We love interacting with new designers on our social media platforms and getting a feel for their upcoming games. Last year, we ran a few interviews with a new designer named Joe Schmidt and I have really enjoyed his comments about these games which cover such very cool historical happenings such as Guerrillas of the Peninsular War, This Present Winter: Washington’s Crossing and the Battle of Trenton and Anzac Cove. Joe is a very creative and detailed designer and also does his own graphic design work as well. Earlier this year as we were all dealing with the quarantine I saw that Joe was working on a new game that tells the story of the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. Kettle Hill is a narrative solitaire wargame that focuses on the U.S. Cavalry during the Battle of San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. In the game you take on the role of a Color Sergeant in either the Tenth U.S. Cavalry (the Buffalo Soldiers) or the First U.S. Vol. Cavalry (the Rough Riders).
Grant: What is the new design Kettle Hill about and what historical event does it focus on?
Joe: Kettle Hill is about the Battle for San Juan Heights on July 1, 1898. The battle has gone down in American legend as the site of the famous charge of future President Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The game represents the fighting that took place on Kettle and San Juan Hills, and also focuses on the forgotten role that the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry played in the battle.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the game and why do you feel this battle is a good candidate for a game?
Joe: Thanks for the inspiration for this one go to The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen. I picked this book up and couldn’t put it down. The mythos around the Rough Riders is such a part of Americana, but I really didn’t know much about them. Once I started reading about them and the U.S. campaign in Cuba I realized it was a story I wanted to tell.
Also, as I learned more about the subject I was able to see more and more the impact of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry. These African American regiments, famously known as the Buffalo Soldiers, led the way in the assault on the Spanish entrenchments. In Rough Riders, Roosevelt’s book on the campaign, TR gives an account of the heroism of Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry.
“Up Kettle Hill Sergeant George Berry, of the Tenth, bore not only his own regimental colors but those of the Third, the color sergeant of the Third having been shot down; he kept shouting, “Dress on the colors, boys, dress on the colors!”
This account, amongst many others, stuck out to me. More people should know about the bravery and sacrifice of the Buffalo Soldiers. So I decided that I wanted to use this game less as an homage to TR and more as a way to bring to light the impact that the soldiers of the 10th Cavalry had on this iconic battle. Wargames are a great way for us to educate people on the past, and I hope that this game can help teach people about this forgotten piece of U.S. history.
Grant: What elements from the assault of Kettle Hill did you feel needed to be represented in the design? How did you accomplish this?
Joe: From the get go this game needed to represent the difficulty of attacking an entrenched enemy position. The do or die nature of the attack, and the push needed to reach the objective. Luckily I had already worked on Anzac Cove, so I was familiar with creating a design that told that story. A lot of this ease also came from the development process of working with Catastrophe Games (they will be kickstarting The Landing: Gallipoli 1915 later this year).
Working with Tim and Aiden from Catastrophe has been a real joy for me. Developing Anzac Cove into a really tight set of mechanics has opened up a whole world of ideas for how I can design my games. Kettle Hill is very much a product of a great publisher and developer working with a designer to help them hone their craft. They gave me the confidence in my mechanics to allow me to focus on the story the game tells, and that really shines in Kettle Hill.
Grant: What sources did you consult for information about the history featured in the design?
Joe: The first book I read on the Santiago Campaign was The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen. This is an excellent book (now available in paperback) that I would recommend to anyone interested in the Spanish-American War. Then I read Rough Riders by Teddy Roosevelt, and boy can that guy tell a story. I also checked out a variety of primary accounts from the different officers and soldiers (both American and Spanish) who fought in the campaign. Taking all of that into account really helped me better understand the history I was trying to tell.
And, being a visual learner, I also focused on some other media. I watched the Rough Riders mini series from the late 90’s, which I would recommend if you are looking for an entertaining war movie (you can find it for free on YouTube). Being the height of Yellow Journalism there are also a lot of great pictures that were taken of the campaign. And, I would be remiss to forget Fredric Remington, who was the official illustrator for Hearst’s New York Journal. I used his famous Charge Up San Juan Hill as the cover art for the game.
Grant: What components does the game use? Why do you feel this use of cards as the board works well?
Joe: This game uses 27 cards and 30 total components (dice, meeples, and wooden tokens). I am a big fan of cards as components because of their portability. Even though this game uses a set map, having the ability to break down the game to a size of 2.5” x 3.5” is important to me. I have two almost seven year olds and I find myself setting up and breaking down games a lot. So having a game that is immersive with a small footprint is really important to me. The use of cards and a small list of components allows me to achieve that.
