Ty Bomba is a very active and productive designer, currently having at least 5 titles in design that I am aware of including Triumph of the Will: Nazi Germany vs. Imperial Japan, 1948 from Compass Games, Putin’s War: Crisis in the Baltic from Modern War Magazine, Battle for Russia from Japanese Command Magazine, Brezhnev’s War: The Warsaw Pact vs. NATO in Germany, 1980 from Compass Games and a very interesting looking title Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III from Hollandspiele. It is this last title that I have approached Ty about and he was very willing to do an interview.
Grant: Ty, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to tell us about one of your many new upcoming games. What is the historic basis for the upcoming Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III?
Ty: The whole thing is based on the actual plans drawn up by the British chiefs of staff, on Churchill’s orders, early in 1945 [for the invasion of Russia].
Grant: What would have had to have happened in May 1945 for this bold plan to have been able to have been launched?
Ty: Churchill would’ve had to have put off the UK elections, and Truman would’ve had to have become more immediately anti-Soviet as soon as he came into office upon FDR’s death. Churchill did have the choice of putting off the election until after the Japanese were defeated, but he thought the recent victory over the Germans had created enough electoral momentum to allow him to stay in office. On the US side, by the end of 1945, both Truman and the US chiefs of staff were seriously looking at the possibility of war with the USSR; so they only would’ve needed to have their evolution in that regard accelerated by about half a year. Had Stalin played more hardball sooner in Central Eastern Europe, that likely would’ve been enough to hurry them (the Americans) along in their perceptions.
Grant: What do you feel the most realistic outcome of such a plan would have been?
Ty: That’s difficult to say for certain, and hence the game design to explore those possibilities. The situation is interesting in that, for each advantage you can credit to one side or the other, there’s some corresponding disadvantage you also have to figure into it. One thing is for sure: it would’ve easily been the most brutal campaign of that era.
Grant: Why did you have a desire to design this game? Did the idea for this game spring out of your upcoming Triumph of the Will?
Ty: I’d been carrying this game around in my head ever since playing the “Patton’s War” scenario in the original edition of old-SPI’s Battle for Germany. When the Russell’s [Tom & Mary with Hollandspiele] approached me with the suggestion to do it, it was as if the whole thing suddenly sprang complete from my mind and onto the computer screen and gaming table in front of me.
Grant: How did you establish the OoBs for the game? Which side’s were more difficult to find the information to come up with them?
Ty: The OoBs for both sides are their historic ones for the late spring of 1945 at the corps/Army level. There was no difficulty at all for either side.
Grant: What area of Europe does the map focus on? The rules talk about some of the real-world configurations of terrains and water features having been altered. For what reason were they altered? How does this improve the gaming experience?
Ty: The game map covers all the geography the British planners had defined as the area of operations for the initial phase of the campaign – from 1 July through the end of September.
In the cartography of hex-based wargames terrain is usually defined on a hex-by-hex basis. That is, one hex usually contains just one kind of natural terrain. There are other approaches, but that’s certainly been the dominant one since the late 1960s. The idea is to take away what might otherwise be visual uncertainty in the regard. Anything that can simplify wargaming – without making it simplistic – makes for the best approach.
Grant: I notice there are Polish troops on both sides. What is the main distinction between these Polish troops?
Ty: During the second half of World War II, both the Soviets and Western Allies organized Polish forces from men who’d escaped the debacle of 1939, primarily through what had then been still-neutral Romania. The Western Poles were organized as typical British units; the Soviet Poles were organized as typical Red Army units.
Grant: How did you ultimately decide the various unit’s combat factors and movement factors? I’m assuming at the end of May ’45 many units were fighting under strength or frankly were spent. How was this taken into account in your choices?
Ty: This is always the subject of debate. I don’t believe I’ve ever designed or developed any game for which I wasn’t asked why this unit was given this particular combat factor versus that unit that got that particular combat factor. The approach I use it to first identify the weakest unit in the game; that unit gets a combat factor of “1.” Then I build up from there. During playtesting, you watch to see if the various units can generally perform the way they did historically; if not, you adjust their factors up or down as needed to get them to that level. Here we don’t have a historical example by which to go, so we use the measure provided by both sides’ combat against the Germans in 1944-45.
Both sides were somewhat spent after the rigors of the final campaigns of the war against the Germans. Given, though, that those final campaigns were of generally equal ferocity on both the western and eastern fronts, my approach was to assume both the Anglo-Allied and Soviet forces were roughly equally fatigued. So that cancelled out on both sides.
Grant: How does each side’s setup start? How were later arriving reinforcements determined? Were they just farther away from Berlin at the end of May ’45?
Ty: To maximize replay value, I allowed as much latitude for both sides here as is realistically plausible. The Western Allies are entering from just off the west edge of the map, so there really is no ‘set up’ for them as such. The Soviets would’ve had at least a few weeks in which they would’ve seen this coming, so they’re free to set up anywhere on the map.
