When we evaluate a design submission, the first thing we do is take a look at the rules to get a sense of the thing. If it captures our interest, we then proceed to getting the game on the table.
I don't have hard numbers on this, but I'd hazard a guess that only about a third of the submissions that we turn down get to that second step. If we've taken the time to print up a copy of the game, or to ask the designer to go to the expense of sending us a playtest kit, then we think the game has something special and we want to see it in action. When it turns out that the designer's great ideas don't work in execution, that's really frustrating and disappointing. (True story: I once got so excited about a design in the "look at the rules" stage that I spent an hour or so putting together a mock-up of a box cover. But then I played the thing, and it just didn't work, at all. It was a nice cover, too!)
But two-thirds of the games we turn down don't get to that phase, because we don't see enough going on in the rules to warrant moving on to getting a copy of the game and getting it on the table. Now, I should say that sometimes when the rules don't look promising but don't look bad per se that we will tell the designer that we're probably not interested based on what we're seeing in the rules, but that we'd be willing to try to get the game on the table to see if we feel differently after we play it. Because there are games where the rules don't jump out at you, but the interplay of the rules, the map, and the pieces result in some delightful alchemy.
That being said, most of the games that we do end up publishing catch our attention at the "looking at the rules" stage and maintain it once we get it on the table. So we thought it might be useful if we were to highlight three of the things we look for when we look at a submission.
First, we look at the sequence of play, and more particularly, what you do on your go. Do we get a clear idea of how a turn works? Or is it a long list of steps and phases and procedures? In non-traditional wargames especially, we're looking at what kind of options are available to the player and what kind of trade-offs they have to make: we want to get an idea of the richness of the decision space.
We're generally looking for the spice. That doesn't mean that the Sequence of Play has to necessarily have spice. If the game is a matter of my move-combat followed by your move-combat, it just means we'll be looking elsewhere in the rules for that spice. That being said, while there's nothing wrong with plain ol' vanilla move-combat, there are more interesting options, and a designer might want to stop and think about whether or not one of those might be more appropriate. Just three examples off the top of my head: move or combat but not both (Blood in the Fog), you choose move-combat, combat-move, or combat-combat (Operation Unthinkable), and of course the venerable move-combat-move (Teutons!, but also such classics as Battle for Moscow).
The second thing we look at is how combat works. Are we rolling buckets of dice? Is there a CRT? Is the CRT based on an odds-ratio or strength differential, or is it something completely different?
I've used one odds-based CRT in my entire career as a game designer, and that was a game where I "played by the rules" almost as a dare, Von Moltke's Triumph. Even there though I tried to put some neat twists on it - the French rounded fractions up when attacking and the Germans rounded down, representing French advantages in technology and training. The French also had slightly higher combat factors for the same reason, which led one perspective publisher to turn his nose up at it. "Why are the French so strong on the attack? They got creamed during the war! This isn't historical!" But German numbers, maneuverability, and artillery prove to be far more decisive in play. (Which just highlights the limitation of evaluating a game without getting it on the table, which is why we'll sometimes tell a designer that we're not seeing it, but are willing to give it a go anyway in the hopes that we're wrong.)
In strategic-level games particularly I'm more fond of buckets-of-dice (such as in my own Supply Lines) and opposed, modified roll-offs (of the sort you see in Unhappy King Charles! and Washington's War). For battle level games, I myself have often used CRTs that eschew odds or strength differentials. For example, there's the Shields & Swords II series and its combat-class based die rolls, or the new Shot & Shell Battle Series that compares attack modifiers to defense rolls.
Above all what we're looking for here is a clear idea of how combat is resolved, what factors are modeled in that resolution, and what the consequences are. If each combat has fifteen steps, we're going to hope (1) that most of those steps are trivial, and (2) that combat is infrequent. The complexity of the combat should have an inverse relationship with the number of times that combat procedure must be performed.
But, you know, there are plenty of games that are move-combat games with odds-based CRTs that result in retreats, eliminations, and step losses, and there's nothing wrong with that. That brings us to the third aspect we look at, and in some ways, it is the most important.
That is the focus or focuses of the game. I recently listened to an interview with Mark Herman who said that the thing about James Dunnigan is that every one of his designs focused on maybe two or three things. Everything else fell away, and the game centered completely on those two or three aspects that he felt were the most decisive and important. It's what gave the games their point of view, their flavor, and their compelling simplicity.
The big problem with many submissions from first time designers is that they don't have that sense of focus. The heart of it, the core idea, it's just not there. So we're looking both for focus, in the sense that the design has and expresses a point of view and a personality that doesn't get lost amid a bunch of procedures, and we're looking for the focus in the sense of, "what is this game really about?"
Supply Lines of the American Revolution is about the American Revolution, but the focus of the game is supply and managing vulnerabilities. Plan 1919 is about as traditional as a wargame can get, but the focus of the game is on the potentially decisive advantages of tank and airpower. Everything in Plan 1919 is made to emphasize these advantages, or to provide the poor, beleaguered German side with ways to oppose them. The lack of ZOC in the game, for example, emphasizes the mobility of the tanks and makes breakthroughs both more likely and more dangerous.
Often the focus of the game influences the other two aspects we touched on - the Sequence of Play and the Combat resolution. This is one reason why we look at those aspects carefully. Two of Brian Train's designs are illustrative here. The Scheldt Campaign's entire play sequence foregrounds the staff chit mechanism that's the heart of the game and its focus. Ukrainian Crisis focuses on the delicate interplay of political, diplomatic, and geographic control; its combat system, which differentiates between kinetic and non-kinetic forms of "combat" depending on troop make-up, influences these different spheres.
A focus doesn't necessarily need to be specific to one particular game, but can be specific to a series. Ben Hull's excellent Musket & Pike series is a great example; its orders system nimbly models the command-control realities of the period, while its (admittedly somewhat fiddly) combination of Morale, Formation, and strength point Hits captures the rigors of combat and even movement. And again, here the focus manifests itself in both the Sequence of Play and the Combat system. To the point where, if I was a designer trying to sell a game with a vanilla Sequence of Play and a "normal" CRT, I would be thinking long and hard about whether or not I'm really thinking through my focal points and putting the emphasis where it belongs. No aspect exists in isolation, so why is it that those vital elements are remaining untouched?
But like I said before. A game doesn't absolutely need to have an innovative Sequence of Play or Combat system to get our attention. It does however need to have a focus, because without that, there's no life to it, nothing to grab you and make you want to get it on the table.