I was recently on the Legion Wargames site and came across one of their CPO offerings that looked to be really intriguing. A solo wargame based on the naval battles fought during the War of 1812 on Lake Ontario. I thought to myself, “Boy, that is surely an odd subject for a board game” but I also thought “what a fascinating subject for a solo game to revolve around.” Once I really looked at the CPO page and examined the maps, the cool looking battle board and the neat mechanic used to determine how the AI would move their warships around and engage the solo player, I was hooked and knew that I needed to reach out to the designer Gina Willis to share this interesting looking game with you.
Grant: Gina, first off, tell us a little about yourself? What games do you like to play? What other games have you designed? What do you do for a living?
Gina: A Glorious Chance: The Naval Struggle for Lake Ontario in the War of 1812 is my first complete wargame design. I’m strictly a wargamer. I tend to play land based wargames in the World War II and gunpowder eras, but I’ve long been fascinated with the age of fighting sail.
I started wargaming in 1970 with Avalon Hill/SPI games, so I’m used to deeper games with hex-and-counter maps, dice, longer playing times, appropriate chrome, and longer rulebooks — I devour designer’s notes and enjoy games that convey the designer’s passion for and knowledge of the subject. Examples would be Joseph Balkoski’s titles from the 1980s (the Fleet Series, St.-Lô, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War) and, in the modern day, Mark Mokszycki’s titles for GMT Games (Red Winter, Operation Dauntless). But I also appreciate what Euros, CDGs, and today’s innovative designers have brought to wargaming — things like creative uses of card decks, solitaire-designed game systems, much better components.
Most of my wargaming has been done solo. When I was young, this was just for lack of opponents and my feeling that other people wouldn’t have understood my weird little hobby. Living in the NYC suburbs, I really wanted to go to those legendary Friday night playtest sessions at SPI…but I was still a bit too young and my parents wouldn’t let me. A decade or two later, I finally found some opponents in my area. But to my surprise, I didn’t really enjoy the experience as much as I had hoped to. After two hours of concentrating and sitting, I tend to feel fidgety. With a human opponent sitting there, I feel more pressure just to move quickly and it feels more competitive — which isn’t as much fun for me. Plus, the personality of the person across the table can really make or break it. One time I played at an opponent’s house and the guy got up, disappeared for 20 minutes, and came back munching loudly on a big sandwich without offering me anything to eat or drink! I find that when I wargame with people, I prefer VASSAL with Google Hangouts for voice chat, and to schedule a game into multiple shorter sessions so we can still live our lives. Soloing games lets me lose myself in the story and play at my own convenience — so that’s always been my comfort zone, I guess. But I’m looking forward to attending my first con sometime soon, to see how I like it.
Professionally, I’m a newspaper journalist (reporter, editor) although I’m semi-retired now. Years ago, I covered the Pentagon and various military subject-matter beats as a senior writer for a weekly defense publication. I have never served in the military and I wasn’t a war correspondent. But I certainly saw war’s immediate aftermath in Bosnia. Mostly, I covered policy inside the Beltway and, when I went on assignment, visited a lot of bases and saw lots of training, exercises, specialist schools, and everyday aspects of military people’s demanding lives.
Over the years, though, I did get to see or do a few things that went beyond the gaming table or a typical day at the office — riding in a plane that landed and got catapulted off an aircraft carrier, wading through the snake-infested Florida swamps to see Army Ranger training, sitting in on fighter pilot debriefs after mock dogfights at the Tactical Fighter Weapons School, and driving a Bradley AFV around a range and shooting dummy rounds from the main gun at some targets. In the Cold War era (circa 1988), I once saw a mock combined-arms attack staged for visiting VIPs at Fort Hood. It started with the horizon erupting in a live artillery barrage. Then some A-10 Warthogs flew in, and I heard the BZZZT of their gatling guns as they made graceful swoops to attack dummy Soviet tanks. A spearhead of M1 tanks and Bradleys charged in, and soldiers poured out of the vehicles to take the final objective. And, on another occasion, I saw what the night sky looks like (through night vision goggles) when a full battalion of the 82nd Airborne does a parachute drop (I was surprised to see how low and slow the transport planes seemed to fly, from the perspective on the ground, compared to what I’d seen in war movies).
Grant: Wow! It looks like you have had quite the interesting experiences from your chosen career. This next question now kind of seems unnecessary but how did you get into design? What do you love about it? What keeps you up at night?
Gina: Like many other designers, my gaming hobby led me into it by accident. I’ve been a playtester for GMT’s Operation Dauntless and for Battlefront’s Combat Mission computer tactical games. I liked MMP’s Grand Tactical Series so much that I made an Eastern Front Operation Bagration mod for it in Cyberboard for my own enjoyment. Sometimes, I felt the need to home-brew some house rules to address a weakness in a game I otherwise liked.
What I love abut designing is making “the game I always wanted” that didn’t exist. Usually, it starts with reading a book or seeing a movie on some military history topic. If the story grabs me enough, I usually look around to see what wargames exist about it. Maybe there is one game, but maybe it’s not at the scale I prefer or it focused on a different front of the war. So I realize if I really want that game or scenario or map, I’ll just have to make it myself!
I enjoy the research and imagining in that initial period when I’m making fundamental decisions about the game’s focus — the map area, scale, the critical aspects of the history that I really feel need to be represented in the game, and what the player’s role will be. Translating that inspirational stuff into an actual game is a lot tougher and can take a long time while I let the ideas bounce around and I try to find the core mechanisms that will work.
