I have long desired to own a good Eastern Front World War II game, and while there are many monsters out there, I wanted one that was true historically but not so daunting and complex that is was almost unplayable. As I searched through various sites and games, I came upon No Retreat! The Russian Front designed by Carl Paradis and saw that GMT was doing a P500 for a deluxe edition. My search had ended and I immediately placed my order! Since that time, I have reached out to Carl to ask him some questions about this great looking game. Here is our interview:
Grant: Carl, tell us a little about yourself.
Carl: I am a French-Canadian Engineer living north of Montréal, Canada. I started simulation gaming when I was a young teen in the late 70’s. I also dabbled in Euros, role-playing, miniatures and computer games. But wargaming is my real passion.
Grant: How did you get into board game design?
Carl: Well, part by chance and part by trade I guess. I always liked to make “House rules” for my games, and as an AD&D “Dungeon Master” in the 80’s and 90’s I had ample opportunities to practice my creativity. Miniature Gaming also helped a lot. In fact, I wrote quite a few Miniature Battle rules well before having the urge to design board games.
So, strangely, during all that time, I never really thought about making board games.
I always say I am not really a game designer, but a long-time gamer masquerading as one! Then, one day in 2008, my girlfriend told me: “You own so many games and know so much about them, why don’t you start designing some?”. In the same week, I read an article by Alan Emrich in GMT’s C3i game magazine, about his new startup game company called Victory Point Games, that was catering to newbie designers. His vision was for small, affordable games. I couldn’t resist and I wrote to Alan the same day and the rest his history. Without him I would never have been able to do it!
“I always say I am not really a game designer, but a long-time gamer masquerading as one!”
Grant: What do you love most about game design?
Carl: Good question! I love the historical research of it all. It is really hard work, but you always learn something new. Also starting from scratch, a blank sheet of paper in front of you (and some blank counters too, LOL!), and ending with a finished product you can be proud about and that gamers will enjoy playing. You could say this is a natural evolution of my long life as an AD&D Dungeon-master, where I spent countless hours making original RPG adventures for my gaming groups.
Grant: What are the biggest challenges with design?
Carl: Oh boy. Just making the first game was the biggest challenge, as I was pretty clueless about the game-making process at the time. The other big challenge is TIME. I don’t have nearly enough free time to do all the games I would like! As a famous game designer once said: “Choose two of the following: 1- Play Games. 2- Design Games. 3- Have a normal life.” Right now option #1 is out for me, sadly.
One other big challenge is to stay focused on your projects, and not get side-tracked by the “dull” parts of game design. These moments seem to eat up the majority of my precious hobby time. Rules writing especially, it makes me feel like a contract-writing lawyer. When I get “rules fatigue” I reward myself with a bit of game graphic design or historical research; that is what I love!
Grant: What is new and improved in the Deluxe Edition of No Retreat! The Russian Front?
Carl: The first version of it, which was my first game, was published by Victory Point Games. This was a big challenge to design as the “form factor” was very low. I had only about 12 pages of rules, 40 counters, 24 cards and a tiny 11” x 17” map to simulate the whole WW2 Russian Front! The game worked amazingly well, but some compromises had to be made. I guess those constraints forced me to be way more inventive than I otherwise would have been if given a “blank check”; and since then this has become my design philosophy: doing more with less.
But back to your question; GMT has way more “production capabilities” so I was able to expand on the original game (the VPG version ended in 1944, the Deluxe game simulates the whole campaign, up to the fall of Berlin). I was thus also able to have a bigger mounted map, some extra optional counters, more Event cards (55 cards instead of 24 cards), a better rule manual, more player’s notes and examples of play, some optional rules, etc. Yet, it is still the same exact core game.
Grant: Were there aspects that you really wanted to change/update in the Deluxe Edition?
Carl: The big improvement I was looking for was in the physical components. I am a fan of good quality components, and I think in this the GMT edition really shines, especially the gorgeous mounted map, and the thick rounded counters. This year’s reprint also features reworded and redesigned Event cards to make gameplay even easier.
Grant: I saw this statement on the GMT Games page: “a quick-playing yet realistic affair that favors the strategic and offensive-minded player”. Why is this the case with the game?
Carl: When designing a game, my first goal is to make the hard (design) work for the players, not the other way around. Historicity is the second priority. I don’t want to make a product where the game system “plays” the gamers, and where you spent so much of your brain-time focusing on rules, moving hundreds of counters, endlessly computing battle odds or supply points. What is left for the real (and fun) strategic battle planning?
