DGS Games

GrogHeads Interviews Ron Dockal of Schwerpunkt Games

An Interview with Boggit, 2 May 2015

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Ron, thank you for agreeing to talk to Grogheads about World War 2 in Europe, and Middle East War. World War 2 in Europe is your latest game and has a lot of new features not found in earlier Schwerpunkt games like Anglo-German War, or Russo-German War.

The opening screen surrounded by key leaders of the war.

The opening screen surrounded by key leaders of the war.

GrogHeads:  Ron, tell us about yourself. What started your interest in gaming, and why did you decide to become a wargame developer?

Ron Dockal: I grew up in Houston, Texas in an area called the Heights. I had a group of friends who played Avalon Hill Wargames together. Spent many a lazy summer day doing this. Our group still gets together and our wives have become friends. I started building boardgames using white poster board at ten years old. I still have my first “attempt” at a boardgame called World War II Europe from 1963! During high school and college, I played these games once in a while and read history books about WWII. I became an electrical engineer, getting an MSEE in 1976 with a minor in programming. I met my wife on the job in 1987 and we married in 1991. She was a graphics expert in the aerospace business. Joining these things together set me on a path to start Schwerpunkt in 1995 with my wife.

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

Ron Dockal: There are three groups of boardgames that I really like playing. The first group includes games like Avalon Hill’s Panzerblitz, Panzer Leader and Middle East game format. At some point in time, Schwerpunkt plans to draw inspiration from and create a game like this. The second group is like Russian Front, a grand-scale, high-level battle. At some point in time, Schwerpunkt also plans to build a game like that. The third includes games like Panzerkrieg, Panzergruppe Guderian and PanzerArmee Afrika. I have drawn inspiration from these games in developing the Russo-German War (RGW), Anglo-German War (AGW), Middle East War (MDE) and World War II Europe (WWIIE).

Tell us about the design philosophy behind World War 2 in Europe. Has game engine development ceased at this point, or are you still considering further innovation beyond patching any bugs that arise from the community?

Ron Dockal: Game engine development has definitely not ceased, as we are active on the forums and always looking for good ideas. In fact, WWIIE Patch v1.0.4 is due out in a few weeks, and has improvements based on customer ideas in the forums. Some of these improvements came from the forums. For example, the game can now automatically allocate HQ reserve for the reserve not already allocated by the player. This speeds play and is a good improvement for the larger scenarios. It is available at the player’s option. So often the improvements take the form of an optional capability, since there is so much variation between players as to what a good game looks like. As for design philosophy, we keep a summary of it on the Schwerpunkt web site.

Releasing World War 2 in Europe as a part-finished product is a big departure for Schwerpunkt, and a potential gamble for the gaming community. What schedule do you have for the completion of the game? The success of this type of release relies in large part on the good faith between the gaming community that already know your work, and your own relationship with the gaming community. But what of potential Schwerpunkt converts? Why should they commit to this?

Ron Dockal: A couple of very good questions. Yes, we are in new territory on this. We have never released a game until it was complete until now, but our customers really wanted this one after we described it on the forums. We listened to them and released WWIIE in December of 2014 with 51 of 102 planned scenarios. Since then, we have release three patches (with bug fixes and game improvements) and 6 additional scenarios. I have a demanding day job, and it varies in intensity and drives my ability to do Schwerpunkt development and to predict schedules. I have wanted to build this game since 1963, so it will be done.

Why try WWIIE? I released a You Tube video showing the basics of the game, and our sales jumped significantly. It is [on YouTube].  Wargamers liked what they saw. It has a solid game engine, is easy to learn, has a boardgame basis, has a lot of battles to play, is interesting to use to try “what ifs”, and has layers of detail both in historical information to learn and game play to try. Entertaining and educational.

In the past I’ve seen several good mods for Anglo-German War. Tell us about the mods you envision for World War 2 in Europe.

The next screen in shows equipment used. Tanks, planes and artillery are shown.

The next screen in shows equipment used. Tanks, planes and artillery are shown.

Ron Dockal: First and foremost is to complete the rest of the battles planned. Patch v1.0.4 will improve the Naval AI and have an auto HQ Reserve Allocation. I keep a list of potential improvements based on customer suggestions. Some of the ones I have my eye on are player chooses unit color, display weather per hex, classes of cities, and a new scenario called Greece 1940. Additionally, there are some improvements that will need to be made for the Campaign scenarios. There are 15 Campaign scenarios planned.

In many respects Schwerpunkt is a family business closely linked to the gaming community. Tell us a bit about the contribution made by your wife KC, and your playtest group to the development of World War 2 in Europe.

