I came across a really interesting game called Hero of the Soviet Union a few months ago while perusing the Wargamer Group on Facebook. The designer is Christopher Davis and I have really enjoyed the journey as he has shared pictures of the components as he has designed them. I was very glad when he accepted my invitation to do this interview.
Grant: Chris, first off please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies?
Chris: Hello! My hobbies include hockey, reading, video gaming, and board gaming. I also enjoy the occasional museum and bike ride.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Chris: One day I decided to use pencil and paper and draw out some ideas I had in a sketchbook. That eventually developed into Hero of the Soviet Union. Before that, I had designed some matrix games to be used during Army training, and that had great results from the participants. What I like about game design the most is seeing how real-world concepts are instrumentalized into mechanics. Conflicts are complex, difficult, and usually controversial events. How is all of that reduced to plastic and cardboard?
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Chris: Ultimately, I want to design games that either are not treated in gaming, such as the Polish defense of the Danzig post office in 1939, or simulate events from a new or unique perspective. And I want these games to be immersive, engaging, and stimulating. And of course fun! And when treating controversial subjects, such as Stalin’s Great Terror, I don’t want to shy away from it. I want to face it head on, and treat them maturely and respectfully. I will be happy if, after playing one of my games, people walk away with just 1% of the feeling of what those events might have been like to experience.
Grant: What is Hero of the Soviet Union about? Where did your inspiration come from for the game?
Chris: Hero of the Soviet Union is ultimately about one soldier’s experience in the Great Patriotic War. Like many interested in World War II, the East Front fascinated me by its scale, lethality, and barbarity. There’s been few things like it in mankind’s experience, and I want to capture what that was like, even if in some tiny sense, for the average soldier. There are hundreds of East Front games, and most of them abstract the personal experience of combat – pushing around chits representing tens of thousands of people. What if that chit only represented you?
Grant: Is the game a solitaire experience? What issues did you have with designing the AI that controls the enemy actions?
Chris: HSU is designed chiefly as a solitaire game. The primary challenge in designing an AI is balancing its flexibility, difficulty, and ease of use. Sure – we can make an AI that accounts for every conceivable scenario, but how many new rules would that impose? So, instead I opted for using an AI system that uses general rules, and will leave some player discretion. After all, it’s about the player’s experience with the game.
Grant: What do you think is unique about the experience of playing HSU?
Chris: This is a good question and I’m glad you asked it. The unique thing about HSU is the personal experience – both on and off the battlefield. The soldier does not only have to contend with the invading Germans, but also surviving personal hardships like starvation, political repression, and the loss of comrades.
Grant: When you set out to design the game what did you want to make sure to model with the mechanics and the play?
Chris: There’s a couple of things I want to model; first, as I mentioned previously, the personal hardships of war. War is inherently a human experience, and those things need to be represented. Second, for the combat mechanics, I want to focus on the elements that make combat so traumatic and overwhelming to the soul and the senses. So I’m less focused on things like whether weapons have bipods or optics, or the elevation degrees of a tank’s main gun. Instead, I’m focusing on things like fire, smoke, darkness, chaos, and confusion. What does the soldier think and feel when that first round whizzes by or artillery starts to fall on his position? The basic instinct of survival kicks in, the heart beat quickens, one’s focus narrows.
Grant: Let’s talk about the makeup of the hero. What are traits and attributes? How are the starting values determined? Can these improve over time with experience?
Chris: Traits are the five basic characteristics of the Hero (Name, Place of Birth, Background, Occupation, and Social Status) while the Attributes define the Hero’s performance and performance potential. The starting values for both are determined at the beginning of the game with Hero creation.
For each Trait, there are a number of randomly determined values, such as [Russian] “Civil War Veteran” and “Enemy of the People.” Each one grants a value for the Attributes and may also provide a Special Skill. These values and skills can change over time.
Grant: What are the 5 different Attributes and how does each effect the game?
Chris: They are: Merit, Morale, Martial, Suspicion, and Exhaustion. Merit measures the Hero’s excellence and distinction, and can be used to gain promotions, awards, favors, and so on. Morale affects the Hero during some events and during combat, while Martial reflects the Hero’s battlefield prowess and survivability. Suspicion measures political reliability and is used to see if the secret police arrests the Hero. Lastly, Exhaustion is the Hero’s weariness from combat and it can have a detrimental impact on many aspects of the Hero’s life.
