I love the style of games that come from Hollandspiele. They have built their brand on games that are smart, eclectic, well put together and most importantly fun to play. Each month they seem to bring something else out that is innovative and tries to address situations in a different and interesting way. When I heard about their newly released Escape from Hades a few months ago, I knew that it was a game that would keep my interest so I reached out to the designer Fred Manzo and his developer Hermann Luttmann to get some information on the design.
Grant: First off Fred please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Fred: Right now I’m retired. I was an English as a Second Language teacher and the NCOIC of Combat Intelligence for an Air Force Wing in the military. When I came out of the military I became a Social Security Benefit Authorizer instructor and finally a Claims Representative. As such I wrestled with 30,000+ pages of Social Security regulations on a daily basis and had to explain these regulations to the general public. So editing and finding loopholes in gaming rules comes as second nature to me.
My hobbies revolve around the study of the Civil War, military history in general, astronomy, Science-Fiction and gaming, of course.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Fred: I always loved designing games. But that was only for myself and a group of gaming friends until I met Hermann Luttmann at a Consimworld Expo around 2012. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, Dr. Harvey Mossman, and it turned out we only lived about 25 minutes from each other here on Long Island. At that time, Hermann was looking for playtesters and a developer for his latest game Clash of Eagles from White Dog Games and I volunteered. This was his 4th or 5th game. So all the games he designed after that had me as his developer. After we did the first “Invaders” game for Tiny Battle Publishing the publisher, Mark Walker, asked for a sequel and Hermann suggested I give it a try.
I like developing games myself. But only with a designer who takes my suggestions seriously. As for designing games I especially like SF games as it gives the designer’s imagination a much greater degree of freedom.
Historical games are a whole different animal. The general public demands hyper accuracy and frowns on even the slightest bit of levity as we learned from our experience with Longstreet Attacks. Originally, it was called “Hammerin’ Sickles”, which I thought rather clever, but it didn’t go over with a segment of the gaming audience. So we changed it to a scenario name and went with Longstreet Attacks. I never saw anything wrong with the title but others did.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Fred: I like to place players in ever changing and unexpected situations with only limited information. Their job is then to do the best they possibly can with what they have, not sit paralyzed looking for the perfect solution. They are just never given enough information to even begin to formulate a perfect solution, just what seems the best solution in a bad situation that will probably shortly change for the worst.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about design? What do you do really well?
Fred: What I find most challenging is simplifying complex interactions into the clearest and shortest possible set of rules. Anyone can explain anything if given enough time, but as they say in the computer field “Easy is Hard.” I find explaining an ever changing interactive situation in the fewest possible words is a challenge. I think because of my background I can make complex ideas come across clearly and simply. It takes a lot of work but I get satisfaction from it.
Grant: What designs have you completed and what lessons have you learned about finishing a design?
Fred: I have finished 3 or 4 designs that never saw print. This was before I met Hermann and really had no connection to any publishers. As for my published work, I designed Space Vermin from Beyond for Tiny Battle Publishing and now Escape from Hades for Hollandspiele. They are both tongue-in-cheek SF games based on old 1940 and 1950’s serials and pulp fiction.
Grant: What is Escape from Hades about?
Fred: Escape from Hades is a “Solar Hanseatic League Adventure” that follows a rescue mission into an enemy prison hulk. The ship that transports our heroes to the hulk is a “Fast Armed Transport” with a reinforced security detail: “The Black Sheep.” The SHL is actually patterned on the old British East India company but I couldn’t figure out how to work their name into a Space Opera story so I switched to the Hanseatic League. In addition, the “Black Sheep” are modeled after the famous medieval mercenary unit “The White Company.” (I just don’t like being obvious with historical references in SF games.)
I guess we find it a treat to think up bad puns or historical asides in our SF and Zombie games and see how many players discover them. But to tell you the truth most of these gems simply pass right over people’s heads. Or at least no one comments on them.
Grant: How has it been working with the likes of Hermann Luttmann as your developer on this project?
Fred: Hermann is a terrific guy and it’s great working with him. We work well together with each of use shouting out ideas, then we meddled the best into a system. Of course, whoever is the designer of a particular project has the last word on what gets included and what gets dropped out. When you develop/design as many game as we do it’s not a terrible disappointment if one of your ideas isn’t picked up in a particular game as it will probably be used in another one in a few months anyway.
