I have done one other interview with Scott Muldoon (Cataclysm: A Second World War from GMT Games) in the past, and really enjoyed working with him. So, when I saw the reveal of the cover art for a new game from Hollandspiele called Bitskrieg and saw that Scott and his son Miles designed the game, I immediately reached out and Scott was more than excited to talk with me. You will also notice that Tom and Mary Russell answer some of the questions in the interview or even add their insight into some of Scott’s answers, so this might be my first 4 person interview!
Grant: Scott, thanks for agreeing to another TPA Designer Interview. What is Bitskrieg about and who is the target audience? What age is the game designed for? At what age does it work the best?
Scott: Bitskrieg is the game of tiny tank battles. Each player gets a platoon of five tanks and maneuvers on an 8×8 grid to destroy their opponent’s tanks. Nobody knows why they have it in for each other. Are they fighting over a simple misunderstanding? The last slice of pizza? Arctic water rights? What’s important is that they will stop at nothing to destroy each other, except maybe flags. They might stop to sit on some flags.
The target audience is anybody with a spare half an hour that would like to use tanks to blow up other tanks, with a simple mix of strategy, tactics, and good dice rolling. Bitskrieg was specifically designed to be played with my son, Miles, who was five years old at the time (April 2016). Really, anyone with an interest in using tanks to blow up tanks should enjoy this game.
Grant: Where did you come up with the idea for a tank on tank combat game designed with younger players in mind?
Scott: For several months, I played World of Tanks: Blitz almost daily on my iPad – I liked it not just because of the historical wargaming connection, but as a “first-person shooter for old people,” the pace not being as frenetic as most other online shooters. I started work on a game project that would bring the tactical nuance and exciting action of WOT to board games. This project is still in the alpha test stage of design, and may eventually be published, but it shares very little with Bitskrieg except topic.
Miles would sometimes watch me play WOT and he naturally found it exciting. Playing the tablet game himself was beyond his ability, but I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he and I could play a version of my more complicated design together? I thought about my other tank project and how I could boil down those ideas into a more basic framework. That weekend we spent a couple hours working out the details of that framework, built a prototype using plastic tiles and a checkerboard, and played a few test games. It worked really well right from the start, which almost never happens with my designs.
I polled people on Facebook for a name, and my friend Fran came through with Bitskrieg. Stroke of genius, that.
Grant: How was it working with your son Miles on this design? Miles, how was it working with your dad? Who had the final say on design decisions?
Scott: Miles is a very enthusiastic designer. He has lots of ideas for things to add to a game, which I think is really where all designers start. Sometimes it was hard to convince him that less is more. I suppose if sales permit, we could release an expansion…
Miles: It was fun. My favorite part of designing the game was deciding to add obstacles, because it makes the game better.
Tom: Mary, would we be interested in an expansion?
Mary: Heck yeah.
Grant: What is the goal of Bitskrieg?
Scott: A player wins when they destroy all their opponent’s tanks, or if they start their turn with two of their own tanks occupying the two squares with their opponent’s flags. A flag win is harder to pull off, but allows a player to pressure an opponent who is content to sit back and wait to shoot.
Grant: Why did you go with random setup for the game rather than identified scenarios? Who is the artist for the board?
Scott: Bitskrieg is not strictly historical. Players do not represent a particular nationality or doctrine, although the technology (such as it is) maps vaguely to World War II. Going back to the inspiration of World of Tanks, you don’t know exactly what map or team you’re going to have before you push the start button. I like that there’s an element of play before you make your first move.
“Bitskrieg is not strictly historical. Players do not represent a particular nationality or doctrine, although the technology (such as it is) maps vaguely to World War II. Going back to the inspiration of World of Tanks, you don’t know exactly what map or team you’re going to have before you push the start button.”
Wil Alambre is the artist for the entire project. He immediately captured the strange mix of whimsy and steampunk faux realism that we were hoping to evoke.
Tom: Random set-up also gives it a LOT of replayability. Without even getting into optional terrain rules, there are already 1,947,792 different board configurations before you even decide what tanks to use and where to put your flags.
Touching on Wil, he’s someone that I’ve known, online at least, for a long, long time; we first met on a USENET newsgroup. He’s an avid boardgamer, but he’s definitely more of a euro guy; I think his comp copy of Bitskrieg will be his first wargame. Working with him was a really smooth process from our end. About half-way through, we had a pretty radical change in the art direction, and he had no problem with switching gears.
