Armchair General Interviews Lost Battalion Games’ Jeff Billings
Interview with Jeff Billings of Lost Battalion Games
1) What inspired you to get in to war game designing?
I made my first war game when I was 11 years old. I had played Blitzkrieg several times and had been reading some of my Dad’s Bantam Books paperbacks on World War II. When I read about the Battle of Gazala I decided I wanted to play the game for that battle and set out to make my own using my parents’ card table. With markers and paint, I drew out the battlefield on the table top, much to the annoyance of my parents.
In my twenties, I met my late business partner S. Craig Taylor, Jr. while playtesting for him. It was several decades later when we were talking about our childhood experiences with games, design and development that I realized for some of us this is a calling. We want to understand and express the lessons of history through the “odd” art of gaming.
2) What are your favorite war games and board games?
I really admire the innovation of many war games, however I was extremely blessed to work on the original Civilization design. I was head of Japanese Development at MicroProse and along with many others, got to port the design for the Japanese market. When Sid Meier and Bruce Shelly were a team that was the best combo in game design and they produced some of the very best games ever conceived.
People forget that game design is an art of understanding and decisions – not of media or genre. Civilization was a seminal work because it begins with a small self-teaching starting point and morphs into several very different games along the way. Working on that code and asking questions of those amazing designers was a master’s course in game design. Jobs can pay you in money – but if they are not also paying you in understanding you are really missing out. Understanding is as much an asset as cash.
As a board game, I enjoy the Power Grid. It is variable, driven by the choices of the players, which makes you play the game and the players both. It is easy to teach and play, but very hard to master.
3) What inspired the original design of Sergeants on the Eastern Front back in 2011?
The first version of Sergeants, published in 2005 was a baggie game with counters you cut out with scissors. It was a continuous seller so we decided to create a formal board game version in 2011 with very high quality production values. It was a good design but looked too much like all other wargames. After a couple of years of selling it with limited success. I was talking to Craig and decided to break the mold on the design completely. I went back to the lessons learned in computer game design and made a crazy leap – “What if every piece in the game was able to be unique… and if that is true, how can you balance that?” The problem was fascinating to me so I set about to solve it. The balance question was easier than the media – In a sealed universe of actions a unified equation can be used to balance any design. I solved the balance problem with math, programming and a lot of tenacity. Sergeants systems board game and miniatures game both use this sealed universe mathematical approach to solve the balance. Part of the playability that makes the game playable by a gamer as young as 5 years old is it is Easy which is often confused with Simple. One example of that is unit cohesion which is a rule in most games. In Sergeants it is an effect of gameplay The math models and links the operators to achieve causality that is fun and easy. All the effects of unit cohesion with none of the rules – again Easy rather than Simple.
The second part is how do you build such a thing? In 2002 I had set out to reinvent the way we produce games. It is an inventory of 1 approach. After 15 years of development, we can build a product where each game is unique or the same. That dropped our cost of capital for inventory and strangely, changed the cost of capital equipment. The whole system is proprietary, and we have spent enormous effort and money working out the software, hardware, tools and automation to be able to build a very different kind of value for the gamers.
The name Lost Battalion Games was a quip and an homage to the fact we were heading in such a completely different direction that we knew we would have to endure being presumed lost while facing a very hard task. It would have been easier to join the flood of manufacturing moving to Asia. We decide that building games here in the United States was something we wanted to do, and we have stuck it out and kept true to our vision – “We put you in stories where your decisions make the difference.” That is the common truth of the committed gamer. The laughter and the stories we tell each other after that game bind us together and build our friendships and acceptance of one another – games are good!
4) Explain why you decided to shift to the Western Front with the new releases of Sergeants and what inspired you to focus on miniatures instead of cardboard counters?
When we moved to Normandy it was a perfect mass skirmish battle to show off the latest design of Sergeants. Normandy started as a botched airborne invasion with troops scattered all over. The defenders were in the fight without a working command system. And once things shaped up the battle was a series of squad and platoon engagements trapped in pockets of dry land and hedge rows. The troops involved are every mix of morale and training, with different doctrines, equipment and tactics. As far as skirmish situations go Normandy is the biggest skirmish battle in the history of man.
The decision to go to fully painted miniatures came as part of a long and deliberate thought process that happened over several years. I was at a NashCon many years ago and Nancy Tiller was intensely watching me as I looked at a bag of unpainted miniatures. She remembered the moment vividly and later helped my buyout the FAA USA figure line, which she co-owned.
Miniatures are the ultimate game play piece. They are a perfect tactile avatar for the gamer to put themselves in the game. It is why injection molded pieces have dominated gaming for decades. There is also the tactile interaction that people get from substantial components. The value to the gamer is the connection that is created by the handling of the piece. It allows a suspension of disbelief and connects the player to the decisions of the game. But in the past, the pieces were rarely painted in games. I hope Sergeants was the pebble that changed demand for high quality full color game pieces.
5) In my play throughs of the Sergeants Miniature Game, I have noticed that the game play feels more like a movie or a memoir of the soldiers who fought in the war. Was this your intent when you created the game?
