The Tuesday Interview – Command Post Games
Marshall Barrington gives us an extended low-down on Command Post Games ~
Jim Owczarski, 7 March 2017
I first caught wind of Command Post Games via its Kickstarter for Pub Battles: Brandywine. Here was a war game played on a period map, made of canvas no less, with blocks that looked an awful lot like kriegsspiel pieces, and that trumpeted that it had fewer than five pages of rules. That, a beautiful brass measuring compass, and, oh yes, their kriegsspiel dice, made me a pretty quick fan.
Given all this, I decided to ask CPG’s Marshall Barrington about the company’s past, its future plans, and what it has against the the Little Corporal.
So, following form, could you introduce yourselves? Who is Command Post Games and what do each of you do?
- Yvonne (aka god): She is the primary owner/investor. She inspired us setup and run our first Kickstarter! She helps with web sites and PR.
- Aaron Wood: Graphic Design. He does amazing work. He is a true artist. Excellent at picking out colors, shapes, and overall themes.
- Marshall: Game Design, Development, Shipping, marketing, and anything else that just needs to get done!
- Elijah Dicks: History Department at Arapahoe Community College. He has been key in getting the new mega game format going.
- Michael Sparrow: Coordinating and running events and meetup group promotion. He’s also helping us with new mega games.
Prior to Pub Battles, I imagine the game for which you were best known was your new edition of Supremacy, viz., Supremacy 2020. It came through a successful Kickstarter and shipped a couple years ago. What was your relationship to that game, if any, and what made you want to bring out a new version?
We were just big fans of the original. We caught a good break with getting the rights to the name.
Supremacy is a classic. As amazing as it was, it was broken. A diamond in the rough. We spent about 10 years working on Supremacy trying to fix it. We probably have about 10 different rule sets for it now. Most of them didn’t work but trying to fix Supremacy turned us into designers.
We finally did get it fixed. We wanted to share it with everybody. We didn’t want to see a great game like this just die out and disappear. This was our biggest motive.
In hindsight, what are you proudest of with that game and what would you now do differently?
I really love what we did with the conventional combat. We suffered and put up with it in the original game. It was okay because we always considered that a side show. The real game was the nuclear build up and confrontation.
The conventional fight almost outshines the rest of the game now. Often we don’t want to play with nukes because we want to finish out the normal ground war to see how it turns out.
I’m biased of course but see for yourself. Play Risk, A&A and Supremacy without nukes. I guarantee Supremacy will be more accurate, fun, and feel more like a real war / campaign. Maybe we should start a Supremacy Challenge?
What would we do differently? Well, some of the rule sets that came out of our ‘fixing efforts’ were actually way better. We didn’t use our best rule set. Why? They were just too different: No market. No resources. No factory cards. No money. So different that we felt it wasn’t Supremacy anymore.
Our primary goal was to fix the design and take back to its original intent. We accomplished this but in some ways the game feels… old, dated. It is still the same primary engine of the 80s.
There is new board game design ‘tech’ available now. The game could run faster and smoother. Less down time and work. More player engagement. That’s why we have new editions right? We have plans for a retro, cold war edition of Supremacy. Supremacy 1950? We are thinking that would be the time and place to introduce a complete ground up, revamp of the rules set.
I read with great interest your account of the Supremacy 2020 mega game. That’s a whole lot of time and effort to put on something for which you don’t charge; and it looks to have been a big success. Not to put too fine a point on it: why put yourselves through all that?
LOL. I’ve been asking myself the same thing. I’m not exactly sure why yet. I feel like we are being pulled and compelled to do this. We’ve been approached by about four or five different people from different places to go in this direction. For now we are going along for the ride to see where it leads.
It is an amazing and wonderful thing. I’m not sure how you monetize it as a company or even if it can be. I was discussing big multi-player games with a friend the other day. He said: “Why would you want to make a game that 40+ people can play? You only make one sale. It is better to make a two player game and sell it to 40 people.”
There is a lot of truth there but I’m wondering if there could be other ways this could work. At the very least, it is a good vehicle for PR. It increases awareness of our company, brand and hobby. Some of this may translate into sales later.
This could cause trouble too however. After a Mega Supremacy game, will they be disappointed with the plain, vanilla, family board game format? We set the bar really high with the first impression. That is a tough act to follow.
Anything new in the Supremacy line coming in the near future? Those of us who remember yearn for the Nagel-hued mushroom clouds.
Yes! The all new Fortuna is out now. It is very cool. Rather than using random events to create hurricanes, earthquakes, and strikes, we used them to control the actions of minor countries. This brings them to life. Instead of just sitting there waiting to be invaded, the minors will build up, seize your factories, invade their neighbors and try to acquire nukes on the black market.
We also have a whole new line of expansion pieces about to come out:
- MBTs & Subs Armor can fire first giving you the edge on offense. Subs can destroy resources transported at sea.
