Several months ago, I had been investigating Cataclysm: A Second World War on GMT’s P500 and thought that the game looked so unique and interesting that it would be fun to do an interview with the design team. I reached out to Gene Billingsley who put me in contact with Scott Muldoon and William Terdoslavich who were more than willing to talk with me about their creation. From the P500 page, we get this quick description of the game:

Cataclysm: A Second World War is a quick-playing game about politics and war in the 1930s and 40s, designed for two to five players. The three primary ideologies of the time contend to impose their vision of order on the world. The Fascists (Germany, Italy, and Japan) seek to overthrow the status quo, which favors the Democracies (France, the United Kingdom, and the United States), while the Communists (the Soviet Union) look for opportunities to storm the global stage. Cataclysm is unapologetically a game of grand strategy. Military pieces have no factors or ratings. The capability of your forces increases as you shift the commitment of your economy from civilian to military production. Land, air, and naval forces all have their role in prosecuting war. There is no Combat Results Table; instead, battles are resolved by opposed die rolls with a limited number of modifiers capturing the most important operational effects. The area map emphasizes political boundaries, drawing attention to strategically critical territory, encouraging players to think in broad terms of resource acquisition, control of border states, and the perception of power as the arms race plays out.

I have P500’ed the game and it has “Made the Cut” with 612 orders as of this writing. So, let me share with you some great insight into the game and how it plays straight from the 2 designers.

Grant: Bill and Scott, please tell us a little about yourselves. How did you two connect to design Cataclysm?

Bill: I’m William Terdoslavich, a long-time freelance writer living in New York City. I’ve been wargaming since 1972 and Cataclysm is my first design going to print. I am happily married and have two grown children.

Scott: My name is Scott Muldoon, and I’m a project manager with the Translation & Interpretation Unit in the New York City Department of Education. I’m in my mid-40s, and my wife and I have one son about to turn six at the time of this writing. I’ve done translation and development work for a variety of companies, and even had a card game published, but this is my first wargame design to get professional treatment.

I’ve been gaming ever since I could clutch a pawn in my chubby baby hands. My mother gifted me her love of games, maps, and history at an early age. As a preteen I played whatever sci-fi and fantasy stuff I could get my hands on. Then in high school a history teacher nudged me towards traditional wargames. I still play just about anything, but I’ve been a serious wargamer for about thirty years now. I own way too many games, especially for a New York City apartment.

Bill: I played my first war game in December 1972, when a friend got Panzerblitz for Christmas. We played it wrong. I had all the Russian pieces and lost by a mile. But I was hooked. Hexagons? Vehicle silhouettes? What is there not to like? Without knowing it, I had played wargames before, like Milton Bradley’s Dogfight or 1863, but I was a lot younger and had no idea what I was doing. I count Panzerblitz as my first game and I have been playing war games ever since.

Scott: Bill and I first met about twelve or thirteen years ago at the Chitkickers, a group that still gathers at the Compleat Strategist in NYC. We didn’t really get to know each other that well at the time. Later, after we both joined JR Tracy’s group in Manhattan, we started riding the subway home together after game night since we both live in Queens.

Bill: “World War 2.0” had been knocking around in my brain since about 2005, as I wanted a simple game that did not lock players into a particular approach. Alternate strategies were just harder to explore in Third Reich, Krieg or Barbarossa to Berlin (even though I liked playing these games). Those games were focused at the operational/strategic level in Europe and I really felt WWII was best addressed at a grand strategic/global level.

I started showing Scott my “schemes” for the game back in the summer of 2010. It certainly piqued his interest! My problem was bringing the design down to earth. I kept going back-and-forth between map/pieces and cards, fabbing components on my laptop. I credit Scott with helping me bring the design to earth and adding to it. Even in its current form, Cataclysm is pretty faithful to my original vision.

