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 News August, 2020

Designer’s Blog: August, 2020

July September

30 August, 2020

So, in response to the prior post, it has been the The Battle of the Cards over at BGG. The response to the design was, shall we say, something other than rapturous applause? While I thought and still do think that the design is a good design and not a bad design, and I was not utterly without like-minded people there, the prospect of getting to engage in a defense of the design with potentially thousands people over a period of years did not thrill.

And so, I am proud (proud is maybe not the quite word here) to unveil the new, improved (improved may not be quite the right word either, but definitely different) new design:

Anyway, the new design is intended to address the two main criticisms of the prior design: (1) Not being on-theme enough, and (2) Being overly elaborate.

The new design is derived from Soviet Marshal Epaulettes, examples of which you can see below:

I started with taking the background design (the color palette, vertical lines, small zig-zag pattern on the left and right sides, and large full-width zig-zag pattern) and changing the aspect ratio to that of a playing card. I had no need for both the star and globe/laurel-wreath image, since I needed and wanted to frame a single suit image, and so tried both. I first tried the globe/laurel-wreath image but wasn’t satisfied with the result. The star, being simpler, worked better as a background to the suit image. The frame color around the edge of the epaulette I ditched. I don’t want any suit color that close to the edge, and introducing a non-suit color there was, I thought, confusing. And so, you see what you see.

I’ve ordered a sample deck to be printed, so we’ll see how they work in practice. (With physical components, always best to actually use and handle them before finalizing their design and ordering literally thousands of them made.)

I’ve also been continuing to work on the play aids, and they are getting closer to their final form. The big outstanding work item is the map legend, which has gotten zero maintenance for months. The issue there is that a lot of the work is layout, and even adding a single new item can mean that the layout work has to be done all over again. Updating the legend layout was getting old, and so I stopped doing legend updates. It will get a new look when the design is very close to completion – i.e. when playtesting looks like it is entering the home stretch.

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

Also, it’s been a while since we’ve talked done any rules walk-through, so let’s do some more of that.

Rule Text Commentary

By way of a purely visual change, the old design of the breakthrough markers, which had persisted in the rules but which never actually physically existed, has been updated to reflect the current physical design.

Similarly, in another purely visual change, the rules have been updated to reflect the new card design.

And because it seems no rules update can be complete without updating my nemesis, the rules for a War draw.

Because I cannot revisit this without attempting to fix problems just by changing a name, I renamed the former “Suit search” as “War search”, to connect it more directly to both the War deck and the War draw. And it also gets a new icon, which likewise attempts to connect it more closely to the war deck by using a variant of the icon for the War deck.

A much more substantial change is that previously alluded to in a prior post, where instead of drawing cards one at a time when searching the War deck, you can just thumb through it. The rules governing the order of cards have been relaxed. In theory, you could even sort the deck, although I did not directly mention it. Sorting it is a bad idea – it is time consuming, and you are going to need to shuffle the deck again soon, and having sorted it makes it harder to give a good shuffle because it is no longer in even a semi-random order. But sorting it isn’t explicitly forbidden.

Another substantial change is the removal of the draw limit, a confusing feature which at one time was important to the game, but which over time became less and less important, until it was finally just an unnecessary vestige of an earlier design. Its removal helps considerably, I think, in simplifying the procedure, which was very much in need of simplifying.

Overall, I think a great deal of progress has been made here: the current version is easier to understand, improves the limited intelligence features of the game, eliminates players being surprised by running out of a suit in their own war deck (which happened to me a couple of times during playtesting and which I did not like) and is faster-playing. Overall, I think it is a win in every dimension.

Now we’re jumping way ahead to the rules for Operational Movement. We are now in terra icognita (to you, not to me, obviously): a part of the rules never before discussed.

And here we have the single most fundamental idea of operational movement: one point of momentum is expended for each route step moved. And we have an introduction to that idea’s key exception: rear area movement, which is very much what it sounds like from the name.

This is one of those cases that is always best to be explicit about: is a zero-distance move a move? In this game, not only yes, but critically yes. It can be partly appreciated just by this mention, but its full weight requires an understanding of the combat rules that we haven’t yet even started on.

This is basically just a call-back to the full discussion of break-through paths and how they work in the first pages of the rule book. But I thought a repetition was a good idea in this context.

This is a rule that is pretty clear on its face, but which contains a non-obvious subtlety that needs to be brought to light elsewhere in the rules. (Not, I think here; there are several rules that have strong, but indirect effects on tactics that are best brought together in a how-to-play section, which is planned for this game.)

However, this is a commentary, so we’re going to mention it: the subtlety is that a unit not in full-supply in friendly territory can attack across the front-line and enter enemy territory, it just can’t keep advancing afterwards. So, units not in full supply do have offensive capability, just not a lot of it.

A rule that exists to prevent some high weirdness from happening. It also isn’t something that units really did. In game terms we really want to be sure that a unit that has a breakthrough path is in enemy territory.

This is a rule that I wasn’t excited about writing, because expressed as a rule it can seem counter-intuitive. A lot of variations were tried, and they tended to introduce a lot of complexity without really making the game work better as a simulation or a game. Sometimes, even if not obviously the right choice, the simpler rule is the right choice, and so it is here.

This is a game where battles occur over time, and units can and do enter on-going battles routinely. This rule is to prevent gamey tactics where re-entry is used to erase the negative game-state of a battle being lost.

Because combat occurs during movement, the rules have to cover how the combat is contextualized within movement. And this rule-pair is where that contextualization starts.

While attack and counter-attack are fairly natural terms to describe the above situations, they also have important formal distinctions in the combat rules.

As mentioned previously, battles occur over time in the game, and this is where the idea of a battle being started vs. being continued is introduced. (EastFront uses a broadly similar mechanism, which I didn’t even know about when I was working on this, but if you’ve played EastFront, aspects of this will be familiar even as other aspects will be new.)

This is a rule that (like the War draw rule) has been frequently revisited in pursuit of clarity. The idea is simple enough: you start a battle by attacking across the front line, but once the front-line has been breached, you can send later units through the breach without their having to fight their way through it.

But it does have some specific technical needs: (1) t)o establish the idea of a battle where only one side may have unit(s) present, the other side being represented only by its abstracted front-line defenses, and (2), to establish where the battle position is for such a battle.

A technical rule. Establishing a counter-attack has having a target is the means by which the required front (and consequently possible card suits) of the counter-attack is established.

Because units can counter-attack enemy units while they are moving, waiting until after their move is completed is tactically gamey way to get around the rules that enable the enemy to fight back; so, it is not allowed.

This is a technical rule that seems more definitive than it is. A unit that wins a battle can’t continue its move, but it can get to make what is defined as an advance. De-jure, it isn’t a continuation of a move, but de-facto it resembles a continuation of its move in a lot of ways.

And this is how the rear-area rate works. Rather than break it down paragraph-by-paragraph, I thought it clearer here to just present the whole thing.

This method of executing it is intended to solve the procedural problem of counting down by thirds is not an intuitive thing to do. Multiplying by three at the start and dividing by three at the end makes it procedurally quite a bit simpler. However, a player who wants to count down by thirds can do so and get exactly the same result, so if it is your thing, go for it. It is the same result by a different means.

There is, however, buried in these rules a subtlety of considerable importance: that fractions round to the nearest whole number. This often allows a free one-position move at the rear area rate. This is incredibly valuable to the attacker and defender since it often allows a one-position move at no momentum cost, which matters a great deal because combat strength is momentum. This gives substantial flexibility to both attacker and defender as it increases the range at which they can fight at full strength. It is one of those things you might not pick up on just reading the rules, but which matters a lot in almost every turn when playing the game.

And here I’m going to leave off for now. Next up will be what is called a counter-move, which explains the circumstances by which breakthrough units can be intercepted by enemy units during their move. Whether I will discuss other issues between now and then is, as always, a possibility according to whatever mood strikes me.

27 August, 2020

So. I printed out a new playtest board, this time with the play-aids so I could check them out, and found that the card thumbnails hadn’t scaled well and had turned more or less white. Whatever. Anyway, I decided it was high time I replaced the placeholder card backs I’ve been using since, well, forever, in terms of this game design with actual card backs. Has to be done some time — why not now?

I thought I would try to whip up something custom, something thematic for the game. Now, I had tried to create card back designs before and it hadn’t gone well, but I had some thoughts and decided to give it a go. Well, after working all day trying variation after variation I had a variety of hideous designs that I could choose from. (You’re not going to see them; I have consideration for my ego and your eyes.)

There are times in your life when you just need to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing, and this was one of those times. Way back in the day, when I was a kid, lots of people (including me) thought I might become an artist. My life turned in a different direction, and while I have some understanding of graphic design, my fine art skills peaked around the end of high school and have done nothing but atrophy in the decades since. And besides that, the backs of playing cards are this odd little niche art thing that I never invested any time in learning about. So, the results of my little attempt were as futile as one might have expected.

But, there’s a world of art out there that you can license and public domain art that you can just use, so I set about searching for something that looked appropriate: that looked like it belonged in the same visual universe as the game and whose design could accomodate the suit image I needed to insert into the design: something that radiated around a central space for the image.

Anyway, after puttering around for hours, I discovered this, to the right. So, it turns out that there are Russian card decks that are different than the standard 52-card deck, for games with either 36 or 32 cards. I pulled the design to the right off of Wikipedia. It is a vintage 1911 design, so no copyright or licensing issues. It had a center space I could knock out for my suit graphics, the color scheme could fit into the Stavka color universe, it had a thematic tie to the subject (not a strong thematic tie, to be sure, but it has one), and I simply liked the way it looked.

So far, so good. But this is a not terribly high-res photo of a vintage card deck that has definitely seen some wear. Getting something useful for the game would mean redoing it in Adobe Illustrator, which was going to take some work: lots of detail in this design.

So I got cracking.

So, the re-work is to the left. I did not bother to recreate all the center detail (it was going to be overwritten anyway), and color accuracy is iffy at best, given the state of the original and the state of my photo of it, but the color is in the neighborhood of right.

If you were to zoom in on the high-res original, you’d find lots of little imperfections in my version that are not necessarily visible at this level of detail (although there are some that are) but do I care? No, not really. The overall effect is a hand-drawn quality, which I rather like.

Anyway, having made a usable version of the original design, the next step was to customize it for the different suits.

So this is what the back of North suit cards look like. I could post the others, but they are only minor variations on this, and I’ve posted the icons before, so it would be pretty redundant to post them all.

The first customization you can see is of course the center-knock out with the North icon centered in it. Less obvious are the replacements of the red accent color in the center area with the suit color for north. (I did not replace the red accent color on the card edges; that would be too easy to accidentally expose to view.)

But you might have noticed that. Less obvious still is the replacement of the symbols in the original for hearts and diamonds with just diamonds. My other suits (Center, South, and Air) use the other symbols for traditional card suits (hearts, clubs, and spades). My reason for doing this was to make card identification easier for the color-blind to give them different shapes as well as colors to go on, even when not looking at the central image.

I had not originally intended to have these accent colors and shapes for the suits at all. But having decided to have players thumb through the War deck looking for suit matches, it made sense to push some identifier closer to the card edge, so they didn’t have to fully expose the center to identify the suit. Based on my in-person tests thumbing through a deck, it seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, that’s it for the moment. Til later!

25 August, 2020

Well, I‘ve been banging away at play aids now, and thought I would take a break and do an entry on a subject I’ve been meaning to for a while now: a discussion of Redmond Simonsen’s contribution to the 1976 SPI book, Wargame Design: The History, Production, and Use of Conflict Simulation Games. The way we’re going to do it is to pull some of his text here and there that I want to address and then, well, address it. So, let’s get started, shall we?

So, who was Redmond Simonsen? If you were a wargamer in the 1970's, you of course know the answer: he was the head of the graphics department at SPI. He did not invent the basic physical design of wargames: cardboard pieces on a mapboard overlaid with a hexgrid, but what he brought was a level of professionalism and a wealth of specific contributions to the graphic design of wargames. In his time (from 1969 to 1982) he oversaw the graphical design of literally hundreds of games.

And that sheer quantity represents part of his enduring contribution (quantity has a quality all its own…), but the other part was a philosophy of what graphical design could and should accomplish, and what made a design good vs. bad. Even those who were never directly aware of the intellectual underpinnings of his work could not help but be influenced by their reality: all those games, unified by a common point of view.

SPI’s collective book, “Wargame Design”, was published at about the mid-point of Simonsen’s career there. His contribution chapter had four sections: Introduction and The Role of Graphics in the Design of Simulation Games, which together lay down fundamental theory, The Graphic Design and Production of Simulation Games (the longest section) which was more or less applied theory, and Homemade Game Components, which was advice to the hobbyist designer (this last almost entirely superseded by the computer graphics revolution, but not entirely: there are some enduring principles in there amidst the talk of markers and straight-edges).

Simonsen was never one to beat around the bush, and he is laying down his philosophy hard in this, only the second sentence of the chapter. His overriding focus is that the graphical design is there to clearly (and ideally invisibly) communicate the game concepts to the player, not to draw attention to itself as an aesthetic object. In this, he anticipates the work of Edmund Tufte, the author of the highly influential The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, whom I sure Simonsen would have found an a kindred spirit.

In spite of the illustrious personages (and I do consider them both illustrious personages) arrayed on this side of the question, I do not entirely agree with this concept as it applies to wargames. (I am happy to agree that graphics and/or charts that confuse and mislead are bad ideas.) I think that the physicality of a wargame is something to be embraced rather than ashamed of. We are physical beings, not disembodied intellects, and the visual and tactile are critical to our experience of the world. I think that attempting to have the game lose that appeal to the senses in order to become a mere means of communicating concepts is missing an opportunity.

One word that I am at pains to avoid in these sorts of discussions is the word function, because I find it to be question-begging: what is the function of a game?

