In my P500 Update post from October 2016, I mentioned that I had jumped in on the reprint of Roads to Leningrad: Battles of Soltsy and Staraya Russa, 1941. Vance von Borries is a long standing game designer who has had his hands in a lot of games that we all know very well. He has been gracious enough to work with me on this interview and I appreciate his time on this, as I expect you will as well after reading.
Grant: Vance, tell us a little about yourself. What types of games do you play? What are some of your favorites?
Vance: For quite a while now I haven’t had much opportunity to play all that many other games. When I do, it is usually someone trying to demonstrate some little wargame mechanic to me, and that is great, I enjoy it. One of these recently is GMT’s France 40 game. At the risk of really dating myself, I once loved to play Afrika Korps, Stalingrad, Panzerblitz, A House Divided, SPI’s Battle for Moscow, and some of whatever the latest SPI game was back in the day. I tried the Memoir ’44 type games but never liked them. I liked much better the Command and Colors series from GMT but the Napoleonic sub-set turned me off, totally. Sorry to be negative.
Grant: How did you get into board game design? What do you love most about it? What are the biggest challenges?
Vance: I first dabbled in designing back in my high school days. That’s far enough back to be the dark ages for a lot of people today. In those days (and on into college) so many games were failing us in some manner. Maybe just a little tinkering could fix the game. So what would that fix be? Unfortunately, the local guys could not get beyond the basics. During college, things changed for me. I found others who were into these games with ideas, time, and enthusiasm. Regarding games today, I love the research process and the challenge of applying the right set of mechanics.
Grant: Roads to Leningrad (RtL) was originally published in 2004. What has precipitated a reprint in 2016?
Vance: RtL is out of print and Roads to Moscow (identical game system) is very nearly out of print. Some people over on BGG, and even CSW, asked for a reprint. One local guy here even did his own home-brew variant, and now that I have his permission, I may include some of it as optional in the new package. Game comments have been very positive and that should mean RtL has a good chance for reprint. As this game system gets around to more good folks, we will see more. I have another “Roads” design project planned for the future.
Grant: Roads to Leningrad is a package consisting of two separate operational level games on WWII –the Battle of Soltsy and the Battle of Staraya Russa. Why did you combine these two battles into one game?
Vance: I am sure you noticed that the word “Roads” is plural, meaning more than one. I wanted a multi-game package to broaden public appeal; maybe even do a quad package, although that idea proved too ambitious. You can find plenty of battles outside of Leningrad but I needed two that would speak to the subject, show mobility, and which also could be properly defined by one game map and not too many units. The one map part cut out one (Pskov), then the difficulty of limiting the subject cut out another (Duderhof Heights). Then two other ideas just plain failed as games (Kingisepp and Luga). Plaguing all was the difficulty of finding good information. This left the two you find in the box. Happily with both of these, both sides experience periods of attacking and defending, a key ingredient in a good game.
Grant: What role did these battles play in the overall campaign of German invasion into Russia?
Vance: Manstein was sent down a blind alley to Soltsy and was bushwhacked. This ended his threat to Leningrad for a month. The battle at Staraya Russa attempted to draw German forces away from Leningrad and Manstein was once again diverted. He destroyed a Russian army in the process, but that sacrifice helped save Leningrad. Both operations were typical of Soviet efforts during 1941, and the Soviets learned from them. The Germans learned next to nothing beyond paying a little more attention to flank protection.
Grant: Concerning the game itself, what has been changed or upgraded in this 2nd Edition printing?
Vance: There are enough corrections across all game components that merely rewriting the rule book would not be sufficient. Most components need updating to become fully consistent with the Roads to Moscow game rules. This usually means things will be spelled out better. I hate answering questions about rules. I am also dropping the odd business about limiting airpower, and this gets rid of a marker. The developer thought it was necessary but game play that I have observed seems to demonstrate otherwise; it was not included in Roads to Moscow. There are also a few counter changes.
Grant: How do the changes affect the overall gaming experience? Are you pleased with the changes?
Vance: Yes. Game play is smoother.
Grant: I believe the 2nd Edition has 4 separate scenarios. What are the scenarios and what are each of their major objectives?
Vance: These are the same scenarios as before:
Scenario 1: The Battle of Soltsy: By 13 July, 1941 Manstein’s LVI Motorized Corps with 8th Panzer Division in the lead was pressing hard on the road on the Soviet left flank. Would it break through the forward defenses and defeat the Soviet reserve? In ten turns the Soviets must assemble from a scattered and disorganized state a coherent defense sufficient to stop the panzers.
