Wargame Wednesday: Interview with John Tiller and Campaign Series Pt. 2

Wednesday , 19, April 2017 12 Comments

John Tiller was good enough to answer a few questions about Campaign Series and I was lucky enough to interview one of the original CS scenario designers, Glenn Saunders. I have fond memories of his Tarnished Honor scenario which simulates the forlorn Canadian defense of Hong Kong.        

Tarnished Honor map with starting positions. Place names only appear when pressing a button so they don’t clutter the screen during play.

A screenshot of the 2D map is to the right and the 3D map (3D in terms of the figures being lifelike representations of soldiers, guns and tanks, not virtual reality) version is on the next page. 

My advice to a new player (advice which I consistently find hard to follow) is not be tempted to contest every VP hex and spread your forces too thin. There is a tendency to contest all VP areas but scenario time limits usually force a commander to prioritize.  There is utility in sending feints and positioning spotters around the map but try to concentrate your forces, especially during an advance. Always leave some units with enough action points left to perform op fire on counter attacking units. As a defender, a favorite tactic of mine, especially when playing Russians against the Germans is to wait until the enemy gets close then launch an assault from multiple directions. Initially, my first wave will charge from head on and take awful damage soaking up op fire. By the time I commit units that can flank the enemy most op fire is done for and my forces can get in close and fight on an equal basis.

Additionally, each of the CS games contains extensive tutorial scenarios that will aid the novice in learning the game mechanics and basic tactics.


Happy Valley with Japanese approaching.



The best advertisement I can give for this game is to, again, link to game reports. A Kursk scenario is just about my all time favorite. At the time, I was reading one of Glantz’s books and pleasantly surprised that the German advance more or less equaled the historical record. Credit the scenario designer with making adjustments suiting the CS game engine.  

 A smaller scenario but fascinating in that the scenario designer interviewed many of the participants (on both sides) while writing this excellent book on Patton’s 4th Armored Division. Many of the unit leaders in this scenario are historical personages. 

My next post will consist of another interview with John Tiller focusing on the Panzer Battles series. So far it’s looking good.  Visit the product pages and read the excellent designer notes for Normandy and Kursk

If you want to do some homework ahead of time I highly recommend downloading the free demo.  


Interview with John Tiller

Scott Cole:     In other interviews you mention your first wargames were Avalon Hill’s The Longest Day and, I believe, Panzerblitz. What were one or two of your favorite board games from that period?

John Tiller:     Actually it was Avalon Hill’s D-Day game and Panzerblitz.  Both were games with great design concepts but also a few flaws.  The thing that really inspired me to get into computer wargames was SPI’s War in Europe.  It was huge, 9 maps I believe, and would take up most of a room.  I realized that if I wanted to play games of this scale, I had to get them on the computer and that started my computer wargaming effort.


SC:     In this interview you attributed the success of the Battleground and Campaign Series to your team’s creative process and later mention the intense schedule and extreme effort to produce high quality games on a regular basis. Please give us some insight into the creative process and how your development team evolved to meet the intense schedule?

JT:  The Battleground series was a team creation.  I was working with Charlie Kibler and Bob McNamara of TalonSoft and we had a great collaborative effort.  We would each contribute a piece of the overall concept and each would build on another’s idea.  And it all had be done on an intense schedule.  The first two games, Ardennes and Gettysburg came out in the first year.  We kept up this pace for a few years, but then the Campaign Series was the point where the effort kind of burned out.


SC:    What is the story behind the Campaign Series project? Where did the initial inspiration and influences from other games come from?

JT:     You could think of the Battleground series as being computerized board games.  Basically the games implemented on the computer what a player would do with a traditional board game.  The Campaign Series was a departure from that in that the dynamics and interaction were based on computer techniques, the idea of having spontaneous opportunity fire for example.  And it also took the Battleground graphics to the next level.  The detail of the Campaign Series units and terrain is really nice and something I think that would be extremely hard to reproduce today.


