Interview with Mark Simonitch at GMT Games, an award-winning wargame designer and graphic artist

Courtesy of Mark Simonitch
May 25, 2016

Written by Seongseop Kim

I love wargames. That’s why I reached out to Mark Simonitch, who has been working in the wargame industry as a game designer and a graphic artist for almost 30 years. As a game designer, he has designed several highly acclaimed wargames, including Hannibal: Rome vs. CarthageSuccessors, and the recently released The U.S. Civil War. He is also a famous graphic artist who has designed maps, box arts, cards, and other art elements for more than 100 games; notable examples include Twilight StruggleEmpire of the Sun, and No Retreat! The Russian Front.

Below are some questions I asked to Mark about the wargame industry and the work life of a wargame designer and a graphic artist.

How did you start wargaming?

When I was growing up there were a lot of movies and shows on TV about WWII. Combat! with Vic Morrow, Hogan’s HeroesMcHales Navy12 O’clock High, a lot of John Wayne movies, Tora! Tora! Tora!, etc. Also, my father grew up during WWII and used to build model airplanes with us. So I had an interest in WWII at an early age and when my older brothers brought home an Avalon Hill game about Jutland I was amazed. I was hooked after that.

How did you get into the wargame industry?

I graduated with a degree in graphic arts but did not think of using it for a career in wargame publishing until I was about 30. By that time, I noticed that I could probably make a map just about as good as the ones that were being published. So, I wrote a letter to Strategy & Tactics, sent a few samples of my work, and asked if they needed another graphic artist. Fortunately, Ty Bomba was at the magazine at that time and needed a new map artist. He invited me down to his office in Cambria, California and gave me a map project. He liked the first map I did and gave me plenty of projects after that.

SIDE NOTE: That was in the late 80s before the computer revolution occurred. So being a graphic artist back then was a valuable and semi-rare skill. After the computer revolution in the 90s, everybody is a graphic artist!

Could you describe one of your typical workdays?

I’m 59 years old so my work day has slowed down a bit from just a few years ago. I work at home and so I start work around 8am and work until 4pm. I take about 4 hours off and then put in another couple hours between 8pm and 10pm. During that time, I answer emails, keep a few other artists busy on projects, and work on the games I’m responsible for. GMT publishes about 20 games a year and I do about 6 of them.

How do you design your games and what is your process?

If I described it as a procedure for others to follow, it would look like this:

STEP 1: Pick your topic and scale.

STEP 2: Find a good resource map and see what will fit on a 22” x 34” playing surface. That is the standard map size. Enlarge or reduce your resource map(s) to fit that. If it can’t fit, then consider going to a second map. Create your game map(s).

STEP 3: Read every good book on the subject you can find.

STEP 4: Create your Order of Battle. I’m a graphic artist so I can do the final art as I create my O.B.

STEP 5: Create your combat tables, terrain effects tables, and necessary charts.

STEP 6: Make a rough game map and rough pieces and import them into a VASSAL* module.

(*SK comment: VASSAL is a free, open-source program for building and playing digitally adapted board games online.)

STEP 7: Using the VASSAL module, set up the pieces in their start positions and then move them around and have combat. See if your tables and TEC (Terrain Effect Chart) are working. Adjust as necessary.

STEP 8: Write the rules. Does not have to be perfect, but good enough so others can learn the game.

STEP 9: Play test the game again by yourself to make sure everything seems to be working.

STEP 10: Invite 1 or 2 other people to test the game. As they provide feedback, adjust the VASSAL module and your rules.

STEP 11: Improve your rules enough so somebody who is not familiar with it can understand the game.

STEP 12: Ask for more people to test the game. Give them the module and your rules. They should be able to play it from that. Their questions will help you improve game balance and identify which rules need clarifying.

STEP 13: CREATE THE FINAL ART. Incorporate it into the VASSAL module and test one more time.

STEP 14: Have at least 3 people proof your rules.

What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

I think game designing and writing clear and concise rules are the most challenging. I still love doing that and try to design a game about every other year.

What do you find most enjoyable in your job?

I love solving puzzles, and I find that game designing and writing rules is a great puzzle to solve.

Are too many or too few people entering this profession?

There is always room for better artists and better game designers. However, there seem to be a lot of game artists out there and many cannot make a living with their talents. Game designing may be different – people seem to have an insatiable appetite for more and more good games.

What is the best way to get into the field?

Times have changed, I think trying to find a position at one of the game companies is going to be almost impossible. If my son wanted to get into the business, I would tell him to create his own company and self publish. Funding is possible with Kickstarter. You need a graphic artist who knows about printing, a good web guy for marketing and advertising, and a few friends willing to test your game design. The graphic artist can hire an illustrator for certain items like a box cover and various art elements. 

Is there anything you wish you had done differently starting out?

Yes, the first two games I designed (The Legend Begins and Campaign to Stalingrad) took too long to play and I could not play test them sufficiently. Now, I design games that can be finished in a reasonable amount of time. Be sure to make your first game small enough that you can play test it to perfection.

What’s unique/different about the wargame industry, i.e., what are the pros and cons?

The people I meet in the hobby are wonderful. I started a casual WWII tour for wargamers about 9 years ago called Band of Gamers. Once a year, I take a group of wargamers to battlefields in France, Holland, or Belgium and have enjoyed every person who joined. I also enjoy the wargame conventions – I’ve met some great friends there. My favorite is: Consim Expo in Arizona.

Any other advice for those who want to become wargame designers?

I’ve found VASSAL to be the best tool for wargame designers. I can make one module and send it out to many play testers. I also use it to constantly preview and improve the game. I usually go through about 40+ versions of a module before I’m happy with it.

What games do you play nowadays? Do you have any favorite war/euro-games?

I like euro games a lot and play them with my family and kids on Thanksgiving or when we meet. As a game designer, I always think of how a game could be improved after I play it. But some games I have found so perfect I would not change a thing. A few examples include: EclipseWar of the Ring, and Citadels: The Dark City. I also love The Great Dalmuti and Dead Man’s Draw as light family games.

Any intro-wargame suggestions for the Ludi et Veritas members?

The card driven games are probably the best way to get into wargaming. Maybe War of the RingAxis and Allies 1944, or Successors – but they can be long.

Any final comments for our members?

Gaming is a great hobby and it opens up opportunities to meet wonderful people. You start gaming with your kids and they will always enjoy coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas when they get older ;-)