Many of you know that I live for those GMT Games monthly update emails. Each month, about the end of the 2nd week, I start getting an itch as I know that the monthly update is nearing. As we enter that 3rd week, that itch turns into a burn as it really could be released any day. If Thursday has come, and there has yet to be an update email, I start to feel ill. Maybe I need to see a doctor about this but I just love GMT Games. In August, we were treated to a fantastic version of the monthly update email that included two new releases on the P500. One of those releases was Fast Action Battle Series #4: Cruasader North Africa 1941 designed by the same guy that designed FAB: Golan ’73 Michael Gustavsson. I reached out to Michael, and even though he was in the process of moving, he set some time aside to answer my interview questions, and I am glad that he did.
Grant: Michael, please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What games do you play? What do you do for a living?
Michael: I will start with thanking you for being interested in the game and having me do this interview! I’m from Sweden, born and raised in Stockholm, but living in the beautiful northern part of the country. I play lots of games, not just wargames. The ones that hit my gaming table are mostly wargames though, among my favorites are Eastfront, Red Winter, Operation Dauntless, FAB: The Bulge, Ardennes ’44 and Fields of Fire! For a living, I’m currently working as a welder, and before that, I was a chef for about 15 years.
Grant: What got you into board game design? What do you love most about design? What is your greatest challenge with design?
Michael: I’ve always created rules and stuff when I was a kid to play with my toys and plastic models/soldiers. So, it kind of grew to be more serious when I got into wargaming in the late 80’s. I love to see the whole design evolve, from crappy notes on a piece of paper to have a complete game. Doing the research and artwork is the greatest challenge. I’m also always very excited doing the first playtest run to see if all my vision and work comes together as planned.
Grant: What is your overall design philosophy?
Michael: To have a solid design that sticks to the subject and making sure to give it the proper treatment and do the battles depicted justice. Historical feel and theme is also very important for me.
Grant: Having previously designed FAB: Golan ’73, what made you want to do another FAB game? How did your previous design experience in this system help you with Crusader North Africa 1941?
Michael: I knew during the work on Golan ’73 that this wouldn’t be my last FAB game, I already then had several games in my head using the FAB system. Rick Young (the series designer) made such a great system that you can give almost any battle (WW2 and on) the FAB-treatment.
FAB: Golan ’73 was my first serious design that went all the way to production so during that process I learned the whole time. I must give Rick Young, and John Foley the credit for being my mentors. They taught me a lot and their patience with me and all my ideas that poured through my head is worth mentioning. So, when I asked Rick if I could do another FAB game, he told me that “you can do this one yourself, you don’t need me now”, hahaha… I’m happy about that, it’s like saying – Okay, now I’m accepted as a designer by him and can stand on my own. But of course, he still gives me advice and we stay in touch.
Grant: What is Crusader North Africa 1941 about?
Michael: It’s about the Allied (British and Commonwealth) Operation CRUSADER, which was a series of battles also known as the “Winter Battles” fought in November-December 1941. The goal was to relieve the siege of the port town of Tobruk on the Libyan coast. The Axis (Italians and Germans) had surrounded it for months and the public opinion demanded a success in the war, after all the failures so far. The Allied plan was for a long sweeping maneuver around the Axis frontier strongpoints at the Egyptian border and to lure the Axis, especially the German Afrika Korps, into a decisive battle once and for all. Now, CRUSADER was an Allied victory, in that Tobruk was relieved, the enemy was driven off with heavy losses, and all the Axis troops holding positions on the Egyptian frontier were destroyed or captured. But the Allied losses were also heavy and in the early stage it almost cost them the victory. CRUSADER could have ended in failure for the Allies, while events and other circumstances led to a victory in the end.
Grant: What parameters are these for the design of a Fast Action Battles Series game?
Michael: Well, the design must include Fun, Fast and Furious… Seriously, I know that the games should be in harmony with the design vision expressed by Rick. One map (34” x 22”), about 9 game turns (although Crusader has 10 turns), minimum tampering with the Series Rules and of course an interesting battle to portray. But if a situation demands a change to the series rules, e.g. stacking or movement, it could easily be part of the exclusive rules. But in general, the system is very flexible and the exclusive rules are there to give the “feel” for the battle simulated.
