GrogHeads Interviews Joel Billings of 2By3 Games

Boggit, 7 February 2015

Joel Billings of 2By3 Games talks to Boggit about War in the West and game design in general

As always, click images to enlarge

GrogHeads:  Joel, thank you for agreeing to talk to Grogheads about your recent work. War in the West is your latest release and shows some interesting innovations in the development of 2By3 games.

Tell us about yourself. How did you get into wargame design?

Joel Billings:  I started SSI in 1979 when I had just graduated from college. I was a long time player of historical wargames and had tinkered with various game rules and created miniature campaigns. I started SSI because I thought computers were a natural evolution for wargames which would allow for better fog of war and an AI opponent.

War in the West ships with 10 scenarios, including 3 full campaigns, and two introductory scenarios.

War in the West ships with 10 scenarios, including 3 full campaigns, and two introductory scenarios.

GH: Your recent products of War in the East and War in the West are massive in scope and detail, which might be potentially off-putting to all but the most hardcore gamers. Tell us about the design decisions in making such apparently challenging games.

JB: The first decision was whether to go with an IGOUGO system or a plot and execution system. Gary had used the later in his previous Eastern Front games. We decided to go with the IGOUGO because we thought it would attract more players as it could be made to be a very addictive game where you want to keep making one more move, one more combat. This is especially true in 1941 Russia. Of course we wanted the extreme detail that people expect from Gary, and that comes from the database.

GH: What would you say has been your biggest challenge in designing War in the West? How did you resolve that issue?

JB: We knew the air war needed to be handled better in WitW. In WitE airpower was basically in a supporting role for the ground troops and we abstracted a lot of this. In WitW, not only was airpower critical in providing support for the Allied ground forces, there was the strategic bombing campaign to deal with as well as the importance of airpower on gaining the naval supremacy required for an amphibious invasion. To deal with this we designed a completely new air system which uses an execution phase that comes before each player’s ground unit movement phase. This is a very unique system but we think it does the job.

An extract from the essential player’s handbook. I love this game but it is really, really deep.

An extract from the essential player’s handbook. I love this game but it is really, really deep.

GH: What is your advice for the new player who is suffering from “information overload”?  How can they scale back their decision-making to help ease into the game?  Conversely, how does a play know when to kick off the training wheels and start managing every aspect of the game that’s available?

JB: It’s critical to start with the smallest scenario. In WitW that’s Husky. We have 5 video tutorials that take you through the basics for that scenario so best to have the game up while watching the videos. In WitW you can let the AI create your air directives based on a few priorities you set. So my suggestion is to take advantage of that and use this help. You can read the short Player’s Handbook which is a series topics each covered in one page. Read what you need to read or what you’re interested in finding out more about. Once you’ve played that first scenario a few times, ideally from both sides at least once, you’ll probably be ready for a new scenario. Next, I’d suggest trying a medium sized scenario that doesn’t last more than 10 or 15 turns. Once you’ve done this, you should be ready for the longer campaigns.

A snap from the Air Ops 1 video tutorial. These videos are extremely helpful.

A snap from the Air Ops 1 video tutorial. These videos are extremely helpful.

GH: War in the West covers Sicily to Berlin. However the War in the West was a war in process from September 1939. What were the design considerations for excluding the earlier war in Europe, or the war in North Africa, which were after all part of the ‘War in the West’? Do you have any plans to address these earlier parts of the War in future expansions?

JB: We felt starting in 1943 would be a good place to start on because it would cover the largest of the land campaigns in the west. It would also allow us to avoid having to design a complete naval game as the naval war was mostly resolved. We knew we had to deal with the air war and amphibious landings and logistics in ways we hadn’t before, and that seemed enough challenge for one game. As for future projects, we’re now working on an expansion that contains scenarios from North Africa starting with the Allied invasion of Algeria and going through the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia. We’re not sure what will come after that, but we expect to be working with this system for some time to come.

Prior to launching my assault on Sicily, I review my air planning choices.

Prior to launching my assault on Sicily, I review my air planning choices.

