As a player, I find I’m often drawn to games that are steeped in history as well as being fun and entertaining. My day job is as a writer and director in the TV industry, so dramatic and emotionally-rich storytelling is really important to me. When I design, my goal is to try to combine these different elements into games that reflect history in an accessible and hopefully illuminating way, while also creating exciting stories that will stay with players after the game leaves the table.
How It Started
In fall 2018, I read Andrew Wheatcroft’s The Enemy at the Gate, a book about the 1683 siege of Vienna. The siege pitted the full force of one of the greatest empires in history (the Ottomans) against a weaker rival (the Habsburg dynasty). The Ottomans outnumbered the Habsburg defenders 10:1, but Vienna was well protected with modern fortifications and the outcome was far from certain.
Ottoman and Habsburg soldiers fight amidst the rubble during the siege
For more than two months, both sides fought with muskets, cannons, grenades, mortars, swords, spears, arrows, and mines packed with explosives, often from trenches mere meters apart. The Ottomans made it right up to the final line of defense and were only hours from breaching the walls when a German-Polish relief force arrived and swept the attackers away.
The book was a compelling read, and it got me thinking about how I could create a game based on the siege that was fun, dramatic, and even educational.*
(*It goes without saying the siege was a nightmarish experience for the people who lived through it. It’s only with the privilege of more than four hundred years of historical distance that we can look back and find the topic an entertaining or even appropriate subject for a game. I discuss some of the issues with representing the siege, along with the politics surrounding it, in my designer’s notes for the game.)
Questions Get the Ball Rolling
To proceed with the design, the first question I had to answer was what the game’s focus would be. The geopolitics surrounding the siege, with international alliances and power struggles? The large-scale sweep of armies traveling and fighting across hundreds of kilometers? The logistics of moving and provisioning tens of thousands of troops, and supplying and feeding the besieged population of the city? Or the fight in front of the city walls, where attackers and defenders struggled for every inch of ground gained or lost?
I decided to concentrate on the final option because I felt it offered rich possibilities for difficult decisions and dramatic results, and hence player engagement. Also, the details of gunpowder-era siege attack and defense are fascinating and haven’t often been covered in games, and I thought they might appeal to historically-minded players.
The next decision was how to focus and depict the physical and decision-making spaces of the game. Traditional wargames often use maps with lots of hexes and counters that let you move your troops around on the board. Since sieges are contests of attrition rather than maneuver, typically focusing on specific, well-chosen weak points in a city’s fortifications, I didn’t feel this traditional “hex and counter” approach was right.
Instead, I decided to try a “climb the ladder” structure in which the Ottoman player would have to capture a series of key locations as they moved up each “rung” towards the city wall. Each of these key locations would start with a certain number of hit points that could be worn down by the Ottoman player through bombardment, mining, and assault, and restored by the Habsburg player through defensive actions. There would be benefits to capturing or recapturing a location, measured in morale, which would be one of the currencies in the game.
Here’s what an early prototype of the game looked like in November 2018:
Hmm. Not much to look at yet. Maybe it will turn into something?
The game utilizes a card-driven mechanism. Each player draws a hand of five random cards from a unique deck, and each card can be discarded for actions, played for special events, or used as bonuses during battles. I felt a CDG (card-driven game) approach was a good fit because it simplified various “expenses” (money, supplies, ammunition) into decision-making points for players as they weighed the opportunity cost of using a card for short-term gain versus saving it to advance their longer-term strategic goals.
I also decided that, unlike many wargames, there wouldn’t be chits or miniatures on the board to represent troops. There were a few reasons for this. First, I liked the idea of hidden information. By using troop cards instead of counters, players wouldn’t know how powerful a force they were facing was until the battle began, so they’d have to make educated guesses about their opponent’s capabilities, intentions, and even psychology. For example, a player could launch a weak attack to force their opponent to exhaust their good troops, then follow up with a strong attack. The cards also allowed me to introduce a third economic element: Once troops were spent, they could not be used again until a new round began, so players would have to carefully plan their attack and defense.
