One game from 2017 that totally blew me away was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 from Hollandspiele. More so in the game play than in the lengthy name, this game was an immediate hit with both Alexander and I and we really enjoyed our initial play and have seen our appreciation of the game grow with each successive play. When I heard that Tom was already working on a follow up dealing with the war in the south, I was immediately intrigued and added that game to my 10 Most Anticipated Wargames of 2018. As the game has slowly developed and I have picked up bits and pieces here and there, that interest has increased exponentially and as it is nearing its release, I reached out to designer Tom Russell for one of our patented Designer Interviews.
Grant: First off, why do you think this series, starting with The Northern Theater, has been so well received by the community? Are you surprised by the positive response?
Tom: I was more than a little surprised. The original game was one I had pitched to one publisher after another without success. Granted, there were some major differences between the version I was pitching and the version that came out from Hollandspiele, in that the version I was pitching was in many ways more complicated than it needed to be. I had to learn how to let the game get out of its own way so to speak. But the core of the thing – the focus on logistics, the unforgiving nature of the game – that was there all along, from the first prototype to the published game.
And on the one hand, I thought that the core experience might resonate with people, for the simple reason that it resonated with me, and it resonated with Mary. I designed the game working from the premise that there was a market for it, because if I would buy the game, probably other people would too. But at the same time, I was pitching the game to publishers and it wasn’t resonating with them; they didn’t see there being much of a market for it. And this was before any of my games had actually gotten published.
Now, fast-forward a few years, just before we started Hollandspiele, and I have a dozen or so published wargames as a designer, and had served in a development or production capacity on several others. And my games did alright, but the things that I thought would find a wider audience didn’t, and so I really started to question how much demand there might be for games I had designed. I had gotten used to my games just doing “okay” or perhaps having some small but appreciative audience.
And so my expectation for Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 was that it was going to do “okay” or perhaps have some small but appreciative audience, but that it wouldn’t do much better than that. I mean, that certainly would have jived with my experience regarding my games before Hollandspiele, and it certainly jived with what those publishers were telling me years ago. But that was okay. The beauty of our whole model is that it greatly mitigates financial risk, so we can publish a game without having to worry about whether or not it will sell. So I hoped for the best but fully expected the thing to be a flop.
Mary on the other hand was convinced from the start that it would be a huge hit. And then it was! Which again shows that Mary is the one who knows what she’s doing, and the reason why Hollandspiele has grown so quickly and done so well. As for Supply Lines in particular, I think there are two reasons why it’s resonated so well with such a wide group of gamers. First, I think there is the novelty of it, the sheer weirdness of the concept, the dryness of the title: that’s going to attract certain people and get them to buy it. But the second thing is what gets them to actually play it, and recommend it to their friends, and that’s the core experience we were talking about before, where every decision has outsized consequences. Even a little mistake can utterly sink your position, and so in a way every single turn of the game serves as a potential hinge-point.
Grant: What are the elements unique to the Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War that you wanted to make sure to capture in this design? How does The Southern Strategy feel different from The Northern Theater?
Tom: Well, firstly there is a shift in emphasis in terms of the goals being pursued by each side. In the first game, which covers the first three years of the war, the British were basically trying to occupy major cities and bring Washington to a decisive battle, and Washington was smart enough to avoid that. The Americans on the other hand were trying to be successful enough to clinch an alliance with the French that would enable them to actually win this thing. That’s oversimplifying a complicated subject, but it’s true enough to build a game around. The Americans have achieved their short-term goal, now they have the long-term goal of actually winning their independence. The British have come to realize what a quagmire this is and in a way they’re looking for a way to minimize any potential losses. And this is part of why they turn south.
The British plan hinges on the idea that there’s this huge groundswell of support for them in the southern colonies. The extent of this has been grossly exaggerated, but that’s the information they’re working from, and so the idea is that they’ll start in Georgia, secure that colony, suppress the patriots, put their loyalists in charge, then move up to the next colony. Once they’ve gotten the whole south tied up with a bow, maybe they’ll move north. They never really got that far however, in part because that support wasn’t there. Really, you have a very bitter sort of civil war going on in the background between the patriot militia and the loyalists, with lots of reprisals and terror.
So the first major difference between the two games is that this one deals with that partisan element, that irregular warfare, and puts more of an emphasis on “hearts and minds”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still about supplies, and still about that cat-and-mouse dance that made the first game so tense. But even that has changed to a degree, because neither side has as many units or as much supply as they did in the first game.
