Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Tom Russell
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Tom Russell, co-founder of Hollandspiele, and designer of board games including the Shields & Swords series, Table Battles, This Guilty Land, Northern Pacific, and Irish Gauge. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
I had a very specific catalyst for requesting this interview, so I want to jump into that to give some context. A few weeks ago, you posted a thread on Twitter talking about wargames, specifically about how they are defined. (Editor’s Note: You may want to read that thread first.) As someone who hasn't played a wargame, I had many questions -- and I thought others might as well. So in the interest of hopefully making this particular niche of the hobby a bit more accessible and less intimidating, let's dive into your thread. Afterwards, I promise we'll circle back to the normal 'In Focus' format and learn a bit about you and your company Hollandspiele!
First things first, what is the narrow definition of a wargame? A lot of games feature direct conflict and combat, from Risk to Ogre to Warhammer to Twilight Imperium. But none of those are wargames, are they? What are they missing?
So, one of the main thrusts of that thread is that defining a genre narrowly is inherently limiting and somewhat quixotic. Categories are only useful when they highlight affinities, and they cease to be useful when they're used to exclude. Every game or book or movie is its own thing, with its own qualities, and we can put them into this category or that one to show the qualities it has in common with other things, but the minute you codify that into a definition, a list of things it has to have and a list of things it can't, it kills the thing dead.
If you have a definition of "horror film" that says it has to have supernatural elements, then it arguably cuts out the first five Friday the 13th films, which don't explicitly feature any supernatural elements; Jason's not a zombie yet. That probably isn't any kind of major loss to be honest, but a definition of horror that excludes those films isn't a very useful definition. If you have a definition of "horror film" that says it has to primarily be about scaring the audience, then you're probably cutting out the classic horror films of the thirties such as Bride of Frankenstein. And that's the problem with rigid definitions.
So, you can absolutely rigidly and narrowly define wargames, and lots of folks do. They'll say that the game has to be about a historical event. That definition leaves out something like Ogre, despite the fact that mechanically, it is very much a hex-and-counter wargame. Another definition is that it has to be about kinetic conflict - that is, battles and armies and generals. That leaves out something like Twilight Struggle. You might even have a game like Washington's War, which has battles and armies and generals, and people will say that it's "not really a wargame" because the kinetic stuff isn't the primary focus. Some people go much narrower: a wargame has to have counters moving across a hex grid with combat resolved by odds ratio and die roll.
It's a little like trying to define a eurogame. Eurogames have very little luck, except some eurogames do. Eurogames only have indirect conflict, except for when they have direct conflict. Eurogames are essentially themeless except for when they are thematic. Eurogames are streamlined and elegant, except for when they've got a dozen different interlocking parts.
But the term "eurogame" is still useful, as is the term "horror film", in that all the things that we describe with those terms have some things in common. The category highlights these affinities. "Wargame" works in the same way. When I say I want to play a wargame, I probably don't want to play Risk, but that doesn't mean Risk isn't a sort of wargame, or that I would get behind a definition that excludes Risk.
In that Twitter thread, you used a lot of abbreviations and terms that non-wargamers may not be familiar with. Can you give some quick definitions on H&C, CRT, ZOC, TEC, and DRM?
Sure! H&C is an abbreviation of hex and counter. This simply means that a grid of hexagons has been superimposed over a map to regulate movement and combat, with said movement and combat conducted by units represented by cardboard counters, usually with numerical ratings that represent their movement and combat capabilities. Many of the other abbreviations refer to common elements that you will find in hex and counter games. Some of these are so common that when people think hex and counter, they automatically assume the presence of the rest - their definition of hex and counter of necessity encompasses those elements, and games without them aren't "really" hex and counter games.
