Q&A with Dr. Luke Hughes:
Burden of Command
Edited for style by the Warfighting Society
December 27, 2018
What’s Burden of Command (BoC)?
You lead an infantry company in WWII. While simplified for a commercial game audience, the aim is to present a historically-minded and more emotionally authentic experience than the usual computer games on war. BoC puts you inside an historic US Army infantry regiment, the “Cottonbalers” (7th Regiment/3rd ID) in their actual campaign. You will lead both on and off the battlefield and face emotional, moral, and tactical decisions that historical commanders faced. Our goal is to be engaging and faithful to the experience rather than “fun.” In brief, BoC is a tactical leadership role-playing game (RPG). We are advised by noted military historian Professor John McManus, who was kind enough to say:
Many modern vets of all ranks are involved, including Marines (of course!), and a number with combat experience.
This two-minute teaser gives a taste:
Where did the idea for the game come from?
My father, Thomas Parke Hughes, was a professional historian of note and a WWII vet. So, I’ve always been predisposed to historical games. I was already working on a squad-based tactical game but with a lot of traditional tactical focus. Then one night, I was playing Crusader Kings II, a game which allows you to role play a medieval aristocratic family inside a large-scale, medieval Europe, political-military-social simulation. Surprisingly, it’s actually fun and very commercially successful. Suddenly, the thought hit me, “What if you followed a family of officers (a band of brothers) through WWII?” Thus was born Burden of Command.
What makes BoC different from other tactical-level WW II computer games?
Most games on war focus either on single soldier shooting (first person shooters), which are very visceral (e.g., Medal of Honor or Call of Duty) and feel credible until you notice things like instant respawning upon death. The Burden of Command is about balancing the mission with the lives of the men. If lives can be instantly reloaded, there is no Burden of Command. In BoC, when your men (or you) die, they stay dead. In the game industry, this is called “permadeath.” We further work on developing empathy for your [lieutenants] as humans, not just game sprites, through a professionally-written storyline. So, you care when you think about sending them up that hill.
The other kind of games on war are wargames. They focus on abstract strategy and tactics, not the Burden of Command (except in planning a successful execution of the mission). We aim instead for a psychology-focused battlefield with an emphasis on morale, suppression, and stress, so you feel you are leading flesh and blood people, not abstractions. My own professional background is in psychology and neurophysiology (Masters, Oxford) and AI (PhD Yale).
For a bit of the psychology side, see this teaser below:
Yes, we’re aware that the [lieutenant] at the end failed to follow the “4Fs” (find, fix, flank, finish), but note how he fared. For a more in-depth article on the realism vs “Hollywood” of the above, see this article from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
The BoC team seems very open to input from fans, on issues ranging from game design to the price of the finished product. Could you talk about why you took this approach? How’s it working for you so far?
Socrates said a wise man knows how little he knows. I was confident that I was ignorant…oops wise…when I started this project. In fact, I still feel I must be very wise! So, early on I sought out professional input from noted game and novel writers, Professor McManus, vets, and established game developers. Given my research background–I founded and ran a research lab for Accenture Consulting once upon a time–I am always trying to learn. A successful game also requires a lot of listening to the players. So, we do a lot of playtesting. In fact, our formal playtesting is being run by a US Army major with a game industry background, Adam Dials. One of the things I am most proud of is our team. I hope you will take time out to review them, both our professional advisors (“The Brass”), the team itself, and the supporting vets.
What are some of your major inspirations for BoC?
On the experience and psychology of war:
On the historical side, thanks in part to the advice of Marine Major Chris Ketcherside, who pointed us to Infantry in Battle and Battle Leadership:
What are some of your favorite computer wargames? What about computer games in general? Have these shaped your development and design of BoC, and, if so, how?
I have loved computer games since Pong, and board games since Life and Risk! So, it would be a long list but for design influences:
Panzer General – Hey, I’m not ashamed to have fun. What I took away from it was the lite RPG of your units gaining experience across a long WWII campaign. Plus, a clean design with lots of rewards (you kill enemy units constantly via combos).
Steel Panthers, Campaign Series – The lite RPG aspect of Panzer General applied to more sober WWII games.
Close Combat Series – Ground-breaking focus on the individual psychology of soldiers in squad-based combat (WWII to modern). Unfortunately, single soldiers died so quickly that it was hard to get attached and feel the Burden of Command.
Tactical Boardgames – see our developer’s blog.
Other Computer Game Influences:
Darkest Dungeon, Battle Brothers – Psychology and psychological tactics (morale, stress etc.) can be compelling.