Scott: At first I took on the role of developer, but as the project grew Bill graciously allowed me to share the podium with him as co-designer. When we started design work in earnest that winter, I had just quit my job to raise my son. Without that flexibility, I don’t know if Cataclysm could have turned out the way it did. Bill likes to say it’s the first wargame designed by two stay-at-home dads from Queens.

Grant: What is Cataclysm about?

Bill: It’s about a “second world war”, not necessarily WWII as it happened. The player is cast in the role of a national leader—no the top admiral or general. This places the game at the grand strategy level.

Players must manage an economy and shift it to a war footing. They have to manage politics—externally through diplomacy and internally by maintaining a consensus for a war policy. They have to manage the military, choosing how many armies, fleets and air forces they will build and sending those forces off to the fronts. And they have to use those forces to fight the war.

Scott: It’s about taking up the challenge of reducing the most complex conflict ever fought into a five-hour game.

Grant: Why does the game start in 1933, rather than is usual for a World War II game in 1939?

Bill: Turning the game back to 1933 opens up a wider range of outcomes. You bring into play the arms race of the 1930s, the diplomatic provocations by the fascist players (Germany, Japan and Italy) and the political reactions of the democracies (USA, UK and France). Eventually, war breaks out, but it may not be at a time of your choosing.

Scott: Starting the game six years earlier than the usual WWII opening (the invasion of Poland) gives players the unique experience of getting to set the table and cook the meal, rather than just sitting down to eat whatever’s in front of them. If you just want to replay the historical war with little variations here and there, plenty of games will do that for you.

Early versions of the game actually started in 1931! Bill wanted Cataclysm to have a truly global perspective, and that meant including the Japanese war against China, beginning with the conquest of Manchuria in 1931. Unfortunately, because of the Great Depression, there was very little else going on for those first couple of years, so it made sense to move up the starting line to 1933, when Hitler first came to power.

“Starting the game six years earlier than the usual WWII opening (the invasion of Poland) gives players the unique experience of getting to set the table and cook the meal, rather than just sitting down to eat whatever’s in front of them. If you just want to replay the historical war with little variations here and there, plenty of games will do that for you.”

Grant: What has been the reaction of traditional WWII gamers to the design of Cataclysm? What have they struggled with and what have they found interesting?

Bill: The reaction was mostly positive. The big attraction was the sandbox nature of the game. Players were free to craft alternate force structures and explore alternate strategies. (Yes, Germany can have four-engine bombers, if you want it to).

Scott: We’ve been fortunate to have good teams of testers who caught on right away that Cataclysm is a sandbox viewed from 10,000 feet high. Even so, every single one shared their thoughts about the historical plausibility of some event or other that transpired – such discussion is as old as historical gaming itself. A lot of these discussions led to refinement of our vision for Cataclysm, even if only so we could present our arguments more clearly.

I think that the element of greatest appeal has been the combination of tension and liberation that the open-style play encourages. We have baked uncertainty into nearly all the mechanics, especially the chit pull from the action cup that forms the core of gameplay. Players stay involved, since it could be their turn to go at any moment. And yet you have to plan – you’re responsible for all the important choices: what to focus on politically, how much to stress the home front, what kind of forces to build, and who to deploy them against.

Bill: For some, the hardest concept to grasp was the pacing of economic mobilization. As you ratchet up your war economy, you get to choose a few more pieces to add to your force structure and multiply the strength of your resources, but you suffer the political cost of increasing mobilization. Some players try to win their wars “on the cheap” by keeping their mobilization low, but that allows a more aggressive competitor to shift their economy to a higher gear and attack with a more effective military. Trying to fight a war with this strategic deficit can be very frustrating.

Japan starts the game with Manchuria in pocket (1 resource, economically vital), attacking south into China. The arrow counter represents an offensive. For Japan, the strategic choice is go north (attack Russia), or go south (attack China). Japan can rack up points stealing Siberia fair and square, but China is packed with resources. The temptation is obvious. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Grant: Why did you choose the blind draw from an “action cup” to deploy units? How did you balance this?

