GrogHeads Interviews the Team Behind
The Lamps Are Going Out

Kirk, Hermann, and Tim all join us to chat about their upcoming epic WWI game ~

Brant Guillory, 4 June 2016

All images from pre-production artwork.

Compass Games has had The Lamps Are Going Out on pre-order for a while now.  The design team behind the game – designer Kirk Uhlman, developer Hermann Luttman, and artist Tim Allen – dropped by for a chat.

GrogHeads:  There’s no shortage of WWI games populating the marketplace over the past 5 years or, perhaps inspired by the centennial of the war.   What is it about The Lamps Are Going Out that separates it from the pack and should put it on a gamer’s “must buy” list?lamps-counter2

Kirk Uhlmann: All of the various WWI games bring a different perspective or emphasis for the players.  Lamps came about because I was looking for a WWI game that was historically accurate, had reasonable playing time, gave one an overall perspective of the war, and was fun.  While I enjoyed many of the games on the market, none of them hit the sweet spot for me for how I wanted to game WWI.  So in a sense, Lamps started because the game I wanted to play didn’t exist.  Even if players enjoy marathon monster games, I think Lamps has a place in any gamers’ collection because it plays in an evening, is educational and accurate about the war, is fun without sacrificing realism and conversely, is realistic without being extremely complicated.  My intent was for all the hard work to be up front in the design, so that the end result was a streamlined, fast-playing, accurate simulation of the war from a grand strategic level.

Hermann Luttman: I had this very same concern when Compass first offered to publish the game, as I saw that they had Balance of Power and Fatal Alliances also in the works. But they were not concerned as they immediately realized the same thing that we all already knew – that Lamps is a totally different type of strategic WWI game. It can be played in one long evening, is easy to learn, the graphics are unique and the game is very accessible to non-wargamers. All the essentials of simulating this level of WWI are there, wrapped in a simple and yet attractive package. This sets Lamps apart from most other WWI games and you could easily jump from playing any of the more traditional large hex-and-counter wargames to a game of Lamps immediately thereafter and still get a totally different experience.

GH:  As you’re researching WWI, what sources did you find the most valuable?   Are there any out there that might be viewed as “popular” but were too flawed for your usage?

KU: All of the sources proved valuable, from Barbara Tuchman, Hew Strachan, John Keegan, among others, to a multitude of films and documentaries.  Many new perspectives have come about in recent years, but all have worth, even if they don’t always agree.  In all history, sometimes the written history reflects the reality and sometimes written history becomes the reality.  Regardless, the different views give perspectives one might not have thought about and in combining them all, allows one to gain a sense or allows one to draw conclusions concerning how things were.  My most valuable inspiration was James Dunnigan, whose writings and games I have always held in high regard.  With both his and others’ games, I’ve often learned a great deal of history by seeing the various ways designers incorporate different aspects of game play.  Phil Sabin’s writings always inspired me to carry on by showing that simplification and realism/accuracy are not mutually exclusive.

HL: I’ve also read most of the same popular histories as Kirk. I haven’t found any particularly flawed, but then again I’m not enough of an egghead to realize it. I do have some books that I really enjoy and still go back to. Dennis Showalter’s “Tannenberg: Clash of Empires” is a real favorite of mine, along with the “Western Front Companion” and the “World War One Sourcebook”. The former is just really well written and entertaining and the latter two contain all sorts of really cool detailed information that you won’t find elsewhere.

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GH:  As a player approaching the game for the first time, what are my primary concerns?   What is it I need to master first before I start looking into the nuances of how to succeed and/or thwart my adversaries?

KU: An important idea to know is how many production points you’ll have available at the end of the turn combined with how many fresh armies you have on the board.  This will give you a sense of what you can try to accomplish offensively and also what dangers to be on the look-out for potential vulnerable areas.  Likewise, be aware of how much force your opponent can bring to a given area on their next turn, whether from how many fresh armies they have available along with the possibility of strategic movement bringing in additional forces.

HL: The strength of Lamps is its accessibility and its disarming simplicity. Sure, it is mechanically a pretty easy game to play, but playing your faction competently and understanding the complex ramifications of those easy mechanics is actually really tricky. As Kirk points out, Production Point management is the key but you also need to know how and when to exploit the Event cards that pop up (good and bad). Sometimes you need to not allow them to influence your decision making and sometimes they can win the war for you if used in a timely manner. And there will be times when you need to just flat-out push your luck – guess wrong and you’re screwed; guess right and it can win the war for you!

 

GH:  Most of the attention in WWI is focused on the Western Front and trench warfare.   Obviously the strategic level of this game precludes a focus on trench warfare or other specific tactics.   But the playtest maps online seem to show a large emphasis on the Balkans and the Eastern Front.   How are you balancing the efforts between the various fronts in the game to keep the action all over the board?

HL: Actually, trench warfare is very nicely simulated, even at this scale. The diabolical effects and enticements of attritional warfare are very much present in the game, but in a really straight-forward, yet effective way.