This War of Mine – Games don’t have to be fun to be engaging. Check this game out if you haven’t. Its motto is “In war, not everyone is a soldier.” It covers the civilian experience in a combat zone. Not “fun” yet sold 700,000+ copies. One of our developer blogs discusses it.
XCom: Enemy Unknown – clean and compelling turn-based design.
Others: Europa Univeralis, Crusader Kings II, Rogue-likes, XCom, and classic RPGs like Baldur’s Gate or more recently Divinity: Original Sin II.
Could you tell us about the folks who make up your team, especially those dealing in the historical research, game design, and play-testing aspects?
I got very lucky on some of the “senior brass.” I’ll let their bios speak for themselves:
On the historical content side, we are lucky to have Steve Overton as team lead:
For the writers, we have two interactive fiction writers who have already had successful careers on Steam: Allen Gies and Paul Wang. Great fun working with writers to craft WWII US Army lieutenants and their superiors, plus the mission, moral, and spiritual decisions they will face.
Finally, a lot of vets are involved. Of course Marines! In fact, we’re heavy on Marines. (One of them told me that Marines are the closet nerds of the military! True?).
Regarding the archival work done for this game, did you find anything that surprised you or that you found especially useful or interesting?
First, the poignancy of reading typed AARs from the actual officers involved. It really brought home the human reality:
Second, I was fascinated by an official report that Allen, one of our writers, used in the BoC narrative. See the image below.
While we don’t belabor logistics in the interest of a commercial game, by the point in BoC where I had encountered this, I had been immersed in the role long enough to feel the importance of logistics, seeing it more than just armchair strategy. Perhaps other players will, too.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that most of your team is working on the game “during our free time…from locations across the globe.” That’s pretty impressive. How did you get such a diverse team together? How do you manage that?
There are quite a few volunteers, but I do pay some folks by one means or another, so that helps—haha. That being said, I think two factors are at play. The vets are already giving people, as evidenced by their having served, and yet by God they still come forward and offer some more of their free time. I am always humbled by this. Second, I’ll be brave enough to say that I believe many are inspired by the vision: a chance to tell the human side of war in a game. Many movies and books have managed this (Band of Brothers for example), but there are few personalized experiences out there in the form of games. Nor have there really been leadership RPGs. Finally, the vets are consistently compelled by the fact that we are trying to talk to the “burden of command,” the balancing of mission and lives. And not just the lives of your men, but of civilians and, sometimes, even the enemy. The historic Cottonbaler leaders faced all those decisions and the players will, too. Finally, your readers probably like historical military biographies. BoC is like living an historical bio (or a living set of military case studies—Infantry in Battle anyone?), except it’s your historical journey.
Mechanically and organizationally, we pull it off through a wonderful distributed collaboration tool called Slack, coupled with Google Drive and Google Docs, which are also very friendly to distributed work. Finally, I try to give team leads a lot of room to hang themselves…oops…I mean room for “initiative,” just like the Germans gave junior leaders in WWII and the US military does today. Like I said earlier, I spent a lot of my life in a professional management firm, Accenture. A bit of that rubbed off.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in developing the game so far? What about presenting a compelling game experience while still respecting history?
I’ve never done a full digital game before, and this is a pretty ambitious one (probably too ambitious, but what the hell—life is short). One human challenge is integrating writers and wargame scenario designers. Normally, there are RPG games or interactive fiction games or wargames but never the combination (you could argue the old board game Ambush was an exception).
Trying to get us all to think as one team about the classical narrative flow but also of the battlefield itself as an “emergent” narrative and integrate them has been challenging and exciting. Emergent means that the interaction of random events, scripted events, and your decisions ideally creates a novel narrative during your play.
Great question about respecting history. This has occupied me a lot personally, since my dad was an historian and both my parents served in WWII:
The last thing I wanted to do was fail to respect those who served. But it still had to be a game. We have adopted some design principles to guide us through these shoals like “Bend but do not Break History.” Meaning we take some liberties (“bend”) to allow for a compelling consistent experience. (War is a lot of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, right? Well, boredom simulators probably won’t sell!) But then we involved an historian and a lot of vets to make sure we don’t “break” history.
We did a dev blog on this with one of the HBO Band of Brothers writers. Great privilege:
Could you talk about your choice to make BoC a turn-based game? What about giving players a limited amount of time to decide, or an option for players to choose between turn-based and a timer, say, at the start of the game?