Grant: What does a good tank battle game have to include in the design?
Michael: For Crusader, maneuvering and a strong punch of armored units! Look at Golan ’73, that is almost purely a tank battle game, or at least a mechanized battle. I think that we managed to simulate that one pretty well (although, the terrain there wasn’t a good tank country). In Crusader, the tank is the king but there are not many of them, so they are very precious. On the other hand, you need them to crush your opponent so deciding on where and when to unleash the tanks are crucial for the eventual outcome.
Grant: Tell us about the process of assigning combat and defense values for the OOBs. What units were a challenge to get correct? Where did you pull the information from for the historic OOB?
Michael: This was a tough challenge since the two sides had about the equivalent equipment but very different tactics and doctrines. The game uses wooden blocks for units and the pips on each edge represents about a battalion, and thus you are limited to a maximum of four pips on each unit. In the FAB series however, the color of the pips also represents the Troop Quality which includes Green, Veteran and Elite (white, black and red, respectively) and the TQ may change as units take hits during combat or other situations. I think that this was a genius mechanism that Rick came up with, so, what I did was to have some of the events drawn reflect tactics which affects combat. The number and when Special Action events arrives also represents the two sides abilities. See image below for reference.
Grant: Why are block wargames so popular and what do they provide to the game play experience?
Michael: Block wargames are a delicate way of representing fog of war. So, to maintain that aspect, it is crucial to keep it that way. The tension of not knowing what your opponent throws at you until the very last moment is a thrill. And as mentioned above, you are not as free as in other games using counters as units where you could shuffle with ratings and numbers more freely. Although, that could be done to block games as well but I don’t think many of them exist…yet!
Grant: I know that you designed several features into the game to simulate the reality of the historical conflict. How does tank recovery work in the design? What restrictions are placed on the Italian Ariete & Trieste? How does this affect their battle effectiveness?
Michael: The Tank Recovery rule was needed to reflect the German battlefield recovery of their tanks. Normally, in the FAB series, units receive replacements by either an event or by spending a Special Action. However, during the CRUSADER battles no replacements were available and the Germans had to rely on their recovery teams and workshops to recover and repair their damaged tanks. To simulate this in the game, for each hit on a German armor unit during a Combat Round, one Tank Recovery marker is placed in the area. Up to two such markers may be placed in each area and during the Supply Phase one die (D10) is rolled per marker – modified by area control, whether the area is contested or not and if the unit/area is unsupplied. For each successful roll, the Tank Repaired marker on the Tank Recovery Track is moved accordingly and these steps become available as replacement steps in the following Reinforcement Phase. I think this works well as this time and I’m satisfied by the rule so far.
The Restricted Italian Division rule affects the Ariete Armored and Trieste Motorized Divisions, belonging to the Corpo d’Armata di Manovra (CAM). At the start of the campaign, this mobile corps reported through a separate chain of command that bypassed Rommel, which limited cooperation between those formations and the remainder of the Axis forces (Panzergruppe Afrika). As a result, Rommel had to ask permission before he could deploy this formation for his use. To simulate the coordination difficulties, no unit of CAM Corps may voluntarily occupy the same area, or participate in combat, with a formation not part of the corps. Also, they may not receive strategic assets/events and not move adjacent to other units. This restriction is in effect until a Reusable Special Action is spent (one for each division), where it is lifted and the units may move and fight as normal.
Grant: How is armor treatment handled in the design? Do tanks have different armors based on their facing or more a general armor value?
Michael: Armor have the ability of maneuvering and have modifiers when firing/targeted during combat. The scale of the series is such that facing doesn’t exist. In the first game of the series, The Bulge, units are mostly Divisions, so when speaking of armor it is how you use them that matters. In Crusader, units are Regiments/Brigades and recon units are Battalions. Three large units are Italian Divisions.