Bill: The blind chit-pull mechanic makes every turn unpredictable. There is no “Igo/Yugo” to structure the turn. You have a general plan for what you want to do, but the chits may or may not come up in the right sequence, or even in your favor. Every time a chit comes up—an offensive, a flag, a home front check, a unit—you can do one thing. It happens quickly. Then you pull another chit. This creates a lot of action without suffering a lot of down time for the waiting player.

Scott: In the first iteration of the game the action cup only held offensives (military actions). Later we added the idea of adding the flags (political actions) and constructed units to the same cup. We removed just about everything from the traditional “sequence of play” and mediated it all through chit pull. You still need a production phase so you can count your beans and go shopping. Taking that break at the start of each two-year turn also gives the players a way to mark time and measure their progress against historical milestones.

Early in the game’s development, you just bought units at the start of the turn and put them directly into play, but this led to a strange “sawtooth” play cycle. There’d be a burst of new units, which were then burnt off over the course of the two-year turn until nobody had much left to fight with, then another turn and another burst of new units, etc. Throwing the units in the cup to arrive randomly smoothed this out, and we also allowed using military actions from offensives to construct units mid-turn so you could replace your losses outside the production phase. You get real tension when you’re waiting for another air unit to come out before you start your invasion, but then the other guy’s flags keep coming out…Emphasizing the centrality of chit pull to the design was one of those breakthrough moments.

Whenever an event chit pops out of the action cup, players roll on a table to find out what happened. In this case, the dice came up “Civil War”. A second roll, checked against a table, shows the conflict breaking out in Hungary (surprise!). Italy had wrangled Hungary as a minor ally. That control cube changes into “foreign aid” (an Italian offensive marker). At turn’s end, when it is time to resolve civil wars, Italy will roll against another player to find out who wins the conflict, with a +1 DRM for the Italian-backed faction. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Grant: How do the random crisis events work? Give us an example of one from the game and help us understand the impact.

Scott: There are four Crisis markers in the action cup for each turn. The first three of these trigger a Crisis when drawn, which is really just a roll on a random events table. There are two tables, one for wartime, and one for before war breaks out.

Bill: Scott and I looked at the range of “things that happened” in the 1930s and 1940s—events that the belligerents had no control over but emerged as “surprises”. We then categorized them. So that an event like “civil war” would not necessarily mean a civil war in Spain (though that could happen). It can happen in Greece. It can happen in Yugoslavia, or the Ukraine. You don’t know. But when it does, the event creates opportunities and disadvantages.

Other events can range from domestic political crisis (government dithers), allies becoming reluctant (Poland has second thoughts about partnering with France). Then there is my favorite: League of Nations meets, nothing happens.

The crisis chits also act as a clock on the turn. When the fourth chit is drawn, the turn ends. You don’t know when it will come up. So you have to get strategy going every chance you get.

Grant: How is the size of your economy determined? How are resources managed? Does each country have resource targets on the map they are shooting for such as the Nazis goal of taking over the oil-rich fields in the Caucasus?

Scott: Certain areas on the map generate a resource each turn, which can be collected by a power and converted into units or actions. Some of these resource areas are “industrial” and act as production sites and supply sources. Some resources (typically those in minor countries) are “limited” and can only be collected once in the entire game. The amount of stuff you get for each resource depends on how committed to the military you’ve made your economy.

“For some, the hardest concept to grasp was the pacing of economic mobilization. As you ratchet up your war economy, you get to choose a few more pieces to add to your force structure and multiply the strength of your resources, but you suffer the political cost of increasing mobilization. Some players try to win their wars “on the cheap” by keeping their mobilization low, but that allows a more aggressive competitor to shift their economy to a higher gear and attack with a more effective military. Trying to fight a war with this strategic deficit can be very frustrating.”

Bill: What amplifies this raw strength is the state of economic mobilization. When you go to mobilization, you get a 2x multiplier on production. That economy pegged at 4 is now effectively an 8. You can buy more stuff.