If the ideas seem to hold water, I start to push some sketchy counters and scribbled index cards around and ideas emerge. The knack is keeping things loose and flexible enough that I can quickly discard one concept and try something else, not get overly attached to anything, until the “core DNA” of the game comes together.
I’m a huge believer in off-the-shelf solutions. I always prefer to adapt some existing game mechanism or concept into my design rather than to try and invent something from scratch. One reason is it’s easier, and the other reason is it’s battle-tested and more likely to work. It’s like reaching in a vast toolbox of good tools to find the right one for the job. But no borrowed tool fits exactly.
So here’s the funny thing: I may start by using something exactly the way I saw it in another published game, but I find that as I test it in my game it needs to get tweaked this way or that in order to serve my specific purpose. Several iterations later, I find the concept I borrowed has evolved to the point that it bears only slight resemblance to the original and I’ve made it my own. I think “imitate to innovate” is a good, sound process and nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a beginning designer, and if the designer makes sure to credit the sources and other designers who inspired her work.
Several iterations later, I find the concept I borrowed has evolved to the point that it bears only slight resemblance to the original and I’ve made it my own. I think ‘imitate to innovate’ is a good, sound process and nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a beginning designer, and if the designer makes sure to credit the sources and other designers who inspired her work.
At a certain point, I make an early playtest module in VASSAL (Joel Toppen’s brilliant “Vassal Module Design 101” series on YouTube showed me how). I like the digital platform for self-playtesting, external playtesting and my own primary development because it’s easy to make changes on the fly. And of course it’s cheaper than printing physical components that are almost certain to get changed anyway. Playtesting is easier using VASSAL too, because I can offer decent-looking components at zero cost, and with VASSAL, playtesters can come from anywhere in the world.
I also try to get a starting set of rules written as early as possible and continue to revise it as the game evolves. This not only makes it easier than, “Oh no, I’ve designed a game and now I have to figure out how to write rules for it,” but it imposes a certain discipline on the design: If I can’t explain it step-by-step in clear, concise rules — or if one little aspect of the game requires way too many rules to make it work — then it’s a sign that maybe I should go back to the drawing board and revise the game.
I was fortunate that my best playtester for A Glorious Chance happens to be an international lawyer. His trained eye would pounce on anything that didn’t make sense, right down to individual words in a particular paragraph. This may have made my rulebook a bit longer than otherwise, because I really take the space to explain things as much as I feel is necessary. And this is more important in a solitaire design, I think, because it’s just you and the game and there’s no one else around to teach it to you.
Grant: Lots of good advice there for potential designers. I know I have learned something from your words and am now encouraged to take a look at some of my concepts I have long ago abandoned. What is your design philosophy?
Gina: I design to please myself first, and leave it to others to decide if they like it enough to play it or buy it.
Also, I’m a big believer in not dumbing things down or talking down to the audience. Respect players’ intelligence and have faith that they will step up to the game and want to follow its story where it leads them. I’ll give you some concrete examples of why I believe this:
My very first wargame was Milton Bradley’s naval game, Broadside, which I discovered at about age 10. On one level it was a simple age of sail game for kids, quick-playing, with rules that fit on the inside of the box lid. Many people today say those are qualities wargames need in order to attract new and younger players to the hobby. Yes, but it wasn’t the simplicity or the lightness of the game that hooked me. True, I could never have learned the game if it hadn’t been light and accessible. But there was something about Broadside that made it different, special, magnetic to me in a way that Clue or Parcheesi never were: Broadside was ABOUT something. Something that really happened. And there, inside the box, was a glossy full-color little American Heritage history pamphlet that told me about the real naval War of 1812, the real ships, commanders, and places. The game — simple as it was — even differentiated between sloops, brigs and ships of the line, and gave them different characteristics. So that one game opened my eyes to something much bigger — other books to read, other things to learn about, and eventually deeper and more complex wargames.
I recall seeing Streets of Stalingrad in a game store in the early 1980s… just picking up that box and feeling its heft — seeing that art on the back showing the names of the factories and all the specialized units in such detail — wow.
So even as we strive to make wargames accessible, let’s never lose sight of what makes wargames so special: the spectacle, the grandeur, the connection to real people’s lives and deaths, the mystique of feeling immersed in a paper time machine. Let’s not make the steak so lean that we lose the sizzle!
So even as we strive to make wargames accessible, let’s never lose sight of what makes wargames so special: the spectacle, the grandeur, the connection to real people’s lives and deaths, the mystique of feeling immersed in a paper time machine. Let’s not make the steak so lean that we lose the sizzle!
Grant: What is A Glorious Chance about?
Gina: It’s about the struggle between the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy (actually mostly Canadian with British officers), in the summer of 1813, to control the key terrain of the northwest front in the War of 1812: Lake Ontario. Neither side could win the land campaign in that theatre without first controlling this lake. So both sides raced to build ships, deploy the stronger squadron, and wage a decisive fleet action before the decent sailing weather ran out. But at the same time, the stakes of such a battle were so high that neither side could afford to lose it.
Historically, the two squadrons played cat-and-mouse all over the lake all summer, and the much-sought but much-dreaded decisive battle never happened. It nearly did, several times, but something always intervened to cut it short — a sudden storm, a shift of wind, a shattered mast, a loss of nerve…A Glorious Chance is an operational scale game that puts you in the shoes of the British or American commodore and lets you see whether you can win where your historical counterparts failed to do so.
Grant: Where did you search to find the info you needed to create the game? Was it hard to find?
