I love to do research on new upcoming games and then reach out to their designers to discuss them in an effort to spread the word about those great games. Most of the time, I will do only a single interview with a particular designer, as they might only have 1 game that they are working on at that time, but there are some very prolific designers that seem to always have a thousand irons in the fire at once and are willing to take the time to answer my questions about them. One such designer is Carl Paradis. I did an interview with him last year covering his classic Eastern Front WWII game No Retreat! The Russian Front from GMT Games and he is now back again to talk about one of his upcoming games Absolute War! The Attack on Russia 1941-1944.
Grant: First off, with your excellent title No Retreat! The Russian Front, why do you feel interested in doing another game on the invasion of Russia?
Carl: Good question! I have always been fascinated with the Eastern Front, so do expect even more games on that topic from me, albeit at a lower scale. I am planning a series of “Quadrigames”, one per year of the conflict, covering specific battles. But doing another game at the same scale as No Retreat! was mainly because of player feedback. A lot of gamers wanted something even more easy to play; there was a friendly argument on the internet about that game not being the ideal introductory wargame some said it was, and it’s no contest. GMT’s version of the game was a far more intricate product than the first basic VPG title. I thus decided to embark into this new project, and make the Russian Front even more player-friendly.
Grant: What was your thought process with the name Absolute War!?
Carl: Well, I find the Nazi-Soviet conflict to be one of the most intense & big conflicts the world has ever known, this is where the term “Total War” was coined, right? Plus, the name was available; no game on the same topic has used it yet. I also got inspiration from a Russian Front book with the same title.
Grant: What in your opinion is critical to model in a game about the Eastern Front and the invasion of Russia?
Carl: It is critical to model the military doctrine differences between the two armies, and the evolution of both during the course of the war: the way they operated, the way they fought, and why the campaign developed the way it did because of this.
Grant: I have read that Absolute War! approaches the Eastern Front of WWII in “a fresh new way. This new approach is even faster and easier to play – making it perfect for introducing new gamers to the hobby”. What makes this the case in the design?
Carl: As I have said previously, in my “Grognard” mind I thought that No Retreat! was dirt simple, it is, really, but it’s a relatively long game compared to most Euros out there. So, I decided to find new ways to approach the simulation, removing even more of the “chores” of most wargames; especially for new players who are not used to our way of doing things. I have dispensed completely with numbers on the counters, and odds-based combat tables: sure, in No Retreat!, with its low counter count, those combat calculations were easy to make, but over the course of a full game “math fatigue” will set in. In this game, practically no computations are needed besides one basic addition/subtraction per battle (ex: 5-2 = 3); Event cards will take care of the combat resolution: you draw these to get the combat results. The classic hexagon map is mostly gone too, I am using “Areas” that conform to the historical frontlines of the campaign, with a few important exceptions in some geographical choke points.
Grant: Beside the counters and odds based combat, how do you go about making such a grand campaign easy to play? Do you feel this has caused sacrifices in the depth of the game? Why or why not?
Carl: The number of counters and turns will be kept to an absolute minimum, thus improving greatly the ease of play. Basically, units will represent Armies (Germans) and Fronts (Russians), so you will rarely have more than a couple of dozen counters to control. It was surprisingly difficult to design that simulation engine, without using map hexes or regular Combat Table and unit strengths, and NOT sacrificing historicity or depth of play. I think I have succeeded in both counts, but I had to invent completely new design ploys, and this took me quite a while. In fact, I started this game over 6 years ago and have been at it, off and on, since then; in fact I completely changed most of the design concepts at least 3 times since then as the first prototypes failed on one or the other (ease of play or depth).
There were a few compromises to be made for sure, but I think these goaded me to focus on the critical aspects of the campaign more, making it a much better historical rendition of the war than it was at the start of the project.
Grant: You have mentioned low counter density several times. How many counters are there? How did you simulate such a huge offensive with such few counters? What is the scale for the game, including the counters?
Carl: This is my trademark: making more with less! Ease of play and ergonomics are always priority one in my mind. You play the game, not the reverse. There will be 88 square counters in the game, and about the same number of round info markers. But you’ll have far less on the map at any specific time. At the start of the campaign each player has around a dozen units on the map! I was already able to simulate such a conflict with very few counters in No Retreat!, and I built upon this foundation with Absolute War!, in fact the latter does an even better job as the areas on the map cover a larger actual geographical space than the hexes of the former. Simulating the huge offensives and the mechanics of these is the job of the game engine: over the years I built intricate historical attrition models of the whole campaign and this is by basis of comparison when I designed my combat system, you have to take it all regarding the “big picture”, some small operational details could seem to be wrong, but taken over the entirety of the game it all makes sense in the way you have to play the game. And the scale is huge: two months per turn, each area about 200km across, and Army/Front units representing at least 100,000 men each; you really can’t go much higher-scale than this.
Grant: What type information is contained on the counters themselves? Can we see some examples of the counters? What are the round markers used for? Can you give some examples?