Thank you, that was absolutely the intent and design. Sergeants starts from the unique personality of each soldier. They have both nature and nurture. The nature is the natural abilities of the soldier, there are hundreds of these. We then layer the nurture on top of the nature to alter the nature of the soldiers. For example, a soldier has a stint as a brick layer before he comes into the service and it increases his ability to acquire skills and game play effects like endurance, wound resistance and strength. There are billions of interactions sets and the totality of that totality of that models a soldier’s behavior in combat expressed as genome, life experience and training. And finally, we overlay that with the service record of each soldier to create a person with all the flaws and strengths that you would expect from them. They form social dynamics as well as addictions madness and a momentary lapse in good sense that can make them heroic or tragic. All of that came from reading the accounts of ordinary people doing insanely brave things and turning the course of a battle. Heroes are just people that do the unexpected with extraordinary results. We celebrate them and hope to be as good as they are if put to the test. Games let us find those moments in the play with friends and we are bonded by the shared experiences and stories.
6) What type of research did you conduct in order to verify the accuracy of the detail in the game?
Oh my… there were hundreds of articles and accounts of behavior in combat that I worked to model. Also, the game scale is not even close to linear. The time scale distorts as well as the distance scale… I know I sound like I am off topic but I am really not… because describing the (mathematical terms) of all the elements used in the game was the start of the work. Range, probability of hit, probability of kill for every weapon used and expressing that in terms of Hit Check, Damage Check and distance. That is where many designs stop short – they assume all M1 Garand Rifles have the exact same performance ability and they attach a mannequin to the rifle. What I found in the research was that it was not only the weapon range, but also when a soldier in combat would shoot, and why would they choose not to shoot. Each training type in Sergeants has hundreds of pages of game law, data and software that applies and creates each unique soldier – no two are alike and cannot be alike because they are grown individually.
7) Each soldier in the game has a name and statistics. Some of the leaders actually get lower skills as they advance through their careers. What was your reasoning behind this?
As soldiers see battle they change. Some are perfected by the experience and others are worn down by the experience. All of them can hit breaking points – a soldier that is a great infantry leader may be a very poor scout. Same person but different roles. So a soldier that has no divided attention as a private can become consumed with looking out for his soldiers. The system interaction inside the hidden part of Sergeants is very complex – but the expression is easy: Look, Shoot, Hide and Move.
8) It looks like all the beautiful components for Sergeants are made in the USA and the minis are hand painted. Please talk us through the thinking behind this and the process of creating your miniatures from design through molding and painting.
Why is simple – Americans can manufacture our products if our business leaders put in the work needed to redefine how to do that in a way that meets the changing markets and refines the use of technology. It is both an applied science and an applied art.
Developing our factory processes meant that we had to also develop our culture and philosophy. It centers around unique, personal game experiences. The designs are meant to be enduring. They are built to be available for years, possibly decades to come. Consistency of the supply chain and repeatable quality is the continuous aim. We have always know where we want to get to in our factory design and processes. And we are close to moving from the lab to a large-scale facility. We have a few experiments to complete before we stomp the gas on this experiment called Lost Battalion Games.
9) Why did you choose pewter for the minis as opposed to plastic?
Many reasons… tooling cost, variability, heft and durability.
10) I get the feeling that Lost Battalion Games is much more than a company – it feels like a family. Is this an accurate description?
That happens with gamers that work together for years at a time. Some are family, others are family by choice. We all share a vision that looks forward for decades. As a private business, we can behave on a long timescale, James 1:4 Let patience have her perfect work.
11) I love that fact that each component of Sergeants features a sticker telling me who at the company inspected and packed the item. Is this hands on approach an extension of your corporate philosophy?
Absolutely. We all must take seriously that when you open our game it is your stories that we are touching. We want those to be good stories. We take our product and customer service seriously.
12) Why did you decide to release Sergeants as both a miniatures game and as a board game?
We played a very large Sergeants game in miniature at Historicon. It had 240 soldiers, tanks, artillery and antitank guns, played by 24 players. We completed 10 turns in a little over 5 hours. All the players knew Sergeants, so it went quickly. However, it was apparent to us that long range engagements of Sherman tanks versus Panzers were going to take a lot of table and expense. We developed the board game scale to allow big game engagements on a kitchen table. Most gamers don’t have 30 foot tables to play tank on tank engagements. That said, I just played in a small map (2ft. by 3 ft.) Sergeants Miniatures Game at Fire in the East this weekend. It was played with Sergeants Hell on Wheels and featured halftracks, self-propelled guns and scout cars with infantry in miniature. And it ended with the commander of a disabled SdKfz 250 leading a close assault of a M8. A bunch of good stories will be told after that game.
13) Please tell us about the most recent expansion, Hell on Wheels, and how does it fit in to the basic Sergeants game?
From the very beginning gamers that were considering Sergeants were asking if it had armor. At skirmish scale, many designs struggle to create a risk to the vehicle posed by infantry. To make sure that Sergeants Hell on Wheels is a clear expansion of the existing system, the Vehicle Modules were based on the Tactics Panel Expansions, and the Crew were are in every way Sergeants Soldiers. The vehicle was modelled in the same manner as a rifle or machine gun only it is much more complex. We then took the idea a step further and expressed the machine like a soldier. Tanks have quirks of operation and can break in unique and interesting ways. When combined with the crew and any soldiers that are passengers, the results are fully Sergeants – a unique crew and vehicle that have all the personality and story of real-life.
14) Tell us about other Lost Battalion Games and what we can expect to come out in the near future?
Rally Round the Flag is very close to release. It is the final game design of S. Craig Taylor Jr. and is even more heavily researched than Sergeants. We had to invent new ways to manufacture the design and I think the results are great fun and beautiful.
We have several other very large projects and several smaller games coming out soon. My backlog of games due for publishing is very large. That is the reason we are preparing to scale up the company.
For a review of the Sergeants Miniatures Game see :