Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks from Hollandspiele, recreates the actions fought on May 31 and June 1 of 1862 during the American Civil War. As you may know, the reason for the dual name is that during the American Civil War, battles typically had two names; one given by the North and the other given by the Confederates. So is the case in this engagement where the North referred to it as Seven Pines and the South called it Fair Oaks or Fair Oaks Station. A complex Confederate battle plan hatched by Joseph E. Johnston, that called for coordinated flank attacks, devolved into an unsupported frontal assault, resulting in the largest battle of the war up until that time, and one of the bloodiest. Beyond the historical scenario included with the game, there are scenarios which allow players to explore the feasibility of Johnston’s actual plan, as well as what might have resulted had he been opposed by a more aggressive Union general than George B. McClellan. I reached out to the designer Tom Russell with Hollandspiele to see if he could shed some light on this game that really has some neat and interesting looking mechanics, such as the Activation Track, and more importantly, seems fun to play.
Grant: First off Tom tell us a little about yourself? What is your background in gaming? What games do you like to play?
Tom: I got into modern games almost completely by accident, or rather by serendipity; a bunch of things all happened at once that pointed me at board games, and eurogames in particular. I’ve said before that board games saved my life, and I’m not being facetious when I say that. Prior to finding board games, I was a very unhappy and frustrated person who tried his hand at a lot of different creative endeavors, but none of them ever seemed to connect. But after discovering board games, it became apparent to me that the things that were weaknesses in these other forms, that were preventing me from connecting and engaging with an audience, might make me uniquely suited for game design. So very quickly after I discovered games, I started designing them.
I felt very comfortable designing eurogames, as those where the kinds of things I was playing. I did my first wargame as a lark; same with my first train game. I really conceived of myself as being a designer of mid-weight eurogames, but as one who might do these atypical sort of niche games on the side as it were. The thing is, the eurogames never sold, but that first wargame did, as did that first train game. And so I did another, and another, and now I’ve got about thirty games to my credit as a designer, and they’re all wargames or economics games.
Because that’s what I was designing, that ended up being what I’ve been playing the last few years. So much so that a lot of eurogames feel weird to me now, and not as interesting as they once were. Mary and I were actually playing a couple of euro-style games the other day with a couple of friends, and the games passed the time well enough, and we enjoyed the company immensely, but we didn’t find the decisions as interesting or as compelling as we’d like. So while that’s mostly the kind of game we play when we get together with friends, most of my gaming time is dedicated to wargames and weirdgames, as I like to call them.
There’s an old chestnut that once you get into games professionally, all you do is playtest, and that is true to a large degree. Most of our gaming time is taken up with developing games for Hollandspiele, to the point where playing a design that isn’t for us is a rare occurrence. So unfortunately I can’t rattle off a list of non-Hollandspiele games that see a lot of table-time. But there are designers that I admire, and whose work is more likely to see my table than others. Brian Train we’ve had the pleasure of working with. Mark Herman’s games are very elegant and very smart and very competitive; every time I get Washington’s War on the table, I’m utterly delighted. He’s doing very interesting things with unusual designs like Churchill and the forthcoming Fort Sumter game. Frank Chadwick is a master, really; he does so much with so very little in way of rules overhead.
Grant: What do you most love about the design process? What are you really skilled at? What do you struggle with?
Tom: I really enjoy all aspects of the process from start to finish. I like researching (period sources from the middle ages in particular are a joy), I like writing rules, I like playtesting and iterating. All these aspects scratch different itches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still “work”, but it’s all pleasurable work; there’s no aspect of it that feels like a chore. Because of that, while some things may come to me easier than others, there’s nothing where I feel like I’m really out of my element. I often try to do new things in my designs, to experiment with new mechanisms, and sometimes they don’t always work. Sometimes they need some finessing and rethinking, and sometimes they’re not worth the time and the effort – though I only seem to realize that in retrospect.
That can be frustrating to be sure, and a struggle I suppose, but it’s nothing too overwhelming. I mean, my job is to get up every morning and play board games. Best job in the world. Really, I live a pretty charmed life.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Tom: I start by figuring out what the game is about. This isn’t so much about finding the topic, but about finding a thesis for the design, the central idea. For example, Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 is an operational game about the first three years of the American War for Independence, but it’s about it through the lens of supplies. Every rule in the game is built around that premise, and everything that doesn’t support it I jettison from the design. And this is I suppose my general approach.