Scenario 2: Counterblow at Soltsy: By 15 July Manstein’s corps became strung out along the road through Soltsy and almost to Shimsk. Taking advantage of the lack of German flank protection, Soviet forces struck, heavily from the east but also from both the northern and southern flanks. For a moment 8th Panzer was surrounded. Can the Germans bail themselves out? Can the Soviets do enough damage in the six turns of this scenario?
Scenario 3: Battle of Staraya Russa: By 13 August, 1941 the German infantry around Staraya Russa found themselves almost in a backwater from the main offensive against Leningrad. So here the Soviets struck to divert attention from Leningrad. Can the Germans hang on until Manstein’s motorized troops arrive? This battle stretches over 22-turns in an epic scale struggle.
Scenario 4: Manstein Attacks: German infantry around Staraya Russa did indeed hold firm and on 19 August Manstein’s motorized corps began its relief effort. Now it would be the Soviets who would have to avoid encirclement. Can Manstein do it in this scenario’s seven turns?
Grant: What is the force structure used for the various armies? What are some of the more famous divisions involved?
Vance: At Soltsy, the Germans employed one Panzer corps (8th Pz. Div, and 3rd Mot. Div) and then belatedly brought in parts of the SS Totenkopf Motorized Division (There is a good English-language version of this division’s history). The Soviets assembled a mixed force of beat up divisions supported by fresh arrivals. The big fresh division was the 70th Rifle Div, a veteran division and honored from the Winter War against the Finns. It entered this battle still at the full pre-war TO&E strength, numbering around 15,000 men. It would have a tremendous impact. Over the coming months it quickly burned down to practically nothing, but that is the Soviet way.
Grant: What is the stacking limit and how does this directly affect strategy?
Vance: Stacking is a tactical feature and is set at 9 stacking points. This works out to basically three battalions per hex. The game is a mix of battalions and companies with a handful of smaller, or even larger, units. To properly show this variety, a point system works best.
Grant: What are the various action sequences and how do they work?
Vance: You have three choices: Mobile Sequence, Assault Sequence, or Pass. When your turn begins, you are quickly confronted with this choice. It is how you move your units, and is of critical importance. Mobile Sequence is like a full turn with full movement. This is where you can conduct Overrun, a very powerful tool. Assault Sequence lets you build fortifications but at the cost of half your movement and no ability to conduct Overruns. By choosing a Pass you do nothing but you may force your opponent to play his activation and thereby tip his hand, so to speak. A Pass also allows you to set up your own Formations for a possible combined activation where two Formations activate at the same time, effectively becoming one Formation for that one moment. So you see, each action Sequence has its place in the symphony of battle. The choice is up to you.
Grant: I’ve read that the system uses a blind chit draw mechanic for unit activation. How does this system work and why did you choose to use it? How does it help simulate the battles?
Vance: Both players put the same number of their Activation markers (AMs) into their own “opaque cup” for a (blind) random draw. The player with Initiative draws first. Players then draw one at a time alternately until all have been drawn and played. That they play equal numbers of AMs shows a complete operational decision cycle. In effect, the decision loop has a closed end so that a new cycle can begin.
Such a system allows smaller forces to engage larger when the smaller force is more agile and responsive to command control. Here, you effectively get two activations by a Panzer division for every one activation of a Soviet rifle division. The Soviets tended to fill the battlefield with smallish formations. This could mean some Soviet formations might not be activated before the Germans get another cycle (or turn) against them. The random draw represents battlefield chaos.
Grant: How is Initiative decided each round? What is the major advantage to Initiative in the simulation?
Vance: Initiative carries the responsibility of the attack and maneuver. If your units do not perform on the game map, you effectively hand your opponent the initiative. This comes down to where both players roll one die. The highest roll gets the Initiative. The critical component is that you add to your roll if your opponent took Pass Sequence options last turn. With the Initiative, you activate first and affect the number of total Formation activations you (and your opponent) get each turn. Without Initiative, the Soviet player is likely to find he is unable to move all his Formations.
Grant: When a unit is activated what are its available actions? What happens if a unit passes? How can it activate with another unit later?
Vance: You are moving groups of units called Formations. If a Formation “passes,” it does nothing: no moving, no attacking. You might want to do this because you need to see how your opponent is moving, or maybe to put together a Combined Formations sequence. It also allows you the choice of playing it or the next Formation you draw. Choices are the name of this game.
