In the June 2020 Monthly Update from GMT Games, a new World War II game involving airborne was announced from not a new designer, as he has done several scenarios and variants in C3i Magazine for established systems, but a fairly new “design his own game” designer named Dan Fournie. Prior to that announcement we had already done an interview with him for a game covering the Battle of Bulge from Worthington Publishing called Battle of the Bulge 1944. This new game called Drop Zone: Southern France is currently on the P500 and has 187 pre-orders.
If you are interested in Drop Zone: Southern France you can pre-order a copy from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-867-drop-zone-southern-france.aspx
Grant: Welcome back Dan. How is work progressing on your new game Drop Zone: Southern France?
Dan: Hi Grant! The design for Drop Zone: Southern France has been complete for about a year, and the game is currently on GMT’s P500 list. What’s new is that I am currently finishing up a solitaire version to add to the original game. As the new solitaire version was being developed, it became clear it would not function well with blocks. We decided to re-develop the game with counters. This process has flowed unexpectedly smoothly.
Grant: What is the design intent for Drop Zone: Southern France? What historical event does the game focus on?
Dan: The intent of Drop Zone: Southern France is to provide a fun, fast-playing wargame on a very interesting campaign that has never been covered before. I chose this subject for my first wargame design because my father was one of the paratroopers who jumped into Southern France back in 1944. I have studied the campaign in great detail over the past 40 years, and had the opportunity to walk the drop zones and battle sites while I was stationed in Germany.
Drop Zone: Southern France portrays the Allied airborne assault that spearheaded Operation DRAGOON, the Invasion of Southern France—the Second D-Day, August 15th, 1944. Early on the morning of D-Day, the allied 1st Airborne Task Force (1st ABTF) parachuted a dozen miles behind the Riviera landing beaches to seize key towns and road junctions, to prevent the German occupation forces from counter-attacking the amphibious landing, and to facilitate the advance of Allied forces. The 1st ABTF was composed of the American 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team (PRCT), the 509th and 551st Parachute and 550th Glider Infantry Battalions and the British 2nd Parachute Brigade. The defending German forces included the LXII Corps’ 242nd Infantry Division and counter-attacking forces of the 148th Reserve Division and Kampfgruppe von Schwerin. The 4:00 AM parachute drop was badly scattered due to an unexpected dense fog bank that blanketed the battlefield. Drop Zone: Southern France covers the first two days of this airborne operation in six tense turns, when the American and British paratroopers and glider-men fought surrounded and alone, supported only by French resistance bands.
Grant: Why did you choose the title Drop Zone? What is the intent of the subtitle of Southern France?
The game title is an homage to the excellent military history books Dropzone Normandy by Crookenden and Drop Zone Sicily by Breuer. This game covers the little-known but highly successful airborne operation in support of the DRAGOON invasion, hence the title “Southern France.” In the future, I may design a series of airborne games using the same Drop Zone system: Sicily, Normandy, Holland, etc. And I plan to use the title for a book on this campaign, if I ever complete it.
Grant: Why did you move away from the initial intent to use blocks for units to using counters?
Dan: As the new solitaire version was being developed, it became clear it would not function well with blocks. As I re-developed the game with counters, I found I could maintain most of the attributes of blocks while adding the benefits of counters, making a solitaire version feasible. Most unit counters have 3 steps of strength, allowing each company to be represented by a concealed counter-side on entry, preserving fog-of-war. The unit type and values are then revealed in the first combat by flipping the counter to its revealed unit side. Additional losses or gains in steps are displayed on a second counter, with 2 more step levels. Counters have advantages over blocks, with greater space for clearly displaying unit symbols and values on each side, and speeding play once revealed.
Grant: What is important to model from the history of airborne operations in Western Europe during World War II, both during D-Day and as a part of Operation DRAGOON?
Dan: The most important attribute of World War II airborne operations that I wanted to convey was the chaos and fog of war inherent in the first hours and days of a jump. Parachute units arrive on the battlefield weak (at 1-step of strength) and widely scattered. German counter-attacks begin immediately, from all directions of the compass, but arriving in a random and unpredictable manner. Time is critical for both players—the German player strives to eliminate as many Allied units as possible, but never knowing if he is about to attack a weak French resistance band or a company of elite paratroopers; the Allied player must seize his objectives as quickly as possible, and secure the glider landing zones, without over-extending his forces and leaving them vulnerable.
Grant: What sources did you consult? What one source would you recommend to someone interested in learning more?