Placing resources was pretty straightforward. Again, research showed areas where industry or resources were concentrated. What’s great about this approach is that the resources act as “eye candy”. The amateur, armchair strategist knows where to send his forces, much like the actual war leaders who really were just as human as the players.

Scott: Since players naturally gravitate towards resource areas, Cataclysm’s victory conditions do not need to distinguish areas by economic value. Most permanent resources are in the home areas or colonies of the powers; only Romania and the Dutch East Indies are not. Many of the countries around Germany have one-shot limited resources, which helps model the Nazi dependence on looting the economies of their conquests.

“Temporary Resources”. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Some resources are represented by chits. These can be spent by the owning player to finance their war effort and are removed from the game after one use. This represents the “asset stripping” that some belligerents did, basically looting local economies to pay for war. Note that Manchuria (all the way to the right) has a permanent resource printed right on the board.

Grant: How does a “stability test” work and how does it affect the game? What alters the test?

Scott: Powers have a stability level, which boils down to being one to three steps away from political collapse. When a power fails a stability test, it loses a stability level. A power can be forced to make a stability test by losing home territory, suffering excessive losses in combat, or even by Crisis events. The most common stability test happens once per turn to represent the “home front”. The more heavily committed to the military your economy is, the more difficult this home front test is to pass.

Bill: If a war goes on long enough, or if devastating defeat is more common than decisive victory, then nations eventually trend their way down to collapse, then drop out of the war. Italy in 1943 serves as a good example of this mechanic.

You can remedy the situation by using your political capital (a flag counter) to undertake “propaganda”. On a roll of a 5 or 6, you bump your stability up one box, thus trending away from collapse.

Grant: How is political support played out in the game? What are the positive and negative aspects of too little or too much political support?

Scott: If you’re talking about domestic support, that’s partially covered by the stability mechanic mentioned above. If you fail too many stability tests, your power collapses, representing a change of government ranging from having to form a new cabinet to Stalin being taken out behind the shed. If the situation is grave enough, a collapse can trigger surrender and remove the power from the game entirely.

Bill: In the long run, the stability mechanic introduces war weariness into the game. You can’t fight with a blank check. War has a cost.

Scott: Another aspect of political support is folded into each power’s “effectiveness”. This measures a power’s ability to form and enact policy – higher effectiveness makes success at political actions and stability tests more likely. Powers like France and Italy, whose governments were rather dysfunctional, have low effectiveness. Even though Germany’s government had more than its share of issues, it was still able to accomplish so much that we had to give it a high effectiveness rating. The US and UK are also rated highly once they have mobilized.

“In the long run, the stability mechanic introduces war weariness into the game. You can’t fight with a blank check. War has a cost.”

Grant: How do players handle the decision to mobilize for war? How can this decision, either done too early or too late, effect the outcome?

Scott: Mobilization is accomplished by using a political action to increase your commitment level. Most powers start the game at civilian commitment, essentially a minimal peacetime establishment with little ability to project strength (i.e. no offensives). Next comes rearmament, which expands your force pool and gives you some punch. After that comes mobilization, which gives you some free offensives to kickstart your military options, as well as further expansion of your force pool, while putting pressure on your stability. Finally, there is total war, which maximizes your military potential but at great cost to your home front. Run your military economy too hot for too long and your commitment becomes exhausted, ceding some of your benefits but none of the penalties.

Politically, the decision to go to war is restricted by ideology. Fascist powers can just start fighting whenever they think they’re ready, even getting benefits for surprise. Powers in the other ideologies must spend a political action to declare war. No power can start a war without mobilizing first. Democracies are especially constrained early in the game, since they only earn political actions by being provoked by the other powers.

Bill: If you are playing an aggressor (Fascist, Communist), keep your mobilization one step ahead of your potential enemies, and strike them before they can catch up. If you are playing any state, keep your mobilization current with your expected enemy. Being caught one step behind on this curve means going to war with fewer units, and with offensives that don’t pack as much punch. (Offensives are keyed with mobilization levels. At higher levels, you can do more than one attack, or add pips to your die roll in a single attack).

