Over the past year, I have been introduced to games from Tiny Battle Publishing and have really enjoyed playing them. The games are smaller format poly-bag games that typically have less than 100 counters but always have high quality components with great art and most importantly interesting and unique game play. One game that I have had my eye on for a while now is Into the Pocket!: Operation Winter Storm designed by Mark Stille, which originally appeared in Yaah! Magazine Issue #3 but has since been added to their lineup. I contacted Mark and he was more than willing to talk to me about his take on the subject.
Into the Pocket! focuses on the tank battles on the steppes outside of Stalingrad in December 1942 where the Germans staged an attempt at a relief attack to save the 6th Army trapped there. The effort was a difficult one and had very little chance of realistic success but makes for an interesting challenge none the less.
Grant: First off Mark, tell us a little about yourself. What games do you like to play? What other games have you designed? What do you do for a living?
Mark: I have had a life-long interest in wargaming beginning with Avalon Hill’s Blitzkrieg at age 12. What a great game to start with since it does a good job covering all the basic precepts of wargaming and military operations in general. I was then captivated by Panzerblitz, which we would play for an entire weekend at college. I now own just shy of 2,000 games. My preference is for monster games with a focus on World War II. I have played War in Europe through from start to finish at least 10 times. The more sweeping the game, the better. Anything Eastern Front is also a favorite.
My design background is varied. The first game I had published was Red Sun/Red Star way back in S&T #158. It covered the forgotten battle (actually campaign) of Nomonhan (Khalkin Gol to the Soviets) which had all the ingredients of a potentially great game. Most of my other designs have been for Against the Odds, and most have been on off-beat or underserved situations. North Wind Rain covered a potential Russo-Japanese war in 1941-42. The game is based on actual plans and forces, and is therefore, not a flight of fantasy like most hypothetical games. Other ATO games include titles on Leyte Gulf, the 1945 battle for Budapest and a detailed treatment of the Operation Winter Storm – the German relief attack to rescue the 6th Army at Stalingrad in December 1942.
When I’m not designing games, I’m working for the government in the intelligence community. I’m a retired naval intelligence officer and have spent time at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of command. I spent three years at the Naval War College’s wargaming department on the Red Team which was probably the best job ever. I like to think my design principals are drawn from real-world experience. I also write books for Osprey on the side. I intend to leave my full-time government gig soon, which should allow time for more game playing and designing.
Grant: How did you get into design? What do you love about it? What keeps you up at night?
Mark: My interest in design comes from my deep interest in the history surrounding a situation. With any insight comes the temptation to design a game yourself since you are then able to fix any problems you see with previous designs on the same subject, emphasize the things that need to be emphasized, and create a whole new take on a battle or campaign. Many of my games cover a situation which has not been done before, as you can tell from the list above. I love covering those niche situations that nobody else has touched. I love it when a design comes together, which to be accomplished takes a massive amount of playtesting. You can tell which games have been extensively playtested and which have not fairly quickly after beginning play. Nothing keeps me up at night except the thought that there are so many more battles which need to have a game published on them, and so little time to do them all.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Mark: If I have a design philosophy, it is to make my games good simulations rather than good games. To me, the history behind the game is very important and should be the driving force behind the design. I also think that the order of battle for a game is crucial. This probably reflects my military training, but any wargame has to be built on a foundation of reality. When designing a game, I always start with too much detail and chrome and then pare them back to maintain some level of playability. A good game hits that mix of historical accuracy and playability.
Grant: What historical event does Into the Pocket! cover?
Mark: Into the Pocket! covers the German relief attack to save the 6th Army trapped in Stalingrad. I’m fascinated by all aspects of the Stalingrad campaign and have always thought the relief attack was the most dramatic aspect of the entire campaign.
- Grant: What historical aspects of the campaign were important to include in the game design?
Mark: From a design standpoint, the game is difficult to pull off. In the actual battle, the German attack was a desperate measure that had very little chance of success. To make Into the Pocket! a viable game required a lot of fiddling with the victory conditions and the addition of some optional German forces to make it more challenging for both sides. One important aspect of the battle which could not be included was the potential breakout of the 6th Army to link up with the relief attack. It is very hard to believe that this could ever have happened given the German command personalities involved in such a decision, but it is an intriguing “what-if.” This is covered in my ATO game on the battle if players are dying to explore the possibilities.
Grant: I see in the marketing material that the game is described as follows: “It’s an honest-to-gosh, hex-and-counter, odds-and-CRT, column-shiftin’, panzer-pushin’ Eastern Front WWII wargame”. What does this all mean?
Mark: That is the description provided by Mark H. Walker who is a Naval War College buddy of mine. There may be a little hyperbole mixed in there, but it’s generally accurate. The point is that it’s a low complexity game featuring lots of tanks fighting on the Russian steppe south of Stalingrad.
Grant: How is this game different than other Eastern Front WWII games?
Mark: Into the Pocket! is different from other Eastern Front games because of the drama of the situation. Many Eastern Front battles have lots of tanks, but few of them have such an intrinsically dramatic scenario. If the Germans push hard and get some momentum, they might get through to the pocket. If they fail, the 6th Army is lost and the tide of the war in the east shifts forever in the favor of the Soviets. The game is short enough that it can be played quickly through several times to really understand what the prospects for success by both sides were.