In No Retreat! the game engine will do these for you, and effortlessly. You can focus on the core gameplay. I also believe that wars are won in the end by attacking, and the game shows this. The combat system favors the offense, and the defending player will react to this fact by using the many tools of the game that enable him/her to do “Counterattacks & Counterblows”, spoiling his foes well-planned offensives. The game system is very pro-active, players always have something to do or think about.
“When designing a game, my first goal is to make the hard (design) work for the players, not the other way around. Historicity is the second priority. I don’t want to make a product where the game system “plays” the gamers, and where you spent so much of your brain-time focusing on rules, moving hundreds of counters, endlessly computing battle odds or supply points.”
Grant: I also see this edition contains the original game and its two extensions (Na Berlin! and No Surrender!). What do the extensions add to the game? Why were they not included in the original?
Carl: The extensions add some extra cards and a map depicting the Western part of the conflict. As I explained before, for the original game I was constrained by a very low form factor, and it was probably a bit too much given the huge scope of the German-Soviet conflict. Players of the game were also asking for more, so I complied.
Grant: How are cards used in the gameplay? How do the cards affect the gameplay?
Carl: Interestingly, when I made the first prototype of the game, there were no event cards included! In fact you could play the game quite well without the cards and a few extra rules, but it would not be nearly as fun. This is not a “Card-driven” game, but a “Card-enhanced” one.
Grant: Can you give us a picture of a few cards and explain their use?
Carl: Ok here we go… First, check the two cards below. Usually each player cannot keep more than six cards in his hand, and gets to pick four cards at the start of his turn. Both players use just one common deck of cards.
Each card has two parts, one useable by the German player (top) and one by the Soviet player (bottom). This can lead to some interesting situations, as not only a card you hold in your hand has a text event you can use, but keeping it denies the play of your opponent’s event on the same card! Each has an allowable time of play, written in bold number. You also have some cards that must be played immediately when drawn, these have resolution instructions instead of black (none pictured here). Some cards also have either a red star, back cross, or no symbol on a specific player’s part of the card: this also limits when the card event can be played. No symbol means anytime in the game, a red star means playable when the Soviet has the Initiative (1943 to 1945), a black cross when the German has the initiative (1941 & 1942).
So on card 35, for example, the German player can use the “Soviet Manpower Crisis” event only in ’43-’45 (red star), while the Soviet player can use the “Maskirovka” card at any point in the game (no symbols). But behold! Besides for the Events, the cards are also a kind of “game money” that can also be used to replace losses, move units strategically, do Counterblow battles, or to pay for some event, so all the cards will always be of use for the player that holds them. But the main and most effective way to play the cards is for their events: See them as “miniature special rules” not explained in the rulebook that you can use to get a special local advantage or surprise your opponent with. They also allow me to put some nice historical chrome in the game, picturing important historical events or facts that would be difficult to portray otherwise and add variety, while helping to keep the game’s rules simpler. Plus they are really fun to use!
Grant: How does the game stay story-centric to the historical campaign?
Carl: It’s really surprising how such a “simple” game can simulate the main events of this grueling campaign really well, even for me, its designer. The use of the Event cards explained above is the crux of making it all work, while also keeping it full of surprises and really less “heady” to play than bigger and more complex games.
Grant: Do you feel that trying to stay historically accurate sacrificed gameplay? Why?
Carl: No, when making the game, of this relatively small size, gameplay was all-important in my mind. The historicity was attained by a LOT of research work, and the use of the Event cards, as explained above, plus a lot of little design ploys, like different combat tables for both players, a different way for replacing losses, and having some game rules evolve over time (for example the Soviet units will have their stacking limits increase over time, representing the STAVKA increasing ability to better focus its offensives operations). Players are also pretty much not limited by the kinds of strategies they can try, no game rules will artificially limit your plans, but the game engine will teach you soon enough what works and what doesn’t.
The various ways to win the game is also “goading” players to act more like their historical counterparts, but this is not a must, and crazy plans can sometimes succeed too!
Grant: What part does the economic model play in the game? How does it work?
Carl: Oh boy. That was one of the hard, but interesting, pieces of the design! I read numerous books and studies of the economic aspects of the campaign, and over countless hours of work I was able to get a pretty accurate statistical model of the strength and weaknesses of both sides over the war, and the game engine reflects this. It’s quite hard to explain it all concisely. Again, I integrated all the economics into the way the unit replacement system and step loss works, evolving over time. A few examples:
- The Soviet player units are only one-step strong at the start (front side), but over time they will be improved to their stronger, back side (but still only with one step), THEN they will become two-steps units.