I would start by noting that embedded in the word “game” itself is the idea of recreation, of pleasure. The deepest function of a wargame is to bring pleasure to those who play it. Of course, there are different kinds of pleasure and different means of conveying it. So, where I prefer to start is with the player: what sort of experience am I hoping to provide?

In general, my games are “thinky”, in that I feel that if the player is inclined to stare at the board for an extended period, trying to figure out what to do, if he lies awake at night puzzling over something he was doing in the game, then I have achieved a fundamental part of what I set out to do.

But more than that, I want my games to please the eye and please the touch. And this is not less important to me than intellectual game play. And so, sure, form should follow function, but once you admit the aesthetic, the form, into the idea of function, you can no longer easily separate the two.

Of course Simonsen did not think that aesthetics didn’t matter. (He was after all, a career graphic designer whose work in the purer areas of graphics, like the memorable cover for Panzerblitz, show a remarkable eye and talent for striking visual design.)

But his idea of good graphic design when it comes to wargames is about clarity and lack of visual fatigue. The game design is a complex information system that needs to be communicated to the player in order for him to be able to play it. As such the graphic design’s foundational goal is to convey the system to the player. Clarity is not as aesthetic idea as such, but its execution requires aesthetic means. And it is for this reason (to Simonsen) that aesthetics matter and enter into his approach to wargame graphical design.

So, for Simonsen, the aesthetic was by no means banished from his work, but its use was instrumental as a means of communication. If the graphical design was clean, well-organized, with good use of form and color, the player would be able to more easily understand and play the game. Hence, aesthetics are good. (Insofar as they do that.)

And I think structure was a Simonsen strength. The game might involve a mass of potentially chaotic disparate elements, but which would be made clear and organized by a well-structured, carefully thought-out graphic design. It is important to note that Simonsen was not just an artist, he didn’t pretty-up a game he didn’t understand, he instead used his understanding to structure the graphical design of the game, to break it up into component parts that added up to a harmonious whole.

I find it difficult to see in this definition anything other than a miss. The conceptual reduction of physical to graphic is just, well, not good. The first block wargame, Quebec, 1759 had been published in 1972. That Simonsen published this in 1976 (even allowing that Simonsen might have written it in 1975), seems almost willfully blind.

Before 1972 it might have seemed reasonable to think of game components that were anything other than cardboard counters (plastic dice, as always, excepted) as being in the realm of toys rather than wargames, but not after. Quebec 1759 was an invitation to enlarge the concept of wargame design and publishing to include not only graphical design, but industrial design as well. An invitation to think of wargames not only as things to be printed, but things to be manufactured as well.

Here is where Simonsen takes up the question of what he calls “decoration”, the application of aesthetics to a wargame outside of the function of graphics-as-communication: graphical design elements that do not communicate how the game works to the player, but exist outside of that function altogether.

He is certainly willing to admit “decoration” into his conceptual framework of good wargame graphical design, but I think we can agree that it is grudging at best. The idea of aesthetic pleasure as such simply isn’t a subject he is happy to embrace as a goal for his graphical design. The game exists fundamentally as a concept, the physical game is ultimately the means by which that concept is communicated. And that is all it essentially is.

The idea that the physical game is actually the game, that a game concept is actually not a game at all, that people are buying and enjoying the game as a physical and aesthetic object, finds it hard work getting a perch here in Simonsen’s outlook.

This, I admit, makes me laugh a little bit. Simonsen takes it almost as an affront that people like what he calls “highly decorated” games. Well, yes. Aesthetically pleasing things are aesthetically pleasing. The argument that follows that what is aesthetically pleasing is “cute stuff” that is actually bad is not an argument that works well. Does it?

We’re going to take a break from Simonsen here for a second…

This is Quebec 1759, 4 years old when Simonsen’s essay was published. It is, of course, a gorgeous game. But whatever else it may be, it is not hard to play. With a difficulty level on BGG of 2.9, it is rated as simpler than almost any SPI game published.

Now, Quebec 1759 does have its limitations, but not, I think in a sacrifice of playability on the alter of “cute stuff”, but instead that it is on the shallow side, without as much replay value as you would like in a game. Making the game more minimalist would not make it better. That is not the limitation that needed addressing.

Anyway, let‘s get back to Simonsen.

Here, it seems to me, that Simonsen is concluding with question-begging. Yes, we do want to a well-designed physical system. And Simonsen demonstrated his ability to do that for a shockingly large (to me, whose games can be counted on the fingers of one hand, even allowing one complete and waiting to be published) number of games.

But what is “just the right amount of mood-enhancing decoration”? The only argument in favor of his minimalist aesthetic is that if it isn’t functional (meaning communicative of the game concepts) it likely gets in the way, by impeding the effect of the design aspects that are communicative.

Well, maybe. But not necessarily. I don’t think the argument that that-which-does-not-communicate-impedes-communication is axiomatically true. Indeed, he admits as much by allowing for “mood-enhancing decoration” And if the purely aesthetic is not axiomatically bad, then the opportunity is left open for aesthetic elements to have only the positive aspect he admits they have, when he says, “most people are … impressed by highly decorated games”.

I want to break in here and make a point that I think should be made: I am not opposed to a minimalist aesthetic. My point is that minimalism is one possible aesthetic, one of a range of aesthetic possibilities. My argument is very far from that minimalism is bad, my argument is that minimalism is not the one and only way. That there are other possibilities that should not be written off before even being considered. The furniture I bought for my living room is decidedly minimalist in design: simple shapes and solid colors. But If I did choose, say, a rococo fabric for my sofa, the sofa would not be less comfortable or functional for having it.

Anyway,

This, I think is a more nuanced take and also a rejoinder to my example of Quebec 1759: his implicit argument is that it could be more decorated because it is simpler, but that as complexity rises, decoration needs to be squeezed out.

Now, in one sense this is clearly true: if you’ve got a half-inch square counter and need to put 6 different numbers on it, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for decoration, and adding more stuff clearly can interfere with readability.

Fair enough.

But that argument can be flipped around. If a more complex game should be less decorated, then shouldn’t a simpler game be more decorated? Doesn’t simplicity create an opening to take advantage of what “impresses most people”? To do so in a way without fear of interfering with the game’s communicative function? To have our cake and eat it too?

Reading this as someone whose gameboards are literally covered with elements that serve no functional (read regulatory) purpose, the idea that non-functional terrain shouldn’t exist is clearly one I am not on board with. Of course, part of the issue is the conflation of “functional” with “regulatory”: if you take away the aesthetic layer underneath the regulatory layer in my maps, the maps become substantially harder to use, in spite of the fact that the aesthetic layer does literally nothing to communicate the rules of the game.

It does, however, communicate something to the player anyway: it conveys the kind of terrain that the regulatory layer is modeling. An experienced player of Napoleon’s Triumph often knows what the regulatory layer is going to be before even looking at it, just by looking at the aesthetic layer: if he sees a village, well the game models villages in a fairly consistent way, and it is easier to take in the aesthetic layer at a glance than just the naked regulatory layer itself.

But I do understand what Simonsen is getting at here: when your map design fuses the regulatory and aesthetic functions together (as wargame maps of his era almost always did) then the introduction of the purely aesthetic can confuse, because the player can’t easily separate it from the regulatory. It can seem every bit as destructively pointless as Simonsen says.

The issue here is not that I think Simonsen was wrong in the sense he meant it, it is that there are possibilities beyond what he was considering.

This takes us through the first two sections of his chapter, but we haven’t even started the longest, the one where Simonsen demonstrates the application of his ideas. And it is one well worth discussing. But that, I think, I will have to save for later, as this blog entry is one I need to tie off.

24 August, 2020

So, been busy. I’ve started to build up some play aids, which I thought I would talk about.

Let’s start with these. The cadre boxes have been around for a while, but I’m expanding their role beyond just being boxes where the players can put their cadres into providing some useful reference information:

Now, the German language labels are hot off of Google Translate, so, they’re not likely to be very good. Or even not weird to a native speaker. At some point, I will have native German and Russian speakers review all this, but it can wait until the game is nearer to print. It isn’t useful to have text translated that is still a moving target.

So, what is this, why is it here, and why is it the way it is?

As to the “what is this”, these are the prices for Economic Phase expenditures. The Soviet version is almost identical, except for the coloring and the fact that Soviet cadres cost 2 cards while German cadres cost 4 cards. I have included the cost for maintaining sea supply, even though it is not a unit cost, to make this location a one-stop shopping site for these prices.

As to “why it is here”, the answer is that construction costs requires putting things into this box and taking things out of this box. So, the player’s eyes will frequently be going here during the expenditure procedure. And since during expenditures, this is where his eyes will most often go, this is where we want the reference information for expenditures to be. Generally speaking, in interface design, we want to keep related subjects in terms of user activity to be co-located visually. The player looks in the box to put in or take out units, and there are the prices.

As to “why is it this way”, we’re aiming for a strictly bi-lingual map: German and Russian, yet we can’t assume the player can speak either language. In fact, typically, they won’t. So the design has to be largely iconographic and not depend on text. One thing we’re not doing is trying to have it be readily understandable to someone who hasn’t read the rules. This is a memory aid for someone who has read the rules, not a way to teach the game to somebody who hasn’t read the rules.

On to our next item.

This is the on-map placeholder for the German War deck:

The top row are the instructions for what cards should be placed in this deck at start. These are among the most magic of the game’s magic numbers in that they are design-for-effect values for a game abstraction. As such, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the numbers as being right in any sense other than whether they have the effect of making the game historically reasonable in terms of game play, especially for 1941; later on, the production modeling has more effect than the initial composition of the decks.

In particular, if the German deck is too thin, they tend to stall out too early, not because of any choices the German or Soviet players make, but because there just aren’t enough cards to keep them going no matter what. If the deck is too thick, then the Germans take Moscow without trying particularly hard and keep right on going afterwards, again, no matter what choices the players make. What we’re looking for is something close to what historically happened. In most play, the Germans should begin to notice their deck is thinning out in the fall turn, and potentially alarmingly so in the winter. But things shouldn’t be pre-determined: player choice can provide for a range of possible outcomes, rather than the outcome being designed-in through deck composition.

The table of numbers at the bottom is the mix of cards in the entire card set provided with the game. (This table is present on both the German and Soviet War deck boxes, and is the same in both.) If you want to try your hand at some card counting, this is where you start. The composition of the decks is highly fluid, with lots of unidentifiable cards being moved from deck to deck every turn, including within a turn. And so, a comprehensive count will, I think, always be elusive. But this doesn’t mean that a player with a will to do so can learn nothing at all. Card counting can help, but if you aren’t good at figuring out where to move units on the map, all the card-counting in the world won’t help you against an opponent who is.

Oh, and by the way — don’t get too attached to any numbers as they are shown here. They are still volatile and typically change once a week or so.

Next up, the German Production deck:

This deck doesn’t have any cards in it at start, so the top row is blank. (To indicate explicitly that a deck is empty at start by text that says so, or by failing to provide cards that do start there? The eternal question. I use minimalism as a tie-breaker: in general, nothing is a good way to represent nothing.)

Anyway, visually, I’m not super happy with this. And not necessarily in terms of content either. I’ve been going through revisions for hours. It’s … better than the first draft? Sure. But it isn’t great.

The most fundamental visual problem is the structural complexity of the information being presented. What we’re trying to do is give the key ideas in calculating the number of cards in production the German player gets in a turn.

The top two items refer to the eccentric rules for Odessa and Sevastopol (the icons here also appear on the map) regarding their ability to suppress otherwise functional production sites. The “>” symbol is doing a lot of conceptual heavy lifting here as opposed to the “=” symbol used in other similar aids. If the player has read the rules, these should be enough to jog their memory. (I hope.) Clearly they will mean nothing otherwise.

Next are the more basic numerical conversions of on-map production sites and cities to cards. I considered trying to cram the information on the number of turns to get captured locations working again, but thought this was quite crowded enough as it was. Still, the “3 turn” and “8 turn” magic numbers certainly should be accessible somewhere without cracking open the rules.

The last was supposed to be an easy reference to the total on-map production in German and Soviet hands at start. But it got complicated and I have doubts about it. First of all, the Germans have 7 points of production in their territory at start, but one point depends on Odessa, which the Germans have to take before they can receive the production. So maybe the number should be 6? Similar problems dog the Soviets. They do indeed have 12 points of on-map production, but that doesn’t include the various resources (oil, food, and minerals) that exist but are only realizable by the Germans. So, potentially for the Germans, the Soviet territory contains not 12 points of production but potentially 18 instead.

Maybe I should just delete the last. I’m not sure it doesn’t potentially enlighten more than it potentially confuses. It’s supposed to be an aid to the player, not a puzzle for the player.

Okay, I think I’m going to wind up here. Til next time!

22 August, 2020

So, remember the playtest game from the last entry? The one where the Germans played defense the whole game? The only where I showed you when the roof was about to fall in? This is after: the start of the Summer 1944 turn.

For the Germans: Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, all gone. Romania long gone. It looks like the Germans still have some units on the board, but they don’t have any cards to pay for maintenance, so those are about to come off the board. Then the Soviets hit Prague from two or three sides, depending on how they want to play it, and that is that.

So, as a non-contest, you wouldn’t think there was much to be learned from this. But sometimes you get surprised.

So, I was sitting there, winding up this foregone conclusion. And going through the War deck the right way, according to the rules, seemed like a lot of work. (The right way is to draw cards one at a time, and if a card is a non-match, put it on the Alt deck.) So, I started just thumbing through the deck, looking for matching cards to play. And when I found a match, I put the thumbed-through cards on the Alt deck.

And that started a mental conversation with myself:

“Hey, you can’t do that. It screws up the card order.”

“How?”

“Sometimes the order gets inverted and sometimes not.”

“But aren’t they shuffled? Isn’t the order random? Who cares which random order it’s in?”

[Pause.]

“Well, if you’re going to do that, are you going to show them to your opponent?”

“Are you high? This is a solitaire game.”