Map of the siege, showing Ottoman trenches running right up to the inner wall; this map became the inspiration for future versions of the game board
Another crucial design question was how to deal with tunneling and mining, which were important tactics used during the siege. I decided to try a kind of “hidden movement” mechanism in which the Ottoman player could put cards of different values face down to form a tunnel. Once a certain number was reached, the player could blow up the tunnel, removing fortifications from key locations. Of course, the Habsburg player would have ways to counter this.
The final question at this stage was deciding how long play should last. Since the game covered a limited scenario, I wanted it to be relatively fast playing in comparison to some epic wargames, so I decided on a set number of rounds, after which the relief army would arrive and the game would end. Initially, I allowed both players to manipulate this clock through the use of cards, either increasing or decreasing the amount of time remaining. I later abandoned this idea because it felt unrealistic and “gamey”, and it fell outside the scale I’d chosen for the game (tactical rather than grand strategy).
I playtested this rough prototype with a small group through October, November, and December 2018. The feedback was positive, but my gut told me something was missing, so I put the design away. I figured I’d get back to it in a few weeks.
Two Years Later…
Fast forward to October, 2020. My second game, Stilicho: Last of the Romans had just been published by Hollandspiele, and I felt the itch to get working on something. I’d continued reading about and researching early-modern siege warfare and the history of the Ottoman-Habsburg conflicts, and I started thinking about my Vienna design again.
One day, while I was out for a run, something clicked. Various ways to simplify the game began to occur to me. I also had the idea to make the game modular, so that the pieces could be combined in different ways to model different historical sieges. When I got back from my run, I grabbed my art supplies, design kit, and a retractable blade. After a bit of work, this was the result:
Hexes but no counters!
I’m a firm believer that you need to create a physical prototype of a game as soon as possible. Handling the pieces and moving them around can be very inspiring! Sometimes, I’ll take random bits of wood or meeples and just put them on cards or maps to see what ideas they spark. The result of messing around with the physical components was this:
The hit points (formerly represented by the dice) are gone, replaced by wooden pieces that stood in for different kinds of fortifications. This got me thinking about new ways to use the fortifications other than as stacks of hit points. For example, I decided the cylinders, representing permanent stone defenses, couldn’t be added to or repaired once the game started, and could be removed only through the use of artillery or explosives. Seemingly small changes like this began to really add to the game’s tactical sophistication.
I was excited to start playtesting again, but Covid meant face-to-face games were out of the question. I created a Tabletop Simulator version of the design so that I could continue playtesting online with folks from my gaming group.
I call this the Klingon Battle Cruiser version of the game
In three months, the game progressed more quickly than it had in two years. Development often happens like that, especially when you are a part-time designer. Overall, I was very encouraged by my playtests, and after numerous experiments, tweaks, and tests, felt I had a solid design in terms of mechanisms and theme. I began to think about approaching a publisher.
Out of the Blue
As fate would have it, I got an email from Clay Ross, president of Capstone Games that December. He told me he’d played and liked Stilicho, and he wanted to know whether I had anything similar in development. What great timing! I pitched Clay on Fire & Stone: Siege of Vienna. After several conversations and playtests, we decided to work together.
The importance of collaborating with a supportive and thoughtful publisher and developer can’t be overstated. To begin with, we both agreed the design was a solid foundation but could go further. Clay had some great feedback, which I felt showed he really got what I was trying to do. We also saw eye-to-eye on what we felt the appeal of the game could be: a tense, relatively rules-light game steeped in history that could appeal to folks who don’t normally play wargames, as well as gronards who really know their way around a paper battlefield.
Clay recommended we move away from a modular approach so that the game could capture more of the specifics of the history and be fine-tuned for the specific scenario. He also suggested some changes to the game board, which I agreed with. The new board created new possibilities, such as the inclusion of cannons as physical game pieces, and rules for the control of adjacent spaces (which in the game increase the offensive power of the Ottomans).
Early conversations and playtests with the publisher/developer resulted in an expanded game board
Playtesting and Final Changes
Working with Capstone meant I could playtest with a larger, more varied group, and I spent the next several months collecting data and tweaking the game in response to comments and survey feedback we received from online players.
