Several months ago, in a conversation with Grant Wylie, he mentioned that they were releasing a revamped Deluxe Edition of Soviet Dawn: The Russian Civil War designed by the godfather of the States of Siege Series Darin Leviloff. I was immediately interested, as I have played and loved many States of Siege Series games, including Mound Builders, Ottoman Sunrise, Hapsburg Eclipse, Dawn of the Zeds, Nubia and others. I reached out to Darin and he was more than willing to share with us information about the upcoming Kickstarter.
The game is set to launch on Kickstarter on Saturday, November 7th and you check out the preview page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1040417273/1428456137?&token=5b7008a0
Grant: First off Darin please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Darin: I am a father of three adult boys (alas, only two are gamers), an attorney with my own law office, and recently moved to Sonoma County, where I live in the country across from a dairy. I have hopes of converting the detached office into a “wargame lounge” when our remodel is complete, but time will tell on that one.
I have also had a strong attachment to history. I have a bachelor’s degree in the subject, having attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and an exchange program at the University of Exeter in the U.K. I enjoy reading, watching baseball, travelling and, of course, playing and designing conflict simulation games.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Darin: Being an avid consumer of historical simulation games, the transition into game design seemed to be a natural one. I noticed over the years what I liked and what I didn’t like in game design and how games could craft a fantastic narrative.
The greatest thing about game design is also the greatest thing about game playing. You learn about a subject matter on a different level and the cold events of history become transformed into actual branches of decision making – whether it’s trying to figure out what to do on a game turn or how to represent an event in game design.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Darin: I consider many designers to be influential to me, but it is the game designs themselves rather than designers that have the greatest impact. Having played literally hundreds of games, I have noticed mechanism I like and flaws I dislike and I have tried to impart them in my own game designs.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Darin: As a designer, my niche has been solitaire game design. I have dabbled in multi-player games, but none of them have yet reached the point where I have submitted them for publication. I suspect it will happen one day. So, that being said, I want to focus on the solitaire board game genre.
When I was a teen gamer in the 80’s, there was a wave of great solitaire boardgames. They told a great tale, were challenging, and engrossing. Ambush, RAF, Mosby’s Raiders, etc. But I faded out of wargaming for a bit and this genre seemed to fade away with me. When I got back into wargaming in the late 90’s, I noticed these games seemed to be gone. Purpose-built solitaire games just didn’t seem to be made anymore and I was left to play both sides in two-player games. I think the common mistake made was the belief by game companies that solitaire gamers would migrate to computers and that computer Artificial intelligence would make for a better game experience. It made for a different experience, but it just wasn’t the same.
Then I ordered from the late Bill Gibbs of Omega Games a game that caught my eye called East Front Solitaire. It was a throwback to those solitaire games of old and it had some interesting dynamics that I was to later use in my games. The first was a linear movement system. The player moved along a certain axis so the amount of choice necessary was reduced when historical paths were considered. Secondly, the game was very hard. Almost unbeatable. And, you might think that was a bad thing. But it wasn’t. It drew me in as a challenge. Each loss, I said, if I did this better, I could have won. If it were easy, I would have been disenchanted with the puzzle that the game ultimately posed. This also found a way into my solitaire designs.
I was also influenced by another solitaire game, but in a different way. B-17 Bomber by Avalon Hill from the halcyon solitaire days of the 80’s was a massive hit. It told a fascinating tale of a bomber crew in World War 2 as they went on a mission to take out an industrial target in occupied Europe. It told a great narrative, but that was all it did. Pun intended, the player was merely a passenger along for the ride. The game seemed to be devoid of any meaningful choices. Once I discovered that, I dispensed with my copy, but I took it as a cautionary tale for solitaire game design.
But there were other developments in the hobby, from outside the setting of solitaire games that influenced me. The first was the proliferation of “card driven games” and of political wargames. I discovered that it was often the politics of war that captivated me and this is why I was always more interested in strategic games. Everyone reading this is thinking about one game right now: Twilight Struggle, but there are so many more, most notably games like Churchill, the COIN Series, 1775, Age of Renaissance. We’ve even reached an era where conflict simulations that don’t involve war can be found and enjoyed. No teasers, but I am working on one right now.
Grant: Where did the idea for the States of Siege Series come from?
