Before Essen Spiel 2016, I did some research and put together a list of games that I wanted to play that were releasing there. While The Fog of War didn’t make that list of 10 games, I had my eye on it and was very intrigued by what I was reading about it. With that interest, I reached out to Geoff Engelstein on Twitter for an interview and he was more than glad to talk about his new design. From Board Game Geek, here is a little about the game itself:
The Fog of War is a two-player grand strategic game covering the European theater of World War II from 1940 to 1944. One player plays the Axis forces, and the other the Allies.
The game does not have units that move around a map; instead the game focuses on the planning and intelligence aspects of the war. Each player has a deck of cards that represent the army, navy, and other assets of their nations. A map shows the 28 land and sea provinces over which the players are battling.
You defend a province by placing cards face down on the map. If you wish to attack a province, you must plan an “operation” to do so by creating one on your operation wheel. The wheel is a unique way of forcing players to commit to operations in advance, while giving opportunities for intelligence gathering and bluffing. An operation consists of a province card that shows the target of the operation, plus one or more cards to conduct the attack. All of these cards are placed face down, so your opponent does not know the target of the operation or the strength of the cards that are taking part. Each turn, the dial on the operation wheel is rotated by one position. This controls when an operation can be launched and any attack or defense bonuses that apply.
In addition to combat forces for attack or defense, you may also spend Intel tokens to look at your opponent’s operations and defenses.
Now that you know a little about the game from Board Game Geek, onto the interview with Geoff.
Grant: First off tell us a little about yourself. What do you do in your free time?
Geoff: I’ve been playing games for a long, long time. I learned about the world beyond mass market games in the mid 70’s, when I was introduced to Diplomacy and the Avalon Hill catalog, and then Dungeons & Dragons. I attended my first Origins convention in 1979, and have been very active in the gaming scene since then.
In high school and college I was heavily into wargames. I was president of the Strategic Games Society at MIT during my time there, and we played lots of complex and lengthy games, including Third Reich, the Europa series, Squad Leader, and World in Flames, among others.
When I got married in the 90’s, my wife and I started playing eurogames, which back then we had to import from Germany. While I occasionally dip back into long games like Here I Stand or even Civilization, most of my time is now with shorter fare.
In 2007, I decided to combine my love of math and science with gaming, and began to contribute on The Dice Tower podcast with the ‘GameTek’ segment, which continues to this day. Then in 2011, I started the Ludology podcast with Ryan Sturm to discuss game design topics, which also is still very active.
In order to earn money to support my game-buying habit, I run Mars International, a product development and manufacturing company. My background is in physics and engineering, and I really enjoy solving complex technical challenges and bringing products to life.
Grant: How did you get into board game design?
Geoff: I’ve always been interested in game design. When I was in high school I published two video games for the Apple II computer – Starblaster, and Panic Button. In college, I continued playing with computer game design, but never got anything to full completion.
In 2007, I played the Starcraft board game from FFG. I’m a huge fan of the video game, and while I enjoyed the board game version, it didn’t give me the Starcraft feel I was looking for. So I decided to design my own, and very quickly came up with a core concept that, surprisingly, actually worked.
That game ultimately became The Ares Project, which was published by Z-Man Games in 2011.
Grant: Why do you love it? What is your favorite part about design?
Geoff: It really has many of the same things I enjoy about engineering. You are designing against a host of constraints, including component cost, complexity, player engagement and enjoyment, all to achieve a desired player experience. I find game design to be a tremendously creative enterprise, and one that I find endlessly fascinating.
Grant: What is The Fog of War about? What aspect of World War II does it focus on?
Geoff: The Fog of War is a two-player simulation of the European theater in World War II. The idea for it arose from the book The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. I had played so many strategic-level games about the ETO, yet realized that the themes of this book – the inertia of planning, and the importance of trying to figure out what your opponent was up to – never were really modeled. When your turn came, your job was to figure out what the exact right thing was to do at that time. Yes, you had to do long-term planning, and you could only use your pieces where they were at the moment. But if your opponent moved their pieces in a way that was unexpected you could simply decide immediately to do something new. You weren’t really committed.
Third Reich was probably the king of this. Every turn was a puzzle to be solved, and if your opponent had one slight weakness in their defenses, you could exploit it and crush them.