Grant: What are the overall goals of each side?
Mark: The Germans need to push hard across the barren steppe, crossing three major rivers in the face of massive Soviet reinforcements to link up with the pocket. Then they need to get the relief convoy into the pocket and hold open a corridor into it. This is a real tall order. In contrast, the Soviet player just needs to stop the relief attack and kill German units, which is exactly what they did in the actual battle.
Grant: How is combat handled? What are the various DRMs used and what is the CRT like?
Mark: Combat is based on the traditional odds system. The CRT is friendly to the attack but will extract attrition from both sides. With the attacker having the advantage, both sides need to attack to win this game. Bonuses are key and there are plenty of them – including air support, artillery, armor and unit integrity for mechanized formations.
Grant: How is artillery used?
The Germans have a number of artillery bonuses. Each division generates its own artillery bonus and there are army-level artillery units and a Nebelwerfer bonus. From a design standpoint, giving the Germans so many artillery bonuses is perhaps beyond what the actual battle may have indicated, but this design-for-effect tool was a plausible way to show the power of a Panzer division in the open and provides the German player with a tool to keep his offensive momentum. The Soviets only have two artillery bonuses. This reflects that the battle was one of movement and the Soviets could not fully bring their artillery to bear in such a fluid situation.
Grant: How does the German player best deal with the waves of Soviet reinforcements?
Mark: The short answer is not well. There are also a number of Soviet units on map which start in a reserve mode and are released at various points. The only hope the German player has is to attack all these reserves sequentially and defeat them piecemeal. If these reserve and reinforcements are allowed to become part of a solid Soviet defense, like what happened historically, the German player will certainly lose.
Grant: How does the Soviet player withstand the initial assaults of the German Panzers?
Mark: The key for the Soviets early on is to keep a coherent line. If units are surrounded and forced to retreat through an enemy ZOC, they will take extra losses. As mentioned above, if the Germans can defeat the Soviets piecemeal, they stand a chance, so the Soviet player must keep a coherent line until he builds up enough strength to counterattack. Another way to defeat the German on-rush is to defend the two most southern river lines and force the Germans off their time line.
Grant: What chrome is included in the design? How do armor bonuses work? What are the advantages of various formations?
Mark: I consider the OOB for the game to be chrome since the strength of every unit is carefully reflected in its combat strengths. Unit strengths are not treated in a cookie-cutter way which to me just means the designer was too lazy to do research. The units in play range from a full-strength Panzer division, to tattered Romanian formations, the understrength units of the Soviet 51st Army, which begin the game in contact with Axis forces, to the formidable Soviet 2nd Guards Army.
Since this battle was fought on the open steppes, and since infantry formations did not have well-developed antitank capabilities at this period of the war, both sides get bonuses for having armor in a combat. Mechanized and tank formations for both sides are eligible for a combat bonus if they stay concentrated. This will hopefully encourage players to keep formations together, which is how these units were employed.
Grant: How does negation of armor bonuses work?
Mark: Specific units negate the armored shift. Since this game is driven by column shifts for the attacker, this is a big deal. Soviet antitank brigades and German antiaircraft (yes, read 88mm guns) units negate the armor bonus.
Grant: How do exploitation attacks work?
Mark: This a key aspect of the game. Mechanized units can attack up to three times per turn if they make overruns during their regular and exploitation moves in addition to a regular attack. The player which can engineer this will have a big advantage on the attacker-friendly CRT. The trick with conducting any overrun attack and being eligible to move in the exploitation phase is to be free of an enemy ZOC at the start of the phase.
Grant: What is your favorite part of the design?
Mark: My favorite part of the design is the different sequence of play. The Germans get the traditional move-attack-exploit sequence, which gives them maximum flexibility for setting up attacks. The Soviets have to deal with an exploit-attack-move sequence which means that only their mechanized units can move before combat. All other attacks need to be set up in advance. This simple device shows the basic difference between the two armies and makes the whole simulation, which pits a small force against a much larger one, work.
I like the way the game came together. It’s fun and quick, so you can play it several times through in fairly short order. In the historical scenario, the Germans are hard-pressed to gain more than a draw. But if you are very aggressive and the die rolls go your way, the German player can deal with the Soviet mechanized formations quickly and press on to the pocket. The only way to do that is to use your initial two Panzer divisions to the maximum extent possible by conducting two overrun attacks per turn on top of regular combat. Use of all available bonuses is crucial. Even so, it will be extremely difficult to get through to the pocket in the historical scenario. This is unavoidable since the actual German attack was nothing but a gamble. Because the game can be played through quickly, I view it as a puzzle that each side can attempt to solve. The most challenging part of the puzzle falls to the German player. Once players have exhausted the possibilities in the historical scenario, they should add in the German optional units. If all optional German units are present, the entire face of the game is different. The additional forces give the Germans a real chance of punching through to the pocket.
Thanks for your time Mark and I appreciate your insight into the game and its design. I look forward to trying this one out for the challenge of trying to save the 6th Army. I really like a challenge, and especially since this one plays quickly, I can try to save the 6th and destroy it all in quick secession.
If you are interested in a copy of Into the Pocket!: Operation Winter Storm, you can purchase a Print and Play version for $10.00 or you can splurge and spend $22.00 to get a full poly-bag copy at the following link: https://tinybattlepublishing.com/products/into-the-pocket