Tabletop games have become more popular and sophisticated over the years, and one of the people responsible for that is Larry Harris, the creator of Axis & Allies. The casual simulation of World War II has sold millions of copies over the years, and it is just one of 200 tabletop games that Harris has designed.
But he’s not done yet. For the past five years, Harris has been working on War Room, a more ambitious but not necessarily more complicated tabletop board game about World War II. Harris, 69, sees it as the culmination of all of those decades of learning as a game designer and a World War II buff. It is a game on a circular map, with features such as morale and stress that affect a company’s ability to wage war, as well as secret and simultaneous movement that introduces more surprise into gameplay. Harris wants this game to be perfect. It’s not a rush job, and at this point, Harris says he doesn’t know how to make it better.
Harris teamed up a few years ago with veteran game artist and designer Thomas Gale (the creator of games such as Zoo Tycoon), and they formed Nightingale Games last year to publish the title. They are now raising money for the beautiful and carefully crafted War Room on Kickstarter, and the crowdfunding campaign has already raised nearly double the $ 150,000 amount they were seeking through crowdfunding. They aim to publish the title with the help of gaming veteran Joe Minton in 2018. And at some point in the future, Harris hopes to convert it into a computer game, just as Axis & Allies has been converted. First, though, he wants to make it perfect as a tabletop design.
I talked with both Harris and Hale — who both live in Massachusetts — this week in separate phone interviews. Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Harris.
GamesBeat: Did you ever get a good idea of how many copies of Axis & Allies were out there?
Larry Harris: No? [Laughs] A lot. There’s a lot of different versions of Axis & Allies. Each of them has their own track record. But it’s been in publication every day since 1984. That’s quite astonishing. I don’t think it’s been recognized as the classic it is. It’s more than 30—33 years old? It’s an interesting phenomenon in itself.
GamesBeat: I used to play a lot of the Strategy & Tactics games when I was young. It sounds like there’s this different kind of audience that was broader that you targeted with Axis & Allies.
Harris: Yeah, it kind of bridged between the niche military simulations and more popular games, mass market games. I designed it with that in mind. I found that the games that were available to me as a young man were much too complicated and not very pleasing. I thought they could have been done better, and that’s what I attempted to do when I made Axis & Allies. Give it a broader appeal.
GamesBeat: What were some of the differences you remember there? What made your game simpler?
Harris: I didn’t care how much gas was in the fuel tanks of the tanks or trucks. I just presented to the players that there were in fact trucks. [Laughs] I did what you might call, or what I was suggesting—it was a broad brush. Leaving some of the details to obscurity and letting that void be filled by the player’s imagination.
GamesBeat: Is that the approach you’re taking with War Room?
Harris: Yeah, War Room is going to benefit from my Axis & Allies experience. I’m making it even more streamlined. But hopefully not losing the main ideas. It’s not complicated. It’s a culmination of a lot of simple game mechanics, combined together.
GamesBeat: It seems a lot bigger as a game.
Harris: I don’t know if it’s bigger? There’s a lot of pieces, a thousand of them. That’s not more than Axis & Allies, though. The game is based on a command structure where you have these different commands, and then within each command there are a variety of units that make up the totality of the command. But it’s not more complicated. There’s probably no connection between the number of components and the game’s complexity.
GamesBeat: I see there are different kinds of chips for things like morale. Could you explain some of that? Why do you want to introduce that into the game?
Harris: The morale and stress—there were situations in Axis & Allies where—I have to be very careful, because I don’t want to compare this game too much to Axis & Allies. Axis & Allies is one of my children as well, and I don’t want to diminish it in any way. It shouldn’t be diminished. But there were situations where somebody could—I guess the expression was “turtle”? They could fortify their home base to a point where it became impossible to destroy them, with such an accumulation of force. Take Japan. Japan could have lost all its territory, but Japan itself would end up so fortified that it would take another hour or more to finally conclude the war.
What morale and stress do is they erode your forces in such a way that the inevitable outcome of the battle, or the war, can be determined by non-military—you would be undermined. You start losing troops. Your economy can’t continue production. I thought that reflected well the historical realities. I wanted to capture that historical factor and instill it in the game. As the countries begin to lose, or have the impression of losing the war, it would be reflected on this stress wheel.
