BoC has been on the spotlight for a couple of years now, and with it’s release date looming ever closer (more on that at the end), I was lucky enough to score an interview with Luke Hughes, the man behind Green Tree Games LLC and the only full time person working in Burden of Command.
After exchanging a couple of emails with Luke, it was easy to understand why a project such as Burden of Command is taking so long to finish. It’s aiming to be more than a simple tactical wargame, it’s more of a homage to the men who fought during the Second World War and it’s a game focusing on how being trusted into a leadership position can influence your perspective on everything. Wargames are, more often than not, exercises in optimization, victory points accumulation and, for the most part, the action taking place in our computer screens is devoid of any human drama. Luke wants to challenge that, to make you think twice before ordering your men to go up that hill and to ponder the permanent consequences of your actions. It’s an insightful reading and one of the richest interviews I had the chance to make.
So, Luke… Who is Luke and what does he do in Burden of Command?
I’m the project lead. As to who I am, I’m a former Research Director for Accenture with a background in Computer Science (AI; Ph.D. Yale University), and Masters in Neurophysiology and Psychology from Oxford University. As one of my team members – a former US Army Sergeant – says I spent too much time in school. Too true – Ahah! In fact, doing Burden of Command has been a real-world education in practical real-world development. And a humbling one at that (I’m too embarrassed to say when I thought we would release Burden!). But my research background does pay off in thinking about battlefield psychology and my business management background somewhat in thinking about leadership (I did for example a tech startup for Accenture at one stage).
Before we get on how Burden of Command came to be, care to enlighten us what’s your favorite games and how your taste in wargames evolved over the years?
I started in board wargames at age 12. I saw “Gettysburg” from Avalon Hill in “Boys Life” (Boy Scouts magazine) and was hooked! Dad was a professional historian and a WWII vet so I guess I was doomed from the start. I of course played Squad Leader, and then I got hooked on D&D in high school. D&D plus Squad Leader arguably equals “Burden of Command”! Well hopefully with fewer dragons and more Tigers. For more on specific boardgame influences, conveyed in a more sober fashion, see this guest blog on ThePlayersAid.
Digitally I was similarly hooked by early wargames like Close Combat. I was especially hooked by Steel Panthers and Panzer General. Both of which have lite RPG aspects in that your units gain experience across an extended campaign. Much like Burden! I also loved the Talonsoft Campaign Series (the new Vietnam one is out just recently!). I’ve played a large percentage of Matrix Games wargames as well. And of course, Combat Mission but the lite RPG ones always grabbed me the most. Lead your men across an extended Campaign!
These days when I have time I often play non-wargames to broaden my design horizons. One of my design goals for Burden is to broaden the audience for historical games. So I have paid a lot of attention to the typically broader appeal of designs like Firaxis’s XCOM and tactical turn-based RPGs like Shadowrun Returns, or BannerSaga. But I still remained hooked on all variants of Panzer General/Panzer Corps, Unity of Command, and aspired to try to learn Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive, but yes I have also played the hardcore games as well.
Now, how did Burden of Command come to be and how did the project start?
My original ambition was to do a squad leader level Panzer General. But then I was playing Crusaders Kings II one night and it suddenly hit me.., why not instead of leading an aristocratic family in medieval Europe, lead your “family of officers,” your Band of Brothers, across Europe in WWII! Burden of Command was born.
Is this project your solo work or do you have a team behind working with you?
Solo in the sense that I am the only full-time team member and most of the programming team (John Strong is half to third time). The rest of the team is around 10 to 12 people, many volunteers, and most only doing a few hours a week. But I would say in terms of FTE (Full Time Employees) we probably add up to 3 people. A lot of the team members are veterans as well, which has proved incredibly useful as well as humbling. Also, we have a set of senior advisers we are pretty proud of like eminent military historian John McManus and former Brothers in Arms executive producer Colonel John Antal. More on our team here.
The game is clearly inspired by the series Band of Brothers, does the series hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
It is my bible for thinking about how to convey WWII and the emotional and tactical life of a WWII company. It is also my marketing appeal inspiration, in the sense that millions of people love it. Yet our beloved hobby of wargaming is quite a niche. Why? I think that’s because Band of Brothers mass appeal comes from the fact that it focuses so powerfully on the human face of war. As do we. One of our special privileges was to do a joint blog with one of the Band of Brothers writers Erik Bork on a watchword for Burden, namely ‘Respect’! Also, one of our voice actors is in fact the medic- ‘Doc’ Eugene Roe- in BoB namely Shane Taylor! Pinch me.