Grant: What are Special Skills? How does the Hero gain them and what benefits do they offer?
Chris: Special Skills significantly modify Attributes or allow new actions. They include things like “Medic”, “Tanker” and “Sniper.” They can be gained during Hero creation or earned through training or experience once the game has started.
Grant: How do Comrades come to be aligned with the Hero and what can they they do together?
Chris: Comrades are the Hero’s squad-mates that the Hero may come across during the game. Each Comrade also has randomly created Attributes. When fighting together, the Hero and Comrades grant each other buffs, such as higher morale. But there’s also a risk if Comrades are killed, which may harm the Hero’s Morale. Comrades can be gained (or lost) off the battlefield too, such as during NKVD sweeps.
Grant: Can we see an image of the Hero Board and can you tell us how it is used by the player?
Chris: Yes! The Hero Board tracks all of the Hero’s attributes, skills, equipment, awards, and comrades.
Grant: What makes up a Campaign and how many different Campaigns are there to play through? How do they differ from play to play?
Chris: The Campaign consists of a series of Operations, and it ends with either the end of the war or the Hero’s death. Each Campaign consists of sequential strategic segments (which involve administrative things like the Hero’s unit assignment and the status of the homefront), and operational segments (which focuses on the Hero’s frontline experiences). And the operational segments also consist of a variable number of tactical battles resolved through [square] and counter play.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Chris: There are three main portions to the game: the Strategic Segment, the Operational Segment, and the Battle Segment. The Strategic Segment consists of things like the Hero’s assignment, and the status of the Hero’s spouse, the Communist Party, etc. The Operational Segment consists of war-time and front-line experiences.
These are not resolved sequentially – instead, the Hero is placed on an Operational Map with different locations where actions can be undertaken, such as “The Front”, “Headquarters” and “Assembly Area”.
At the HQ for example, the Hero can undergo “Political Education” to reduce Suspicion. The player decides where the Hero goes, but in between moving to different areas, the player has to draw an Event Card and resolve its effects. These events may trigger an NKVD arrest, a surprise German attack, or the arrival of new Comrades. Lastly, whether by even or the end of this segment, there’s the Battle Segment, where tactical combat is resolved.
Grant: Can you describe a few examples of Strategic Events and show us the cards and take us through how they work?
Chris: Strategic Events are things affecting the whole campaign, such as “Blitzkrieg”. They usually have persistent effects, such as adding enemy tank units to each battle.
Grant: I see that the player has to manage things like pay and rations, and can even have and lose a spouse, why did you feel this was important to include in the game?
Chris: As I mentioned, I want to get as close to an individual’s experience as possible. The war caused tremendous upheaval and damage to the Soviet population. People didn’t fight for Stalin or the Communist Party – they fought to survive, for their comrades and their families.
Grant: How does the Hero encounter enemies in the game?
Chris: Enemies are encountered during the Battle Segment. When setting up a battle, the player draws a Mission Card, which determines the number and types of objectives, as well as the number of enemy units. There’s a unit mix from which the player randomly draws that number of enemy units, making each engagement different. The types of units in the mix are determined by the year and the enemy formation.
Grant: How does combat work?
Chris: Combat is played out through square and counter mechanics on the Tactical Map. As part of the battle setup, the player randomly draws and places 12 terrain tiles, then places objectives, and units. Play alternates between Soviet and German units, which are controlled by Commanders and Orders. Commanders determine the number of Orders, represented on cards, used during a turn, and how many units that affects. So – better commanders will affect move units per order per turn. Not every unit will move in a turn. The player activates the Hero during this process. This makes combat unpredictable and fluid.
Grant: As you’ve mentioned several times, the notorious NKVD are also ever present. What do they do and how does the player have to manage this aspect?
Chris: At any time, the NKVD can arrest the Hero. This is resolved through the Hero’s Suspicion level. This can occur during the Operational Segment. The Hero can also be a part of the NKVD, which makes a unique Mission available. But that does not make them immune from arrest. The player can’t eliminate the risk of arrest – the NKVD didn’t cease its repression just because the USSR was on the verge of collapse. But the risk of arrest can be mitigated by keeping Suspicion low.