Grant: What characters are represented on the character cards? What abilities does each have?
Joe: In Kettle Hill you take on the role of a Color Sergeant in either the Tenth U.S. Cavalry (the Buffalo Soldiers) or the First U.S. Vol. Cavalry (the Rough Riders). Color Sergeants were responsible for bearing their Company Colors into battle, and served an important role in boosting the morale of their fellow soldiers. Both characters also add a +1 DRM to all Advance actions that they take part in.
The only difference between the two characters in the game is their Combat Value (CV). My intent in the design here was to display the veteran ability of the Tenth Cavalry. So, while the Rough Riders have a base CV of 5+ (needing a 5 or more to deal Stress in combat), the Buffalo Soldiers have a base CV of 4+. This uses the mechanics of the game to display their ability, and to educate players about their impact on the Battle for San Juan Heights.
Grant: What is this concept of Spirit and what does it represent? How is it used in the game?
Joe: Spirit, for me, is the most important aspect of a wargame. For the Spanish, when their character’s Spirit is reduced to zero their position on Kettle Hill is lost. If the player’s character loses all of their Spirit, then the character is removed from the game. So there is a very important focus put on rallying and motivating your fellow soldiers. During the battle, it was famously Lt. Col. Roosevelt and the Color Sergeants who drove the American forces forward. So, it felt right that my simulation would put such a strong focus on Spirit.
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Joe: The game consists of three rounds (11am, 12pm, and 1pm) with each round representing one hour in-game. Each Round has four Turns, and each Turn has four Phases. The order of the phases are: the U.S. Phase, the Spanish Phase, the Combat Phase, and the Journal Phase. The game ends at the end of the 1pm Round, on the fourth Phase of the fourth Turn.
Grant: What are the U.S. Operations Cards and how are they used?
Joe: Operations Cards represent the various resources that the Americans had at their disposal during the battle. During the U.S. Phase you must play one of your four Operation cards. Deciding when to use these limited resources is an important part of your strategy in the game, and also allows for a stronger sense of immersion into the narrative. You aren’t just adding a +2 DRM to an Advance action, you are being led by Teddy Roosevelt himself. The story that players craft is everything to me, and I feel the Operations Cards are vital to that.
Grant: What are the Action Dice and what actions can be used with the dice?
Joe: In order to take actions, you will need Action Dice. At the beginning of each Turn you will receive three Action Dice. During the U.S. Phase you can use these dice once each to take Actions. In Kettle Hill there are three types of Actions: Advance, Rally, and Focus. Advance is used to move your soldiers forward, Rally is used to improve your soldier’s Spirit, and Focus can be used to either move one token or to reserve a dice for a reroll in the Close Combat Phase.
Grant: What are the Terrain Cards and can you show us a few different cards?
Joe: The Terrain Cards represent the battlefield in this design. Each card has a Terrain Value that reflects the difficulty that soldiers would have advancing through it. For example, the Jungles have a Terrain Value of 2. You will subtract this number from the result of your Advance die result to determine the number of tokens that can move onto the card. I found that this was a really effective way to show how the terrain can hinder troop movements.
Grant: What is the Parker’s Gatlings Operations Card? What historical happening does this relate to?
Joe: The Parker’s Gatlings card is a really powerful Operations Card that allows you to roll up to three Action Dice in order to deal Stress to the Spaniards during the U.S. Phase. If this card comes up during gameplay it can offer vital fire support for the charging Americans. The history behind Lieutenant Parker’s gatling guns is a great story, but I think it’d be best if I let Lt. Col. Roosevelt take it from here (once again from Rough Riders).
“Suddenly, above the cracking of the carbines, rose a peculiar drumming sound, and some of the men cried, “The Spanish machine-guns!” Listening, I made out that it came from the flat ground to the left, and jumped to my feet, smiting my hand on my thigh, and shouting aloud with exultation, “It’s the Gatlings, men, our Gatlings!” Lieutenant Parker was bringing his four gatlings into action, and shoving them nearer and nearer the front. Now and then the drumming ceased for a moment; then it would resound always closer to San Juan hill, which like ourselves, was hammering to assist entry attack. Our men cheered lustily.”
Grant: What happens during the Spanish Phase? What are the Spanish Operations Cards and can you show us examples?