Grant: I really enjoy the (fictional) background for the game. Where did this come from and what was your inspiration? Did Hermann contribute his crazy ideas?
Fred: The concept was inspired from Space Vermin from Beyond from Tiny Battle Publishing. It had a simplified tunnel system and air component. So when I finished that game in 2016 I thought “why not flesh it out with a true 3D game.” I always liked Space Operas and I simply meshed some historical material, such as the British East India Company with Dante’s Inferno, added a bit of medieval history with some typical 1940’s era pulp SF and stirred vigorously. Herman contributed the idea of making the game extra hard, so that it has tons of replayability. Plus the idea to provide multiple levels of victory conditions in order to reward players for even slight improvements. And he reviewed/playtested the game, added a few jokes and in general kept me from expanding the game into my Magnus Opus.
For example, originally it had four maps representing four decks of the prison hulk “Hades”. This would have made the game difficult to set up and far too lengthy to play in an evening. (We try to keep our non-wargames under two hours and a majority of our wargame scenarios under three or four hours.)
Grant: I understand that now the game has two maps. Why is this the case and how does it set the stage for the experience?
Fred: Two maps were needed to create the feel of fighting your way through a 3 dimensional ship. One map was the outside of the prison ship and the other one of its inner decks. As mentioned previously it originally had 4 decks and 4 maps but I was quickly convinced that made the game much too long and convoluted for a light enjoyable game.
Grant: What units does the player have to accomplish their mission?
Fred: The player controls the SHL Vittles, a Fast, Armed, Transport, (or a FAT target to its crew.) This was patterned after the World War II Landing Ship Tank, the LST (or “Large Slow Target” to its crew.) The player also controls the ship’s guns and it’s reinforced security detail, The Black Sheep, plus a SHL scientist (Dante) and all the released pro-SHL political prisoners.
Grant: What is the anatomy of a counter? What is the ID number used for?
Fred: The only two numbers on the counter are it’s ID number and it’s movement allowance. The ID number is used when the bad guys have to pick one Enemy to fire at. (They pick the highest numbered unit.) Also when deciding which of several bad guys moves first and gets to a hex before the stacking limit is reached their ID number is used.
The units Combat Strength, by the way, is generated by the Resolution Decks. This is a variant of the combat system we used in Dead Reckoning, Race to the Sea-1914 and Steamroller -Tannenburg 1914. So it’s a well developed Combat System, which I personally like better than a typical CRT, as it doesn’t allow players to mini-max the situation. That is, count the total offensive and defensive Combat Factors to predetermine the range of possible outcomes. This way you know only that in general your good units should defeat your opponent’s bad units most of the time. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Just like in real life.
Grant: Who are the Gorgon Sisters and what is special about these units?
Fred: These units were put in to give variety to what the player would find in the prison cells. That is, it’s now possible to run across not just your run-of-the-mill bad guys but super-duper bad guys. I didn’t want just one super bad guy because that gives the player too much information on the situation as once a single Gorgon is found the player can breath easy. But not in our games! We never want a player to breath easy, especially in a solitaire game so at least two Gorgons were needed. The reason they were called Gorgons is that first, that is the name of a famous monster in mythology and second, and much more importantly, it allowed me to generate a truly horrendous pun in naming her fictional sister. I believe when a SF or zombie designer is faced with two equal options he should always pick the one that elicits the greatest response when the joke becomes apparent. Sometimes this response is immediate but sometimes it just sits there like an unexploded time bomb ready to go off years in the future. For example, there are some truly bad puns in Dead Reckoning, and Space Vermin that people have not found as of yet. Now those are bad I grant you, but they are simply minor league bad compared to the world class ones in Escape from Hades.
Grant: What is the Vittles and how does it factor into the game?
Fred: As mentioned, the Vittles in a Solar Hanseatic League armed trading vessel that is normally used to deliver high priority goods to dangerous locations. It always goes on high risk, high reward missions, but this time due to an ongoing major battle it was the only armed ship in range. So it was forced by circumstances to attempt a rescue mission it really wasn’t ever meant to go on. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Grant: What is the Vittles Status Track? How can a player repair these damaged systems?