Carl: The round markers will be used mostly to represent player control of the map areas (the front lines). Given the very low counter count, you can see these also representing some smaller formations occupying the territory if no square units are present. Other round markers will represent supply or disruption status of the military units, some others will represent extra combat resources available to the players, like Air power, or special advantages, like the better Russian Army winter abilities. The rest are info makers used to indicate the game turn, victory levels, etc. Some hex-shaped markers will be used for the Soviet Partisan and German counter-insurgency activities.
Given the large game-scale and the fact that combat happens inside areas (you move into an enemy area to try to gain control of it with your troops), some “operational” markers will also be used to indicate in-area smaller scale events, like surrounded pockets of troops, bridgeheads, city fights, breakthroughs, etc. Those operational markers are the crux of the system that makes the whole game work historically, even at this high scale.
As for the square counters, I have strived to make them as simple as I possibly could. My goal was to give the players a “High Command” view of the battlefield, like the actual WW2 HQ maps. The counters are using as much as possible the same historical graphics the Germans and Soviets used on their maps.
Grant: How does the low counter density encourage strategy and planning?
Carl: With less units to control, you have way more “brain time” you can use in a specific amount of time to make the important planning decisions in the game. In a lot of larger games, just pushing the counters around and following the rules takes way too much effort.
Grant: How has movement been streamlined?
Carl: Movement is dirt simple, thanks to the Area-based map and long two-month turns. No movement factors are needed on the counters: All units move a basic of 2 Areas per turn, and more mobile units with a vehicle icon move/exploit one extra hex. You do have Strategic Movement that can allow you to move troops in reserve pretty much anywhere in your own interior lines. That’s it!
Grant: Please describe the system of map areas that has been created for the game. Can you show us a copy of the map?
Carl: The evolution of the map is interesting. At first, I took as a template the map of my No Retreat! The Russian Front, I then created the Areas from bundles of 4-6 adjacent hexes. Since no hexes are used anymore I was also able to put in more “Natural” contours for the land and rivers. The Areas are set-up with the historical front lines in mind, and some terrain bottlenecks. The most important cities and objectives have their own smaller Area/Hex space and special rules to cover these important objectives.
The game was supposed to cover the period from 1941-44, but by player’s demand, I then added in the holding boxes on the lower part of the map, allowing me to add an optional ending for the game to go up to the bitter end in 1945, and perhaps see Berlin fall!
Grant: I understand that combat is handled with decks of cards. How does this system work?
Carl: It’s simple. On the lower portion of the cards you have a series of 10 combat results. When resolving a battle, you draw one card and check the combat score column on the cards and you get the combat result. No dice needed. The combat score is the difference between attacking combat factors and defending combat factors plus terrain modifiers. Example: a German 4-strength unit plus a 1-strength air support attacks a 2-strength Soviet unit in a wood (1 Strength) and results in a the following: 5-3 = 2. The combat result under column 2 on a drawn German Card (EX (exchange) result). The combat results for the German and Russian players are different, too.
Grant: What do the cards look like and how are they different?
Carl: The cards have a different layout than in the No Retreat! series as you have one deck of cards for each player, contrary to the same deck in my other games, with half of the cards useable by each side. Thus, this gave me much more “play space” on the cards, allowing the introduction of cool war pictures on each, plus the above-mentioned combat tables, and just above the tables there is an “Objective” line. On one side of the card’s picture you have the timing for the card’s event (i.e; the years when that particular event can be used), on the other side various other information icons, like giving card discards double effects.
Grant: Do the combat cards also have events? Can you share several examples of these events and how they affect the outcome of battles?
Carl: Yes, the cards also double as event cards, you draw four per turn and you can use these for the card’s event, or for other purposes like getting replacements, mounting counter-attacks, and more. For Example, if you look at the “Von Manstein” German Card, there are two possible Combat uses for it: Doubling the Combat value of a unit supporting an attack, or allowing extra counter-attacks during the opponent’s turn. Some cards have other kinds of game effects besides aiding combat, like cancelling your opponent’s cards, forcing him to attack, getting extra replacements or improving units, earning Victory points, etc. Just follow the written instructions for each card!
Grant: How does the game engine for Absolute War! put emphasis on strategic planning? What is your desired outcome for players with this approach?
Carl: The scale of the game is very high, and the strength of your general position can be evaluated almost at a glance. It’s a bit like a game of chess: you’ll have the means of really planning your grand strategy more effectively, since you don’t have too many “computing points” to evaluate. I want players to see the game map more like a “real war” strategic map from a book, and play like a high-level commander, not a micro-manager of hundreds of different units. The micro-manager will be at a disadvantage in the game as it does not reward such a play-style, contrary to a lot of wargames out there.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Carl: About the same as the already simple one of No Retreat!:
- Strategic Phase (draw cards and get replacements).
- Movement Phase
- Combat Phase
- Reserve Phase (place on the map units from the Strategic Reserve Box).
Grant: How is area movement handled and how does it replicate sweeping maneuvers?
