I really enjoy block wargames. Some people don’t like them, for one reason or another, but I find the Fog of War to be really tense and exciting as you just never really know what you are going against and how you will fare. Recently, I heard of a new upcoming big block wargame from VentoNuovo Games called Black Swan: Europe 1939-1945.
We reached out to the designer Emanuele Santandrea and he was more than willing to talk about the game.
The game is coming to Kickstarter on June 22nd and you can view a preview of the campaign at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/m41/178560058?ref=6566up&token=f36417ba
Grant: What is the focus of your upcoming Kickstarter named Black Swan?
Emanuele: The game is massive and covers World War II in Europe. It focuses on the East Front, Mediterranean, North Africa and West Front. It is our largest project to date.
Grant: What historical information are you using to base the game on? Also, what is the meaning of the name Black Swan and what image do you want to portray with it as the title?
Emanuele: Being the son of a Folgore officer, I have studied the subject from my infancy. The first book I read about WW2 was a comic book written in Italian and designed by Achille Beltrame’s scholars for a youth publication called “Il Giornalino”. I was 8 at that time, so… that was the prompt for further studies that were first focused on WWII Aircraft, as I wanted to become a flight officer, and then when at college I realized that a 10/10 vision for both eyes was mandatory for that, I turned my passion into topography, studying ancient and modern battlefields in details. I was then ready for committing myself in the army during the Yugoslavian uprising in the early ’90’s, as a topographer of course. But at that time a topographer was mainly committed to the field for patrol missions in Bosnia. So it was an unpredictable journey. You already know how it ended. In the mean time I did not stop playing wargames, and started drawing maps, either for myself or for the army. I started reading many books about WWII, first in Italian, and then after in English. After the Perestroika, and some research trips into Russia, I have discovered many interesting themes directly on the field. David Glantz and Richard Evans are my favourite authors actually.
The title comes from the idea that besides someone can do his best to manage things and keeps everything under control, there always will be something that runs out of control. Usually the war is the very last option, and it is chosen if there is no other cheaper option to accomplish the goal, and the offender is sure to win. However, as said, nothing can really always be under control, and sometimes an unexpected event will happen. Vietnam and Afghanistan represent good modern examples, but we have had similar in ancient history, such as the Persian and Punic Wars. It is not actually a matter of “if”, but of “when”, and to be prepared to deal with unexpected, rather being prepared to deal with what you expect. It is, in other words, a different approach to rethinking WW2.
More from the game intro:
When in 1939 Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, few in Germany – and probably in the rest of Europe – believed that France and Great Britain would have declared war.
In the previous months Hitler had broken the Treaty of Versailles, by which the harsh conditions imposed had humiliated and starved the German population for years and led to a political reunification of the original German Reich: restored the Rhineland,
annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia, with the tacit consent of the other nations, Great Britain and France above all.
So his assumption that he could have done the same with Poland had a logical basis.
Instead this time events went another way.
Most European countries had been so devastated by WWI that few wanted another war.
Ignoring the German preparations for a renewed war of revenge based on the new Blitzkrieg tactics, France developed an old fashioned concept of static border fortifications – the Maginot Line – and Chamberlain’s Great Britain focused entirely on diplomacy in an attempt to deal in a gentlemen fashion with the rapacious and very ungentlemanly Nazi regime.
Even after the fall of France, which surrendered in a few weeks after a blitz attack across the Ardennes - almost the same move adopted at the beginning of WWI – Great Britain still tried to reach an agreement with Hitler.
This did not happen and Great Britain remained alone, with no American help, and was on the edge of the defeat, having to choose between an unfair peace or the threat of an invasion.
It was only one man, the freshly appointed prime minister Winston Churchill - going against any logic and even against his own political peers and the Crown – that wanted to resist, and the outcome of the Battle of Britain later proved him right.
However many months would have to pass before the Soviet Union first and the US later would join the Allied cause to restore peace in Europe, at the cost of millions of deaths….
As the Axis Powers you have to swiftly win the war, either by a Mediterranean strategy to break the British Empire, or an all out effort to demolish the Red Army. If a Decisive Victory is unobtainable, you can still go for a Strategic or at least an Economic Victory.
As the Allies, you must survive the initial onslaught and prepare for a long war of attrition before dealing a deathly blow to the Reich’s body.
Grant: What resources did you consult and what sources are the best read on the subject?
