I spend a lot of time criticizing game design decisions so I'd like a chance to let the "other side" be heard once in a while. Ivan Sorensen has been leading the Wargames Vault bestseller list for quite a while.
Many of us would have known him for his free sci fi rules, FAD - which
are one of the most thorough and well-presented free rules I've come
across. He's since had commerical success with his 5Core skirmish rules and variants . It's been adapted to 5Core Company Command and his latest, 5Core Brigade Commander, is currently sitting at #1. The platoon level No Stars in Sight (hard sci fi) and No End in Sight (moderns) have also been big hits. His rules have so many good reviews, and such good word-of-mouth, I'm finally convinced he doesn't have 100 alternate email accounts ;-)
I particularly like that Ivan always has a strong "design philosophy" and his comments are always interesting. I'm putting this as a "game design" post as he gives useful insight into the process and publication of wargames.
Tell us a bit about yourself; personal background, gaming
My name is Ivan Sorensen, I grew up in Denmark though I
currently reside in Oregon in the United States. My gaming background
started with tabletop roleplaying games, went through board games like Hero
Quest and Space Crusade and then, as I imagine it did with many who grew up in
the late 80's and early 90's, through Games Workshop, specifically Warhammer
40.000 which held us with an iron grip for years.
What are some of your key influences/what is your overall design
From a war gaming perspective, I am sure we all carry influences
from everything we read and play, but if I had to pick the games that stand out
to me as “Woah” moments I'd pick four:
Warhammer 40.000 (particularly the first two editions). It's
where I started so obviously it's been a big influence because to some extent,
I can't help compare everything I read to 40K 2nd edition
subconsciously. But I think it also really illustrates how setting can
influence game design. When the game is best, it's giving us tools to tell
Stargrunt 2 was a huge eye-opener. It was my first encounter
with the idea of a “quality” score instead of a stat line and taking morale
seriously in a miniatures game. The idea that a squad can be incapacitated
while most of its soldiers are still okay was a big deal.
Crossfire showed me that you can break the sequence of “every
figure does one thing every turn” and the result could in fact be a better
Finally, the Two Hour Wargames stuff (Nuts, 5150 etc.) finally
knocked it into my skull that campaign play is important and should be a
Outside the gaming field, I don't want to get into politics too
much here, but I think I come from a more left-wing, hippie, Red perspective
compared to a lot of game designers out there, especially in the historical war
gaming field. I try to always remember that fundamentally, warfare is a
horrible thing and to try and treat it respectfully and tastefully.
How did you get into designing games?
Ever since I was a kid, I always tried to make my own games.
I remember getting copies of a Danish Nintendo magazine, even
though we didn't own a Nintendo, and I'd try to make little dice games based on
the moves for games like Street Fighter.
Later, I'd read about interesting games I couldn't afford and
I'd try to make my own versions. I remember I made an overcomplicated version
of Necromunda with hit locations and everything, after reading about it in White
Dwarf. The first “original” game I made was heavily inspired by Warzone.
I don't know if any copies of it even exists still.
After I moved to the United States, I had about a year where I
did not have my work permit yet, so I had plenty of spare time. At the time, I
had been tangentially involved in the NetEpic project and I thought I should
try creating something from scratch, based around core mechanics.
I had been playing a free ww2 game called 1943 but had become
annoyed with how the fire combat was so random. So I got the idea
of rolling two dice for the unit and picking the higher score to make it less
random. From there, everything else fell into place.
Where did the ideas from 5Core/NSiS originate?
All my designs come from thinking of an interesting dice
mechanic or concept, and then building it out to see if a game can come out of
With FiveCore, those ideas were:
A: I tend to dislike games with modified dice rolls. I hate the
feeling when I have a good roll, only to realize that it was a miss
anyways. So I set as one of the goals that I wanted the dice roll to
always tell you exactly what happened. This meant that I had to find
other ways to do things like cover, which forced me to try and get creative.
B: I liked games where every unit does not always activate each
turn, but I also felt that the chance of nothing happening at all didn't make
for good game play. The balance then became “2 guys”. You can always do
something you want to do, but you can never do all the things you need
to. I thought that made for a more interesting turn sequence because it
forces you to make a lot of choices.