“I am tired. It’s late. But you know what I mean – if it was a real game, would you show them to your opponent?”

“Sounds like a pain. Why do it?”

“Well, if you don’t show them, how can they confirm that you aren’t skipping a match?”

“They can’t. But why does that matter?”

“Well, if you can skip a match, you could count the cards in each suit, and they couldn’t.”

“Why is that bad?”

“Well, it’s against the rules.”

“So? The rules are just something you and I made up. Why is it bad?”

“You and I? You know we’re the same person, right?”

“Sometimes I have my doubts. Like now. You seem very slow.”

“Well, whatever. Anyway: OK, since you put down cards on the Alt deck when you find a match, sometimes your opposing player will see the suits of some cards but not others.”

“True.”

“Doesn’t that give you a reason to manipulate the card order? Won’t that slow things down and be weird?”

“True. Maybe I shouldn’t set them down after I thumb through them. Maybe I should just move them to the bottom of the deck after I thumbed through them.”

“Sometimes that wouldn’t be convenient.”

“Well, I could just not do that then when it isn’t convenient.”

“Well, the opposing player will still see the top card sometimes.”

“Not if we put a cover card on top of the deck.”

“Wouldn’t that be inconvenient when you move the top cards to the bottom of the deck?”

“Sometimes. But I don’t have to move the cards to the bottom every time. Just when it is more convenient to do it than not. And that way the opposing player will never see any War deck card suits before they’re played. I will know my War deck suits and my opponent won’t.”

“But if you do all that, what is left for the Alt deck to do?”

“Very little. I’ll bet we can get rid of it altogether by changing a couple rules.”

“But why would we do all this?”

“To make the game faster and easier to play, improve the functioning of limited intelligence, and make it so that players won’t be surprised by running out of cards in a suit, which is something you complained about in earlier playtests.”

“I did complain about that. Sounds like a plan. Thumb through the War deck during Suit searches, and no Alt deck.”

And that, is the story of how Stavka lost its Alt decks.

The design started with 13 decks: the Germans had 6 (Reserve, North, Center, South, Discard, and Rebuild), and the Soviets 7 (Reserve, North, Center, South, Discard, and Rebuild, and Strategic Reserve). Then the design was revised and had 9 decks, with the North, Center and South decks replaced by the Alt deck. Then it was down to 8, with the two players individual Discard decks replaced by a single shared Discard deck. And now it is down to 6: the Germans have a War and Production deck, the Soviets having the same and a Stavka Reserve deck, and there is still a shared Discard deck.

And here is the current board with two less deck holding areas, one less for each player:

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

20 August, 2020

So, after putting in the latest batch of changes reflecting what was learned in the prior playtest, I was ready for another one. (Also, I am delighted to say, the additional prototype front-line pieces arrived, which were needed to see how the physical part of the game actually plays.)

Anyway, this was an edge condition test, rather than a normal game. Specifically, it was a test of what would happen if the Germans played defense the entire game. If that sounds like a terrible plan for the Germans, yes, it should be, but making sure that it is a terrible plan in game terms is something that required validation.

So, I do have a picture for you. It is from Fall 1943:

This is basically the moment before the roof falls in on the Germans.

In the game, nothing really happened in 1941. The Soviets could have tried something in the Winter of 1941, but decided to wait and bide their time.

Anyway, in the Summer of 1942, the first Soviet probing attacks started. But the big blow came in the fall, when the Soviets hit northern Romania. The Germans repelled the Soviet effort to continue in the winter of 1942, but at cost. Then the first attacks came in the north, at the hinge between the north and center fronts. The Germans took a small loss in ground, but mostly held. Then in the summer came a larger offensive all across the northern front line. This time the Germans got driven off the line.

At the time of this picture, the Germans look sorta kinda ok but these are more paper formations than real. The Germans don’t have enough resources (food, fuel, ammunition, men, weapons, etc.) to repel another round of heavy attacks, and Romanian defection this turn is nearly certain. I don’t see a way that Germany doesn’t fall by the end of 1944.

So, in design terms, how did it go?

Pretty well. Unfortunately, while my old front dividers were too small, these are too big. I’m going to cut them down a little and see if I can find the optimal size for them. In terms of color, I think a medium-to-dark gray is the way to go. Different enough from the front dividers to have a visible contrast, but not anything visually attention grabbing.

The additional front-line pieces were definitely enough, but this game wasn’t really much of a test for that. Still, I’m optimistic that I have found the right number for the game.

Regarding the most recent rule changes and how things went, let’s walk through some things:

Rule Text Commentary

So, remember this rule? My nemesis? Well, in addition to correcting a wrong-icon-error, I decided to remove the “draw limt of 0” from the game. Instead, where I used to use it, I just explicitly gave players the right to get a 1-value result without drawing a card. Which is all it meant. A 0-limit draw was just too weird and no doubt reflects my long career programming in "C". (How does a C-programmer count to 10? 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. Didn’t get it? Don’t feel bad. Super tech nerd thing.)

And, more changes to the initial card deck set-up. The biggest change is dumping a lot of low-value cards into the German Production deck at start instead of the German War deck.

The game doesn’t really have a lot of ways to get some low-value cards into the German deck for the first 18 months or so of the war, and because of changes to the card economy (more later) stuffing them into the German production deck rather than the war deck makes more sense. Apart from that, just minor tweaks to the magic numbers.

Tweaking these numbers will be going on for a while, I expect. If I can ever get to the point where I’m not making major changes to the deep structure of the card economy, that will be a happy day.

This is from the production rules and describes how production points get converted into cards.

So, when was it that I last showed you substantial changes to this? Two days ago? That sounds about right. Well, those changes never made it into a playtest game. The more I thought about them, the more I disliked them. Too weird. Too complicated. And I wasn’t even feeling confident that they would work.

Well, when I showed you those, I had a Plan B in mind as an alternative, but it was different enough that I didn’t feel confident that it would work. Well, it got its first workout in the most recent playtest, in a difficult edge condition, and it worked out alright. Not perfect, but alright.

The problem I wanted to address was the limit problem. You know how in the game/sport of Bowling, gutters keep balls from rolling into the next lane? Because having that would be bad? Well, the gutters are limit devices.

The limit problem I worried about was if the Production and Discard decks all hit empty. If that happens, the card economy gets into a very weird state, the Stavka version of the ball rolling into the next lane in Bowling. So, what I needed was to try to prevent that from happening, and more than that, if it ever did happen, to get the decks to recover into a healthy state. The rule in the previous blog entry was designed to do that, it just did it in a complicated way. This rule does the same thing in a simple way.

The good news is that it basically works. The bad news is that it is a little jarring in terms of game play. In this version, if there aren’t enough cards in the Discard deck to meet production (100% filled), no draws occur (0% filled) until the deck is able to do 100% again. I think I can get away with, instead of going from 100% to 0% then back to 100%, that maybe going from 100% to 50% and see if we can bounce back from 50% rather than completely hitting the wall with 0%.

So, one of the things that the last couple of playtests taught me was the right unit limits for the Soviets. (Another limit problem.)

Allowing 16 units was just too many. And I previously had no limits on Soviet armor units, and now have a limit of 6 (not visible in this rule — it is in the referenced section 21). This corresponds to the historical Soviet maximum of 6 tank armies. More armor than that and it starts too feel too mechanized and not WWII-era-Soviet enough, and more than 14 units is not good. The Soviets did a lot of work where they paired a lavishly-gunned infantry army with a tank army. So in game terms, a maxed out Soviet army with and 6 armor units, 6 infantry units, and 2 spare infantry creates a right-feeling force mix for a late-war Soviet army.

So for a long time in the design, the way the card economy basically worked was that you got production points, and used those to draw cards from your Production deck. Then you shuffled those cards into your War deck, then took cards out of the War deck to cover your maintenance and unit construction expenses, and that was the Economic Phase in a nutshell.

In that version, you had kinda the same cards circulating in your decks over and over: first from your War deck to your Production deck, then back to your War deck, then back to your Production deck, and so on. In the new system, it was less of a closed loop and more likely that a card would go into general circulation. So, instead going from your War deck to your Production deck and then back into your War deck, a lot of them would go from your War deck to your Production deck and then into the Discard deck instead. You would still get cards each turn, but more of them would be different cards.

My main motive was for there to be more of a momentum loss (so to speak) from sustained attacks on the same front. Suppose you had 8 good cards on the South Front, attacked, and used 6 of them. Before, you would probably have gotten 5 back and found it pretty easy to keep attacking there. In the new system, you might only get 3 back. And so, if you kept attacking on the same front turn after turn, you would burn through your playable cards for it, and it would make sense to give that front a rest and switch to another front. (Unless you were the Germans in the early game or the Soviets at the end, so mighty compared to the enemy that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted.)

I know, I know. The previous discussions about the card decks, draws and discards, and such have been super dry. But this, should, to the extent that any game rules are fun, be more fun.

To the left is the procedure outline for making an operational move. And in the Military Phases of the game, almost everything that happens is some kind of operational move or a thing that happens in an operational move. We are not going to get through all this today, but we’ll see how far we get...

Anyway, it starts with unit selection. In Stavka, units move one at a time. There are no stacks or groups or anything like that.

Next you assign it a front. Now mostly, this is going to be a forced decision, but not necessarily. If you are moving in your own rear and not trying to counter-attack the enemy, for example, you can name any front you want; it is only if you want to cross the front line or counter-attack an enemy that has crossed the front line that your front assignment will be a forced choice. (For example, if you want the unit to attack across the North front, you need to assign it to the North front.)

Next, you get your momentum value. Remember all that stuff earlier about War draws and how they work, without it being clear what they were for? Well, a War draw is how you get the card whose value determines your momentum. What suit you are allowed to use in your card depends on the front you just assigned it.

Next, you declare where your unit is going. Along the way, it can cross the front line, or enter enemy unit positions, which constitutes an attack/counter-attack on them. When the unit does these things, that starts a battle.

Next, the enemy gets a chance to intercept your move. There is this kind of operational move called a counter-move, and it allows an eligible enemy unit to jump right into your unit’s move and counter-attack you. Which starts a battle. Now, enemy units can only do that in their territory. In their territory, they intercept you, in your territory, you intercept them.

Remember the stuff I said above about front assignment and how it works? Well this is the official explanation of that summary in all its glorious technical detail.

One thing I didn’t mention is that once a unit has crossed the front-line in a particular front, that is it’s front for the rest of the turn, unless it turns tail and re-crosses the front line into friendly territory, in which case it is free to choose a different front.

The first couple bullets is just what I said earlier. The front you assign determines the suit you can draw from in your unit’s War draw, and it determines where the unit can and cannot cross the front-line.

The third bullet explains what I only implied: If you’re playing defense and need to counter-attack an enemy unit in your territory, you have to assign your unit the same front the enemy unit used to cross the front line.

OK. This is your first significant introduction to perhaps the key concept of game play in the Military Phase: momentum

Your card value sets the unit’s momentum at start. (Unless you cheap out and just take a momentum of 1 with no card draw.) Now, momentum is everything: momentum is how a unit moves and how it fights. And as it moves and fights, it expends momentum. Eventually, its momentum is gone and the unit is done.

See, your unit starts an operation all nice and neat and shiny and well-supplied and organized, and by the end of it everybody is wondering where the hell they are, where everybody else has gotten to, whether anybody else’s tank is still working because yours sure isn’t, and whether anybody has seen any food, fuel, or ammunition anywhere.

Now. Remember back to that card you just drew? Ever wonder what’s going to happen to it once you’ve used it to set your unit’s momentum? Maybe not, but you should, because it matters a lot. Well, if you don’t get into a battle, this is what happens to it. If you do get into a battle, well, that is a story for another day.

Because for today, we are done.

I know, I know, you’re sad because this is an explanation of the rules for movement and so far, nothing has actually moved. Look on the bright side: you still have something to look forward to!

Til next time!

18 August, 2020

So, I completed another playtest, which as these things go, was definitely a success. I called a halt to it as a Soviet win after completing the Soviet turn for the Summer of 1943. This was the first game that ran “around the horn”, to where the Soviets were on the strategic offensive. It was valuable because I discovered a number of design problems that I needed to address, but the game didn’t implode or anything unpleasant like that – there were just things I needed to fix before it was worth my time continuing the test.

But – funny story.

If you read the last blog entry, you will have seen me rail about the design problem posed by the Crimea, and the lack of any compelling reason for the Germans to go there. Well, in this game, I was testing a fairly rigid German hold-fast defense, instead of a mobile defense, and after holding pretty solid, the north flank of Army Group South suddenly collapsed and the Germans had 3 of its 8 armor units pocketed and eliminated. Now, here’s the funny part: If, as the German player, I had bothered earlier in the game to clear Crimea (which I absolutely could have done), I could have supplied those armor units by sea, withdrawn the cadres, and returned them to action after bringing them back up to strength, rather than having them all wiped from the board. Sure, the Germans would still have had a very rough Fall 1943 turn, but they would have still had an army in the south afterwards, rather than having a single Panzer corps staring at a half-dozen Russian Tank armies rolling across the southern half of the theater of war.

Anyway, the moral of our story, is that if you’re playing defense, it can be a very good thing to have the sea as your friend rather than your enemy.

Anyway, want a game picture? Here is a game picture. This shows the status at the end of the first turn of the game (the Barbarossa turn). The front-line shows what the Germans have conquered, which is a lot. The Soviets have the right to give up some ground rather than defend it, which I did in the north, pulling back to in front of Riga, and the center, pulling back from most of the Pripyet Marshes.

The first turn always sucks large for the Soviets. And things remain dangerous for a while. There isn’t any need for them to panic though: Remember, this is the first turn of a game the Soviets won.

Anyway, let’s get into the down and dirty of some problems identified and addressed in the last couple of playtests.