Emanuele: Well, there are plenty of sources out there, too many in fact to be listed here. I would start by suggesting Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which is a concrete book on the subject that gives lots of examples and information that is useful.
Grant: First off let’s talk about the map. What is the size of the map? Will it be a mounted map?
Emanuele: The map is heavy stock cardboard (400g/sqm) and its size is 125 x 86cm. There is a larger version called Ubertex that is 150 x 105cm large, and printed on a PPE canvass. I like this enlarged version a lot because it is easy to read and feels massive which is perfect for the scope of the game.
Grant: Who is the artist? How much research went into the creation of the map?
Emanuele: I have designed both the game and the artwork. Both are part of my passion. The research for creating the map was not that long, considering that I have almost just designed a thing that literally came to me while I was actually preparing a paper for the Monster of Florence. You can never say what is going to come to you, right?
Grant: What tough decisions were there regarding the disposition of country boundaries?
Emanuele: Well, this was a tough thing to accomplish, as many Nations changed their boundaries during WWII (think of Poland, but also of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, etc.), most of them because somebody was unhappy over the Treaty of Versailles’ conditions. So the final decision was to stick to the September 1, 1939 national borders.
Grant: What is the map scale? How did you make this decision?
Emanuele: The scale is 1:10.000.000, which might seem huge, but it is not possible to put a Europe WWII game on a larger scale in these days unfortunately.
Grant: Black Swan is an historical game with some fixed starting points for forces, but the outcome is completely unpredictable. How do you accomplish this goal in the design?
Emanuele: It is a matter of player’s choice, and game randomness. Dice and Fog of War play the most important role, but do not forget about supply lines and controlling sea zones, and sending to battle the right mix of units. There are actually many gears to handle with: production, riots, strategic warfare, blitzing, special operations, etc., but all these things have to be chosen and mixed accurately, exactly like a chef preparing his best soup.
Grant: How much does the use of blocks for units and their Fog of War contribute to the unpredictability?
Emanuele: For sure the Fog of War plays a very important role, as not knowing the exact identity and strength of your opponent’s force is really exciting and makes planning important. Many of us have been trained to deal with unknown threat, right?
Grant: What advantages do you believe blocks provide in the design?
Emanuele: Blocks are sexy. Besides the concept of Fog of War that we have just talked about, blocks allow easy strength reduction/increase in both production and combat, without the need of adding chip or extra counters to your gaming table. They are fancy, and very colorful as well. Stand upright and adds a 3D effect to your table. Talking of today’s time and what is going on in the world, wood is much more sustainable than plastic.
Grant: How do players manage their Force Pools? What do the colored circles represent on some units?
Emanuele: New units are randomly drawn from the Force Pool – almost the same way as it was in World in Flames e.g. – so you never know which Unit is really able to be deployed this season, but if your economy is strong and you do not expose your army to unsuitable risks, then in the long term you will be able to deploy your Nation’s whole Force Pool on the mapboard, and later decide if you will increase the strength of the units you need. That’s actually what Germany must do in the game. Once things start to go bad (if), then Germany will not be able anymore to rebuild her army, and will suffer a sort of entropic effect in the production of new units, in the sense that she may not be able to actually produce exactly what she needs.
The color of the dots represent both the step cost (from 1 to 5PPs, black – white – red – blue – gold) and the priority of fire. So gold units are expensive, but they fire first in combat, while infantry and subs (both black dotted units) are cheap, but the last to fire.
Grant: How are Production Points determined? How much of a nation’s strategy is focused on this economic aspect?
Emanuele: This is not an economic game, but it is as if it was. Because without resources – or being harassed by strategic bombardment or sub blockade – your Nation will not be able to fight a long term war. Again, this is particularly true for the Axis, which is positioned in the centre of Europe. A position that is both overexposed to threat from several directions, but also in the best staging position for conquering new territories. In fact it was Napoleon’s preferred position.
Only the six major Nations collect PP: France, Great Britain and USA (Western Allies), Italy and Germany (Axis) and the Soviet Union. Each Nation has a number of available Production Points (PPs) equal to its Economic Power. Five Production Points (PPs) for each controlled and in supply Strategic Land Area (19, each marked with a golden star icon) and 5/10/20 PPs for each controlled and in supply Land Production Area (indicated by a black triangle icon) from the appropriate Front.
Grant: What challenges does this economy introduce into the play experience?