It came up, realistically, with deteriorating factors such as labor and civil unrest. Maybe your infrastructure is neglected because you don’t have the resources to keep your roads and communication lines open. And then eventually economic collapse would just end your ability as a nation to continue to produce. You can even get into mass desertion, as the army just starts falling apart, much like what happened to Russia in World War I, and Germany.
When I’m doing global strategy, there are two things I wanted to get into. One of them was stress and the other one was secret and simultaneous movement. Those were two points that really differentiate War Room from Axis & Allies. They all sound very complicated, but I think I came up with some game mechanics that make it rather simple and intuitive.
GamesBeat: You’ve been working on this for five years. What’s made this such a long development for you?
Harris: Because we wanted to do it right. [laughs] Yeah, I know, it sounds a little like I might be exaggerating. We made – or I made, then Tom joined – 12 games here. Each iteration just became better and better. This was a labor of love. I wanted it to be as perfect as it could be. I would come up with whole systems that I would be very willing to just toss, should I come up with something better. And then when Tom and I got together, very soon — right from the get-go actually – we decided we weren’t going to release this game until it was ready. We didn’t have a production deadline or something like that to follow. We could do it when we wanted, and we wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity.
GamesBeat: And you’re convinced you’re pretty close now?
Harris: Oh, yeah, we’re there. We’re just fine-tuning some of the little explanations, the way the rules are presented, for clarity. But the game mechanics themselves are very sound at this point. It was during this last summer that we decided, yes, we’re ready for a Kickstarter in the fall, which we just had, a very successful one.
GamesBeat: Tom mentioned that your father was in the war. Was that in some way an inspiration for your interest in World War II?
Harris: Totally. I might even get emotional talking about it. [laughs] It’s my weak side, emotionally. My father was a young man in New England back in 1941, and he joined the National Guard so he could spend weekends with his friends. He was in the Guard when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was immediately in the war. He was an early bird. They shipped his regiment to the Pacific, on a transport ship all by themselves, 5,000 guys, and it was fine until they pulled into the New Hebrides, where they ran into their own mines and the ship sunk. 5,000 guys got stranded there.
They had been on their way to Guadalcanal to assist the Marines. From there it went on up through the Solomon Islands. He was a radio operator with the infantry. He was there from the earliest days of American involvement in World War II to almost the very end, but eventually rotated out and returned to the United States in 1945. He was on the front lines. He beat all the statistics about survival, but in the process got malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, all the illnesses that were available. He fought the Japanese through the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippines. He was bombed. His ship sunk under him. He spent dark, horrifying nights in foxholes as the enemy snuck up on him. He did it all and then came back and went on with his life.
There were so many stories. I was his firstborn, and I found his diary when I was a child. It became an amazing story to me. It just sucked me in. I interviewed him over the years, jarring his memory and using the diary as a guide for my questions. By way of him, I became educated about World War II and the details of it. I felt very personally connected to it by way of my father.
He later went to Japan and fell in love with the Japanese. I have an interesting story about that, a quizzical little story. I was in school, and we were totally misbehaving as a classroom. There was a teacher, a Japanese-American woman, who walked into the classroom and called us all “nincompoops!” I went home and asked my father, who spoke some Japanese, “What does nincompoop mean in Japanese?” He burst out laughing. “No, that’s English.”
GamesBeat: Did he survive long enough to see the first Axis & Allies?
Harris: Yeah, he did. He died in 2010. So many of these veterans of World War II are disappearing. At one point it was 3,000 a month, and it’s probably higher now. It’s a sad thing. When I write my designer notes for Axis & Allies, which I’ve done many times, I often say, go out and find these guys, shake their hands. Be in a position where you can tell your grandchildren that you met this greatest generation.
GamesBeat: Did you ever bring your father into the game in some way?