Part of my deep, considered reasoning was… I love turned-based games—haha. OK, more seriously, this issue has come up repeatedly (timed decisions). Rightly so. The highly graphical interactive fiction studio Telltale Games does this to great success. On the other hand, since we don’t have the budget of a AAA studio, we can’t afford an incredibly immersive sensory experience like a Call of Duty. So, we need to give you verbal cues (writing!) and give you time to absorb by turn-based consideration what you might otherwise be able to absorb by real time experience and “intuition” (see the whole situation in reality at once). Bottom line, though: This design decision is still on the table. Playtesting will help us make a final decision. Finally, making a capable AI in a real time engine is very challenging, and I have enough challenges already, thank you very much!
How much of the game will give players free reign (i.e., they can move their units where they choose), and how much of it will involve scripted or “triggered” events and decisions? Could a player, through good tactical sense (and a lot of luck), avoid triggering some negative events? If not, how do you prevent the feeling of a ‘canned’ scenario?
Within a given tactical scenario (as opposed to the more story-driven interactive fiction that sets up a scenario or ends it), you are generally free to do as you wish with your units. Where you go and what you do may trigger further “in battle” events, sometimes randomly. That being said, the scenario is still “scripted” at a certain level like any story-driven RPG battle or human-designed campaign (e.g. Steel Panthers). But we hope for different outcomes for you based on your battlefield decisions.
One design emphasis is chaos. Hard to think of any historical battle from any period that doesn’t involve lots of it. I like to say, “If you want to be in control, this is not the game for you. Play it if you want to lead in the face of chaos.” Chaos means physical and psychological random events like gun jams, units failing to follow orders, and lots of Fog of War. Here’s a design graphic I keep at my desk to remind me of this focus, namely overcoming chaos through leadership:
The good news about chaos from a game design standpoint is it means more variation in how a scenario plays out, and it tends to create compelling stories (“My MG jammed but then Lt Dearborn managed to rally a squad and….”). So, chaos can be a designer and player’s friend if managed carefully.
Could you give a sense of how much replay-ability BoC will have? We imagine that the dying of characters will affect the abilities of the units they command, but that certain events can’t be changed, i.e., a campaign will progress more or less as it did historically. Or can we expect tactical events to sometimes have significant operational or even strategic consequences? What about having difficulty levels, where “hardest” includes more enemy units, fewer friendly resources, and even more severe consequences for decisions made?
You’re a company commander in a global scale war. You’re not likely to change history. This is about a Band of Brothers-like experience. The battles you participate in will follow an historical track but, how you fare in them will be up to you. Burden of Command is a “story-driven” RPG. The upside is that this means you get a lot of handcrafting. The downside is that it naturally constrains replay-ability, just like in other non- “sandbox” RPGs. We hope to do many more such campaigns about many forces. (Feel free to email me at with small unit campaign suggestions and book sources for them). Long term, I personally hope to create a version 2 that dynamically creates campaigns (and even a bit of the narrative out of a library of narrative events). But, naturally, that will be subject to critique of being too little story driven—haha. As for difficulty levels, too early to comment.
What sort of rules are you using to determine combat success/failure? Do your mechanics favor specific tactics like suppression or maneuver?
Our central focus is on the psychology of the battlefield and encouraging credible tactics based on that. We especially emphasize morale, suppression, trust and respect (or experience). See the tactical teaser and the Rock, Paper, Shotgun article cited above. Plus, we draw on the books already mentioned (especially Brains and Bullets). That being said, there is plenty of randomness in results, so good tactics can still fail and vice versa. Sounds like historical accounts to me. This dev blog talks about some of these issues:
Along those same lines, will players be able to use stealth and deception in their tactics? If so, how will you model this?
Fog of War will be modeled. While you won’t be able to do deception (great idea! maybe in a future Soviet WWII campaign; they were very good at that late in the war), you will be able to attempt getting units in cover close to the enemy to flank him without being detected. Naturally, the same could happen to you. We may have specific units develop particular skills in this area. And we may have a specific scouting mechanic. Still TBD.
Do you foresee a multiplayer feature for BoC? What about releasing the developer tools for users to create their own missions/campaigns?
No multiplayer in this release. We’ll see for future versions. We have as a design goal to provide supporting developer tools for users. For the first release, these will be rough, but we will continue to refine them. They will permit not only construction of scenarios and stories, but also the interactive fiction and scripting through a tool based on the popular writer-friendly Ink scripting language from Inkle. Let me put it this way: Our writers can write script using our variant of Ink! Not just write narrative. So, no traditional coding required.
There are so many potential leadership campaigns from different wars out there. We are very excited about the potentials for us but also for you. Over time, we will expand both the quality of the above tools and the periods we cover, going into pre-and post-WWII conflicts.
What other feature requests have you gotten? Have any ‘made the cut’ for inclusion?