C: I felt there was a gap in the character-driven, low level
skirmish. Nuts covered it to an extent but at the time, it seemed like they
were pushing the games bigger so I figured I could carve out a niche for
With the “In Sight” system (No End in Sight and No Stars in
Sight), it started with some basic ideals as well:
A: I wanted a system where you have to make choices about how
hard you push your leaders and where the pressure of combat would build up in a
tangible matter. Hence the Stress mechanic.
B: I was really disenchanted with games that otherwise felt
realistic but had 50% casualties as the norm for the winning side.
So I wanted something where that wasn't the case, but where you could still
feel defeated even with only a few injured soldiers.
Describe the design stages:
I'm a bit old fashioned, so I always start with some scribbled
concepts like the ones I discussed above, on a note pad. I'll then go
about hashing out what those mechanics might look like for typical situations
and start piecing together some sort of playable framework around them.
Usually, I do this for 2 or 3 different things at the same time.
About a third of the way through, before the part I term “the grind”, I'll
realize that the system isn't going to work or isn't going to be something
people haven't seen before, so I'll drop it.
If I feel that “this is it”, I'll start sharing it with people.
I have a small group of trustworthy people who will reality check things and
can be relied upon to put things to the test.
Then, it's a process of iterations: You test something, it
doesn't work, you change it, a new idea pops up, something radical comes up and
so forth. I find if I set out clear guidelines at the beginning, I do
much better at staying on track and hitting a workable design.
It's VERY easy to get side tracked along the way and introduce
something that's cool but doesn't fit at all. I think we've all seen games
where there's a really cool mechanic that seems oddly super-detailed compared
to the rest of the game, and often for a fringe mechanic or sub system to boot.
The hardest part is knowing when to say “no”, because the things
you say no to (whether they're yours or someone else's) are probably really
good ideas, but they might not fit what you are trying to do.
How did you go about publishing your work? Can you recommend the
PDF route? What about hardback publishing? Any plans for working with mini
Self publishing through Wargame Vault, which I'd highly
I try not to sound like a shill but if I was going to shill for
anybody, they'd be it. Other than the initial quality check to make sure you
aren't a fraud, you can publish at your own leisure, put it together the way
you want to do, and they make it very easy to get paid.
I've always approached this as a “Zero Risk” endeavour. I don't
want to sit on any inventory that may not sell and I don't want to make any
investments that I may not recoup.
That has it's limitations, for example in terms of art (public
domain plus GIMP for me) and layout (what you see is what I've taught myself
and I'm hardly an expert at it) but it does mean that tomorrow, I could walk
away, go back to an office job and not have lost out on anything.
I'd like to look into print on demand but the layout
requirements are very different so there's a barrier of entry there. It's not a
high priority for me.
I've made partnerships with a few people, notably Keith at
Armies Army and I would love to see more coalitions like that take place.
My dream world is one where you have a coalition of miniatures makers and game
designers all supporting each other.
You'd have manufacturers saying “You can showcase our miniatures
in your games and provide stats for them” and in turn the writers would help
promote the figures.
If you had your time over again, what would you do differently?
Probably create a little more separation between myself as a
person and as a business person. I haven't had any serious problems but it's
always on my mind that someone might be looking for my games and they'll come
across me running my mouth on social media.
When I published “No End in Sight”, I had a bit of anxiety
because I had elected to put anti-war quotes in the chapter headings. I
wanted to try and sever the tendency of modern wargaming to become a bit
jingoistic but after I published it, I must admit, I was nervous about the
In the end, the only people that ever did comment on it were
happy I had done so, and I got some nice emails from some super-conservative
wargamers who thought the game was great, so I guess either it went well or the
angry people didn't want to make me upset.
Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?
I've gotten about 10 million requests for a medieval or fantasy
FiveCore game so I will have to tackle that at some point, though I am doing a
lot of thinking, since core aspects of the game will have to be rewritten for
I REALLY want to do something cool for the 6mm scifi scene. I
think that scene is right on the edge where it could explode like 15mm scifi
did a few years ago, and if I could do anything to help that happen, that'd be
The more immediate
plans are a post apocalyptic expansion for FiveCore and a world war 2 version
of No End in Sight, tentatively titled “No Tigers in Sight”. Other than that... silence.
Again, thanks to Ivan for his very thorough responses. His comments on the design philosophy, design stages and PDF publishing are, I think, useful reading for any budding rules writer.