Harris: There was a dedication in a couple of them. One game I did, Guadalcanal, I included, in the designer notes, some excerpts from his diary. Very detailed, actually, about being shelled. At Guadalcanal the Japanese were bringing cruisers and destroyers down through the Slot and shelling them at night. It was just terrible, these things landing anywhere, and there’s no hole deep enough to hide from them.
Also, there’s a picture of him — in New Guinea at a later moment, with a cigar in his hand, his helmet on, and his radio on his back, a pretty cool photo – that’s always included in the designer notes. So yeah, he’s been tied in. I’ve given him credit for inspiration behind this whole project.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing is that war games can be so abstract, so removed from those details.
Harris: There’s a personal side that you have to let go of, and then you go into the mechanical and—the clinical side of it? The strategy, the movement, the chess game of it. In all wars you have this interesting chess game going on. World War II, one of the chess pieces, if you will, was production. America’s production ability was very high, of course – in fact, World War II made America the superpower it has become, and has been for the last 70 years, because of that production.
Production of your new pieces based on the resources available to you is a big factor in this game. In War Room we deal more directly with resources than the industrial production certificates, which were equivalent to money in Axis and Allies. Here we deal with oil, iron, and other strategic resources. It takes combinations of these resources to produce things like tanks or infantry or aircraft or ships.
Whatever the theme might be, I look for the root idea, the core idea, and then I tried to accentuate that, bring that forward. If you’re a Squad Leader, as the title suggests – or a platoon leader or a company commander — I wanted you to be a commander of eight or 10 guys and I wanted you to deal with those issues. I wanted you to be the center of it.
What I’m doing here in this game, I’m putting you in the center of your war room. You’re the supreme commander of whatever country you happen to be playing. You’re the one who makes all the calls. A game should be an adventure that you go on. Things are under your control, with the elements banging up against you, testing you, seeing how you fare.
GamesBeat: I play a lot of Call of Duty these days.
Harris: That’s some hard stuff for me to compete against. It’s so exquisite. I play a lot of World of Tanks. I’m just so impressed with—when you shoot it looks like you’re really shooting. Someone’s taken the time to figure out the velocity of my particular weapon. It’s just wonderful. But still, it doesn’t have the social aspect that a board game does.
Imagine if Call of Duty had you in the supreme commander’s job. You’d get up, have your breakfast, have your manservant help you into your uniform. But then you’d walk down into this war room, and you’d have this big overhead light on the table, or a big panel on the wall depending on the war you’re fighting, and there you make critical decisions. That moment when you’re making critical decisions is what I harp on.
GamesBeat: To go even more abstract, what are some lessons you’ve learned about game design?
Harris: Just reinforcing the idea that the devil is in the details. If the game is too complicated, that’s because it’s not well-designed. It’s for the designer to deal with the complications and to present it in a very easy, simple fashion. A complicated subject with many different parts should not be complicated to play.
GamesBeat: Have you toyed with the idea of doing either digital versions of this game or computer games? Is there something that draws you more to the tabletop?
Harris: I’m just looking for a producer. This will be a great electronic game. It has all the ingredients.
GamesBeat: I suppose the way to get the game right is to create that tabletop version first, though.
Harris: Yeah, all the work’s done. All the math, all the scale. It’s all there. It just has to be translated.
GamesBeat: When computer games came along, were you still interested primarily in tabletop for a particular reason?
Harris: Oh, yeah. I resisted! You have to understand, this came out in 1984. I had a little Macintosh box at the time. Electronic games seemed really crude. Didn’t seem to have much of a future as far I was concerned. I resisted moving to computers. But Axis & Allies did come out in two electronic versions, through Hasbro and through Atari. They were very well-received. Sold a lot of copies.
GamesBeat: Is that something you still get royalties on? Has that helped finance your other games?
Harris: Sure. It’s helped finance my entire life. [Laughs] This one, though, it’s separate. I don’t want to put too much of my personal money in the development of a game, because I don’t want to put that at risk. You never know if a game is going to be successful. I’m not at the point where I can take great financial risks. Kickstarter fit this perfectly. We didn’t know – this is an interesting story – how this was going to be received. We set up a goal of $ 150,000, and we reached that within the first 24 hours. Then we said, “Yeah, we’ve got something here.” It was great. Exceeding that goal, we were able to incorporate better elements, and more of them.
