Interview with Kevin Zucker by
Where did you get your interest in these games of history and
love the smell of printer's ink, and I love publishing. I've
always been fascinated by magazine publishing and I used to read
the statement of circulation in the October issue of American
periodicals when I was a little kid.
I had an interest in the idea of historical games
before I'd ever seen one. When I first saw the Milton Bradley
series—Broadside, Battle Cry, Dogfight—when I saw these games I
knew this was what I was looking for. At about the same age of
11, I was visiting my grandmother's apartment. Glancing at the
bookcase I saw a small book that might be the right size for a
kid, not many pages. I still remember the red leatherette cover.
The book was "The Maxims of Napoleon." And I was completely
fascinated from the first page.
I didn't discover the Avalon Hill games until a
friend of mine brought out the game Bismarck. That was the first
wargame I saw and that was o.k. But the game that got my
attention was a game called Afrika Korps, published in
1964. This game belonged to a friend of that same friend, and he
didn't want to play with me, so I didn't really get a chance to
see it. Shortly after that I moved away. I think the Avalon Hill
games were selling for $5 at that time. I was 14 years old, with
no money, but somehow I found $5 to buy a copy of Afrika
I spent that summer in a new town, where I had no
friends at all, trying to figure that game out. I almost gave
up; it spent some months at the bottom of my closet. There was
something about that game I just couldn't figure out. Something
that we take for granted that was not explained anywhere in the
I was always interested in geography. I had an
affinity for geography, one of the few classes that I was any
good at. And maps are, of course, a very key element in any
Why have you specialized in games on the Napoleonic Period?
That was not a pre-conceived plan. I was working for SPI as the
Managing Editor. I worked on both of the magazines and edited
all the games. I made sure that the rules agreed with the
counters and other components. I happened to write a feedback
question for a game proposal on the Waterloo campaign which
later became Napoleon's Last Battles. There hadn't been
a wargame on a Napoleonic subject for a while, so this proposal
did very well. Then I was informed that since I wrote the
question I had to design the game. The game was a great
I ended up leaving SPI and started my own company.
Since that game had such a great success I thought I ought to do
another Napoleonic game and Napoleon at Bay was my first
for the new company. And over the years found that I learned
more and more about the subject and was able to delve deeper
into the issues of the Napoleonic era than a designer normally
would. So my knowledge base about issues of the Napoleonic wars
deepened as each new game project was completed.
Does it seem easier to create games on this period over the
It's not at all easier to create games on the Napoleonic era.
There are problems that other eras do not present. The standard
WWII wargame—where you have a continuous front line from
Leningrad to Odessa— this model doesn't work in the Napoleonic
era. One of the reasons why the Napoleon at Bay series of games
is all alone in the portrayal of Napoleonic operational warfare
is that these games are able to successfully model a war that
didn't have continuous front lines. The model I have in my mind
is more of a naval operation, where you have task forces moving
independently across the sea. This is more appropriate to
Another issue of critical importance is the
attrition. The numbers of men who were lost to non-combat causes
is much higher than those lost in combat. And the idea of
attrition is generally ignored in wargames but you can't do that
if you want to deal with the Napoleonic era. These things make
the Napoleonic era more difficult to game successfully. By
virtue of the fact that I worked so long in this area I came to
understand some hidden factors—for instance in Highway to the
Kremlin, dealing with depots in a simple way that still
mirrors their use—and it's something that really is a pretty
obscure matter. Very difficult to get information on in a
historical sense. It's been a part of my task to figure out how
armies were supplied and I used the games to create a model for
how they might have been.
I remember well scribbling in the margins on the page in "The
Campaigns of Napoleon" where Chandler provided the answer to my
question: he called it 'strategic consumption,' and explained
that as an army marched away from its base, it had to leave
detachments to guard bridges and cross-roads. Soldiers,
out-pacing their slow-moving supply wagons, began marauding in
search of food. Without food, the warrior's body is less able to
fend-off disease. Rolled altogether, these causes are called
'attrition' in the design. I was lucky to be forced to address
this concept at the outset, because the impact of attrition on
Napoleonic warfare was critical.
In fact, a major theme of strategy in the Napoleonic era was the
objective of maneuvering against the enemy's Line of
Communications. Napoleon is quite insistent on this point, as
his 'maxims' show.
If you want to experience the problem of commanding
a Napoleonic Army, you cannot ignore a consideration that
absorbed so much of the Army Commanders' own time; particularly
because a principle objective of all operations was to threaten
the Line of Communication of the enemy army, either to induce
him to give battle on unfavorable ground, or to abandon his
ground and retreat. The goals of Napoleonic Strategy are firmly
linked together with issues of Supply. Any simulation of the
campaigns of Napoleon must address these linked issues.
Where do you begin during the creation of a game? What schedule
do you follow?
I start with reading. Get books. I tend to start in the index. I
study the index, and look at all the topics listed in the index,
and use it as an in-depth outline of the book, to understand
what the issues are. And I use the index to read selectively.
I usually make a map very soon after I start reading. Critical
issues in making a map are setting a scale, but you can't set
the map scale unless you know the time scale, and you can't set
the time scale unless you know the unit scale. So all of those
scales are interrelated. In the Napoleonic era you can't just
arbitrarily say that this is going to be a battalion or a demi-brigade
level game at this arbitrary scale. There is a certain scale
that is appropriate to each HQ echelon.
I start to do research on Orders of Battle while I'm reading,
and after I have done that I begin to design the game. The ideas
for the design come from the reading. I tend to take notes in a
separate notebook I use for each design. From my reading I
select the critical factors that should be in the game. After
design comes development—though all of these stages are
overlapping. Design starts while you're researching, development
starts while you're designing, etc. After development comes
graphic production and editorial... but playtesting is the most
important. Playtesting continues throughout the entire process,
and really research does too, because you usually don't
understand what the Victory Conditions are going to be until
near the end of the project.
