Ever since I acquired a copy of Pavlov’s House: The Battle of Stalingrad from Dan Verssen Games, I have been mesmerized by its gameplay and its unique three map setup. So when I saw that the designer David Thompson was working on a follow up effort based on a lesser known battle of World War II, I just had to find out more about it.
Grant: David, first off please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
David: I’m a dad with three kids (9, 7, and 4). Taking care of the little folks takes up most of my time when I’m not at work. Besides designing and playing games, my hobbies include spelunking, jogging, and watching the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves. I was born and raised in Savannah, GA, so I’ve followed those teams since the early 1990s. My wife is a huge Alabama fan, so we watch the Tide on Saturdays and Falcons on Sundays. For my “real” job, I work as an analyst with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. I’ve spent time in Omaha, NE; Huntsville, AL; and England. We moved to Dayton, OH this past summer.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
David: My road to board gaming was a long, winding one. I grew up as an avid D&D player. I stuck with that while I was in the Air Force and in college. But when I got married and had children in the mid-to-late 2000s, I had less and less time to spend time on a hobby that demands a lot of it. Then I started toying with the idea of making a hybrid miniatures/board game. At the time, the idea was pretty unusual. Of course, these days there are 200 of them on Kickstarter at any given point. At any rate, this game I was working on was inspired by D&D, Final Fantasy Tactics (the video game), Mage Knight (the original miniatures game created by Wizkids long before the board game), and similar concepts. During that design process, I discovered “hobby/designer” board games. I started with Ameritrash games, but quickly moved to Euros, and then wargames.
In 2014, when I moved to Cambridge in the UK, I joined a designer and playtest group that included some fantastic designers. With their guidance and mentorship, I saw some of my designs become a reality.
I once read in an interview with a book author that his advice for fledgling authors was to “quit if you can.” The idea was that if you could quit writing, you shouldn’t be an author. For me, that’s game design. There is no way I could quit, even if I wanted to. It is an amazingly creative outlet.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
David: For the first few years, I really didn’t have a philosophy. I was testing the waters. Sometimes I would start with a theme I liked. Other times I would work on joint designs that were based on mechanisms. However, over the last two or three years, I’ve really started narrowing down the designs that I’m passionate about: I love designing historical games that tell the story of something that is not well known. I’m not going to stop designing other games, but those will probably be fewer in number and limited to co-designs. Meanwhile, most of my solo efforts will focus on historical, political, and war games on underserved topics. These games will start with the story first, and I’ll craft the mechanisms around the story.
Grant: I understand that you have several games that have recently been released including War Chest, Orc-lympics and Pavlov’s House. How are you able to design both war themed games and more traditional family oriented board games?
David: Each of these games has its own origin story. War Chest and Orc-lympics were both co-designed with a fellow member of my Cambridge design group — Trevor Benjamin.
In the case of War Chest, it can trace its lineage back to a prior design (that will be coming next summer) that is a more complex deck-building game with a spatial element. War Chest was an effort to design an elegant game, both in terms of its gameplay and physicality. Although cliché, I really do think it his that mark of simple to learn, but with tons of depth.
Believe it or not, Orc-lympics began its life as a much more complex game that was designed to model pro football team management, especially drafting players and signing free agents. Over time, we stripped that way down; instead, we focused on combining the drafting element with some interesting bidding and hand management mechanisms. I’m proud of the game, because it really does hit that mark of fun to play with your family or with more serious gamers.
Pavlov’s House was my first published wargame. Though anyone who has played it will probably tell you that it also has influences from other genres of games.
Grant: What is Castle Itter about? What event does the game tell a story about?
David: Castle Itter is the name of a castle in the Brixen Valley area of Austria. It’s in the western part of the country, along Austria’s border with Germany. During WW2, the Germans used it as a prison for French VIPs — leaders of state, generals, and the like. Castle Itter tells the unlikely story of the defense of the castle from an SS attack.
Grant: What historical resources did you consult for the design and what one book would you recommend someone to read on the subject?
David: There are a few good primary sources that I used for the game, which included things like unit newspapers from the war, as well as unit diaries and official histories. But the seminal book on the topic is The Last Battle by Stephen Harding.
Grant: Why does the game have the subtitle “The Strangest Battle of World War II”?
David: The “Strangest Battle of World War II” refers to the unlikely alliance of defenders who worked together to protect the French prisoners of the castle from SS attack. The defenders included a combination of US tankers and infantrymen, Wehrmacht officers and enlisted, an SS officer, and an Austrian resistance fighter. Some of the French prisoners also contributed to the castle’s defense. The Battle of Castle Itter is thought to be the only time Americans and Germans fought side-by-side during WWII. Strange indeed!