Grant: How do units build a Strongpoint and what benefit does it offer?
Vance: Strongpoints are the antidote to watching your opponent overrun your units. Strongpoints represent sufficient fortifications to prevent him from galloping all over your lines. When confronted with a strongpoint, the attacker must put in a regular attack and use the Assault CRT, a table generally bloodier than the Mobile Table. You will need a little time to build a strongpoint, and the constructing units must be supplied. You must also declare an Assault Sequence to do the construction – mobile units are too busy moving around to turn a spade. The strongpoint is then completed at the end of the turn. Clearly, this sequence favors the defender since he is most likely to have time and the necessary eligible units for such a vital construction.
Grant: How can combat be assisted by aircraft and artillery support? How does better unit efficiency affect this support?
Vance: I kept air support fairly simple in order to avoid adding a whole air combat system of air-to-air and ground-to-air considerations. While air units are just DRMs, they are also subject to coordination, thereby making their mechanics consistent with the rest of the game. Artillery support works as additional strength points added to the battle and likewise is subject to coordination. As mentioned above, all runs off an Efficiency Rating (ER) that is unique to each unit. The higher the ER value, the more likely it will pass coordination.
Grant: How are HQs and Leaders used in the game?
Vance: HQs and Leaders perform several functions in this game system and at times you will likely have too much for them to do. HQ (or leader) command ratings usually add to a unit’s Efficiency Rating in several functions, primarily in combat coordination. They also help with Formation Combination or with helping units recover from Disruption.
Grant: How does movement work? How is speed taken into account and how does a mobile unit overrun?
Vance: Nothing is more basic in a wargame than movement of a unit across the map. This game uses the traditional hex-grid and each unit has its own movement allowance. The game system then classifies movement groups by capability (essentially track, wheel, or leg) and then adds the command level of possible multiple activations of a group of units (i.e. a Formation). That means the unit might get to move more than once during a turn. An armored or motorized division will usually have two activations, so its units do not need really high movement allowances; its move is essentially depicted by two move-fight sequences. Non-motorized Formations just do not have this advantage. Movement penalties for terrain now can focus on the tactical cost of movement. Mixed in is Overrun, a very important operational tool, as a tactical cost. Regardless of how, units will move. Your responsibility as a player is to make sure they get the most out of each move.
Grant: Most of the forces do not start on the map. How do these forces come into the map and under what circumstances? Is this scripted?
Vance: I hate “scripting,” and now you make me fully realize that the historical order of appearance is an aspect of scripting. Units become available in this game at the earliest possible turn and this has been sufficient and normal for practically all battle games in the hobby. The scenarios here are short enough. For big campaign games, such as my EFS series, I often feature groups of optional units, and I did manage to include a little of that here. When players choose these optional groups, they noticeably change history. But part of history is the question of whether you force your opponent to go to the well for reinforcements.
Grant: Are there improvements or advancements in individual units?
Vance: Right now there are just a very few. I continually review these OoBs and so cannot discount that there might be more, or even fewer.
Grant: What happens to destroyed units? Can they be reassigned later or are they removed for the rest of the game?
Vance: Casualties also reflect disorganization where detachments are scattered all over the battlefield, not just dead people. These battles are over way too quick to account for replacements and the reorganization necessary to put a unit back into the field. This adds up to when a unit dies, it is dead for the rest of the “game.”
Grant: How does supply work?
Vance: Your army will not do well unless it is supplied. Supply status affects a unit’s movement and combat capabilities. Units require a supply route to a supply source, an abstract way of treating supply convoys. The flow of these convoys stands out as important, not the quantity of supplies (as is seen in the closely related Roads to Moscow game). Historically, some Soviet troops got onto the German supply route and caused havoc, and more seriously, most combat units of the German 8th Panzer Division were closely surrounded. Game-wise, the Soviet player should seek ways to threaten key points in the German rear. Practically all German units in the Soltsy scenarios, and many in the Staraya Russa scenarios, are motorized. Motorized units depend on good roads. Non-motorized units, and most of the Soviets are non-motorized, may not get as many activations but they have more flexibility with supply lines because they can also trace along trails. This gives them some additional ability to penetrate German lines. When Germans become unsupplied, Soviet units can generally meet them on equal terms.
Grant: Talk about the combat system. What makes it unique and how does it model history?