And the reason for that is that the south was really a very minor theater in the larger conflict. It has outsized importance for folks in the States because that’s where the majority of the battles were fought in our country during the second half of the war, and because that’s where and why the war ultimately ended. But at the time, the British concentrated their real energies on the islands, which were more profitable than all the American colonies put together. And the French also made a play for those islands, for the same reasons, and the game’s naval rules really hammer this home, because most of the time your navies are off fighting over the islands. From the American point of view, Washington was, to put it charitably, obsessed with taking back New York City. So rather than sending down a huge army to take on Cornwallis, he sent down what he could spare, while keeping his strength in the north right until the end, right until Yorktown.
Grant: You designed The Southern Strategy as a standalone game. Why not just as equal? Why did you feel the need to change the game as much as you did?
Tom: There was a useful quote I found from a historian named Christopher Minty, and I almost used it in the rulebook: “The American Revolution in New York does not equal American Revolution in South Carolina. They were different conflicts, fought under different social, political, and economic circumstances.” I couldn’t just do a straight port of the original system with a new map because these differences were so stark and so important to understanding why things worked out the way they did.
“The American Revolution in New York does not equal American Revolution in South Carolina. They were different conflicts, fought under different social, political, and economic circumstances.” – Christopher Minty
One question I get a lot is, why don’t the two games link up? And the answer is that because the games happen sequentially instead of simultaneously – The Southern Strategy doesn’t begin until after The Northern Theater has ended – you can’t really have units or supplies moving from one map to the other. Beyond that, if the Crown Player wins the first game, then there’s not much point in playing the second: without French intervention, there is no second half of the war.
Grant: One new addition to the map is the presence of Partisan Boxes. What purpose do these boxes serve and how do they affect supply generation in the colonies? The Irregular Units are also new. What are the differing sides’ irregular units and what abilities do they have? How do they effect combat? Supply?
Tom: The Partisan boxes are there to hold the Irregular Units. So basically, you have two conflicts happening simultaneously: you have the more traditional experience with armies chasing after each other, and then running in the background you have this struggle between the Militia and Loyalist units within each Colony. So each Colony has a set of Partisan Boxes where these Irregular Units live. So this time around, each city generates one food and one war, unless you have the majority in the Partisan Boxes for a Colony, in which case it generates two food and one war cube. Which is obviously an advantage.
So, where do these Irregular Units come from? At the end of every turn, three are pulled from a cup and put into their boxes. And after you make the draw, you look at the board and every Colony that has one of your Armies, you put one of your Irregulars for that Colony into the cup. Military presence helps you get more Irregulars, Irregular presence helps you maintain your military armies.
More than that, if you have the majority in a Colony, you can also take actions by expending one of your Irregular pieces. For example, if you’re shy a food cube, you can remove one of your Irregulars to Forage, and voila!, now you have that food cube. You can also expend two Irregulars to place one new military Unit with one of your Armies that has a Leader. This is costly, but this is usually the only way you get new Units in the game.
Each side also has a specific Irregular action. The Loyalists can be used by the Crown Player to Hold an area. They’re taken from the Partisan Box and placed on the map proper, in a City or Fort. The advantage to this is that now you don’t need an Army there to maintain your supply line, and this is still a game about supply lines, so that’s important. More than that, the Loyalist allows you to “throw” Supply, so you can have one vacant area between a Loyalist and another Crown-held area, and still move your supplies. Which can be a pretty big deal.
The Militia units can perform a Raid action, which can take out a holding Loyalist, steal some supply, stuff like that. That’s based on a die roll which is modified by the number of Militia you have in that Colony, so the more you do, the less effective you become.
Grant: Sea Zones have some new changes as well with Crown Navy units and French Navy units. What role do they serve? They also assist with sieges. How does this work?
Tom: In the first game there was no need for actual naval units because the Crown Player had undisputed control of the seas. Now, it’s disputed. The Crown Navy Unit basically performs many of the tasks that the “unseen” Crown navy did in the first game, transporting men and supplies from A to B. The Patriot Player’s Navy Unit is basically there to prevent the Crown Navy from doing those things. Sometimes, they might even have a naval battle, which could remove one or both of the navies from play. Both navies also disappear automatically during two turns out of every five – they’re off fighting over the islands. They don’t automatically come back however, there’s a die roll involved, so you might go several turns without any naval support at all. The thing to remember again is that the south is really a minor theater of what has become a larger and more global conflict, so while as a player you really want your Navy nearby, the feeling is not always mutual.
They do play a role in sieges, in that they basically allow you to fulfill the conditions for a siege, or they might prevent your opponent from doing so. I see you ask about sieges a little further down, so I’ll answer it more fully then.
Grant: Why was the British Political Will Track added? How does it affect the British player? How is it manipulated?
Tom: This is very similar to the Patriot Support Track from the first game, in that when you achieve military objectives, the track moves in a favorable direction, and when your opponent achieves their military objectives, it moves the other way. When it gets to one end of the track or the other, the game ends: if it’s at my end of the track, I win, and if it’s at your end of the track, you win. If the Patriot Player gets it to their end of the track, it represents the political will of the British government back home having eroded to the point that Lord North’s government fails and there’s a call to end the war.