The Nation Sheet. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Let’s take a look at this. Along the top row, you see the levels of commitment: Civilian, Rearmament, Mobilization, Total War and Exhausted. The commitment marker is now set at Mobilization, so if the German player wants to increase to total war, he will spend a flag to do this, roll D6 equal to his effectiveness, and if he scores a “5” or “6”, gets to increase economic commitment to Total War.

Now look at the right-hand column and cross index each category with the commitment level. Effectiveness is the number of dice you roll to get that “5” or “6”. Force poll is the number of pieces you have as available builds. Look at the right-hand box: Those are all the counters Germany can build, as chosen by the German player.

Force pool goes up with each level of commitment–8, 12, 16, 20. When the German goes rom Mobilization to total War, he can choose four pieces to add to his force pool.

Now look at conversion. It also goes up with commitment, read as how many resource points does it take to make a build point(s). At mobilization, each resource generates two build points. Go to total war and that same resource generates three build points. You spend the build points to buy units out of the force pool. You will also get a free offensive for each industrial resource you have. Again, offensives are keyed to commitment–at mobilization, each offensive is worth two attacks; at total war, each offensive is worth three. You can make separate attacks, or a single attack with a +DRM for each additional attack.

The bottom row shows the DRM penalty you apply when you home front check comes up and you check for political stability. At rearmament, there is no penalty, but it is -1 at mobilization and -2 at total war. With a “5” or “6” needed to pass stability, you will not be passing that check at total war. 

Grant: What types of units are built during mobilization and what are the costs?

Scott: The three main aspects of 20th century warfare are represented in basic and upgraded form: infantry and tank armies, battle and carrier fleets, and tactical and strategic air forces. An army represents about 25-35 divisions, a fleet a handful of capital ships, an air force one or two thousand aircraft of various types. There are also submarine packs, fortresses, logistics markers, and even the A-Bomb (for the US at least). Basic units (except for fleets) cost a single build point. You can flip a basic unit to its upgraded side by buying an upgrade marker for two build points and then drawing it from the action cup (of course).

Bill: Notice that income and expenditure are all expressed as single digits. This avoids “number numbness”—that burnt-out feeling you get when you’ve been manipulating large number sets for six hours at the game board. Keeping the budget simple avoids headaches and minimizes the risk of error.

Grant: How many pieces of each type can be built?

Bill: That is up to the player, to an extent. We reproduced a rough ratio of forces comparable to each other. Then we add a little bit to the total air, naval and land unit counts to represent a new upper range should a player choose to build a little more of one type of unit at the cost of building fewer units of another type. (Building a carrier fleet may cost you a tank army—that is an opportunity cost.)

Scott: But players don’t have access to all these pieces all the time – at the start of the game they only have what was available or planned during peacetime. As a power mobilizes, it gets to choose what to add to its force pool, basically setting the doctrine for its armed forces. When units are destroyed in combat, they go back to your force pool to be built again; but if you don’t select, say, submarine packs for your force pool, you can’t change your mind later without increasing your commitment.

Grant: How are offensive counters used? What do they represent?

Scott: From a design standpoint, offensive markers represent the materiel, personnel, and command assets needed for any serious offensive action. Defense in Cataclysm comes “free”, but if you want to do stuff, you have to “pay” for it. Fuel, artillery, replacements; all are wrapped into the offensive marker. One offensive could represent three to six months of operations.

In the production phase, a power can convert some or all of its collected resources into offensives on a one-for-one basis. While at war, a power will also get some “free” offensives. Each offensive, when drawn from the action cup, is worth one or more military actions, depending on how high your commitment level is. At rearmament, you only get one action, but a total war offensive is worth three.

Offensive markers were in Bill’s initial proposal for the game – at first they distinguished between renewable markers that could be used every turn, and more limited offensives that were stronger but could only be used again if successful, or even just once a game. This was a cool idea, but we came up with the idea of tying offensive strength to commitment levels, and it streamlined the game considerably.

