Saratoga 1777 AD is a part of a series of games from Turning Point Simulations that portray various battles highlighted in the book 20 Decisive Battles of the World written by Sir Edward Creasy but later edited and updated by Colonel Joseph Mitchell to include more modern battles such as Vicksburg, Sadowa, the Marne, Midway and Stalingrad. We have played Saratoga and find it to be a very enjoyable and rich simulation of the issues inherent in 16th century warfare, including communication, fog of war, command and control and morale. After playing the game, I wanted to get inside the head of the designer Robert Markham and get greater insight into the thoughts behind the design.  Robert was very willing to talk with us and I appreciate his great insight.

Grant: Robert tell us a little about yourself. What is your day job? How did you get into board game design? What games do you play when you aren’t designing?

Robert: I’m retired from teaching history after 37 years. I really enjoyed it and used simulations in the classroom. I created a course called Military History that centered around learning through games that I enjoyed very much, but when I retired, I was ready to move on. Currently, I have 2 radio shows that I do weekly – one on popular music from the 70’s and 80’s (Two Dudes Two Decades) and the other (Shout Brother Shout) covers current releases in the roots Americana genre. I report to Living Blues radio charts, while my partner, Brian Mulvihill, reports to the Roots Charts. We pretty much cover the whole field of released music in our genres. If you are ever interested in hearing it, you can check it out on the net by typing in WXCI and following the directions. The shows are on Monday 7am to 9:30am EST, and on Tuesday 5pm to 8:30pm EST.

Of course, I still game twice a week. Monday nights, I have a group of 5-7 people who come to my house for gaming. We play a wide range of games, but currently the OCS titles are popular (Sicily II and Tunisia II have seen significant time on the table, as has Hexasim’s Austerlitz). The Line of Battle series also has been a hit. In two player games, I have really enjoyed the Wing Leader series and any of the Flying Colors games, as well as the War Storm Series and Old School Tactical. Solitaire, I play the OSG Nappy battle games. I really enjoy the wide spread of the types of Nappy battles covered. Ben Hull’s Musket and Pike series is also one of my favorite solitaire games.

Grant: What do you love most about design? What is your greatest challenge?

Robert: I love to do research and my usual starting point is to accumulate as much information as possible, whether by buying or through inter-library loan. Then I sit back and read. I usually have a notebook within reach to jot down any ideas I get while reading. Once I’ve done that, I look through the notes and start paring down the ideas to a manageable few, while at the same time deciding on the focus of the game. My greatest challenge is to find that balance between game and history. I try not to straightjacket players, but at the same time give them chances to change history.

Grant: What games or designers have influenced your designs?

Robert: The biggest influence has been Frank Chadwick. I have always liked the elegance of his designs, as well as the clarity of his design narrative. His rules writing style also fits me perfectly. When I read his rules, I can readily visualize what he means. There are others I’ve been influenced by, such as Kevin Zucker and Joe Balkoski. Jim Dunnigan also had an early influence with his prolific designs. It seemed like every time I turned around there was a new Dunnigan design for at least a decade.

Grant: What is your design philosophy?

Robert: My design philosophy is to make my games as simple to play as I can, and as accurate as I can. I decide on what the key issues were and create a narrative that is instructive on these points. When doing a design, I try not to have too many sub-systems. Elegance in design is not ignoring the history of the subject, and not obfuscating the focus of the game with a series of tables and die rolls that should be built into the system. Unfortunately, some people equate covering everything with realism, when I just consider it poor design. I also think bigger games should be simpler games, not more complex. Of course, those are my preferences, and I’m sure there are many people who enjoy thirty or forty subsystems and turns that take three or four hours.

“Elegance in design is not ignoring the history of the subject, and not obfuscating the focus of the game with a series of tables and die rolls that should be built into the system. Unfortunately, some people equate covering everything with realism, when I just consider it poor design.”

Grant: How did you come to be connected with Turning Point Simulations and how did you get the gig of designing Saratoga?

Robert: I’ve known Steve Rawlings for a long time. We’ve spent many a convention talking game production at his booth at Origins or WBC. When Steve was starting to put together designers and battles for the Turning Point project, I was at an Origins and Steve asked if I had any interest in doing the battles that were left. I chose Saratoga and Valmy. I’ve always been interested in the American Revolution and the French Revolution, so the choices were easy. Saratoga took about a year to fall into place, while Valmy turned out to be the most difficult design that I’ve ever undertaken. On Saratoga, I was lucky to get Jim Werbanth as the developer. He did an excellent job. In fact, I was really impressed with the developers that Steve assigned to my designs. Both Jim and Paul Rohrbaugh (developer of Valmy) were very professional and diligent in their approach to the games.