Darin: Firstly, I wouldn’t use the terms “States of Siege”™ for my games, per se, because my understanding is that is a term Alan Emrich of Victory Point Games came up with and trademarked. As to my solitaire design system, the genesis of the system was a game I designed for a Sunday religious school class I was teaching at my synagogue. I found that games could be a great educational tool and I used them as part of my teaching process. When the history of the Israel-Arab conflict came up, I took out a legal pad, some index cards, and some concepts I had been thinking of and, viola, the game of Israeli Independence was created.
The kids loved it and I decided this game had a future. The problem was it was a very small game. It was solitaire. It took about 15 minutes to play. Had really only five counters and about 20 cards (it later grew to 24). Big companies couldn’t put it in a big box and market it for sale and I didn’t want consumers to feel they got very little for what they bought. Magazine game publishers, at that time, were really hesitant to work with “card games” (that seems to be evolving now, but not then).
I then saw that a European company called UGG had a contest for a small print game, involving less than 16 cards or so. I knew I was above the limit, but I submitted my game to them. They said it couldn’t work for the contest, but they were interested in the game. Frankly, I thought it would be awesome for a European company to publish a game focusing on Zionism. Well, they sat on it for a long time and then offered to let me go somewhere else.
I then heard of a small company called Victory Point Games, who was specializing in producing amateur designs at low price points. I was familiar with the owner, Alan Emrich, from my days as a teen convention goer in Los Angeles. He liked the game and said I had “captured lightning in a bottle”. It was published and people seemed to like it. It told a great narrative, was easy to play, was remarkably challenging, and people appreciated the small footprint. The viral world took to it too as well and with Marco Arnaudo’s great review, it took off.
The bones of the system were there, but the next step was to bulk things up, and I soon turned to Soviet Dawn. I took a unique approach in designing that game. I looked not at those who loved Israeli Independence, but from the voices of those who were critical. I wanted to see what the grognards didn’t like and see if the next design could capture that and address their concerns. I found a lot of feedback that the players felt that the strategic choices were always obvious (personally, I feel I put some deceptive conundrums without the cards, but nevertheless . . .), that there wasn’t enough chrome, and that the historical parameters were too tightly confined. I worked on these issues when I made Soviet Dawn.
Grant: Why do you feel that the series works so well?
Darin: The games work well because they tell a great tale. The narrative is the key. While they are historical, players are challenged to flip the script by mixing up the order of events and making their own decisions. The variability regarding the cards and the results of your actions and choices make for a different tale each time one plays. I also think the system easily creates a realistic look at the limitations of leadership. You know what kind of things can happen, but the player does not usually know when they are going to happen and how they are going to play out. The games also have great tension. Players have to prioritize and constantly alter plans when things go awry. The hidden ingredient? Fiendishly difficult, but not impossibility.
An additional great feature is the system is so adaptable. There are so many situations that one can use the system for and so many ways to tinker with it. It still makes me laugh that the most successful game using my “historical” system is Herman Luttman’s Dawn of the Zeds on a hypothetical zombie attack! Joe Miranda used the system for a tactical setting in Zulus on the Ramparts and Ben Madison has produced a variety of games for White Dog Publishing that use a variant on the system for the Fall of the Soviet Union (Gorbachev), the Medieval Nubia Kingdom (Nubia) and I understand now for the rise of Christianity (The Mission).
Grant: I understand that you are working with Worthington Publishing to put out a new edition of your 2nd States of Siege Series game called Soviet Dawn. Why did you choose this game at this time?
Darin: Soviet Dawn is the favorite game I designed. One of the reasons is theme. In college, I studied the Russian Revolution and was so captivated by the Russian Civil War. When I tried to think of an historical system with a central point of concentration and complete chaos, the subject matter just reached out to me. I also felt that it was a subject that had not been tackled that well in existing game designs.
It was also a great palette for me to add new design elements. I was able to add a political index and great chrome through the Red Army Reorganization table, Reserves, Political Decrees events that really tied into the period (like the execution of the Czar).
And, then it has one of my favorite game mechanics – the “Bukharin option”. When researching for the game in W. Bruce Lincoln’s Book Red Victory, I discovered that Mikhail Bukharin, in the face of the onerous treaty of Brest-Litovsk, urged that the Soviet regime to stay in the World War against Germany and fight it as a “Revolutionary War”. Lenin chose not to do so and ordered Trotsky to accept the horrible treaty. I decided to use that conflict as a great strategic option in the game. The player can decide to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, taking the Germans out of the war and helping militarily, but at the same time weakening their political standing. Alternatively, the player can opt to reject the treaty, keeping the Allies out of the war for the time being, but keeping the threat of the Germans alive. And, here is the kicker: The Bukharin option provides a short-term political gain, but a long-term political loss. It’s the ultimate “press your luck” option – can you win quickly or will you be hampered in the long run?
