This is a game that has been highly anticipated over the past year or so and once the P500 shipping date drew near, and the more that I read about the game, I must say that I definitely had overlooked it and underestimated what a great game this could be. So I also jumped on the bandwagon and now own a copy (see our unboxing video). After our first play I was sold on how good this game is. I created a few action points to highlight some of the important parts of our game to help you get a feel for how things work. Those can be found here: World at War! and The Fall of Verdun! I also reached out to the designer Kurt Keckley and he has been very gracious in offering me time to do this interview.
Grant: Kurt tell us a little about yourself and your career in Wargame design. How did you get into design? What is your favorite part? What games do you play and what games have most inspired your design for Fields of Despair?
Kurt: I am a married father of two daughters. My educational background is in accounting and I am currently a high school teacher by trade. I grew up at a time when Avalon Hill games were on the shelves of every toy store. The earliest games I can recall playing were Panzer Blitz and Victory in the Pacific. I still own my original copies. Recently, I opened up Panzer Blitz to find several pages of alternative rules my gaming buddy Joe and I had written. I guess you could say it was then, about age 12, that I began to think about design.
The Logistic Point owes its roots to the Special Action found in Europe Engulfed. In development I considered changing the name to Special Action but ultimately decided not to. I expected that many who play Fields are Blockheads who will have also played Europe Engulfed. [Editor’s note: I have not played Europe Engulfed but would give my right pinky finger to have a copy!] The Special Action in EE is very offensive in nature. The Logistic Point is not. I figured a new game term would alleviate confusion between the two.
Grant: What is your biggest struggle in coming up with a new design?
Kurt: I often like to begin with a raw idea then quickly create some components to test it. I am a visual person. Often, I find locating maps for a given region or time period in a size and resolution I can use is my biggest struggle. I waste hours and hours searching.
Grant: How important is theme for you? Do you find your theme first or create your mechanics first? Why?
Kurt: Theme is very important. I’d say theme and broad stroke mechanics (such as using blocks or counters, card driven or other) are hand in hand.
Grant: What is Fields of Despair? What was your goal when you set out to design this game?
Kurt: Fields is a 2-player block wargame set on the Western Front during the First World War. Blocks are used as units to hide their true combat values until either air reconnaissance or combat reveals them. It’s a tense cat and mouse game that takes the player through the often forgotten wide open early war of maneuver, the better known trench warfare and then back to the breakouts that ended the war.
My overarching goal was to create a game that was unique and accessible. I wanted to design a game that focused on the battlefield while including economic and technological aspects of the struggle. Economy and technology needed to be streamlined enough as to add flavor, tense decisions without distracting from the game’s focus. Lastly I wanted to design a game that carried its structure through both 1914’s maneuver and into the trench war. Many games only do one or the other (there are a lot of games on 1914). It’s tough to do both.
Grant: Why the choice of your title? How is Despair modeled in the game? Have your play-testers felt Despair during their plays?
Kurt: True story, the title was originally “The Schlieffen Plan” up until about a week before GMT placed it on the P500. The Schlieffen Plan is a reference to Germany’s plan for the opening of the war. We didn’t think the title conveyed the fact that the game plays beyond 1914. “Fields of Despair” was one of about 10 new titles I came up with and sent out to our team. Each member voted for their top three. It was consistently in the top two.
Despair is not modeled unless you count me missing on my die rolls.
Grant: Dice does start with a “D” and Despair is associated with poor dice rolling! What has drawn you toward designing a game around World War I?
Kurt: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast does a great job of painting the picture of the Western Front with its unprecedented mass of humanity concentrated into relatively small areas of France. The block mechanic I was tossing around in my head, specifically with a value as high as 20, and seemed like a natural fit for the game. At the time there were no other WWI block wargames on the market. If I wanted to create something unique, I figured this might be the way to go. From there I stopped designing and began reading, watching documentaries and studying Orders of Battle.
Grant: What are the inherent challenges in designing a block Wargame?
Kurt: The greatest challenge for me was coming up with something that hadn’t been done before. I wanted it to be hard for players to draw a direct connection to any other game. I didn’t want it to be said, “Fields of Despair is East Front or Europe Engulfed with a First World War theme.” In this regard, I’d say the objective was met.
Grant: I have read that the Fog of War (Strategic Reorganization) element is absolutely new and unique. What is unique about it? How does it work? How has it changed wargaming?
Kurt: Most block war games use blocks with values of 1-4. Let’s say you are trying to decide if you want to attack an enemy position defended by only one block. You know without looking that at most you will fight against 4 enemy strength points.