As a result, the rules are usually fairly simple and straightforward. I try to make them simple enough that I can remember them without having a player aid or consulting the rulebook. If I have to do that, it’s not simple enough, not streamlined enough.
[Editor’s Note: We have played Supply Lines and love it dearly. Here is a link to a video review that we did a few months back: https://theplayersaid.com/2017/10/21/video-review-supply-lines-of-the-american-revolution-the-northern-theater-1775-1777-from-hollandspiele/%5D
Grant: How did you and Mary decide to start Hollandspiele?
Tom: Mary and I always intended to run our own company, right from the beginning, even in the eurogame days. Because the way we looked at it was, we would like to make some kind of living at this, and as a designer, that’s just very unlikely. Not only would you need to be prolific, but you’d need to have games that were big hits. There’s no money in designing, or very little in most circumstances anyway. There was money in publishing. And we came up with the name Hollandspiele at that time, after Mary’s maiden name Holland, because we were planning on publishing euro-style games and we thought the name sounded appropriately continental for that endeavor.
The plan was to launch the company after I had made some kind of name for myself as a designer, so that we could trade on that. Again, the eurogames didn’t sell, and the wargames did, and I found myself with a job editing a wargames magazine, and Mary found herself running a small wargames company that did folio games. And together, we picked up a lot of practical experience. Mary oversaw the publication of fifteen different games, I edited seven issues of a quarterly magazine each with a pack-in game. So by the time we left, we had a pretty good idea of how to run a wargames company, and also some ideas as to how we could improve on the methods we had seen.
And at the time we started the company, I didn’t really have any kind of reputation or following to trade on. None of my pre-Hollandspiele wargames were really big hits. But we knew that when we released a given game, we would sell at least x number of copies and hopefully more than that. And so we knew what kind of budget we had to work with, as far as the art goes, to ensure the games would be profitable. By handling the covers and the counters myself, and just hiring artists for maps or for special illustrations, we also controlled those costs.
Our basic plan for the company was that it would give us some side money, and let us get some interesting games out there. We could take a chance on something off-the-wall because we could control the costs to the point where it would almost be guaranteed to make some kind of small profit. We figured that a few years down the road, if the company and its catalog grew enough, we could make it a full-time gig. But as folks are probably aware, I quit my job back in February, and so Mary and I are working on Hollandspiele full-time, as our only source of income.
Grant: I want to say congratulations to you and Mary. You are a true success story and I know that came only with hard work, vision and dedication. What do you attribute your apparent success to date to? How do you measure success?
Tom: Mary and I actually spend quite a bit of time talking about why things took off the way they have. And there are a couple of things. One is that we’re doing unusual games, sometimes on unusual topics. And there’s a growing audience for this sort of thing. Some of them are old wargamers looking for something different, and some of them are people who are interested in historical or consim gaming who aren’t necessarily interested in hex-and-counter zone-of-control games (at least not yet). And don’t get me wrong; there will always be an audience for hex-and-counter zone-of-control games. The game we’re talking about today is a hex-and-counter zone-of-control game. And they sell, but they don’t sell as well as the “weird” stuff. They don’t get people talking as much as the “weird” stuff, and they’re less likely to “go viral” in the way that, at least to a limited degree, games like Table Battles or Agricola or Infamous Traffic have.
So a big part of our success is that we’re catering to a niche and playing to our strengths. We’re not going to compete with someone like GMT, where you have this big game with sheets and sheets of counters, and a forty-page rulebook, and a forty-page playbook, and two maps. We’re a boutique publisher and we embrace that.
I think we’re also helped by the exponential nature of success. When a game does well, it becomes more likely that future games will do well, which makes it more likely that the games that come after that do well. It has a momentum, a snowball effect. We had a couple of very early successes and that’s made it easier for our later games, because now there are more people who are aware of us and our products, which in turn will help make even more people aware of us. We’re very conscious of this, and very grateful for it.
Grant: How do you choose what games you are going to design?
Tom: It’s really a matter of what interests me, plain and simple. If I’m not interested in something, or I can’t wrap my head around the design space, I don’t bother with it. There are things that I’m interested in as a player, but not particularly interested in as a designer. Like a lot of gamers, I’ve played my share of World War II games, but I’ve never designed one and don’t think I ever will. I’m much more interested in designing games that focus on earlier time periods. I tend to be drawn to off-beat and off-the-wall subjects, because those are the things that interest me most of all.