So, a CRT, or Combat Results Table, is one way that combat is resolved in a wargame. It's often the only element of chance in games that use them. Many CRTs work on the basis of odds ratios. How that works is that you add up all the combat strength on the attacking side, and you add up all the combat strength on the defending side, and you compare those two totals to get at a simple odds ratio. Eight points versus four points is 2:1. The CRT has columns corresponding to the odds. So, you find the 2:1 column. The table also has rows corresponding to die results, so you roll the die to find your row. You cross-reference the two, and it tells you what happens. Maybe one side retreats, or one side loses some units, or both sides do. It's a statistical model, and the better the odds are for you, the more likely it is that you'll get a good result.
Now, that's just one way to resolve combat. There are wargames that use a CRT based on a differential system - you subtract the defender total from the attacker's to get your column. There are wargames that don't use a CRT at all, instead having you roll to try and hit target numbers. There are still lots of new games each year that use a CRT, but I think it's often seen as an obstacle to attracting new players, so many games aimed at a broader audience will use some other method for combat resolution that's quicker and doesn't involve referencing a chart.
ZOC, or Zone of Control, is something that units "exert" in a hex and counter game into the six hexes adjacent to the one that they occupy. In many games, when you enter an enemy's Zone of Control, you have to stop moving. That's what a ZOC is in its simplest form, but there's actually a lot of variability as to how a game uses a ZOC. Maybe it doesn't stop your movement, but slows it down. Sometimes you can leave ZOC on the next turn and sometimes you can't. Sometimes it means you have to fight, sometimes that's optional. Some units might not exert ZOC into certain hexes, or against certain units. There's a lot of subtle ways to vary the mechanism that can dramatically alter the feel and flow of the game.
The TEC, or Terrain Effects Chart, lists the effects of certain types of hexes - city, mountain, woods, what-have-you - on movement and combat. Usually a unit has x number of movement points each turn, and it might cost you 1 point to enter this hex but 2 to enter that one, because some types of terrain are harder to move in than others. And some types of terrain are easier to defend than others. This defensive bonus might mean that you simply double or triple the combat strength of the defender, or it might mean that you apply a "column shift" in their favor - so, your 2:1 attack becomes only a 1:1 attack. Maybe they ignore certain results, such as "you don't retreat if you're in a city.”
Finally, a DRM is a die roll modifier - a number you add or subtract to your die roll. Some games that are very detailed might have several different DRMs that you have to add and subtract before making the die roll. Simpler games will only have a handful.
Can you give me an example of a traditional H&C game you publish? How about some more innovative wargames that are pushing boundaries?
It depends on your definition of "traditional", which is right back to where we started. If we're looking for something that encompasses all the things we just defined, a game with an odds-based CRT and a Terrain Effects Chart and Zones of Control - and let's go one further, and say a game with a "traditional" turn structure of "the first player has a move phase followed by a combat phase, then the second player has the same" - we haven't published very many of those. The only one that comes to mind immediately is Ty Bomba's Operation Unthinkable, which isn't recreating an actual historical event.
John Theissen has done a number of games for us, such as Hood's Last Gamble and Antony and Cleopatra, that are very traditional in many ways, but don't use Zones of Control at all, and they tend to have a more operational emphasis. That is, rather than being about lines of units bashing at each other, they're about armies chasing each other around the map, playing cat and mouse, trying to come to grips with the other side so that they can fight a battle.
I have a couple of series that use a lot of these traditional concepts - the Shields & Swords II series of medieval battle games and the Shot & Shell Battle Series set in the nineteenth century - but the CRTs aren't odds-based, and they have a very different turn structure. In the Shields & Swords II games for example, you issue commands each turn which determine what will happen on that phase - so maybe you won't move or maybe you won't have a combat phase.
Brave Little Belgium, designed by Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw, isn't a hex and counter game at all - it uses what is called a point-to-point movement system and there are no zones of control. It doesn't use a CRT; instead, players roll dice for their units, with those units scoring hits on the enemy by rolling certain numbers. It doesn't use that traditional "my turn, then your turn" structure, but instead uses something called a Chit Pull. Basically, you have tokens in a cup that correspond to different groups of units, and you reach into the cup and pull one out, and that's the group of units that takes an action now. And yet it many ways it's a very traditional wargame, one that was designed to introduce players to traditional wargame concepts. To the point where if someone asked me to recommend a traditional hex and counter game from our catalogue, I might without thinking immediately say Brave Little Belgium.