Grant: How is combat decided? Dice? What types of bonuses or penalties are there? Are their terrain bonuses for movement or battle?

Scott: Combat is decided by opposing die rolls between the two sides involved. Typically a side will roll one to three dice, keeping only the highest die as the result. There are a couple die roll modifiers to reflect terrain, surprise, augmentation (extra materiel or preparedness), etc. Armor and air forces can add or subtract dice. In general, having more stuff is not a big advantage, except you can take losses and keep fighting.

Bill: Terrain we kept simple. It’s either open ground (no modifier) or “adverse” (+1 DRM for defender). “Adverse” is a pretty broad term, but it can represent mountains, jungles, swamps, woods, forested hills—practically any terrain that works against mechanized warfare.

Scott: And terrain does not affect movement at this scale. Movement in Cataclysm is different from games that have an operational feel. You don’t really maneuver your forces. You attack from one territory to an adjacent one. If you want to change strategic direction, you can spend a military action for “deployment”, which allows you to shuffle your forces around at will within contiguous friendly territory.

Grant: Do you use CRT in Cataclysm? If so can you show us a chart?

Scott: Cataclysm does not use a CRT. In fact, the only charts in the game are the Crisis tables used for random events.

Bill: And the pieces have no factors. This is deliberate. All you know is that you have armies, fleets and air forces. You figure they are as good as the next nation, if not better. You can be pretty sure about an outcome, but never entirely sure, until you roll the dice. The unexpected does happen.

UK invades Italy from Sicily, 1945. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

So what is happening in the picture above? A British tank army crosses the Straits of Messina into adverse terrain, defended by an Italian tank army. Any benefits from having armor is negated as both sides have armor and the adverse terrain does away with any bonuses armor can give you. A British strategic air force provides top cover and will be contested by the Italian tactical air force, based in the adjacent area. The offensive chit (arrow) activates and supplies the attack. Britain was in rearmament at this point ot the game. The offensive was worth two operations–either two attacks in two different places, or one attack with a +1 DRM. The British player chose the +1 DRM. This is offset by the +1 DRM the Italian player gets by defending in adverse terrain. The air units will fight first. Whoever wins will have an advantage in the following ground combat. Note the pieces have no factors. There is no CRT.  We have no idea what the outcome will be when the dice are rolled. 

Grant: How has the battle mechanic changed in the design of the game? Why were these changes needed?

Bill: We stayed pretty true to the spirit of the combat system as the game evolved. Scott’s sense of dice math is much better than mine, so we applied his judgment to sharpen the system and “bring it down to earth”. The result is a system that produces likely, but not dead-certain, results.

Scott: I’ve always liked the idea of rolling a few dice and keeping the highest – you can adjust results in unique ways depending on whether you modify the number of dice rolled or the final result. Early on I convinced Bill this dice system was the best way for us to have a simple combat system that still allowed for decisive results.

The only real changes to combat were to make land and naval combat work the same. For quite a while they differed in modifiers, airpower effects, who chose losses and so on. In the end, it was simpler to have one system, especially at this scope and scale.

Grant: How does political capital work in the game and how is it used?

Scott: The currency for political actions is called a “flag”. Most powers earn one flag at the start of each turn. When drawn from the action cup, a flag allows its player to attempt one political action. The power must make an effectiveness check to succeed with the action.

Bill: If you want to raise your economic commitment, form an alliance with a major nation or a minor nation, use propaganda, go on maneuvers, whatever, you are spending a flag to do it.

Grant: What is gaining a flag and how does it effect gameplay?

Scott: Many of the actions that powers can take in the game “provoke” opposing powers – examples include attacking, influencing a minor country, and increasing commitment. A provoked power gains a flag immediately, which usually goes in the action cup to be used later. In this way, active powers tend to spur reactions by the powers opposing them. A flurry of action can lead to an “arms race” as powers react to each other and provoke further reactions, lending a sense of hurtling towards crisis.