- The number of cards each player gets, usually four per turn, can vary depending on some historical events.
- You are limited in the number of attacks you can carry out in a turn. Usually, its five attacks per player (there are markers for that purpose in the game), bad weather can affect that number, also over time the German capability will degrade and less attack markers will be available.
Grant: If the economy is ignored or poorly managed how does that affect each side?
Carl: Well if you ignore and manage poorly the limitations the game system puts upon your side, you’ll get into worlds of trouble for sure. Ways it can affect each side are too numerous and complex to all explain here, but players will fast understand that each side cannot be played at all the same way, and have to use very different tactics to win. Think in historical terms, and it will usually work well.
Grant: What are the various scenarios? Which ones are your favorites to play? Which ones are the most challenging?
Carl: You have, of course, the Campaign game, either ending in 1944 or 1945. Plus one scenario for each year of the war: ’41, ’42, ’43, ’44 and ’45; representing the whole front at that time and usually lasting from 4-6 turns (each game turn is two months).
Funny to say, but even if I try to add as many scenarios to my games, I don’t like to play them! For me the whole campaign game is the way to play. But if I have to choose favorites, it would be the 1941 and 1945 scenarios: they are dramatic and tense, with the Germans trying to capture Moscow in ’41 and the Soviets Berlin in ’45.
Grant: How do you represent the improvement of the Soviets forces over the course of the game?
Carl: I have explained a bit earlier how it generally works, but here are the details again. Without switching the counters during the game like other designs do, the same counters will increase their abilities progressively at key points. They will stack more units in a hex, will get access to their stronger back sides (also becoming more mobile), or will become more stalwart (with two steps instead of just one). The Soviet player will also see his playable events becoming stronger and more effective when the game initiative switches to him in 1943 (the red star card events).
Grant: How did you integrate weather into the gameplay? By the use of cards?
Carl: The initial VPG smaller design had fixed weather, and then when the game expanded I indeed added some variability by the use of the Event cards: some have red text meaning they must be played immediately, and some of those red-text cards have the possibility of changing the historical weather under some circumstances. In the GMT game, players have the choice to use one method or the other (plus an option to have the critical 1941 weather not variable), both work well, but I personally like the Event Card variable weather.
Grant: That Russian Winter is severe and definitely changes things for both sides. In fact, the other day we played Case Blue, a scenario of Unconditional Surrender by GMT Games, and once the weather became severe, the Germans couldn’t do much effectively as the negatives to dice rolls were pretty significant. What is the sequence of play?
Carl: It’s pretty standard and simple wargame stuff.
- You have a Game Turn Housekeeping, where you check if special events happen in a turn that can affect a player’s position (ex: The British win at El Alamein). You also check if a side wins the game immediately (there are ways to get a “Sudden Death” victory if you amass enough Victory points at set times in the game, or capture Major Objectives).
- Then each side (German First) plays his turn which includes the following: Pick new Event Cards, Check Supply, Move Units, Perform Combats and Conduct Strategic Moves.
Grant: How does combat work in the game?
Carl: Each player has a variable number of “Target” markers, usually five. This is the number of attacks you can make in a turn. Simply place one of these markers on each hex you want to attack. Compute the odds, and roll on your Combat table (both players have different combat tables, representing the historical strength and weaknesses of their armies). Counterattacks can sometimes happen; in this case, tables are turned and the defender gets a chance to attack back! The Combat tables are pretty simple (one six-sided dice) but very dynamic.
Grant: How do Counterblows work?
Carl: Ah! Counterblows…These came up during the design process, I used them to keep both players involved in the game at all times (i.e. no “I do my turn, then I wait while you do yours”), plus to solve a quandary I had which was making battles mandatory between all adjacent units did not work and the reverse neither. So this nifty Counterblow system was devised: After the attacker has indicated all the hexes he wants to attack, the defender can then use the reverse side of his own “Target” markers to indicate the Counterblow.
“Counterblows…These came up during the design process, I used them to keep both players involved in the game at all times (i.e. no “I do my turn, then I wait while you do yours”), plus to solve a quandary I had which was making battles mandatory between all adjacent units did not work and the reverse neither.”
Grant: What role does supply play? Is it more difficult to be in supply for the Germans or Soviets?
