The Flare Path: John Tiller, Boredom Killer

By Tim Stone on July 18th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Today in FP I question a man who has been testing, besting, and interesting PC wargamers for nigh-on twenty years. In my imagination, the legendary John Tiller lives in a hexagonal mansion/pillbox atop a hexagonal hill in Hexham, Northumberland. He never drives anywhere without first checking which hexes are visible from his destination, and setting aside sufficient Action Points for unloading. Read on to discover just how accurate my mental picture is for pithy personal reflections from one of wargaming’s most popular and prolific designers.

RPS: Do you know how many wargames you’ve had a hand in creating during your career?

John: It depends on how you count. I’ve done about 10 main releases with TalonSoft, with several add-ons, and more than 70 main games since then with a number of app releases thrown in.

RPS: Do you remember your first wargaming experience?

John: Oh yes, it was the original Avalon Hill D-Day game. Great introduction to wargaming. And games like PanzerBlitz stick out in my mind as being step up experiences in board wargaming.

RPS: How did you end up working at TalonSoft?

John: I just sent a proposal to Jim Rose who was just then thinking about starting TalonSoft. He saw potential in what I had sent him and saw that the two games I had been working on, one Civil War and the other World War II, would be great for his new company.

RPS: The Battleground and Campaign series came to define PC wargaming during the Nineties. Looking back at those titles now, what do you see as the keys to their success?

John: There was an amazing creative process that resulted in those games involving Charlie Kibler, Bob McNamara, and myself. We each brought some really good ideas to the development and things just clicked.

RPS: How much creative freedom was there at TalonSoft?

John: Jim Rose was Chief Creative Officer so everything had to go through him. Charlie, Bob, the graphics team, and I worked our ideas within the overall framework he established.

RPS: What are your most vivid memories of the TalonSoft years?

John: The schedule was intense! I don’t think anyone realized that quality wargames could be produced at the rate we did. With a lot of extreme effort on our part we were able to make the Battleground series high quality and produce new releases on a regular basis.

RPS: Did the studio’s demise come as a surprise?

John: No, TalonSoft was a mid-sized wargame company and with the tech crash in 2000 it wasn’t possible to sustain that business size. Wargames were getting squeezed out of the big stores like a lot of other games and so it was necessary to either get bigger or smaller about that time.

RPS: Was hitching your wagon to HPS Simulations an easy decision?

John: Oh yes, I started talking with Scott Hamilton and we hit it off right away. And my relationship with Greg “Sturm” Smith was another one of those magical collaborations like before at TalonSoft. Sturm and I bounced ideas back and forth on the design of the new Panzer Campaigns series and the result was another of those amazing designs that result from that kind of teamwork.

RPS: Of the HPS titles, which are you most proud of?

John: Hard to say. Like I said the overall design of the Panzer Campaigns series is just really special. And the number of releases in that series vouches for that. I like the detail of the Squad Battles series, fighting tactical battles in Vietnam and Stalingrad is just really fascinating. And I’m particularly proud of the Artificial Intelligence in the Midway Naval Campaigns game. Dr. John Rushing of the University of Alabama at Huntsville and I worked on that and the result is really impressive I think.

RPS: What prompted your latest direction shift – the formation of John Tiller Software?

John: Again the industry was changing. Where before at TalonSoft games were sold in big boxes in big stores, the transition to HPS involved downsizing to shrink-wrapped CDs. This worked really well for about 10 years but now things are transitioning to electronic downloads. This just became possible in the last couple of years with high-speed Internet connections. So now I publish my games on the Internet and they are instantly available around the world which is neat.

RPS: Your name will forever be associated with turns and hex grids. Is the hex approach infinitely malleable or are certain subjects incompatible?

John: Oh yes, I think naval and air by themselves require a continuous geometry and real-time at the tactical level. Games like Naval Campaigns and Modern Air Power just work right in that setting. At higher scales of course, it isn’t practical to consider resolving games in real-time and so discrete geometry, primarily hex, and turns prevail.

RPS: Is researching historical background something you enjoy, or would you rather be coding?

John: Oh I love researching historical background but it is very, very time consuming. I have fond memories of the games that I had a direct hand in the historical research for, but the amount of time that I can justify on that is limited. I have so many amazing researchers like David Freer, Glenn Saunders, Dave Blackburn, Rich Hamilton, Mike Avanzini, Bill Peters, Rich Walker, Ed Williams, Drew Wagenhoffer, and several others who have done such an incredible job over the years.

RPS: AI programming – a fascinating challenge or a sisyphean chore?

John: Both. The great thing about AI design and development is that you can spend the rest of your life working on it and never have finished the task. It is frustrating since you never feel that it is ever done for a particular game but given the open-ended nature of AI development you just have to accept what you have and keep plugging along. I’ve been very fortunate to have received research funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research over the years for advanced concepts like AI, first with Program Manager Dr. Robert Barker and now with Dr. John Luginsland. This kind of support means that I can justify a lot of time on AI research that otherwise wouldn’t have a payoff in the commercial world.

RPS: Given a choice, would you rather develop for military clients or recreational wargamers?