Grant: What opportunities has this 2nd edition given to you to improve upon the original? What is different this time around?
Darin: Because of VPG’s original design process, Soviet Dawn is a particularly well-crafted game. I will explain. You see at VPG, originally, the games were “print on demand”. So, that means that the first copy of a game might have errata that wasn’t caught, but when it is caught, the next copy could incorporate that errata. So, very soon, VPG was producing errata free copies of the game. I used to joke, truthfully, that my “designer copies” were the most flawed versions of the game.
That being said, I did find that political victory had become more common than outlasting the cards in the game (traditional victory), so I was able to go through the C3I edition (RBM Studio) to add what I call my “Spinal Tap” option where political level can go up to “10” rather than 9, making political victory a little more difficult.
The game itself has the same engine. No reason to tinker with what works, but there is a major perk here. There was an expansion kit with additional event cards and some additional optional rules. I understand that nowadays those are hard to come by. All of the expansion set cards will be included in the Soviet Dawn Deluxe Edition. I am also a big believer in value added editions, so I hope the new edition will see my historical article on the true history of the conflict and some additional perks.
Of course, the big opportunity here is also to bring up the quality of the game components. The card styles are greatly changed and most have newly added period photographs.
Grant: For those that don’t know what is the history of Soviet Dawn?
Darin: Soviet Dawn begins shortly after the October Revolution (actually, occurred in November, but there were calendar differences) in 1917, where the Russian Provisional Government was overthrown and replaced by the Bolshevik regime lead by Vladimir Lenin and his cohorts. Given that the First World War is still raging and understanding the military and political vulnerability of Russia’s capital at St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd at the time), Lenin relocates his capital at Moscow, deep in the Russian hinterland. At this point, the game begins.
Grant: The player is taking on the role of who during the game? What is their greatest challenge?
Darin: The player takes control of the new Bolshevik regime, which faces a series of challenges that are modeled in the game. The first challenge is that the regime is beset by counter-revolutionary (“White”) forces on the periphery. These include initially General Denikin on the Southern Front and Admiral Kolchak in Siberia (yes, an admiral was commanding forces inland – I didn’t create the wild history). Meanwhile, the First World War is continuing and the Germans threaten the new regime and the Western Allies (Britain, France, and the U.S.) will intervene if you make peace with Germany. A Finnish and a Polish revolution is pending and the Baltic States are subject to independence movements.
Moscow is situated in a central position. If any enemy manages to capture Moscow, the regime falls and you lose. But, that’s only the military aspect of things, because you also have to manage political affairs amidst squabbling leftist factions, the loss of important geographic centers, foreign meddling, and much more. If you can survive all three decks without losing Moscow you win. If you can survive to improve your political standing to the top of the index, then you also win by achieving diplomatic acceptance of your regime. Lose Moscow or collapse politically and its all over, but you can try again.
Grant: What elements of each faction did you want to make sure to include in the design?
Darin: The only faction you have to control is the Bolshevik leadership. But there are an ever shifting array of enemy factions to deal with, ranging from the Imperial Germans, the First World War Allies, the Finns, the Poles, and the White Russian armies in Siberia, the Ukraine, the Baltics, and the Crimea. Additional factors are modeled within the cards themselves, ranging for the Social Democrats, the Komuch, the Turks in the Caucasus, and even Nestor Mankho and his “green” anarchists.
Grant: How much does the design focus on the events of The Great War?
Darin: The Great War plays a major role in the game. The game begins in early 1918 with the German army still marching through the Baltic toward Petrograd. The first deck (the “Twilight” deck) ends when you decide whether or not to accept the German offer of a harsh peace (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). The second deck (the “Darkness” deck) covers the period up to the Armistice of November 11, 1918, where Germany is still fighting the Great War. Only after German capitulation, does the Third Deck (the “Dawn” deck) occur, where the threats are multiplied as the Allies are no longer focused on the Western Front and new nationalist movements prove a greater threat. I very much consider this game to be part of my First World War Trilogy that also includes Ottoman Sunset and Hapsburg Eclipse, although they don’t mate together.