In Fields of Despair the block values range from zero (Deception Block) to 20! Now you are making the same decision about attacking an enemy position held by only one block. It’s not so easy, is it? You could face no resistance or you could face 20 strength points. It’s like combining five 4 strength blocks into one.
It turns many Pattons into Montgomerys [Editor’s note: Best comment in the whole interview!].
Strategic Reorganization is the term given to Strategic Movement. It is unique in the sense that a player need not pick up an actual block and move it to a new hex. Instead he can reduce the value of a block in one hex and increase it in the other thus transferring the strength point. This can get very deceptive as players can, for example, turn Deception Blocks in multiple hexes to give the appearance of movement when in fact there is none.
“[Strategic Reorganization]…It turns many Pattons into Montgomerys”.
Grant: I have also read where at least one player expressed fear that players would simply ‘game’ the system and break the game. What would you say to that concern? Has it broken the game?
Kurt: The comment stems from a play test I remember well. I began by explaining how the systems worked and he commented before ever playing that he thought Strategic Reorganization in particular could be “gamed.” He thought he could just form a “Big Stack of Anger”, a super-stack if you will, and drive on Paris. Once we sat down to play, he quickly realized that he could not. As the stack advanced I didn’t panic as the Allied player and quickly gobbled up all of my thinly defended plan XVII objectives. Then as the bulk of the Central Powers’ army neared Paris, I proceeded to make quick work of his supply line thus preventing any further advance.
In his defense, he plays a lot of area map games. I suppose if Fields had an area map, this strategy might be viable. The hexes go a long way to prevent the super-stack strategy. It’s too easy to get out of its way and get around it severing supply lines.
Grant: How do the mechanics of the game force you to play historically?
Kurt: When designing Fields of Despair I used objectives to highly encourage historical play. For example, in 1914 a majority of the Central Powers Victory Point objectives are along the Marne River. A swing through Belgium and down towards Paris is a solid play. Players are also free to explore alternative strategies. The Central Powers player could opt to try and grab the Channel Ports instead of a drive on Paris. There are not as many VPs in that area, so the win would be tougher.
Grant: What is the sequence of play? Which of these elements will feel new to players?
Kurt: To begin the sequence of play, the USA Entry track is adjusted and the Eastern Front is resolved. From there it’s on to a Production Phase including Naval War resolution, two Action Phases with aerial reconnaissance, movement and combat, a Strategic Movement Phase, and lastly scoring.
Moving a unit through hexes, spending economic points for assets of war, and rolling dice for combat will all be familiar. Everything else is a varying degree of unique.
Grant: How has the wide range of combat values on the blocks encouraged deception in the game as well as gamesmanship? Has this been received well through play testing?
Kurt: As mentioned before, blocks range in value from zero (Deception Blocks) to 20. Now attacking a single block could be a cakewalk or it could be a suicidal attack.
Play testers, as well as people that I’ve watched play at conventions over the years, have loved it. It’s so deceptive that after games have ended and blocks have been revealed, LOUD exasperated banter erupts! “NO Way! I totally thought you were strong there (pointing) and your strength is here???
It’s really funny when BOTH sides insist the other is too strong. I think you have to sit on both sides of the board to appreciate the challenge the other faces.
Grant: How do blocks move? How are deception blocks used? How many does each player have?
Kurt: Fields of Despair is played on a hex map. During the movement phase, Infantry blocks move 2 hexes, Cavalry blocks move 3. Movement is distinctly flexible in that players are free to “make change” as the move. For example, a single block with 10 strength points can divide into three blocks with 5, 3, and 2 strength points before moving. Those blocks could then move in different directions.
Deception blocks can be added to the map as part of the movement process. In the example above, you could give your enemy the appearance of breaking down a block by removing the 10 strength point block then adding it back with a Deception block. Your enemy assumes a 5-5 or 6-4 split when in fact it’s 10-0.
Deception blocks are limited to four a side. They are placed during movement but once in play, only move during Strategic Movement.
Grant: How does combat work in the game? How is artillery used in combat? What role does aircraft play in combat?
Kurt: I’ll talk about aircraft first. Given it was such a primitive technology, I made the design decision early on to not have it modify or be directly included in combat in any way. Instead its primary role would be reconnaissance. With all the hidden information, solid management of air power is paramount. Each player has a limited number of air squadron counters. Each air squadron counter can only be used once per action phase so you have to make a choice. Use your squadrons on your turn for reconnaissance – scouting enemy positions before you strike! OR use them on you opponent’s turn to dogfight in an attempt to thwart his reconnaissance efforts.