John: They are both important to me. Like I said, I’ve benefited from Air Force research over the years but also have really enjoyed working with the Squadron Officer College at Maxwell Air Force Base. They play Modern Air Power exercises down there with the students in multi-player mode against the computer AI. Over 20,000 USAF Lieutenants and Captains have played Modern Air Power over the 10 years it has been in the curriculum there. From time to time I get the chance to go down and watch and it’s very gratifying.

RPS: Are you a subscriber to the ‘Some wars are too ‘fresh’ or too controversial to turn into wargames’ position?

John: I definitely feel that some memories are too fresh. It’s hard to talk with Vietnam war veterans for example about their experiences and how they feel about a “game” on the subject. That’s why I don’t use real names or real pictures with the games from the Vietnam war to present. So yes, it’s important to realize that some experiences area really intense for veterans and to respect that.

RPS: If someone came to you, never having played a computer wargame before but keen to experience the best the genre has to offer, which three Tiller games would you recommend?

John: I think the new apps are a lot of fun. I have four which are free downloads for iPad, Android, and Kindle including Modern Air Power, Civil War Battles, Panzer Campaigns, and Modern Campaigns. There’s a bit of a learning curve but once you get the hang of it, I think the interface is easy to use. In fact, my 24 year old daughter was home recently for a visit and I showed her how to play Panzer Campaigns on her iPad. She actually spent the three days she was home playing the complete campaign game in the free release and got a Minor Victory. So what I’m recommending is that the mobile/tablet format really appeals to new players and I would have them try a game in that format, mine or someone else’s.

RPS: What does John Tiller Software have planned for the next 12 months?

John: A combination of commercial releases and military research. We don’t announce commercial releases in advance for fear of causing frustration with players if there is a delay. But there are always several games in development at any one time. And I’m continuing to work for the Air Force in research and look forward to more of that in the future.

RPS: Will you ever make a 3D wargame?

John: I’ll have to say probably not for two reasons. One is that the 3D format, true 3D, really only applies once you get down to the single man, single vehicle scale. That would be a format below Squad Battles and I’m pretty happy with the squad-level of Squad Battles and the way you can fight a battalion-sized battle. The other is the really high level of effort that developing and programming 3D graphics requires. There is just so much big money development going on right now with mainstream games that doing something modest would probably not be accepted by the public. Wargames can’t justify million dollar budgets and so getting into that whole arena would be tough.

RPS: The Kickstarter phenomenon has persuaded a lot of game design luminaries to embark on long-contemplated pet projects. Have you considered Kickstarting a cherished pipe-dream?

John: It’s definitely an interesting concept. Personally I haven’t considered Kickstarter since I can fund my internal commercial development as is. It would be a possible way to get into 3D games but like I said, having a million dollar budget for a wargame to me would be a commercial challenge.

RPS: Fascinating! Thank you for your time.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Flare Path’s legal department vetoed last Friday’s Rolf Harris foxer at, literally, the eleventh hour. Showing commendable alacrity and imagination, Roman speedily converted the controversial collage into a Led Zeppelin-themed affair – a Led Zeppelin-themed affair cracked by phlebas and, moments later, Shiloh, after important breakthroughs by Mark Judd and AbyssUK. (FurryLippedSquid, All is Well, Smion, and Rorschach617 also made useful contributions)

a. Doncaster (‘The Plant‘) maker’s plate
b. Junkers G.38 ‘General Feldmarschall von Hindenburg
c. Lothar von Richthofen’s Albatross from Dynamix’s Red Baron
d. Holy Island
e. Kim Hunter in ‘A matter of Life and Death’ (aka ‘Stairway to Heaven‘)
f. Handley Page logo
g. Milledge Luke Bonham
h. Tupelov Tu-160 ‘White Swan

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Roman’s nephew Erwin has been visiting this week. The little scamp is quite a handful. Just about the only time you see him stationary is when he’s using stationary. He loves to draw tanks, trains and aeroplanes. Below is a recent page from the young scribbler’s sketchbook. It features eight different military vehicles. Identify one to win a signed drawing of a signed drawing of a Flare Path flair point.

(All foxer guesses in one comment thread, please)

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23 Comments »

  1. Palindrome says:

    M14/41 – top left

    Daimler armoured car – immediately below

    Jagdpanzer IV- to the right of the Daimler

    Mk IV -bottom left, May be a MK III

    LVT(A)-1 – far left. Damn simultaneous edits!

    Sd.Kfz. 2 Type 170VK – the staff car (maybe)

    The tank under the pen is probably some kind of Sherman- possibly a DD?

    • Beowulf says:

      Top right – I believe it is the quite exotic Japanese 150 mm Self-Propelled Howitzer on chassis from type 97, or at least having it’s suspension.

      Edit: Wikipedia to the rescue! Identified as Type 4 Ho-Ro

      Edit 2: Middle left – LVT-(A)1

    • JB says:

      The upside-down car in the middle on the bottom edge. Might be a Japanese Type 93?

    • Elmarby says:

      Are you sure of the Daimler? The driver compartment, and in particular the slight bulge in front of the turret for it, seems more like a Humber feature.