SC:    My preferred mode to play Campaign Series was the 3D mode.  I’ve been trying out the Panzer Battles series and I have to admit, I wish it had a similar view. Please explain why reproducing this would be harder than it was back then.  

JT:     There was a big multi-artist effort associated with the 3D graphics in the Campaign Series.  Some artists worked on terrain while others worked on units.  It’s all very impressive in the end but I’m not sure anyone could devote those kind of resources to a game like that again.


SC:    Please give us some insight into the difficulties in programming an AI opponent.

JT:     It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make even minimal progress with the AI.  In fact, I have been doing research into AI for the Air Force for many years and while there have been some innovations, like the Mission-Based AI that you see in the Midway game, I haven’t been able to spend the time to add all of this to the other games.  We do put effort into getting the AI to the point that it performs reasonably well but in general the AI research topic is one that people will be working on for a long time, even big efforts like Google.


SC:    For any programmers and techies that read this, what was the computer language used to program Campaign Series’ game engine?

JT:  The Battleground and Campaign series were programmed in C++ using the Microsoft Visual C++ compiler.  I tried to adhere to the Windows interface which simplified how things were programmed and what a player would need to know to interact with the interface.  DirectX was just coming out then and so the multimedia aspects of the games were done in that.  I was a bit frustrated with Microsoft who promised when DirectX came out that they would never abandon it, but they did quickly change then abandon several parts of it.  Currently the games have to run with legacy versions of DirectX since Microsoft is so apt to drop, modify, or break any of their SDK’s when they feel like it.


SC:     Based on your experiences with Microsoft and DirectX how do you go about mitigating the risk that a company will make changes that impacts past projects?  Is anything possible or just develop and hope for the best?

JT:     It’s a tough challenge.  In my experience there are companies like Google that do take some care to avoid breaking existing applications while Microsoft is on the other extreme having purposely broken their own developments like Microsoft HLP files years ago.  A small developer like me is particularly vulnerable and given the volume of development that my team has out there, going back and having to fix multiple releases is a real hit.

SC:     Did Campaign Series influence other games?  

JT:  Oh yes, some key aspects of the Campaign Series made their way into all of my other ground games including Panzer Campaigns, Squad Battles, and the newest series Panzer Battles.  Likewise, Panzer Battles, while similar in scale to the Campaign Series, includes many other ideas from other games that followed the Campaign Series.

SC:    I’ve recently downloaded Panzer Battles and currently getting acquainted with the tutorial scenario. So far so good.  Good enough that I’ll feature it in future Wargame Wednesday posts.

One of the strengths of Campaign Series was the sheer amount of stock scenarios initially available with the disks. Most were good and there were a quite a few outstanding ones in there. Please describe how the scenario development process. I know map creation is a laborious process, especially when trying research the terrain of actual battlefields. How did your scenario designers pull it off?

JT:  Scenario design was probably the biggest labor of love associated with the Campaign Series.  They guys that worked on those had a passion for making really interesting and accurate scenarios and you can see that in the product.  Glenn Saunders was a principal designer at that time and he came over to the Panzer Campaign series after that and accomplished just a ton of work there.


SC:     Another strength of Campaign Series, in fact, a strength that keeps this old game relevant to this day, are the extensive Order of Battles (OOB) available to scenario designers. All I can say is it is outstanding, especially the coverage of the more obscure allied armies.

I’ll try to find and reference it but remember one of the early Strategy & Tactics game designers talking about a master chart of all German units on the Eastern Front that followed every unit they could identify throughout the war and as best they could through multiple reorganizations.

Were you able to port over old OOB information from other games and projects and did Talonsoft at the time have any similar proprietary database of WW2 OOBs?

JT:     Bob McNamara was the key to those OBs and yes, they are a real accomplishment.  I think Bob enjoyed tracing the path of say German organization through the war and I think it made sense.  He said that that British OBs were the ones that drove him crazy as there were so many variations which made it so hard to keep them straight.


SC:     In this Youtube interview  you use a couple of your old games as props aiding your description of the changing means of game distribution (big boxes with beautiful cover art containing a thick manual inside, then a CD in a plastic wrapper and now ones and zeroes).  