I’d also seen how games like We The People managed to make the game feel MORE real, even though they sacrificed detail. And that was what made me realize that a design could have a point of view that would emphasize a particular aspect, sacrifice details elsewhere, and still feel ‘real’.
So The Fog of War was designed to focus on putting players in the position of making long range plans, deceive their opponent about them, and try to figure out what the other side was up to. I took a very high level view and didn’t want to get bogged down in details.
Grant: How does the Operation Wheel work and what was your inspiration for its use in the design?
Geoff: The original idea – which stayed remarkably consistent through the decade-plus of design – was for forces to be represented by cards, and for offensive and defensive operations to be stacks of those cards.
In addition to cards representing your forces, you had to put in a card representing the target of the operation. Then when your opponent did intelligence against the operation you wouldn’t know if they saw the target of the operation, some of your forces, or just dummies.
Originally you just made these stacks on your side of the board. Then it became apparent that there needed to be a time element with the offensive operations. You couldn’t launch something right away, and you couldn’t keep forces committed to something forever. Things needed to have an arc.
At first I tried putting the operations on a track, and each turn you slide the stack down one space on the track. However that was a lot of shuffling, and it was also harder for players to keep track of which stacks they had done intel on, and even for the owning player to track.
The idea of the wheel was to make the track move, and keep the stacks of cards stationary. This actually was a pretty big breakthrough in the design, although it seems obvious in retrospect (as so many things do).
Grant: How does the Operation Wheel mimic the history of World War II?
Geoff: The planning of operations in World War II required a major commitment of time and resources. The planning for Barbarossa and D-Day took months, and if there was a last minute change in the defensive positioning of the enemy, making changes wasn’t an option – for D-Day in particular. The options were to go ahead as planned, or cancel.
By forcing players to commit to plans at least three turns before they can be launched, it adds tremendous tension, and forces players to be creative in how they bluff and misdirect their opponents. Just about any operation can be stopped if you have enough advance notice, and your job as the attacker is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
One of the things I love about the Operation Wheel system is that it allows for true strategic surprise. In most ETO games you can see that the Germans are going to attack the USSR. There’s a massive line of forces on the border. The games have ‘surprise’ rules, or rules that restrict the placement of the USSR forces to allow for a historical result.
In The Fog of War we don’t need those rules. There are no special surprise rules. I remember an early playtest when my opponent attacked the USSR in 1940 and I was completely surprised and flat-footed. I hadn’t committed any defenders there, and spent the rest of the year scrambling to put any units into key areas to try to hold until winter fell. And I was so happy – it perfectly captured the feel that I wanted in the game in a really organic way.
Grant: What other mechanics did you use in the design and why?
Geoff: To keep the focus on the intelligence and planning, the other elements are very simple. Combat is resolved simply by comparing strengths. You add up the attacker strength and the defender strength. If the attacker has double the defender, he wins. If he has less than the defender, he loses. Anything in between is a Quagmire – both sides lose half their cards, and the battle continues into the next turn, and both sides can add more cards.
The game also uses the decks as timers. When both players go through their entire decks the year ends. And when one of the players draws their last card Winter starts. Since the players typically have different numbers of cards in their decks, this makes timing your plays important. If you have many fewer cards than your opponent, do you space out your plays so they don’t get several consecutive turns you can’t react to? Or do you race to get to Winter as quickly as possible to gain the defensive bonuses?
We also have a basic supply system. In order to attack a province (land or sea) you need to trace a path of controlled territories back to one of your home provinces.
Grant: Why did you want to design The Fog of War?
Geoff: As noted earlier, I really wanted to explore the themes of planning and intelligence. I also wanted to make a full World War II ETO experience that was playable in under two hours.
Grant: How do the cards work? Can you give us some examples of the types of cards and how they are used.
Geoff: There are only a handful of different types of cards. The core cards are Army cards, which have from 1-3 Ground strength, Fleet cards which have 1-3 Naval strength, and Air cards which have 1 Ground and 1 Naval strength. Then there are Forts, which may only be played as Ground defenses (with 2 or 3 strength), and Dummy cards, which have a strength of zero.
Grant: What are the Dummy cards and how are they used to bluff the enemy?
Geoff: Each player has 8 Dummy cards, which have a strength of zero. You can mix these in with real units that you place on the Operation Wheel, or create operations completely composed of Dummy cards to bluff your opponent and make them think that you are attacking or attacking with a sizable force when in actuality, there is nothing there.