Grant: What is Saratoga 1777 AD about and why do you think it was included as one of the twenty most decisive battles of history?

Robert: Without this battle, there would probably be no United States and there would have been no French Revolution. When the British lost at Saratoga, it impressed the French enough to send troops to America along with enough credit to continue the war. The French navy and army changed the war, and added legitimacy to the rebels that they might not have had with the international community if the French had not become such active supporters. Of course, they became such supporters that they almost bankrupted their own country, which ended in a direct cause of the French Revolution. Important? You bet.

Grant: What is the battle of Saratoga and what battles does the game cover?

Robert: Saratoga was the battle between the British troops of Burgoyne and the rebel troops of the Americans under General Gates. The game covers both Bemis Heights and Freeman’s Farm.

Grant: What were your design challenges and opportunities with this game?

Robert: The design centers on command control, troop quality, and morale. To make the design work, you have to balance a professional army and its slightly below average commander verses a raw citizen army with one poor leader and one very good leader and sketchy morale. The British (the professional army) are at the disadvantage because of the terrain the battle is fought in, which favors the side on the defensive. What I strive to do in that situation is to find a way to balance the scenario so that it is balanced as a game. Morale and command are two ways to even the playing field. The British forces had marched down from Canada and had found out that the original plan had not been followed by the other two forces, which were to advance from the south and west toward Albany. Their morale was low, which helps to balance the troops a bit. Quality of the leaders also balances things a bit.

Grant: What was the impetus for Command Span and Activation Range? How based in history was this decision?

Robert: Command Span and Activation Range were both put in to give players a more realistic idea of the range of control that the command structure of the time might have. It gives the player a restriction on where units may function normally, rather than allow the players to treat the troops like they are 21st century troops. They have both been used for many decades in designs and is a good solution for the period.

Grant: How important are leaders in Saratoga? I notice Arnold is better than Gates. Why wasn’t he in charge?

Robert: Leaders are very important to the game. For one thing, they are the central focus of the formation by the use of their Command Span. Secondly, the commanders have Activation Ratings that determine how many subordinate leaders may be used in a game turn. Arnold was by far the best leader in the game, but the weakest, Gates, had the command of the Rebel forces. The “why” of that choice was the politics of the time. Gates had the support of many delegates to the Continental Congress, while Arnold, whose personality was rash and rough, had little. Gates had some dreams about replacing Washington, but fortunately little came of that, even though he was given the initial credit for the victory at Saratoga. Arnold would be highly offended. He had rode up and “borrowed” Gates’s army, leading the rebels to victory.

Grant: How did you design in elements of the fog of war?

Robert: By use of the activation process, the players can never totally predict what the active units in a turn will be. This means that neither side can predict what the opposing commander will definitely do. It adds some confusion to the battlefield. This effect has been used for a while in design and has proven to be a fairly effective way to deal with this aspect. More importantly, it can be used to explain in a simple direct way that most gamers can use. That is always an aim of my designs. The other side of the mechanism is not being able to examine your opponents stack and not being forced to show the units when being attacked by non-adjacent units. That has been a house rule on our Monday night gaming sessions for years and avoids the time consuming process of counting defense strengths to juggle the number of attacking units to get the right odds. I’ve always hated that games-man-ship.

Saratoga Morale TrackGrant: How does the Morale Track work? Why was this important to include in the design?

Robert: The Morale Track was the heart and soul of the system and was a part that I knew I had to get correct. It took me forever to integrate it into the game to the proper extent. I have to thank Jim Werbanth for his development of that sub-system. Basically, each formation has a group morale that erodes as the game continues and as units are reduced or eliminated. The longer they are in combat, the more likely they are to break [based upon a dice roll that must be equal to or less than the current Morale level for each formation]. Losses and battle fatigue are essential elements of any grand tactical design. To me, Morale  is at the center of the design. It creates tension with the players as to which formation will break and when. That is always a good thing to have in a game design, as it conveys some of the difficulties that commanders had to deal with. It also fits my design philosophy of keeping it simple and playable, but also historical.

Grant: We agree that this is the best part of the design and that darned Morale roll is seriously stressful. What effects does broken morale have on units? How do they rally?

Robert: When a formation breaks, it must retreat further away from enemy units each turn. There is no offensive fire or combat and the units may not enter enemy zones of control. They do not rally as a formation.