Sometimes, what isn’t said in the feedback can be just as important as what is. For example, I wanted the battles in the game to be exciting and tense, and while nobody said anything negative about this aspect, players weren’t singling it out as highpoint either, so I decided to make combat into a kind of mini-game, with less math and tighter integration between the physical components and the outcomes. Once I made the changes, I started getting great feedback about the battles, which I feel have become one of the game’s highlights.
During this time, I connected with a group of gamers in Istanbul who joined the playtest. It was really important to me to make a game that “Western” and Turkish players could enjoy and feel represented the history and culture fairly and accurately. With their help, I was also able to clarify some historical fine points and terminology. I also made some new friends, and I’m really grateful for their contribution.
Graphic Design Is More than Pretty Pictures
During the late phase of playtesting, Domhnall Hegarty came onboard as the graphic designer. I first saw Donal’s work on Fred Serval‘s excellent Red Flag Over Paris. In addition to being an amazing graphic designer, Donal has a love and respect for history I feel is super important for a game like this.
Donal did more than just give the graphics a sophisticated, professional makeover; he actually influenced the design in some places. For example, Donal suggested tiles instead of cards to represent the tunnels dug by the Ottoman and Habsburgs. This was a terrific idea because it simplified the game interface in a logical and meaningful way, while also making the game more interesting. Plus you get to draw tiles from a bag, which is always fun! I love ideas like that, and I’m excited when they come from collaborators and partners.
By mid-summer 2021, the game had almost taken its final form. On TTS, it looked like this:
Wait! We’re Not Done Yet!
Of course, a game isn’t finished even once design and graphics are completed. Jonathan Bobal came onboard to polish the rulebook and player’s aid, and did a great job at organizing and presenting the rules in a clear and easy-to-follow way. I also spent several weeks researching and writing the historical notes and essays that accompany the game. Because this game is about the clash between two empires (Ottoman and Habsburg), I felt it was crucial it depict the history in a truthful and balanced way. Alongside Western European sources about the siege, I sought out works by Turkish authors and translations of Turkish military and social history.
You might end up owning a pile of books when you design a game based on historical events!
The game is named in part for the book Fire & Stone by Christopher Duffy, a classic history of siege warfare.
The Home Stretch
By mid-summer 2022 everything was finally done. Clay received a factory prototype of the final game:
The final game components — a long way from
handwritten notes on scraps of paper!
After four years of research, design, development, playtesting, art directing, and editing, the game is finally ready for its launch at SPIEL ’22!
My Design Process
With three published games and several more at various stages of development, I’ve started to think about my design process in a more systematic way. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s hourglass shaped. Once I have determined the general scope and scale of a game, I collect all the ideas I think are interesting or that I want to try out, then stuff them into the initial design. What follows is a process of reduction, of stripping things away until I get down to the game’s essence.
For me, the “North Star” to finding that essence is simplicity. Note that simplicity is not the same as simplistic; for me simplicity implies logic, economy, and elegance. When designing a game based on a historical situation, these qualities must also align with my understanding of the actual events.
How do you tell if you are achieving simplicity? Playtesting. Playtesting is kind of like telling a story. Players’ reactions tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Even solo testing can be really helpful. If you find something confusing or boring, or you notice you keep skipping over a part of the game, it’s more than likely your players will feel the same. Like I mentioned before, sometimes what isn’t said by players is just as important as what is.
At a certain point, I find the game starts to get almost too simple; in other words, it verges on simplistic. This usually means I’m through the narrow part of the hourglass, and it’s time to start expanding things again, but this time in a more directed, focused way. By now, hours and hours of developing, collecting data, and listening to feedback have given me a good idea of what belongs in the game and what doesn’t, and decisions I make from this point forward start to feel more natural and “right”, and less like shots in the dark. To me, this signals the game is approaching its final state.
Thank you for taking the time to read this diary! I hope you found it interesting, and if you design your own games that you take some encouragement from it. Remember that “two steps forward, one (or two) steps back” is par for the course, and inspiration can come from many places: a book, going out for a run, a few wooden pieces randomly placed on a board, an out-of-the-blue email, and most importantly, input from trusted collaborators.
I’m excited this part of the journey is finished, and I can’t wait for Fire & Stone: Siege of Vienna to finally make its way into players’ hands.