The Soviet reinforcements are those units they historically had off to the south, down in Austria and Hungary, etc. So they can pull them into the main fighting here on the game map, but at a cost in victory points (which those units’ transfer onto the map enable the Allies to gain off to the south with British Eighth and US Fifth Armies).
Grant: How is victory determined? How often did victory get determined in play testing with the Sudden Death Victory condition?
Ty: In the ideal, the Anglo-American player is trying to win by reaching the offensive culmination line that was come up with by the original planners, which ran north-south through east-central Poland. Their thinking was, if they could clear the Soviets out of all the territory west of there by the operative end of summer, Stalin would have to accept a negotiated peace based on the borders of 1938 (pre-Munich).
I didn’t see any full-on Allied victory like that during playtesting. My feeling is, with competent play on both sides, few will see such Allied victories; so it will come down to points based on the places the Allies control to the west of that line at the end of play.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Ty: In short, both players get to choose each turn between a move-then-fight or a fight-then-move sequence, or even a fight-fight sequence with no movement phase, with the Anglo-Allies always going first. That’s in recognition of the fact both these forces had fully developed combat doctrines, along with the necessary command-control and logistics to carry them out during the period being modeled. I’ve never yet come across a serious wargamer who doesn’t enjoy that approach. It’s a way of cleanly modeling all kinds of command-control and logistical limits without a lot of specific rules. Essentially, it forces you to create a point of concentration (“Schwerpunkt,” as the Germans would say) and give it your full support by picking the phase sequence that best services your operational needs in regards to it. The other areas of the front, where some other sequence might have been optimum, then have to keep up as best they can.
Grant: What is the Strategic Phase A-Bomb Arrival and what does this represent? Are the Soviets ever able to develop and use the bomb?
Ty: There’s no Soviet Atomic Bomb in the game, because there was none historically until 1949 and there’s nothing in this altered timeline that would work to accelerate its arrival. The US A-Bomb arrival rules are there to reflect the limited availability of the bombs on that side in 1945. That player starts with the three bombs that would’ve been otherwise available for use against Japan at the time, and more become available on the basis of a die roll thereafter. There’s no certain opinion on how fast more bombs could’ve been made had the people at the Manhattan Project been pressed to go full bore in that direction at the time.
Grant: How does the Soviet Airpower Surge work and what benefit does it give? How does the Allied player destroy the Red Air Force? How does this change the game?
Ty: The Anglo-Allied air forces in 1945 were, in this designer’s opinion, the unchallengeable masters of the air. At the same time, however, though their air force wasn’t as good, the Soviets did have a large number of tactical combat aircraft to put into the fight. So Anglo-Allied air superiority is assured after the first turn, except the Soviet player, at his option, can decide to use up the last of his air strength by declaring an all-out “surge” during any one turn later in the game. That has the following 11 effects for one turn, which can be powerful if keyed with a Soviet counteroffensive on the ground.
- All his units’ printed movement factors are increased by one.
- His units may use column movement if otherwise eligible to do so.
- Soviet units’ river/lake crossing costs are only +1.
- Soviet units defending in forest hexes don’t get their normal 1L odds shift.
- Allied units’ printed movement factors are decreased by one.
- Allied units may not use column movement.
- Allied units’ river/lake crossing costs are +2.
- Allied units defending in forest hexes gain a 1L odds shift for doing so.
- No Allied paradrop or amphibious invasion or aerial supply takes place.
- The Allied player is awarded three VP for having achieved the now near-total operative destruction of the Red Air Force.
- Allied heavy bomber support is unavailable.
Grant: What stacking limits are there? How do the Allied units stack together? Why is this the case?
Ty: The units of maneuver are Western Corps and Soviet “Armies” (in other words: Corps for both sides). Since the hexes are eight miles (13 km) across, two units per hex seemed the theoretical ideal and it worked well in playtesting.
The stacking rules on the Anglo-Allied side reflect the same logistical and command-control strictures with which they fought the second half of World War II. That is, the UK is running one army “grouping,” and the US is running another. Further, though the Poles and “Free German” forces are administratively both part of the UK army grouping, they may not stack together (for reasons I believe are obvious to everyone with enough historical background knowledge to want to play this game). There are no such restrictions on the Soviet side.
Grant: There is no Fog of War and players are allowed to examine stacks at anytime. Why?
Ty: The no-fog rule reflects the simple fact both sides would’ve had excellent on-the-ground intelligence sources during this campaign. Down at the tactical level, things could’ve gotten foggy, as they inescapably always do, but we’re tracking whole corps here – so no fog.
Grant: How do Allied Beachhead and Air Supply markers work differently than normal supply?
Ty: The Beachhead Markers are there to reflect the fact the Anglo-Allies would’ve had naval supremacy in the Baltic, and the British plan called for up to three amphibious landings along that coast. In reality, though, the Allies don’t have a great surplus of units to run their offensive, so my feeling is, in well played games, coastal invasion probably won’t be a key strategy. It’s there if you need it in order to grab some quick victory points.
The Air Supply Markers are a further reflection of historic Anglo-Allied capabilities in that regard in 1944-45. They also work to enable airdrops by the two corps of First Allied Airborne Army, which is, I believe, a much more potent weapon for the Allies than is coastal invasion.