KU: The Western Front is a hotbed of game activity even if only a few spaces of frontage.  While the Balkans and Eastern Front take up more board spaces, it’s essentially a trade-off between movement and combat intensity.  The spaces in the Western Front may not change hands as often throughout the game, but the status within those spaces is constantly changing from turn to turn as the number of fresh/spent armies fluctuate, readiness of heavy artillery, air superiority, trenches, etc.   These changes abstractly represent the small changes in front lines.  Gaining an advantage on the Western Front takes multiple turns of proper planning and strategy in the optimal use of the forces there.   The minor theatres of the Near East and Africa can provide threats to the players in which they might have to divert resources there, hopefully opening up an advantage elsewhere.  Like threatening two pieces at once in chess, the key is to maneuver in such a way that the opponent must prioritize their limited resources such that you can press an advantage.  The Western Front remains the key area, whether you go mainly on the defensive there to press elsewhere or go all-out, in an attempt to breakthrough or force your opponent to divert resources there and be weak elsewhere.

HL:  As far as the “sideshow” fronts are concerned, this aspect of Kirk’s design was one of the main attractions for me. Without creating artificial lures in the design, each sub-theater has very tangible and realistic strategic importance for each side. Since Production Points are so key to the efficient conduct of the war, even those 1 PP areas in the Caucasus, Near East and East Africa become very important. And though it is difficult for the Central Powers to grab them during the game, the very threat of their being able to do so is enough to mold strategy and provoke responses. Even the Balkan campaigns can tip the scales one way or the other because of the domino effect on other fronts. So the importance of the “sideshow” theaters is very subtle and a brilliant design feature.

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GH:  The combination of production, technological research, and economic management almost makes The Lamps Are Going Out feel like a scenario from a 4X computer game.   Where does the strategic steering of the country start to become more of a ‘resource management’ game and trend away from a battle-focused wargame?   How have the players reacted to that high-level view of the war?

The critical part of the game is simply that each player has more army units available (when mobilized) than they do production points in which to reinforce them. ~Kirk Uhlman

KU: I would say that the game is still primarily focused on the military offenses.  The production points available to the players are essentially the logistics system for keeping units supplied and mobilizing new units and represent the war making capability of each nation.  The critical part of the game is simply that each player has more army units available (when mobilized) than they do production points in which to reinforce them.  Technology research happens independently and does not force one to choose between research and military engagements.   With the production points, even if you have every army supplied and attack with each one, you will not be able to resupply them all and thus be weaker in subsequent turns.  Likewise, you might hold back a little to build up for a larger attack later.  So the key points become when and where to attack and with how much.

HL: As I alluded to before, the game is very much constructed to be a resource-management game, but still maintains its wargame-centric feel by making sure that the two elements work hand-in-hand. There’s no war-making without production and no production without successful military campaigns. The playtesters have generally loved the overall approach, especially once it dawns on them how the “dance” between the armies and industry is presented and how important it is to choreograph that dance as efficiently as possible.

 

GH:  What role does diplomacy play in the game compared to the diplomacy that might happen around the table between the players?

HL: Well, Lamps is really not much of a diplomatic game. It is intentionally designed to simulate the general historical course of the war – it is not meant to be a wide-open “fantasy” game of World War One. That’s not to say that everything will definitely happen or in what exact order events will occur. Interestingly, the game tends to follow history but yet keeps that historical progression exciting and tense. So, for example, Italy cannot join the war on the Central Powers side. Allowing them to do so, we felt, would simply create an unbalanced and totally fictitious game. But Italy is not guaranteed to come into the war at all either. It can come in via one of two Event Cards – but – there are more game turns than event cards each year. So it is possible that the “Italy Enters the War” cards both get pushed to the end of the war and never enter the game. It’s not likely, but it is possible.

KU: The Event decks primarily guide the diplomatic developments (though some events are contingent on board status or certain conditions).  In a four-player game, the players on the same team sometimes have different ideas on how to conduct the war and the strategizing and “high-level talks” have at times been quite entertaining.

HL:  In the four-player game, as Kirk points out, players can themselves create diplomatic incidents and problems simply with their own disagreements on how to go about playing the game.

lamps-Map1

 

GH:  A lot of games are being built with card decks that include a variety of historical occurrences whose sequence is shuffled, but whose events are still pulled from the headlines of the time.   Is there any inclusion of events that could have happened, but didn’t?

HL: For one, there’s the Austro-Hungarian Navy Sorties card. We felt that event was a reasonable “what if” to throw in there, but since it didn’t really happen the game effect is minimal (though it can be annoying to the Triple Entente player if it shows up at the wrong time). Other historical events are included but because of the card pull mechanism, none are guaranteed to show up or in the frequency they did historically. Another example is the Brusilov Offensive card. I believe that there were actually two such offensives launched in the war, but in the game this one Event Card could be drawn from zero to three times.lamps-counter1

KU: One of the goals of the game was to be educational, so a lot of the cards relate to historic events.  Other cards that have particular effects might have a more generic event name, such as “Inspired Leadership,” as opposed to “Lusitania Sunk” since we don’t want to confuse participants with a detailed fictional event.  There are multiple historic events that happened but in a particular game, might not happen, such as Italy joining the war, U.S. entry, etc.  The effects of various cards affecting U.S. entry, for example, depend on previous events and the timeframe so that the Isolationist movement might have a greater effect in one game or the Atlanticists in another.  Not all cards are drawn in the event decks, and some cards are shuffled back in so there’s variability in terms of how many don’t get drawn from each deck.