“The currency for political actions is called a “flag”. Most powers earn one flag at the start of each turn. When drawn from the action cup, a flag allows its player to attempt one political action. The power must make an effectiveness check to succeed with the action.”

Grant: Why has the number of flags been limited? How many can each country have?

Bill: When we test played an earlier version of the game, we had a lot more flags in the counter mix. We were using them for control markers (now replaced by wooden cubes). Any time a power got provoked, a flag went into the action cup. After a while, there were a whole lot of flags in there. Turns were taking forever.

Scott: Limiting each power to only a handful of flags, and further tying it to their effectiveness, reigned in the political arms race while still allowing for provocation to be an important strategic facet.

Grant: What is the “failed action” box and why is it needed?

Scott: That’s the Dontanville-Raspler Memorial Mechanic, named after a couple of our playtesters who have particularly adversarial relationships with dice… In some of our early test games, powers like France and the Soviet Union failed effectiveness check after effectiveness check, and it just sucked to be in that position. The “failed action” box gives a power a bonus to a political action if it failed the same action previously. If you stay focused, eventually you will succeed automatically.

Bill: The game should never work too hard against the player.

The Failed Action Box. Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Whenever you fail at a political action, place a cube with your nation’s color in the Commitment box. Here France and Britain have cubes placed in “Commitment” after repeated attempts to shift their economies to a higher level. Each cube marks a +1 DRM when they attempt to do this next. If they choose to do something different, those reminder cubes are forfeit.

Grant: I see that the outcome of WWII can be very different than history. How is this possible and what mechanisms in Cataclysm allow this?  What is the wackiest outcome you’ve seen?

Bill: Now you’ve reached the fun part of the game! There are two broad things the game really tries to get right—the relative strengths of the player-nations in 1933, and the underlying mechanisms available to all nations as they manage the economies and their militaries. Player actions and the unexpected will lay down a believable narrative, but one that does not resemble the history you know.

This is deliberate. We play with the benefit of hindsight. The games we play rely on history as a baseline for their narrative. Cataclysm makes a different assumption—that World War II was an outlier, not a baseline event. The national leaders could have made different policy choices. The paths they pursued were not carved in stone. So we put you, the player, in the same position as those national leaders. You don’t know what the future is going to be like. You must find a way to win, but your strategy and your path to victory may not resemble what you know happened.

Scott: I’ve always kept in the back of my mind the original design notes to Decision Games’ Krieg. They basically postulated that many of the events of World War II that we today consider iconic were in fact unexpected surprises to the participants. In a way, World War II was an outlier. We designed Cataclysm so that every time you played would be an outlier.

I don’t think there’s a single mechanism we can point to and say, “that’s why Cataclysm games go off the historical rails”. It really informs the whole design. We try to impose realistic limits on the actions possible, but players have a lot of freedom to pursue different strategies. The constraints in the game are mostly geopolitical – Germany’s greatest rival is always going to be the Soviet Union, but France is the immediate problem. The Democracies have to figure out how to get the United Kingdom and eventually the United States involved without sacrificing preparedness. Japan has to decide how much of China to go for and whether to antagonize the Soviets or the West. Combine this “big picture” decision space with the uncertainty of chit pull, combat rolls, and effectiveness checks, and you never get the same result twice.

“I’ve always kept in the back of my mind the original design notes to Decision Games’ Krieg. They basically postulated that many of the events of World War II that we today consider iconic were in fact unexpected surprises to the participants. In a way, World War II was an outlier. We designed Cataclysm so that every time you played would be an outlier.”

Bill: The weird outcomes happen, yet they seem plausible. The best one I can recall was France re-arming in 1933. The player, ironically French Quebecois, successfully managed a military build-up that was competitive with Germany. France ended up taking Berlin in the 1945-1946 turn! (You should have seen the smile on that player’s face.)