What do you see on the far horizon as it relates to the future of wargaming?  

JT:  I think digital download is here to stay.  In fact, you may see games just played from the Cloud as network capabilities increase.  More and more technology is cloud based and while games have significant media and bandwidth requirements, with the steady progression being made, that will probably be the case in the future.


SC:   Thank you for answering my questions and I have to thank you and your team for the hundreds of hours of great gaming you made possible with Campaign Series and your other games.

JT:  No problem!  As you can tell, we all do this because we enjoy the games ourselves so much.  As I tell people I work with, “If we make a game we would want to play, then others will too.”  The fact that games developed 20 years ago are still enjoyed reflects the talent and pride that went into that development.


Interview with Glenn Saunders

Note: Notice how Glenn uses “scn” as shorthand for scenario. Scenario files in CS have .scn extensions.


Scott Cole:     Please tell me about your work schedule when designing scenarios for the initial Talonsoft games.  You did a ton of them.

GS:     Work schedule …I had to think about this a second because this wasn’t a job for me. I had a full time day job in customer service and a wife with a full time job and two small kids. So this was a game schedule, not work..

Some background – I started as a play tester in the Battleground series, just after Talonsoft opened testing to people who were not AOL and Compuserve members ….back in the days of 1200 baud dial-up modems when a game update took 30 min to download on your phone line. I had a way of finding bugs then slicing and dicing them for Charlie so it was clear what the issue was. I worked for Charlie Kibler (or CK as I called him) and he called me his “best friend he never meet” and “the hardest working/lowest paid person at Talonsoft”.

I went from playtester to unofficial spokesperson for the company on their forum page at a time when trolls were coming to to say anything bad they could about any of the work – didn’t matter if it was true or not. I would watch the forum from my day job and advise CK if there was trouble – he would feed me the info and I could explain it ….that way the right answer was out there for the public. .

Anyway, I watched the forums during the day, I play tested in the evening, usually by a PBEM game and a game against the Programmed Opponent, filed a report every night, and living in the Mountain time zone, could check the forums when all the company people were off line – I called it “Making sure the world was safe”

During East Front, I was NOT a scn designer, but I learned the trade from the most prolific guy – Doug Bevard — I watched what he did to correct scenarios in progress and learned what you could do within the historical realm – what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

I was always afraid that I did not have enough correct info to create scenarios. That all changed with West Front. This is where I started dealing with Bob McNamara …And this guy was brilliant. I had the Canadian unit organization info so I helped him with the Canadian OOBs. My first scenario was the Canadian Black Watch, a bloody defeat in the Battle of Verriere Ridge in Normandy.

I had great OOB info, and unit placement from the Official Military History …a book by Colonel Stacey I found at the library but I was struggling with the map. This process was using a plastic hex overlay on a B&W photocopy of the map CK mailed me from a copy he made at the Library of Congress. This is where I meet a guy on the web – and my partner, Dave “Blackie” Blackburn. Blackie was older than me, ex-British Army and living in Ottawa.

It was a perfect match – Blackie lived in a time zone two hours earlier than me and when he finished for the day, I would pick up the work and go in the late night then pass them back ready to be worked on early the next morning.

SC:     Based on John reference earlier about the intense work schedule at Talonsoft what was the play testing process like for your scenarios?

I have to admit there were a few that didn’t quite work when it came to balance (and I say this with the caveat that some scenarios were purposefully designed as “lopsided” with the stronger side meant to be played by the AI) but the majority were solid.

GS:  Intense yes – but man I was having a ball. I was working around the clock on the forum, on testing scenarios via PBEM and HTH and flipping files back and forth with Blackie. People on the forums were thinking I was more than one person using the account because I was always there with an answer on any subject and with CK in the background feeding me info, the answers were good.

But we need to clarify something very important here. You said “played by the AI” which reminded me of something I was constantly posting on.

