Make War Games

War games evolved out of military planning where commanders simulated battles on a map before committing to a strategy. Although the planning had deadly consequences on the battlefield, the act of playing out battles on a table top was fun. Once in the hands of civilians, war games gained rules and props, and grew more sophisticated. Warhammer and Axis & Allies are direct descendants of those table-top war games. You can develop your own war game.


1. Decide on the number of players. The number of players will affect rules, pace of game play and the shape of the playing field. Consider existing table-top games: Chess is a classic two-player game; up to five players can play Axis & Allies. Rounds will last longer with more players (a round has passed when all players have taken a turn). Players take their turns one after another in war games. If each player takes a five-minute turn in a six-person game, the result would be 30-minute rounds. Each player would have to wait 25 minutes until his turn. Depending on how much happens during a round, the wait could be boring.

2. Set the scope of combat. Will game pieces represent soldiers or squads? D&D Minis has players control individual heroes and monsters; in Axis & Allies, a tank represents a whole armored division. The scope also plays into the setting of combat. Will players fight in a field like in Warhammer, or across continents like Axis & Allies? The scope will set your game pieces and playing field. Individual pieces work well in smaller venues, but imagine the annoyance of placing 5,000 pieces for a Roman legion.

3. Develop an overview of how combat will play out. Will one piece capture another, or must a piece be surrounded before capture? In Warhammer, dice are rolled to determine the results of a skirmish. War games typically avoid the combat-through-movement strategy of games such as chess in favor of context-based luck. Specific rules for combat can wait until later, but work out an idea as a guide.

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4. Decide on how pieces are moved. Will pieces have fixed movements like in chess or will the movement be based on an assigned ability like in D&D Minis and Warhammer? Fixed movement works well in chess because of the confined board, but larger fields demand variable- or score-based movement. In D&D Minis, a “speed of 2” means that a piece can move up to two squares. Other pieces in D&D Minis have higher speed scores and can cover more squares in a turn. Some war games like Warhammer cite movement in inches since there is no obvious grid. There are also special rules in Warhammer for moving pieces as squads and regiment formations. You want a general idea of how players will move their pieces and how it is incorporated in their turn.

5. Determine the technology level of your war game. Axis & Allies takes place during World War II, so players control submarines, jets and tanks along with rifle-bearing infantry. Warhammer is set in a high-fantasy world, so the majority of combat is up close with some magic and catapult support. The technology level of your setting will guide your rules for weapon effectiveness and range. All of the armies of your war game should be close in technology to avoid unfair advantages.

6. Develop themes for player armies. The two sides in chess represent opposite armies, the armies of Warhammer represent species, and Axis & Allies pits nations against each other. A thrilling war game is one in which the players can identify with their army. Giving your armies personality will endear them to players.

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7. Choose whether or not to create a hobby within a hobby. Axis & Allies uses small, plastic pieces with minimal details. Warhammer utilizes sculpted figurines that are meant to be painted. Many players have picked up Warhammer and other miniatures games because of the detailed models and the opportunity to paint them. However, some potential players are turned off by model building and painting. You do not have to sculpt incredible models to design a war game, but it is something to consider in development.

Building and painting miniatures is a hobby unto itself that could broaden the appeal of your game. However, sculpting is an art and takes a lot of time even for professionals. If you are not a skilled sculptor, take the opportunity to reach out and connect with someone who is, and is interested in developing a war game.

8. Decide whether to create a game with everything included or require players to collect and piece together armies. Axis & Allies can be played right out of the box. There are alternate models available, but they do not affect game play. Warhammer centers around collecting, building and painting miniatures with starter sets available as well. D&D Minis also has a collectible aspect, although its miniatures are already painted.

Encourage people to play your game, then present options to expand game play later. New war games have a better chance of success if they start out as self-contained sets. The time and money it would take to develop and release collectible miniatures could be too much of an up-front investment for you and the players.

9. Write rules for winning the game. Warhammer 40k has several victory conditions ranging from eliminating the opposing army to holding territory after a set number of rounds. Once you know where you are going, you can begin the journey to designing your war game.

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10. Write the rules for the game. By now, you should have an idea of how you want pieces to move and attack. Develop the rules that govern actions in the game. Does the player roll dice and if so, how many times? Are coins involved or a system similar to paper-rock-scissors? Set up some stand-in game pieces then proceed with a mock battle. What do you want players to be able to do each turn? The core game play of war games involve fielding troops, movement and attack. The “attack” part of that triad is what will take the longest to develop. Start small then work outward.

Start with one soldier against another. What will represent Soldier A’s attempt to kill Soldier B? Does Soldier B get a chance to react or will he have to wait his turn? Decide if the soldiers are by themselves or part of a larger squad. Does that squad receive additional bonuses for outnumbering the opposition? What other factors might affect battle?

Incorporate the rest of the field. Does the presence of certain units affect others? How far away can archers attack, and do they have to worry about hitting their allies? Test your rules as you write them. When you make additions or alterations, start small then work outward again to see how everything was affected by the change. You will not have a solid system on the first shot, so keep refining the rules until you have a war game that is fun to play and look at.