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Interview with Fight Your Own Battles designer Barry Miltenburg

Barry Miltenburg's Fight Your Own Battles is "a solo wargaming mechanism that allows one player to command two armies into battle during the WW2 period." Currently, Barry is expanding his game with Fight Your Own Wars, a complete campaign system for the solo player. Solo Nexus asked Barry to elaborate on his design strategies and objectives for this new project (and to share a few cool pics).

Solo Nexus: What originally prompted the design and development of FYOB?
Barry Miltenburg: Throughout my wargaming activities (from school upwards), I have always had a keen interest in WW2 and playing solo games – doing my own thing is part of my make-up I guess. Back then, apart from Donald Featherstone’s writings, there was little support for the solo gamers.
     15 years ago, I started to get back into wargaming seriously after a few years away and nearly 3 years ago took an early retirement/redundancy package from work. This created more time and needing a brain stimulant, FYOB was conceived.
     From the outset, I wanted a mechanism to play the game rather than a set of rules for moving and shooting. There are plenty of decent rulesets to use but I wanted to be able to play the part of both Generals and I could not find anything that allowed me to do that. I am pleased to say that FYOB gets close to where I wanted it to be – a solo gaming mechanism that is still a lot of fun and fits with whatever rules you want to use.

SN: As a solo wargaming mechanism, how versatile would you consider FYOB to be?
BM: At the very outset, I saw FYOB as a completely new set of rules that would provide a solo option for WW2 players but as the thing developed, it became clear that I should dispense with the “rules” and just create a “mechanism”. I was using Rapid Fire! for virtually all my games and thus it became the natural choice as a “constant” around which I could design.
     In the middle of development, Rapid Fire 2 was launched. I did not have the time immediately to absorb all the new rules so in about 30 minutes, wrote a VERY basic “bang-your-dead” ruleset covering infantry, artillery and tanks with a simple dice rolls for “hit” and “casualty” factors. Slips of paper were used to represent the elements and a paper map was used as the playing surface. (I spend a fair number of weekends away so at least it was transportable!!). Apart from taking me back to the sorts of games we used to play in school, it allowed me to ensure that whatever rules I used, the mechanism was robust.
     Post development, whilst I still mostly use FYOB with Rapid Fire! I have been working with Flames of War, Der Krieg and an old Lionel Tarr set from way back. To date, I am happy that FYOB holds up with all of these. In the new version of the rules, there is a table to help you interpret the language of FYOB into RF!, FoW, Der Krieg etc.
     I am not really qualified to comment on the use of FYOB beyond WW2 because I have not taken it there. However, the nature of modern warfare, when compared against, say, the Napoleonic period of rigid order, brings an emphasis on local command and FYOB allows the plastic officers a degree of autonomy with their character. Along with local conditions and disruption factors, this separates the General’s intentions from the actual battlefield activity. The plastic officer will still follow orders but his local knowledge and the enemy position will determine what he actually does when carrying those orders out. For this reason, conflicts from the Spanish Civil War through to modern-day could be considered.

SN: Fight Your Own Wars expands FYOB to campaign proportions – an ambitious objective. When you first embarked on this project, were there any core design philosophies that anchored your initial brainstorming sessions?
BN: FYOW is indeed an ambitious project and one that has led me to understand why there is not a wealth of solo wargame campaign mechanisms out there!
     My objective when I started was to produce a way of playing a solo “World War” type game with one mechanism taking care of what happens on the table, and FYOW looking after the strategic decisions, maps, supply, weather etc etc – in other words, all the global stuff. Although it quickly became clear that my campaigns would have to be much smaller, I still wanted the same global elements and therefore I did not want to find myself getting too bogged down in trivia.
     Secondly, as just as importantly, FYOW had to compliment FYOB. I did not want a whole new system of Command ratings or morale. The scale of the maps had to correspond directly with the ground scale of the table – after all, a map is only a scaled version of the ground. Supply rules that affected the game had to be expandable to fit the campaign. Attributes and values for bridges, hill heights etc had to transfer to the campaign map as well. Essentially, FYOW was a giant version of FYOB – and when you think about it, a campaign is really a number of battles sewn together. As a bonus, many of the aspects can be used to create a usable system for multi-player games.

SN: Since Fight Your Own Wars is a campaign system intended to be used with another game’s rules, will you focus your playtesting efforts on a single “touchstone” set of rules or will you vary your play among multiple game’s rules?
BM: Actually, FYOW is turning out as more of a set of rules that FYOB was ever intended to do. There are no game rules that readily translate up to campaign level. Even the excellent Rapid Fire! campaign books are really just a set of scenarios that follow on and do not get involved with logistics, changing weather or strategic decisions made by commands.
     The fact that FYOW is a set of rules AND a mechanism means that whatever rules you want to use on the table, you can (subject to the translations mentioned earlier between FYOB and your chosen rule set). It even means that you can play out the campaign with FYOW and when the two combatants clash, 2 or more players can play out the result – if your opponents are happy that you keep setting the scenarios, you will never be short of game ideas whilst your campaign is running! Similarly, you and your opponent can play out a conventional campaign but each of the tabletop games can be played solo using FYOB.