- Fighters & Carriers After players announce attacks, fighters can react by flying into the battle and supporting either side. Fighters fire first and can pick their target, so air superiority can be decisive. Carriers, of course, allow you to project this air power at sea.
- Bombers & SLBMs This fills out the nuclear triad with strategic bombers and SLBMs. With the right combination, nuclear war can be winnable. Enemy launched SLBMs along your coast can destroy your ICBMs before you can launch! What do you do then? Scramble the bombers. They can exact revenge even after you’ve been destroyed; assuming they can get past the enemy’s fighters.
These are all in the minimal, sleek style of Supremacy. We are working on miniature versions of these for later in the year.
I will not lie, your Pub Battles line caused heart palpitations with some of us hereabout, myself certainly included. What inspired you to create these small, kriegsspiel-y games with such lovely components?
Thank you! We really love it too. Many people assume we were inspired by the Simmons Games. Surprisingly not, though we can see why. Our primary inspiration was the Kriegsspiel. Then fate stepped in, adding a few random twists, and additions along the way.
Yvonne discovered the canvas. We used that on Supremacy and it was gorgeous. Most people love it. So we started with real Kriegsspiel type maps on canvas. Seeing the first one, Yvonne remarked: “Wow, this must have been what their real maps must have been like!” Well, the next logical questions are: Why not do them in the style of maps from that era? What did they really use? The result was absolutely stunning. We couldn’t imagine anything better.
We started with cardboard counters for pieces. They just looked really cheesy on that map. I love Columbia Games. They do amazing work. I like the feel of the hard wood blocks and they do fit the period. We experimented with all different styles, shapes and sizes of wood till we found something that was easy to see and grab.
Designer and play tester Barry Kendall recommended the ‘rectangles’. He plays lots of minis. He strongly urged a rectangular shape block. Before that we were using flat square tiles about the size of Scrabble pieces. Once we tried Barry’s idea, we couldn’t see using anything else.
Related to the above, how long was the development process from first inspiration to release? How big is your play test team?
About four years all together for Brandywine. Now that we have the basic system down, it is much quicker to develop new battles.
We have about five guys helping us with Pub Battles. Another group of five helping with Supremacy.
Other than the Kriegsspiel, were there other rule sets that you looked to in creating those for Pub Battles?
Yes, we leaned heavily on Volley & Bayonet. I’ve always loved Frank Chadwick’s work. He’s an amazing designer. In many ways, Pub Battles is a mini game played on a small map with blocks. Influence from Columbia Games shines through here and there. We got the ‘chit pull’ mechanic from Supremacy. Strange how ideas come from unexpected places sometimes.
I’ve read on-line criticisms that your rule set is either oversimplified, too open to interpretation, or both. Is any of this fair or is it just grognards convinced that rules are best judged by their heft?
Great question. It is a subject we have been debating fiercely ourselves. We could probably make an entire article out of just this. Some people think we have forgotten or missed things. Most of this is by design.
What is the goal of good technical writing? To explain everything clearly? This is what many gamers commonly think. This approach results in 30-100 page rule books. How many potential players do these long rules scare away? Tons. Why is our hobby so small? I feel this is a major contributing factor.
We took a good technical writing class last year. They have done lots of research into how the eyes and mind process technical writing and data. We posed this question to the experts. Their answer? Bad rules attempt to explain everything. This results in information overload that overwhelms the reader and makes it very difficult to learn and find data later. Less is more. Good rules explain what most of the intended audience will need.
A play tester asked me where the streams were? Where are the woods? He advised that we include a map key and rules for all of this. I asked him what he thought they were. He correctly identified them. So we decided to do some research and conduct a little experiment.
We showed the map and list of terrain types in the game to a random sampling of people: from six-year-olds all the way up to 70 year-olds. Male, female, gamers, non gamers, you name it. With no warning or instruction, we asked them all to identify each type of terrain on the map. The results? Everyone was 100% correct on everything. So yes, it would have been more clear to add several pages of rules on this but why? The audience doesn’t need it.
Look at Monopoly. The rule could simply say: “For your turn, roll the dice and move around the board.” Most people can follow this but it’s not clear is it? For serious gamers, many questions can come to mind. Can I go backwards? Can I count only 1 die? Can I subtract them? Multiply them? Can I save a die result and add it to part of my roll for next turn? The rules don’t say. They aren’t clear. Should we make a 60 page rule book for Monopoly so that all this is cleared up?
We had no line of sight rules at all to begin with. I preferred it this way. This should be mostly common sense. Can I fire my artillery at your troops behind a hill, town or woods? Heck no, how could they see them?
Here is an example from Pub Battles. We had no line of sight rules at all to begin with. I preferred it this way. This should be mostly common sense. Can I fire my artillery at your troops behind a hill, town or woods? Heck no, how could they see them? A number of people objected loudly, so we reluctantly added an optional rule that quickly mentions artillery must be able to ‘see the target’. You can imagine all the unanswered questions left: What if I’m partly on a hill? What if they are on a hill too? What if they are partly in the woods? Slightly behind the wood line? How deep into the woods do they need to be?