Joe: The Spanish Phase represents the autonomous opponent that faces off against the Player. Each Spanish Phase starts by revealing the top card from the Spanish Operations Deck, and then taking the action as listed on the card. I’ve found that small decks of Operations Cards with a specific set of actions allow for a random, but directed, style of play that replicates some aspects of a human opponent.
The Spanish Operations Cards focus on the Spanish guns and the extreme heat that the Americans faced during their assault on the San Juan Heights. The Mauser was a deadly weapon. Much more accurate than the American Krag, the U.S. Cavalry was advancing through heavy fire. I was also really happy I found a way to bring the Heat Stroke card into the game. In everything I read about the Santiago campaign everyone mentions how oppressively hot it was. So, finding a way to add that to the game was important for me.
Grant: What is Stress and how is it assigned? What effect does it have?
Joe: In Kettle Hill, damage dealt from Actions and Combats creates Stress. If the Spanish receive a Stress it can be dealt with by losing one Spirit or by removing a token from play. If the U.S. receives a Stress it can be dealt with by swapping a Steady token for an Unnerved token, removing a token from play, or losing One Spirit. If the Player loses their last Spirit they must immediately remove their blue character Meeple from play.
Grant: I see there is a Journal Phase. What role does this play and what type of an experience does this create?
Joe: The Journal Phase is your chance to tell your character’s story. This can be in the form of a letter home to a loved one or just a diary entry. Write about what happened during the turn (the heroics of certain tokens, Spanish rifle fire, etc.). It only has to be a sentence or two, but use it as an opportunity to reflect on the soldier’s experience during the battle. The goal here is to allow the player to really dive into the narrative of the game, and I’ve found that adding a Journal Phase really helps to facilitate that.
Grant: How does the player win the game?
Joe: The victory conditions of Kettle Hill are simple. If you control the 5th and 7th Terrain Card by the end of the 1pm Round then “Bully!”. You have taken the heights, achieved the objective, and won the game. If the Americans are unable to control the hills by the end of the 1pm Round, then the game is lost. No matter the result, write one final Journal entry reflecting on your experience in the game.
Grant: What do you feel the design does really well? What are you most pleased with?
Joe: I’ve really fallen for the way that solo games can tell an immersive story. What I appreciate most about Kettle Hill is that it’s mechanics drive the narrative. When playing the game you can see yourself in the character’s shoes. Bravely holding your company colors charging towards the enemy. Rallying your fellow soldiers through barbed wire and withering enemy fire in order to take the heights. You’re not bogged down by any of the rules or components, so you are free to use them to tell a story. I can’t tell you how many fun sessions I’ve had just playing Kettle Hill. They always tell you to make things you enjoy, and I can very happily say that I really enjoy this little game.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters? What has changed with the design since the beginning?
Joe: Really good! I actually had a really awesome response to the game due to how tight the rules were from the development process for The Landing. A huge, huge shout out goes to Etienne Michot who did a really awesome review of his experiences. I’m always so impressed by the wargaming community, and Etienne’s contributions are really fantastic.
One of the interesting things that popped up during playtesting was a specific scenario that could occur at the beginning of the game. If the player was unable to move their tokens onto the first Terrain Card, then they would have been invulnerable to Spanish fire. Since that was not a historical reality, I was able to make a small adjustment to the rules to avoid this specific issue. Just shows you the importance of having good playtesters! I would have never thought of that specific scenario if someone else hadn’t shown it to me.
Grant: How can players get a copy of the game?
Joe: You can grab the files for Kettle Hill on BGG for free. I thought a lot about my fellow gamers who might not be able to meet up with their normal gaming group due to Covid, so I was inspired to create this design for all those gamers out there who want to roll some dice!
Here is the link to download the game: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/310766/kettle-hill
Grant: What is next for you?
Joe: The Kickstarter for The Landing: Gallipoli 1915 campaign recently closed and it was successful raising $5,872 from 189 backers! It’s been awesome working with Catastrophe Games, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone. I also have a design about a famous last stand from the Haitian Revolution called Crête-à-Pierrot (you can check that out here). And, I have finally started working on a WWII game about the Torpedo Squadrons at Midway. Being stuck at home for the past couple months has been tough, but I am really trying to find the silver lining.
Thanks Joe for the look inside this very cool solo gaming experience. I can feel your passion for the game and its history and believe that this will shine through in the game play experience as always. Keep up the good work Joe and we look forward to talking with you about your other upcoming game projects.
Once more, for your convenience, here is the link to the Board Game Game Geek game page for Kettle Hill where you can obtain the files for the game: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/310766/kettle-hill