Rule Text Commentary

This isn’t really a design change as the latest battle with the rule that is my nemesis in this rules book: the rule telling players how to draw cards from the War deck. I had to rewrite again for a couple of reasons: 1) Somebody asked me a question that made me realize that I had totally muffed the explanation of a key concept: the “draw limit”. 2) The default value in the event of a failed draw (empty deck or nothing in the needed suit or the player just deciding not to waste a card on something) was being changed from 0 to 1.

The change in the default from 0 to 1 is one of those things that doesn’t seem like that much, but which turns out to have implications that reach in every direction during game play. What I came to describe as the “auto-1” meant that you could get a 1-value card draw result without actually needing to draw a card, which turns out to be incredibly useful if you just want to make a tactical movement and didn’t want to give up a card to do it. Which turns up again and again during play.

Just another example of how just because you designed a game and wrote the rules, that doesn’t mean you really understand the game from a game play perspective. I was learning the consequences of the rule the same as anybody else would: by experience playing the game.

This is from set-up.

So, there used to be a Soviet card set-up and a German card set-up. This is reworked into a common set-up. The main purpose was to get the decks into the shape they need to be for the start of game play, and I am actively adjusting this pretty much every playtest game. There is, however, a secondary reason in that this method can be done by both players co-operatively, to speed the process along. Both players can be useful at the same time, which makes set-up take less time. Always a good thing in a game.

So, the reason I keep adjusting the magic numbers (16 cards here, 4 cards, there, etc.) is I’m trying to tune the stamina of the German army at the start of the game (basically derived from the number of high-value cards they get) and the relative strength of the Soviet army in the first turns (how many high-value cards in their deck as well as the discard deck, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of low-value cards in those decks).

If I do my job right (and I’m still working on it), then the game feels historically grounded and has good and interesting game play. Do my job wrong and one side or the other gets hammered, or it just doesn’t feel grounded in history. So, that’s what’s going on here.

And speaking of tweaking with set-up, this is what’s going on with unit set-up.

Unit set-up has been much less volatile than card set-up, in large part because cards are much more of an abstract game mechanism than units, so card design has a lot of design-for-effect in it, whereas unit set-up is much more easily connected to history. The German armor order of battle was pretty stable, with four Panzergruppen (later Panzerarmeen), each of which tended to have about two corps. But over the course of the entire war, there were a lot of fluctuations both on paper and in terms of the actual size of the units vs. their nominal size. But 8 units is a pretty good fit there.

Later in the war, when the Soviets knew what they were doing, things also get clearer, with the armor units corresponding generally to Tank armies and the infantry units to Shock Armies / Guard Armies / Just Plain Regular Armies but with lots and lots of artillery support. But the early war Soviet army was a mess on pretty much every possible level, and how to represent in a system basically designed around the German and mid-to-late war Soviet armies is a little challenging. I’m very much in design-for-effect here. Whatever works, works.

Oh — the German infantry unit in Romania. That’s new. I talked about in the last blog entry. So far it is looking likely that it will stick around.

So, here’s some fun stuff. I had mentioned that I needed to boost card production on the opposing armies because of the changes in the underlying card economy. With regard to the Germans, it was important to not do it a way that would make Germany feel more autarkic than they were, and so I wanted to do it in a way that would drive the Germans into war, which is what they felt themselves to be. In particular, I am always concerned about the German null-attack option in the game: What happens if the Germans don’t invade at all and go on the defensive in June 1941?

Anyway, I had rules for oil that worked pretty well (not too complicated and they pushed game play in historically reasonable directions) so I generalized those rules somewhat to include grain production (a geographically diffuse resource located for game purposes into Kiev, which seemed a reasonable place), and, under the over-grand “minerals” a single mineral at a single location: Manganese, at the Nikopol: the site of huge and easily accessible Manganese deposits. Now, Manganese is pretty much essential for a wide range of metallurgy, including that needed to make modern war machines. And outside of this site, there was very little of it to be found in the territories under German control.

And, oh yes — the discussion in the last blog entry about Sevastopol and Caucasus oil? There’s the rule I mentioned.

And here’s the rule I mentioned last entry linking Odessa and Romania production.

This not terribly lovely rule covers the process by which production points get turned into cards. The big problem here, and the one that accounts for pretty much all the complexity, is the edge conditions that start to crop up when decks are empty. It is an aspect of the game that is almost completely abstract, yet essential to keep the game from running into the weeds. The current version has modifications based on lessons learned in the last two games.

Unfortunately, along the way it has gained some unwanted and undesirable complexity. And it still isn’t entirely clear if it really works properly. More changes to this are highly likely, given its history, and hopefully along the way it will slim down some of the fat its accumulated in trying to address problems that have arisen during playtesting. As is, about 3/4 of the current rules length in this section concerns edge conditions.

So, front-line strengthening is just gone. It was one of those ideas that appealed to me for a while, but which never worked that well, and with the changes in the card economy can’t really work at all. Less complexity is good in any case. So no tears shed here.

So, the rules for the Kerch Strait have been given a rewrite to (finally) clarify an ambiguity that’s been on my to-do list for a while: under what circumstances can the port of Kertsch itself be used? Before it was left unclear as to whether or not you had to control the positions on both sides of the Kerch Strait to use it: the answer now being settled as, ‘yes’.

I also wanted to be clearer on the relationship between the Kerch Strait and Sevastopol as to what effects controlling one but not the other hand. Hopefully this helps.

The bottom left image is not actually from the rules: it is a map section image. I wanted to show you the odd symbol I put on the map over the Strait to mark it as an odd place, so that a player looking at it on the map would immediately know that there was something there, even if he didn’t remember clearly from the rules as to exactly what. The symbols are German and Soviet versions of the black-and-white symbol in the rulebook for limited supply.

I do have a concern that a player could see this section, and miss that there was a separate Kerch Strait rule in the section on Limited Supply supply paths. Probably another edit is in this section’s future to make it easier to know that.

Now, the Military Phase rules are the heart of the game, and there is consequently too much there to cover today, but we’ll see how far we get.

Strategic movement doesn’t have a lot to it: it is an unlimited distance move with some major restrictions, but if you want to know how reinforcements get to the front, this is how.

Operational movement is the meat. Units move in their own territory by this, they advance into enemy territory by this, they attack by this and they counter-attack by this. The game has no combat phase: all combat occurs during operational movement.

I’ll <ahem> pass on talking about the Pass action for the moment.

Stavka Reserve Committal is how the Soviets stay alive in the early game, and how they hit the Germans where they aren’t ready to be hit in the middle and late game.

The idea that there were two military phases, and that armor could move in both and infantry in only one was one of the earliest principles of how movement and combat would work. And it sounds at first like this is the old SPI system of a main movement phase followed by a combat phase followed by an exploitation movement phase, but it really isn’t.

For one thing, infantry can move in either phase; the two phases are largely identical. For another, movement is interleaved: both armies can move units in both phases. (There is no “German turn” and “Soviet turn”) And finally, there just isn’t a combat phase requiring a post-combat exploitation phase: if you attack and win, you can just keep moving, even in the same phase.

Now this turned out to be a surprisingly delicate little rule. Originally, a unit just couldn’t move twice in a single Military Phase, but it turned out that this opened a gamey little way for infantry to negate some of the power of armor by attacking in the second Military Phase, negating armor’s double-move benefit. Hence the exception. (The highly technical language won’t mean anything until deeper in the rule book.)

I had originally made a broader exception than this to the one-move-per-phase general rule, but the broader exception had too many unwanted side effects. We’ll see if this does what needs to be done without any serious side-effect issues that I will be forced to address.

OK, so, the rule is (I hope) pretty self explanatory. This is how the two players go back and forth moving during a turn. As long as a player is conducting moves that enter enemy territory or end in attacks on enemy units in friendly territory, he can keep going. But once he does something else (like use a Strategic Move to bring up reinforcements from the rear) his opponent gets to step in. So the basic structure is fairly interactive.

However, there is another level of interactivity buried inside the Operational movement rules that allows an opposing player to jump in on the active player in the middle of moving a unit, so it is even more interactive (a lot more) than it appears from this section. However, an expansion on that will have to wait until later. Hint: remember that odd mention above about something called a counter-move? That is the name of how the inactive player can interrupt a unit move by the active player.

So, the Pass action. It is how you indicate that you are ready to end the Phase and have nothing more to do, unless, perhaps, your opponent does something more, in which case you might do something more in response.

A pervasive attribute in the game, however, is which player has the initiative, and it is at the end of each Military Phase that the initiative can be seized by one player from the other. While the initiative is significant in every phase, it is especially significant in the Military Phase because it determines who gets to be the Active Player first. Whoever is the Active Player first can attack and try to force the enemy into a defensive role. Generally speaking, the it is very difficult for the Germans to lose the initiative prior to Winter of 1941, and it is generally theirs if they want it through most of 1942. During 1943, the initiative tends to slip into Soviet hands for good.

But this is a game, and your mileage may differ.

OK, strategic movement. The boringest movement. But it does serve its purpose.

Clearly the biggest restriction is the inability to use it in enemy territory. The start positon requirement is a major handicap for using it to get units off the front line, since positions there are typically villages, not various sizes of cities, and finally the inability to enter positions with limited supply makes it hard to approach enemy units in your territory tactically, as we will see very shortly below.

But for bring reinforcements forward from the rear for strategic purposes, it works just fine. And that is why it exists in the game.

Nominally, this example illustrates strategic movement. And it does. But on a deeper level it is an illustration of one of the effects of not having the breakthrough path include the position occupied by the breakthrough unit. If you look, you can see that the distance counting for limited supply proceeds from positions behind the German unit, not from the position the German unit occupies.

This is a good example, by the way, between the difference of explaining the letter of a rule (which the current rules do) and explaining the implications that come from the rule (which the rule book does only indirectly). How best to present the full implications of the rule about breakthrough paths and limited supply is something I need to do. It is super deep, super important, and easily missed by the new reader who is getting an entirely new system to learn.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap up this entry here. Next time we go deeper into the rule book, we’ll be studying the rules for operational movement, which is the core system for playing the game.

16 August, 2020

So, just wrapped up what is by far the most successful playtest to date. Still ironing out problems, but it was a credible and entertaining game that wrapped up with a German win in December of 1942. This was the situation at the start of the winter turn of 1941:

The Germans decided not to press their luck on a winter offensive and called a halt here. The Soviets in turn, with the Germans buckled down defensively, carefully considered whether to press on an offensive of their own and decided otherwise. (This was probably a mistake, the lack of any buffer between the German army and Moscow was to cause serious problems.) But immediately, things looked fine. In the spring, the Germans started a southern offensive, along more or less historical lines, splitting their advance between Stalingrad and the Caucasus. As the Soviets, I took a gamble, committed the Stavka reserves and tried to take Rostov, cutting off the German armor heading for the Caucasus. It almost worked, but not quite, and the German armor escaped to defensive positions at Rostov. Unhappily, committing the Stavka Reserves was a green light to a German attack on Moscow in the summer. The numerous Soviet infantry almost held, but did not, and Moscow fell, and the defending units were smashed and out of action. With its strength in the south, even the weak subsequent German follow-on in the fall was successful (again just barely), made worse by a blunder by yours truly that resulting the Soviet loss of Yaroslavl, a brand-new tank army, and the Murmansk lend-lease rail connection. And with that, the game ended.

I would be very far from willing to pronounce the game balanced, but it is in the neighborhood of balanced. (If Moscow had held the Soviets would have still had play.) And it played to the end of 1942 without the economic or military system imploding. So, thumbs up! Progress.

And I certainly could (and no doubt will) talk about lessons learned and adjustments made, but for now what I want to talk about is:

Black Sea Design Madness

Everything about this has given me headaches. Let’s start with Odessa.

Odessa is the largest Soviet city that is not a production city in the game. And the basic reason for it is that it is a port, and the war basically shuts down its core economy. So it didn’t make sense to me to make it a production city. But it was nevertheless of historical military importance in that it was the site of a major siege. But why should either side care about Odessa in the game? Why would they do that? On reflection, it seemed that its most important function was political: it was the major prize Hitler dangled in front of Romania to reward them for their cooperation in the war (and in accepting an otherwise highly unfavorable border settlement with Hungary). Historically a large Romanian army was fielded to take it, which was demobilized afterwards.

To make that motive understandable in game terms, I decided to try a couple things: first, to add a German infantry unit (historically mixed Romanian and German) to the set-up to be placed in Romania, and second, to dock the Germans one Romanian production point per turn until Odessa was taken. So far, this is sort-of working, but it is definitely open to abuse, with the German infantry ignoring Odessa and supporting other operations instead (particularly moving north to support the armor of Army Group South). I have not yet decided how big a problem this is, but the solution sorta works, which is better than not-works-at-all, so until and unless I have something better, this is what I’m going with. And this is indicated by this odd graphic near the city on the current map:

So, we have a shaky but not terrible solution for Odessa. On to the next Black Sea problem, and a much bigger one: Crimea: why should the Germans care about Crimea? Historically, they sent a field army into the place to take it, in a prolonged fight that was separate from pretty much everything else going on at the time. In game terms, why should the Germans divert the effort?

The historical reason was a terrible reason. Hitler was extremely upset about a fairly minor Soviet air raid on the Romanian oil facilities at Ploiești, which was something the Germans were certainly capable of defending against with local air defenses and which the Soviets were unable to continue doing. Hitler decreed Crimea an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and ordered that it be taken. Now, I considered using that as a game motive: allowing the Soviets to shut down Ploiești if they held the Crimea, but it was such a stupid reason. The Soviets could never, ever have done it.

And that pointed to another possible solution: make the game work so there is no reason for the Germans to take Crimea, and let them go on their merry way as though the place doesn’t exist. This is a real design option. Just because something happened historically doesn’t mean it has to happen in the game.

