Last summer, we played The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 from GMT Games for the first time and really had an enjoyable time exploring this hex and counter game on the war in North Africa during World War II. The Dark Sands is the 2nd in a series called the Dark Series that uses Chit-Pull Activation to initiate the action and is very playable with approachable and very manageable rules overhead. We also have a copy of the first volume in the series called The Dark Valley, but have yet to play it as it is a bit bigger of a game. After playing the game, we became very interested in the Chit-Pull Activation System and how it worked to not only drive the action but also assist in creating a continual narrative of game play. I had seen that there was a third game in this series on the P500 for GMT Games called The Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 and I have done some research into the game and decided that we needed to hear from the designer Ted Raicer.
Grant: First off Ted please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Ted: Besides war gaming, I read pretty constantly, I like to swim, collect great movies on DVD, and act and direct in community theater. And fight on twitter.
I used to work in a book store but now designing is my day job.
Grant: I understand your family has a long history of military service. Who has served and how did that form your thoughts on history, the military and design?
Ted: I had relatives (on my mother’s side) on both sides in the Civil War. My grandfather on my father’s side took part in the 1905 Revolution in Russia (and had a scar from a Cossack saber). My parents both served in WWII, my mother as a WAVE and my father as an infantry captain. Given that she was a coal-miner’s daughter Baptist from Kentucky and he was the son of Russian Jews from New Jersey, but for the war they would never have met, so otoh 70 million people died, but otoh you got Paths of Glory out of it.
I don’t know that their histories affected me as much as growing up a Baby Boomer (I was born in 1958) where WWII was still a recent thing and very much in the air generally. Though initially I developed an interest in the Civil War, reading Bruce Catton from the age of 9.
Grant: You are a veteran game designer with more than 30 designs. What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Ted: I got into game designing I think the way most designers do: there were games on certain topics I wanted that either weren’t being produced, or weren’t being designed the way I wanted them to be. So eventually you go, Okay, if no one else is going to do it, I’ll do it. And having those designs is very enjoyable, but the irony is once you started designing a lot you have less time to actually play.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Ted: That detail is not the same as realism, so concentrate on what you consider most important and abstract the rest. I also design with solo play in mind, since I’ve always played more solo than not.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Ted: At one time the research could be a bitch. I spent weeks in the New York Public Library doing my first Command WWI games. But now I can usually find on the internet in an hour what once took all day to dig out in the library. The other big challenge is play balance. In theory playtesting solves that, but in reality no amount of testing can match what happens when 2,000 gamers get their hands on your design. In fact, I’ve had some of my most tested games have balance issues after publication, and some of the least have little or none. You just can’t know in advance. But fortunately with the advent of Living Rules, fixes are not that hard to make, ONCE I’M CONVINCED they need to be made. The problem then is the gamer who demands changes just because he and his regular gaming partner can’t win as Side X. You have to learn not to jump at that, and wait to see what the overall consensus is.
Grant: What was the inspiration for your Dark Series of World War II Operational games?
Ted: This goes back to the 1970’s, and the original SPI War in the East. I really wanted to love that game, but ultimately I didn’t. And eventually I decided to design my own big East Front game, and I immediately knew I wanted to use chit draws to add friction and fog of war in a way that was solo friendly. It took decades, and a long diversion into WWI designs, before I actually finished it and it became The Dark Valley. And that was enough of a success, I started thinking this would work for a lot of other subjects.
Grant: What do you think the series does well in modeling the different battles such as the East Front, North Africa and now Normandy?
Ted: As I said, the main point of the system was to model friction and fog of war in a solo-friendly way. But in adapting it for different subjects, it also became clear I could tailor the chits to reflect the most important aspects of each campaign. In TDV the chits model the operational decline of the Germans and the operational growth of the Soviets (as well as German disadvantages in winter generally). In The Dark Sands they model the logistical effects of events beyond the control of the theater commanders: for the Germans the current priority of Africa compared to Russia, and for the British the needs of a global empire and the inability at various times to concentrate resources in Egypt/Libya. In The Dark Summer, the chits are tied to the weather, which shows the importance of Allied air superiority in Normandy, as well as the effects of weather in the Channel on the ability of the Allies to ship in troops and supplies. In my upcoming The Deadly Woods (Gene asked me to limit the “Dark” label to GMT) on the Bulge for Revolution Games they mostly model the limited German resources that allowed them to sustain the offensive for only so long.
Grant: Why do we need another Normandy game? What do you feel your approach has differed from the other dozens of games?
Ted: I don’t know about need, but none of the other games covering just Normandy quite scratched my itch, and that’s usually when it is time for me to design a game on that subject. The game that came closest for me was Normandy ’44, but the fact it doesn’t cover the breakout left me frustrated.
Grant: What is most important to model from the battle and period?
Ted: You are dealing with one side (the Allies) that has overwhelming superiority on land, air, and sea, but only after it has time (and space) to build up its forces. And you have the Germans who have in their Panzer formations some of the best fighting units in the world, even in 1944, but which are operating under an Allied sky (and frankly insane command arrangements) that historically prevented them from being used effectively on attack. So the two sides have equal but very different problems to solve.
Grant: What challenges did the design for The Dark Summer present you with?
Ted: Mostly it was a question of balance. I wanted for example the Germans to have a reason to attempt the massed Panzer counterattack that was so much the focus of their planning in the first weeks of the campaign, so in the game if they break through even briefly and occupy enough beach hexes they win the game, even though historically that would have at best bought them extra time. And in the game, if the weather and chits fall right, it can be done if the Allied player is careless. (I’m not talking about on D-Day btw. The Germans knocking out say Omaha on D-Day might have been decisive-who knows-but for exactly that reason only real Allied incompetence would see that in the game.)