Then you have something like Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater, which definitely has hexes and counters, and very direct conflict, but doesn't feel like a hex and counter game in any traditional sense. It plays more like a combinatorial abstract! It's a very smart and innovative design that I admire very much; it has a clearly-expressed point of view and purpose, and people have really responded to that. It's become one of our flagship titles, alongside Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic.
As a designer myself, I've gotten more traction adventuring farther outside what some people might traditionally call a wargame. Table Battles is probably my most popular design, and while it is all about recreating historical battles, it's a small portable filler game with dice, cards, and wooden sticks. The thing I'm proudest of is This Guilty Land, which is a game about political conflict, centered on the struggle over slavery in antebellum America. It's a game that engages seriously with the history and provides a model of the conflict, so by one definition, it's a wargame. But there are no units or armies, no combat, no actual war, so by another definition, it isn't.
What are your favorite wargames, and why?
Usually it's whatever is on the table currently. Outside of games Hollandspiele has published, I deeply admire designs by Mark Herman, Brian Train, and Frank Chadwick.
For someone such as myself — who has never played a wargame — where would you recommend I start for an accessible and enjoyable experience? How about if I really wanted to get a full "sifting through stacks of counters with tweezers" H&C experience?
That's a broad question with a lot of answers, and I think the best answer is going to be personal and curatorial, based on your tastes in other games and your historical interests. Absent that, I think our Brave Little Belgium is a good way to get your feet wet. I also want to recommend my Table Battles, which seems to be able to get non-wargaming folks interested in wargames, but the caveat is that it doesn't play like any other wargame. A more traditional sort of game with hexes and a CRT that might serve as an entry point is Frank Chadwick's Battle For Moscow, which is available in a few different places, or our The Lost Provinces.
A lot of folks have more luck introducing people to wargames through card-driven games. I think Twilight Struggle is a fine design, and it's brought a number of people into this corner of the hobby, but it might be a little too long for a first dip in the pool. Washington's War is a remake of the original card-driven wargame, and it's quite clever and elegant, with a lot of flavor, and a reasonably short game.
As for the stacks and tweezers experience, I'm actually going to not be much help there, because that generally isn't the sort of thing I enjoy!
Alright, I think I have asked enough questions about that Twitter thread to make you regret posting it. Let's switch gears. How did your publishing company, Hollandspiele, come about?
When we first got into board games, my wife Mary and I knew we wanted to get into publishing some day. We were into eurogames at that time and we assumed that's what we would end up publishing, and since her maiden name is Holland, we thought it'd be funny if we called a company Hollandspiele and make people think we were based in Europe instead of Detroit. The intention was to wait until I had established some kind of reputation as a designer, and until our financial situation had improved, and then start publishing.
But the eurogames I was designing didn't sell. I did a wargame as a lark - I cannot stress this enough, it was literally "eh, I guess I'll do one wargame for giggles" - and that one sold, so I did another, and all of the sudden, I'm a wargame designer. That led to me editing a wargame magazine for a short time, and during the same period, Mary was hired to run a small wargames publisher producing ziplock games, supervising their first fifteen releases. In this way we obtained a lot of experience, and were able to observe some of the practical ends of the business first hand. We saw what worked, and we saw what we would do differently, and that led to us starting Hollandspiele in August 2016. We initially intended it to be a sideline, but in early 2017 we were successful enough that I was able to quit my day job, and since then it's been our only source of income.
Tell me about some of your recent releases. And what is coming next from Hollandspiele?