Now, there was at least one real reason for the Germans to take it: the presence of Sevastopol, the home base of the Soviet Red Sea Fleet, by far the largest and strongest navy on the Black Sea. The fleet both protected naval operations (like supplying Odessa during the siege and evacuating the soldiers when the Soviets decided it was time to go) and inhibited any German naval operations. But in naval terms, there wasn’t a lot going on in the Black Sea. The Soviet Black Sea fleet ruled the waves not because it was mighty (it wasn’t — it consisted of old ships indifferently maintained and with crews indifferently trained) but because in the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King, and in the Black Sea, the Soviet fleet was that One-Eyed Man.

Now, I already had a rule regarding sea supply in the Black Sea, but there wren't’t a lot of obvious reasons for the Germans to care about it in the game. Supply by sea kind of sucks anyway, unless you could do it on the lavish scale of the United States, which the Soviets certainly could not.

Ready for another mess? Here ya go. The Caucasian Oil Fields.

So, this was of course a huge, huge deal in German war planning. The desire to seize these oil fields was the most pressing reason for attacking the Soviet Union in the first place. Now, the Germans did give thought to the problem of how to take them and run them. They sent a special unit of engineers to work the fields and planned a special air drop to seize the refinery at Grozny before the Soviets could destroy it. (The air drop actually worked, it was the ground force link-up that failed.) Now these plans were definitely inadequate, but there were plans. Now, if you get the oil pumping, how do you get it back to where it is needed? And here is where the Germans had no plan. The Soviet war-ravaged rail system certainly wasn’t up to the task. Now, the general way the Soviets exported oil was by taking it from the oil fields by pipeline to Black Sea ports, loading it onto tanker ships, and away it went.

Ah, by now you’re probably ahead of me: oil tankers. The Germans need to take Crimea and Sevastopol to enable tankers to cross the Black Sea. Well, if you’ve thought about this, you’re ahead of the German high command. They hadn’t made provisions for that. Romania had tankers, but the Romanian tankers were already busy hauling Romanian oil. Germany, with pretty much the entire ship industry of Europe at their disposal certainly could have built a tanker fleet to shuttle oil between the Caucasus and Romania (where there was existing infrastructure to both refine and ship oil to the rest of Europe), they just didn’t. (Incidentally, complete inattention to the problem of transport of things into and out of the Soviet Union is a leitmotif that runs through the entire German war planning. They wanted Ukraine, “the breadbasket” of Europe to feed Germany, but had no way to move that much grain out of the Soviet Union.)

But, if we are designing a game, we can take the bold step of using a motive that would have made sense for an action to replace an actual motive that didn’t make sense. The point is, we solve two design problems at once: the Germans have a reason to invade Crimea, and the problem of rationalizing the German plan to seize Caucasian oil at the same time. And this works great, as long as nobody looks too hard at the history behind all of this. And this is why the Black Sea makes me feel somewhat mad. The game is reasonable, it is the history that is somewhat mad.

Anyway, you can see my little icon on Sevastopol that I’ve been playing with:

Anyway, that’s all for now.

14 August, 2020

Ready for some more wargame graphic design analysis? I know I am, and it’s my blog, so you’re getting more whether you care about it or not. Today, we’re going to talk about Ted Racier’s Stalin’s War, with Roger MacGowan credited as developer and art director. Let’s take a look at the mapboard:

Woah! Lot of play aids. (In itself neither good nor bad, but compared to pretty much any game I’ve seen – a lot of play aids.) For discussion purposes, we’re definitely going to want to look at this in pieces. Let’s start with the Terrain Key and Terrain Effects Chart:

My first comment is just that I don’t understand why these both exist. Or more specifically, why the The Terrain Effects Chart exists. Let’s suppose you’re looking at a hex on the map and want to know whether there is a movement penalty for entry. Well, to use the Terrain Effects Chart, you need to know the name of the terrain in the hex, and to find that, you have to locate it on the Terrain Key. But all the information you want from the Terrain Effects Chart is already in the Terrain Key, so you‘re done, without having ever used the Terrain Effects Chart. The only thing I can see that the Terrain Effects Chart has that the Terrain Key doesn’t is information on trenches, which isn’t printed on the map, but which the Terrain Key could certainly have included regardless if it seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, I can’t say I understand why the Terrain Effects Chart exists. Even if you want the information on both sides of the board, for reasons of accessibility to both players, then it would make more sense to include two copies of the Terrain Key, one on each side of the map, than to have two different versions of the same chart, one of them just an inferior version of the other.

But let’s move on.

Here is a cropped version of just the map, which is what I really want to talk about today:

Of course, unlike Avalon Hill’s old Stalingrad, Stalin’s War is a modern map graphically. Meaning that it generally takes advantage of the wargame map graphical ideas developed in the 1970’s, most by Redmond Simonsen of SPI, and updates it with modern computer graphic technology to make things look generally prettier and more colorful. And just in terms of color choices and what-not, it looks fine. Modern and professional. Mostly. However, I have to say that in working on this, I came to really hate this:

This is a map done in soft earth tones. If you’re going to put a pure white line in the middle of it, it had better be the most important damn feature on the entire damn map. Which it isn’t. Okay. A little thing, but I had to get that off my chest. Not that I object to white per-se: see the little port anchor icons at the bottom of the image? At Astrakhan and Guryev? Those use white, but they use it for the excellent reason that the icons are very small, and very small icons need strong, high-contrast colors for visibility. So, in one image you can see a good and bad use of strong colors sitting side by side.

Anyway, let’s move on from purely aesthetic subjects and talk a little about wargame map theory. So, a wargame map has two basic functions: (1) Regulatory. It has to convey to the player where pieces can be placed, where they can move, and information that affects movement and combat, plus any other special needs your game might have, like supply, objectives, production, etc. (2) Aesthetics, which minimally includes making it pleasing to the eye, but also includes visual mood setting and historical flavor; to evoke a particular time and place in the player’s mind.

Now, typically in my games the two basic functions are radically distinct. Here are three images of the same section of Stavka, showing what I mean:

Aesthetic Regulatory Integrated

You can play the game without any of the information in the aesthetic layer. It would be weird, visually unappealing, and somewhat disorienting, but you could do it. The aesthetic layer, in turn, has no responsibility to carry the regulatory functions of the game: it is literally just a map. You could put a completely different map design under the regulatory layer, and the game would work exactly the same. Look below, and you can see for yourself:

International Map of the World European Land Use Map Soviet Administrative Atlas

On the other hand, if we look at a traditional wargame map, the line between aesthetic and regulatory is a lot blurrier. Regrettably, I can’t do the same sort of graphical separation of the Stalin’s War map that I did with Stavka because I don’t have access to its original graphics files. But let’s look at some specific features and I’ll give you some comments:

Stalin’s War Image Commentary

So, the first thing we should note is the hex grid itself, along with its numbering scheme. The hex grid is a purely regulatory element, and the most important one in the game. It fundamentally defines the entire space.

What we also see are terrain fills. Each hex has a defined primary terrain type which is mutually exclusive in a given hex with all other primary terrain types. (This example includes swamps, woods, and mountains.) The fills are double-functioning as both aesthetic and functional. They are supposed to be pleasing to the eye and also to contextualize the space for the players, so that this is a map of a specific place at a specific time, and not just an abstract space for game play.

Here we see several other classes of elements in the map.

The first of these are secondary terrain types. We can see a couple examples in the forms of cities (such as Moscow) and towns (Ivanovo). A given hex can be a town and a swamp hex, for example, and as such, it has the cumulative properties of both. Like the primary terrain types described above, these are double-functioning elements, having both an aesthetic and regulatory role.

Another secondary terrain type is also visible: railroads. A couple of things worth noting: primary terrain types are mutually exclusive with each other, but secondary terrain types are not. A given hex can not only be a town and a swamp, it can also be a railroad. One primary type and two secondary types in the same hex, with all properties cumulative. Railroads do have a feature though that the the other terrain types discussed so far do not: they have an affiliation with hexsides. A railroad doesn’t only associate with a hex, it associates with specific hexsides of the hex, including some, but excluding others. Finally, like the other terrain types, they are double-functioning: both aesthetic and regulatory.

Finally, We see another purely regulatory element in the Moscow hex in the form of the yellow star with the label TAIFUN. This feature makes sense in light of the cards that are used in game play, and there are other features of the same type in the game – that tie the game board to the cards, making the cards intelligible in terms of the map.

For the last discussion item, we have two final types.

The first of these are hexside-based terrain features: rivers (the lighter blue) and major rivers (the darker blue). The introduction of hexside terrain is one of the major breaks that separate older games like Stalingrad from the games that followed. In Stalingrad, hexes were conceived as like squares in a chessboard: the edges of the hexes didn’t have properties: they weren’t things, they were just where things met. And this is why Stalingrad didn’t have rivers that ran between hexes and why the rivers in Stalingrad ran through hexes.

Next we have oceans. Now oceans in Stalin’s War are an odd double-type. They both fill hexes (like the partly-visible 1830 on the left edge), but they can also occupy hexsides. 1830 is an ocean hex; the hexside between 1929 and 1930 is an ocean hexside. I don’t believe any other terrain besides ocean behaves this way in the game.

And we can see a logical question in the hexside separating 1929 and 2030, which as rendered is both ocean and major river. This is not, however, a case like secondary terrain types that can co-exist; these are like primary types: they are mutually exclusive. So which is it? Well, because I’ve been a wargamer for a lot of years and have seen a lot of wargame maps, i am 99% certain without looking it up that 1929/2030 is a river hexside. Generally speaking, oceans in wargames are like recessive genes vs. the dominant genes of land: when mixed in a hex, if there is any land in the hex, the hex is land. Applying that principle to 1929/2030, I’m pretty sure that river is dominant and ocean recessive, making the hexside river, not ocean.

Oh, and did I mention that all of these types are double-functioning? They are.

So, that out of the way, let’s play around with the Stalin’s War map a little. From a practical point of view, the Stalin’s War map suffers from a sort of visual tug-of-war between regulatory and aesthetic. Visually, we don’t see a town like Ivonovo filling up the hex, but from a regulatory point of view, that is exactly what it does. And this conflict is played out all over the map, between what we see and what we need to understand. To play the game, we can’t trust what we see. We have to know the map tells lies, but the rules tell us what kind of lies it tells, allowing us to understand it in spite of the obstacles it throws in our way.

But as map designers, we can help the players out if we choose to do so. Look at the example below:

What you see above has its limitations: I am only doing a design study, and not doing full-blown publishable art, I am making adjustments to an existing map which was never intended for these adjustments to be made, and I’m sure I made just plain mistakes along the way.

But let’s talk about what has been done and why. The first and most basic change is that if a hex has hex-filling terrain, to use shading to fill out that hex, to allow the eye to see which hexes are filled. This can be particularly valuable in wargames, where units and markers can cover hexes, hiding terrain that doesn’t extend to the hex edges. Even with a unit in the hex, shading allows the user to see from even a peek at the edges that at least the hex isn’t clear terrain, and often to accurately state which kind of terrain it is. (Not in all cases, regrettably, the game goes heavy on light brown, using it for towns, rough terrain and mountains. However, mountains at least are confined to specific areas of the board and rough terrain is rare.)

I also introduced the old Redmond Simonsen trick of coloring ocean hexes and hexsides differently than coastal not-really-ocean hexes and hexsides. The purpose of this is to make it visually clear what is and isn‘t ocean. The same trick has been used for lakes. I did not, however, do anything to differentiate between rivers and/or lakes that froze from those that did not. Without, I admit, going to a great deal of effort, I couldn’t find any rules covering that in the game.

Now, if you read my notes on Stalingrad, you will not be surprised to see the hex-filling applied here as well. But tell, me, without my annotations, would you have easily seen that the Black Sea and Sea of Azov have the shape in the game that they actually do? That the Sea of Azov in particular consisted of two hexsides and two non-adjacent hexes?

Moving on.

If we hark back to my analysis of Stalingrad, we may recall that the complexities of the rules hid an underlying simplicity in the combat terrain model, which could be revealed by map annotations, eliminating the system’s apparent complexity. Well, Stalin’s War is not like that. There is no underlying simplicity to be revealed. Leaving aside some special cases (looking at you, Kerch Strait, whom I loathe), the core model has three binary (on-off) properties and two scalar properties. The binary properties are: No-Blitz (yes, no) Cancels-Retreat-Option (yes, no), and Halts-Exploitation (yes, no). By default, all of these properties are “no”, it is the terrain where an answer is “yes” that are exceptional and need to be understood. The two scalars are movement cost (measured in points) and CRT attack shifts (measured in columns-to-the-left). By default, the cost for a movement cost for a hex is 1. It is the non-1 values that are exceptional and need to be noted. The CRT shift default is 0. All attack-shifts greater than 0 are exceptional and need to be noted.

Compounding the problem of the number of properties is their fairly high level of abstraction. Most people new to the game would be very hard put to say what the difference is between what No-Blitz vs. Halts-Exploitation, and how that would apply to terrain different types of terrain. Movement Points, at least, is more concrete and familiar, and the same can be said for crt-shifts, even if guessing exactly what the magic numbers might actually be for different types of terrain could be difficult. All of this creates a challenging memorization problem in itself, even more so in trying to translate that to anything visual that you can see. Experience can do it, of course. Anybody watching a professional piano player can attest to what experience can accomplish. But still, I think we can agree that if we can find a way to make the game easier to learn for players, it would be good if we could do so. And in this case by easier to learn I mean easier to see.

Now, if the map is to help the players understand the terrain model, and not provide just visual keys to lookup values in the printed Terrain Key, it has indicate five core properties per hex, plus additional properties for individual hexsides. That completely rules out the approach used in Stalingrad, of directional shading of hexsides that “double” defense factors. There is just no way to squeeze up to 5 different kinds of shading per hexside of each hex and have them be legible, even with the game’s somewhat oversize 3/4" hexes. It just isn’t a practical solution. The same problem applies to icons. (Believe me, I tried.) With icons that small, you can’t use shapes, you need dots of bright colors, and visually, those colors make difficult terrain looks like tiny Christmas trees. Visually riotous and chaotic.