Gina: The information found me, in a way. In late 2014, I was looking for a Great Lakes campaign boardgame that I could use to generate battles for the 1:1000 scale War of 1812 ships that I had 3D printed (these are for sale on my Shapeways store site).
I couldn’t find any existing games that I liked. But I did come across Dave Schueler’s excellent Naval Gazing blog. He had an entry about some rules for a one-time multiplayer tournament game that he hosted, which featured the Lake Ontario ships and their actions in the summer of 1813. Dave’s game rules had some excellent concepts that I liked — area movement using six zones, a time scale of two turns per month, the types of missions ships could perform, and a two-stage encounter sequence that involved a patrol segment and an interception segment (which is a type of reaction movement). But Dave’s rules were for multiple players and used hidden information, so it wasn’t something I could use as-is and enjoy solo. Also, I wanted a boardgame that I could also play on the tabletop or on VASSAL, and just roll a die to resolve battles or set up the more interesting ones to resolve with my tactical ship minis.
I realized I’d never have quite the game I wanted unless I created it. But I’d never designed a wargame before, and I really wasn’t sure how I could make the game run an AI naval opponent effectively. I found myself combing through many, many game reviews on BGG and YouTube and reading rulebooks to see how other wargames had handled these sorts of issues. The “aha” moment came when I encountered John Butterfield’s solitaire game, RAF. I realized that the double-sided Target Card mechanism he used to generate AI German air raids over various parts of Britain in 1940 might work in a similar way to generate enemy naval operations on Lake Ontario in 1813.
The other thing that persuaded me to tackle this design was that I could find all the essential information I needed in a single definitive book: Lords of the Lake, by the late Robert Malcolmson. This Canadian historian had devoted his life’s work to researching the history of the naval War of 1812 on the Great Lakes. It’s not only a great read; his appendices contain the complete orders of battle for various periods — right down to ship dimensions, crew strengths, number of guns, gun types and gun sizes.
Of course, I read and researched further as time went on and I discovered more resources (here’s a bibliography). But 90 percent of everything needed to design a wargame was already in that first book.
Grant: Where did the name of the game come from and what do you want it to say to prospective players?
Gina: “What a glorious chance to have cut him off and become at once masters of the Lakes and all their naval force at one blow.” – Capt. Arthur Sinclair USN, 4 July 1813
Sinclair wrote this in a letter to a friend, just as he was taking command of the biggest, baddest warship ever seen on Lake Ontario to that point: the USS General Pike. With this new frigate (or super-corvette), Sinclair and his fellow officers were salivating at the chance to bring the British to battle and settle the issue on Lake Ontario once and for all.
The quote captures the feeling I hope the game gives a player: Anticipation that “this next turn, at last, I can find the enemy, corner him and defeat him!” The “glorious” part refers to the sheer spectacle of a full-on naval battle in the age of sail and the honors that await a victorious commander. The “chance” part refers to both opportunity and risk — this often feels like a gambler’s game, where you’re always balancing how many ships to put at risk vs. the size of potential reward, under conditions of enormous fog-of-war and random twists of fate.
The “glorious” part refers to the sheer spectacle of a full-on naval battle in the age of sail and the honors that await a victorious commander. The “chance” part refers to both opportunity and risk — this often feels like a gambler’s game, where you’re always balancing how many ships to put at risk vs. the size of potential reward, under conditions of enormous fog-of-war and random twists of fate.
Grant: What parameters were given to you for the design? Did this make the process more difficult?
Gina: There were no parameters assigned to me. I already had a working VASSAL prototype when some players and developers I knew strongly encouraged me to get the game published. The first publisher I showed it to felt it would be too complex, too long a playing time, and too expensive to make a good fit with the rest of their product line. The second publisher expressed mild interest but wanted to put up a Kickstarter first before committing to anything, instead of doing a traditional preorder process. Then I found the perfect home for the game at Legion Wargames. The only parameters from them were, “design the best possible game you can.”
Grant: What elements are important to make a good solo play game?
Gina: First, the rules have to be particularly well done, because most of the rules in a solitaire game exist to run the AI side of the board.
Second, I think it has to be hard to beat the AI. If it’s too easy to win, too often, the game is likely to be considered dull and get shelved. You can see that solitaire players who enjoy Butterfield’s D-Day at Omaha Beach, for example, often become enthralled with it, and the more the game beats them the more determined they become to do better the next time. [Editor’s Note: I haven’t played D-Day at Omaha Beach but own and have played D-Day at Tarawa and I can attest that I come back to that game over and over again, because I get beat and know that I can do better next time. Famous last words though as I usually only do incrementally better and have yet to beat the game after 4 tries.]
Third — and this is more a matter of personal taste — the solitaire game has to confront the human player with meaningful and consequential decisions to make. While the solitaire experience makes room for some detailed and immersive stories to develop, I don’t like the types of solitaire games where the player is simply “along for the ride” and makes endless dierolls on volumes of charts to see what happens. I think AGC gives the player an appropriate amount of control for his or her role in the command structure, as well as a frustrating but realistic amount of things-beyond-your-control.
A Glorious Chance has a smart AI that can and will beat you. But — and this is just the nature of accurate historical naval games — the campaigns tend to be “swingy.” A small advantage for either side tends to snowball and become decisive unless you can reverse it early or get lucky. It’s difficult to come from behind in the late turns, though not impossible. And once you’ve made the critical choices a commander would make (which ships to deploy, their missions, whether to fight or flee, and your general battle plan) you just have to trust your ship commanders and hope for the best.