Emanuele: WWII was a brutal conflict. Force was used instead of diplomacy for quickly gaining the leadership in Europe. War is expensive, especially modern wars that are mostly technology based, and long in years like WWII was. Nations like Italy have a small economic power, so they have to focus to stabilizing a strong defensive posture, before having the resources to expand. This is partially true for Germany, especially at the beginning of the war, while other Nations such as Russia and Great Britain have access to larger manpower and raw materials. But without a strong army, navy and airforce these Nations will collapse after few seasons of war.
The Blitz Disc is an expensive choice, as it costs 20PPs, that must be carefully evaluated, but it really gives so many advantages that a Nation devoted to the offensive cannot play without it. With a German economy raised up to 95PPs, I would not be surprised by seeing all the three Blitz Discs purchased by the Axis at a certain point during the game.
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play? How are Seasons broken down? How is weather determined?
Emanuele: There are four Seasons in a Year: Fall and Winter both have bad weather (Snow in winter, mud in Fall), while Spring and Summer have good Weather. The Weather instead is always good in the Mediterranean Front. Good Weather is very well suited for offensive operations, but keep in mind that the Soviets (and the Finns!) are not penalized in Snow (while they are in Mud). Each Season is broken into a 5-Phase sequence: Production, Naval Movement, Land Movement, Blitz and Final Phase. Everything is clearly detailed in the players’ aid, so it will be easy to play the game after one quick read of the rules.
Grant: How does Declaration of War work and what conditions must be met to do so?
Emanuele: There are some limitations such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact preventing a war between Germany and Russia if border garrison conditions are met, but generally players are granted with much freedom of action compared to other games of the same conflict. Declaring war does not cost anything, except that it exposes your Nation to the risk of being at war with other (maybe more powerful Nations).
Grant: How is Strategic Air and Naval Warfare used in the design? How do players guard against or plan to stop the negative effects?
Emanuele: Great Britain must protect her convoys with a strong navy, and Germany must protect her skies with a strong air force. The first will risk to be find herself cut off from the colonies’ raw materials, the second will find herself deprived of the vital resources needed to mount any offensive operations. I assume that while it is possible to remain passive during bad weather turns, it is better to be prepared with the right force in place when the weather turns good.
Grant: What are Opposition Disks and how do they effect battles?
Emanuele: Opposition Discs play a key role in the naval module of the game, as they represent small scale flotilla, land based aircraft, midget submarines operating from island and strategic areas, minefields, observation posts, etc. It is an abstract but really easy and efficient way to depict the role played by Malta, Crete, Sicily and Gibraltar during the war, and it also gives the right importance to the Mediterranean Front.
Grant: How do Naval Battles work? What is the Fire priority of units?
Emanuele: That’s a fresh new mechanic. Each Unit in the game rolls as many dice as its strength (dots), hitting at 5&6. That’s the basis for every combat in the game.
Talking of Naval Battles, for one to occur the naval (“search”) engagement die roll must be successful. This die roll is modified/influenced by the number of vessels and observation posts (Opposition Discs) in that Sea Zone. If a Naval battle happens, then… Carriers will be the first to strike of course! Capital Ships (CV and HS) also receive the infamous Unopposed Hit Bonus if the opponent does not have the same Class (Carrier’s Aviation and/or Heavy Surface’s large calibres able to engage the enemy at the long distance) in that Sea Zone. Submarines are the last to fire, but they can choose the target, so guess what they will target if they can survive till the moment they can launch their torpedoes?
Grant: How do Land Battles work and what is the Fire priority for units?
Emanuele: It is like the naval combat, with Air units firing first, followed by Artillery, then Tank, and finally Infantry. Each land unit Class (it was just for capital ships in the naval battle) unopposed by the same class receives the already mentioned Unopposed Hit Bonus. Fort provides the defender a wide range of advantages: the defender fires first and it is shielded behind the Fort and the Fort Absorb Bonus; enemy unopposed bonus is negated, and defender mandatory retreat is negated as well.
Grant: What Special Operations are available on land and how do they get carried out?
Emanuele: There are three Special Operations: Airborne, Amphibious and Combined Assault. They may be conducted only if the Blitz Disc has been purchased. Special Operations may be conducted twice in the Season, so e.g. the Germans in 1943-44 will have to deal with a first and a second wave invasion somewhere along the Atlantic Coast.
Grant: What are Strategic Movement Points and how are they used?
