Last month, while putting together the Wargame Watch feature, I came across not only a new publisher but their first game. The new publisher was Furor Teutonicus Games from Germany and there inaugural game looked to be a fantastic looking hex and counter wargame covering action in World War II in Aachen called Crossing the Line: Aachen 1944. I reached out to the designer Dirk Blennemann and he was more than willing to talk about his design.
Grant: First off Dirk please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Dirk: I’m 57 years old, married, and have lived in the Aachen area since 1986. I’m an engineer by profession, working as director and head of department for a German company for high-performance home networking and smart grid solutions. Besides historical simulations, my hobbies are (military) history, vintage Porsche cars, and hiking.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Dirk: I played my first historical simulation – the old SPI classic Napoleon at Borodino – in 1979 and became highly thrilled by the gaming hobby. A few years later I got the chance to do research, playtesting and development for several well-known designers like Richard Berg, Dean Essig, Ted Raicer, Ty Bomba just to name a few. The next logical, maybe automatic, step was starting game design by myself.
Designing gives me the chance to present my personal view and understanding of a specific historical conflict in an interesting, challenging, and playable way. Designing is a highly interactive process: I like the exchange of ideas with playtesters, developers, artists, editors, and – games once the simulation hits the table – players very much.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Dirk: The core of my design philosophy reads “playability”. For me, playability means the avoidance of an overly complex, cumbersome game system, overloaded with details and sub-systems. Therefore, the game must stick to the main focus of the historical situation and present the correct historical information in an interesting, challenging, and playable manner.
Grant: What does “playable manner” mean?
Dirk: For me, “playable manner” works hand in hand with medium complexity, fitting the game components on a standard-dining table with playing time kept at a reasonable level. I don’t say that more complex games with a large amount of components are wrong, but I noticed that the majority of players never get the chance of finishing even a single match of these games.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about design? What do you do really well?
Dirk: As a designer, I find it imperative to find a special “focus”/”theme” and then stick to it. Therefore, and in order to keep the game really playable, the design concentrated on identifying and capturing the most important factors of the “Battle for Aachen”. Crossing the Line is an operational simulation with its main focus on command control and a strong emphasis upon combined arms warfare, uncertainty, and fatigue.
The game puts players into the seats of a C-in-C. Both players are always involved into game play and have plenty of interesting decisions to make each turn. The game system does not come with elaborate air, artillery or supply sub-systems often found in games at this scale. As a result, players are not bothered by the kind of decisions a supply depot clerk has to make.
Grant: Who is Furor Teutonicus Games and how did you come to design a game for them?
Dirk: They are a new startup publishing company doing various historical conflict simulations. The founders are members of the GHS or German Society for Historical Simulations, as I am too. Actually we met through our shared passion for the hobby and we value the same ideas regarding playability and quality of games so my decision to design a game for them was an easy one to make.
Grant: What is Crossing the Line: Aachen 1944 about? Where did your idea to do this game come from?
Dirk: By September 1944, the Western Allies had reached the western border of Germany after their rapid advance through France and parts of the Lowlands. The city of Aachen had been incorporated into the Westwall (Siegfried Line), but in September 1944 neither its condition nor equipment was state-of-the-art.
The task of taking Aachen was given to the First US Army whereas the Wehrmacht’s 7th Armee defended the area. Fighting around Aachen began during the second week of September, and about mid-September the US 1st Infantry Division had created a half-moon arc around the city. The slow advance came to a halt in late September due to German reinforcements and Operation Market-Garden further north. After some rest and refit until October 1, US forces commenced offensive actions again. In order to avoid major street fighting, the US’s offensive plan called to encircle the city, and on October 16, both US pincers closed. Street fighting inside the pocket continued for a few days, but on October 21, the city surrendered,
The city of Aachen had no military value in itself nor as a center of production. But its capture was of psychological value because Aachen was the historic capital of Charlemagne, famous founder of the First Reich, and the first German western city liberated by the Allies. Nevertheless, the German resistance upset Allied plans to continue their advance across the Roer and Rhine Rivers in order to end the war before Christmas.
I have been living in the Aachen area since 1986 and from the very beginning the Battle for Aachen has always been close to my heart. The Battle for Aachen is an interesting and excellent subject for a wargame because the variety of different combat actions regard this battle as one of the most instructive of the entire war in Europe. In addition, the historical situation was really challenging for both sides.
Grant: What did you feel was really important to model from the history in this game?