Ron Dockal: I can’t say enough good things about my wife’s contributions. I draw the paper version of the maps, but KC digitizes them using Adobe Photoshop into the finished product you see in the game. I think we have the best maps in the business. Not tiled, but drawn just like a…….. boardgame. KC also develops the manuals for these games, and supplies ideas on the user interface. As for my playtesters, they are also outstanding. Some of them have been with me since the start. They are both experienced and novice wargamers, so that they give me advice from a variety of perspectives.   They vary in age, and are an International group. They do the hard work to catch bugs, and have supplied me with many good ideas that have been incorporated into the games.

What would you say has been your biggest design challenge in World War 2 in Europe? How did you resolve that issue?

Ron Dockal: The biggest design challenges we have faced on WWIIE are the user interface and the sheer scope of the project. For the user interface we did a “clean sheet” design, starting from scratch. We built in an ability for the player to choose options so that the interface can be made to look like past games (Anglo-German War for example). This is done by selecting “Top Unit Select” and “Locked Operations”. The basic user interface is to select the hex, then select the unit, then select the operation and finally select the destination hex (if moving). If you select “Top Unit Select”, then select the unit step does not have to be done. If you select “Locked Operations”, then select the operation does not have to be done. Selecting both gives the AGW two step interface. It is the player’s choice on configuring the UI. The second challenge for WWIIE is the scope. 102 battles, 434 x 360 hexes, and hours and hours of research and testing have gone into building this game. To resolve this took good old fashioned hard work from KC, the playtesters and myself.

Scenario selection with a wide choice of 56 scenarios at present with more to come!

Scenario selection with a wide choice of 56 scenarios at present with more to come!

Anglo-German War and Russo-German War might reasonably be described as the parents of World War 2 in Europe. One of the past criticisms about your earlier games was the clunky user interface and the seemingly impenetrable learning curve for new players. Tell us about how you incorporated some of that feedback into World War 2 in Europe?

Ron Dockal: User Interface is an interesting topic to discuss. We heard comments like “clunky” and “tough to learn”, but we also got comments like “innovative” and “great user interface once I learned it”. I spent time talking with some wargamers about “why clunky?” Most of the time it was labelled that because the wargamer wanted the interface to be like another game interface that they played a lot. There is not a consensus on user interface in the wargaming community. If there was, someone would probably create an industry standard so that every game had the same user interface and there would be no learning curve! Other industries have standards like that (search on IEEE standards for example). I would like to challenge the wargaming community to develop that standard. Schwerpunkt will build to it. Until then, we built the best UI we could think of, and made it configurable. I think the most important thing we learned from RGW and AGW is to minimize the number of mouse clicks and mouse movement, and to minimize the number of things a player has to memorize (i.e. give the player choices to select from, not memorize). The other item we learned is that learning the user interface from a You Tube video is much easier than learning it from a manual. More WWIIE You Tube videos are planned.

Holding back the Nazi tide in the Battle of Britain. Note the British Squadron commanders on the units – a nice touch!

Holding back the Nazi tide in the Battle of Britain. Note the British Squadron commanders on the units – a nice touch!

When Anglo-German War was released – and I have found it with my own gameplay – a source of criticism with the AI/computer opponent was although it functioned well in defence, amphibious invasions were poorly handled by the computer opponent, and in the attack the computer opponent tended to disregard its supply lines/HQ’s leaving them open to attack and consequent isolation of the attacking force. Does the computer opponent in World War 2 in Europe overcome these issues from the earlier game?

Ron Dockal: The Computer Opponent (CO) for RGW and AGW land battles was much better than the air and naval CO. For WWIIE, we have addressed the air CO and it is now respectively aggressive and puts up a decent fight. For Naval CO, we did better but I am still not satisfied. Patch V1.0.4 has a lot of Naval AI improvements that will help, but more is needed. Ask me again after v1.0.4 is complete.

Here is the Counter Legend. I have used windows magnifier to show the unit detail better, as Schwerpunkt has managed to get a lot of vital information on each counter.

Here is the Counter Legend. I have used windows magnifier to show the unit detail better, as Schwerpunkt has managed to get a lot of vital information on each counter.

I realise it is still early days regarding the release of the larger scenarios, but what provisions are planned for the big strategic issues affecting the longer and larger scenarios? To be clearer, this will include matters like diplomatic relations, national production (of supply, units and replacements), the strategic air war, the naval blockades ( which would include things like the battle for the Atlantic, naval supply for North Africa, Soviet interdiction of Swedish iron ore supplies to Germany etc.).

Ron Dockal: It is still early days. Supply, units and replacements will definitely be included in the Campaign scenarios. Also naval supply to North Africa. The others are items that are still in discussion, and need more work before addressing them. Current thinking is some additional programming logic on what causes a neutral country like Turkey or Spain to join the Axis. The effects of Strategic air war and naval blockades will be taken into account at a high level only. The Atlantic Naval Campaign and Europe Strategic Air War are separate games I want to develop in the future.