It is possible to put icons in individual hexes. There is enough room for that. But the visual impact is a bit much. Even more so when marking hexsides. But it occurred to me that terrain (very) often clusters, so that one hex of a given type is often adjacent to other hexes of the same type. Rather than attempting to mark individual hexes, how about marking individual clusters? The icons are small, so I will have to give a reasonably realistic-scale for you to see the effect rather than the whole map, but here it is, alongside the original version of the map:

So, if you look at the annotated map, the black lightning bolts are no-blitz, the black flags are cancels-retreat-option, the black arrows are halts-exploitation. The black "+" signs are +1 movement cost (each), and the black "<" are shift-left (each) on attack.

So, an attack into 2221 with a "<" has a left-shift, and attacking it from 2222 means crossing a river with an additional "<" left-shift.

With a shaded hex in a cluster, you know it has modifers or it wouldn’t be shaded, but the modifers are in the middle of the cluster, not in each hex in the cluster, so the icons in 2522 apply to all terrain in that cluster of the same type. (Indeed, to all woods terrain everywhere.)

Visually, if you are looking for a blitz path from the left map edge going right, you can see a (partial) way through along the north: by 2221, 2320, 2421, and 2251; there are no blitz routes south of 2221: the hexes 2321, 2322, 2423, and 2424 are all marked as can't-blitz.

None of this is publishable-grade graphics, but the information is there on the map, and the terrain can be generally read without need for a terrain key. A larger area is shown below, about the widest where you can clearly see the icons in this web page.

And here, finally, this is the entire marked-up map. (If you open in in its own window, it is quite readable if you zoom in and scroll around):

Anyway, this is hardly the last word in wargame graphics design, or even the last word on what could be done with a game like Stalin’s War. Indeed, you might not even like the above (or might like only some of it) and that’s fine. The main point is to bring out topics for discussion, and provide a framework for discussing them. And with that, I’m done with this entry. I do hope you found it interesting.

Oh, geez. I can’t leave without showing you this: Stavka using the map of Stalin’s War as the background:

(No, the Stalin’s War map doesn’t have gross inaccuracies; it just has really big hexes and this is what rounding decisions look like at that scale.)

13 August, 2020

So it’s been a busy few days. I’ve been concerned for some time about my card economy design. While it works ok in the early turns of a game, it tends to deteriorate over time and has very difficult to understand behavior under edge conditions. And most recently, I’ve concluded that it is too hard for a player to tell when he is running dangerously low on high-value cards. Two games were settled by the Germans running out of them in a suits without knowing it until it was too late.

All in all, tweaking the system was just giving me a headache.

Ultimately I decided that the problem was structural, and changing the card mix wasn’t going to cut it. Too many problems that were hard to even understand, much less solve.

Having decided on a structural approach, the first thing I decided was that I needed to simplify the system. A less complex card flow was the top priority, and a reduction in the number of decks was also desirable. In order for me to bring a design effort to a successful conclusion, it had to be one I felt I understood, one that I could adjust and predict what the effects of those adjustments would be.

Preamble out of the way, let’s talk about where we are with the design. Starting with the map.

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

The big change here is the addition of on-map holding areas for the card decks. This is made possible by the enlargement of the map discussed last week, but the progress made in reducing the number of decks has been quite helpful. In the previous version, there were 9 decks: German War, Alt, Discard, and Production, and Soviet War, Alt, Discard, Production, and the Stavka Reserve Deck.

In the current version, the two Discard decks have been consolidated into a single shared Discard deck, reducing the number of total decks in the game to 8. I am sure that these changes will help with playability. One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency with off-map decks to get confused about which deck is which, and I think this, along with a simple reduction in the number of decks, will help. It also relieves some of the playing space problems I created by enlarging the map board.

Another change was to the value distribution among the cards. You can see the shapes of the card distribution curves in the old vs. new version below:

Old Distribution New Distribution

The old version was heavily weighted towards low-value cards. The new version is much less so, with the most common cards being 2's followed by 3's. The result is that decks now tend to be much “richer” than before in terms of the proportion of higher-value cards they contain. The one-value cards were originally intended to provide a wider range in the quality of cards between a strong deck vs. a weak one, but they were adding too much noise to the system. The inability of players to understand when they were running low on high-value cards was partly caused by this: it was hard to tell how many high-value cards you had when the proportion of low-value cards was so high. A richer deck was a more intuitively understandable deck.

A second problem with the old distribution was increasing the absolute number of high-value cards meant adding more low-level cards as well if the distribution was to be maintained, and it wasn’t really practical to do that because I was already requiring a full deck of almost 100 cards to be shuffled, which was physically difficult to do. Overall, it was just feeling like I had the wrong card distribution. However, those cards were fundamental to the defensive/offensive balance in attacking across the front-line, without those cards, the defense would tend to get higher-value cards instead, which would make attacking slower and more expensive, which in general wasn’t something the game needed.

The solution to these problems was the auto-1-value card. Now, if you had no card, you got an automatic equivalent of a 1-value card instead. Before, the game treated no card as an automatic 0-value card, but that wasn’t really supposed to happen – an abundance of 1-value cards was supposed to prevent it. But an automatic 1-value card gave me what I wanted from all those 1-value cards without the downside of the actual physical cards. (I did keep a few 1-value cards – a little unpredictability is good for the game – it is having too much that is bad.)

Yet another change was to discard flow. Before, each player got any cards his opponent discarded, for free. The abundance of all these free cards (even if mostly low-value) was undercutting the value of production in the game, which I didn’t want. The Germans in particular could get a substantial portion of their high-value card production in free high-value cards the Soviets discarded, because the game required players every turn to do blind discards of cards to pay for maintenance – and those cards inevitably included a fraction of high-value cards. Statistically, in a turn, the Germans could find that such free high-value cards amounted to 2/3 of their production. The solution to this was to end free discard transfers.

If you’ve been paying close attention, this would be about the time you might wonder, “So what happens to those discards? How do they now get back in the game?” The answer is you now have to use production to buy them, which you can do when your own Production deck is tapped out (which happens to the Soviets constantly and the Germans in the later stages of the game). This change coincided another change: eliminating the ability to use production to take cards from the opposing player’s war deck when your own Production deck was tapped out.

Using production to take your opponent’s War deck cards was a form of vampirism that always threatened to take on alarming proportions; the system created a constant danger of the Soviets sucking the German War deck dry through their high production rates. I partly solved it by imposing a cap on the maximum number of cards that could be taken, but this tended to make higher Soviet production levels not very useful if there was literally nowhere they could draw from. Again, the game was undercutting the value of production which again I did not want.

So now, if your Production deck is empty, you take Discard deck cards instead. But, you might say, what if the Discard deck is empty too? Well, the answer is you get to credit the missing production to cover your maintenance and construction costs. I don’t actually have a backup beyond that, and I don’t think I need one. (Hopefully.)

Anyway, I ran a playtest with the new system, and this was the situation at the end of the Summer of 41 turn (the little yellow and dice are improvised markers, in case you were wondering):

This is not so hot for the Soviets. Just from the map, Kiev has fallen, Leningrad looks about to fall, Moscow looks about to fall, and Kharkov looks about to fall, and with those cities, the Soviets will fall; that is what a German victory looks like in 1941. And the cards do not make the map out as a liar: German cards might be running a little low, but the Soviet card situation is desparate: there aren’t enough cards to put enough units on the map to defend the cities, and even if the units were there, the Soviets don’t have enough cards to maintain them and pay for operations.

Obviously, this isn’t what I was aiming for, so what happened? Well, basically my changes to the decks included a few too many high-value cards in the German starting deck, but that isn’t the main problem: the main problem is that the prices for maintenance and construction were based on the old system where the players were getting lots of free cards. Without those free cards, the Soviets couldn’t afford to maintain their armies, rebuild reduced units, and pay for operations. The Germans suffered less because their army was already built, and German armor maintenance costs were already low, compared to the Soviets.

So, the playtest was a failure, right? Yes, but it was the best kind of failure because the problems it found were problems I believe I know how to fix: higher production, lower costs. This is as opposed to the worst kind of failure: the one where you have no idea how to go forward from there.

There is no problem quite as as easy as adding more production. Below, current production cities are in red. Obvious candidate production cities, if more are needed, are in blue:

And this isn’t all. Both sides can have off-map production added as well. (Adding German production cities west of Berlin is inadvisable because German production cities are Soviet objectives and it doesn’t do to have Soviet objectives west of Berlin; German off-map production that ends late in the game as the Western Allies advance is a less problematic alternative.) And there is nothing magic about 1 production point per city; why not 2 points? Or 3 points? What limits production is the desire to keep the numbers small and easy to deal with, not because there is anything limiting the upper bound of the possible.

Regarding costs, I’ve already edited the rules with new cost schedule. For maintenance and construction costs the old version is on the left, the new in the middle, and commentary on the right. There is very little room for further cuts; I’m already dealing with fractional card costs for unit maintenance (1 card for 2 units). But here are the changes newly made:

Old Costs New Costs Commentary

So, before infantry maintenance was twice the cost of armor maintenance. There was also front maintenance. Maintenance costs for infantry and armor are now the same, which is a simplifying change, and front maintenance has been dropped, another simplifying change.

So before the card changes, the Soviets might have had to pay 7 cards a turn to maintain their at-start strength, but they could afford it because they had lots of free cards with which to pay it. With the card changes, with an income of just 10 cards, all from production, their costs vs. income was untenable. This is why the Soviets got crushed in the playtest.

The new maintenance cost schedule leaves the Soviets with a maintenance cost of 2 for their initial set-up; 10 income is still not enough, but clearly progress is being made, as their surplus is now 8 cards vs. 2.

So the cost for German construction has been left as-is, which means it is effectively even more exorbitant than previously. Expanding the Wehrmacht is pretty much off the table, which it should be. Soviet costs to build cadres has been left high, which is not as bad for them as it looks, for reasons we’ll touch on in a second. But for everybody, the costs to build-up cadres has been halved, which mainly helps the Soviets, going far (if not far enough) to offset the lowered card income rates.

So, regarding Soviet cadre creation costs. The Soviets have a second system for producing units, called the Stavka Reserve, which you already know a little about (but not much) because of the aforementioned Soviet Stavka Reserve deck. The Stavka Reserve system slowly accumulates cards for itself every turn, and spending those cards creates full-blown units suddenly appearing on the front-line, like Hera from the brow of Zeus, or Operation Uranus on the flanks of Stalingrad, without going through the normal production system. Its main use is to create the Soviet armor force, but it can produce infantry as well.

Anyway, as always, there’s more I could say, but things have to end somewhere and I’m going to wrap this up here. Til next time.

10 August, 2020

So I get asked sometimes what tools I use. So, I thought I would explain that part of my process. First, my main work computer is a 2017 iMac Pro with an 8-core Intel Xeon W CPU, 128GB of memory, and a Radeon Pro Vega 56 8GB graphics card. Until fairly recently, I had only 32GB of memory, but I have found that the heavy hi-res graphics load I tend to impose on computers likes memory. It is definitely more responsive after the upgrade than before. My key software isn’t great at using a lot of cores, so more wouldn’t help. My intention is to stick with this system at least until I see what Apple has up its sleeve with its soon-to-start-arriving Apple Silicon systems. But I’m in no hurry to change. This has been a solid system.

Attached is an older Wacom drawing tablet, which isn’t really supported by Wacom any more. At some point, I will upgrade the system software and I expect it will stop working, at which point it is time for a new tablet. The tablet gets heavy use when I’m doing map work, but for other tasks, it’s just the usual keyboard and mouse.

Map work is done with Adobe Illustrator, which is a vector-graphics program. What you can’t see in this illustration are the layers of high-resolution source maps that sit behind the main map. Making those visible definitely slows down display updates, and this is what, more than anything, is what keeps me on fairly high-end systems. I’ve used Illustrator since forever and have a very high level of comfort with the program.

For game rules I use Adobe InDesign, a page-layout program. I have a modest competence with the program, but don’t know it nearly as well as Illustrator. Page layout programs, for those who’ve never used one, are integration points for documents. None of the graphics you see were created in InDesign; instead they were imported into it. InDesign’s job is to handle composition and layout. Compared to a word processor, convenience is sacrificed for control.

Many (but not all) of the images in InDesign came into it via Adobe Photoshop, even some that originated in Illustrator. I am not any kind of Photoshop hand; I can do some basic tasks with it that I do over and over again (Thanks “Crop”! Thanks “Levels”!) but much of the program I find weird and baffling and know neither how to use it nor what I would use it for if I did. If you’ve used Photoshop yourself, chances are excellent that you understand the program better than I do.

A secondary device I use, in addition to the iMac Pro, is the 2018 11" iPad Pro with its essential Apple Pencil. I do have the Magic Keyboard thing for it as well, which has helped it displace my infrequently-used laptop. (My laptop and iPad Pro had a fight as to who should stay, and it was the iPad Pro by a 1st round knock-out – the iPad Pro supported essential software, the laptop didn’t.) The iMac keyboard, however, doesn’t really have any part to play in my game design workflow.

And that essential iPad software is shown below: Goodnotes and Shapr3D. I daresay you can guess their respective functions from the images.

Goodnotes is a note-taking program. Every project I have has its own Goodnotes notebook where I collect my thoughts. In the early stages of a project, it might be pretty thin, but by the time I started typing the Stavka rules to InDesign, the GoodNotes notebook had grown to about 50 pages and covered most everything in the game. I have talked about GoodNotes before, and so I won’t belabor the subject, but I do find handwriting as a better tool for the creative and imaginative process than typing.

Shapr3D is the newest addition to my workflow, and was added, as you might guess to do the 3D models for the different game pieces. I have used other 3D modeling programs, but this is the only one I have found pleasant to use. There is something of a learning curve, but the company site has a rich set of video tutorials that I have found incredibly useful. And for me, being able to do this with pencil and touchscreen in hand is absolutely the way to go.