Grant: Why did you choose to design a game around the Civil War battle at Seven Pines? What about the battle presented neat design opportunities or challenges to you?
Tom: The story behind this game best makes sense in the context of some of my earlier games, going back to my very first published game, Blood on the Alma (2012, Lock N Load Publishing). There were some core mechanisms in that game that I used to build the games in the Blood Before Richmond series and Hollandspiele’s Blood in the Fog. All these games have some fundamental similarities, but the scale varied from game-to-game, and the sequence of play varied from game-to-game, and there was enough different that every time I designed a game using those mechanisms, I had to do it from scratch, and every time someone played a game using those mechanisms, they had to learn it from scratch.
And that’s just really inefficient, and I thought I could streamline the process by devising a core ruleset, with a single sequence of play, that could be applied to a variety of topics and battles from that period. And so I created what became the core rules for the Shot & Shell Battle Series. This was pretty much before we had even started up Hollandspiele.
And I started working on the first game for the series, which I intended to be a game on Hatcher’s Run. Hatcher’s Run is a fascinating battle, and it has an amazing name. Just listen to it: Hatcher’s Run. It’s evocative, immediate. It’s also extremely obscure, and extremely hard to research. Ed Bearss did a book on the Petersburg campaign that had a nice chapter on Hatcher’s Run, and of course there are scattered mentions in memoirs and in the Official Records. But it’s a lot of digging, and hunting and pecking; it hasn’t gotten nearly the same kind of attention that many other ACW battles have.
And again, I had this ruleset ready to go. I wanted to get this series launched. But I didn’t want to spend another year or two trying to cobble together a game on Hatcher’s Run. I needed a topic I was familiar with. And when I did those Blood Before Richmond games, which center on battles from the Seven Days, I spent a lot of time looking at the entire Peninsular Campaign. The Battle of Seven Pines happened about a month before the Seven Days Battles. It’s largely the same cast of characters, so I already had an order of battle, I had already looked at who was a capable commander and who wasn’t. There were a number of good maps available, which was not the case for Hatcher’s Run. So a game on Seven Pines I could bring together fairly quickly, using my existing materials and knowledge. That was the primary draw for Seven Pines, honestly – that I knew the subject and the game would have a quick turnaround time without much fuss.
Grant: As you mentioned, Seven Pines is the first game in the Shot & Shell Battle Series. What types of games make it in this series?
Tom: The ruleset is built for the middle of the nineteenth century. Eighteen-fifties, eighteen-sixties, maybe tipping its toe a little into the eighteen-seventies. I don’t think it could go much more in either temporal direction and still function, but hey, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on in those twenty or thirty years.
Grant: Are there particular parameters that you use on these games?
Tom: It’s a brigade-level series of battle games, so it’s only going to be appropriate for certain battles. Something like the Battle of Inkerman only really works on a regimental level, for example, which is why Blood in the Fog isn’t a Shot & Shell game despite sharing a lot of the same mechanisms.
Grant: I read this about the series: The game is of moderate complexity, with five kinds of combat and three kinds of Intrenchments, but play is quick and relatively streamlined. Five types of combat seems to be a little more complex. Tell me why that isn’t necessarily the case.
Tom: Maybe your scale is different from mine. To me, a complicated game is something like the Civil War Brigade Series from The Gamers/MMP. And a simple game is something like my Shields & Swords II series of medieval combat games. This is more complicated than a simple game, but nowhere near as complicated as a complicated one. And those five kinds of combat all basically work the same way – they just happen at different times within the turn, and confer their own advantages or disadvantages. They’re different tools that you have at your disposal, and you have to figure out how and when to use them, and in what combination, to solve the problems you have in front of you.
Really, it is more complicated than most of my wargames, but all that means is that it has ten pages of rules instead of eight. And Seven Pines in particular doesn’t have much by way of game-specific rules; as the first game in the series, I felt it was important that it be as free of exceptions as possible. The next game in the series, The Heights of Alma, has a lot more special rules and cases. But with the first game, I wanted the gamer to be able to concentrate on familiarizing themselves with the system before we get super-ornate and specialized.
Grant: So to follow up on the last questions, what is quick and relatively streamlined about Seven Pines?