So to answer your question, what I draw from BoB is Respect for history and the men who served. And a focus on the humanity and inhumanity of war.
Can you explain Burden of Command in your own words and what made you start this project?
Burden of Command is a tactical leadership RPG. Not a wargame. But it draws heavily on the wargaming tradition in its conveying of the tactical experience (i.e, channel your inner Squad Leader, Steel Panthers, Close Combat, etc).
I started the project because I have always loved games, writing, art, and history and have always been fascinated by leadership. This project gives me a chance to work on all those aspects at once.
The main thing setting Burden of Command apart from other wargames (other than the graphics, but more of that later) is the focus on command. From what I know, players will be acting as captains. How is the squad management going to work in and off the battlefield?
On the battlefield, it would probably somewhat remind you of a mix of Battle Academy and Steel Panthers with perhaps some Combat Mission seen through an XCOM like design lens. But with a laser-like focus (I hope) on leadership. Much like the board-game Squad Leader did. We model the command and control structures of a company as well. Lieutenants lead platoons which, in turn, report up the chain to you as Company Captain.
Off the battlefield- and in interludes during a battle- it is Interactive Fiction of the sort you might associate with a traditional turn-based RPG. We use a sophisticated engine from Inkle Studio (Eight Days and more) called “Ink” but customized to our tactical battlefield needs. You will also get some lite management of your units, basically what you might expect with a campaign. Namely replacements etc. We do unusual things like taking you into wartime Naples and Rome. Or have you sorted through a bit of paperwork and medical issues! We want to convey to some degree what the experience of being a wartime officer was like.
In this regard, our central design goal from day one was to always intertwine the battlefield tactical events with the narrative and vice versa. To have each influence the other. Not trivial to pull off!
There are about 50 YouTube videos on our channel if you want to get a more concrete taste of these aspects. A tactically focused professional video teaser is here.
How are units going to evolve and transform throughout the war?
Units gain experience (XP) and leaders gain Trust. Both types also gain Stress. All of these crucially influence unit Morale, which dictates battlefield performance. We are also working on a system where you and your leaders evolve “Mindsets” across the campaign that fundamentally characterize your leadership style. Kind of like “Disco Elysium” has a “Thought Cabinet” of emotions that has gained a lot of praise. If you want to see more on this and on what we think was the “Leadership Journey” expressed in Mindsets of Zealous Lt. Spears of Band of Brother see this blog.
A design document of that journey:
There is also tracking inside the writing that the writers control based on your actions. But I think it would be better to ask the writers about that!
Assuming your leaders can die (from your latest Steam post from January 2022), how is that going to reflect on the campaign?
Permadeath has always been a central design goal. How else can we well convey the Burden of Command? You and your leaders can die and you won’t be able to reload (well I’m sure we can easily be hacked but if you play to the spirit of the design you can’t). Replacement officers have been designed as well (though there are limits to how much of that we can do there).
We have spent a lot of time narratively and in portrait art and music trying to get you connected to your NPCs. So that you think twice about sending them up that hill. Just like in real life. Happily, playtesters already tell us these factors in their decisions. And that’s before we’ve really implemented permadeath!
The maps look so detailed and the hand-painted art style looks fantastic. I’m interested to know how much research went into doing this?
Ohmigawd. Painful amounts. We even toured via Google Street view historical French town that saw fighting in WWII with the artists to get a feel for things. Also, I spent insane hours on variations of our painterly style with the artists. If your want some snippets of all the variations we went through tell me. Fun to see. It was hard to get the style written (man we must have down 20 variations of the trees even after we thought we knew the style). But we feel pretty good about now. Our inspiration was classical painterly military art. We also did a lot of uniform and ‘casting’ (e.g. actors or people from real life as inspiration) in our portrait art. A blog on here.
How did your experience with “non-wargames”, as you describe them, is helping you create and design Burden of Command?