Grant: I understand that Castle Itter was actually designed prior to Pavlov’s House but yet Pavlov’s House was released first. How did this happen?
David: I originally designed Castle Itter during the 2016 Board Game Geek wargame design competition. It did well in the contest, and drew the attention of some of the folks associated with VPG. VPG signed the game, but it was in their development queue for so long that the contract eventually expired. During that two year period, I designed Pavlov’s House as a sort of sequel to Castle Itter, and it was signed and published by DVG. When it came time to make a decision about how to move forward with Castle Itter after the contract expired with VPG, I figured it made sense to work with Dan and crew over at DVG since I was so happy with how Pavlov’s House turned out.
I should mention the great thing about the relationship I have with Dan over at DVG is I pretty much have complete creative control over the game. That means a ton of extra work on my part (development, art direction, etc.), but it’s super rewarding to know that the game will reflect my vision.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the static defense system you’ve installed in the design for both Pavlov’s House and Castle Itter?
David: When I starting delving into the world of wargame design and was looking for inspiration on how to model the Battle of Castle Itter, I began looking into different games about sieges. Obviously when you think of wargames, solitaire play, and sieges, the States of Siege system comes to mind. I hadn’t played any of the games (remember, I was just starting to get into gaming at the time), but Mark Johnson (of the Wargames to Go podcast) had done an episode on the States of Siege system (it was the second episode of the series). I checked out a few of the different titles, but mostly I just looked at the map layouts. I didn’t want to bias myself and my design direction by reading through the details of the rules for each of the games in the series. So when you look at the way the SS (for Castle Itter) and Wehrmacht (for Pavlov’s House) advancement tracks work, they look very similar to Darin Leviloff’s States of Siege system.
Grant: What works really well about it?
David: There is a fantastic tension in every card pull for both games. In Pavlov’s House, you’re worried about both the operational and tactical elements of the game, with Stuka bombings and Wehrmacht advancement. In Castle Itter, that tension is distilled down to only the tactical elements, but believe me, those tracks fill up much more quickly than they do in Pavlov’s House!
Grant: How does Castle Itter differ from Pavlov’s House?
David: Castle Itter models an attack that lasted about half a day, and the defenders basically had no outside assistance. The action in Pavlov’s House takes place over a two month period, with assistance from all sorts of operational elements. From a gameplay perspective, I’ve expanded on the tactical elements in Castle Itter, and the advancement of the SS attackers are more pronounced from the start. It is a quicker game, and more streamlined. Pavlov’s House includes a lot of resource management outside of the combat elements of the game.
Grant: Why did you increase the Defender actions from three in Pavlov’s House to five in Castle Itter? Why was this necessary for the design and balance to work?
David: There’s a critical difference in the way the SS advance in Castle Itter and how the Wehrmacht advance in Pavlov’s House. In Castle Itter, a single SS card can require you to place multiple (sometimes as many as 3!) counters, while in Pavlov’s House one card always means placing one counter. There are a lot of reasons for this, including a need for increased variance in Castle Itter, the difference in length of the advancement tracks, etc. But what it also means is that the defenders need extra actions to deal with the attackers. Plus, we’ll talk about the impact of movement as an action, below…
Grant: What does the map in the game represent about the battle? What is Besotten Jenny?
David: The map is a representation of the castle and its immediate environs. It essentially represents the extent of the battle, with the exception of some “off camera” artillery. I used a combination of line drawings and satellite imagery to create the game board. I began with precise mensuration to make sure everything was to scale, and used what is called “viewshed analysis” to determine line of sight. In the end, I tweaked a few things for gameplay purposes, but the board gives a very accurate representation of the battlefield.
Besotten Jenny is an M4A3E8 “Easy Eight.” The leader of the defenders, Lt. Jack Lee, was a tank commander and Besotten Jenny was his tank. It was critical in the defense of the castle, though it was eventually destroyed during the battle.
Grant: Why is the Cellar shown separate and what does it represent? When can the 5 French prisoners take actions in the game?
David: Before the battle, Lt. Lee ordered the French prisoners into the cellar, but they eventually emerged and assisted in the fight. From a gameplay perspective, I wanted the player to make an in-game decision about where each defender should be located, but I didn’t want to front-load all that during setup. So the player makes decisions during the game about where each defender starts. The French prisoners start in the cellar and can’t be used until all other defenders have been placed, representing the period of time they stayed in the cellar.
Grant: Why was the Move Action included in the available actions rather than having it be free as in Pavlov’s House?
David: Castle Itter introduces a new movement element that Pavlov’s House didn’t have — locations. In Pavlov’s House, defenders simply move between combat positions. But Castle Itter represents a much larger area, and a much smaller period of time. Thus, I felt moving between locations should be an action. Defenders are still able to move within a location as a “free action,” which provides an action economy similar to Pavlov’s House.