Grant: What is the Red Army Reorganization and how does it work? What does this represent from the history?
Darin: I’m really proud of the Red Army Reorganization system. After I had the framework of the game in place, I felt something was missing. I wanted some extra chrome that gave a “feel” for the period involved. I simply felt the event cards themselves weren’t enough. And, I didn’t feel I had captured, quite frankly, a “Dr. Zhivago” feel in the game. I needed some things on the micro-level to be in there – like armored trains, the Cheka, the Comintern – very evocative stuff that came out of the era.
And, then I remembered a neat little subsystem that was in the game Axis and Allies. As in Soviet Dawn, in Axis and Allies, you had limited resources available, but if you could afford it, you could gamble them on a chance to obtain some sort of strategic advantage, ranging from improved submarines to atomic bombs. I thought: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to put a system like this into Soviet Dawn, so the player could spend one of their precision action points and try to gain an advantage in the game?” And, so the Red Army Reorganization Chart, was created, and I love how it deepens the narrative and the tension of the game.
Grant: What is the Imperial Gold Reserve and how is it used?
Darin: Alan Emrich, my developer, came up with that one. A problem arose of what would happen if someone did a Red Army Reorganization and then won an advantage that they already had. My thought was “it’s a tough game. Tough luck”, but Alan wanted to include the legend of the “Imperial Gold Reserve” in the game and here was a chance to do it. I went with it and the rest is (alternative) history.
The Imperial Gold Reserve allows a player to change fate in the game by either negating a critical advance or changing any die roll to the result you want. That can be a powerful hedge against defeat.
Grant: What is Political Dissent and how does it affect the game?
Darin: Part of the historical struggle that the Bolshevik leadership had is that they not only had to deal with outside forces and the battlefield, but infighting within their unwieldy coalition. Lenin struggled against internal dissent, votes that didn’t go his way, and frankly even assassination attempts. I wanted to model that in the game and present that as both a challenge for the player and an opportunity for the player. When a Political Dissent even comes up, the player knows that at the end of the turn, a roll is going to adjust, positively or negatively their political standing. This could make the difference in a political victory or political defeat or set one on the path toward either.
The player is faced with a dilemma, they can just face the roll and accept whatever effect comes their way or they can forfeit valuable action points in order to influence that die roll in their favor. It’s often a gut-wrenching decision especially if Moscow is threatened. Then to complicate it further, there is the Nestor Mankho (Anarchist) card which threatens the stability of the regime, not once, but twice, and there is no option to modify the die rolls as to him.
Grant: Is there one thing you felt needed to be improved over your first edition? What is it?
Darin: That’s actually a funny one. When VPG and I made Israeli Independence, Alan chose to use a Hebrew-like font as characters for the English terminology. No one had a problem with this and it was quite evocative. When VPG released the first edition of Soviet Dawn, the game used a faux Cyrillic that was evocative of the Russian language. Some people didn’t mind, but many people hated it. They ridiculed the game for having non-sensical Russian phrases within it. I committed myself never to make that mistake again. As an aside Ottoman Sunset used some sort of Persian script font and no one seemed to care, but I respect gamer sensibilities.
But the main thing of this new edition is making it accessible, including the supplemental cards and the variant rules. Top notch components aren’t a drag either. Larger game components (box, cards, game board, counters, etc.) with higher quality will be part of this new Deluxe Edition.
Grant: What special considerations to the packaging or components are being considered?
Darin: Since cards drive the game all the cards will be the highest quality with the matt linen finish. They will also be larger poker sized cards. Each front will have stand up counters to show their progress to Moscow. A custom plastic tray will be included in the game. All new art will be used for the cards and game board and both the cards and the game board are larger. The same thing for the counters used in the game. We will also include a game archive booklet which is used for the players to record each game played (strategies used, game results, etc.).
Grant: Why should wargamers rush to back this Kickstarter?
Darin: As mentioned, all components are being upgraded and changed and the art has changed AND there will be some Kickstarter exclusives such as the additional cards. The game will still retain its ease of play, detailed narrative, and challenge. Now is the time, Comrade!
Thank you for your time in answering my questions Darin and for the great system that you pioneered. I love the States of Siege Series and look forward to playing Soviet Dawn as I have never had the chance.
As mentioned at the outset of the interview, the game is set to launch on Kickstarter on Saturday, November 7th and you check out the preview page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1040417273/1428456137?&token=5b7008a0