Emanuele: Each Nation has a number of available SMPs per Season equal to its Strategic Power. The Strategic Power of a Nation is given by the # of controlled Strategic Areas (There are totally 19 Strategic Areas in the game). Thus during a Season, a Nation may strategically move a # of Units along a path of unlimited length, traced along controlled Land Areas and/or across controlled/contested Sea Zones. But, while a Unit cannot be moved strategically across an enemy controlled Sea Zone, it can be instead moved across a Sea Zone that is either friendly controlled or contested. However the Unit can be hit by each enemy Naval Unit and Opposition Disc in that Sea Zone, and in each Sea Zone crossed. That means that Axis controlled islands and the Italian Navy in the Med, and the U-Boot in the Atlantic are more than a match for the Western Allies, and several resources must be spent each Season by the Allies to secure their transport routes, as actually was in WWII.
Grant: How important are these SMPs to players and strategy?
Emanuele: SMPs are important because they allow a Nation to quickly redeploy its best Units from a Front to another one, either to prepare a new offensive, or to stop in its track an enemy well planned attack.
Grant: What is the Blitz Phase and how does it differ from Land Movement?
Emanuele: I could say that the Blitz Phase is the exact copy of the Land Movement Phase, but it just happens as soon as the regular Land Movement Phase is completed. Actually, it is a double move of the same Side during the same Season, and it is very well suited for exploiting any gap created in the regular Land Movement Phase, or to finish the defenders off a strongpoint, and anyway a Nation can also strategically move twice (as if it was temporarily doubling its Strategic Power for a Season).
Grant: How are Blitz Discs used during the Blitz Phase?
Emanuele: Blitz Discs are used to perform a second Land Movement Phase right after the regular one has been completed to exploit any further advantage and maybe assess the decisive blow to the enemy. Also, they allow to perform Airborne, Amphibious and Combined Assault (Special Operations).
Grant: How does the Nations Surrender Check work? What happens to each surrendering unit?
Emanuele: A Nation surrenders if its Capital is enemy controlled, but France and Italy has the chance to ask for an Armistice which can be either accepted or rejected. The Armistice has some pluses and some minuses, for both the one offering and for the one which has to decide if it is better to accept or reject it.
Instead, when a Unit surrenders, a # of PPs is granted to the enemy as spoils of war. This # may vary from 1 to 5 per Unit, and it is related to the Unit Class: CV, Fort and Para i.e. gives 5PPs each when surrendering, while Infantry only 1.
Grant: What are the Victory Conditions?
Emanuele: Well, they depend on the Scenario/Campaign played, but I can say generally that the Axis and the Allies must overcome the enemy either with a Decisive Victory, or at least by a Strategic or an Economic Victory before the time is over.
Grant: What special rules did you include? How do they change the game?
Emanuele: Very few, because as said in a game like this, players already have so many gears to play on that really just a bit of salt (or pepper) was really needed: “Sniping Bonus” for the Finns; “Milchkuhe”, “Snorkeling” and “Z-Plan Cancelled” for the Germans are the ones that come to my mind now.
Grant: What Scenarios are included?
Emanuele: Actually we have developed two standalone Scenarios (1939 and 1941) and two Campaigns (1939 and 1941), but some others are currently under development: 1942, 1943 and 1944 for instance. If we can work the issues out, these will be offered as stretch goals for the campaign.
Grant: This looks like a huge project that is fairly involved and comples. How long has it been in development?
Emanuele: It has been ten years in the making, but I wanted everything to be smoothed out before offering this fantastic project on Kickstarter, so it took a while to refine the basic mechanics and reduce the number of special rules and exceptions. Some special rules are good and spicy, but too many make the game more like a job and not worth playing.
Grant: What have been your major challenges with the design to date? How did you overcome them?
Emanuele: Well, there were some, but everything is good what ends good, right?
Grant: What are the planned stretch goals for the project?
Emanuele: We want to add some scenarios to provide even more opportunity to experience the game. Then we want to laminate the map, the game box and the players’ aid, and also offer some special parts, extra units, customize the units, add in some additional generals, etc.
Grant: When do you anticipate it being fulfilled?
Emanuele: The plan is to launch a very short Kickstarter campaign starting on Monday, June 22nd and running until July 7th. Then we plan to release the game in December, right in time for Christmas.
If you are interested in Black Swan: Europe 1939-1945 you can preview the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/m41/178560058?ref=6566up&token=f36417ba
The Kickstarter will officially commence on June 22nd as mentioned in the interview.