Grant: What happens when a player is arrested? What is the Fate Table?
Chris: If the Hero is arrested, one of several things can happen, as determined by the Fate Table. The Hero can be executed (game over!), sent to the GULAG, or assigned to a Penal Battalion. The Hero can “confess” or “protest” the charges when arrested, but the effects can be unpredictable.
Grant: What are Operational Event cards and how do they effect play?
Chris: Of course! Here are three: “Sibling Hero”, “Denounced!”, and “Pravda”. In the top corners are the effects: “Sibling Hero” +2 Merit and +2 Morale; “Denounced!” +1 Suspicion; and “Pravda” +2 Morale. When one of these cards are drawn, these immediately change the Hero’s attributes. The numbers at the bottom, green for Rations and orange for Equipment, are used during some operational actions, such as Foraging, to determine what is gained, if anything. In those instances, the event effects don’t occur.
Grant: What is the Tactical map and how does it work?
Chris: The Tactical Map is where the Battle Segment takes place. For each Battle Segment, the player draws 12 terrain tiles, and also determines time of day, weather, etc. Unlike most war games, the map consists of squares instead of hexes to maximize space.
Grant: What are Mission Cards?
Chris: Mission Cards determine the type of battle that will take place. It also tells you the type of terrain tiles to use, the number of enemies that will be present, and the amount of Merit and Comrades that may be earned.
Grant: it appears that the game play allows for a lot of tactical decisions elements such as artillery, smoke, camouflage amongst other things. Why is this so key to your design goal and how does it effect the overall play experience?
Chris: Ultimately, this game is about an individual soldier’s experiences, so the things that are directly and immediately felt by the soldier during combat are of the highest importance. I wanted to think of the things that affect the senses and the spirit. If I could add battlefield smells, I would! I think all of these things make the game more immersive and, hopefully, make players attached to their Hero. Every time artillery falls on the Hero’s position, or a shot is fired in their direction, I want the player to feel the tension. And if the Hero survives, think, “Thank God that missed!”
Grant: What happens after battles are completed and missions finished for that operation? How does the player prepare the Hero for the next operation? How is the next operation chosen?
Chris: When a battle is completed, the player conducts a “Debriefing.” This includes determining awards and promotions, if any, or the Hero’s fate if captured or separated. The Hero’s attributes may be modified as well. Then the player starts the next Operational/Battle Segment. I’m still developing the transition, but ultimately, there will be historical operations (e.g. Barbarossa, Citadel, etc.), which will determine the number of Battle Segments that occur before moving on to the next one. The next operation is chosen by the year and the Hero’s front assignment; for example, the Hero in 1942 can participate in the Sinyavino Offensive to relieve Leningrad or in the Stalingrad campaign (but not both!).
Grant: What are your plans for the release of the game? Print and play or have you approached any publishers about printing the game?
Chris: This is definitely my most ambitious project, and ultimately I want to publish it as a traditional board game. But I’m going to take my time with it to make sure its right, and it delivers the experiences it was meant to invoke.
Grant: What works really well in the design? What elements still need some work?
Chris: I think the Operational Segment works really well. The combat system still needs some work as I try to reduce the complexity while also maintaining its immersion.
Grant: What has been the experience of players who have playtested the game?
Chris: The game is not yet available for outside playtesting, but eventually it will be made available on Tabletop Simulator interested playtesters.
Grant: Are there competitive or even cooperative versions of the game?
Chris: I’m kicking around a cooperative version of the game, but right now I want to focus on the core systems and mechanics. I’m confident that the wider war gaming community will find a way to make a cooperative addendum to the game.
Grant: What is next for Chris Davis? Other games that you might have in the design phase?
Chris: There are a couple of games in the works, which people can find here. The larger projects are The Peculiar Institution, Fall of the Kaiserreich, Operation Storm-333, and Interstellar Commonwealth. I also want to keep making free print and play games, and I’ve been kicking around ideas for that, including the Battle of Westerplatte.
Thanks Chris for your time and for the great look inside Hero of the Soviet Union. I am very interested in this one as it progresses and hope that one day it gets picked up and is published for all solo wargame enthusiasts to enjoy. In fact, I truly hope that some forward thinking publisher sees this interview and contacts you. Good luck!