GoodNotes Shapr3D

Oh, and I suppose I should mention Sculpteo. They’re the company that have made my prototype game pieces for me. Pricey, but not as pricey as a mold for an injected plastic piece that needs to be redone because I didn’t understand the tactile and visual properties of the piece because I never actually saw or handled one before.

Anyway, with that, I’m signing off on this entry. Til next time!

8 August, 2020

So, having started playtesting with the actual physical pieces, I’ve started revising the rules as I find problems and/or come up with ideas on how to improve the design in one way or another. And so, let’s do another round of rules with commentary.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering why I do these, in part it is because I hope at least somebody will find them interesting, and in part because every time I do one, I see a rules problem I need to fix or an improvement I can make. Between the time I start one of these entries and publish it, I will have typically made 10 to 20 rules changes of varying levels of importance.)

Rules Text Commentary

There are some terms in a game you need to define because they are the names of visible or tangible things in the game, like regulatory items on the mapboard, or game pieces. But there are other things you define because doing so makes the rules easier to understand, so you don’t have to keep stating the definition over and over again, but instead can just state the name. The latter type of term can be quite fluid during rules editing, and can come and go and change as the rules are revised. And “breakthrough path” is a definition of that type.

Formerly, “breakthrough path” was defined to include the position the breakthrough unit occupies. Now it does not. In some game systems, this was done to deliberately produce a change in the game play, while in others it was just for clarity.

Oh, I should also mention that in the current text the formal definition and the example have both been made stronger and clearer as to which exactly which positions and routes were and were not part of the breakthrough path. By circling the path positions in the example, for example, I made it clearer that neither the last position in friendly territory nor the current unit position are part of the path. Good to be clear about these things, to prevent the players from experiencing what in computer graphics is called “endpoint paranoia” - that uneasy feeling of not being sure when the software renders a line as to whether the start and end points will be rendered as part of the line or not.

So, before there was a 6-step procedure that ended Economic Phase production called “War Deck Transfers”. It was giving me a headache.

One reason was that the order of the steps was often arbitrary – an order was specified but didn’t always have a logical reason behind that order – some steps could be reversed and it would make no difference. This made it hard for the players to learn. A second, more worrisome reason was that depending on which player went first, it could give quite different results. Which I very much did not want. It added yet another wrinkle that made it hard for me to feel I really understood how production would behave in all game circumstances. And some of the differences I very much did not want to happen.

The resolution of this problem you see to the left. Three of the steps remained in the Economic Phase, renamed “Card Transfers”, while the other other three got moved to the end of the turn, in the Adjustment Phase, in a new procedure called “Card Deck Adjustment”. I think that each three-step sequence is logical, and thus easy to understand and learn, and produces no unwanted differences in behavior depending on player order.

So, “Yay, me!” Another problem solved. As always, on to the next one.

Ready to learn about supply? No? Well, here’s the great thing about this: you can stop reading at any time.

So, in early drafts the supply rules were a nightmare. They sprawled across 4 different rules sections, had multiple repetitions and just enough small differences between different supply states to be confusing without being important. Much of the work since then has focused on fewer states, fewer differences between states, and a more compact, less repetitive presentation.

And so, there are four supply states. Probably the only one the existence of which will in any way surprise is “limited supply”. The others are, I think, pretty much what you’d expect for a game on this subject.

A pretty ho-hum rule. The only thing of interest is that the supply path includes both endpoints. Ready to move on? Me too.

Sometimes you do things because the alternative is an unnecessary complication. And so we see here. Historically, on what would be the last turn of the game in mid-1945, the German supply source as defined here would be under the control of the advancing armies of the Western Allies. But I did not deem it necessary to take that into account for two reasons:

First, it is difficult to say what the effects would be of different what-if game play Eastern Front results would have had on the rate of advance of the British and Americans.

Second, positing such hypotheticals isn’t important for the game. If the Germans still have something to defend on the last turn, the game is over and the Soviets have lost.

(Which doesn’t mean that the Germans have won – the game actually has three outcomes: German Victory, Soviet Victory, and Western Allied victory. The last of these is basically a victory for the German player. Reflecting my views of history, the game is being designed with a conceptual baseline of 50% Soviet victories, 35% Western Allied victories, and 15% German victories. To be honest, however, I think a lot of those German “victories” would have meant Germany getting hit with nuclear bombs, so there’s that.)

Anyway…

So, here we get an explanation as to how to tell if a unit qualifies for full vs. limited supply. Of course, it doesn’t (yet) explain what the consequences are of the distinction, but you gotta start somewhere. Now, as it happens, I could reverse the order of cause and effect in the rules, and explain the effects of the different states before I explain the causes of those states.

At some point, I think I will try that reversal and see if it makes the rules better, worse, or about the same. Seems like something I should try.

Anyway, the Kerch Strait is a giant pain in the ass. Originally, I tried treating it as a kind of sea supply, but that didn’t work well. Next, I tried to make it its own special supply state (“Kerch Strait supply”), and that was even worse. Eventually, it got merged with another supply state, which was originally called “Disrupted supply” to form what you see here: “Limited supply”. Mostly, the merger smooths things out, but honestly this still has rough areas that could use work.

Anyway, the whole point of what was formerly “Disrupted supply” was to take into account the disruption to planning, logistics, and control caused by a massive, deep incursion of enemy forces into the friendly rear and prevent units in the game from being able to ignore such problems, particularly to launch their own offensives as though everything to their own rear was just fine.

And speaking of the Kerch Strait, this rule is basically dedicated to identifying the damn thing, which not only has consequences for land supply, as explained above, but also for sea supply, which we haven’t even gotten to yet.

I am wondering if the little red circle in the illustration shouldn’t be bigger. Less precise location vs. easier to see approximation? The current version might not be the right balance.

Holy smokes: sea supply. Part of it anyway.

Now, in terms of pure game play, if I could choose, I would leave all this out, like Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad did. But, even I, committed as I am to making sure a simulation game functions as a game first, and simulation second (and make no mistake, those are my priorities) couldn’t bring myself to do that.

I will talk about the simulation priorities and the complexities shortly, but this section of the rules is really only concerned with getting decent rules for what constitutes a supply path for sea supply. That is, it has three parts: from the position being supplied to the source port, a body of water by which the supplier could move supplies, and a source port from which supplies could be shipped.

Keeping this manageable required cannibalization of part/all of the supply path rules from full supply, which you can see done here. In the older versions of sea supply, this wasn’t done, and a large complexity savings was achieved by said cannibalization.

So, what are the simulation functions of sea supply? In order of importance, they are: (1) The Siege of Leningrad, (2) the Kurland Pocket, (3) The Siege of Sevastopol (first siege anyway, I could honestly skip the second if it came down to it), and (4) the Siege of Odessa.

These involved supply over three bodies of water, with very different circumstances as a result. The Siege of Leningrad actually involved “sea supply” by the Soviets over an intermittently frozen Lake Ladoga, which had its own weird and idiosyncratic small-craft naval actions, akin to the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes. (Though in latter war, the ships got so large that they were on the scale of the largest naval vessels, which did not happen on Lake Ladoga, although picturing vessels the size of the Iowa class battleships on a lake does have a certain imaginative appeal.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. The Kurland Pocket was supplied over the Baltic, where in spite of the Soviets having at least nominally competitive navy to the Germans, in fact were utterly outclassed, leaving the Baltic as more or less a German lake almost to the end of the war.

Sevastopol and Odessa were supplied over the Black Sea. Initially, the Soviet Navy was more than capable of handling the small navies of Germany’s allies, Romania and Bulgaria, but things got bad once the Soviets lost Sevastopol as they had no other port remotely capable of maintaining their fleet and it rapidly deteriorated. The Germans in turn were able to, for a time, supply Sevastopol themselves once the Soviets re-took the Crimea, but found it too expensive to merit continuing and abandoned the port.

So, the main abstraction is that the bodies of water and the ports on them are organized into 4 zones, each of which is restricted as to which army can use it for sea supply. (I threw in the Caspian Sea, although it wasn’t used historically, because of course it might be used in the game, and so rules should exist for it.) To help jog the players’ memories, I provided custom versions of the port symbols that indicate who can use what port.

And here we clean up a couple of sea supply loose ends.

The first of these is to explain the pivot of sea supply in the Black Sea: control of Sevastopol. It is, to be sure, something of a simplification, but it does have the effect of giving the players a reason to think about Sevastopol, which they otherwise would not. I admit that I am trying hard not to be sucked any deeper into a naval game than I absolutely have to be, and this rule reflects that.

The second isn’t even so much a rule as a direct message to the players as to how to supply Leningrad by sea if besieged (and, at the same time, how to cut off supply to Leningrad if besieged.) I also spend so much time working on the route map east of Leningrad to make sure that in both game and simulation terms all of this more or less worked. If I haven’t made any mistakes, there should be an interesting little mini-game up there waiting to be discovered.

And, now, at last, we come to the end of our little journey through the Stavka supply rules.

There is an intentional redundancy here in that all of this is also present in other sections, but I felt that players really could benefit from a repetition where they could find the effects for a particular type of supply all in one place. It isn’t necessarily the easiest place in the rules to understand them, because it most concerns effects in systems that have not yet been explained, so it is mostly for reference. But I’m sure players will get something out of the presentation here regardless.

There are no special rules for full supply because that is the default state for the rules: they assume full supply unless specified otherwise.

Limited supply is basically a condition of full combat defensive power, but with a loss of offensive power and reduced strategic mobility.

Sea supply has the same effects as limited supply, with the added requirement that the units be maintained (which readers of the rules should already know since that was explained in the previous section).

Out of supply means you’re going to die soon unless you get out of it.

6 August, 2020

So the pieces showed up yesterday afternoon! Pics first, commentary afterwards:

So, first, this is what I call “the Big Board Version”. The game was originally designed (way back in the day) as 22"x 34". However, that was also when the game was conceived as having a much, much sparser grid than it currently has. I’ve strongly suspected for some time that those dimensions would prove too small for the game as it currently is designed, and, having finally gotten a full set of production pieces on the board, those suspicions were found correct. The version photographed is substantially larger: 30"x 42". This is not quite as large as Napoleon’s Triumph, which was 34"x 44", but it’s a pretty large surface nevertheless. Probably we’re looking at two boards, each 30"x 21".

The increase in the board size also means a longer front, which means more front-line pieces. I think my original planned quantity was marginal for even the small board and would have had to have been increased; for the big board, there is no question of it. I don’t think I will need more of the other kinds above what was already planned. (I think I had planned for more breakthrough markers than were actually needed for the small board; the big board just absorbs the excess.)

I do think that Stavka because of the variety of piece designs was already headed into the premium game category (like Napoleon’s Triumph), and the larger board size just confirms it. I think that’s ok, as long as the value proposition is there and the players feel like they’ve gotten a premium game. And I feel pretty good about that right now.

I have learned some things about the piece designs.

The front dividers are too small; they should be twice as wide as they are. Also, the absence of any visual contrast with the front line pieces is bad. I am considering color options, but might go with a dark gray, different enough from the black of the front-line pieces to be visually distinct, without being too loud.

The tolerances on the front line pieces pegs and sockets are too tight. I was within theoretical design spec, but the rough surface of 3D printing is prone to producing friction, and as produced, the fit was too tight. (The good news is that I was able to loosen them up acceptably just by rotating the pieces back and forth; so I won’t need to re-order these pieces.) The plastic pieces won’t have the surface problem, but from my experience with the current pieces, it is imperative that the peg and sockets be friction-free, and so I will enlarge the socket even for them. Better by far too have them a little too loose than to have any friction all on on peg insertion or rotation.

The breakthrough pieces are indeed tippy. Not unacceptably so, but not optimal either. In a typical turn, I find that I'm tipping a couple over by accident on a regular basis. This isn’t horrible, but none of the other pieces ever tip over. Otherwise, they’re working well. More mass at the base might help, but plastic isn’t heavy no matter what, and the fundamental problem isn’t weight distribution, it’s that it’s a tall piece on a narrow three-point base, so the margin for balance is narrow.

The first shakedown playtests have also taught me a lot about the rules and game mechanisms. But I think I’m going to save that discussion for another day and get this entry out there.

4 August, 2020

So, I’m going back to Stalingrad again for another design discussion, but this time instead of talking about graphic design, as I had previously, I want to talk about the question of the particular appeal of Stalingrad. What made it stand out among other games of its generation? Basically, what made it a good game?

Let’s start by looking at this Soviet starting set-up, which is an example of expert position design for the game. (At least it is if I copied it right – I did not design it; I was never the calibre of Stalingrad player who could have come up with this.)

The first thing I would call your attention to is its lack of uniformity. Of the front-line hexes (those to which the Germans could move adjacent to in the first German turn) 5 hexes are empty, 4 contain a single unit, 7 contain 2 units, and 1 contains 3 units. Among the hexes with 1 unit there is one duplication (the two 2-3-6 sacrificial lambs), and among those with 2 units there is 1 semi-duplication (the stack with two 4-6-4's is a semi-duplicate of the hex with a 4-6-6 and a 4-6-4). There are no duplicates among the rest. Further, the semi-duplicate turns out not to be an effective duplicate because one is protected by defensive doubling and the other is not.

This lack of uniformity is also present in the counter mix. Even if we ignore attack strengths and movement allowances, there is quite the variety of units present. There are three units with a defense strength of 3, eight units with a defense strength of 6, nine units with a defense strength of 7, one unit with a defense strength of 9 and two with a defense strength of 10. In this context, it is worth noting that in Stalingrad stacks are not unitary: individual units within a stack can be individually attacked within a stack. Putting two 2-3-6 units together in a hex is not the same as having a 4-6-6 in that hex.