Dan: As I mentioned, I have been studying this campaign for over 40 years, so my list of sources includes dozens of military history books, airborne unit websites and POW interrogation reports of key German commanders. There are at least half a dozen histories of the DRAGOON invasion, as well as unit histories (sometimes many, sometimes just one) for every allied airborne unit that participated, filled with fascinating anecdotes and details. I have also consulted many works on the order of battle, organization, training and equipment of Allied airborne and German occupation forces. For the overall DRAGOON campaign, the official US Army in World War II volume Riviera to the Rhine is invaluable. For the airborne operation itself, Operation Dragoon, by Breuer, has many great chapters. By far the best and most unusual work is French Dr. Jean-Loup Gassend’s Operation Dragoon: Autopsy of a Battle, filled with fascinating detail and grounded in battlefield archeology, forensics and oral history.
Grant: What is the scale of the game?
Dan: Drop Zone: Southern France is a company-level game. This was the most appropriate level based on the old army adage: command down one level, see and observe down two levels. Since the four Commands are brigade/regiment level formations, the players command down one level (battalions) and observe down two levels (companies). The game portrays what a brigade/regiment command post situation map would look like.
The units are mostly infantry companies (about 150 men), with each step representing a reinforced platoon (around 50 men). I felt comfortable with this level, as I had served as a rifle and mortar platoon leader, rifle company commander and staff officer at battalion, brigade and division levels. Armor units portray platoons/teams of armored vehicles supported by infantry, with each step representing 2 to 3 halftracks, armored cars, assault guns or medium tanks. Each hex measures about 500 meters across. Turns are about six hours each.
Grant: What area of Southern France does the map cover?
Dan: The game board is a hex map of the Argens and Naturby River valleys and surrounding areas in in the Var Department, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region, of Southern France. The area shown is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) north-northwest of the Riviera coastline and the DRAGOON landing beaches. It includes an area of about 10×12 kilometers centered on the three Allied drop zones. It includes the towns of Le Muy, La Motte, Les Arcs, Trans-en-Provence and Draguignan.
Grant: What different units are included for both sides? Do these units have any special abilities or capabilities?
Dan: The Allies have mostly American and British parachute infantry. These are elite units, with great staying power, but most begin the game at only 1-step of strength and have to be built up. American parachute and glider infantry companies arrive at full strength on Turn 3. Parachute engineers and artillerymen are not quite as powerful as the infantry. The Americans get one reinforced platoon of M-4 Sherman tanks coming up from the beaches on D+1. The armor has superior firepower, survivability and mobility. Finally, there are French Forces of the Interior (FFI) units. These units do not stand up well in a firefight, but are useful as decoys and delaying forces.
The Germans have mostly regular infantry companies—not as good as the paratroopers but better than the FFI. All German regular infantry units arrive at full strength of 3-steps. There are a few elite German units that are comparable to Allied paratroopers, such as fusiliers. The Germans have a few weaker pioneer (engineer) and alarm companies that have only 2-steps of strength. The best German units are the Panzers. These range from halftrack and armored car platoons, with only 1-step, to an assault gun company with 3-steps. Like the American Sherman unit, the German Panzer units have superior firepower, survivability and mobility.
Grant: How do the Commands get divided? Does this approach allow for more than two players?
Dan: The Commands reflect the difficulty the Allies experienced in coordinating major American and British elements in the same formation; for the Germans it reflects the poor state of their communications after the resistance and paratroopers cut all phone and teletype lines in the area and isolated the LXII Corps headquarters—the German counter-attacks from east and west were completely uncoordinated.
There are two Commands for each side. The Allies have the American 517th PRCT and the British 2nd Parachute Brigade Commands. The Germans have the 148th Division and the Kampfgruppe von Schwerin Commands. Each Command is activated when its chit is pulled, so no one knows who will move next. The Command system allows the game to be played by 2-, 3-, or 4-players. The game plays best with 2- or 4-players, but works well with 3-players (one American, one British and one German player controlling two Commands). And of course, there is also a solitaire version.
Grant: How are Garrison units used?
Dan: The game begins with a German Garrison unit on each of the 20 objectives. The Garrison units represent platoon sized elements of 1-step consisting of 30-50 men—rear echelon support troops for the Germans or FFI resistance fighters for the Allies. These are weak units; however, they have the terrain advantages of Town, Village or Woods on the objective. Garrison units may neither attack nor move, but only defend. Garrisons are not assigned to a Command, and so have a different counter color. The only stacking permitted in the game is one regular unit with one Garrison unit, so they are helpful in defending objectives. Whenever the Allies capture an objective and eliminate the German Garrison, the counter is flipped over to its FFI side. This represents the FFI establishing control as each objective is liberated. This has the added benefit that no “control markers” are needed in the game. Every objective will always have an FFI Garrison or a German Garrison unit on it.