On the other hand, individual units may recover steps lost during the Recovery Phase, which is like gathering some of the strays that any combat creates and restoring the unit to a certain extent. For example, a unit that has taken two step losses is flipped to its half strength side. Once there, it may not regain its full strength. In the Recovery Phase, units are checked to see if they may regain a step based on their combat rating. A professional unit may reform more effectively than a raw recruit.

Grant: What is the Sequence of Play? What is unique about this in the design of Saratoga and why did you include it?

Saratoga Sequence of Play

Robert: The Sequence of Play is your basic I-Go-You-Go with the twist that you roll each turn to determine the first player. I kept it simple and very direct. Rather than alternating sides and activating either stacks or units in an alternating fashion, I wanted a quicker playing turn. Therefore, it was I-Go-You-Go, which is the quickest method. Saratoga is a game that, because of its turn structure, may be played in 2 hours or less. There aren’t enough games that fall into that category in my opinion.

Grant: Why do you have to roll each turn to activate “Granny” Gates? What does this element model?

Robert: Gates earned the nickname “Granny” for his hesitancy to commit his troops in the field. At Saratoga, Arnold “borrowed” the troops and by attacking won the battle. Gates had been perfectly willing to let the British pass by unimpeded. Take that die roll as Gates making a personal morale check.

Grant: How does combat work? What are combat priorities and what do they model in 18th century warfare?

Robert: Combat uses a system I have been experimenting with since Napoleon At the ATO Napoleon at BerenziaBerezina (a solitaire game in Against the Odds Magazine). I rate the units for combat from A as the best and D as the worst. First, the A rated units conduct combat followed by B and so on. Defense is first in each combat rating and then Offense. It goes defensive A fires, then offensive A, followed by defensive B, followed by Offensive B, etc. Combat effects are applied at the time of the result. It is not simultaneous. I decided on this to give better units an advantage over weaker units. It is built into the system so that the players get the effect of skill on the battlefield, without having any extra sub-systems to deal with.

Grant: Why does Artillery fire last? 

Robert: The artillery was not the most efficient during the battle and certainly had less effect than it did in other battles. Therefore, they were rated class D.

Grant: What are the victory conditions? Who has a somewhat easier time meeting these?

Robert: Victory conditions are tied to the number of losses and the breaking of morale by formation. Each formation that breaks is worth 10 victory points and each unit step lost is 1 point. Side with the most victory points wins. I think the battle tends to even itself up. The British have the smaller force but better morale, while the Americans have a bigger force with lower morale. Personally, I give the Americans a slightly better chance, but then that is the side that I usually end up playing.

Grant: How long do games last on each of the two battles? What is your favorite battle to fight, either Freeman’s Farm or Bemis Heights? Why?

Robert: Both scenarios are 11 turns. Of the two, I like the Bemis Heights battle a little more since the British are in a better position. Freeman’s Farm, however, gives you more of an approach battle, which allows you to vary the attack more. Frankly, I like both scenarios, and since they play quickly, you can do both in a long Saturday session of 4 hours.

Grant: What has been the response of players? What do you hope they take away from the game and your design?

Robert: So far, the response has been good. There have been very few rules questions, and I’ve found no major glitches that weren’t picked up by Jim in development. When you are designing a game, you always should have someone else develop the game for you. While this is not always possible, a good developer, like Jim makes the game so much better. Before I started designing games, I play-tested South Mountain and Shiloh for West End Games. Richard Berg’s design was good, but developer Jon Southard’s reworking and refining the system made them into excellent games.

“When you are designing a game, you always should have someone else develop the game for you. While this is not always possible, a good developer, like Jim makes the game so much better.”

Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?

Age of ChivalryRobert: As always, I have a lot of projects. For One Small Step Games, I am redoing the quad series I did for 3W, adding 4 new battles to each series of games. Right now, Age of Chivalry is being offered on their pre-pub site. It includes 12 games. It should be a really nice package. I’m also doing 4 French Revolution battles in a new system that focuses on formation. I’ve worked on this for 3 years so far, and I finally have the system that will work. The battles are Jemappes, Neerwinden, Rivoli, and Castiglione. Two of them will feature one of my favorite French generals, Dumouriez. He lived a fascinating life and is always fun to read about.

I’ve also got three games I’m working on for Compass Games. The first is Napoleon’s campaign in Poland and is on an operational level. Then there is a strategic game of Vietnam and World War II South Pacific game. When I finish those, I have a few ideas of games I’ve always wanted to attempt, such as a strategic American Civil War game.

Saratoga Title Snip

Thanks for the great insight into the design as well as the mechanics of the game. For more information on Saratoga 1777 AD, please visit the game page on the Turning Point Simulations website:

You can also check out our review of the game to see how it plays.