Grant: What is this new action called Escape and what purpose does it serve?
David: The Escape action represents the impact of one of the defenders successfully escaping from the castle and finding help. The game models this by adding a card to the deck that shortens the game when it is revealed. I should note that while the Escape action has existed since early on, one of my great supporters — Mark Hansen — proposed a tweak to the Escape rule that I have incorporated in the latest revisions to the game. It provides additional variance for the length of the game by seeding the card in a different deck based on when the escape occurs.
Grant: Who was Borotra and why is it important for him to escape?
David: There’s only one defender that can use the Escape action — Jean Borotra. Borotra was a famous French tennis player. During the battle he escaped from the castle and eventually made contact with the relief force that arrived in time to save the defenders of the castle
Grant: What are the new Defender attributes Low Morale, Wehrmacht Officer, Reinforcements and Tanker?
David: During the battle, one of the Wehrmacht riflemen abandoned his post and fled from the castle. There is some suspicion that he may have joined the SS, but that is unclear. During the game, if a casualty occurs in a location with a Wehrmacht rifleman, their morale will break and they will flee. This can be negated if a Wehrmacht officer is also in the same location.
Also during the battle, two Wehrmacht (an officer and a rifleman) along with an Austrian resistance fighter, made their way to the castle to serve as reinforcements. It may not seem like much, but every defender helped. They have the special Reinforcement attribute.
Some of the defenders were tankers (along with Lt. Lee). The tankers can use special actions marked on the board with the Tanker designation. This allows them to use the tank’s weaponry for improved attacks and suppression.
Grant: How has Suppression changed and why is this press your luck mechanism so important for the Defenders?
David: I’ve made one critical change to Suppression — now when a defender is in a mutli-colored combat position, they can split their suppression across multiple suppression areas. This has been an issue of debate for players of Pavlov’s House, and to be honest, I’m still testing this.
The other major change is that there are no crew served weapons in Castle Itter. However, the most powerful action in the game (the use of Besotten Jenny’s 76mm cannon) requires a special “Load” token to use.
Grant: How do players win the game?
David: The win conditions are similar to that in Pavlov’s House — live through the attack! You lose instantly if an SS counter reaches the castle. At the end of the game, you calculate your score based on a variety of factors (did the French help in the fight, did Borotra escape, how many defenders lived?) and you subtract points for each SS counter still on the board. A score of 1 or higher is a win, though there are different levels of victory.
Grant: What options are there for increased difficulty?
David: There are two ways to increase the difficulty. At the beginner difficulty level, each track starts with an SS rifleman on it. At higher levels of difficulty, this can change to scouts and sturm, who are much more difficult to attack and suppress. In addition, I’ve created a variety of Tactics cards, which improve the SS attacker’s capabilities.
Grant: I understand you are working with Matt White on the art. How has his style changed the game aesthetic?
David: I’ve been a fan of Matt’s work for a while now. As soon as I decided to sign Castle Itter with DVG and knew that I would be in charge of the art for the game, I reached out to Matt. Unfortunately I have been unable to source historical photographs for many of the defenders of Castle Itter, so Matt has provided counters for those defenders. He is also working on the cover. I wanted the cover to be striking, in the same way that Pavlov’s House was. I love what he’s come up with.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
David: I think the design does a great job of providing tension out the gate, and not letting up for the full game. It plays quickly (in about 45 minutes), and throughout the entire time, you should feel the pressure of potential defeat.
Grant: What is the schedule for the game and who will publish it?
David: DVG is the publisher. Right now we’re looking at a mid-November 2018 Kickstarter launch. I’m not sure when it will ship, but my guess would be summer of 2019.
Grant: What other battles are you looking at to use this system with?
David: Next up in the series will be a game called Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. This game is about the attack of the Polish Post Office in Danzig on the first day of World War II. A force of about 50 postmen held out for most of the day against SS, SA, and Danzig city police. I’m working on the game with Michal Kochman, who was the one who suggested the idea. It has been a fantastic effort so far, which included us meeting in Gdansk to research the battle. I have a design diary about the development of the game on BGG: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1839997/soldiers-postmens-uniforms-defense-polish-post-off
Thank you David for this great insight into your upcoming game Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of World War II. If you haven’t played Pavlov’s House yet, I urge you to get a copy as it really is a well made solo game with lots of great decision points and variables that keep it interesting, even after 15 plays.
Also keep an eye out for the Castle Itter Kickstarter starting in mid November.
Here is a look at a video playthrough I put together for Pavlov’s House
: Part 1
and Part 2