Grant: What different assets are available for use by the units? How are these obtained?
Dan: Assets are support units and special leader capabilities. The support units for both sides include indirect fire (heavy mortars, field artillery and coastal artillery) and anti-tank guns. Allied leaders can seize the initiative (activate their Command without drawing the chit) or coordinate an attack by units of both commands. German leaders can re-group units—this is the only way German units can add steps. Assets are randomly drawn, two assets per side on Turns 2-6. The assets are divided into two groups, those available on Turn 2, and a second group that becomes available on Turn 4 (start of D+1). For the Allies, starting assets represent only those that parachuted in on the morning of D-Day. Most of the Allied heavy weapons units arrive later by glider, and are not available till Turn 4. The German starting assets represent units located nearby, with additional heavier weapons arriving on D+1. Assets are assigned to a Command, and may only support units of their respective command.
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Dan: The game turn sequence is fairly simple:
Asset Draw Phase: Allied and German players each draw two Assets.
Initiative Phase: Draw an initiative chit to determine the first/next Command activated.
Activation Phase (conduct for each Command):
Reinforcement Points: Active (Allied) Command adds RP’s to companies.
Reinforcement Companies: Active Command draws Reinforcement Companies.
Operations: Conduct Movement and then Combat for the active Command.
Continuation: Draw the next initiative chit and repeat steps a-b-c.
End of Turn and Victory Check Phase.
Grant: How are Reinforcement Points gained and how are they used?
Dan: The Allied player receives a number of Reinforcement Points (RP’s) as specified on the Turn Record Track (from 1 to 4 RP’s per Command per Turn). RP’s are listed separately for the American 517th PRCT and the British 2nd Brigade Commands. Allied RP’s are used as follows:
(1) A Player may add one RP to an infantry (not armor or FFI) unit of the appropriate Command per Turn to increase its step level by one;
(2) RP’s may be added to units adjacent to enemy units but not to units surrounded by enemy zones of control (EZoC);
(3) Eliminated units may not be re-constituted.
The German player receives RP’s by playing a Regroup asset during the Reinforcement Phase—the appropriate German Command receives 2RP’s, used in the same way as the Allied RP’s.
Grant: How do Reinforcement Companies effect reinforcement? How are they chosen each round? What benefit to the play experience do you feel this approach provides?
Dan: The German player begins with only two companies on the board, so almost all his forces arrive as Reinforcement Companies. There are 10 reinforcement entry areas (A thru J) around the board edge. The 148th Division Command units arrive in Areas A thru E and sometimes J (northeast, east and southeast edges). The Kampfgruppe von Schwerin units arrive in areas F thru J (northwest, west and southwest edges). Each Reinforcement Company is marked with its area(s) of entry. The German units are divided into two groups, for D-Day (Turns 1-3) and D+1 (Turns 4-6). A specified number of units are randomly drawn to arrive each Turn. The D-Day units are each marked with a single entry area, replicating the German practice of immediately attacking paratroopers with the nearest unit. The D+1 units have 2-3 possible entry areas, reflecting the increasing German ability to react, plan and direct. The D+1 German units are also stronger, as the German were able to bring higher quality units to bear on the second day. This system for German reinforcement arrival unintentionally turned out to be well suited for the solitaire system.
Most of the Allied units (22 companies) arrive by a randomized para-drop to start the game. The player rolls two dice for each parachute unit to determine direction and distance from the serial’s para-drop hex to its actual landing hex. There are eight units (that were mis-dropped far off the northeastern edge of the board) that arrive in the same manner as the German reinforcements. Finally, during Turn 3, eight Allied companies arrive by parachute or glider on their designated Drop Zones/Landing Zones (DZ/LZs). It is crucial for the Allied player to clear all German units away from the DZ/LZs before these units arrive.
These randomized paradrop and reinforcement arrival times and locations of concealed units are the main driver in simulating the chaos and fog of war characteristic of this campaign. The high level of uncertainty provides difficult decision making for the players—maneuvering to best exploit their strengths and avoid exposing their weaknesses.
Grant: How does Combat work?
Dan: Only units of the active command may participate in an attack on an adjacent enemy unit.
The Attacking player announces his attack. Both players (attacker first) may play face-down one fire support/anti-tank asset per combat.
If units are concealed, both players flip the unit counters over to reveal each unit.
If a player has used a Preparatory Fire/Anti-Tank asset, he rolls, and score hits.
The attacker and defender roll, score hits and take losses simultaneously.