Vance: These battles take place over only a few days. Usually, a whole unit will not be totally destroyed in the half day that is each turn. It can, however, be destroyed by multiple attacks or very high odds attacks. This means a step reduction system is required, not full unit elimination. It also matters whether the battle is Mobile (by use of motorized units), or Assault (by non-motorized units, or when up against fortifications). The nature of the battle will change according to conditions, and such conditions change over these battles. As you can see, a lot is happening and the system has to reflect that.
Key here is combat coordination. If your units are disrupted, or attack from too many directions, you are more likely to suffer a failure of coordination and that results in a combat penalty. This is nearly always the case with artillery and there is the risk artillery may not participate at all. All this is run off of the Efficiency Rating of your “Lead” unit (usually, you will pick your best unit). Many unit histories record a lack of coordination where the expected flanking unit does not arrive or the artillery barrage perhaps overshoots the target. The attack must still go in. At this game’s scale this becomes a significant design consideration.
Grant: How are Victory Points (VPs) earned?
Vance: Kill valuable units, seize important localities, and avoid too many costly options (as in drawing additional reinforcements, etc). It is all fairly straight-forward. Like in boxing analysts would generally measure success in short battles like these in terms of who inflicted the most damage. Such distinction is measured best by use of VPs because of the many different factors in play.
Grant: I read one review where their comment was that they felt the Germans were fragile in certain scenarios. How do you respond to this?
Vance: I can understand why one may feel that way since each formation fights on its own, or at least for the most part. The Germans will depend on the fighting capability of fewer Formations than the Soviets and so will ask that one Formation to do a lot. If the German player loses his Panzer division, he has lost the battle, just as it would be historically. The key to solving this lies in the Combining Formations rule, best done with an adjoining Formation. This may keep a weakened Formation still in play. When both groups operate together, they can be very effective, and not nearly so fragile.
Grant: I also read this in a review: “This game was very easy to understand and play. The player sequences moved quickly and little downtime for the non-active player.” Was this your goal and what has made this statement true?
Vance: Yes. There is a guy here who takes just plain forever to make his move. I needed to speed him up, and to an extent it worked! Very basically, each activation is a mini-turn for a set group of units (a Formation). It is best to keep the activation fairly simple so that the complexity is the interaction of how the Formations activate. One reviewer, Marco Arnaudo (isn’t your quote from him?), remarked in his video that there is “… nothing too tough for the experienced gamer.” For a comprehensive video (also on YouTube) check Jeremy Antley’s replay series.
Grant: Does the game play solitaire well? What elements are tricky?
Vance: I figure it is correctly marked at a mid-level of solitaire suitability. You get uncertainty with the ER checks and the combat die roll (more so with 10 outcomes then 6 outcomes), but it is hard to surprise yourself in the overall operation. But then I restore part of that by the chit-draw for Formation activation. By trying to play reasonably well for each side you will still get a full feel for the operational challenge of managing what each Formation can do as it is activated (battlefield chaos).
Grant: What other games are you working on?
Vance: A bunch of them. Just give me a little time. I have four games currently on GMT’s P500 list: the reprint of Roads to Leningrad that we have been discussing plus three EFS series games (more will come later). With Legion War Games, I have two games: Demyansk Shield (which, interestingly, geographically over-laps RtL in the Staraya Russa area, although at a different scale and with a different system) and Invasion: Malta. Malta uses much of the RtL game system. This coming year I will have Drive on Damascus with Consimpress. This last one is a much revised second edition on a game I built many years ago, and the package will include Bloody Keren, likewise a game built many years ago. Other games are planned but they will not sit on my design table for quite some time to come.
Thanks to Vance for his time and for his very thorough answers to my questions. I am still learning so my questions sometimes come off with a different meaning than intended. If you are interested in ordering Roads to Leningrad: Battles of Soltsy and Staraya Russa, 1941 2nd Edition, you can order it at the following link on GMT Games’ P500 page: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-595-roads-to-leningrad-2nd-printing.aspx
Thanks for interviewing Vance! I’ve been buying his games since the 3W era. Great operational mechanics and nice chrome make them immersive experiences. Play well solitaire on most cases. GMT’s Kasserine is a masterpiece.
Looking forward to new editions of the Syrian and Keren games. These were gems. Hopefully Vance will stick with GMT as I love their high production values and beautiful map and counter art.
LikeLiked by 1 person
We enjoyed our experience with Vance. I have actually talked to him about an interview covering Absolute War and No Retreat 5 so look for those over the next month or so. For now, I’m trying desperately to get in some plays of Fields of Despair and Wing Leader Supremacy. Great games!