So, we've released forty-two boxed games and five non-boxed expansions in the last three years. Our most recent titles have been Brave Little Belgium, Antony and Cleopatra, With It Or On It, Siege of Izmail, and two expansions to Table Battles, Gettysburg and The English Civil War.
Our next game is the first title in Brian Train's District Commander series, District Commander Maracas. This is a series about counterinsurgency, and this first game in particular is about conflict in a large and densely-populated "megacity", and the special problems that come with that.
Following that, we have three other titles coming out this year. Escape From Hades is a solitaire science fiction game designed by Fred Manzo and developed by Hermann Luttmann in which your intrepid band of space merchant marines land on an enemy space prison, fight your way in, rescue the princess, fight your way out, and get the heck of out Dodge before the place blows up.
Then we have an expansion to Sean Chick's Horse & Musket series. This is a very interesting series in that over the course of six volumes, it tracks the development of military tactics, doctrine, and armaments from the end of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. This volume, Horse & Matchlock, is actually a "prequel" expansion, a volume zero if you will, that extends the thing backward to cover the Thirty Years War, English Civil War, and Great Northern War. A fan of the main series, Johan Brattstrom, approached Sean about doing a prequel and the two of them worked on it together.
The last game we have for 2019 is one of mine. It is a six player game called Westphalia, about the negotiations that ended the Thirty and Eighty Years Wars. While these negotiations were going on, the various countries were still campaigning against each other, hoping that success on the battlefield would translate into leverage in these talks. When I say it is a game for six players, I mean it is a game for six players: it's only for exactly six, and can't be played with less. Which is ridiculous and insane and no publisher in their right mind would do that, but we never said we were in our right mind.
On your website, you note "Our games are printed on demand - the most expensive and least efficient way to manufacture games." Why is this?
Why is it the most expensive and least efficient way to manufacture games, or why do we print on demand? The answer to the first one is that by printing on demand, we're basically printing the games one at a time, as they're ordered, so we don't benefit from economies of scale like you would with a traditional mass print run. Our countersheets alone generally cost more than most publishers pay for their entire game. The drawback to this is that it more or less cuts us out of any traditional distribution channels. There's a rule of thumb that a game's MSRP should be five times its manufacturing cost, but if we did that, our games would be much too expensive - many with triple digit price tags. So we have much tighter profit margins and that's what prevents our games from going into stores.
So, why on earth would we do this? And the first answer to that is that it allows us to publish games. Because what happens is, when you order a copy of such-and-such, you give us the money for the game. We take our cut and then use the rest to pay our printer who manufactures the copy you ordered and sends it to you. There's no upfront cost. There's no warehouse where we have to store copies while we wait for them to sell, so there's no overhead. Whereas if we were to print it traditionally, we would pony up twenty thousand dollars or whatever, and then hope we sold enough copies to make our money back. But we don't have twenty thousand dollars, and if we did, we wouldn't want to risk it like that. Print on demand lets people who don't have a lot of money get into publishing. Without it, we wouldn't be in business, plain and simple.
Beyond that, it lets us publish the games that we want to publish. Because there's no financial risk, we're able to take creative risks. My Westphalia game is a good example of this: it may be the least commercial thing I've ever come up with. There's no way any other publisher would want to touch it, especially at that very narrow six-only player count. But we can do it and if it flops, you know what, it will still make a profit. If it's a big hit, then we reap the rewards. Publishing a game like This Guilty Land is a significant risk, and I can't imagine any mainstream wargame publisher ever coming near it with a ten foot pole. But it's probably one of the games I'm best known for, and certainly the thing I'm proudest of.
The thing about our model is that it really shouldn't work, because we're doing very weird, very niche games - weird and niche even by the standards of wargames. There's a big enough appetite for unusual games that not only are people buying them, but enough people are buying them that I get to make these weird and supposedly unappealing things as my job. I can't explain it; I don't question it. I'm the luckiest man in the world and that's fine by me.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Tom. I hope everyone that reads this will find it as insightful as I did.