GH: War in the West is a massive development undertaking, and clearly shows “links” to your previous Magnum Opus of War in the East. Once any continuation/DLC/expansion work (if any) is done with War in the West in what direction will future plans go as potential projects? Will those projects take a similar form to the recent work like War in the West and War in the East?

JB: We don’t yet know for sure. We know we want to continue working with the War in the West system to produce additional products, but there’s also a chance we’ll start work on something totally different.

 

GH: What, if any, plans are there for expanding multiplayer, particularly multi-player on the same team (ie, multiple allied players coordinating their actions)?

JB: We’ve discussed two different MP changes. One for WitW would allow an air commander and a ground commander for each side. This would be relatively easy given there is a separate air phase and ground phase for each side. The second idea for when we work on War in the East 2.0 is to allow an overall commander and several sub commanders for each side. The overall commander would divide the map into zones that would be controlled by the different sub commanders. This will be harder to produce, but something we’d really like to see in WitE 2.0.

 

GH: Do you have any personal favourite games? What inspiration have you drawn from them?

JB: Well I honestly don’t have a lot of time to play other computer games, and spend most of my free gaming time playing various general strategy games with my wife and son. Back in the 90s I really enjoyed Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, although I generally prefer turn based games over real time games. My early favourite was Guadalcanal Campaign. At the time it was considered a “monster game”, although it is quite simple when compared to modern games like Gary’s War in the Pacific and War in the East. Before that, one of my favourite boardgames was the SPI boardgame War in the East. It was the first monster game I played, and it was clearly the inspiration for our War in the East. It was relatively simple compared to Gary’s War in the East, and we wanted to keep that same simplicity in the IGOUGO structure while adding the detail Gary is known for.

Here are the areas of operations for my different air forces. The strategic air command covers the whole island of Sicily, while my tactical air forces protect the American sector containing the Hermann Goering Panzer Division threat.

Here are the areas of operations for my different air forces. The strategic air command covers the whole island of Sicily, while my tactical air forces protect the American sector containing the Hermann Goering Panzer Division threat.

GH: You have been designing games for many years now. What has been the game that you most enjoyed designing, and the reasons for why it means that to you?

JB: My involvement with Panzer General was in many ways the most enjoyable. I only had a small part in it, but it was worked on by a lot of very talented people at SSI. It was a true labor of love and reflected the skills of many of the most talented people that worked at SSI, and thus some of the most talented people that have worked on computer wargames.

Sie Kommt! The Allies land in Sicily. The Hermann Goering Panzer Division stands ready to crush the beach head

Sie Kommt! The Allies land in Sicily. The Hermann Goering Panzer Division stands ready to crush the beach head

GH: Many of us are dedicated PC and Mac gamers, but there is a growing trend towards tablets, iPads, notebooks etc. Traditionally you have created games for the PC market. Do you see yourself developing on a multi-platform basis in the future?

JB: We do have one of our games being worked on for the IPad, World at War: A Wold Divided. As for future games, it’s possible if we work on a simpler game, such as a Steel Panthers type tactical game, that eventually it might make it onto tablets. Our games our generally such monsters that it’s hard to see our designing for these other platforms anytime soon.

GH: If you could make any game you liked – free of any commercial considerations – what would it be?

JB: Gary and I always thought it would be fun to play a game that was a combination of Sid Meier’s Gettysburg and Steel Panthers. However, we don’t really have the skills to produce a real time game. I think there’s a game there to be made by someone. It would allow you to give orders to platoons to move in formations just like SMG allowed orders to brigades. But you could also issue an order to an individual tank. You’d have various formations the platoons could be in.

True to history the Hermann Goering attacks the beach head, but is stopped cold by the US 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).

True to history the Hermann Goering attacks the beach head, but is stopped cold by the US 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).

GH: What is your vision for the development of the traditional computer wargaming market?

JB: We’ll continue to stress detailed databases in our games and produce games mostly for experienced wargamers. It’s good to see other developers making simpler games though to attract new players.

GH:  We tried to cover everything, but what should we have asked you that we might have forgotten about?  

JB: I think you covered plenty. 🙂

I really appreciate you taking the time and trouble to answer my questions, and for sharing your thoughts with Grogheads.com.


Stay tuned for GrogHeads’ review of War in the West, coming soon.

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