Games, or games at this time period and at this price range did NOT have an AI or “Artificial Intelligence” – it had a Programmed Opponent which is different. An AI will learn. A smart AI will learn what you do and work that into its plan. An AI will merely look at what it thinks the other side might do not an individual. A Programmed opponent will look at the situation and try to react. React is a way that is neither random nor predictable, but rather logical in its approach.

In later days with JohnTillerSoftware, I worked with Dr John Rushington to help the Programmed Opponent to not look dumb in its approach.

But either way you want to look at it – playing against a human,  even an inexperienced “not too bright” human, is leap years above any play against the Programed Opponent.


SC:     It’s been a long time but are there scenarios (both yours and done by others) that you would hold up as the best that Campaign Series had to offer?


GS: Without even looking at the scenario list – there is a really small East Front Scn called Red Steel by Doug Bevard …just a handful of units – a really cat and mouse game of rock paper scissors that sticks out. Of course I loved playing and working of that previously mentioned Verrieres Ridge Scenario….to me, it represents a beginning.

At first we only did Canadian scenarios where we felt we had the info at hand to backup our statements, assumptions and placements of units and terrain. Later in a West Front Expansion pack we branched out to the most obscure battles possible where there was so little info available that nobody could question us. There was one in Lillehammer, Norway, man were we ever reaching setting up that one. And after being published I heard from a Norwegian guy who complimented us on how well this scn worked and captured the battle in his country.

Similarly in Rising Sun, we took on the fall of Hong Kong and heard from a guy who lives there at how well we captured the area and the feel of that battle.

When you hear back from people like that, it gives me (us) pride in the body of work we have created.    


SC:    I’d say that unit factors (assault values, firepower values, etc) can be very subjective but that has been sorted out prior to scenario design. In your experience in designing scenarios what aspects do you find you have to make subjective calls most often?  I’m guessing unit composition at certain points of a campaign.

GS: Tough question and I have to remember the context in answering it.

In the Campaign Series, these values were the responsibility of Bob Mac. I could bring him issues – like the change in make up of a UK (Cdn) Armored Platoon as the campaign went on, for example, more Sherman Fireflies with 17pdr guns became more and more available – SO I had Bob give me platoons with one, two and three Fireflies.

There are many things you can do subjectively – unit effect strength, strength of the defense line, Improved positions, vs Trenches vs Bunkers vs Pillboxes. Command and control with HQ placements, Fixed and Released units.

There are just too many factors and one will be more important than others in certain situations.


SC:     One item I mentioned in the introduction for this post is the tutorial scenarios were outstanding introductions for those new to the game.  Were you involved in those?  Did you base the tutorials on feedback you received on the forums?

GS: I think I wrote all the Tutorial write-up for the whole series. The first one was very basic, click here then there etc etc without a lot of explanation. By West Front, we were getting fancy, and all our pictures are used in for the leaders in the scenario – it was a lot of fun.

I can’t say the tutorial were based on questions from the forum – we were well into that second game before I really started with the editors.


SC:     You must have had a lot of ideas and data readily available prior to coming onboard to the Campaign Series project. Do you mind giving us a brief verbal tour of your library at home and at work?

GS: LOL – man I had virtually nothing starting out in those Talonsoft days. I had access to the University of Calgary Library …my extensive book collection only really grew POST Talonsoft days. I really didn’t have a lot of money back in those earlier days. I think we made $50 a scn for the Talonsoft days and $500 later on for a Linked Campaign

I recall later, just after John left TS and he asked me to help him with a Panzer Campaigns “Kharkov ‘42”. I said John I don’t have any info on this battle at all and can’t find anything. This is where I started an extensive collection of books on all aspects of WWII battles on every front.

You have to understand that in these earlier days of the internet, you couldn’t get near as much info as is available now. So if someone owned a copy of the Nafzinger German OOB books,  these were key in knowing the Axis regimental IDs with particular divisions as well as strength estimates at various times throughout the war – and these were not cheap – we are talking $100 USD each and there are three or four volumes.

John’s answer: LOL,  “go buy the book Glenn”. What a concept!