The range of ways a campaign can play out is so vast that you might have one game full of lake battles, another game have few lake battles but a decisive land victory that wins the game, another game where a side manages to establish a blockade, or a game that gets decided very early because all hell breaks loose on Turn 1. The good thing is, there are only eight turns and it’s solitaire — so if you don’t like the way things are going, you can flip the board anytime and start another game, and no one will protest. I think most players will appreciate that in a game capable of generating so many varied situations and outcomes, some games will be thrilling and others could be just so-so. It’s the luck-of-the-draw nature of this sort of game.
Grant: What mechanism controls the AI opponent? Why does this work in the design? It was described as dynamic. What makes it so?
Gina: Each turn, the AI considers the game situation and sets priorities for the three types of missions ships can perform in the game: Escort (escort supply convoys), Patrol (look for the enemy), or Land (support operations on land, which encompasses a range of things from shore bombardment to a quick raid with marines to a full-blown amphibious operation with infantry).
A die roll on the AI Strategic Priorities Table cross-references the roll with a column that corresponds to the current game score. The resulting priority for any of the three mission types can be low, medium, or high. When the AI is losing, it might choose a more defensive mix of mission priorities than when it’s winning. It’s more likely to choose a balanced approach (say, all three missions on medium priority) when the game is close. And at the extremes — when the AI is losing badly or in a dominant position — it might get more aggressive to seal the deal or try to come from behind.
Through die roll modifiers on particular game turns, the AI’s Strategic Priority roll also takes into account some historical factors and the degree of progress in enemy shipbuilding. If the AI is British, it knows it starts the game in a dominant position and will tend to be more aggressive in early turns. But once you’ve launched the USS Pike, the British are likely to take a more conservative posture (an example would be more escort missions, perhaps, and patrols only at low strength in their home waters.)
The AI chooses its missions and the Lake Zones where it will carry them out through the mechanism of Target Cards. This is not just an AI mechanism but an extremely important fog-of-war mechanism and your main source of intelligence about likely enemy operations.
In summary, the AI’s dynamic decision-making involves the interplay between board situation, game turn, game score, Strategic Priorities, the progress of your shipbuilding, and the AI’s operational resources in the form of deployable ships, with a bit of randomness thrown in.
For a step-by-step walkthrough of the AI system, please see this BGG forum post I made to show how it works.
Grant: What is the ultimate end goal for the player?
Gina: You get Victory Points for achieving the following:
- Lake Zone Control (1 VP per zone, per turn you control it).
- Capturing or destroying enemy ships in battle (huge range here, depending on the named ship. Captures are worth a lot more with the added ability to repair them, reflag them and add them to your own squadron).
- Degrees of success in a Land Battle (varies with the value of the land target, with the enemy homeport the most valuable).
- Army Victory on the Niagara Peninsula (a big 36 VP prize all on its own, but it’s all or nothing and can take all game to achieve).
Campaign results can range from draw to marginal victory to decisive victory or loss, depending on the difference of human to enemy VPs.
There’s no single way to win. But you have to do something, and once you do one thing in pursuit of VPs you’re probably leaving an opening somewhere else that the AI might exploit. You don’t even have to fight naval battles if you don’t want to (although the AI might still force you into it).
Grant: What are the uses and benefits of the different actions available to the player such as Patrol, Escort, Land Support or Intercept?
Gina: Patrol is the best all-purpose mission when you want to find the enemy. If and when you do sight enemy ships, you can decide whether you want your force to confront it, or to bypass it and avoid combat (though if the wind is right the AI might still force battle on you). While you certainly can score Victory Points from lake combat and capture ships to add to your own squadron, it’s always a very uncertain proposition.
Land is the mission to use when you want to go straight after some Victory Points. The more ships you assign to a Land mission, and the more guns they have, the more dieroll modifiers you can use to improve your chances of rolling for a Success or a Major Success in the land battle. If you have a Troops marker available in a turn, you’ll usually want to assign a Land mission so that you can transport them to a hostile shore. You get more VPs when you succeed in a Land Battle if you had a Troops marker assigned to it.
Escort is a mission you’ll always want to assign, every turn, if you can spare the ships to do it. Unescorted convoys are virtually helpless if the enemy finds them. Your need to do Escort missions and your ability to spare ships depends on which side you’re playing. As British, you have a long and vulnerable supply line across the lake. But you start with only five ships, so if you detach even one ship for an Escort mission you severely weaken your squadron for lake combat. So the British player can’t really afford to assign escorts unless the full five-ship squadron does it, or unless the British capture a few American vessels that can be reflagged for escort duties. As Americans, you have a very short waterborne supply route and plenty of ships, so it’s a no-brainer to assign some to Escort every turn.
Intercept is not actually a mission that you assign at the start of a turn. It’s something your ships might be able to do if an Encounter happens somewhere on the lake, and you want to send additional ships there quickly as reinforcements. To attempt Interception, a ship or stack of ships must be either in the same Lake Zone where the Encounter happens, or in a Lake Zone adjacent to it. Your only ships that can try to Intercept an Encounter anywhere on the lake are the ones you leave in your homeport, unassigned. A die roll decides whether a particular Interception attempt succeeds or not. The roll gets positive modifiers the closer your would-be reinforcements are to the action. So when you plan all your ship assignments at the start of a turn, you might very well want to leave some positioned as a quick-reaction force, should another of your forces run into trouble.
Grant: Why was the lake divided into six zones? Who drew the map?
Gina: The idea of six zones came from Dave Schueler’s tournament game. I liked it because six seemed like just the right number, and because an area-movement system was just the thing needed to make an operational age-of-sail game like this playable. There’s really no need to have hexes and count movement factors at this scale. I drew my own map for A Glorious Chance at the playtest stage, and now the legendary wargame artist Mark Mahaffey is drawing the real map for publication by Legion Wargames.