Fred: The Vittles Status Track shows the player the Nastian’s targeting priorities. Ships don’t randomly blast away at each other, if they can help it, but target important parts of an enemy vessel when possible. So the Nastians first try to knock out the Vittles shields, then it’s guns, then it’s engines, then it’s remaining compartments. Once the Vittles warp engines are knocked out, it can’t escape the solar system where the Hades is located. But the Vittles has a damage control team that can sometimes repair it while the raid is still going on. Of course, if the Vittles is being overwhelmed, it has the option of temporarily leaving the Hades’ solar system and conducting any needed repairs in deep space but, of course, it can’t then also provide fire support to the raiders remaining on Hades.
Grant: The game uses cards and there are three decks. How is each deck used?
Fred: The three decks are a Nasty Surprise deck that generates, what else, Nasty Surprises for the Vittles and it’s crew to have to deal with. A SHL Combat Resolution deck and a Nastian Resolution Combat deck. The later two are used mostly in combat but they also can be used to generate random numbers when needed. Here is a link to a video from the publisher Hollandspiele on how these cards are used in combat: https://www.facebook.com/Hollandspiele/videos/696483570868431/
Grant: The Combat procedure is pretty interesting and uses cards. How does this work? Where did this inspiration come from?
Fred: Basically each of the Resolution combat cards has two main sections: a Spaceborne section and a “Ground” section. (Hades is such a large prison any combat on it is considered ground combat.) The player simply picks one card for the forces he controls from the SHL deck and one card from the forces the game controls. The player then checks who is attacking and who is defending. If a spaceborne unit is attacking the player only has to look at that box to see its effect. Say fighters on this card are a plus 3. Then the player checks the defender’s status box on the defender’s card. Say the defenders are on the ground. If the defending unit is mentioned in that box it’s negative number is simply subtracted from the attacks positive number. The total is the combat resolution. Any possible modifiers (damage, Terrain, etc.) are also mentioned on the card. A total of zero had no effect, a total of +1 damages the defender, a total of plus two destroys the defender.
In ground to ground combat only a total of -1 damages the attacker and a total of -2 destroys the attacker. The reason it works this way is that ground to ground combat is considered melee while space combat is considered point defenses vs. incoming missiles. In such a situation the attackers could have launched their missiles from hundreds or thousands of miles away and be perfectly safe if it was destroyed inbound to its target.
This system takes into account the strength of each unit by using an unbalanced set of numbers on the Combat cards. For example, a powerful Railgun located on the Vittles might have half the cards list it’s offensive punch as a three or four, while a weak Nastian guard unit might have three quarters of its defensive numbers listed as -2 or less. So in those situations while you can’t be absolutely sure of the outcome of any particular fight you can be sure that most of the time your good units will beat your opponent’s bad units. And, of course, his good units will generally beat your weak units. But, and this is important, you just never are certain until the battle is fought what the outcome will be.
Grant: What actions are available to players during the SHL phase?
Fred: The Vittles Damage Repair Team can attempt to fix battle damage. The player can then move the Vittles into or out of the Hades’ Solar System or fire the Vittles’ three weapons, if they are in working order, or give any of his units on Hades one of three general orders: move, fire or run-and-gun. In addition, he can give specialized units their own orders such as a demolition order for the Combat Engineers, or special CFP moves/attack orders for SWAT teams. This allows them to move and attack anywhere on the outer hull of the Vittles, but with an added risk of injury. The HQ teams can call in reinforcements, rally damaged formations or order force marches. Plus Dante (the SHL scientist) and Princess Emily (once she’s found and released) can conduct science actions, such as hacking the Hades’ Bridge Computer, hacking the Hades’ Teleporter and healing.
Grant: Let’s talk about the Circles of Hades and how these work? How do you determine a circle’s occupant?