Grant: What different types of tanks are there? How were the counters designed to assist the younger players? Miles, which is your favorite tank to use?
Scott: There are four types of tanks – light, medium, heavy, and tank destroyers. The first three represent the tradeoffs of speed, armor, and armament. Tank destroyers are a bit tricky because while they have a good gun, they can only shoot in a straight line, and they are themselves easy to destroy.
The design goal of being a simple game with a robust decision space meant that unit values had to be few and limited to a range of small numbers. This pointed in the direction of having values interact (where sensible) directly with the trusty ubiquitous six-sided die. Hence, “to hit” and “to damage” rolls are based on rolling against a simple value. Limiting ratings to speed, attack power, and defense power, keeps the focus on the core actions of the game–using your tanks to move and shoot.
Miles: My favorite type is the medium tank, because it wasn’t too slow or too fast, it’s very medium and modest.
Grant: What different types of terrain are there in the game? Why did you make the terrain a part of the advanced play only? Was this a decision that came out of playtesting?
Scott: Playing with the basic rules, there is only one kind of terrain that’s not the base “clear”–obstacles. The most important tactical consideration is driving and shooting around obstacles.
The advanced game has three kinds of terrain that loosely map to “water”, “woods”, and “buildings”. They either block movement, shooting, or both. The effects came first and the real-world representation after.
Grant: What actions do players have to choose from during their turn? Is the turn set up as “I-go-you-go”?
Scott: Bitskrieg is “I-go-you-go” with a twist. When it’s your turn, you can select one tank to move or fire. Then you flip it over to its “finished” side and can’t select it again, temporarily. Instead of picking a tank to do something with, you can unflip all of your tanks back to their “ready” side. No matter what you choose, it becomes your opponent’s turn, and they are faced with the same dilemma.
Grant: I like that flexibility with your actions. I can’t wait to try this game out with my daughters; Jane (7) and Marin (5). Firing seems to be a pretty complex procedure requiring range counting, a range roll and a damage roll. How have younger players taken to this process? How has the fire action changed since the beginning of the development?
Scott: It’s true, firing is the most complicated part of the game, but not too difficult for kids to handle on their own once they learn it.
The biggest change in the game’s development was to eliminate “line of sight” rules. I think it’s too much to expect children to adjudicate whether one tank can see another using the usual straight-line model, one that every adult wargamer has had to argue over since the dawn of the hobby. The first version of the rules just punted and used the usual “draw a line from the center of the square…” sort of line of sight rule, but I knew it was going to have to change if I wanted the game to be fully digestible for children.
“The biggest change in the game’s development was to eliminate “line of sight” rules. I think it’s too much to expect children to adjudicate whether one tank can see another using the usual straight-line model, one that every adult wargamer has had to argue over since the dawn of the hobby.”
It was a rare brainstorm session with my wife, Amy, that untied the knot. We were already “counting” range to determine hit difficulty, and she suggested just allowing people to count range in any direction. I had been hung up on firing being a straight line, but Amy’s idea has the virtue of incorporating a sort of obscurement modifier without forcing players to remember it numerically–going around obstacles organically adds to the range. This “design for effect” makes tanks behind obstacles much harder to hit unless you’re right on top of them, and all without having to introduce complicated sight models. It’s probably the most brilliantly unorthodox part of the design.
Grant: How does armor work in the firing step?
Scott: If you manage to hit, you roll one or two dice (as indicated by your tank’s fire rating). If either die is greater than the target tank’s armor rating, it’s destroyed. Easy-peasy.
Grant: How do players rebuild their tanks? Why is this limited to only 2 times per match?
Scott: Instead of moving or firing with a tank, or unflipping all your tanks, you can use one of your Rebuilds to bring back a destroyed tank. We introduced the rebuilds to give players a chance to overcome fluke losses early in the game, and it can salve the sting when some mean adult blows up your stuff. Too many rebuilds would make the game drag on too long, though.
Grant: What are some of the advanced rules included with the base game? Why did you want to add these as advanced rules?
Scott: Like a good Warner Brothers cartoon, we think Bitskrieg works on multiple levels – Leave No Wargamer Behind. The mechanics are simple enough for kids to remember and apply, but there are tactical nuances such as when to unflip your tanks, or how to exploit matchups and terrain, that keep more experienced gamers interested. Even so, that first game designer impulse to “add more” is hard to silence. If two experienced players want to explore extra chrome like flanking, or bounding fire, we’ve provided some ideas to add more crinkle to the crunch.