Grant: What sources did you consult for the details on the period? What one source was the definitive must read for those interested?
Ted: The usual suspects: Ryan’s The Longest Day, Max Hastings’ Overlord, Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy, Prados’ Normandy Crucible, the Osprey books on the subject, and a dozen or so others, including the official US Army military history. If I was going to suggest just one I’d go with Hastings.
Grant: I see that the game game lasts only ten turns which cover June 6 to August 21, 1944. Why did you feel this was the appropriate length to cover the focus of the design? Any chance for a follow up Dark Series game on the continuing breakout?
Ted: Well I wanted to get the whole campaign on one map and after August you get into an entire campaign, the race to Germany. And I’ve already done a game that includes that (Storming the Reich from Compass).
Grant: The central core of the game is the chit pull action system. Why do you feel this is such an appropriate mechanic for activation in a WWII operational game?
Ted: Well first I don’t think it is limited to just that. Because there are so many ways to use chits it is a mechanic with a long reach. In WWII operational combat it allows for the possibility of major breakthroughs, but at the same time it prevents the perfect planning of Igo-Yugo.
Grant: What is the major advantage of the system?
Ted: There are lots of ways you can model friction and fog of war, but few do so in so solo-friendly a fashion.
Grant: I understand that the weather chit is one of the most important chits in the game. Why is it so important?
Ted: The weather chits basically determine the composition of the actual action chits for both sides. Good weather favors the Allies, bad weather the Germans, because of the effects on Allied air power and shipping across the Channel. At the same time I used chits to determine the weather because using die rolls could see it rain or be sunny all summer, with obvious consequences on play balance.
Grant: What are the other basic chits in the game and how do they differ from your past designs? How does this evoke 1944 Western Front elements?
Ted: The two most important factors are that a. the British and the US have separate chits, so they are basically fighting related by separate battles and b. the Germans have reaction chits that allow them to intervene in the play sequence to move and fight with either a single hex or a single formation. This enables them to plug gaps and sometimes to give a rap on the nose to an over-extended Allied unit.
Grant: How do supply checks differ in The Dark Summer? Why did you feel this was the appropriate way to deal with this key element?
Ted: Supply is very basic trace to supply source. The real Logistics issues are built into the weather/action chit mix. If the sun is shining, the Germans do less because their supply trucks can’t move in daylight. If the weather is bad, the Allies aren’t getting as much stuff from England.
Grant: What are the effects of the Allied Tactical Air and Carpet Bombing Markers?
Ted: Allied Tc Air adds a combat bonus, while Carpet Bombing attacks on its own. Both are useful, though again, the real effect of Allied air superiority is in the action chit mix.
Grant: What are Allied Tank Destroyers Combat Markers and what do they represent from history?
Ted: The Allies had a lot of independent Tank Destroyer units below the scale of the game. I didn’t want to just leave them out, so they are represented as asset markers that can be added to combat.
Grant: What is special and different about the map used? Why did you decide to eliminate Cherbourg and the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula?
Ted: The most important thing is I wanted to get the entire campaign on a single map. To do that while maintaining a brigade/regiment unit scale I needed to sacrifice the assault on Cherbourg for the pocket at Falaise.
Grant: What is the use for the Cherbourg Box and why did you decide to represent this in the game?
Ted: I didn’t have room on the map for Cherbourg at the scale of the rest of the game, but I couldn’t ignore it either. So the Cherbourg Box allows the Germans to defend and the Americans to capture this port in simplified fashion (with its own CRT).
Grant: Also what is the Brittany Box and how does it effect the game?
Ted: When the Americans broke out they first turned mostly towards Brittany, as it was felt it was vital to secure those ports. (It turned out it wasn’t.) Then most, but not all of the forces sent to Brittany were swung back east around the open German flank in Normandy -or on towards Paris. The Brittany Box represents that part of the campaign.
Grant: What are the victory conditions for both sides? Who has the easier time of meeting those conditions?
Ted: Apart from breaking through to the beaches, the Allies can win instantly by basically clearing the map before Turn 10, and otherwise the game is won on points for victory locations and exiting the map. At some point the Germans have to run for it but they can’t do so completely until Turn 10, so it is a race between saving German forces and keeping the Allies from exiting too many units to the east.
Grant: What are the rules covering D-Day Landings? Anything unique you’d like to describe?
Ted: There is a whole section of rules dealing with the different Allied landing waves, and the initially limited German reaction. One neat twist is that the German fortified beach positions are untried units, so neither player knows just how strong each beach defense will be.
Grant: As you mentioned, there are some hidden units with untried German strong-points and Ost Battalions. How does this work and where did this idea come from?
Ted: Untried units are an old tool, but the idea here came to me after playing Mark Simonitich’s Holland ’44.
Grant: What does the design do exceptionally well?
Ted: I think it keeps both sides on their toes for the entire game.
Grant: What other battles might the Dark Series take us blindly into in the future?
Ted: I have several ideas in mind, but most likely is a game on the Pacific called The Dark Seas. Think of it as Empire of the Sun with chits instead of cards.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions about this exciting upcoming project. The game currently has Made the Cut! with 682 orders but I am sure that number will increase as we approach production.
If you are interested in The Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 you can pre-order a copy for $38.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-699-the-dark-summer-normandy-1944.aspx
After playing The Dark Sands, I am eagerly anticipating this one and included it in my 12 Most Anticipated Wargames of 2020! List published last month. You can read that post here at the following link: https://theplayersaid.com/2020/02/11/12-most-anticipated-wargames-of-2020/