And one thing that happens is that this political will is also degraded with time, because the longer this thing goes on, the less support there is for it on the other side of the pond. So at the end of every year, the marker is moved toward the Patriot end of the track, one space for the first year, and two spaces for every year after that. So, the longer the game goes on, the more likely it becomes that the Patriot Player will win it, and there’s an onus on the Crown Player to accomplish things quickly, more quickly than they’d like, without sufficient resources.
Grant: What is the role of subordinate leaders and why did you add these to the game?
Tom: The scale of operations this time around is much smaller in scope than in the first game. In the first game, you had three leaders to a side, each with fairly massive armies. Here, you have one Leader for each side, and it’s unusual for a side to have more than six or eight Units on the map. You can split your forces by putting some under a Subordinate Leader, which effectively gives you two Leaders to work with and to attack with.
The distinction is important because the elimination of overall Leaders have some specific game effects. If the Patriot Leader is eliminated, it moves the Political Will track in the Crown’s favor, and then a new Leader will be sent down from the north to take over. If the Crown Leader is eliminated however, well, that’s Cornwallis, and his surrender will immediately end the game in a Patriot victory.
Grant: Tell us about the Special Patriot Militia Leader Francis Marion. Kind of required to be included but how is he beneficial to the Patriots?
Tom: He changes the rules within South Carolina as far as how Irregular Units work and are expended. Usually you need to have the majority in a Colony to take an Irregular action as I mentioned before. Once the Swamp Fox comes out, you can take those actions in South Carolina even when you’re in the minority. Usually when you take these actions, the pieces are returned to a pool, and then one of them might end up back in the actual draw cup depending on your military presence within the Colony. But once the Swamp Fox comes out, the expended pieces go right back into the draw cup.
Grant: What changes have been made to the Sequence of Play and for what reason? How does it change the game play?
Tom: The biggest change is that each player’s “go” comprises a pair of Impulses, one Limited and one Full. The Limited Impulse can be used to take an Irregular action, while the Full Impulse can be used to activate an Army, an Irregular, or your Navy. You can pass the Limited Impulse without penalty, but passing the Full Impulse will alter the Pass Track just as in the first game.
Grant: The art and map are amazing as usual from Ania Ziolkowska. How does her style add to the theme of the game and its gameplay?
Tom: Ania is a very talented artist that we’ve worked with frequently in the past and look forward to working with many more times in the future. She puts a lot of thought, time, effort, and detail into her maps, with her work usually based on research not just of the geography, but on the look of things from the period she’s dealing with. She did that with Dynasty for us, making the map in accordance with the style and techniques of tenth-century Chinese art, and she did that with both of these games. We’re really quite pleased with her work and we had folks tell us about the first game that they bought an extra map just to look at! [Editor’s Note: We interviewed Ania a few weeks ago and you can check that post out here.]
Grant: I love Battles in Supply Lines. Where did you get the idea for expending Supply to gain battle dice. How has this element of the game assisted in establishing identity and reinforce theme?
Tom: Really, as soon as I came up with the idea to do a game based on supply, the battle mechanics immediately popped into my head, more or less fully-formed. They haven’t really been altered all that much from the first prototype to the published game, and it was simple enough to carry them over to the second game. There’s one minor change between the two games in this regard. In the first game, the British have a natural advantage when attacking Cities in that they round up while the Patriots round down, so the Crown Player can use three cubes to get two dice, while the Patriots would need four. Now both sides round up – both sides can use three cubes to get two dice. That’s to account for Baron von Steuben.
[Editor’s Note: Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben (September 17, 1730 – November 28, 1794), also referred to as Baron von Steuben was a Prussian and later an American military officer. He served as inspector general and a major general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. He wrote Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, the book that served as standard United States drill manual until the War of 1812.]
Grant: How do sieges work differently in The Southern Strategy?
Tom: Well, they work differently in that they feature it all. The first game doesn’t really have a “siege” mechanism, though if you’re surrounded and outnumbered, then yeah, you’re more-or-less under siege!
In this game however there is a formal Siege mechanism. If you’re in a City or a Fort, and the enemy occupies any two adjacent areas, you’re under siege. When you’re under siege, you can’t move men or supplies in or out. All you can do is attack to try to lift the siege.
Now, this might not sound so bad, but the problem is, at the end of every turn, any force that’s under siege has to expend a food cube. If you have no food cubes, then you surrender: Units, eliminated, adjust the Political Will Track. Leaders, eliminated, adjust the Political Will Track, or if it’s the Crown Leader, then the Crown Player loses the game. It’s bad all around.
So obviously you want to avoid being put under siege, and you want to get your opponent into that unenviable situation. Trying to inflict or avoid this status really ups the cat-and-mouse, operational-dance aspect of the game.
An enemy Navy that’s unopposed can also serve as one of the two adjacent enemies required to lay a City under siege, but the timing of this is tricky because of how unreliable the Navies are.
Grant: How do Naval battles work and why are they important to the game? How has this element morphed over time in the design?
Tom: When the two Navies are in the same area, a battle can be initiated. Both players roll two dice and apply a modifier, positive or negative, that’s tied to the British Political Will Track. If your total is ten or more, the other Navy leaves the map. Both Navies can leave or neither or just one. Because of its importance in siegecraft in particular, having your Navy on the map and having your opponent’s Navy not on the map is desirable, so in that a battle might remove the enemy Navy, it has importance.
Really, this is an element that’s stayed pretty much the same. Once I knew I needed Navies and once I knew I needed naval battles, I tried this mechanism first, and it worked, so I kept it.
Grant: How is victory earned in The Southern Strategy? How does this differ from The Northern Theater?
Tom: You can achieve victory via the Political Will Track as we discussed before, but both sides are more likely to go after an instant victory condition. The Patriots will win if they can eliminate the Crown Leader. The Crown Player wins if they hold ten Cities or Forts with their Armies and/or Loyalists.
Grant: What are some basic strategies for both sides? What red herrings must players watch out for?
Tom: You have a lot fewer resources in this game than you did in the first. You’re going to have fewer cubes and you’re going to have fewer Units. You’re not going to have those situations where you might clearly outnumber the other stack, where a battle is going to be advantageous for you. It’s much harder to get new units on the map, which means when you take losses in combat, they’re more likely to be permanent. So always be aware of what you are risking when you make an attack or when you accept one. The southern campaigns are almost defined by Greene’s masterful use of Fabian tactics.
You can’t afford to ignore the partisan fighting any more than you can afford to ignore the operational dance, and you generally need to be good at both of them to come out on top.
Finally: I’ve seen more than one game end without there ever having been fought a single battle (Patriot Skirmishes aside). The game is often ended by a siege, so be wary of your opponent’s attempts to trap you, and be ready to spring your own traps.
Grant: What are you most pleased with in this design? What was the most difficult part of the design?
Tom: Well, in the first game, if you made a mistake, it was quite possible that it would sink your position entirely, and there would be no way to ever recover. Which I loved about it! It’s something that features in a lot of my designs, and something I’m always very interested in exploring. And that’s still true of this game.
Where it differs though is that in the first game, it would usually end with one player conceding to the other, because the first player’s position was hopeless. But if you were stubborn or you weren’t as observant, you could conceivably keep playing the whole thing out from that hopeless position, and the game might drag on. Wargamers are a pretty smart bunch and I think on the whole they’re going to know when their goose has been well and truly cooked, but I’m always looking for ways to shorten the time between “I made a mistake that will lose me the game” and the actual end of the game.
And here I’ve done that, with the siege mechanism in particular, which very quickly bridges the gap between those two points. That was the trickiest thing to get right, and it is also the thing I enjoy the most once I got it right.
Grant: What specific changes came about through playtesting?
Tom: Nothing too dramatic – once the thing was put together, the testing was pretty smooth. There were little tweaks here and there as far as how Raids worked, what the modifiers would be for navies, what connections there were between which Cities and Forts, but there’s nothing I can point to and say, “It was like this when we started, and it’s completely different by the end.” But part of that is that, even with the changes, the hard part was already done, and most of the problems solved, when the first game was designed.
Grant: What is the schedule for the game’s release?
Tom: Early-ish May.
Grant: What other designs have you considered in connection with the Revolutionary War?
Tom: Well, I’ll probably do a Table Battles expansion set in the period for sure, though that’s probably further down the road. I don’t have any other immediate plans but who knows?
Thank you for your great insight into the game as always Tom. I really appreciate your discussion in the first question about your audience. I can tell you that I am one that really appreciates your games. But more than just appreciate, find them to be very well made and thoughtful, taking into consideration the history of the event you are covering and making sure to include those elements that definitely solidify the experience.
As of the posting of this interview, Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Southern Strategy has been released. You can obtain a copy at the following link for the special sales price of $30.00: https://hollandspiele.com/products/supply-lines-of-the-american-revolution-the-souther-strategy
Ordered this one soon after release. I really enjoy The Northern Theater so thought I knew The Southern Strategy. Like Tom Russell says in the interview, TSS is a similar but different game. Hats off to Tom and Hollandspiele for making logistics and irregulars so interesting!
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I read your first look at it and I am really excited to get this one as I really liked The Northern Theater.
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