If you like historical asymmetrical wargames focused on very cool events, you’re going to want to get acquainted with a new designer named Joe Schmidt. A few months ago, I came across a tweet about a then new design called Guerrillas of the Peninsular War. We reached out to Joe and did an interview with him on that design and you can read that here at this link.
At the end of the year, I saw where he was now working on a new design covering one of the most pivotal and well known events from the Revolutionary War Washington’s defeat of the Hessians at Trenton. I again contacted Joe and he was more than willing to answer our questions.
Grant: What is The Present Winter about and why did you have a desire to design a game covering this historical event?
Joe: The Present Winter is a game about Washington’s Crossing and the Battle of Trenton that took place on December 25th and 26th of 1776 during the American War of Independence. The goal for Washington’s Continental Army is to cross the Delaware River and seize control of Trenton from the Hessians. The goal of the Hessian Mercenaries is to, with the help of the Elements, stymie the Continentals in their crossing of the river and to prevent the capture of Trenton.
The Old Barracks in Trenton has always held a special place in my heart. I grew up about ten miles from there, and would visit often as a kid on school trips or with my parents. For me, my love of history manifested itself in my attempts to experience it, and the Old Barracks always helped to keep me grounded in the local legacy and history of New Jersey.
My dear friend Asher, is now a historical interpreter at the Barracks. Last Christmas, he gave my family and I a tour while we were in town. Sharing that with my twin daughters was really special, and I kind of decided that day I wanted to design a game based on this historical site that has meant so much to me. To share that experience not just with my kids, but with everyone.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the mechanics?
Joe: I wanted to give myself the challenge of turning a pretty one-sided battle into an exciting and compelling game that told the story of one of the most important nights in American history. Early on I decided I did not want to create a variant of a States of Siege Series style game (I love SoS games, but wanted to experiment), so I needed something for the Hessian player to do while the Continental player was crossing the Delaware. So, I thought why not let them control the weather?
I mean, let’s be honest. Who doesn’t wish they could control the weather sometimes? That kind of power is fun, and it also makes the Continental player feel like they are fighting two distinct forces (the Elements AND the Hessians). So, I decided to create two separate Orders Decks for them and gave all of the factions distinct goals. The Continental player must take Trenton, the Hessian must hold it, and the Elements must stall Washington’s Army long enough to give the Hessians the advantage!
Grant: As a Revolutionary War game, what did you feel was vital to model in the design? How does the design reinforce the feel of the fighting and tactics of the 18th century?
Joe: For 18th and 19th century conflict, or any conflict for that matter, the focus is always on stress and its impact on the spirit of the people who are fighting. Morale during the Revolutionary War is an interesting and compelling study, and especially so in the Battle of Trenton. The Continental Army was bloody, battered, and nearly beaten in the Winter of 1776. They had been retreating across New Jersey, tails firmly between their legs since their escape from New York. So, I tried to really make Continental gameplay heavily morale focused to replicate these conditions.
Fighting and tactics-wise, the game is all about your commanders. The Continental Army is incredibly difficult to maneuver to Trenton without being able to March. They can also rely on Washington’s Spirit to help them overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds facing them. The Hessian forces are much stronger in combat when they have their commander with them. Proper leadership is a necessity if you want to succeed in your goals in The Present Winter.
Grant: What is the goal of the game for the Hessians? For the Continentals?
Joe: I wanted to go with simple and direct victory conditions so the player could allow themselves to be drawn into the narrative of the game. The goal of the game for the Hessians is to prevent the Continentals from taking Trenton by stalling Washington’s crossing of the Delaware using their power over the elements. The Continental players goal is to cross the river and take Trenton (and hopefully in a sneak attack before the Hessians are ready to properly respond).
Grant: Let’s talk about the components for a minute. What does the map look like and what is it’s scale? What are the different types of spaces and how do they effect gameplay?
Joe: The board is broken up into two sections (the River section and the Trenton section). For people who have played my games, they will know that I prefer a more abstract take on space. Both maps are set at different scales in order to improve the player experience. This is actually a lesson I learned from Volko Ruhnke. When you are designing a wargame you are creating a model. You choose the parameters of your model, in order to best represent your interpretation of the conflict. So, the board was the best way for me to represent my model of the conflict.
Spaces in The Present Winter represent different areas that can be occupied by tokens. The five types of spaces are Open, Town, River, Exit, and Portal. Open spaces (circles) have no effect on game play. Town spaces (squares and the three red Trenton spaces) allow the defending player to reroll one of their own dice in combat. River spaces are used to cross the Delaware, and the Portal spaces connect the River section of the board to the Trenton section of the board. Exit spaces will allow the Hessian to move their tokens off the board to score victory points.
Grant: What are Connections on the map and how are they used?
Joe: Connections are used to traverse the map. In the game, there are two types of connections players can use, paths and roads. Roads, represented as closely as possible to the original primary source maps as I could find, allow standard movement between spaces without penalty. Using a Path, which represents historical troop movement, doubles the cost of movement from one Action to two Actions. This makes using Paths a costly but important option when planning out your strategy.
Grant: The design uses Action Cards and each side has a limited number. How are these Action Cards used? What are the different types of actions available? Can we see images for the cards?
Joe: Action Cards represent how many actions the player can take over the course of the round. They are setup in order of how the player would like the cards to be played into an Orders Deck. These were actually my favorite part of the design. I have always loved the old playing card design from the 18th century, so I had a lot of fun mimicking that style in the design of the Action Cards for this game.
The actions in this game are pretty faction specific, which was a fun way to create a more diverse gaming experience. For the Continental player, the focus of your actions is on movement. Getting across the river, organizing, marching, and eventually fighting the Hessians. For the Hessian player, actions are fairly basic. This is meant to represent the surprise nature of the attack. They can move and defend themselves well, but with nowhere near the organization of the Continentals (as they were still quite sleepy. Not a fun way to wake up, I’d imagine).
The Elements actions are the real wildcard here. Their actions are focused on interrupting Washington’s advance as much as possible. This can be achieved by adding ice to the river and preventing the Continentals from using all of their actions. Their most extreme, and costly, action allows the Elements to remove Spirit via a morale test. All these are meant to give the Hessian player some interesting choices to make, while making the crossing a real challenge for Washington’s Army.
Grant: What effect do the Hessian Commander and Continental Officers Meeples have on the game?
Joe: The Hessian Commander serves as the heavy hitter for their faction. With two dice in attack and a Spirit of three, they have the ability to stay in the fight and make an impact. And, due to the limitations on movement for the Hessians, proper usage of the command will make a big difference in the player’s ability to defend Trenton.
The three Continental Officers are key to organizing and advancing their forces to take Trenton. Their special action, March, allows up to four Soldier tokens to move with them at the cost of only one action. Without this ability, Washington’s Army will never have a chance of reaching their objective before day break. And the Hessians will be well prepared to defend against an attack.
Grant: How is the famous crossing of the Delaware River handled? What is unique about this phase and strategy?
Joe: This was the most important part of the design for me. It is one of those keystone moments in American history, and if it didn’t feel right the game would have fallen flat. So, I worked on this for a long time, and tested many different iterations of the rules before I landed on something that worked. The Continental player must move tokens onto open River spaces one at time. Once the River spaces are full, the Continental player then spends two actions to move all of their pieces off of the Delaware and onto the Jersey Shore. While this is happening the Elements player is using their actions to make the crossing as difficult as possible. This is achieved through the use of special actions.
The River spaces are all numbered one through five. When the Elements player uses an “Ice on the River” action, they first roll one die. Then, they place an Elements token on the corresponding number (if the result of the roll is a 6 then the Elements token can be placed in any of the five spaces). If the space already has a token on it, then nothing happens. But, if it is empty or occupied by a Continental token it is placed on the space. Continental tokens must fight through the ice by passing a Morale test. If they fail, they go back to the Pennsylvania shore.
The idea behind this design was to add a sense of urgency and randomness to the crossing. Allowing the Elements player to always place a token just didn’t feel natural to me. So I introduced the randomness of the die. I found that this really helped make the Elements feel more devious, and added to the feeling of uncertainty in the Continental player. Overall, I am really happy with the way this worked out.
Grant: What happens if the crossing is delayed? Does this spell disaster for the Continentals or is there still a chance for victory?
Joe: Historically, the crossing was delayed. Washington wanted to quickly cross the river and get to Trenton before daybreak on the 26th. Due to the conditions they faced, the Continentals ended up at Trenton around 8am. Early enough to spring the trap, but not according to plan. So, success is still a real possibility for the Continentals if they get stalled by the Elements. The real trouble comes into play if the Hessians start to get their actions. With effective charges and the use of their Commander, they have a chance of breaking through Washington’s lines and causing them some real headaches.
Grant: How did you go about trying to model communications of the time into the game play? Did you succeed in your attempt?
Joe: During the Revolutionary War, communications were a vital and complex aspect of military campaigns. Maneuvers and attacks would need to be planned out and supplied well in advance. In the game, this is represented by planning your actions in advance. Action cards reflect your ability to send orders to your forces in the field. And, much like sending paper orders to your commands, you need to have a good plan in mind while also taking your enemy’s movements into account. I am very happy with the Orders Deck mechanic. I feel that it represents the nature and difficulties of communications in the late 18th century.
Grant: How are Morale tests handled? How does the Spirit Track effect these tests?
Joe: This is straight from the rule book, but I feel it explains the tests and their effect on Spirit best. I was a long-time Warhammer player, so I have always liked the concept of Leadership Tests. I felt that this mechanic worked well in this game, and also made the Continental player feel more of a sense of control and agency in their limited ability to lead their forces to victory:
During the game, certain Actions will force the Continental player to take a Morale Test. When this happens, roll one six-sided die. If the result is a four, five, or six the test is passed. If the result is a one, two, or three then the test is failed.
The Continental player may spend one Spirit to change the result of a Morale Test from failed to passed. This option is only available if the Continental Army has two or more Spirit available. You may not use your last Spirit to pass a Morale Test.
Grant: How is Combat handled in the design? Please provide us a description of an example of combat so we can understand how it works.
Joe: Combat in The Present Winter is very similar to combat in Guerrillas. Each token has a Combat Value and “To Hit” ranking, which represents their combat effectiveness. During combat, you roll dice equal to the total CV of all of your available tokens and any result of a 5+ causes one stress. Then the other player rolls dice equal to their total CV, also hitting on results of 5+. After both players have had completed Combat, compare the sum total of hits from both sides, and inflict damage to the losing side equal to the difference between the two totals. Below is the example I used in the rule book.
Example: The Hessian Commander and one Soldier token attack two Continental Soldiers. The Commander rolls two dice, a “3” and a “5”, inflicting one stress. The Hessian Soldier rolls one die, a “5”, inflicting one stress. The Continental player then rolls two dice for the Soldiers, a “5” and a “1” inflicting one stress. The Hessians win this fight, 2-1, and inflict one stress on the Continentals.
Grant: Why does the Continental Army have a higher combined Spirit than the Hessians? Why did you make this design choice?
Joe: I wanted the Continental player to really feel like Washington while they played the game. Amidst everything he was dealing with (angry officers, lack of supply, lack of morale, and a seemingly unstoppable enemy) Washington was still confident enough to cross a frozen river and march nearly ten miles through the elements in the middle of the night in a last ditch effort to save the Revolution. If that doesn’t represent Spirit, then what does! I wanted the player to feel as confident as he did, and have some wiggle room in their strategy. This helped me in my desire for more narrative game play. Sometimes, the game designs itself, and this was one of those cases.
Grant: How do players win the game?
Joe: Because of the strong narrative focus in the game I wanted the victory conditions to be really clear. For the Continental player, you need to take Trenton and score ten points for doing so. This is done by controlling all three Trenton Town spaces (the only red spaces on the map) before the end of the fifth turn. In order to control a space, your faction’s tokens must be the only tokens on that space. The Continental player also loses one victory point per token left on the Pennsylvania Shore of the Delaware, which makes crossing your entire army a major priority.
For the Hessian player, you must control at least one Trenton space at the end of the fifth turn. If you succeed in this, you earn ten victory points. If you are unable to hold at least one of these spaces, you can attempt to leave the board via the two Exit spaces. For each token that is able to leave the board you score one victory point. So, while you won’t be able to win the game, you can still score some points. This was added in the case that players wanted to swap sides and combine the two scores to create a longer play session.
Grant: How long do typical games take to play? When you began design was this short play time always the goal?
Joe: The Present Winter takes about 30 minutes to play one game. I find the sweet spot for my designs is around a half hour. I want a tight game that is rich in it’s narrative experience. Ideally The Present Winter could be played as a quick game while waiting for some other players to join you for a larger Revolutionary War game or over lunch with a friend. I see this as a really fun educational game for a classroom or to play with kids in order to help them better understand the why behind this famous historical moment. This game in particular is pretty heavily narrative, so having the playtime run too long could bog down the experience.
Grant: Is a non-historical result or a Hessian victory possible and how common is it?
Joe: It is, though it won’t happen as often as a Continental victory. If the Hessian player uses their Elements actions well they should be able to keep control of Trenton by the end of the fifth turn. That said, the game is still in the development process, so I am sure as I continue the process I will find new ways to balance the game out if and when needed. For me, the main focus of the game was on a fun narrative experience and less of a competitive gaming experience. It is a better opportunity to use fake German accents than to win at all costs.
Grant: What has changed in the design through the play test process? Please give a few examples.
Joe: So much! At first I was focusing on Washington’s army leaving their camp, with additional opportunities for crossing the Delaware. In the battle plans there were three total crossings planned, but the conditions prevented these actions. It was really a matter of massaging the idea down to something that was manageable and still exciting.
There was also a lot of work done balancing the number of tokens and actions each force should have. Too many tokens made crossing the river too difficult, and too few made it too easy. I also worked to make sure that the total number of tokens was as close as possible to the number of people who fought in the battle (about 2,500 Continentals and 1,500 Hessians). Even the game is my model, I really want everything about the game to be deeply tied to the history of the event.
Grant: Where can the game be purchased?
Joe: Like all of my designs, it’s free! It is currently a participant in the BGG Two Player PnP challenge, so you can grab the files on the forums (link). If I get enough interest with this design I think I will look into additional development and possible publication.
Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?
Joe: I am working on a 9-card asymmetrical wargame about magical Austrian Grenzers hunting French Vampire Hussars in Hungary during the Napoleonic War. Think Harry Potter, but shakos and pelisses. It has been a really exciting project, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone. It’s got this great hidden movement mechanic, and is going to be a really fun narrative experience. I’m also in the process of developing Guerrillas of the Peninsular War as my first published game, so keep on the look-out for that in the near future!
Thanks Joe for the insight into this very interesting looking design. I have really appreciated your willingness to talk to me and I hope one day to get a chance to meet you and play one of your games.