Grant: How are the Target Cards used and how do they end in encounters? Can you show us a few examples of Target Cards and explain their use/effect?
Gina: I’d refer anyone curious about this to some of the YouTube playthroughs and instructionals that I’ve posted; you can find them in the “videos” section of the game’s page on Boardgamegeek. These show it more effectively and entertainingly than any written description, along with card examples (again, just playtest artwork — the published cards will be far better). But here’s the gist…
You, the human player, have to make your ship assignments for the turn first. Then you draw a row of Target Cards for the AI, with the number of cards drawn depending on how many deployable ships the AI has this turn. You see only the backs of the cards, which show the Lake Zones where the AI might be active.
If any of the Target Card card backs match zones where you assigned ships, there could be an Encounter and you’d reveal the card to show what the AI mission is in that zone. Let’s say the card you revealed in an Encounter turns out to be for an AI Patrol mission in the South Lake Zone. On that card is a little dieroll table to see how many of the AI’s deployable ships you’re facing. Those little deployment tables on the Target Cards are different from card to card. They vary the aggressiveness of the AI’s deployment to a zone, depending on how valuable the zone is and how high a priority this particular mission type is for the AI right now. If Patrol happens to be low priority this turn, then you might only encounter actual enemy ships on a low-odds roll.
The actual ships that deploy are drawn randomly from a pool of ships that haven’t yet been accounted for — so as you get deeper into a turn, you might start to know where the enemy ships really are and your intelligence picture develops, allowing you to make bolder decisions and take more calculated risks. You’ll be more hesitant to send reinforcements to a first battle with three enemy ships if three other enemy ships haven’t yet appeared on the map and could be preparing to strike somewhere else. Sometimes your ships never find any enemy ships in a turn, and you discover later on that they ran amok in some area of the lake where you had nothing on station to oppose them.
But wait…there’s more: You don’t play with the same Target Cards every turn. You might be told to configure the deck a certain way at the start of a turn, removing or adding specific cards to reflect a certain situation on the board. This is how the AI “brain” also knows, for example, if it has infantry troops ready that can be transported and used to get better dieroll modifiers for a Land mission that turn. Or, if a side wins a final Army Victory on the Niagara Peninsula, certain Target Cards go away for the duration of the game so that the AI won’t waste resources on a lost cause in that area.
Grant: Can you take us through the anatomy of a few ship counters and show us pictures?
Gina: Okay, but bear in mind that this was my own playtest artwork, and not anything like the beautiful counters that Legion Wargames will be producing for the final version:
A counter’s ship type is indicated by a silhouette in the center, as follows:
Grant: How is lake combat resolved? How are tactics chits used and how do they effect the combat? Can you show us a few examples of the different chits?
Gina: Lake Combat takes on a separate Battle Mat. It takes place in one or more rounds of gunnery combat, each involving a dieroll on the Lake Combat Results Table, and can sometimes get to a Close Combat round and even to Melee. One key feature of the game is that when the British attack, the Lake Combat sequence of play is different than when the Americans attack. This simulates the significant differences and asymmetries in the two sides’ fighting doctrine and armament.
Lake Combats can and often do end after a single dieroll. But there are many other ways that they can play out, which is a good feature — you may find the entire game hinges on a single battle, after all, so I represent it in enough detail to let a player slow down and savor every twist and turn of it.
Tactics Chits simulate both commodores’ final instructions to their ship commanders before the cannons roar — battle plans, if you will. They convey certain benefits like a “Rake” tactic letting you put all your combat hits on a single enemy ship, or an “escape” chit letting any of your damaged two-step ships automatically pass their Disengagement Checks.
Some examples (these are raw playtest art, NOT publication components):
But you don’t get to pick just any tactic you want — as in real life, the tactic you’d prefer to use might not be possible in the current situation. You start by drawing four tactic chits at random. You reveal them and discard any dummies. The you look at the remaining drawn chits to see which ones are valid for this battle (the symbol on the chit has to match one of the symbols on an Event Card you drew earlier). You get to pick any single valid tactic to use. After you’ve got your tactic, the AI draws 4 chits and you go through the same winnowing process, only the AI’s final choice is a random draw from its valid tactics. Sometimes there’s no valid tactic for one or either side to play. Or sometimes (if the chit colors match) the tactic one side picks is equivalent to a countermove that negates the other side’s tactic.
Tactic chits are just a nice way to add a bit of chrome and simulate the effect of tactical age-of-sail maneuvering in a simple, abstracted way without actually having to manage actual movement and relative positions on a grid. They also keep an odds-based CRT from becoming too deterministic. So you can’t always assume that your 4:1 or even 5:1 attack will always succeed.
Grant: Now that you brought it up, what is the basis for the CRT?
Gina: It’s odds-based, with the numbers representing each side’s total combat strength. To get a side’s strength you add up all its counters’ Long Gun Strengths, Carronade Strengths and Defense Strengths, but…
…when the U.S. attacks, all of both sides’ ships’ Carronade Strengths are halved. When the British attack, all of both sides’ Long Gun Strengths are halved. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize this because it’s all printed right on the Battle Board in that side’s Combat Sequence, which looks like a little step-by-step flow chart.)
