers going after a defender in a City or Fort. Battle dice were rolled and hits were scored on a 1 or a 2. The side with the most Units remaining won the battle, but in a City or a Fort a losing defender had the opportunity to stand their ground provided they pass a morale check.

The British of course had certain advantages due to their discipline and training. When attacking a City or a Fort, the Brits rounded up (3 War Supplies = 2 dice). Attacking Brits scored a hit on a 3 as well as a 1 or a 2. The redcoats made one morale check upon being defeated, while the Americans had to make, and pass, two of them. For their part, the Americans were able to employ hit-and-run tactics.

All of these mechanisms remained more-or-less unchanged from the first prototype to the final product, as well as the general rules for generating, moving, and using the Supply cubes. And yet, so very much has changed in the interim. For example, the original version was played over the course of thirty one-month Game Turns. Each Game Turn consisted of a Supply Phase, three Movement Phases, a Battle Phase, and an Events Phase. During each of these three Movement Phases, each player could expend supply to move as many Units as they were able and willing to. Naturally, when Units from both sides ended up in the same location, a battle would be resolved during the Battle Phase.

event cards

During the Events Phase, each player had the opportunity to play one of five Event Cards with which they began the game. The Patriot Player, for example, could play Noble Train of Artillery to force the British out of Boston, while the Crown Player could use the New York Campaign to call in a tremendous influx of fresh troops. At the conclusion of the Events Phase, the Patriot Player would receive Reinforcements, from a fixed schedule printed directly on the map. The Patriot Player also had a couple of mandatory Event Cards which forced the Continental Army to disband at the end of each year.

The game was long, and somewhat stately, and there would be turns where both sides didn't do a whole lot of moving, instead squirreling away supplies in anticipation of making their big move. The Winter Turns, in which no supplies were generated, were especially notable for their inactivity. I didn't see this as a problem, however. It seemed like the game had a natural rhythm, alternating action and preparation, with more action being seen during the "campaign season", as was the case historically.

But when that action heated up, it was red hot. It was a very unforgiving game, a trait it maintains in its current version. If you made a mistake, and your opponent went for the jugular, that was it, you were finished. And so both players were constantly looking for those pressure points, even using provocative displays of weakness to set traps for their opponent. Getting caught in one of those traps was almost as much fun as springing one. Here was a perfect information game where deceit and deception were valid, crucial parts of successful strategy.

I thought I really had something special there, and that all the special stuff outweighed, and maybe even was a result of, the occasional lulls in the pacing. It was my slow, nerdy, challenging game about supply. Naturally I would be able to find a publisher for it tout de suite.

And I did find a publisher who was interested in the game, and who occupied a sort of a middle-ground between wargames and abstract-ish Euros. I sent off a copy of the game, and waited patiently on pins and needles. And waited, and waited, and waited. It was something like a year later when they finally got the game on the table. This was fairly typical for Euro-style publishers, and I thought it was typical for wargaming as well. (And, well, it is and it isn't; certainly we try to play a new submission within a couple of weeks, though with more complicated games it's sometimes been a couple of months. But part of that is having been in that spot myself, and wanting to spare other designers that same pain.)

Anyway, about a year later, the publisher has the game on the table. He called our house when I was at work with some questions about the game, and so when I got home, I called him back. Now, you know how I said part of the problem I had pitching my games to Euro publishers at conventions is that I sometimes have a pretty nasty stammer? I got on the phone with this guy and my stammer acted up right from the get-go. I think I spent a good five minutes trying to say "Hello, is this so-and-so?" I never quite got it out; the publisher, being more than a little irritated, snapped, "Yes, this is so-and-so, just tell me what you want."

Eventually I managed to introduce myself and to explain that I was returning his call. We talked for a few minutes - really, it felt like the extended attempts to say hello took longer - and I answered his questions. The gist of it was that they had been playing it correctly, they just thought that they weren't, that they must have been missing something, because the game was just kind of flat. I asked how many turns they had played, and he said they got through all the 1775 turns. "Well," I said, "those turns are slower, they're really just the set-up for what happens in 1776."


"Then you should start the game in 1776," he said. He went on to say that the game was just a little "weird" - the pace was weird, the mechanics were weird, everything was just weird.

It was frankly kind of devastating. I'm not the kind of guy who wears everything on his sleeve, or who takes every little thing to heart. Especially back then, I got rejected a lot. What was demoralizing about this particular rejection, however, was that the game was "weird" - idiosyncratic, eccentric, unmarketable. That, in effect, I was repeating the same mistakes that had held me back from succeeding as a filmmaker, novelist, et cetera, et cetera. And it made me think, well, maybe I haven't found my calling after all. Maybe I'm just deluding myself. Again.

That dark night of the soul didn't last too long. By the time the publisher had gotten back to me, my very first published game, Blood on the Alma, was just a few months from being produced, and John Bohrer at Winsome Games had agreed to publish the game that would become Northern Pacific. Alma was published in late 2012, Northern Pacific in 2013, followed by Irish Gauge, another Winsome title, in 2014. "One game coming out every year," I said to myself. "I'm doing alright. I maybe even know what I'm doing. I hope I can keep us this grueling pace!

Little did I know that 2015 would see eight of my designs released (including another Winsome), with another eight in 2016, with three of those released by our own company. During those two years, I became more comfortable with idiosyncrasies, at least to a point, and more confident in my abilities as a designer. I thought that there might be a way to rework Supply Lines, to retain all that was wonderful about it while downplaying or eliminating the elements that might make it a hard sell. And that process is what we're going to look at in part two.

See Part 2 of Building Supply Lines


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