Grant: What events are included in the game and how do they come about?
Michael: This is where this game shines as well, there are far more events than in the previous volumes in the FAB series. First, I decided to have Air Missions back as events, just as in The Bulge game. Other events include Naval Bombardment, Army Reserve Released, LRDG Raid, ULTRA Intelligence, Beta Convoy, Weather and many more… There are also some “tactical events”, affecting movement and combat such as German Fire Brigade Tactics, Determined Defense and a few others. Maybe some eyebrows are being raised now, but I can guarantee that they are interesting, intriguing and effectual and their use doesn’t make the game more complex. Everything is still in playtesting so nothing is set in stone yet and things might be revealed and decision made to not make it into the final produced game.
Grant: I understand that there are optional rules to enhance realism including Allied Armor Doctrine and Advanced Artillery usage. What are these rules and what real practice from WWII do they simulate? Was there any such rule you wished to use but couldn’t get included in the design?
Michael: The British used their tanks as the old-fashioned cavalry charge and didn’t have any combined arms tactics, because of that their tank losses was heavy during Operation CRUSADER. To simulate this, an Allied armor unit must be appointed the point unit if present. The first hit by enemy ground fire must be taken by the point unit (a battle asset may not take this first hit). Advanced artillery rules are such as overrunning artillery and some modifiers when firing.
Like the previous three volumes in the series there are some optional rules, they are there to provide players that want to with more realism in the game. If using them, the game will increase in both playing time and complexity, that is why we put them as optional rules. You don’t have to use all of them, they are written such that you may pick some or all of them. There are some other optional rules as well, one which allows the players to use a different firing sequence in combat. This rule simulates German superior tactics and combined arms much more realistically than using the normal sequence. There are also Allied Forward Maintenance Centers (FMC’s) in the optional rules, if captured by the Axis they do not need fuel assets to move (these centers contained very large quantities of supplies).
Grant: How does siege work in the game? How does the siege of Tobruk play out in the design?
Michael: There is no siege per se in the game! The units inside the Tobruk Perimeter are by rule definition out of supply, but having its own supply dump from which they draw supplies. However, the victory conditions are that the units must be linked and able to trace a supply path to any of the Entry Areas S/SE on the map.
The units inside the Tobruk perimeter may not cross the Fortress boundary surrounding it until a Special Action is spent by the Allied player. This could be the Reusable Special Action or one single-use Special Action chit from the Allied XXX Corps, which were responsible for the relief operation.
Grant: How does combat work for those unfamiliar with the FAB system?
Michael: In the FAB series, combat is resolved by throwing 10-sided dice and comparing to a success number (SN) of 5 (which can be modified up or down, by the Combat Results Table). Any roll greater than the SN is a hit. You roll as many D10 as there are pips for units/assets.
I will give a brief example below:
The Allied player is the Attacker (with 7th Armored and 1st South African Motorized Infantry Brigades from the XXX Corps) in Bir el Gubi area, defended by the Ariete Armored Division (132nd Armored and 8th Bersagliere Regiments).
- The Allied player assigns assets/events first, one Air Mission event and the P. Steyn Machine Gun (MG) is chosen. Both have a special ability to be designated in a support role instead of firing normally. The Air Mission is placed next to the 7th Armored and the MG asset next to the 1st SA unit.
- The Axis player assigns one artillery asset (21st Artillery Rgt) and one anti-tank (AT) asset (the MIL Bn). Now both players designate their point units, the Axis first (132nd Arm) followed by the Allied (7th Arm).
- Attacker fires artillery first. The Allied player doesn’t have any artillery asset available, but the 1st SA unit has intrinsic artillery and fires. Hits are applied immediately.
- Defender artillery fires next and apply any hits.
- Italian ground fire – both units and the AT asset fires with as many dice as there are pips. E.g. The 132nd Arm fires, rolling 3 dice with a SN of 5 modified by (looking at the CRT) +1 for Armor unit firing, -1 for TQ, -1 for target’s point unit is armor for a net SN of “4”. Hits are applied if any.