Fred: The Circles of Hades are 12 compartments on the lower deck of the Hades. (There was a recent renovation that increased their numbers from 9 to 12, by the way.) At the start of each scenario (there are four and each one is harder to win than the the last. So when you’ve won you’ve accomplished a great deal. Believe me!) some occupants of the circles are pre-selected by the scenario’s rules and the rest are placed with them randomly. It depends on the scenario being used as not all the characters are in all the scenarios. The 12 cell occupants are then turned face down, randomized and put in the 12 cells. One per cell. So players may have a general idea of who is on the Hades inner deck but not exactly where they are or how many of each type there are. Various occupants can turn out to be pro-SHL political prisoners or just storage rooms or contain Gorgons or Nastian troops etc., etc. Some attack their rescuer and some explode and some, if damaged, knock out various Hades components. Like their Long Ranger Targeting Computer or the Hades’ Engine room, with its infamous self-destruct button. (Don’t all bad guy’s lairs have one?)
Grant: How is the game won and lost?
Fred: The game can be lost in various ways. For example, if the Gorgons succeed in getting to the Engine Room and pushing the self-destruct button or if the Hades defenses succeed in destroying the Vittles or if they damage the Vittles engines so badly that it can’t get out of the Hades solar system by the time the game ends. The game can be won by recovering various alien artifacts being held in Hades by the Nastians, rescuing pro-SHL political prisoners, taking a minimum number of loses, and earning performance bonus’s for acting above and beyond what is expected. But there are also ways to lose VPs. For instance, you can extend the game one turn for a -5 VP penalty or you can fail to examine all of Hades Circles, etc. There are a great number of graduated victory and defeat levels so players can see how they develop as the game progresses.
Grant: What does the player have to do well to win?
Fred: The player has to check all the circles, prevent the Gorgons from blowing up the Hades with everyone on board, prevent the Nastian defenses from blowing up the Vittles, recover items of great value to the SHL, rescue various VIP political prisoners and not take loses. These are some tough assignments, let me tell you.
Grant: What scenarios are provided and how do they change the game play?
Fred: There are four scenarios provided and each is harder than the last one. Basically each is based on one of the plans The Black Sheep might have used in the situation they faced. It’s your job to figure out which is best or even which is possible at all. They differ in what support The Black Sheep can expect from the Vittles, how much of a surprise they achieved, how quickly the Nastians reacted and how many Black Sheep teams could get to the Hades various decks before they were detected by the defenders.
Grant: What do you feel the design does well?
Fred: I think it simulates the uncertainty of an ever changing situation well. It’s your job as the player to work towards the best possible outcome with limited intelligence, limited resources and limited time. Plus, you never really know how your enemy will react, only that things will get worse the longer you stay on the Hades.
Grant: Who is the artist and how did their vision set the theme of the game?
Fred: The artist is Wil Alambre. He did a fantastic job in generating that 1940’s SF pulp feel we were looking for. This is, after all, a tongue-in-cheek 40’s pulp science fiction story. Just think of that old and great picture The Thing from the 1950’s (the one with James Arness as a giant outer space carrot) and you’ll understand what we were looking for.
Grant: Will there be a follow up to this “historical” design?
Fred: That I don’t know right now. I guess it all depends on how the game is received by the gaming public. It took many, many months of hard work by everyone involved and I won’t want to put that much effort into a follow on project unless there was a demand for it. Of course, that’s up to Tom and Mary of Hollandspiele Games to decide.
Grant: What is next for both Fred and Hermann?
Fred: Well, we usually have 8 or ten games in various states of development at any one time. Right now Crowbar! The Rangers at Pointe Du Hoc is coming out for Flying Pig Games and, of course, Escape from Hades is coming out for Hollandspiele. Plus there is a co-operative Zombie/SF game we are almost ready to submit to GMT. Then there is an American Civil War game using the In Magnificent Style System for Hollandspiele, a Dunkirk game for Legion, the sequel to The Devil’s to Pay for Tiny Battle Publishing, a Napoleonic game on Leipzig, a couple of ACW games using the Blind Swords System for Revolution Games and Flying Pig Games. And various other game proposals that have been floating about. How Hermann’s move to Tennessee will effect our game output is also still to be settled. But we’ll see.
Thank you for your time in answering our questions on the game Fred. I love these type of games and have played Attack of the 50 Foot Colossi from Tiny Battle Publishing designed by Hermann and had a really good time with that one and look forward to playing Escape from Hades. I also really love the insertion of the historical commentary into the rulebook and find that to really aid in the immersion into the theme and story which ends up creating an even better play experience. Keep up the good work!
If you are interested in a copy of Escape from Hades, you can order one for $50.00 from the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/escape-from-hades