Carl: Supply is abstracted a lot in the game, by the number and types of event cards you get, but the cost of replacing units, by the way that your reinforcements enter play, the number of Shock!/Blitz! Markers you get (these help your attacks), etc. All in all the Supply “Simulation” is pretty effort-less for the players. I would say that unless the German Player advances extremely fast they are on the losing end of the Supply battle. Speaking of Supply, the important rail network in Russia is also abstracted due to the large hex scale (100km per hex) and represented by the Major Cities (rail hubs). You trace supply if you are within 4 hexes of such a city, and from there the remaining supply line is traced in a fixed direction towards your lines. It’s easy to implement, and works really well historically, too.
Grant: Does the game play solitaire well? What elements are tricky?
Carl: The game plays well solitaire due to the relatively low number of units and easy rules, even when playing both sides your brain is not overloaded with too many details and decision all the time. The tricky element, of course, is the way the Event Cards work. You are not supposed to know what cards your opponent is holding so this is a problem to some people. Mind you, I am offering a free solitaire module system for the game that helps resolve those problems, and also add a good measure of “Artificial AI”. It’s only 4 pages of rules, a few extra counters (the counters are included in the game already) and a dozen extra “objective” cards. You can download the kit for free on GMT’s web site. There is also a cool tweak I added to make the Solitaire system work better: you become your own worst enemy as it’s possible for you to “Switch” sides in the game if your performance exceeds certain game parameters, or sometimes just randomly. This helps keep players honest. LOL!
Grant: I see Mark Simonitch did the map. It looks awesome! What role does a good map play in a hex and counter war game? What is especially tricky for each side with the terrain?
Yes. Mark did a really great job. Charles Kibler made the maps for the other games of the series. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to work with such professionals. The role of the map? Well it’s crucial! In fact, designing the map a certain way is another trick in my toolbox. Sometimes you can “cheat” geography a bit to better represent some aspect of a campaign, for example hex-grain orientation is crucial as given the hexagons peculiar geometry will distort in one way or the other how frontlines form in a game or units move.
In this specific game, given the huge distances represented in Russia, players will feel really hard-pressed to cover all the front line adequately most of the time, especially if you must concentrate units for an offensive. Other spots of the line will be weak! So good geographical planning is the crux of a winning strategy. Check the Stalingrad scenario and you’ll understand at a glance what I am talking about.
Grant: In your opinion why do people seem to enjoy No Retreat! The Russian Front so much?
Carl: The game tries to give you the most possible historically realistic simulation of that huge battle, while keeping things as simple as possible, with exciting and fun play where both players are always fully engaged. You don’t spend your time doing odds computations or moving hundreds of counters around: this is a “thinking” game. Another nice feature: you can start a game in minutes; the set-up is very fast!
Grant: Are you pleased with the response on P500? I ordered it and actually paid last week with the game shipping soon. I can’t wait!
Carl: Yes, sure, the response was nice. My goal as a game design hobbyist is to make products that people enjoy playing. So if there are enough P500 orders to make this happen, I’m happy. Up to now gamers have answered the call (fingers crossed).
Grant: What is next for Carl Paradis?
Carl: Oh boy…I have lots of projects on the drawing table, much more than I have time to complete. Perhaps one day, when I retire from my “real world” job, I’ll be able to be more productive. For now, if I’m able to make one game a year, I’m deliriously happy. First in my priorities is to complete the “No Retreat!” WW2 series. NR The French and Polish Fronts (1939-40) will be released 2Q next year by GMT, Then it will be followed by NR: The Western Front (1944-45). I am also making an Introductory East Front strategic game, also with GMT, titled “Absolute War”, all these are already on the P500 listing. Eventually, the NR system will go to the Pacific, but starting with…The Korean War (1950-53). I also have a Solitaire WW2 “Battle of the Atlantic” game in the works, where the Player is taking charge of the Allied Convoys and surface forces against the U-Boat peril for a change! Next, I fancy a series of Operational East-Front games, with cards resolving all the battles, so no dice or battle odds to compute; plus a new game system for simulating Medieval battles, A WWI Strategic game (No Retreat! style), and many others…
Carl, thank you for your time, even though you are obviously busy with many projects. My excitement for this great game has been reawakened and I cannot wait to get it in my hands, on my table and playing. If you are interested in ordering No Retreat! The Russian Front, you can do so on GMT Games website at the following link: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-444-no-retreat-the-russian-front-deluxe-ed-reprint.aspx