This difference is a key feature of the game, because it “bakes in” the fact that the British ships here were primarily armed with carronades, and that their doctrine was to wait for a stiff breeze, close rapidly with the enemy into carronade range and, hopefully, Close Action range. The American attack formula favors long-gun armed ships because that was the U.S. weapon of choice, and they preferred to attack in calmer conditions and inflict as much damage as possible with long guns from outside carronade range.
Grant: What DRMs are used? What type of results occur from combat?
Gina: Die roll modifiers can sometimes come from certain valid tactic chits being played. They can be helpful to the side that has them, but they are less significant in the game than column shifts.
Column shifts to the CRT can happen for:
a.) Weather Gauge (one or the other side will always have this, because it’s what allows them to attack. It represents not only a favorable wind speed/direction, but any other weather and wave conditions and relative tactical position that the side judges favorable for attacking).
b.) Command, if the side’s Commodore is unhurt and present on a ship still engaged.(usually it’s only the British who qualify for this; for the U.S. to get it, Sinclair must become Commodore, which happens only if Commodore Chauncey is killed or injured.)
c.) Shore Batteries (a side defending near its own friendly shore or harbor would, if possible, try to stay under the cover of its own forts and/or field artillery).
d.) Untowed Converted Laker Schooners (these were unstable and slow vessels that couldn’t hold their place in a line of battle, so any side that attacks with them has to have them under tow by a tow-capable ship or suffers a -1 column shift)
Results vary widely and can range from:
-One or more step-reduction hits.
-An AW or DW result meaning the attacker or defender withdraws immediately to its homeport.
-Various combinations of hits and withdrawal results, like D2/DW.
-and END result that abruptly ends the current segment of the Encounter. The battle might end right there or continue to an Interception Segment, depending on when this result comes up.
Grant: How are Land Battles different? What type of units are involved in Land Battles? How do ships assist?
Gina: Since this is a naval game, Land Battles are very simple and highly abstracted. It’s a single die roll that can result in a Draw, or a Success or a Major Success for either side. You push the chances in your favor by assigning ships to the Land mission. Bigger ships give you a 1-point die roll modifier per ship, and the smaller ones are half a point. So the more ships you commit to support a Land mission, the better your chances.
If you get a Success or Major Success result, then it matters whether you had a Troops marker with your ships. Having that marker boosts the VPs you earn for the win.
Grant: How do supply lines work in the design and how do they effect combat?
Gina: Supply is abstracted and reflected in the game by a Convoy Supply Track. Each side gets a marker that — under normal circumstances — advances one space each turn along the track. That represents your periodic supply ship convoys running normally.
The value of advancing your marker along the Convoy Supply track is that it lets you do things: launch completed new ships, and get Troops markers to transport for use in Land Battles. Those resources appear in particular spaces on the track. But you don’t get to use them unless your marker advances that far.
You want your Convoy Supply Track to advance as fast as possible so you can launch ships and use your Troops markers. You want the AI enemy’s track not to advance — or, better yet, to regress. There’s also a 10 VP bonus for the first side to get its track marker to the final space, which represents accumulating enough supplies for the 1813 fall offensive (which is not in the game because it took place later).
Convoys don’t normally appear on the map, so there’s no fussy bookkeeping or moving supplies around. But a Convoy marker gets placed on the map if a side locates one in an Encounter. A convoy that lacks a friendly escort and gets attacked might be captured, destroyed or scattered. Capture benefits the attacker most because the defender’s Convoy Supply Track marker regresses and the attacker’s track marker advances a bonus space. Destroying a Convoy makes the defender’s track marker regress but it doesn’t advance the attacker’s marker. And a scatter means the Convoy escaped — although it freezes the defender’s track marker for a turn because it means scattering delayed the supplies from arriving on schedule.
If a Convoy is escorted by friendly warships, the enemy has to attack and defeat the escort first in Lake Combat before getting to attack the Convoy.
The game represents the historical waterborne supply routes: A very short one for the Americans that runs within their home waters of the Sacket’s Zone; and a long and vulnerable route for the British that runs across three Lake Zones. This makes convoy hunting a very useful strategy for the Americans, as they also have lots of small and lightly armed schooners that they can send out on Patrol missions along those enemy supply routes.
I’ve even seen the AI Americans wage a credible defensive campaign, where they hid from my squadron but sent their little schooners out to hit my British convoys with maddening regularity. As a result, I never got sufficient supplies built up to conduct major land operations or complete my ship under construction and the best I could do was a campaign draw. (I think this might have been boring in a 2-player game, but it felt like a fascinating challenge to me as a solitaire player to see the AI frustrate me this way.)
The only downside is that those Converted Laker Schooners are prone to lose any serious Lake Combat with real warships — so if the American schooners’ Convoy hunt comes up empty, the U.S. may just end up losing the schooners to capture and inadvertently reinforcing the enemy squadron.
Grant: What events are found on the Event Cards?
Gina: There are two types of events in the game that come from Event Cards: Special Events and Land Events. Special events get drawn when there’s a first Encounter in a Lake Zone, and can affect either or both sides. Land Events get drawn just before a Land Battle and represent things only relevant to littoral warfare.
Here are a few examples of both types of events:
-Convoy Delay British (imposes a delay in their Convoy Supply Track progress)
-Adverse Wind US (Penalty modifier to US Interception Check dierolls)
-Missed Signal US (select a ship at random from the US Force in the first Encounter to miss Round 1 of Lake Combat)
-Haze (All ships’ Long Gun Strengths in Lake Combat in the zone are 0)
-Intelligence (My favorite! Deserters reveal the enemy’s plans for a mission next turn – but it may or may not be true. You still have to decide whether to act on this intel.)