SC:     Was your input just limited to scenarios or did you have other parts of the project. I don’t have any of the old manuals readily available but if my memory serves me correctly you did some work on the manual(s)?

GS: Charlie Kibler wrote the manuals using an Apple based editor of some kind so digitial copies were not available, even during the game design. So we learned to play by feel, and by talking to CK, asking questions. When the first East Front game came out manual was a thin pamphlet with very little info. Talonsoft took a lot of heat for that and Charlie took a lot of time to document everything – he would send me hard copies by FedEx and I would keep finding things missing and we added more and more until these became books.

Unfortunately the Editor did NOT allow for an index to be created so I made the index by hand, going through page by page, identifying keywords and going over and over and over until I had sourced out everything. Charlie was amazed and very appreciative of the effort    


SC:    Glenn I feel bad as JT Software has a lot of great game and scenario designers (Doug Bevard had a lot of great ones in CS) and I don’t have room to interview them all. Could you go over some of the unique attributes one may find in scenarios designed by your counterparts?  

GS: Playtesting Doug Bevards scenarios were some of the best that come to mind for me. In his work the scenario length was often key. On turn 8 of a 12 turn scn, you would be looking at a major defeat but the balance of victory would and could turn very quickly.

We had a lot of fun on the East Front game, I think it was the first expansion package where we added the Russo-Finnish War scenarios. I knew nothing about that conflict at the start of the project and frankly didn’t have a lot of interest at the onset. But man were those games every fun to play with the ski troops zipping around the forest terrain, in Fog-of-War you just saw movement everywhere and had no real idea from the strength you were up against when played as the Russian.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Great work getting and posting this information from John Tiller and Glenn Saunders. Castalia House is starting to get quite the reputation with gamers, and this is an example of why.

  • VD says:

    Fantastic interview. Fascinating stuff. This is exactly the sort of wargame post that I love to read.

  • Which do you like better so far, CS or Panzer Battles?

  • Scott Cole says:

    Hard question. I’ll go over that in next week’s WW post.

  • John G says:

    How would the Germans allow themselves to get close when your units are directly in front? I would hold back and pick you off.

    • Scott Cole says:

      Should have explained the tactic a little better. Playing the Germans I’d love to park a Tiger on elevated ground overlooking the steepe and use my superior optics to engage at a long distance without fear of effective fire my direction. As Russian I try to pick my ground, gullies, reverse slopes of hills, etc., even giving up VP hexes in the process but find a place the Germans have to approach with as much of my force out of LOS as possible. You’ll see some of that in the Kursk during action report I link to.

      The unfortunate troops that initially appear on the horizon will get hammered with op fire but the Red Army keeps on advancing….

  • Brian Renninger says:

    I played the heck out of Campaign 1776. I have been thinking of getting his 1812 and French and Indian War games.

  • Sky says:

    Holy moly you get a lot for 30 bucks. Did I read that right? All those scenarios?

    It’s killing me, you mentioned parking the tiger tank. Back when flames of War was new I had a gaming buddy that would do that. Miniature gaming is different and that ploy was a massive fun killer. The board was only 4×4.

    • Scott Cole says:

      And there are a ton of excellent scenarios available on sites like The Blitz. All the after action reports I linked to were created by gamers. Just the stock scenarios there is a multitude of games of various armies. Great value. Panzer Battles is going to be the same eventually. Check out the demo

      As for the Tiger that’s what a lot of T-34s are for. No fun when getting picked off but if the Russians can get in close…….

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  • Steve says:

    I bought East Front 2 back in ’99 or ’00 and had a lot of fun with it during the Windows98 era. I was punished severely for trying to use Panzer General tactics against the computer, young and naive tactician I was. I still have the EF2 and West Front discs and tried popping them into my laptop a couple years ago. No dice. Couldn’t get it to work. Maybe I’ll buy the digital download for nostalgia sakes. It’s worth the 30 bucks.

    • Scott Cole says:

      Also recommend checking out the free Panzer Battles demo. You’ll be able to quickly get the hang of it as much of the game platform is similar to CS

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