In other test plays, we’ve seen Germany take Moscow, the US invade Japan, Japan take out all of Russian Siberia, and Germany invade Britain. They are not “flukey” events. The players pursued deliberate strategies that brought them to these outcomes.

Grant: What does this statement mean: War is Managed Chaos Masquerading as Strategy?

Bill: Cataclysm is chaotic. Players do not have the benefit of hindsight. Turn order is chopped up by chit pull. No one knows what order of action will be. Players can reserve a piece—an offensive, a flag, an upgrade or a unit—and play it when they spot an opportunity. Yes, you must plan, but those plans could be undone by the chit pull. Hence, you are managing chaos and calling it “strategy”.

Operation Olympic. Lacking an A-bomb, the US player tries to invade Japan in 1945. The US is at Rearmament and barely fulfills the requirement for amphibious invasion (offensive marker with 2 operations). Again, no factors on the pieces and no CRT. How will this turn out? Art and graphics are not yet finalized.

Grant: What elements still need work in the game?

Scott: Honestly, most of the major mechanics were set after the first year of testing. Since then it’s been about streamlining, patching holes, and balancing the scenarios. Lots of work done, to be sure, but more polishing rather than really getting under the hood. I’d like to add more scenarios, especially ones with an “alt-history” premise, but they will probably be released post-publication.

Bill: There is very little left to work on at the playtest stage. Scott is finalizing our latest rules set—I think we are up to v.45 and change. The last major work is for an experienced graphics artist to redo the board and pieces and bring it up to a more professional standard. Yet even the graphics for the playtest editions, which Scott crafted, are pretty high-grade.

Scott: That’s being too kind to my artistic “skills…We did have to overhaul the naval system. For a while we had this really cool interactive naval system where fleets stayed in port except when activated for operations or to intercept fleets in action. It had great verisimilitude, but proved to be too different from other military mechanics in the game, and on top of that produced a huge number of corner cases and rules holes every test. It was too hard to grasp and had too many exceptions. The final straw was when we couldn’t make the strategic role of submarines fit the mechanics. We scrapped the whole thing and came up with what we have now, which is more of a Mahanian “control” system. Once at war, fleets can be posted in sea areas near home ports, blocking enemy communications and allowing invasions. Sub packs have greater range, but can only interdict. It works great and significantly reduced the page count of the rulebook.

Grant: To date, there are 612 orders on P500. Are you surprised by this?

Scott: Yes, in the sense that any artist (and game design is an art) is surprised when they find like-minded people who are willing to support them.

Bill: I was surprised by the pace of orders once we cracked 500. We went from 490 to 600 in about four weeks.

Scott: I don’t know how to explain that surge, but thanks to each and every customer who’s taking a chance on us. We’re going to do our best to make sure you don’t regret it.

Grant: What is the schedule for the release of the game?

Bill: We are hoping for a 2017 release. GMT gets to choose.

Scott: We’re not on a fixed schedule at the moment. Once we’re done entering the final changes to the rules, we can tell GMT we are ready whenever they are.

Grant: What other games do you have in design?

Bill: I am very comfortable designing at the national/grand strategy level, where I can incorporate the political and economic spheres alongside the military. I am tinkering with a global game. I just haven’t picked a century yet.

Scott: I always have at least a dozen projects in the ideas stage, but only a few make it to prototypes. I have a cute little game on the battle of Gettysburg that is in development with Multi-Man Publishing. I’m also working on a very light tactical card-driven tank battle game that has some publishers interested, but it’s not quite ready for submission. I have ideas for games on the dynastic cycles in China and the Italian Wars of the 16th century, but those aren’t even ready for prototyping yet. I’m not that interested in porting my own ideas to other topics, although I happily steal from other designers to fit a period I’d like to design in. I’d really like to try designing something with my son!


Thanks for the great information on the game Scott and Bill! I really have enjoyed working with you on this interview and can say confidently that I think this game will be a big hit. If  you are interested in ordering Cataclysm: A Second World War from GMT Games, here is a link to the P500 page: