Miracle At Dunkerque. Truly the phrase to describe the events that led to the evacuation of over 300,000 British servicemen from the beaches of North-West France. As civilians sailed across the Channel in boats of all shapes and sizes the courage and bravery of everyone involved was put to the test. From the nurses on board the Hospital ships, to the French soldiers fighting a tactical withdrawal to buy more time Dunkerque represents both a military disaster but also a triumph of human endurance and good will. Hermann Luttmann has put together a solitaire to try and recreate the action on the beaches and south of the city so you too can try to organize the retreat efforts of the BEF.
Hermann Luttmann sat down for an interview about this latest design of his and we’re very grateful for his time and efforts. Soon to be released by Legion Wargames; Mircale at Dunkerque will come with all of the highest quality artwork and components you’ve come to expect. All of the sample counters in this interview are play test only and final artwork is underway.
Alexander: Hi Hermann, before we dive in, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Let’s start with introducing yourself: who is Hermann Luttmann? What is your background in and how did you get into wargame design?
And thanks for having me, Alexander! I’m always happy to discuss this great hobby of ours. Who am I? Well, I’m just a regular guy who loves wargaming and who got lucky to be able to contribute some design work for others to enjoy. I am 61 years old, a financial reporting accountant for a major freight forwarding company (which is why I despise games with resource management and/or any bookkeeping involved), I’m divorced with three kids and now back again with my high school sweetheart (who I first met when I was 18 …. it’s a long story that would require another interview entirely!). My first wargame was Stalingrad by Avalon Hill which I first discovered in a local toy & bicycle shop when I was 13. It was love at first sight and immediately lead to more boardgames. I then got interested in naval miniatures (Alnavco 1/1200 scale ships) as well. In college (Lehigh University in Pennsylvania) I ran games of Risk and then Napoleon’s Last Battles for guys (and some gals) in the dorm. After college, I joined a local game club that met in a local game store (Waterloo) and a bunch of us started really getting into miniatures. This was mostly 15mm Napoleonics and some 6mm ACW. I invested a ton of time and money into that aspect of the hobby and designed a set of miniatures rules (entitled “Tattered Flags”) that I almost … almost …. got published by Clash of Arms Games. But ironically enough, it was those very same ACW miniatures rules that actually directly led to the start of my gig as a boardgame designer.
Due to work commitments (I was working two jobs for many years), the kids, etc. I had less and less time to actually play games. I did manage to do some development and playtesting work for 3W and Clash of Arms – my first credits were in the ‘Barbarians’ and ‘L’Armee Du Nord’ games by those companies. So I did get some of my “in the trenches” game design experience doing that kind of work. I became a fan of smaller-footprint games and solitaire games in particular. This lead me a new company called Victory Point Games, which specialized in exactly those types of games. I became friends with Alan Emrich and we were talking one day about the old System 7 Napoleonics game and how he’d like to revitalize that idea some day. Well, I told him about my history and interest in miniatures and, of course, brought out my old worn out copy of Tattered Flags. This eventually became my first published design, ‘Gettysburg: The Wheatfield’ which represented a very different type of hybrid boardgame/miniatures game. Interestingly, at the same time as this was going on, I had been playing ‘Zulus on the Ramparts’ and got the idea that the State of Siege game engine (by Darin Leviloff) would make an incredible vehicle for a zombie siege design – and thus was born Dawn of the Zeds. So my first two published designs kind of got created in unison.
Alexander: When you’re not designing games which games do you like to play and why?
Ha! Finding time to play other games is a major challenge. One of the major drawbacks to getting involved in design work and being lucky enough to have demands made on that design time is not being able to play other designer’s really cool games. Every time I decide that I will make a concerted effort to play all the games I own (note that not being able to play them has nonetheless not slowed me down from buying them), the plan gets quickly sidetracked by the need to playtest something new or to fix something that is already underway.
When I do get to play, it is almost always a small-footprint, uniquely-themed game. I do not play traditional Eurogames (my friend Bill Ramsay calls them “brown games”) as I prefer theme-heavy or simulation-heavy game designs – I don’t like games that are all about mastering the mechanisms and/or game play processes. And again – no math please … I do that for a living. So counting how many ears of corn you grew or how many workers you reassigned or which stocks you need to buy …. no thanks! I also like to play games to a conclusion in one sitting, so I avoid monster games. So games that are compact, cleverly designed and that have something new and different to offer – that’s what I like and that’s also the way I try to design.
Alexander: Which game designers have you taken the most inspiration from?
Great question! I was never really a designer “groupie” type of guy. I usually just played the game and either enjoyed it or not without actually registering if it was a designer I played before or not. But I soon realized that there actually were a few guys that I ended up returning to time after time. I think my primary influence was Rob Markham. He did simple, yet clever, designs on unique subject matters (as I earlier pointed out are my favorite types of games).I had the good fortune to work with Rob as a playtester on some of his games and he is a great guy and a talented designer. His wonderful ‘Blood & Iron’ game is the game that got me interested in the Franco-Prussian War and opened my eyes to the fact that the FPW gets a bad rap – it is an amazingly interesting and hard-fought conflict at the tactical and operational scales. That realization directly led to my designs of ‘Duel of Eagles’ and ‘At Any Cost’ and there will be more FPW battles that I plan to cover. So yes – Rob’s games were always my favorites and served as models for how I wanted to design. Another designer who inspired me, especially when it comes to unique ways to utilize the chit-pull mechanics, is Ted Raicer. He also kept his games to a basically small footprint but offered up unique approaches to simulating interesting battles and campaigns. His kind of “twisted” chit-pull mechanic is one that I use in most of my designs as it offers up multiple ways to abstractly simulate various historical conditions and circumstances without resorting to dozens of pages of rules and new mechanics. In that same vein, Mark Walker is a great influence for me. His ‘World at War’ series from Lock n’ Load is still one of my favorite systems, again for the core simplicity and the clever way it extracts so many various modern warfare factors out of a few D6 die rolls. And he also utilizes chit-pull mechanics in a different way. Mark’s newer designs have also shown how great simulations can be created without using dice at all! Cards can be used to resolve everything in the game and that’s an avenue I’ve recently explored with ‘Dead Reckoning’, ‘Race to the Sea 1914’ and ‘Steamroller: Tannenberg 1914’. Finally, one guy who has been carrying the “small but clever” torch lately is Tom Russell. His designs are very much in that same school of thought and he has also created some fun, innovative uses of the chit-pull mechanic. His game designs are so much fun to play – especially my current favorite, ‘Blood in the Fog’ – and he has brought that philosophy to his and his wife Mary’s new game company, Hollandspiele.
Alexander: Miracle at Dunkerque is your latest design being put out by Legion Wargames, What prompted you to tackle such an unorthodox war game topic?
Ah, well that was all due to my friend Paul Fish. He came up with the idea of doing a solo game on Dunkirk after talking to his friend, Brian Berke. Brian is a student of the Dunkirk battle, even possessing a huge diorama of the evacuation in his apartment. Paul and he were discussing the battle and Paul was so taken by the narrative that he approached me about the idea of making a game about the campaign. Paul obviously knew that I had great success with my first two solitaire games – ‘Dawn of the Zeds’ and ‘In Magnificent Style’ – and he thought that the circumstances and drama of the Dunkirk story would fit perfectly into a solitaire design. And as soon as he suggested it to me, I was like “Doh!” – why I didn’t I think of that sooner? It’s such an obviously perfect situation to be played out in a solitaire design. One of my primary prerequisites for designing a solo game is that you have to pick the right scenario. The situation has to have a side that can be easily handled by the system – it should be either defensive and mostly stagnant or an advancing wall that the plows forward in an unrelenting manner. So Dunkirk is really one of those rather few historical military situations where that advancing front of enemy units is present and can be easily manipulated by the system without any required input by the player in determining what the Germans will do. So in hindsight, this was a “no-brainer” and I’m so glad that Paul was able to put forward this suggestion as well as contribute so much to the design of ‘A Spoiled Victory’.
Alexander: Run us through some of the biggest differences between Miracle at Dunkerque and the game you’re re-implementing; A Spoiled Victory.
Well first of all, the game components and overall scope will be significantly improved. We’re planning on a much bigger map size – not only because the game actually encompasses a greater area of the perimeter, but also because the spaces will be larger to give the player more elbow room and make the game easier to handle. The graphic artwork will be improved and the unit counters themselves will be broader. The Action Cards will also be full Poker-sized as opposed to the original game’s smaller cards.
So there are major superficial improvements to the game’s physical presentation. As far as the game play itself, there are again some tangible changes for the better. There are now 54 cards, so more Events are possible and more variability in the other game values generated by the card which allow more flexibility in results and possibilities.
A small “Air Campaign” component has been built in so that the player has a better feel for what was going on above the beaches at the time and how that fighting influenced what was going on under wing. The player will deploy some RAF squadrons each day and they will “dogfight” the Luftwaffe to see if the effectiveness of the pending Luftwaffe attacks on troops, installations and ships can be decreased. These actions can be influenced by certain Events as well, including the possible dismantling of A.A. batteries (which did happen), the fatigue of the RAF pilots, weather, etc.
There are two types of Evacuee units now, representing the relative value of rescuing certain types of units in order to better continue the future war effort. British units get bonus evacuations if they embark from their historically-assigned beaches (each of the three Corps had a particular area that was specifically organized to facilitate their evacuation).
The greatest difference and a vast improvement over the original game’s mechanics is the way the naval units are handled. The player now has to actually maneuver various Naval units across the English Channel, pick up Evacuee units from either the Mole (in Dunkerque) or from the various beaches and then safely bring them back to Dover, England in order to score their Victory Points. This is significantly improved over the vastly abstracted way this procedure was handled in the original game.
Naval units are sub-divided into Large Ships, Medium Ships and (of course) the Little Ships. There are even some specialty units, including Old- and Modern-type Destroyers, Minesweepers and others. Each type of Naval unit has specific ratings for how many evacuees they can carry, how sturdy they are, etc. Players can actually set up the Little Ships in the Shallow areas next to the beaches and ferry evacuees to the bigger ships in the Channel. Naval units can be attacked not only by the Luftwaffe, but are also subject to possible E-Boat, U-Boat and mine hazards. All in all, this part of the game is the biggest change and should add a whole new dimension to the player’s experience, challenges and overall strategy.
Alexander: What was the hardest part about the design of Dunkerque?
Obviously the huge addition of the far more detailed Naval Units rules and mechanics was the biggest and hardest change. Adding all that, getting it right, and still allowing the game to be played with the same ease and balance has been the toughest challenge in this new edition.
The “snowball effect” of adding a new rule or procedure is amplified by a hundred times when such a major change is made. Speaking of “balance”, that’s the other tough thing that has to be right. With all these tweaks – large and small – maintaining the game balance is critical. Any one of these changes could throw things way out of kilter and getting that all to be stable in the end is hard work. Finally, making sure that the game is still easy to play while making it more historical than the original version is also a great challenge. Judging the correct amount of abstraction vs. historical realism is a key tightrope walk and one that may never be satisfactorily answered. You just make the best decision you can and hope that the game, when it feels right to you, will also feel right for the gaming public.
Alexander: Is there anything in the design process that you had to excise, and why?
Not really with this edition of the game. Most of the necessary culling was done with the first version. We toyed with a more detailed combat procedure but ended up deciding on simple was best as the game is more of an evacuation-management simulation than a true straight-up wargame. We had to keep the focus where we felt it belonged. The same goes for this new edition. I again addressed the combat situation and yet again decided to stay with simple and straight-forward. There was no reason to change the game’s overall goal and playing style. I just wanted to add a bit more in order to improve what was already working – not change the game’s core principles. This also extends to the new Naval mechanics. I experimented with different levels of simulation and historicity and excised a number of much more detailed procedures to handle the naval aspect of the game. Again, a reasonable abstraction was decided on with the main aim being to maintain playability.
Alexander: Can you explain how the solitaire AI system works to activate the Axis forces?
Actually, no I can’t … it’s all done by magic! ; ) In all seriousness, it sometimes feels like that. The German AI will do things at exactly the right time (or the wrong time for you, the player). As I said earlier, the situation you choose for a solo design is important and in this case the steady, fairly uniform onslaught of the German forces at Dunkirk makes “programming” the AI fairly easy. At the same time, that uniformity also make the game more exciting and challenging as the player can’t foresee (based on the history) the AI making a move because it was done at the actual battle. The German forces are divided onto 18 tracks, with a major unit (brigades or divisions) assigned to each track. Every track leads from the German lines to an endpoint on the French coast line. The drawing of an Action Card will dictate which of those units is activated each turn – sometimes just one track and sometimes a group of tracks.
The German forces are moved by the cards in a generally logical manner (for the most part), with particular sectors or corps moving at the same time as the German command instructs organized offensives and operations. The system does also allow for some chaotic randomization – sometimes you can pull a card that mandates two sets of German moves (a big push) and one result actually moves the Germans totally randomly.
The bottom line of all this is that the player has to deal with an unrelenting and massive moving wall of German units, and sometimes that wall will make deep probes into the perimeter at unexpected times and at unpredictable places. The overall effect is one of constant tension and pressure for the game player while also providing an environment that it all “feels” historically accurate. There are even opportunities for the player to see ahead at the upcoming German moves if and when he can earn the “Dunkirk Spirit” marker. The use of the this marker lets the player “interrogate” German POWs and by so doing, the player draws the next German Moves card a turn early, so he knows what the next move will be and he has a turn to deal with it.
Alexander: You designed Dawn of the Zeds, a solitaire/co-op games in the States of Siege series put out by Victory Point Games. Were there any mechanical influences from that game that went into this solitaire experience?
Absolutely – Miracle at Dunkerque has a lot of the same game play feel as Dawn of the Zeds. And if you think about it, the German Army’s consistent pressure and “advancing wall of destruction” does remind you of a similar “wall of zombies”. The big difference, of course, is that there is much more designer license and flexibility with zombies as to what they can do and where they can do it. The historical constraint on the actions of the German units means that I had to come up with a way to blend unpredictability but also support historical flow. So as far as direct mechanics drawn from the Zeds design, the idea of “tracks” and “card actions” is definitely present in the Dunkerque game. After that, everything else is pretty different. The combat system is more detailed, there is no “sudden death” ending if the Germans get to the end of their tracks, etc.
Alexander: In what ways does the 2-player variant differ from the solo game, how much freedom does the Axis player have to maneuver and push to the beaches? I read on LGW that there is a potential 2 player option, but I couldn’t see anything in the rulebook about that. IF that’s not the case then you can just ignore this question.
To be honest with you, the 2-player version is still being discussed. We’re pretty sure that we want one included, as it does increase the overall value of the design, but we also want to create a system that is deeper than just “the German player rolls the dice for the German attacks”. That kind of superficial add-on system isn’t really an immersive experience for the second player. So it will probably be something like both players draw some cards and play them in turn, etc. Something where both players have to play the cards they have, but exactly when is up to them. We’ll see how that all turns out and I will post up details when we get to that point.
Alexander: Tells us a bit about how combat is conducted?
The combat system is lifted directly from A Spoiled Victory, with a key additional twist. As I alluded to earlier, a solitaire game design (from my perspective) has to be quick and dirty – it has to be easily resolved and move along at a smart pace. So the combat system is intentionally user-friendly and does not involve long lists of modifiers and complex sub-systems. Basically, the attacker rolls a number of dice equal to its Combat Factor (modified by some conditions) and every die roll that exceeds the Defense Number of the targeted unit (derived from the defending unit’s Defense Number, modified by terrain and other conditions) is a “Hit”. Each Hit on an Allied unit can be applied as a Casualty, Morale Loss and/or Retreat.