Grant: I love the rules governing reinforcements, including the required roll for the Allies and the VP penalty for the Soviets. Where did you get these ideas from?
Ty: The only reinforcements available to the Allied player are the reconstituted Germans (known as the “Free German Army”), of which the British historically planned to raise 10 divisions (two corps) from among the POWs they had at the time. Similarly, there were close to 4 million newly freed (from German captivity) Soviet POWs under Western control at the time, and volunteers were to have been sought from among them. The only trouble was, though those men were all combat veterans, they had to be reequipped with, and retrained to use, Anglo-American materiel. That can either go smoothly or slowly, based on a die roll.
The only replacements available to the British army grouping are steps for the Germans and the Poles. The Poles are recruiting as they advance into their own country, and the German replacements are a continuation of the program outlined above.
Grant: How does combat work? Why did you choose odds based combat for the CRT?
Ty: Combat is pretty much standard for corps-level World War II-era games. I kept it that way because I wanted the players to place their emphasis on experiencing the strategic and operational choices presented to them in the campaign, rather than having to try to master some tricky new rules subset in order to be able to fight.
Grant: What is a concentric attack?
Ty: “Concentric attack” is just a fancy way of saying you’ve got your opponent’s force surrounded in a given battle. In effect, you thereby force those defenders to extend their frontline beyond its optimum length, and from that you gain a combat advantage in terms of odds shifts.
Grant: How does Allied Heavy Bomber Support affect combat?
Ty: This rule is meant to model the effects of the kind of battlefield intervention these planes could make, as demonstrated historically starting with 1944’s Operation Cobra. The Anglo-Allied player can use them to get favorable odds shifts when attacking. There’s no defensive use, though, because the Allies still hadn’t set up an ground-to-air communication system that worked smoothly enough to allow for that kind of timely call-in.
Grant: What are probing attacks and why are they important?
Ty: Probing attacks allow you to attack into a hex that contains an enemy zone of control but that is otherwise empty of actual enemy units. It’s a simple technique to encourage the players to abandon the artificial approach of: stack a hex; skip a hex; stack a hex; skip a hex, etc. If you want a solid line, you’ve got to set up a solid line.
Grant: How do Atomic Attacks work? Why is there a VP penalty for their use?
Ty: The Allied player rolls a die and subtracts one, two or three from it (depending on the terrain in the bombed hex). That final result is the number of steps that must be lost by the Soviet units in the bombed hex. That uncertainty is to reflect the power-variance in these still unperfected weapons at that time. The VP penalty is to reflect the fact the Soviets (and their ‘fellow traveler’ sympathizers in the West) would’ve been propagandizing heavily against the bombs’ use; so there’s a public relations cost.
Grant: How do Atomic Attacks affect movement?
Ty: Any hex containing one or more mushroom cloud blast markers has its normal entry costs increased by one for the remainder of the game.
Grant: A game can last no longer than 12 turns. Why did you design limit on the turns?
Ty: That takes things to the operative end of summer in Central Europe: 30 September. In the historic plan, that was the cutoff date by which the British planners figured decisive results would had to have been produced on the battlefield. Whenever I do any hypothetical game, but one for which there was historically a plan for it drawn up, I like to base the victory conditions on the expectations of those planners.
Grant: How long does a full 12 round game generally last?
Ty: Experienced wargamers can get set up and get through a match in about three hours.
Grant: What should be the initial Allied strategy? How does it change through the game? What is the initial Soviet strategy? How does it change?
Ty: I really haven’t come up with an ideal Allied initial attack. My feeling is it has to be based on the fundamental choice made by the Soviet player during that side’s set up. That Soviet choice is: go all-out and fight hard for Berlin’s seven hexes, in that way looking for an attritional decision early on in the campaign, or play it more flexibly at first by falling back, thereby causing the Anglo-Allied player to extend his lines, and then counterattacking decisively late in the game.
Grant: What are you most pleased with in the design? What have playtesters liked most about the game?
Ty: It’s a slam-banger that allows for both the use of brute force and more subtle strategies of maneuver. As to complaints from the playtesters, in truth, I got not a single one. My feeling is, if you like World War II east front wargames – and you have no special prejudice against alternative history topics – you can’t help but enjoy Operation Unthinkable.
Grant: What has it been like working with Hollandspiele?
Ty: The whole design, playtest, development and pre-production process went as smoothly as any project with which I’ve ever been involved – all good.
Thanks again for your time Ty! I have been really impressed with your fast responses to my many questions and appreciate the fact that you are extremely busy (see the list of upcoming games at the top of the interview for the proof!). The game is supposed to come out this summer but there isn’t a lot of information out there. Here is a link to the Hollandspiele website and the “Coming Soon” page: https://hollandspiele.com/pages/coming-soon
I also came across this video posted on the Hollandspiele Facebook page that gives a good look at the board with units setup and is narrated by Tom Russell talking about the high points of the game: https://www.facebook.com/Hollandspiele/videos/1804756379840218/