“Like a good Warner Brothers cartoon, we think Bitskrieg works on multiple levels – Leave No Wargamer Behind. The mechanics are simple enough for kids to remember and apply, but there are tactical nuances such as when to unflip your tanks, or how to exploit matchups and terrain, that keep more experienced gamers interested.”
Grant: Can you take us through the anatomy of a tank counter and show us the different types. Who designed the counters?
Tom: I did the counter layouts; I generally handle the counters for almost all of our games, which helps control the art costs. My job was really easy this time around. First off, I had Wil’s artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting as far as making the counter look attractive. Secondly, Scott’s prototype counters were so clean that I didn’t really need to alter the basic layout all that much. About the only real substantial contribution I made had to do with the fire rating. The fire rating is a “1” or a “2”, and that’s the number of dice that you roll. Rather than using a numeral, we used an icon with one or two dice, respectively. Our thinking is that it’s easier for kids to remember and to grasp. When you’re aiming for a younger audience, you want to make things as visual as possible, as easy as possible, and you don’t want to risk them getting one factor mixed up with another. So the icons helped to remove that risk.
Grant: How long have you been working on this design? When does it release?
Scott: Originally, Bitskrieg was going to be my entry in the Wargame PNP contest on BGG for 2016. I found out about the contest very late, however, and didn’t produce playtest files in time for submission. That was 18 months ago, though the design was more or less finished in those first couple weeks. I didn’t create a prototype with “real” (non-scribble) artwork until I submitted a copy to Hollandspiele.
FYI – here’s the first public post about Bitskrieg: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1548199/wip-bitskrieg-tiny-tank-battle-game-idea-phase
Mary: Right now we’re looking at a late October release. We’re waiting on the proof copy from our printer. Once we get it, we need to give it a once-over and a twice-over and a thrice-over.
Tom: We’re using a special counter template designed specifically for the game, so we also need to make sure that that template works successfully.
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process? Please give a few specific examples.
Tom: Honestly, this was such a clean design, right from the get-go, that we didn’t have to do too much on our end. When you have a game that’s this simple, this clean, this elemental, there’s no need to check if rule 10.6.2(b) conflicts with rule 11.4.1 – because there is no rule 10.6.2(b) or 11.4.1. There’s no edge cases to consider or exceptions to hunt down. Playtesting was basically about confirming that the design was as perfect as it looked, and it was.
The only potential problem we identified in testing, and it was very early on in the process once we agreed to publish it, and solved almost immediately, had to do with the set-up. As I mentioned before, there are 1,947,792 ways to set up the Obstacles on the board. But 1,723,728 of them will cluster at least four of the six obstacles toward one half of the board, and if a player chose that as his starting edge, it might confer an advantage. Scott and I shot some ideas back and forth, some of them pretty radical, but the simplest solution was the best and the one we went with. It’s a variant of the old “pie rule” – you cut the pie, I choose the slice. So one player chooses which two edges will be the home edges, he chooses an axis, and then his opponent chooses which of those two he wants.
The best part about playtesting a game that’s already perfect and done is that I can pretend that I’m doing real work when really I’m just having a blast.
Grant: Miles, how did you like designing this game? Do you feel that you will work toward being a designer like your dad? If so, do you have any other ideas for games?
Miles: It was fun designing the game. I like making games in general. I would like to become a designer. I want to make a game called TANK WAR that is a solitaire game with cards and a timer.
Grant: Miles, what is your favorite part about designing games?
Miles: I just like everything about it.
Grant: How has it been working with Hollandspiele? What type of feedback and direction did Tom and Mary provide?
Scott: Hollandspiele are great. I love Mary and Tom’s approach to everything. They know what they want, and what constraints they operate under. I think Tom’s designs are very smart in that they tend to focus on a handful of ideas or new approaches and then cut away everything that does not support them. I’m pleased they think Bitskrieg is a good fit for their company.
The whole process has been very prompt and agreeable. I would love to work with them again in the future.
Tom: We’d love to work with you again too, and I even would’ve said that if you hadn’t said those nice things about me. Which, thanks for doing that!
Mary: Yes, we’d love to work with Miles again. And maybe even Scott.
Thanks so much guys for your thoughts on the game. I am really impressed to see Miles be into design and have a goal of creating a solo play game. I look forward to this game, as my daughters and I are getting tired of playing The Little Orchard, Unicorn Glitterluck and Spot It! I think it is about time that I start teaching them some battlefield strategies and tactics.