Some examples spring to mind. XCOM teaches clean, popular, interface, and tactically focused RPG design – not saying we achieved it but it does teach! This War of Mine taught me how to generate empathy for pixelated people. Narrative RPGs like Banner Saga teach how to make ‘interesting’ i.e. difficult choices. Darkest Dungeon and Disco Elysium how to focus on the emotional and psychological life of characters. Crusader Kings taught a focus on the people in a historical period not only the ‘units’ and armies. Wildermyth may teach us someday how to do a dynamic campaign (like Steel Panthers could do) with a strong dynamic narrative element.
Inside wargaming but still “out of the box” thinking, Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa gets a lot of credit for touching on more human aspects (some grim) as does the old board game “Ambush” though it was a bit more Hollywood in mindset.
I really respect your more human and drama-driven approach to warfare. I would argue that’s what keeps World War II still very much relevant in this day and age. It’s not necessarily all about tactics, the supply chains, or the equipment (even though those are really important), but what keeps us coming back to this specific period in history are the very personal stories of everyone involved. To a certain extent, almost every one of us knows someone that lived through that, and those experiences can go way beyond the military score. Do you see Burden of Command trailing new ways here?
We dare to have footnotes in the game. Connecting the narrative moments and RPG choices to actual historical people and events. History is so often stranger than fiction, so we delight in putting the player in a situation that we assume they will say “Oh please that is so Hollywood…” Then they notice the footnote (a little book icon you mouse over if you wish) and you see the event actually happened… but now you are in it! Historical Adviser John McManus helped a great deal on this front (he read over all our interactive fiction). “The Liberation Trilogy” from Atkinson is another powerful source of human-centric WWII anecdotes. Most history-minded gamers are looking for that connection to the past we think. So we try hard to connect the dots with not just the battles, but the fiction and the historical imagery. We have around 1000 images in the game, for which we have a team of dedicated, talented, volunteers laboring over colorization (though you can opt-out of that). And then we put portrait art on the map and in the narrative to keep connecting you. Finally, we have- we think- quite moving music from our composer Chris Scribner to further connect you emotionally. He has composed something like 70 minutes of music now for Burden! Samples are on our YT account.
Overall though, our deepest hope is not that we have done a ‘just right’ game on leadership in war and the human face of war but rather that we have opened the door and started the conversation.
It’s the first time I’m reading about permadeath. Let’s say, that as a company commander I die in the last mission, am I going to have to replay the whole campaign? Or maybe, if I die in the last turn but all my men manage to finish their mission, couldn’t that be considered a success of leadership? (sneaky question, eh?)
You’ll have to see what happens if you die! But the game doesn’t end… unless you make a habit of it!
Are players going to be able to interact with each soldier in their company? See their stats? Talk to them? Imagine like Mount and Blade.
To create empathy we limited character focus to only a few. Primarily your four reporting lieutenants and your first Sgt and a few enlisted. Like a good novel or story, our thinking was that limiting the cast of characters would allow players to bond quicker with their men. Which is core to Burden. Someday in the spirit of Close Combat perhaps we will name and model all soldiers. But for now, we are trying to limit our already exaggerated ambitions and keep focus!
Coming back to you, Luke. If you could go and meet anyone that fought in the second world war, who would that person be and why?
Captain Winters from Band of Brothers. A personal hero of mind. Then perhaps General Lucian Truscott.
If I can cheat and draw on WWI then the poet Wilfred Owen. I keep pictures of Winters and Owen at my desk to think clearly about the courage and the pity of war.
And let’s say Luke was flying over the Pacific and got shot down by a Zero plane and found himself stranded on an island, what 5 games would he wish he had?
Ha! Well, for longevity I would probably take some paradox grand strategy games- Ahah! Or maybe War in the East from Grigsby. Or more topically War in the Pacific Admiral’s Edition. Plus some crazy classic roguelike and maybe Dwarf Fortress! Plus my imagine V2 of BoC where you get a dynamic campaign.
And finally, can you let me know something about a possible release date? Is 2022 within your reach? Or not yet?
Ha. Let’s just say progress is good. We are finishing up playtesting of all scenarios in isolation and next are focusing on stringing into a true campaign where units gain XP, Trust, and…Stress. Then polish, polish, polish. I won’t rule out 2022 therefore but that’s the best I’m prepared to offer right now.
Luke, thank you so much for your interesting insights both on the game itself, game design, and most of all for your respect for History and its subject matters.
Thanks for your interest and thoughtful questions! – Luke