Carl: Basic two area-moves per turn. Plus one more for the mobile units. The stacking is low: one or two units per stack, two stacks per area. Usually you will have but one or two units in an area, more at the point of a large offensive, of course. The areas on the map conform to the general moves of the front lines and subsequent exploitation during the war. If you want to enter an area occupied by the enemy, you must attack that area. Numerous extra rules will show operational details, some examples: if you enter the enemy area from opposite points, you could get a “Pincers” marker, giving you an advantage in Battle. If you cross a river and cannot make the enemy retreat, you must go back to your original area. Non-engaged units in the area you attack may launch a counter-attack. So, even with the large Areas on the map, you’ll be able to portray well the smaller-scale events happening in it during a battle.
Grant: How are city sieges handled? What is a good strategy for initiating and winning these sieges?
Carl: Only the larger key cities will see that kind of battle: These are represented by a smaller hex-shaped area. Stacking will be two unit, maximum. Only one side can stay in the hex: so, if the defender does not retreat the attacker must move back to its siege lines. The intense combat will be represented by the ability to do multiple combat rounds in that hex. Just the way their geographical locations are represented on the map will naturally make these important and direct the tactics you should use.
Grant: What is the economic model used in the game? How are build points generated? What can they be used for?
Carl: A similar model than for No Retreat!, but a bit more intricate in regards to the evolution of the Soviet Army, contrary to the former, the latter will use two counters for each Soviet formation, allowing me to make the improvement/evolution more historical and granular. Build points are generated by the events on the event cards, or by discarding the cards in the Strategic Phase: each card discarded gives you one or two build points. The points can be used to move units by Strategic Movement, do Counter-Attacks or Partisan Operations, Improve or Rebuild units. So, a lot of choices to make!
Grant: How are partisans handled in the design? Artillery and air support?
Carl: Partisan and Counter-Partisan operations are simulated by some Card Events and by three hex-shaped “Partisan” counters. The Soviet must pay points to use these, and each can affect one area, impeding supplies and reinforcements: they are thrown like dice on the map; either they land on their “partisan” side: they are put on the map, or on their “counter-insurgency” side, in that case they go into the “German Atrocities” box. Depending upon the number of these markers on the map or on the box, the players could gain Victory Points. Artillery and Air support are depicted by a “Support” marker” that you can use in battle and some Combat Card Events (EX: Katyusha Rockets event, this gives the Soviet Player an extra combat point in 1943, two extra in 1944-45).
Grant: We all know that weather played a role in the invasion and is included in every serious Eastern Front game. How is weather determined and how does it affect the game?
Carl: In the basic game, the weather is fixed for the duration, while in the advanced game, some Card Events can change the weather. Weather will affect how many support points a player gets (in Winter the Soviets usually get more, the Germans less), the movement of units (slower in Mud Weather), and if Armor, can get their special bonus or not. Basic stuff.
Grant: Supply lines are always important. How did you approach this part of the game in the design?
Carl: Since I have less granularity using areas compared to hexes, I had to go one notch in complexity for the all-important supply of units. You could be in full, low, or no supply, depending on the distance you are from a friendly city. A unit in “Low Supply” will be impeded in its operations, but will not die out like a unit in “No Supply”. Supply is also represented by the number of “Combat” markers you get. Each attack you make needs one of those markers; no markers, no attack! The number you get varies with weather, the number of cities (rail network), partisan operations, etc. All this is managed quickly and effortlessly.
Grant: What are the victory conditions? What type of advantages can players gain from completing short term objectives? Are Victory points scored from destroying units?
Carl: You can win the game in one of two ways:
- Either by controlling a certain number of the six enemy objective hexes (that total varies during the game). German player example: Moscow, Leningrad, Sevastopol, Stalingrad, Gorky, Caucasus Oil; this represents a total victory.
- Or, either by having a player miss his War Status roll. War Status for each player is checked once a year by comparing the number of war status points each side has against each other. This represents one side having taken so great an ascendency over the other that the war’s outcome is pretty much certain. You gain war status points by fulfilling event card short-term objectives, making enemy units Surrender and by some Card Events. Players will check the short-term objectives by drawing a card each two turns (odd = German, even = Soviet) and checking the Objective line on the card (ex: “Capture Kursk”), if fulfilled you gain two Points, if not the enemy gains one war point.
Grant: What are the four scenarios included and how long is each one? What is your favorite of the four?
Carl: I am not that fond of scenarios, but they are very nice for a quick game or to start the game at a specific war point: Start winter ’42 scenario, but keep playing from there until the end of the campaign game.
There is one scenario for each of the war’s years. Barbarossa 1941, Stalingrad 1942, Kursk 1943, Bagration 1944. Each will last a year. My favorite is Barbarossa, as it is very quick playing, yet the strategic possibilities are immense. Expect to be able to play each in one/two hours.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design? What do you still feel isn’t quite right?
Carl: The simplicity of it all, yet it is amazingly historical; and also the fun factor in the game. I find that the gameplay still surprises me all the time by the great narrative it gives the player.
Thanks for your time Carl! I love No Retreat! The Russian Front and if you are interested, you can check out our video review, and I look forward to another playable wargame on the subject. I feel like you can never have enough of a good thing. I personally look forward to giving Absolute War! a try. Currently, the game is still being offered on P500 on the GMT Games website: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-573-absolute-war.aspx
It currently sits at 390 orders, so consider backing it so we can get it to the Made the Cut level.