SN: Solo wargame campaigns have the potential to easily last for months, so how do you plan to facilitate the complexities of playtesting FYOW in as efficient and thorough manner as possible?
BM: In reality, playtesting for me is something of an organic affair. Ideas germinate into rules and conditions that can be applied to small sections of small campaigns quite easily. I will often start to play a small part of the game with few or any rules at all but usually have a clear idea in my mind of what I am trying to achieve. At each bound and turn, I note down ideas and thoughts, a rule or two and maybe a few questions. By about the third or fourth “pass”, I have something that begins to feel OK and this becomes the backbone of the rule as it then goes through testing. I find this method very efficient for me although you have to be prepared to be patient with it – and never throw any idea away!
      Most rule writers will tell you that when you start to run a simulation, certain rules either work or they don’t. Sometimes, another scenario throws up an addition or modification but rules that work tend to imbed themselves quite deeply. Anything that feels wrong or produces too random an outcome is brutally chopped.
     Some aspects, like Supply, have, over the years, produced a number of alternative systems, some of which I like very much. It is possible to run a campaign supply simulation without getting a terrain piece out of the store cupboard – it’s a simple laptop programme and a few dice throws. Again, such testing soon sorts out the great ideas from the sounds-good-on-paper-but… types.
     Playtesting is in full swing now although I really only have about 2/3rds of the rules written to a standard I am happy with – the rest will grow organically once we get up and running. The actual tests are a range of campaigns in various locations (France 1940, North Africa, Normandy etc) and with differing objectives – Blitzkreig vs static defence, mobile tank war, beach landing and breakout. By running several small campaigns alongside each other I can see how rules hold up and how changes can impact of various scenarios.
     What I have to caution myself against is either spending the next 5 years running dozens of campaigns and endlessly fiddling with the detail, or rushing into publications with a ruleset that needs the copious notes to help you play it.

SN: The backbone and testbed of the FYOW campaign mechanism will be the hypothetical Nazi invasion of the Isle of Wight. Is it risky or to your advantage to test a new campaign system on a battle that never happened?
BM: There is clearly a risk with this approach because there is no “control” factor – I cannot test the outcome of the campaign against reality. The huge upside for me though is not having any shackles about how it goes – what happens, happens.
     This campaign (Operation Diamond) covers the British landings in late 1941 to retake the Island after the Nazi invasion that was part of the original Operation Sealion plan. There is a lot of information available giving the Sealion plans and intentions, the Divisions that would be involved and the likely commanders. The British side is a bit more speculation given that the British army was on its knees at the time. However, information on the development of new tanks and other weapons gives us an idea of what the British army may have looked like for this campaign.
     I also have the models of the Channel Islands invasion as a guide to what the Nazi occupation army would have done/looked like and the invasions of Poland, Holland, France etc. These can indicate tactics, speed, typical ORBATS and the like.
     The Osprey range of publications covers a number of tactical and organisational records. As solo gamers, we have the luxury of spending some quality time, for example, making sure that our recce troops do things “by the book”. In this way, I can tap into reality, even on a fictitious battlefield.
     Finally, I am mindful that occasionally, out of the ordinary things did happen – the Finnish resistance to the initial Russian invasion is a classic case in point. It’s what railway modellers call “a prototype for everything” – some little piece of the weird and wonderful – fantastic to allow but not to be overdone.

SN: How extensive will the record keeping be in the Fight Your Own Wars campaign system?
BM: Players of Fight Your Own Battles will know that record keeping is a key aspect. The individual Activity Sheets for elements are vital for recording condition, rounds fired, “morale” (called the Continuous Momentum Score in FYOB) etc.
     Every General requires a staff to maintain records and whilst FYOW will not advocate an office full of typists (though that could be good!), record keeping will be just as important.
     Apart from details and positions of troops on the map, information on the supply and communications nets will be needed, command ratings, intelligence reports (using a communications procedure) and orders will need to be recorded. The “global” records will show things like weather and weather forecasts.
     A diary card system will give all commands the ability to plan an event and factor in 3 or 4 optional launch dates – the card system will ensure that I, as the player, do not know precisely when the event will launch. Therefore, when acting as the local commander on each side I will need to plan for various possibilities without genuinely knowing when it will happen!
     Eventually, the FYOW system could be available as a laptop programme – perhaps written in something nice and friendly like a Microsoft application – but initially, it will be paper based.

SN: Is there a target release date for Fight Your Own Wars?
BM: I would love to launch this year but knowing that FYOB was a year late, I would not like to put any guarantees into print!
     The main delay at present is the distraction of converting FYOB into a .pdf format so that gamers in the US can get to play it without having to fork out an arm and a leg on postage. This process will be about 75% done by the time you are reading this.
     FYOW will be released directly in .pdf format – I would love to have it available for Solo Gamers Month (11/2011) but the old adage goes that you can have it quickly or correctly…

Thanks, Barry, and good luck with the game!

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