Vorwärts nach Osten! This is the Battle for Stalingrad (the German attack) scenario. The map has been zoomed out showing almost all of the battle area (within the red box).

Vorwärts nach Osten! This is the Battle for Stalingrad (the German attack) scenario. The map has been zoomed out showing almost all of the battle area (within the red box).

Middle East War is a departure from your earlier focus on World War 2. What prompted to make the decision to develop it, and what new features and challenges arose during its design?

Ron Dockal: One of the joys of developing these games is the research required. I wanted to learn more about the Middle East countries and conflicts. Also, many of my customers suggested it, and had fought in the battles. One of the scenarios is a 2010 setup so that conflicts that occur in real life can be simulated as they occur. Finally, it is possible to attend schools in the US and never learn about the Iran-Iraq battles fought in the 1980’s, or the multiple battles Israel has fought for survival. I try to make every game that Schwerpunkt produces into a learning situation, as well as entertainment. In my next career, I think I would like to be a history teacher…

This is the Game status screen3 for Middle East War – the Israeli Independence War 1948. Here you can learn about the situation, strategy tips, and the historical outcome.

This is the Game status screen3 for Middle East War – the Israeli Independence War 1948. Here you can learn about the situation, strategy tips, and the historical outcome.

Since Middle East War was released there have been some dramatic conflicts, and flashpoints – many of which are still present and ongoing with us. Do you have any plans to release for sale a scenario pack covering things for example like the War in Syria, Iraq, NATO and Russian interventions, or an Israeli pre-emptive war with Iran/Satanic State(IS)?

Ron Dockal: We designed Scenario #24 Middle East 2010, with that in mind. It includes the order of battle for all countries on the map, and with a little work in the Scenario Editor, can be used to game any of the battles you mention. No plans to create that scenario pack, but the tools are there for anyone to do just that. Maybe we should though…

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?

Ron Dockal: Russo-German War was the game that first got Schwerpunkt notice in the wargaming community. It was our first Windows based game (we marketed 7 DOS games before that), and we were able to utilize all of the Soviet information that was just hitting the market (Charles Sharp’s order of battle books for example).   The game was a big seller, and in fact, we still are selling some of them. RGW was released in 2001! That is game longevity in this business! World War II Europe is replacing RGW and AGW, and it has been a joy to build also, as well as a lifetime goal. It is so good to finally bring that goal to fruition.

Middle East War covers over 60 years of warfare. Here I am setting airstrikes for Coalition Forces in Operation Cobra II.

Middle East War covers over 60 years of warfare. Here I am setting airstrikes for Coalition Forces in Operation Cobra II.

Many of us are dedicated PC and Mac gamers, but there is a growing interest in mobile gaming using tablets, iPads, notebooks etc. Traditionally you have created games for the PC market. Do you see yourself developing /converting existing games to a multi-platform basis in the future?

Ron Dockal: I have been thinking about a tablet game. These kinds of wargames need a certain size screen, and so a cell phone app would not work. But the tablets look like a good media to work with in the future,

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

Ron Dockal: The game like Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader would be it. There is just something about that level of conflict that interests me. The number of battles that could be simulated with that system is so large.

Once World War 2 is complete what is next for Schwerpunkt? Do you plan any extra hypothetical scenarios like a 1946 Soviet invasion of the West, or a Patton drives to Moscow? Will you use the new engine to create a Great War Game, a World War 2 Pacific, a modern era game, or something completely different?

Ron Dockal: I have a notebook full of partially finished projects. Once we finish a game, I always ask the community what game they would like next. Like user interfaces, there is never a consensus, but it gives me an idea of what the wargaming community would like to see next. The list contains Atlantic Naval Campaign, Europe Strategic Air War, World War II Pacific, an East Font game like AH Russian Front, and a game at the platoon/company level like Panzerblitz. The notebook has a few others also, including non-wargame concepts. I like your idea about Patton drives to Moscow. It would also be interesting to game the Ukraine situation that is currently playing out in the newspapers today.

Is there anything else you think our readers should know about Schwerpunkt, World War 2 in Europe, or Middle East War?

Ron Dockal: Currently I run Schwerpunkt part time, since I have a full time job in the US aerospace industry.   I am approaching retirement from my day job in the next few months or years, and that means that I will be full time Schwerpunkt. This will allow more Schwerpunkt games to be developed and released. Currently we develop a game about every four years. Expect that time to decrease. As for World War II Europe and Middle East, we will finish all of the WWIIE battles and continue to make game improvements. I would also like to retrofit the WWIIE game engine on the Middle East War game.

I would like to encourage the wargamers to put ideas out on the forum. We listen closely.

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


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