We believe that most players can quickly sort this out with some common sense. Most of the time it never comes up. When it does, ask your opponent what would happen in a real battle? Still not sure? Roll a die.
Players commonly make up their own rules for things that are not covered, or things they can’t find quickly. We did that in a game of Zombicide the other day. “What does ‘dual weapons’ mean? I can’t find it in the rules. Okay, let’s just say you roll for both weapons at once. Fine.” Happens all the time. Now, it turns out it was in the rules. We just couldn’t find it because they were too long, detailed and with too many graphics. Information overload. What good is it then?
There are many things that the rules don’t cover in Kriegsspiel. So what? The umpire just looks at it, rolls a die and makes a determination. Much like a Dungeon Master does in Dungeons and Dragons. Can I scale that castle wall? I don’t know. I guess. What are the odds of pulling that off?
Here is a great question: How many Advanced Squad Leader players are there in the world? How many D&D/RPG players? That should tell us war gamers something. We can learn a lot from this. Actually, the Kriegsspiel has much more in common with D&D than it does with modern war games.
Note how this also ties into what we are doing with Mega Supremacy. Mega Supremacy is a ‘wargame’ played as an RPG / kriegsspiel. It was wildly successful and popular with all demographics: men, women, young, old, electronic obsessed teens, black, white, brown, red, yellow, different socioeconomic groups. They all loved it and could play it. They all wanted to do it again. They were all disappointed that the game was over after only five hours. Some people said it was the best game they’d ever played. Some said they would pay money to play. Some said it was what all board games should be.
One guy told me that he only came because his friends coerced him and that he didn’t think he would like it. He never plays board games and he hates games like Risk. (Author’s Note: Who doesn’t?) After the first turn he told me that he was really surprised. This was fun, he really liked it and was glad he came.
I guarantee that if we handed them a ‘clear’ ASL or World in Flames rule book when they walked in, they all would have ran for the doors.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an old, hardcore war gamer. I grew up on Russian Campaign, Squad Leader, Empires in Arms (Author’s Note: I wonder, why the nice Napoleonic game isn’t first?) and World in Flames. I love those games. I don’t mean to bash them. I love our hobby but if it is going to survive, I think we need to look at some big changes and you know what? Those changes don’t have to be surrendering to elves, dragons, and video games. I think war gaming can be bigger and better than it ever was, for both the grognards and the mere mortals. To do this, we need to start adapting in big ways.
Your first battle was Brandywine, the second Little Big Horn, and the third Antietam. Why these battles and what do you have against the Napoleonic era?
LOL. We love the Napoleonic era. That’s why we are saving it for last!
We didn’t want to start with headliners like Waterloo and Gettysburg. We thought it would be better to do some smaller, lesser known battles first. Little Bighorn was to prove the system. It’s a pretty extreme battle. If you can model that well, you have a strong foundation. Most game systems can’t explain battles like that. They break down.
Marengo is in play test now. We have new rules for light infantry and cavalry. For those that are familiar with the system, Guards and Cavalry can move and then combat immediately. They don’t have to wait until the end of the turn. The enemy can’t slip away. You can imagine how deadly this could be under Napoleon who can most likely unleash them at the exact time he wants.
Successful map kriegsspiel have been run on conflicts well into the modern era. Any chance we’ll see a World War II Pub Battle in the future?
Oh yes, we have already been lining up maps from the Ardennes. We have made several sets of sample pieces for color tests of WWII uniforms. We also have a good combat system for WWII –it came out of all the Supremacy ‘failures’.
The Ardennes could be nicely adapted to a Pub Battles format. I’d like to see it come as two games in one: 1940 and 1944. It would be great to compare and contrast the campaigns.
This is still in the early stages now. It will likely be another year or so before this is ready.
After you get Antietam out the door, what’s next for CPG?
These are the current Pub Battles in the queue: Marengo, Gettysburg, Waterloo, Austerlitz, 1st & 2nd Manassas, Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg, and Bunker Hill.
After that we are looking at Leuthen and want to explore how Pub Battles could work in Ancient times.
We are also currently working on a new operational/campaign scale system. We will do it in the same graphical style as Pub Battles. This is very exciting but is still a few years out.
Anything else you’d like to let the GrogHeads know that I haven’t asked about?
Why do we play war games? I remember the first question posed by Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg: What if you were in command?
I feel like most games today more resemble accounting or engineers pouring over technical manuals of specs than actual command.
In my humble opinion, the best games are about people, not tables of data, weapon specs and never ending rules. How do we interact with each other? Communication, leadership, deception and teamwork. When do these things work well together? When do they break down? This is great fun. If we can make war gaming more like this, we can open up the hobby to a much broader market. Everybody enjoys these things. Everybody can do them. Everybody wants to learn these things. We just proved that with Mega-Supremacy.
I think we need to get back to that initial promise: What if YOU were in command?
Many thanks to Marshall for taking the time.