The player decides how to apply such combat effects and this decision can be nerve-wracking as you’re constantly weighing whether you can afford to give up territory and/or morale in lieu of casualties. So it’s a pretty simple combat system implementation but still yields a very tough choice in many circumstances!
The one extra tweak I did to the new system is with the “equal” die rolls. There’s a new rating on units called the Cohesion Number and this represents the unit’s morale, training, etc. It is the number of “equal” die rolls – meaning the number of attack dice numbers that are equal to the unit’s Defense Number – needed to generate an additional Hit result. The higher the Cohesion Number, the stronger the moral fiber of the unit and the more “equal” results are needed to inflict a Hit.
There are also similar combat systems used for Luftwaffe, Mine, U-Boat and E-Boat attacks against land and sea targets. All pretty simple to use but hopefully still providing tough tactical decisions and lots of variability.
Alexander: How have play testers reacted to this game, is it difficult to win/match the historical outcome?
So far, so good. The game is intentionally difficult to win, for two reasons. First, my general philosophy for all solitaire games is that they should be very tough to win. Players of Dawn of the Zeds will attest to that! The reason is that there has to be incentive for a player to go back to the game and try it again and again. There’s nothing more frustrating than playing a solo game for the first time and winning big. It should be a struggle and a learning process – gaming trial-and-error (much like your favorite video games). Second, the actual event has been traditionally termed “a miracle” and as such, the game challenges the player to accomplish the same level of success. So you are essentially expected to perform a miracle to truly win the game and that’s a heck of a hurdle for the player to clear.
Alexander: What provisions have been made that will keep us wanting to replay Miracle at Dunkerque over and over?
The strength of the Action Cards and how they work, especially regarding which Events come up each turn, guarantees that the game’s variability level is very high. It’s practically impossible to have the game play out the same way twice. The player’s strategy and tactics will vary by game as he/she must adjust to the different flow of events each time. The German Wehrmacht will strike your perimeter at varying times and places and that mandates a flexible battle plan. So there is no set-piece list of things you must and must not do – it will be different with every game. Related to that aspect, the victory levels are set at nine plateaus, so even if you win a game there’s an incentive to play again and beat your last score. When these two factors are combined, we have a design where even if you achieve a great score, you’ll want to play again because there are multiple paths to that same score. Each game should be a totally unique experience.
Alexander: I’ve heard that working with Randy at LGW is a great experience, can you comment on the map he designed and the counter artwork that’s been created by Tim Allen so far?
Randy Lein is a wonderful guy! He’s a fun human being to be around and has a great sense of humor. He’s also a good “boss” and is very cooperative and engaging. It has been a joy to work with him on this project and I certainly hope that there will be other game design efforts with him and Legion Wargames in the future.
Tim Allen did the core part of the new map (he did the original A Spoiled Victory map as well) and will probably work up the Action cards too (at least I hope he does). I’ve worked with Tim for many years and on most of my projects. He is a talented game graphics guys and also another wonderful person to just talk to and hang out with. I really enjoy his work and use him whenever I can. He has this amazing ability to read my mind about what I want a map or component to look like – sometimes even before I know what I want it to look like! And his art style very much compliments my design style. We both try to get the design’s environment to look and feel like the subject matter – it’s a totally immersive approach. So we do work really well together and Miracle at Dunkerque is no exception.
Alexander: Is it just a coincidence that this game is coming to fruition at a similar time to the movie Dunkirk?
Ah, if only I had such powers to plan these things! But it is a complete coincidence that the game and movie are out there at the same time. I talked to Randy about doing a new version of this game over a year ago, before any knowledge about the new Dunkirk movie was known by me. It is no doubt quite fortuitous for us that the movie offers a great promotional vehicle. And judging from the excellent and dramatic trailers (and featuring my favorite actor, Tom Hardy), the movie will certainly increase interest in all sorts of gamers at least looking at the design a little closer. If they enjoy the movie itself, maybe they’ll want to experience the battle on their table tops too. I can only hope so. But the bottom line is, it can’t hurt.