An additional game play complication in Stalingrad is an attacker must attack all adjacent enemy units, which allows a unit to be indirectly strengthened by the units around it. If, an attacker, you want to attack enemy unit A, you may find yourself forced to attack units B,C,D,E and F as well in order to be able to do it. Unit A might be an attractive target in isolation, but can become prohibitively expensive to attack because of the units around it.

And then, of course, there is terrain. Many positions are doubled because of the rivers, but only if attacked from specific directions. The defense is thus not a straight line from one map edge to the other, it instead needs to follow the terrain to maximize its strength. Some hexes need to be avoided even though they would reduce the length of the front line because they are too exposed to occupy. The fact that Stalingrad has “hard” zones of control interacts with this in interesting ways. You do not necessarily need to occupy a hex to defend it – you can instead defend it just by occupying adjacent hexes, letting your zones of control keep the attacker out of it.

The bottom line is that really understanding a Stalingrad position, how best to defend it and how best to attack it, is a complex undertaking that requires careful consideration of every hex and which units (if any) are best to put into it. A change of a single unit in a single hex can have ripple effects on how to arrange the other units in both directions along the line. Vulnerabilities can exist which are quite hard to see because they depend on specific combinations of attacking units attacking from specific hexes. Stalingrad has an extensive history of published defensive lines widely thought to be sound turn out to have unnoticed vulnerabilities that could be exploited, requiring substantial re-evaluations of the entire defense as a result.

And thus, Stalingrad always remains capable of tactical interest in a way that not a lot of games do.

Having looked at Stalingrad from 1963, let’s look at a game that goes in a very different direction tactically, SPI’s War in the East, which was published in 1974.

Because War in the East is so long, and undergoes a number of major changes in unit mix, selecting a single representative image isn’t really possible. What we’re seeing here is basically a tactical target the Soviets are trying to hit in 1942, which tends to be the game’s decisive year. (Back when I played the game, literally decades ago, I don’t remember achieving this much in 1942; I mostly remember having had to make due with more vulnerable 4-4 infantry corps rather than the 5-5 infantry corps shown in the illustration.) Compared with our Stalingrad illustration, War in the East’s most striking tactical element is its uniformity: every front-line hex is the same. It is important to understand that this is not some idiosyncratic choice of an individual player; it is baked into the design. To see this, look at the designer’s model production program below:

Time Tracks Each turn represents a week, so the proposed schedule basically consists of 3 types of units for the first 18 months or so of the game. (The 8-6 armor units shown take a long time to build; they won’t come off the line until after the summer of 1942 is over.) The Soviets will have 1-4 infantry units (which convert tactically to 0-3-0 fortifications), 5-5 infantry, and 0-1-10 anti-tank brigades. (My having 4-4 infantry instead of 5-5 infantry was the result of my not having enough time and production to complete them as 5-5 infantry, and so I had to rush them into the field while they were still 4-4 infantry, not because I was attempting anything significantly different than this.)

I mention that the uniformity was designed-in enables us to discuss the above tactical situation as an intentional design feature of the game, rather than as a hypothetical or an accident. What we are seeing is not only intentional, it is more than that, it is largely forced. The production limits and rules, combined with the counter-mix and tactical rules, leave only minor variations as viable alternatives. This is how you play the game.

To be sure, it isn’t entirely as simple as the above. In a real game there would have been reserves behind this line that would vary from game to game, but their purpose would have been to basically repair any damage the Germans might inflict on the above. More, deeper lines of fortifications would be built to maintain a wall infront of the Germans, and new 5-5 infantry and 0-1-10 anti-tank units would be moved in and/or built to replace any lost. No matter what the Germans might do offensively, the Soviet tactical defensive response must be more of the same as the above, as they literally don’t have the units to do anything else, the only difference being doing it a little further back.

There is another tactical imperative in War of the East that is less obvious: the need to maintain a straight line within the hex grid. I do not believe the designers intended this; I think it was a side effect of other design decisions they made overlaid on the basic geometry of a hexagonal grid. The thing about a hexagonal grid is that straight lines are possible only at angle increments of 60°. So aligned, a given hex in a defensive line can only be attacked from two adjacent hexes. Any angle other than increments of 60° produces jags in the line, where a defensive hex is exposed to attack from three adjacent hexes, the worst case being at 30° off the 60° optimum, in which every other hex is exposed to attack from three adjacent hexes.

But, you might observe, Stalingrad has the same geometry: wouldn’t this mean it has the same problem? No; not to the same degree. This is where the specific design choices in each game come in. In Stalingrad, all adjacent hexes have to be attacked, but in War in the East they do not. This weakens (though by no means eliminates) the effect of the orientation of the hex grid through mandated “soak-off” attacks against recessed hexes, diluting the strength that can be directed in a main attack against a forward hex. We can see this in the illustrations below:

Stalingrad War in the East

In War in the East, though not in Stalingrad, a jag in the line results in the ability of three hexes of units to attack one at full strength. The defender who doesn’t straighten his own line is likely to find his opponent straightening it for him, through a series of high-odds attacks that rolls up his line, hex by hex, turn by turn.

The absence of any need for soak-off attacks has another consequence in comparing the two games: in Stalingrad, you can strengthen a defense of a more lightly held hex by putting strong units in adjacent hexes; since those units have to be attacked, they draw off attack strength that would otherwise target the lightly held hex. This is one of the things that makes the different parts of a Stalingrad defense interlock and protect each other. Defenses in War in the East just don’t do that: unlike Stalingrad, each hex in War in the East is defensively atomic: nothing can be done in adjacent hexes to make it any stronger.

In sum, Stalingrad may be a simple game, but it is pretty rich in features that give it a high level of tactical interest. War in the East, well, just doesn’t have those features and tactically just isn’t generally interesting as a result. In Stalingrad, each front-line hex is a unique problem that requires a solution specific to that hex.

War in the East just isn’t that way. It is much more about having a set of “tactical systems” that you apply on different sections of the front at different times in the game. So interest tends to be much more strategic, in building out the forces you need to implement the different systems and in the development of the details of the systems themselves. Because the game’s enormous size and length, I think tactical simplicity was not in and of itself bad, as it helps to keep the game’s pace up. I do think that its inability to tolerate anything other than straight front-lines on the hex grid is just bad, as is having the tactical systems being so heavily forced by the design, without much in the way of opportunities for player customization.

So, does this mean that War in the East is a bad game? No. Things can get complicated when you go from specific criticisms of aspects of the game (like the above) to global judgments of the game as a whole. In my teens, I played a lot of hours of War in the East. There aren’t a lot of games (maybe no games) that I played for that many hours. It wasn’t like a games I set up, played a couple of hours, and then set aside in boredom (or still, worse, active dislike), never to take it out again. So, from that perspective, it can’t be considered “bad” in the sense as those games. But will I ever play it again? No. In at least one way it is simply broken, and too many elements feel more like following a script than playing a game.

But once upon a time, I did play it. And it was definitely a gaming experience I won’t forget. And I can’t say that about a lot of the games I played in those days that were less broken and less scripted. And so, overall, I find War in the East easy to critique yet hard to summarily judge.

Anyway, that’s it for now. A full set of Stavka sample pieces for playtesting are supposed to show up tomorrow. That is something I am definitely looking forward to.

2 August, 2020

So, I thought I would do some more Stavka rules commentary, picking up where the last one left off.

At the end of the prior entry, we went through the process by which a player calculated his production card output. (To give you an idea of the sort of numbers we’re talking about, in the game, for the first German turn of production this will generally be 6, and for the Soviets 10.)

This sequence picks up from there, and covers the process by which a player rebuilds his War deck from the prior turn’s activities.

Rules Text Commentary

To start, the player shuffles his production deck. During the prior turn, the cards a players successfully used (generally high-value cards) will have been put in his production deck. If he was very active, he will have added a lot of cards to the deck; if not, only a few or even none. This shuffle sets up a transfer of cards from his production deck to his war deck. It is entirely possible for a player to have added more cards to his production deck than he now recovers, and so is accumulating high-value cards in his production deck, leaving fewer and fewer high-value cards in his war deck. This is not really sustainable and periods of lower activity will be eventually required so that the war deck can be rebuilt.

If a player taps out his production deck and can’t draw as many cards from it as he is entitled to (very possible), he can draw cards instead from his opponent’s war deck. The Soviets have high production and, early on in the game, few successes resulting in cards being added to his production deck, so very often he will draw from the German war deck to make up the difference

Next in the sequence, the player transfers the enemy discard deck to his war deck. The more active the enemy has been, the more cards will be transferred, but these will almost all be low-value cards. In this way, low-value cards tend to move back and forth between the two players.

Next, the player transfers his alt deck (which is basically just an extension of the war deck) to his war deck. The purpose of this lies in the next and final step of this sequence, shuffling the war deck. By adding the alt deck back in first, all the war deck cards get shuffled together.

At the end of production, a player will have added cards to his war deck. During “Expenditures” he uses them to maintain and strengthen his army.

A long-running design problem has been ensuring that the game behaves well when card distribution between the players is highly imbalanced. A particular concern has been that over time that the Soviets, with their high production rate, not be able to vacuum up all the cards, destroying the German army just through the mechanics of card play, without actually even needing to defeat them on the map. Some production phase sequences could produce exactly that effect, and avoiding it has been a headache. Honestly, I’m not certain that even now it is right; it would not surprise me at all if playtesting revealed problems here I need to address.

This sequence is actually fairly straightforward, with only two things I want to discuss.

The first is the cadres-on-the-time-track thing. Building up armies take time as well as resources, and this is signified by cadres being placed on the time track, creating a delay between when they are paid for and when they become available to enter play.

The second is the split between declarations and execution. There are two reasons for this: the first is to allow payment to be calculated and made in a single transfer, rather than as a series of small transfers (which would reveal the suits of the cards being paid for, which I do not wish), and to allow a graceful way to recover should it turn out that the player does not have enough cards to pay for all his expenditures.

This is the cost schedule for maintenance. There isn’t anything really complicated here. The number of units in the game is low, so there is little effort required to count them and determine how much is owed.

There may be a slight surprise that armor is cheaper than infantry, but this is because the armor units in the game are much smaller, with perhaps a quarter the manpower.

The most striking thing (perhaps the only striking thing) about the maintenance cost schedule is that it exists at all. Wargames with production models tend to have costs for building units, but not for maintaining them. The reason is basically just that it is mechanically difficult when you have a large number of pieces. But allowing units to exist at no cost creates the threat of runaway production, where armies keep getting ever stronger because there is nothing in the model to restrain their growth.

This section describes the consequences of not paying for maintenance, which a player may not be able to do or may choose not to do.

Unmaintained units simply become cadres, which the player can later build-up back into units. This can be done for any unit, but is far more likely to be done for infantry, which is more expensive to maintain and less offensively effective.

In principle, a player can choose to not maintain a front, but the consequences could be quite dire for the cost savings.

The rule for sea supply is something of a forward reference problem in the rules. Sea supply isn’t really explained until the next section, but in terms of the overall rules flow, it makes more sense to order the sections this way and accept the forward reference as a cost for doing so.

Front-line strengthening is a fairly late addition to the design. It’s gone from being not part of the design at all, to being in it but so expensive to make it an option of last resort, to having a reasonable cost for what it provides. The cost is the same as maintaining an infantry unit, but an infantry unit has more combat power. The advantage of front strengthening vs. an infantry unit is that although it provides less combat power, it provides it over a larger area.

This section shows the card costs for building cadres and for building up cadres into units. What you can’t see here directly is that combat can cause units to be either reduced to cadres or eliminated, the latter occurring when units are eliminated in pockets. When reduced to cadres they can be brought back into play both faster and more cheaply than if eliminated, especially for the Germans, reflecting their general manpower shortage and the greater damage done by the loss of the entire nucleus of experienced officers and soldiers that would otherwise be the foundation for rebuilding the unit.

This section seems to be about where units come back, but more substantially about when. A newly built cadre goes on the time track, reflecting a delay as to when it can come back into play, and the fact that units have to be placed in production cities implicitly means another delay in moving them to where they are actually needed. (Excepting, of course, the unhappy situation where the production city is where they are needed.) In principal there are also limits as to the number of units that can be built in a turn, but this limit shouldn’t normally cause significant difficulty.

The infantry limits are fairly generous. Neither army is likely to build out the maximum number of infantry units permitted. The Germans are at their armor limit at the start of the game. Even keeping their existing armor fully operational is a challenge for the Germans: armor is cheap to maintain but expensive to actually use, as we will see once we reach the military phase rules.

The Soviet armor limit is a whole ’nother deal. The Soviets had no difficulty building tanks, but had very considerable difficulty developing the ability to carry out the complexities of mobile warfare, and it is that learning curve that sets the limit on the number of armor units the Soviets can have. Mechanically, this is represented not by the game’s economic system, but by is instead abstracted as part of the rules for theStavka Reserve Deck, described in a later section of the game rules.

This is pretty straightforward. But it does have one feature of interest, and that is cards used for payment are transferred to the enemy Alt deck, which means that they will be (in theory) available for play by the enemy this turn, as the Alt deck becomes the War deck any time the War deck is empty. Having them go on the Alt deck is quite a recent change – formerly they were placed on the Discard deck, which still would have sent them to the enemy War deck, but only after a one turn delay. The reason for the change was I was nervous about taking substantial numbers of cards out of play each turn, especially in terms of how it would affect edge conditions where one army was very low on cards.

So anyway, this brings us to the end of the rules on the game’s economic system. In terms of complexity (or lack thereof) and speed of play, I’m pretty happy with them. But they make me extremely nervous. There are multiple potential problem areas:

On the positive side, the system is rich in “magic numbers” I can change: the composition of the card deck, the number of production cities, the costs for building and maintaining units, and how cards move between decks. All of these are places I can make adjustments as needed to try to produce the required behavior. So, if I have lots of uncertainties still, I also have lots of time to find problems and lots of methods I can use to resolve them. So, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

And with that, I think I’m going to let you go. Til next time!