Artillery is used at the start of the combat sequence. Again, you have counters that can be used on your turn or your enemy’s. Do you use them in mass to soften a position before an attack or to obliterate an enemy that’s about to charge?
A note of interest is that an active player may opt to end the combat sequence after artillery fire. Send the boys over the top, or keep them in the trench after shelling the adversary. It’s up to you.
Combat reveals all blocks in a given hex and dice are rolled, 1d6 per strength point. This is affectionately known as a bucket of dice combat system. If rolling a lot of dice is not your thing, fear not! The game includes an awesome conversion table so for any combat you need only roll 3d6 and cross reference your total with the number of dice you would have rolled. WHA-LA you have your hit total quickly and efficiently. Personally, I always use the table. It’s just faster.
The combat procedure is modified once trench warfare begins. The defending player rolls additional dice based on the number of attacking strength points. Men charging across no man’s land just make easy targets.
Grant: How are economic points gained and how can they be used? How does War at Sea work? What effect does this have on the main land conflict? Can a player afford to ignore the sea war to focus on the land battles?
Kurt: Economic points are cubes collected at the start of each production phase based on a table. They are at the mercy of the War at Sea as both the Allied blockade and Central Powers’ sub warfare campaign can reduce the number of economic points the other gets to spend.
Economic points are spent to increase a player’s air squadrons, and/or artillery counters, advance technologies, escalate efforts at sea or on the Eastern Front. Players can also bid to change initiative, repair fortresses or buy the always important Logistic point.
The War at Sea cannot be ignored. Let me say it again. The War at Sea cannot be ignored.
Fields comes with a nice blue draw bag. In the bag go a number of blue (Allied) and black (Central) cubes. To resolve naval warfare three cubes are drawn at random. For each blue cube drawn, the Central Powers lose one economic point to spend. In addition, the effectiveness of the blockade increases. The blockade level also forces the Central Powers to lose economic points. It’s brutal.
The opposite is true for every black cube drawn. In addition, the Central Powers have the option to exercise Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. If they do, not only do the Allies lose economic points but they also lose manpower in England. What’s the catch? Every time USW is successful, the Central Powers player risks speeding up the USA’s entry into the war.
Grant: How is technology improved? What can be improved and what benefit do they offer?
Kurt: To improve a technology, a player simply spends one economic point during production and advances the track. Each track can only be advanced once per turn so you had better stay on top of them.
The technologies are aircraft improvements (can’t initiate a dogfight without machine guns on the planes), poison gas shells, the counter technology gas masks, and tanks/Stosstruppen which are used to initiate breakout movements near the end of the war.
Grant: What are the scenarios in the game?
Kurt: The game was originally designed as a campaign and then broken down into an early (1914), mid (1915-16) and late war (1917-18) scenarios. I later developed an introductory scenario and of course, the solitaire system.
Grant: How does the solitaire mode work?
Kurt: This answer would take up pages, so I’ll point you to my Inside GMT articles that explain it in depth here: http://www.insidegmt.com/?p=2543
Grant: What are you most proud of in Fields of Despair?
Kurt: This is a tough question. I’d say I’m most proud of the fact we got it to the finish line. The folks at GMT have said openly that anyone can come up with a good game idea, anyone can make components. People who can get a game to the finish line are hard to find. I have a Master’s Degree. Finishing this game was tougher than getting that.
“The folks at GMT have said openly that anyone can come up with a good game idea, anyone can make components. People who can get a game to the finish line are hard to find. I have a Master’s Degree. Finishing this game was tougher than getting that.”
Grant: What was it like working with Mike Bertucelli as the Developer? How does a designer work with a developer?
Kurt: Mike is the best in the business. He was gracious enough to have me over to his house one afternoon to show him the game. GMT had said yes but was unable to find a developer for many months. I had decided to wait until I had one before proceeding. Best decision I ever made. That afternoon I ran Mike and his friend Joe through a game and afterward he accepted the development job.
Mike is a very experienced developer having developed all of the COIN games, and Navajo Wars. His feedback was always well thought out and brutally honest. He has a design of his own now called Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs on P500. You should check it out here: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-615-tank-duel-enemy-in-the-crosshairs.aspx
Grant: I have Tank Duel on my P500 list that now has 19 games on it! What is next for Kurt Keckley?
Kurt: I have a handful of other designs in one stage or another; some with working prototypes. The Battle for Stalingrad and a WWII strategic level card game are two of the more recent.
Thanks for your time Kurt and we are all very excited to play Fields of Despair to experience the Fog of War and be turned from Pattons into Montgomerys! Look for a review on this great game soon as we give it a play.