 

GH:  What was the biggest change that got identified in playtesting?   How did you integrate the playtest feedback into the overall game design?

KU: Initially, we had players allocating production points towards research itself, with the option of spending one or two to increase their odds.  What we found in testing is that whichever side was struggling could rarely afford to pursue extra technology investment, which proved a double whammy.  In the end, we decided that the amount of money spent on research compared to actual direct military expenditures was of much lower resolution than the production points represented and was essentially an unrealistic way of representing the research.  Both sides had on-going research that was very intense throughout the war, so it became more realistic to have an independent research phase on each turn, and this also allows the technology to develop at a believable rate for both sides.   There are event cards that give additional chances for research and because of the intense competition of matching the opponent as well as espionage, some cards give effects depending on the technology of the opponent.

HL: The biggest one I remember also relates to the Technology Cards. The original game had the Tech Cards providing universal effects. In other words, if you earned the card, its advantages were felt throughout all your forces in the game. When Compass signed on to do the game, we realized that we would need something a little more “gritty” and wargame-like regarding the representation of the Heavy Artillery and Air components of the Tech Card effects. So with the great help of our friends Fred Manzo and Colby Duerk, we developed a more sophisticated mechanism that actually had players deploy their artillery and air units in specific places. This added a further strategic element to the player’s decision-making.

 

 

Lamps-techcards_3GH:  What sources did you draw on for the visual design of the map and (especially) the cards?

Tim Allen:  When beginning any project I like to browse through any contemporary pictures, art, and literature I can find on the games topic.  In this case, I went through a lot of the old magazines and newspapers that were published during the First World War.  I was inspired by these to create a look for the event cards that mimic those 3 inch high letters that splashed across the front page (see attachment for an example), usually followed by at least one exclamation mark.  the technology cards were partly inspired by various journals and magazines that were published during the war, many purporting to be more ‘in depth” than newspapers.  Originally I wanted to add a little blurb about the event card headlines, like I did on the technology cards, but there were issues with having enough room for both that and an iconic picture, and in the end I decided to drop that part.  I regret now that I didn’t have more time and space to make that happen.  Most of the “headlines” are obvious but a few are sufficiently obscure to warrant having a blurb to explain them.  Oh well!  I don’t think there has been a game project yet that I didn’t want to redo something on it after I turned it in.

 

GH:  Help out the audience a bit here:   “If you like _________ games, you’re going to enjoy The Lamps Are Going Out, but if your preference is more _______ then you might want to steer clear.”

KU: If you like grand strategic games that are fast playing and realistic, you’ll like Lamps.  James Dunnigan’s World War I is a great game and what got me interested in the war in the first place, but I think a game that covers more aspects of the war, gets away from the hex and counter system and old style attack odds ratio tables and plays in an intuitive and streamlined way is just what people need who are interested in gaming WWI.

HL:  Hmmmm …. I wouldn’t want to steer anyone clear certainly! But I guess if you’re used to playing games with three-maps, 1000 counters, a dozen charts and tables and 60-page rulebooks …. this game might not be for you. Lamps is lean and mean, utilizing “design for effect” in about the best way I’ve seen it done. To be able to get the right feel for attritional warfare in such a simple manner is remarkable. It does remind me of an upgrading or re-thinking of Dunnigan’s wonderful World War I game, which both Kirk and I really admire.

 

GH:  If you could invite one historical figure from the First World War to sit down and play The Lamps Are Going Out with you, who would you bring back to game with?

KU: Probably Winston Churchill.  We know what a great leader he became in the Second World War and his position over the Navy in the First gave him a unique perspective to be involved in many details at the high levels of government but not so in the mix (in the trenches, if you will) such that he could give objective observations about the development of the war, and the different discussions and strategies over its course.  Thus, he would be a tough opponent and I would love to hear his insight.

I would love to play this game with either Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffmann or General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. ~Hermann Luttman

HL:  Well, I’m particularly interested in the great German generals and staff officers who have kind of been overlooked or ignored to a certain degree when leadership in WWI is discussed. So I would love to play this game with either Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffmann (of Tannenberg fame) or General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (who commanded in East Africa). Their ability to excel in their particular circumstances fascinates me and sharing some time with them would be awesome.

 

GH:  What should we have asked you if we’d known what to ask you?

KU: I’ll answer by stating that a great many people (including me) spent so many years studying the details of the Second World War and often overlooked WWI.  There’s no denying the scale of warfare for the Second, but there are just as many details and critical world changes from the First that I’ve learned – the end of empires, cultural political awareness, border changes that affect us to this day, and WWI marks THE point of the beginnings of modern society as we know it.  The more I learn about WWI the more fascinated I become.  I would also encourage everyone if they get the opportunity to visit Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, the official United States World War I Museum.  They have so many artifacts and interactive exhibits along with tanks, artillery… you name it.

Thanks for stopping by guys!

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