I was recently asked by Ty Bomba to reach out to Joseph Miranda to talk to him about his upcoming alternative history magazine pack-in game. I was grateful to the assist from Ty and want to thank him. Joseph was very congenial about my interview request, even though he is busy with his duties at Strategy & Tactics Press, and was excited for the opportunity to share information about his upcoming game Stalin Moves West that will appear in World at War Magazine Issue #58 from Decision Games. I have wanted to interview Joseph for a while now, so I am excited for the opportunity. Onto the interview!
Grant: Joseph, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with TPA. Who is Joseph Miranda? What do you do for a living? How did you get into board game design?
Joseph: Mainly, I design games and write articles. I’ve been the editor of Strategy & Tactics and Modern War magazines. I also have done some independent consulting and design work for various military and civilian agencies. Before that, I served as an officer in the US Army. I got into wargaming with the Avalon Hill classics, then moved on to SPI and one day I was working for Decision Games editing Fire & Movement magazine, and they offered me editorship of Strategy & Tactics. And here I am today.
Grant: I know you have designed quite a few games. Which ones are you most proud of?
Joseph: Trajan: Ancient Wars Series…this gets you into the mindset of a Roman general. Goeben 1914…this has aspects of both a wargame and an adventure game. Storm of Steel…World War I integrating military, economic and psychological factors. In Country: Vietnam 1965-1975…the Vietnam War at the operational level. Cybernauts…this was, I believe, the first wargame to model cyberwar, albeit in an adventure game format. Battle for Baghdad…a multiplayer power politics fest with asymmetrical advantages for each faction.
Grant: What is your design philosophy? Has this changed over your design career?
Joseph: Originally, I was very systems oriented. Each major factor in a campaign or battle would have a corresponding game rule. Then I moved on to effects based simulations, showing the outcomes of action as opposed to the inner workings. I look at both conventional and unconventional aspects of warfare: including special operations, psychological warfare and cyberwar. I also draw from other designers who have good ideas. Really, there is a lot of wargame lore out there, and often there were ideas which were not initially developed too well way back when, so I took the ball and ran with it. One thing I like is when something I designed inspires another designer.
Grant: What inspired you to design a What If style World War II wargame on a reverse Operation Barbarossa?
Joseph: There’s always been this question of what if the Soviets had launched a preemptive war against the Third Reich. There is some research on the Red Army wargames, and I wanted to work that into a game.
Grant: What is the focus of Stalin Moves West?
Joseph: Operational level warfare. You have to make decisions on the theater level. The Red Army had a fairly good operational doctrine, but at the opening of World War II were not in a position to use it. Another thing is the ability to mobilize. The idea is that both sides have considerable forces elsewhere, the real question is the ability to get them rolling to the front, which is what the mobilization points represent.
Grant: What historical assumptions did you use as a basis for this What If style look at a possible preemptive invasion by the Soviet Union?
Joseph: There are two different scenarios. One has the Germans engaged in a wider war against the British Commonwealth in the Mediterranean or conducting Operation Sea Lion. The other assumes the Soviets strike as the Germans are building up for the historical Barbarossa.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and the force structure of the units?
Joseph: Players can mobilize units by expending points. Generally, German units are better than Soviet, but the Soviet units are cheaper to buy. As to scale, units are armies, with the Wehrmacht being able to break down into corps. There are also air units. Mechanized and non-mechanized units operate differently, with double impulse movement and a better CRT for the former.
Grant: I see that each game turn represents one month in summer and two in winter. Why did you make this choice? Are there differing weather effects in each season?
Joseph: Weather includes a range of conditions, including mud, snow and the effects of a campaign on army level units. Mud represents not just the countryside turning to slush but also strains on the logistical system and attrition below the scale of the units. The two month winter turns represent the slowdown in operational pace. Another thing is that mud and snow turns allow the Soviets to build some better units, like Tank Armies. This is a way to introduce a random event without an additional die roll.
Grant: I see that you modeled the uncertainty of the effect of the purges on the Soviet units by having them be deployed to show their untried side without a knowledge of their combat value. How does this affect the Soviet players planning? How does he come to know the strength of these untried units?
Joseph: Soviet units flip face up after they have been committed to combat. Generally, the Soviet player has an idea of the average strength of their units, but this can vary widely. Where it really comes into play is with Red Army supply units which can provide x1, x2, or x3 modifier to their attack strength. The variation models the dismal state of Soviet logistics at the time, but also the ability to launch the occasional surprise attack. This also provides an element of uncertainty to the Axis player, because you never know what the Red Army can pull out of its hat!
Grant: I also see that there are special units that cover the aspect of supply, leadership and air support. How does this work? What units are each represented by?
Joseph: Both sides get some airborne and amphibious units, plus partisans. There’s also a Berlin garrison which can be converted into a mechanized corps if the Red Army gets too close.
The idea is that combat power is not just a matter of piling on more combat factors. What goes on to support the front matters, such as moving up logistics and airpower, as well as putting your good commanders in charge. So you have HQs, supply units and airbases.
