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Gears Tactics started out as a board game, here’s what it looked like

How developers used a paper prototype to make the new turn-based strategy game

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Gabe, a new Coalition of Ordered Governments soldier created for Gears Tactics, looks out from his hardened underground bunker. Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

After previewing the first few missions in Gears Tactics, I’m pleasantly surprised. The new turn-based strategy game from Splash Damage is more than just another XCOM clone. It actually feels like a Gears of War game, with all the fluid movement and high-powered weaponry fans have come to expect. But it also feels a lot like a tabletop game. That’s because Gears Tactics actually started out as an elaborate board game.

Polygon talked with associate creative director Steve Venezia, who cobbled together the paper prototype using the office printer way back in 2017, to learn how that work contributed to the final product due out on April 28. More than anything, he said, the early prototype helped his team experiment and take risks in a fun and flexible way.

“We didn’t want to just do Battle Chess but with the Gears logo on it,” Venezia said in a telephone interview with Polygon. “We really wanted to bring Gears of War into the tactics genre, to actually push the genre forward and see what that could bring to us.”

Two men discuss the rules of a board game. On the table is a black and white map with shields on it, some d6 and d10 dice, as well as some Gears of War themed plastic miniatures in white and gray plastic.
Tyler Bielman and Steve Venezia working with the prototype for Gears Tactics.
Photo: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

The process began with support from Tyler Bielman, publishing design lead at developer The Coalition. It was Bielman’s job to help translate the design language used to create Gears of War 4 and Gears 5, two games that carried forward the series’ dynamic third-person action.

“Tyler was super useful as a guide through this,” Venezia said, “talking about things like ‘horizontal platforming,’ which is basically how units move from cover to cover.

“We realized when you start to translate that into game mechanics, doing things like giving the player a little bit of extra movement when they slip out of cover and go into another piece of cover,” Venezia explained, “the player feels like they’re kind of cheating the system almost just by reading the environment, trying to deduce where they should move from and to. They’re actually getting that extra movement, and it suddenly feels Gears-y.”

To work through the design, Venezia built a prototype using dice and a large map. Rather than create an entire tabletop campaign, he used a single scenario as an experimental test bed. The cooperative mission required a four-player squad to repair a vehicle while defending it from Locust spawning in from the side of the board and up from underground. Enemies were controlled by AI cards with simple if/then statements, not unlike the rules that guide bosses in co-op tabletop game Kingdom Death: Monster. The team salvaged miniatures from an old copy of Fantasy Flight Games’ Gears of War: The Board Game, first published in 2011, to spice things up.

The final product was played dozens of times by many different members of the team.

Locust miniatures on the map and off, surrounded by multi-colored d6 and cardboard chits from Gears of War: The Board Game.
Hand-made condition tracks and paper tokens supplement the bits from an old Gears of War themed board game.
A paper map with shields printed on it. They represent half cover and full cover positions on a battlefield. Red Coalition of Governments soldiers are on one side, gray locust miniatures on the other. In the foreground a purple d12. Photo: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

“Right away we started learning things there about giving the player objectives that would give them a space to play in, but it could play out very, very differently each time,” Venezia said. “We found different players did different things, and that was super encouraging because we found, even with the same mechanics, even with the same mission type, you can actually encourage quite a lot of replayability if you set the map up just so. [...] It was a huge, huge advantage to following that process. And it was a lot of fun as well.”

But, even as the prototype helped solidify how the final game would play, it also demonstrated the limitations of the board game model. To move the game further, the developers began to consider leaving the one-inch grid behind, adopting a gridless movement model common to tactical miniatures games like Warhammer 40,000. The decision was not made lightly, Venezia said, and involved formal presentations by every department either for or against the decision — including game design, technical design, art, user interface design, and even the sound team.

AI cards for Kantus and Wretch enemies show their action points, health, and their if/then movements. “If you coould kill a down enemy, d6:” reads the Kantus, “1-4: Continue to next step. 5-6: Kill the downed enemy.” Photo: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios
A stat card for the gnasher weapon shows a modifier if the target is in cover or hunkered at various distances on a grid.
Game instructions show how locust spawn onto the map, either via emergence holes or from the edge of the map, based on player strength and gear equipped.

Eventually, Splash Damage pulled the trigger and elected to go without the grid, which introduced myriad edge cases into the mix. Much of Splash Damage’s development time over the next few years would focus on finding and resolving each of those issues in turn.

“We actually made the decision that I think was absolutely the right one,” Venezia said. “But we definitely paid for it in development, which is to go off-grid. When we did that, we realized that you give the players so much more freedom, so much more flexibility, you just feel so much smoother, and it feels so much more like you’re playing a Gears game.

“Looking back at it now, I just can’t imagine why we spent so long talking about it. I think it would have been crazy to put the game on a grid.”

Gears Tactics comes out on April 28 for Windows PC via Steam, the Windows 10 app store, and via Xbox Game Pass for PC.

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