How long does it take for you to realize a game?
To design and publish a game really takes at least a year. Games
that I have designed have taken up to 7 or 8 years between
conception and publication. Typically we generate about 40
different drafts of the rules to a game prior to publication.
Which is the most important stage in your view?
Graphics are very important. You cannot over-emphasize the
importance of editing; also historical accuracy is very
important to me, so research is very important. I don't know how
to say which one of those is more important. All the stages are
Which aspects have you emphasized in your games: historic
realism or pleasurable play?
Every designer probably faces the dilemma of historical accuracy
vs. playability. You need to really have a blend. Every designer
has a level of historical accuracy, and you have to trade-off
the accuracy in order to make the game playable. The people who
like my games tend to really enjoy the accuracy and I know that
a lot of them don't play the games. Personally that is a
disappointment because I do design the games to be played and I
am careful to make them as playable as possible, but I don't
like to make sacrifices or arbitrary design choices, and as a
result my designs are always somewhat open-ended. I continue to
work with the players who want more historical accuracy and I
never turn away from that path.
Each player has his own specific blend of accuracy
vs. playability that he likes. I encourage people to add more
complexity if that is what they are looking for as long as they
enjoy the play of the game; but if they just want to add rules
to a game that they don't play that doesn't make any sense to
me. It's very important that people play the games—they are
playtested and designed to be played. The best form of
advertising is word of mouth. In our business, word of mouth
advertising = play. I'd rather design a game like 1806
that people will play, with only 14 pages of rules, than to put
out a game like Highway to the Kremlin, that has over 40
pages of rules, that so few people play as far as I can tell.
Both of those games it is true achieve different goals.
I've been pleased to know people that wore out their
copy of Napoleon's Last Battles—where their maps were in
tatters—and had to replace them, and to me a game that you can
play 100 times is a success.
In your games, 1 force point is worth 1000 people regardless of
the quality of the troops (militias, line, nurses …): why this
Why do I say that 1,000 men always only equal a thousand men?
This was in fact to avoid prejudice. It's very easy to make a
game turn out the way you want it to if you can assign an
arbitrary combat strength to units. That will make it more or
less likely for one side to win.
As soon as you begin making judgments about whether
600 of these troops are worth 800 or 1,000 of those, it's very
arbitrary. A thousand is 1,000. That is also arbitrary but it
comes out in the wash. Many people have seen that the troops in
the Imperial Guard were better than the National Guard troops.
But I decided I would bring out in other ways the reasons why
those troops were better. For instance I made the Imperial Guard
impervious to attrition—you see this makes them quite more
valuable in the long term, because they don't melt way like
You are also publishing: which are the difficulties that appear
for the realization of a game?
The greatest difficulty is the small print runs that result in
very high retail prices for our products. Our print runs are as
small as you can make. We print only 1500 copies of a game.
How much importance do you place on the graphic side of a game?
The importance of graphics—especially of the map—is very very
high and that is because of the taste of the audience. If they
play the game they will spend a lot of time looking at it so the
map has to provide not only information but it has to be clear.
It has to show—even at a distance—the important features in the
game: rivers, highways, objective cities, those things should
stand out. You shouldn't have a lot of conflicting data levels.
There are gorgeous maps that I know of that actually don't have
a hierarchy of information and where irrelevant or trivial
information is fighting with important information to reach the
eye of the player; for instance, hex numbers that can't be read,
and the like.
And last question: some advice for a person who would like to
realize their first game?
This has to be a passion. Because if it's not you'll never get
the job done. Designing a game takes all the mental capacity
that you have and then some. It's a very big project—bigger than
writing a book. Each time you write a rule your have to mentally
consider all the ramifications that rule may have in colliding
with all the other rules in the game.
Pick a subject that you are passionate about—don't
select a topic merely because you think that others are
interested. Also select a primary source book to base your game
design on. Base it on the work of others. Don't try to make your
game into a historical document; if you do the design will lose
its shape. A game design has to have a shape, just as a painting
has important and unimportant parts.
Kevin Zucker was with SPI back in the 1970s.
Like many who went on to "greatness" as designers under the
tutelage of JFD, KZ initially served SPI in the capacity of
Managing Editor, half-way between Dunnigan's R&D and Simonsen's
OSG was initially named Tactical Studies Group, and the name was
changed relatively quickly, to avoid any clash with TSR. He left
the company in September of 1979; the company remained active
for a few more months.
KZ has remained active in wargaming during the entire period. He
did work for AH for one year: 1980. It is interesting to hear
him speak about the reasons he had for revitalizing the OSG
brand name at this, seemingly unpropitious, point in time. "My
grandfather, who farmed 80 acres in Iowa, had an old red & black
1948 Dodge pick-up. As a kid, I asked him why he didn't get a
new one: 'Because everybody knows this is me.'" And it is
interesting to consider the list of all the original OSG games.
There were a dozen or so: Napoleon at Bay, Panzerkrieg, Rommel &
Tunisia, Napoleon at Leipzig, Dark December, Bonaparte in Italy,
Devil's Den and Air Cobra prominent among them.
The Napoleonic titles such as Napoleon at Bay and Bonaparte in
Italy were pathfinding designs that for over two decades have
been hugely influential on many members of the wargaming
community. OSG did some WWII games too including the J. A.
Nelson design, Rommel & Tunisia. By the standards of today, the
28 page rulebook is, I suppose, a mere bagatelle. But for 1978,
the whole presentation gives the impression of somebody going
for Big Ideas and Very Serious Stuff.
- John Best