Grant: What do the bluff cards tend to do to your opponent?
Geoff: They can be very effective to misdirect your opponent into overcommitting to certain areas. The key is to get the other player to either lose an operation, or win big. You don’t want them to win a battle at exactly double your strength. You’d much prefer that they win with more than they needed to – 12 to 3 instead of 6 to 3. That’s an extra six strength they can’t use elsewhere that year.
And when you’re attacking you want the defender to spread out and defend areas you aren’t planning on attacking. You need to make them as inefficient as possible.
Grant: How do the intel tokens work? How does a player acquire them? How can they be used to deceive or mislead?
Geoff: Each player starts with intel tokens – 7 for the Allies and 5 for the Axis. You can spend them at the end of your turn to look at half the cards from any defensive stack or offensive operation, drawn randomly. So your opponent doesn’t know what you saw. Does he know that attack is going into Paris? Did he see the dummies you placed there? You just don’t know.
You can also use intel tokens to block your opponent from doing intel – but it costs one more than they spent. So this is another way to misdirect, as you stop intel operations against your dummy Operation.
At the end of each Year there is a Production step when you generate production points which can be spent on various things. One of those is to buy additional intel tokens. Having an Intel advantage can be huge, but it needs to be balanced with having the right forces in your army to react to what you learn.
Grant: The game board itself is very interesting. It almost appears similar to a Monopoly game board with the properties listed around the board. How does this work and why did you make this design choice?
Geoff: When we designed the Operation Wheel as a place to put offensive operations, we needed a place to put the defenders. Originally defenders were kept off-board, with a card in the stack showing the location. But that made it very difficult to manage, and didn’t give the feel we wanted. Also, typically the combatants had a better idea of what the defenders were up to, than the attackers.
So it was switched so that the defenders were still face down, but you knew where they were. We tried actually putting them into the spaces on the map, but the map got too large. We also tried counters for the units instead of cards, but that made it tougher to draw them, shuffle them, and generally manage.
Creating a box for each province seemed like a natural solution and worked well. Putting them around the edge of the map helped save table space, and in general worked the best. Any resemblance to Monopoly is purely coincidental!
Grant: So, I’m guessing there are no hotels or houses that I can build to make those properties harder to attack?!? Just kidding but great choice on the board design. I think it looks great and very functional. How does the board design aid the mechanics of the game?
Geoff: Taking all the forces off the map allows the players to see the connections of the provinces and get a more visceral feel for overall strategy.
Grant: What special scoring is associated with controlling various regions? What was the reason for this inclusion in the design?
Geoff: Each province (whether land or sea) is worth at least one victory point for control. Only the Axis player gets victory points for controlling provinces at the end of the year. By having every province worth at least one VP, it pushes the Axis player to over-extend and try for ‘one more province’. There’s always a VP benefit to taking extra land, but it may not work tactically.
Some provinces also have Resources. Controlling these gives more production points.
Grant: How do the attack and defense bonuses work? How are they acquired?
Geoff: There are only a few bonuses. There are two special spots on the Operation Wheel – If an operation is launched at the first possible moment the defender gets a +1 bonus. If you wait until the last moment to launch, the Attacker gets a +1 bonus, but then the defender has the longest time to react.
There are also Winter bonuses, which are either 0, +1, or +2 for the defender, depending on the province.
Finally, if you attack from a sea province into a land province the defender gets a +4 Invasion bonus.
Grant: How is deck building used in the game? What type of new cards can be added to your deck?
Geoff: At the end of each year both players can buy additional cards or buy back cards that were eliminated. Each card, regardless of what it is, costs one production point. This is so that cards can be bought secretly. As the Allies you don’t know if the Axis has suddenly shifted to purchasing Fleets, for example.
This means, of course, that you would always buy the strongest units that are available.
The Axis starts with their full Force Pool, but the Allies gradually get better cards as the war progresses.
Grant: What triggers the entry of Russia and the US into the war? Are these scripted?
Geoff: These are scripted. The USA enters at the start of 1942, and the USSR enters at the start of 1943, unless they were attacked sooner. I looked at several options for handling this, but in the end the simplest solution seemed the best. It was important for game purposes that the USSR enter at some point, even if the Axis didn’t attack.
Grant: What are the victory conditions for the Axis? The Allies?