-Heated Shot/Fire Damage (Shore batteries damage one of your supporting Land mission ships)
-Sudden Storm (Cuts short the Land mission and limits the degree of success you can get from the Land Battle).
Grant: How are victory points earned and what are the various victory conditions at the end of round 8?
Gina: This could very well change during Legion’s final development and testing of the game. But as of my latest version, this table says it all:
Grant: What should the basic strategy be for the U.S. player?
Gina: Since there are two campaigns (British Solo and U.S. Solo) I’ll share some suggestions/observations on both that improve your chances to win:
Play for a draw until you’re able to launch the USS Pike. This means using your expendable Converted Laker Schooners as pawns to play for Lake Zone Control points and hunt convoys, and not letting the British advance within a single turn of Army Victory on the Niagara Peninsula. Keep the main body of your squadron safe in port, but ready to pounce with an Interception if you see a chance to pick off an isolated British ship or two somewhere. If this works, you prevent the British from building up too much of an early lead. Once the USS Pike is launched, and particularly if you can get the USS Sylph launched with sufficient turns left, turn aggressive and go right at the British with big Land and Patrol missions to Kingston Harbour, forcing the British to come out and fight or risk being blockaded. A victorious Lake Combat could win you the campaign right there. If you can blockade, then you might have time to pursue an Army Victory on the Niagara Peninsula without interference.
You start with total control of the lake, and your chances in Lake Combat are excellent. But you have only five warships initially. Keep them together to operate as a unified squadron. Pick one offensive mission each early turn that’s likely to get you a solid chunk of VPs — some Land missions to the Niagara Peninsula and elsewhere. The only thing NOT to do is something rash, like a Turn 1 Land mission to the Sacket’s Zone, which usually just stirs up a hornet’s nest. But the clock is ticking and you always have to be mindful of the USS Pike taking shape in the American shipyard. You can and should try a Land mission with Troops to Sacket’s Harbor to try and burn the Pike and Sylph if you manage to damage or capture any U.S. principal ships in the early turns. One of the crucial choices in the British Solo Campaign is when/how to Refit (taking one or more ships out of action for a turn to upgrade their armament). You might decide to Refit ships one by one, over the course of the game. You might decide to do all your Refits in a single turn, at the risk of leaving the Americans virtually unopposed that turn. Or you might follow the historical choice: Keep your “A” squadron intact and concentrate on efforts to destroy the Pike and Sylph on the stocks before they’re launched, then quickly Refit all your ships later in the campaign if those efforts fail. But don’t overlook Refit because otherwise, you won’t have the firepower or range to meet the U.S. on even terms once the Pike joins their squadron.
Grant: What scenarios are included? How long do games typically last?
Gina: AGC is an operational game that generates its own scenarios. There are no scenarios in the game, since the number of counters is already small, the area of operations is an inland lake, the time scale is one-half month per turn, and there are only eight turns in a game. So I’ve never seen any value to scenarios for it, as there would be in a much larger game where you’re trying to offer players quicker mini-sessions with smaller numbers of counters on a smaller map. AGC contains two campaigns; U.S. Solo and British Solo. I include some suggestions for an optional two-player method but I’ve never tested them. Playing time, once you become familiar with the game, is about four hours. The nice thing about solitaire games is that you can break a game into sessions and resume at your own convenience.
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process? Please give a few specific examples.
Gina: The Lake Combat system has changed the most over time.
When I was designing AGC just for myself or to share online, I wasn’t planning to have a combat system in the game, and just let players use their favorite tactical age-of-sail boardgame or miniatures to fight battles.
But not every battle generated by the operational game is going to be interesting enough to warrant that. And, once my focus changed to designing for publication, I knew AGC needed to be equally playable and fun as a self-contained boardgame or paired with separate tactical games.
So I decided to try for an extremely quick and simple combat system. I wanted something so light that an entire lake battle could be resolved with a single die roll.
The first Lake Combat system had a difference-based CRT instead of an odds-based one. That led to some unrealistic outcomes and I was never really happy with it.
Next came a CRT-less “buckets-of-dice” system and actual ship-to-ship fire. Ship cards had ratings that would have you roll a given number of carronade dice or long gun dice, etc. I had been inspired by the very cool combat system in Steven Cunliffe’s The Fires of Midway. But in my game, it required too much specificity and tactical detail for my taste. Because my game is in the age of sail and not aircraft carriers in the Pacific, I had to represent ships’ place in actual lines of battle, and simulate maneuvering using relative positions of the battle lines, without actually getting into a literal grid movement system with movement allowances. It just never came together and felt alien to the spirit of AGC.
Finally, I just made a solid odd-based CRT — but with the inspiration from Mark Simonitch’s CRTs from games like Ardennes ’44, I designed it so that it packed wide variety of outcomes into the results beyond just A1, D1, AR, DR, etc.
This worked much better. But in early tests it gave the little Converted Lake Schooners way too much power against real warships. The system needed a way to take into account the defensive resilience of larger ships. But I didn’t want to start complicating the game by adding Defensive Fire. So that led to adding a Defense Strength into the combat equation that was based on ships’ tonnage.
One of the later tweaks recommended to me was scaling down all the factors on the counters to lower numbers, but retaining most of their relative differences with each other. This compression sacrificed a little bit of fidelity for a huge gain in playability, as you can now usually add all the factors for a side’s combat in your head.
