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The Flare Path: John Tiller, Boredom Killer

Tiller on TalonSoft, the Future, and the Utility of Hexagons

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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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