Tom: The game plays fast. Over the course of the turn we alternate impulses – I do a division, you do a division, then I do a division, or two divisions, or whatever. Back-and-forth. Very quick. Movement is pretty simple: anything unusual in the hex, it’s +1 MP. Forest? +1 MP. Elevation change? +1 MP. Forest and elevation change? +1 MP for both, so +2 MP. There’s some complexity to the combat, but it’s less about mechanical complexity, because all the different types work basically the same way, and more about the complexity of the decision space. For the decisions the game gives you, I think there’s relatively little overhead. No muss, no fuss.
Grant: What elements about the battle did you most want to capture in your design?
Tom: The focus of this specific design is really on the plan that Johnston had, which was to converge on the Union position simultaneously from two different directions. A pincer move. It sounds simple, but it was way too complicated for the time. Heck, Robert Lee tried to do the same thing again and again during the Seven Days, and even he couldn’t get it to work. And Johnston was no Lee.
So the first scenario of the game recreates the historical action, where this maneuver did not happen at all. The second scenario lets you execute the plan against an unsuspecting, half-asleep Union army. The third scenario gives both sides a lot more leeway. And the fourth just looks at the second day of the battle, because why not include that, you know? But the meat of the game is those first three scenarios, looking at the battle plan and its feasibility under different conditions.
Grant: What mechanic did you use to model the command confusion in the battle? What works well with this choice?
Tom: Really, the Activation Track handles this all pretty well – I think we’ll be discussing that in more detail in just a hop-and-a-skip, so I’ll touch on that there.
Grant: This game uses the same counter concepts as your previous game Blood in the Fog. What is this system and why did it work well in this design? What was the main goal of your choice to use it here?
Tom: The stack-of-counters as strength-of-unit concept was in my very first wargame, Blood on the Alma, and featured in the other “Blood” games, and forms the heart of the Shot & Shell Battle Series. It lends itself well to attritional combat – you can have an exchange result and instead of everyone being half-strength, they lose strength a little more subtly. And this allows you to model the power of artillery, because suddenly it’s doing two or three step losses in one go.
Grant: One side note. Butternut for the CSA counters? Help me understand. Why? Did you get a good deal on the color paper? I actually really like the look so bravo.
Tom: Oh, this one is easy. A lot of Confederate uniforms were rather ad-hoc and cheaply made, and so you have a lot of them that were butternut, or gray that took on a butternut appearance. And it just looks nicer I think.
Grant: Great work on the player aid cards. Why is it important to get all important info on one card?
Tom: Well, some folks feel that we should have had a more detailed player aid, something we’re looking into for the next game in the series. But I wanted all the charts and modifiers to be with the Activation Track. Mary also put the charts and modifiers on the back of the Series Rulebook, because hey, we had an extra page, so you might as well use it.
Grant: Also great work on the map. Who is your artist? What role does a proper map play in a wargame?
Tom: Ilya Kudriashov is an artist we’ve had the pleasure of working with several times. He’s very good and he’s very fast – so fast, in fact, that we’re pretty sure he once turned in an assignment before we gave it to him.
A good wargame map should immerse you, should feel of apiece with the period, but more importantly it needs to be functional and it needs to communicate.
Grant: How does the Activation Track work? What do the colored bands represent? How is this a change from your other systems?
Tom: The quick version is that each Division has a marker on the Activation Track, and when that Division is Activated on a turn, it moves one spot down along the track. And if a Unit is Eliminated, it also moves the Division’s marker down along the track. And this reduces the Division’s ability to Activate, because eventually it’s going to hit the bottom of the track. And once it’s there, it needs to roll to Activate, and if it flubs the roll, or if an Elimination pushes it down again, the Division Retires. Which is basically a game term for being on the rocks, and not doing anything this turn, and it will spend its next turn trying to Rally.
So the more you push the Division, and the more of a beating it takes, the more it decreases the ability of the Division to activate later on. The men get worn down. They get demoralized, they get exhausted.
And this also decreases the ability of those Divisions to work together, to support one another’s attacks, and this is where those color bands come into play. You have a green band for when units are fresh, a yellow one for when they’re wearing down, and a red one for when they’re on the verge of collapse. If you’re in the red, only the units within that Division can support an attack. If you’re in the yellow, units from another Division within the same Corps can support an attack. If you’re in the green, those Divisions can support each other even if they’re not in the same Corps.