Dirk: The Battle for Aachen did not show continuous actions. Instead, phases of intensive (combat) actions were followed by lull stages. The aspect of fatigue (and recovery) was very important for this battle and has to be mirrored in the game system.
Grant: Why did you feel the main focus of the game should be command control, combined arms and uncertainty?
Dirk: Players will soon realize that all actions are based on the abilities of the individual HQ units. Coming up with command control was a relatively simple task because over the history of recorded warfare, this factor generally stands out among the others, often representing the decisive factor of the outcome of the battle itself. The command control mechanics of Crossing the Line model leadership, different doctrines, fatigue, recovery, and the ability of reaction on a formation during battle.
Keeping in mind the subject and the scale of Crossing the Line, combined arms warfare is a crucial aspect of combat. The proper cooperation of infantry, tanks, and combat support as well as their interaction with terrain was vital for success in combat.
Battles normally develop a dynamic course of their own which can never be fully controlled by the opponents. To reflect this and to avoid an unrealistic chess-like game play, Crossing the Line stresses the importance of uncertainty, chaos (SNAFU) and Schlachtenglück (fortunes in battle). This aspect has been integrated into various game mechanics: Initiative and Action Point determination, Formation Reaction, Combat Chits, and the “open-ended” Game Turn.
Grant: What historical sources did you consult to construct the OOB?
Dirk: The starting point of my research was the well-known book The Siegfried Line Campaign: US Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operation by Charles B. MacDonald. A really careful research for a historical simulation of this scale is an immense amount of work, and that is doubly true for the Battle for Aachen. Whereas the US OOB caused little problems because of the US Army’s penchant for standardization, the German OOB became a nightmare because German units were difficult to pin down as much of their organization was independent and ad-hoc in nature. Without numerous local sources and outstanding assistance of veterans of both sides, a serious German OOB would not have been possible. Speaking about veterans, especially the 50th anniversary in 1994 was of great help because more than 100 veterans of both sides attended the celebrations and passed their knowledge and personal memories.
The game map is based on up-to-date satellite photos, adjusted with topographical and military maps of the time period (1938 to 1945). In addition, I did dozens of site visits in order to clarify specific terrain sections, pillboxes and dragon’s teeth and their effect on movement and combat. The map boundaries are chosen to exclude the British Army and the fighting for the Hürtgen Forest.
Grant: What different divisions and units are included on both sides?
Dirk: On the US side, there are six formations included in the game: 1st, 9th, 29th and 30th Infantry Divisions as well as 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions. On the German side, several different formations take part, for example the 246th Volksgrenadier Division, 12th Infantry Division, 3rd Panzergrenadier Division and 116th Panzer Division.
Grant: What was your greatest challenge in the design and what did you have difficulty getting right?
Dirk: As pointed out before, uncertainty is a key topic of the game system. The challenge was to avoid a pure gambling game and to design a sensible balance between predictability and unpredictability while keeping an eye on the battle’s character. That approach cost the entire team a lot of sweat and blood during playtesting and development.
Grant: As an Operational game, what did you feel most important to focus on in game play?
Dirk: It has become somewhat of a tradition in historical simulations of this scale and complexity level to treat air, artillery, supply, etc. with rather elaborate sub-systems, sometimes even dominating the game with time-consuming computations and bookkeeping. I wanted to avoid that and put players into the seats of a C-in-C, concentrating on the – in my opinion – “interesting” decisions and aspects each turn. This gives the players the space to deal intensively with the historical situation and the essential events.
Grant: What is the basic anatomy of the counters?
Dirk: Most obviously, all unit counters are color-coded by formation. For AFV, we used silhouettes of the used vehicles and on all other counters, we used NATO symbols for US units and German Tactical symbols from WW2 for the German units. Each unit does only need four values: Effectiveness Rating, Combat strength, Tank- or Anti-Tank Points and Movement Allowance.
Grant: What does Effectiveness Rating value represent on the counters and how does it effect the units?
Dirk: The Effectiveness Rating is an indicator of how well the unit performed in the real battle and shows the unit’s general ability to conduct actions and withstand battle fatigue.
Grant: What are Tank and Anti-Tank Points and how do these numbers effect Combat?
Dirk: A player can get positive DRMs in combat when using Tanks in the right kind of terrain. Anti-Tank Points can lessen or negate this advantage, depending on the tactical situation.
Grant: Why did you think it was important to include these values in the game?
Dirk: The counters of combat units represent the fighting formations actually used rather than the administrative organizations usually depicted in most historical simulations. The numerical estimates of the combat strengths were determined by using a firepower score method of the German Armed Forces. The only adjustment to that method was the integration of field and medium artillery guns organic to the formation.
Units containing tanks, tank destroyers, or German Sturmgeschütze (assault guns) have a Tank-Point value. This Tank-Point value represents the quality of an AFV type. Please note that the open top of some vehicles, like the US M-10 tank destroyer, caused a lower Tank-Point value.
The game is lacking counters representing towed Anti-Tank guns (including German FlaK) because these guns were never used as a cohesive force during the battle but spread out to support various infantry-type units. Following this concept, the value of Anti-Tank formations was integrated into the Anti-Tank Points of infantry-type combat units.
The movement system and unit capabilities are straightforward and realistic being based on march tables from the US Army and the German Wehrmacht. The basic data was modified by analyzing the performance during the actual battle.
Grant: What is the need for HQ units and how are they key to the divisions?
Dirk: The game system operates at the divisional level. Exercising control over its portion of the front is the task of HQs. HQ units are a significant aspect of the command control concept, taking into account the administrative requirement that a formation and its units remain in communications. In other words: HQs require that the players manage to keep their formations fairly organized, and don’t scatter the combat units of one formation over the entire game map.
The values of an HQ unit represent its ability to conduct its task successfully. Corps and army artillery assets are represented by the individual HQ unit’s Attack Support Rating. This roughly equates to the quantity and quality of artillery and heavy weapons which the formations have at its disposal. In addition, ammunition shortages were integrated into the Attack Support Ratings as well as (artillery) doctrines and combat support forces like engineers.
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play and what is most important to the design?
Dirk: As in most other conflict simulations, we do have an Administrative phase and an Operations Phase. But the heart of the game truly is the Operations Cycle. The Ops Cycle consists of a varying number of Formation Activations, whereas the initiative player gets determined newly after each one of them.
Grant: What is your rationale and basis behind your CRT?
Dirk: The combat system is based on analytic combat research and produces realistic combat results. The Battle for Aachen had been a battle of attrition fought by reinforced infantry battalions and, speaking about the Wehrmacht, battalion-sized infantry-type Kampfgruppen. Therefore combat actions are limited to one hex for each side and combat results place an emphasis on step losses. Nevertheless, the combat results represent the range of combat outcomes encountered, including losses, retreats, inconclusive combat or combinations thereof. A wholesale elimination of a full-strength unit will seldom occur, although the CRT – in conjunction with the retreat limit of just one hex – produces pretty bloody results.
Grant: I really like the Combat Resolution marker. Why did you feel this was needed?
Dirk: See, this is actually one of several great ideas from the guys at Furor Teutonicus. They used the table constantly during playtesting and thought, well let’s enhance playability, so that you can put the marker on the table as a mnemonic device and at the same time ease finding the correct results.
Grant: Why is there such restrictions on formations? Why is this important in your design?
Dirk: Considering unit, map and time scales of Crossing the Line, divisions were the key feature of operations and actions. Similar to their historical counterparts, players have to think and act in terms of formations. The concept of formations avoids elaborate sub-system and time-consuming computations and bookkeeping. It does “feel right” and covers the battle’s character in an interesting and playable way. In addition, the concept of formations models the effects of fatigue, recovery and reaction in an elegant way.
Grant: Why do you allow reassignment of units and how does this work?
Dirk: Independent units can be assigned to certain friendly formations (HQs). Once assigned, independent units remain subordinate to the formation until the player decides to reassign it to another formation. Assigned units are treated like units organic to a formation. The option to assign units allows players to install Task Forces for specific missions and increase the effectiveness of (independent) units. The last point is of great importance for the German player because much of the Wehrmacht’s organization was independent and ad-hoc in nature.
Grant: How does Initiative work and why is it important?
Dirk: Each Operation Cycle begins with the Initiative Determination. The winning side is termed the Initiative player, while the other player is termed the Reaction player. The Initiative player can conduct one of the following three options: Act, Transfer Initiative, and Pass.
In my opinion, a serious study of the Battle for Aachen requires an interactive game system because a traditional “Igo-Yugo” system is too limited to capture and simulate the decisive aspects of the battle. The proper usage of the three options Act (keep momentum), Transfer Initiative (sit tight, force the opponent to burn resources), and Pass (save resources and capabilities) is fundamental for successful game play.
Grant: How does combat work? What are the different types of attack actions available?
Dirk: There are three types of Attack Actions in Crossing the Line: Hasty, regular and prepared Attack. The more Action Points you spend for an attack, the better your chances through positive modifiers such as combat support from adjacent units, HQ support and a better chance – statistically – for a higher Combat Multiplier.
Grant: What are the Combat Multiplier markers and how are they used? Why did you feel this was necessary?
Dirk: During combat, each player draws one Combat Chit to determine the Combat Multipliers. The Combat Multipliers are used for final combat strength determination.
Combat Chits became necessary to cover type and preparation of an attack or defence with regard to the “quality” and performance of the participating combat units. They reduce predictability to the historically correct dimension and avoid chess-like game play (“… I need another one strength point to achieve a 3:1 ratio …”).
Grant: What are Combat Support DRMs?
Dirk: Combat actions are limited to one hex for each side, but friendly combat units adjacent to the enemy attacking/defending unit may be eligible to provide combat support as die roll modifiers. The value of Combat Support DRMs is mainly dependent on type and preparation of an attack or defence, and if participating units are part of the same formation, thereby forcing players to keep the units of a formation together.
Grant: Why is a 10-sided die used? What did you hope to replicate with this choice?
Dirk: Early in the design process I had a clear idea about the combat results and the likelihood of their occurance. The 10-sided die works best with die roll modifiers for terrain, Combat/HQ Support, and Armor Superiority, and is my favoured approach to receive realistic and historically correct combat result.
Grant: What is a refit Action?
Dirk: If your unit gets disrupted, it cannot do anything other than a Refit Action. To refit, you have to spend one Action Point and roll a die less than or equal to the unit’s Effectiveness Rating.
Grant: What is Cannibalization and what does it represent from history?
Dirk: The German side (only) may cannibalize infantry type units to receive Replacement Points. Each Strength Point removed becomes one Replacement Point and may be expended to recover one previously lost Strength Point of another combat unit.
Caused by the severe losses during the summer of 1944, many German units were independent and ad-hoc in nature. Lacking training, equipment and (heavy) weapons, the combat value of these units was rather limited. Often these independent and ad-hoc units were disbanded to get replacements for regular combat units.
Grant: What are the victory conditions? What are the VP hexes and why are these hexes chosen as such?
Dirk: The US player gets Victory Points for strength point losses of German units and for control of specific Victory Point hexes. Speaking about scenarios The Stolberg Corridor and Across the Wurm, the victory conditions are based on the historical outcome of the battle: Both players must perform better than their historical counterparts.
The victory conditions of the Campaign Scenario are different: The US player draws one out of three Victory Plans; these Victory Plans determine Victory Point hexes and their values. The three Victory Plans represent different options (primary objective Aachen, primary objective forming a pocket, primary objective crossing the Roer River) open to the Allied and discussed during the battle. The Victory Plans add uncertainty to game play and increase the replay value of Crossing the Line.
Grant: What scenarios does the game have? What is the playing time of each?
Dirk: Crossing the Line contains three scenarios and one campaign game. The first scenario is very short and just a solitaire exercise to get the feet wet with the system. Then we have two medium sized scenarios, differentiated by start and end dates. The campaign takes about one long day or two evenings. 10 hours should be realistic.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design? What does it do really well?
Dirk: Crossing the Line is a historical simulation which is, like the subject matter itself, close to my heart. I’m really pleased that Crossing the Line is playable in all aspects (complexity, size, number of components, playing time), but provides a serious study of the Battle for Aachen, introducing players into the situation and options open to their historical counterparts. After a short adaption period executing the game system is easy, but mastering game play continues to be a challenge. The universally implemented uncertainty provides an extraordinary replay value – no two matches are the same.
Grant: What other projects are you working on?
Dirk: Breaching the Minefield – GAZALA 1942 and The Siegfried Line Campaign – Western Front September 1944 to the Rhine crossing Spring 1945.
Both historical simulations will come with many design elements and concepts used in Crossing the Line like the Operations Cycle. But adaptions are necessary because the games cover different kinds of battles/operations shown at other scales. I will follow my design philosophy and keep the games playable, avoiding unmanageable complexity, size and playing time.
Thank you Dirk for your time in answering our questions about Crossing the Line: Aachen 1944 from Furor Teutonicus Games. After reading your philosophy and your guiding principles around the game design I am sure looking forward to getting this beauty on my table.
If you are interested in a copy of Crossing the Line: Aachen 1944 you can obtain one from the Furor Teutonicus Games website at the following link: https://www.furor-teutonicus.com/produkt/crossing-the-line-aachen-1944/