Geoff: Each side has a Sudden Death victory condition. If the Axis reaches 70 Victory Points at the end of a year they win automatically, and if the Allies ever control both Berlin and Ruhr they win immediately.
Grant: Which side has the more difficult time of meeting these conditions? How were the victory conditions balanced?
Geoff: I think that these are fairly balanced. The Axis can purchase victory points with production instead of getting additional cards or intel tokens, so if they want to make a push for the 70 VPs they have that option at the risk of making it easier for the Allies to achieve their conditions.
And the Allies have several strategic options for getting to the heart of Germany, particularly if the Axis have focused on continuing to attack and not defending their core.
The game was balanced over many, many playings, and I am confident that the win ratio should be 50/50. However there is an option to bid for sides in case players feel that one side has an advantage.
Grant: What happens if no one has met their victory conditions at the end of 1944?
Geoff: At the start of the game the Axis randomly draws three cards from a deck of six ‘Victory’ cards. These represent the six land provinces that border Germany: Paris, Italy, Yugoslavia, Balkans, Poland, and Scandinavia. Two are kept and one is removed from the game. The other three are placed on the board in the Victory space.
At the end of the 1944 turn the game ends. If no one has achieved their Sudden Death victory condition the two Victory cards are revealed. If the Axis player controls BOTH of these they win. Otherwise the Allies win.
The stack of unselected Victory cards on the board can also be targeted by Intel by the Allies. So as the game gets later they can try to look at those cards to narrow down which provinces they might need to target.
Grant: What major changes were made to the game through the play testing process? Please provide specific examples.
Geoff: There was a lot of simplifying that went on throughout the process.
One big example of change was combat. There were a bunch of different systems that were tried. Originally, battles were a back-and-forth card play mechanic, which included its own bluffing element. But while it added tactics, it also added length and complexity. Then I switched to a dice-based system, where there were three different colors of dice – Red, Yellow, and Green, in order of damage. You rolled and scored Hits and Retreats, and needed to completely remove the enemy to win. But there was a little too much variability, and, most importantly, it added time. In the end by switching to the simple number comparison it achieved the design goals of quick resolution (and two hours of total game time) and simplicity.
There also was originally a whole Strategic Warfare system. There were SW cards that would allow you to discard cards from your opponent’s deck unless countered. It worked really well, but in the end didn’t change the outcome or strategies enough to warrant the additional time and complexity.
Grant: Did you enjoy designing a historical simulation game? Why or why not?
Geoff: I did. I spent so many years playing those games, that it was really satisfying to put my own spin on the genre.
Grant: Did trying to stay true to history change the design you initially had in mind? If so, how?
Geoff: This is a really interesting topic. I think that my familiarity with history, and the tropes that are typically seen in wargames, held back my design. I spent a lot of time on things I thought ‘should’ be in a WW2 game, like Strategic Warfare, that in the end were better left on the cutting room floor.
Diplomacy was another example. Originally there were ‘stances’ for each minor, and you could do Political Operations (also on the wheel) to try to sway them to your side. And then there were some countries the Allies couldn’t attack, and so on. In the end jettisoning all of that made for a smoother and more interesting game.
Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?
Geoff: I’ve got three games in the production pipeline – Pit Crew, with Stronghold Games, is a quick playing team game about getting your race car back out on the track as quickly as possible. Trade on the Tigris is a co-design with Ryan Sturm, and is a quick-playing take on the civilization genre. Finally, I’m working on my first licensed design. Can’t discuss the details yet, but I’m excited to be given this opportunity.
We’re also discussing extensions to The Fog of War, including a Pacific Theater version, and other conflicts. I think the core system can be taken in a lot of interesting directions.
Grant: How was it working with Stronghold Games?
Geoff: Stronghold is great to work with. They are committed to putting out the best possible product, and really believe in the games that they are selling. Stephen Buonocore was an early cheerleader for The Fog of War system, and I’m glad to be publishing it with him.
Thanks Geoff for your time and the great insight into the design process for The Fog of War. As a fan of wargames, and especially of World War II themed games, I am very interested in this game, as it is very different from your normal hex-and-counter wargame. I am very interested in the Operation Wheel and the intelligence side of the game. Should be a great deal of fun! This game is definitely on my list now. If you are interested in buying the game, you can order it from many on-line retailers.