- Allied ground fire – The 7th Arm and 1st SA fires, one unit at a time. For 7th Arm the SN is 5, +1 armor firing, +2 Air Support, -1 target’s point unit is armor, +1 for TQ (being Elite), -1 for Terrain for a net SN of “7”, rolls 3 dice and apply any hits if scored.
Note that hits from artillery and ground fire can be distributed in different ways such as disorder, step-loss, abort the attack, retreat and loss of fieldworks if present. Now, this was a quick example of combat. In FAB, combat is very easy to resolve and there are no ratios and such to calculate.
Grant: Who is the artist for the map? What role does a sound map play in a proper wargame?
Michael: I am the artist for the map and everything else! However, Mark Simonitch gave me access to his graphic library so he helped me a lot. I did the Golan ’73 map as well and I’m very proud of that one! A sound map should be appealing both graphically and historically as well as functional. Speaking of maps, I think I invest more time on the maps than anything else and I love working with them.
Grant: I noticed that on the map that Tobruk has an inset of the city itself. What purpose does this serve?
Michael: Nothing really, it’s just graphically and allows the players to fit units in it since the area on the map itself is too small to accommodate more than four units.
Grant: What role do the supply depots and airfields play in the game? Why were they critical for the war in North Africa?
Michael: Supply depots are special supply sources. Units in or adjacent to a friendly-controlled supply depot area are always in supply. For the Axis, these depots are crucial since they need fuel to move. Fuel is represented by assets and the Axis player must spend one fuel asset if a unit moves more than three movement points (MP). As this is a very fluid battle, with lots of maneuvering, your fuel assets become very, very important. Now, if an area with a supply depot becomes Allied-controlled, one fuel asset must be moved to the Eliminated Box. Since the Axis player only has a limited amount of those precious fuel assets, the effect of losing them are crucial to the outcome. This brings up the Axis Beta Convoy event. When this chit is drawn, the player may have additional fuel (as well as an Air Mission and replacements) added to his pool. Fuel assets may also be affected by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) Raid, the Allied special forces which can conduct different raids as an event.
If the Allied player captures Axis airfields, an Air Mission event per airfield captured is released from the holding box. This simulates the Allies both freeing up air units and that the Air Force is moving more squadrons closer to the battlefield.
Grant: What scenarios are included in the game? How long does each take to play? What has changed through the playtesting process? Please give some specific examples and their solutions.
Michael: Right now, I’m working on two scenarios. The Crusader battles that begins on November 19th and ends December 5th (10 Game Turns) if not a Sudden Death or Automatic Victory is achieved by the players before the final turn. The second scenario is not decided yet. I have two ideas that I need to playtest some more and after that I will decide on which to use, but both are shorter than the main scenario. Playing time is about the same as for the Golan ’73 game, despite there is one additional turn (9 vs 10) in Crusader, two and a half to three hours I would say. But as usual, that depends on how experienced the players are.
Grant: What is the anticipated timeline for the development and release of the game? What other games are you currently working on?
Michael: I have no clue, it all depends on how well the game does on the pre-ordering list (P500). I’m currently working on two other games, one MotoGP racing game and the other a wargame. The latter is also a block wargame on the battle of Soltsy 1941 on the Russian Front of World War II. It is more detailed than the FAB games, and is heavily influenced by Multi-Man Publishing’s BCS system. But right now, those are put on hold since all my focus is on FAB: Crusader. I am very grateful for your interest in the game! I hope this interview and summary of the game was a help for people who are possibly “sitting on the fence” about ordering it from GMT Games.
Michael, thank you for time in answering my questions and I appreciate the insight it gave me into what sets this volume apart from the other great games in the FAB series. I can say that this one looks really good and involves a lot of tanks, which can never be a bad thing IMHO.
If you are interested in ordering FAB #4: Crusader North Africa 1941, you can follow this link to the game page on the GMT Games’ website where you can preorder it for the very reasonable price of $45.00: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-655-crusader-fab-4.aspx