Alexander: Are there any reading materials you would recommend to people to help them learn more about the defense and evacuation of Dunkirk whilst we wait for your game?
It’s really strange these days, as research is done as much online as it is in physical books and documents. I’ve floated all “through the ether” looking for anecdotes, tidbits, interesting pictures, maps, etc. So those would be tough to catalog but that “interweb” info contributed to parts of the design. I also got a lot of detailed information from the aforementioned Dunkirk expert, Brian Berke, who shared much of his knowledge and clued me in on some aspects of the battle that needed to be done correctly. Otherwise, I depended a lot on the Osprey book on the battle. I know that Osprey titles get criticized and looked down upon, but this one was well organized, had great maps and provided an invaluable centerpiece for the evolution of the design. Three of the other books I used are: ‘Dunkirk: the Complete Story of the First Step in the Defeat of Hitler’ by Norman Gelb; ‘Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man’ by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore and; ‘The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, May – October 1940’ by James Holland.
Alexander: As we come to a close, what projects do you have in the works or on the horizon that we can look forward to from you?
There is no shortage of projects coming from myself and my “developer-extraordinaire” Fred Manzo this year, that’s for sure! This will probably be our busiest year yet and it’s starting to feel like real work. ; )
For those who like solitaire games – and ‘In Magnificent Style’ in particular – there are two games coming out with a similar kind of push-your-luck mechanic: ‘Crowbar! The Rangers at Pointe Du Hoc’ from Flying Pig Games and ‘Like Hailstones Upon Rooftops: Culp’s Hill’ from Hollandspiele. Fred also has a solo science fiction game for Hollandspiele that I’m developing called ‘Escape from Hades’ and that looks to be a ton of fun.
For Blind Swords series fans, I’ll have ‘Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg’ coming from Revolution Games later this year. This follows on the heels of the terrific success of both ‘Stonewall’s Sword’ and ‘Thunder in the Ozarks’. And finally, after three years of being in process at GMT, ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ will see the light of day around October of this year.
There is also the upcoming game ‘Steamroller: Tannenberg 1914’ which will appear in Yaah! magazine issue #10 (by Flying Pig Games).
In the realm of other proposed projects, there’s a new zombie game based roughly on the Command & Colors system for someone (not sure who yet), development on the next game for Compass by designer Kirk Uhlmann (of ‘The Lamps Are Going Out’ fame) on the Korean War and a design for Hollandspiele using Tom Russell’s new Shot & Shell system on the Battle of Koniggratz. Oh yeah, and I have a game I want to do on the Battle of Mukden (1905) using a deluxe version of the ‘Race to the Sea’ cardless-combat system, but I’m not sure for who just yet. There’s also a design in progress with John Krantz’ Consimpress called ‘Tattered Flags’ which will be the rebirth of that original game system with lots of very cool changes. Hopefully that will come to fruition by the end of the year.
So as you can see – lots of work and lots of fun.
Alexander: Thanks again for doing this interview, any final words or sage advice to our readers?
I have been blessed to be given the opportunity to design all these games. It has been a great joy and I’m so thankful for the great support from the gaming public. I hope that gamers will enjoy Miracle at Dunkerque in particular and that it is everything that they were hoping for. I know that my designs are not perfect and I’m always open to suggestions for improvements and constructive criticisms. So don’t be afraid to let me know if something can be done better.
Also, I hope that gamers will support all the great game companies that are out there, but especially the small/medium game publishers. These are great people running these companies and they are doing wonderfully original and well-produced game designs. So please give them a close look and help them out. I will often buy games from smaller companies that I’m just remotely interested in just to get them a sale. And I’m usually not disappointed. So please support these terrific little companies who contribute so much to this awesome hobby of ours. Thanks again for this opportunity and good gaming!
That’s a wrap with Hermann Luttmann, but you can look out for MAD to be released from Legion Wargames in the near future!