Good design is so much about cutting. And yet the temptation is always inclusion—haha. We’ve definitely gotten the “timed decision” request repeatedly (as well as pleas for not having it!). Recently, someone on Twitter suggested that photos from WWII could simply popup for period atmosphere on a given hex, even if they have no consequences for the game. For example, this in the middle of war might be emotionally striking:
Bottom line: I’m always listening hard, and I’ve probably lost track of all the good ideas I’ve stolen been inspired by. By the way, I run our twitter @BurdenOfCommand, so please stop by. We’ve got a community of vets, historians, artists, game designers, and, of course, gamers!
Could you see versions of BoC at higher command levels, like company, battalion, etc.?
Hmm, the current engine is very focused on the squad and individual leader. So, I don’t want to oversell. That being said, the game is at the company level. That is, you command as a captain a company of three platoons, plus a weapons platoon. BoC probably would remain workable up to battalion, but beyond that I think not. Someday, I want to do a game at the level of a Grant or Lee and have the leadership issues be at the corps level in the spirit of books like Lee’s Lieutenants. Combat would be very simplified, and the emphasis would be on all the amazing chaos and remarkable characters that framed the Civil War campaigns and battles. I’m thinking Shelby Foote’s marvelous trilogy here.
Should today’s Marines and soldiers play BoC, and, if so, why? What would you hope they gain from it?
A connection with their past brethren. And perhaps a bit of roleplaying of being in WWII or in a command billet they might not normally occupy. Finally, exposure to difficult decisions that historical commanders faced both personally and tactically.
That being said, I want to be clear that Burden of Command is, as a journalist at “Task and Purpose” wrote, “XCom Meets Band of Brothers.” That is, we are not trying to be a hardcore military simulator. But we are trying to be historically and emotionally credible.
Concretely, the tools I mentioned above would lend themselves narratively to as serious a simulation as you would like in terms of “choose your own adventure” decisions. The tactical play does try for some credibility (we lean hard on the Brains and Bullets tactical psychology book mentioned above), and we could probably rework it some. But all that being said, there are lots of abstractions. It would take some concentrated work to make a more credible (and modern!) leadership simulator. But we at least like to think we have taken the first baby steps towards a company commander leadership simulator, both on and off the battlefield. On the latter, we cover issues like “leave,” “paper work” (OK, not too much—haha), and, to some degree, long-term stress (PTSD, or “battle fatigue” as it was called in WWII).
We think BoC could potentially make an excellent educational tool for active-duty service members to practice decision-making, critical thinking, etc. It would also be interesting to use BoC to help measure and evaluate things like tolerance for risk and ambiguity in players, as heuristics. Would it be possible to download player data after they finish the game?
Great idea. Burden of Command articulates your journey in command as a series of critical decision or “Crucibles” that define the “Mindsets” you adopt to cope with war. A sample of those:
And a sample leadership journey via Mindset changes across time:
For more on this RPG side, see this developer blog:
Through an organizational psychology intern who just joined the BoC team, we are actively considering capturing this journey for the player so they can share it with others, as well as keep for themselves.
You’ve mentioned possible downloadable content in the future. We could see a lot of our readers playing a BoC: Hue City or BoC: Fallujah. If you had your pick, where would you go next?
You tell me! I’m extremely interested in this audience’s suggestions. Come by @BurdenOfCommand on twitter or email me at . Start with suggestions from the 1930s to 1950s but don’t stop there. Fallujah hadn’t occurred to me…stupidly. Doing a modern campaign would be very tricky to get right, given both modern tactics and the raw emotions still associated with it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. The Vietnam War is definitely in our sights. As noted, Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes’ “What It is Like to Go to War” was a key inspiration, and I gained a lot from “For We Were Soldiers Once and Young.” I personally want to look at the Free Poles in WWII, perhaps the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet and German sides in WWII. Lots of tricky morale and command topics there. So many journeys and stories to tell…
When can we expect to see the game?
The official answer is “when it’s done… right.”
Finally, for you, what does success for BoC look like?
Getting to do more campaigns because the first succeeded! Also, getting to keep working with vets. Truly. Especially Marines! OK, pandering a bit but not too much! I love our Marines.
It is such a privilege to work on this topic, and there is so much untouched fertile ground to cover. That’s why I am so keen on suggestions for campaigns and particular units and leaders. Finally, success would be hearing from folks in this readership that the actual game at least points in the right direction and does not offend overly. With continued feedback from you and steady iterations, this team will get better and so will our campaigns. Maybe someday we’ll be worthy enough to tell the Fallujah story. But we’ll need your help to get there. Wishlist the game, buy it (subtle, ain’t I?) and, when the time comes and with a forgiving eye, please give us constructive feedback. Humble thanks and thanks for this chance to talk to Marines! A privilege.