Grant: What are the available scenarios and what is different about each?
Joseph: Mainly, the number of starting units. There’s also a What If? scenario as if there had been no Red Army purge. The Soviets get better units and leaders.
Grant: How important are HQ units to the design? Which side relies on these HQ’s more than the other? What was your reasoning for this design choice?
Joseph: The factor of leadership is often underestimated in wargaming. I wanted to include some of the major leaders to show their impact. They provide additional offensive combat power.
Grant: What advantages does rail movement offer? What disadvantages?
Joseph: Rails enhance movement around the front. But there are limits on it. You can not move across the Soviet-Reich frontier for the usual reasons of differences in rail gauge and limits on rolling stock.
Grant: How are units moved off the map and then returned later? What is the advantage to this strategy in the design?
Joseph: You have off map holding areas. You can use this mechanism to shift reserves.
Grant: Supply counters can add attack factors to units, as you mentioned previously. How does this work and what does it represent historically?
Joseph: Supply represents a wide range of logistics, as well as preparation for an attack. Moving a supply unit up represents not just stockpiling ammo and fuel, but also conducting reconnaissance, working out staff plans and rehearsing the troops. All this is limited by the number of supply units available as well as their position on the map. You can look at game strategy as getting the right number of supply units to the right points to support offensives.
Grant: How does combat work? Why did you choose to express the differences of attack factors and defense factors as a percentage? How does this create a unique take on combat?
Joseph: Unit combat factors were based on the composition of the units. At this stage of the war, Wehrmacht units are fairly uniform in combat effectiveness. I had a pretty good order of battle for the Red Army, so variations in their army and mechanized corps strength represents the number of divisions assigned to them.
I use percentages as opposed to odds because they are easier to calculate (when you think about it) as well as not having the anomalies of low odds attacks. There are two CRTs: Assault and Mobile. To use the Mobile CRT, you need to have at least one mechanized unit in the attack.
Grant: Why are there two types of assault? What is fundamentally different between standard and mobile assault?
Joseph: The standard Assault CRT causes a lot of attrition. The Mobile are more likely to force units to retreat and enable enhanced advances after combat. Generally, the Mobile table is better if you can exploit it to cut off enemy units and eliminate them by blocking retreat paths. But sometimes you need to go in with an Assault to run up enemy losses. So choose your weapon.
Grant: I read where some players feel the Soviets seem to be at a slight disadvantage as the combat and exploitation phases favor well thought out, coordinated German counterattacks. What would you say to this comment? Was that your intent?
Joseph: For example, German armies can break down into corps to extract losses. Soviet and Axis allied armies can’t, modeling greater Wehrmacht resiliency. This is 1940-42, when the Red Army was still recovering from Stalin’s purges and was in the midst of a reorganization. The Soviets lacked the operational capacity to exploit mobile operations. The Wehrmacht was at this time at the peak of its efficiency. This shows up in the game.
Grant: I also read the game promotes the outright destruction of enemy forces. While it is true that capturing certain spaces are essential for victory, the way the ZOC rules function and the limitations of mobilization points really puts a premium on smashing the enemy. Was this your design intent? I know historically this was the original German objective for Barbarossa before they went off on all those geographic tangents.
Joseph: The idea here is that at this point in the war (1940-42) both sides have plenty of reserves. Destroying enemy forces is a means to an end, which is getting into that position to fight the next year or two of the war. Ploesti (with its oilfields) and Krakow (center of the Silesian industrial area) thus become critical for mobilization.
Grant: How does air superiority work? What can be done with this advantage?
Joseph: One interesting thing about the situation is that with the Red Army opening the war, there is no initial Luftwaffe surprise attack. So the Soviet air force is intact at the start of the campaign, unlike the historical Barbarossa. You can see how this makes a difference in the game. Airpower adds additional combat power to the attack. Air units represent centers for airbases and air operations. Generally, Axis air units have longer range than the Soviet. This represents doctrine, as the Luftwaffe had a sound operational doctrine, while the Red Air Force was oriented to tactical support. Air units, like supply units, are a way to enhance your combat. You need to think of getting both your logistics and air units into position, not just bean counting your ground unit combat factors.
Grant: How is the game won?
Joseph: Mainly by seizing certain geographical objectives: resources areas (like Ploesti), mobilization hexes and cities. What counts is not so much the destruction of units but seizing key economic and political points so you will be in a better position to fight in the ensuing years of the war.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Joseph: You can play it out in an evening. We’ve also been getting some good reports from players. And it’s open to variants—in the future, Decision Games will be publishing more counters for Stalin Moves West.
Thanks for the look inside the design of Stalin Moves West from World at War Magazine #58. I really like your approach to the design process and can definitely see that you have served in the military as you see what is important in warfare. Thanks for that insight.
If you are interested in a copy of World at War Magazine Issue #58, you can order from Strategy and Tactics Press from the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=WW58M