Grant: That is a very ingenious way to incorporate the elements of fatigue and morale into the activations. Nice work! How do units rally and when do they rest?
Tom: When a Division Retires, on its next turn it Rallies by rolling 2d6. There’s a Rally Chart embedded within the Activation Track, so it’s going to be placed on the corresponding space (maxing out with yellow).
If you don’t activate a Division during a turn, when you pass – forgoing your ability to activate – it bumps up one space on the track, but only within its band. So it can’t jump from red to yellow or from yellow to green. Resting like this naturally increases the ability of the unit to activate later, and avoids the negative effects of being in the red.
The thing players need to be careful with is pushing your guys too far. Very few battles involved every unit fighting every minute for hours and hours. You have periods of resting and regrouping, and if you don’t allow for that, you’re going to wear your guys down to the bone, and the other side is going to knock you over with a feather.
Grant: How does initiative work and what benefit does it give one side over the other? How can it change hands?
Tom: Initiative is assigned per the scenario rules, and the scenario may have a mechanism to allow for it to switch to the other side, or it may not. Initiative lets you go first in every turn. And, once both sides are done with their alternating impulses, if the Initiative Player hasn’t passed – that is, if he’s activated all his possible Divisions – he can activate one of those Divisions again as part of that same Game Turn. Which depending on how it’s used can be a very good or a very bad idea, because again, you want to manage the exhaustion of your troops.
Grant: How does the combat system work? How do intrenchments modify combat? How does support effect combat?
Tom: For all types of combat except Sharpshooters, the attacker determines the strength of the attack using some very simple modifiers. You add the number of counters in the stack to the number of stars on the counter. You add one for this or one for that, and you have the strength of the attack.
Then the defender makes a defense roll, which he adds to the number of counters in his stack. You roll one die in open terrain, and you roll two dice if you have some kind of terrain advantage or are Intrenched. Sometimes, Charging the enemy will force them to roll only one die, though certain types of Intrenchments negate this, and a unit that Charges needs to survive Defensive Fire before he gets to attack.
So you have your attack strength, and you have your defense roll, and you compare the two to get a Defense Roll Differential. You cross-reference this on the appropriate table with the attacking unit type, and you apply the result – step losses, retreats, disruptions, easy-peasy.
Grant: How do Sharpshooters work?
Tom: Sharpshooters are great because they’re completely unfair. You roll one or two dice on the Sharpshooter’s Table, adding a couple of modifiers, then you use the best result. They’re rubbish when the enemy attacks them, but if they keep their distance and take their shots, they can be instrumental in wearing down the enemy units.
Grant: How do players win the game?
Tom: The game is decided on Victory Points. Each side earns VP for accomplishing certain things per the scenario rules. Each side might also earn VP for the guys the other side brings onto the map. Basically, this is modeling the fact that in a real battle, each side is careful not to over-commit, always holding some forces back in reserve. So if you bring on every possible unit, you’re going to cede a lot of VP to the other side, and are going to need to accomplish more to overcome that.
Grant: What has been players response to the system and to this battle? What are you most proud of with the system?
Tom: So far, so good! There’s been some nice reviews and AARs online, and people seem to be enjoying it, and the Activation mechanism especially. I guess if I had to zero-in on something, it’d be that aspect, as it’s really central to the whole design and manages to do a few different things without a lot of different sub-systems – it’s all rolled into the track.
Grant: What other upcoming games do you have planned for the Shot and Shell Series?
Tom: The next game is The Heights of Alma, about the 1854 Battle of the Alma, in the Crimean War. It’s sort of a remake of Blood on the Alma, though there’s been a lot of reworking in terms of adapting it to the series rules and the way the series works.
We have more ACW battles planned, of course – it’s really the dominant conflict of the era, and I think a lot of gamers are looking for quick, playable ACW battle games. But I don’t want to pigeon-hole the series as being an ACW series, which is one reason why we’re doing the Alma game as the second entry. And we have another designer looking at a couple of battles in Europe shortly after the ACW, which will help flesh out the parameters of the series a bit.
Thanks for your amazingly thorough and detailed answers Tom. I really love doing interviews with designers that have great passion as they always give such great details and you can feel how much they love their creation. I am very much interested in this game and really want to play it. If you are interested in a copy, you can find one on the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/seven-pines-or-fair-oaks
The game is currently on sale for $40.00 (regularly $45.00).