Tactical wargaming is probably my favorite gaming genre, at least judging by the amount of playing time and money I have invested in the stuff. For my purposes of looking at usability in wargame design “tactical” includes unit scales that range from fire teams up to platoons, mainly because games set at those scales tend to try to accomplish many of the same things regardless of the specific design mechanisms. “Skirmish” scale games — where the game pieces represent individuals — are a bit of a different beast, so they lie below my definition today.
One of the things that strikes me about graphic design in tactical games is how little things have changed in more than 40 years. Compare the counter layout in 1970′s PanzerBlitz to the counter layout in a more modern game like PanzerGrenadier, World at War or Conflict of Heroes. Looky there; numbers in the corners, artwork in the middle. Is that one of those unwritten game design “standards”? I’d think it is, especially considering that one of those contemporary games — World at War — is so loath to part from the standard that it actually screws up usability by cramming too much information into too little space.
Note that I’m not advocating sticking values in the middle of a counter. But I will point out that the geometrical judgement is fairly harsh: Cramming 10 values into four corners is simply not a recipe for great usability. I like the World at War system quite a bit, but I don’t get it on the table as often as some other games (or buy as many of the add-ons, to make an economic point) simply because of the usability issues.
Within the limitations of a square counter format, how many practical options are available for a designer to experiment with alternative, useful locations to place information? Some designers have experimented with alternative locations that weren’t so useful — the teensy values for command range or whatever they were (it’s been a few years) on some of the Fortress Berlin counters come to mind here — but are there any realistic options for the format? Continue reading