Once that all worked well, I got inspired by John Butterfield’s Enemy Action: Ardennes to incorporate my own set of Tactics Chits. I feel they add a bit of affordable chrome and variety to combat without a lot of extra rules or special cases. But if players feel Tactics Chits introduce too much luck or slows down play, they can play without them and still get sound results. Some might argue that if the chits aren’t vital to sound results, they’re excess and should be dropped. But I enjoy them and I hope that the chits make it into the published game.
Grant: What has been the reaction of players to the design?
Gina: Legion Wargames listed AGC up for preorders in March 2015, at the same time as Nemesis Burma 1944 by the well-known and much-beloved designer Kim Kanger. Notably, my game’s CPOs kept pace with Nemesis all year and made the 250-order cut for publication within a year, about the same time that Nemesis did. AGC has continued to attract preorders and was nearing 300, last time I checked.
Playtester comments have included the following:
“I must admit that it is hard to get (this) single tactical battle out of my head. And for an abstraction of combat, it is pretty detailed. You do a great job in this regard as I think people do prefer an increased level of detail where they can get it.”
“I have to say, this game is AMAZING. I love the AI mechanics and all the variables that can occur. One problem with solitaire war games for me has been playing against myself… This system eliminates those issues altogether. I can see you have put some time into developing this system to ensure consistent, yet surprising scenarios unfold — lots of action in Sackets and Kingston versus the less critical zones. I used Sails of Glory to play out the battles, but skimming through the lake combat rules, it looks like a solid system with good variety. Not to mention realistic and historically correct — the smaller schooners not being able to hold the line and needing a tow. Really neat.”
“This game was fun to play. And it was very, very different to my first game, where the Brits had things a lot easier. It had been a while since I had played a game and I think Gina has made some really great improvements to the design. I particularly like the deployment tables on the target cards. This speeds up game play, provides a massive amount of variation and replayability, and allows closer thematic linking of the areas of the lake to the likelihood of action there. In my first game, hardly any U.S. ships deployed due to Low strategic priority and low deployment rolls. In this game, more ships deployed sooner. But what was most entertaining was that a lot of AI ship deployments seemed to make sense from a thematic point of view. You could always come up with an explanation as to why the AI had done that. And this feeds an entertaining narrative. The best example of this is the second to last turn (September I) of this game. Caution would have dictated I stay in port having only two ships and the Pike out on the lake on the prowl. I deployed my two ships anyway as I wanted to get into the action. But it was very gratifying to see a cutting-out raid trying to sneak into the harbour on the off chance my ships did stay in port. And then even more gratifying to see the whole American fleet coming for me when they saw I was at sea. It provided a tremendous narrative albeit a scary one, as at that point I knew I was doomed.”
Grant: Those are some great comments and are a testament to the work and time you have obviously put into the game playtesting and tweaking it. What is the anticipated timeline for its release?
Gina: Early 2018. A lot depends on how smoothly and quickly the final development and testing and artwork come together after I hand the game off to Legion Wargames. That should happen pretty soon now. I could always playtest AGC more, but really at this point, I feel I’ve made it as good a game as I can and it needs the fresh eye of a good developer. As a new designer, I don’t have a developer-partner of my own or the following to attract one. But Legion, to their credit, didn’t hold that against me and was eager to offer the game the support it needs to reach market.
Grant: What is next for Gina Willis?
Gina: I imagine that the next six months will still keep me busy with AGC as developer and/or final playtester questions arise, someone wants my input about a component or piece of artwork, or there’s a need to proof components.
Once the final artwork and components for AGC are published, I really would like to post a virtual module on Tabletopia (for those of you who don’t know, Tabletopia is an online 3D tabletop boardgame site). I made one of my demo videos with a Tabletopia version of my playtest kit, and I thought it looked great and felt much more like playing a physical boardgame than, say, VASSAL. Plus, you can have live sessions with other people, and publishers can even sell games through the site.
I spent so much time making my 3D printed miniature ships that I haven’t really gotten to play with them yet. I want to use the “Post Captain” miniatures ruleset and AGC to generate some scenarios just for fun.
Recently I took a hiatus from my favorite WWII tactical game (Combat Mission v2 on the PC) and have been getting acquainted with more recent tactical boardgames like the Band of Brothers and Lock and Load Tactical series. The new solitaire card system for LnL is due to arrive any day now, so I look forward to checking that out. One thing I might try is a grand-tactical game of Panzer Command (Victory Games, 1984), as the campaign layer and scenario-generator for tactical battles using LnL’s Heroes of the Motherland. I enjoy making my own scenario maps using real terrain from Google Earth and period maps. And with the VASSAL skills I learned making the AGC modules, it’s fairly easy to drop new custom maps and components into existing games.
I’m also eager to see Atlanta is Ours, the new installment in MMP’s Great Campaigns of the Civil War series. I had a distant relative who was KIA in the Battle of Atlanta, and he was in one of the most elite Union units of the war (the 66th Illinois, a.k.a. Birge’s Western Sharpshooters) so I’d love to play a campaign and follow “Cousin Charlie” through Georgia in 1864.
Gina, thank you so much for your amazing responses to my questions. I am always appreciative when I can see and feel a designer’s passion for their game through the quality, length and detail of their answers. I can truly say that I am very interested in A Glorious Chance and will definitely add this one to my CPO list.
If you are interested in A Glorious Chance, please visit the CPO page on Legion Wargames website at the following link: http://www.legionwargames.com/legion_AGC.html
Hi, after reading this amazing paragraph i am as well happy to share my experience here with mates.
Really great interview/overview; and I’m really looking forward to this game.
I love all the in-depth insights into game designs you bring us – great interviews and very well presented information.
Please keep them coming.
Thanks Norm. I’m glad you like our stuff.