GamesBeat: Is this the kind of game that could be played solitaire, or would it be difficult to do that way?
Harris: I play it solitaire, for parts of my playtesting. Certainly I can more easily put together a solitaire game. I’ve often done that. But of course it’s always preferable to have other people and their reactions. Even though this has secret and simultaneous movement, I can ad lib—I actually write orders for each country that I’m playing. Maybe I’ll walk away for an hour or two so I don’t remember exactly what the Germans were doing that last round. [laughs] So when I sit down and start writing orders for Britain or the United States, I don’t exactly remember. I make an effort not to remember what the enemy did. Or I make assumptions. Maybe I’ll move things under strength, to test how it would have resolved between real players. I’m very good at playing against myself.
GamesBeat: As far as the level of strategic play, is there a good way to describe that here? What kinds of things are you doing? Are you attacking individual cities or countries?
Harris: We call them territories, because sometimes they are whole countries, and sometimes they’re simply territories of a country. Russia is broken up into many regions, whereas Germany is just one territory. But within these territories are these resources, which gives each territory its unique strategic value. To lose France, for example, would be a big chunk out of Germany’s economy. There’s strategic value assigned to France which is very high. The loss of that would impact your morale chart, which is also—you’re not only deprived of French resources, but you also take a hit on your morale and stress level.
GamesBeat: Does the game reward aggression in that sense, then?
Harris: To some extent. Because casualties are part of the stress factor, even if you capture a territory, take it over, you still suffer the stress of the loss of your young men and women. It’s a fine line between punishment and reward there. But if you do conquer a territory you receive a medal, a symbol of a morale-boosting situation. Even though you may have had a bad streak of morale deterioration, you can still recoup some of that with good news. That good news is represented in the form of medals.
You can also manipulate your nation’s stress level by directing your military resources back to the civilian population, versus something like the purchase of a tank, for example. That comes in the form of purchasing a civilian goods and services token, which is like receiving a medal, but you purchase it. What you’re doing is redirecting some of your finances toward civilian needs. It’s guns versus butter. Which all sounds very complicated, but it’s very simple. You just make a conscious decision to deal with stress, keep it at a manageable level, and direct your economy to keep everyone happy so stress doesn’t overcome you.
GamesBeat: Does your stress level lead to guerrilla warfare, anything like that?
Harris: It leads ultimately to mass desertion. You have to remove units from the board. But before you get to that point, you’ve been deprived of your ability to produce new stuff by economic collapse. Your front lines, your military—I’m doing this backwards. Your military starts to be able to move fewer things, because of supply line disruption. At some point your railways and ports don’t function, because civilians aren’t cooperating and the work’s not getting done. Food is scarce and so on. It’s reflective of the real war, basically.
GamesBeat: Is there a lot of technological development in the game?
Harris: No, there’s no tech. That’s an area I could have gone into and decided not to. I didn’t think it needed that level. But it’s certainly very easily incorporated. There’s likewise the potential for espionage as well, in a big way, but it’s not there. It could be. The way it could be done, before I write my orders, because of successful espionage, I could get to see what your written orders are, or part of them.
GamesBeat: Is that something for players to think about, then, whether they want to modify it?
Harris: I don’t bring it up, but I always encourage house rules. As a designer I have no problem with people tailoring these games to their own interests. And these are also things that could be incorporated in future additions to the game.
GamesBeat: You’ve designed about 200 games now. Did you feel like this one was special in some way?
Harris: I’ve got a lot of years behind me as a professional game designer. It’s been my life’s work. Worked for all the biggies. Hasbro, Mattel, Coleco, Milton-Bradley, the list goes on. This is the culmination of all those many years. The game itself has benefited from my becoming a veteran game designer. This was not rushed. It benefited from that. It benefited from my experience and knowledge of World War II. I look at it right now and I don’t know how I can make it any better.
GamesBeat: How old are you now?
Harris: I’m 69. Don’t ask me how that happened. I have no idea. I know when it happened, but that’s all.