      • Palindrome says:

        Its neither, its a Staghound, well probably. The turret is the wrong shape although the hull is a good fit. It may well be the AA version.

        • Elmarby says:

          Oh, good one, I knew I was forgetting one of the big ACs. Yup, think you might be right about the AA turret thing.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      I believe the ‘tank’ under the pen is a Sherman Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BARV).

    • jpm224 says:

      I do not know how all of you are able to solve these things just off the top of your head. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable of military history and history in general, and it’s a rare event when I can identify more than two items in a Foxer.

  2. Shiloh says:

    Many thanks Tim – John Tiller has produced some of my favourite ever games. I was playing Tour of Duty only the other day as it happens, and the big Talonsoft boxes are still there on my gaming bookshelves.

  3. AbyssUK says:

    I think the theme is Tanks….

  4. Thurgret says:

    Interesting that he reckons there’s a limit to the scale 3D can cover. Or rather, not so much that he thinks there is one, but where he places it. Battalion level? That, and that he refers to high-speed downloads as only being a thing from the last couple years, does leave me wondering if he’s been following the rest of the games industry much.

    More on the scale: I’m reasonably comfortable with battalion level engagements in Combat Mission – I’ve not really tried larger than that. Wargame– which is, admittedly, not exactly a wargame– does things on a pretty large scale. Does Scourge of War count as 3D? Sprites, I know, but it does have corps-level actions.

  5. Elmarby says:

    By the way, good interview of one the giants in our hobby.
    I particularly liked his answer on 3D.
    It is natural to want all the bells and whistles but it would not do much for the games John Tiller typically comes up with. And you either come up with a 3D environment that is really expensive or quite unimpressive. Given the size and nature of his core audience he is better off without it.

  6. Napoleon15 says:

    Much as I’ve enjoyed some of Tiller’s games and appreciate what he’s done for the wargaming genre, I do wish he and his team would actually update the user interface \ controls. They’ve been using the same one since the 90s, and trying to play the large scenarios from the Panzer Campaigns games gives me an honest to god strain injury in my arm. So much clicking. It’s a lot easier to shift massive stacks of units around in something like TAOW, where it takes a couple of seconds at most.

    Still love the 3d graphics in the Battleground series, though.

    • Shiloh says:

      I tend to use Column Movement, which rather nicely (if unintentionally) simulates higher level organisations straggling out along a line of approach, with the attendant concertina-ing as the individual units move along the march route at varying speeds and in some disorder. I like the way the units arrive in a slightly higgledy-piggledy fashion, it reminds me of the way Highway to the Reich requires units to shake out and deploy after making their approach march, with much loss of time and worry on your part as you see those unidentified Jerries moving towards your position.

      Once you get to the front though, or the firing line, you’re right, you do have to do a fair bit of clicking in Tiller’s games.

      But I don’t really find it a drag, especially as the games are turn-based and there’s no worrying about the enemy AI moving up while you’re farting around getting your units in place.

      My one criticism of his AI is that it never knows when it’s licked. I’d suggest his next challenge would be to start modelling realistic retreats – I’ve lost count of the times previously routed units have popped up in my rear (not a euphemism) having rallied, when by rights they should either have faded away into the surrounding countryside or stacked arms and surrendered.

      • Napoleon15 says:

        It’s not so much that it’s a drag, more that it just makes me physically uncomfortable and causes me pain in the arm to play, which is kind of unfortunate, as I do enjoy the basic mechanics of the games. But yeah, AI is the biggest flaw in the engine. It depends somewhat on which team developed the game and what series it is. I have one or two games in several of the series, and I’d say Squad Battles likely fairs the best, as the scenarios are small, limited in scope and there’s no formations that the AI is required to understand. Panzer\Modern Campaigns are also pretty decent.

        I’ve got not experience with the civil war series, but I bought the Waterloo game and found they hadn’t even bothered to put waypoints down for the units in the scenario editor, so Napoleon employed the time tested and successful strategy of advancing his army to the north east corner of the map in every battle. Even Battleground Waterloo had better AI.

  7. Koozer says:

    Excellent article, but I have two words for you:
    Staring Eyes.

  8. Commander_Zeus says:

    On the wargaming theme, I am going to English Heritage’s History Live event this weekend where I believe there will be tabletop wargaming you can have a go at. I’m interested to find out how it compares to playing the ops level types of PC wargames like Panzer Campaigns and Combat Mission.

    • JB says:

      I just got my letter through from the Megagame Makers, about my role in Iron Dice in September. I’m looking forward to that too, should be very interesting!

    • Aikei says:

      Combat Mission isn’t operational level wargame at all. It is a tactical wargame,not operational.

  9. wodin says:

    The reason he left HPS was due to DRM conflict of ideas…JT wanted more stringent DRM..Scott didn’t. Simple.

  10. CookPassBabtridge says:

    This is going to sound like… OK this IS a morbid question, but are there any combat flight sims that have you flying a Vulcan and dropping Blue Steel? (The missile, not The Look). That would be kind of disturbing and interesting.