The attacker rolls one die for each step of all attacking units and applies terrain Die Roll Modifiers (DRM’s). A hit is scored for each number rolled that is equal to or greater than the defending unit’s hit number, with DRM’s.
The defender rolls one die for each step of the defending unit (and a Garrison if present). Terrain has no effect on defensive fire. A hit is scored for each number rolled that is equal to or greater than an attacking unit’s hit number.
Advance after Combat: If all defending units in a hex have been eliminated, the attacker has the option to advance after combat with one attacking company into the vacated hex.
Grant: How are losses allocated? Why the difference in defender VS attacker?
Dan: Defender: if a company is stacked with a Garrison, the Garrison will suffer no hits as long as the company survives. If the company is eliminated, the Garrison must take any remaining hit not satisfied by the company.
Attacker: Hits must be applied to the unit(s) with the highest “to-hit” number first. All die rolls that can score a hit, must score a hit, as long as any steps remain. After that, the owning player may allocate step losses amongst his units as he chooses.
The differences arise from the fact that only the attackers may have multiple companies in the battle, and only the defender may have a Garrison unit in the combat.
Grant: Where are the various objectives located on the board? What happens once they are liberated?
Dan: There are 20 objectives: 2 Hill Tops; 4 Road Junctions; and 9 Villages (all worth 1 Victory Point (VP) each); and 5 towns (worth from 2 to 5 VP each). They are classified as D-Day (Red) Objectives and D+1 (Yellow) Objectives. The D-Day Objectives are the actual objectives identified in Allied operations orders, forming a perimeter around the Drop Zones. The D+1 Objectives are the key terrain features that were fought over on the second day, expanding out from the D-Day perimeter. Whenever an objective hex is captured (liberated), the Allied player immediately places an FFI Garrison in the hex. This reflects the clandestine FFI cells that were waiting to take control of their liberated territory.
Grant: Have you considered random or hidden objectives?
Dan: I considered some hidden objectives, for example the paratroopers stumbled on the main German fuel storage tanks outside La Motte, but decided against using them. Although units are concealed, reinforcements arrive randomly and unexpectedly, and the next Command activation is always uncertain, the key terrain objectives in this campaign were readily apparent to both sides.
Grant: How are Victory Points scored?
Dan: VP are scored or lost by the Allied player for controlling objectives. VP are counted at two points—the end of D-Day (Turn 3) and the end of the game. The Allied player scores VP for D-Day (Red) Objectives controlled at the end of Turn 3, and for D+1 (Yellow) Objectives controlled at the end of the game. The Allied player also subtracts VP for any D-Day (Red) Objectives not controlled at the end of the game.
Grant: How is victory won?
Dan: The number of VP’s scored by the Allied player determines who wins and the Level of Victory:
21 VP’s or More — Allied Decisive Victory
20-18 VP’s — Allied Marginal Victory
17 VP’s — Draw
14-16 VP’s — German Marginal Victory
13 VPs or Less — German Decisive Victory
Grant: Have you considered adding various scenarios?
Dan: Initially, I did consider additional scenarios based on earlier plans, French plans, etc. However, it turned out that these would have required additional maps. The main reason I felt no additional scenarios were needed was that no two games of Drop Zone: Southern France will ever be alike. The Allied paratroopers will land in different places and German reinforcements will arrive in a different order in every game. In other words, this game has great re-playability!
Grant: How long have games typically lasted?
Dan: The game plays quickly, usually taking about two hours, or a little longer for beginners. When there are four players, it may take a bit longer, depending on how well the teams cooperate. Two experienced players may be able to finish a game in 90 minutes (and potentially switch roles and play another game).
Grant: What do you feel the design does well?
Dan: First, Drop Zone: Southern France portrays the chaos and confusion inherent in World War II airborne operations. After the jump, there will be German garrisons and units surrounded by paratroopers, which are in turn surrounded by arriving German reinforcements. A player must manage the uncertainty as best he can to achieve his goals. Second, both players have multiple opportunities to attack and defend—it’s a fluid, but balanced fight. Third, Drop Zone: Southern France plays simply and quickly, so the rules are easy to master and the game can be finished in an evening—perhaps even two games. Finally, you will learn a lot about this campaign from playing the game. The order of battle research and historical detail are extensive. For example, every Allied and most German units have the commander’s name on their counter.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Dan: Playtesters were able to digest the rules quickly. The action is fast and furious, right from the start. The combat rules allow for unexpected defensive stands, as well as unlikely successes. The success of any attack can never be taken for granted. Most games went down to the final die roll, as one side or the other makes a final attack to achieve victory. The most common comment after finishing a game was “let’s play this again.”
From John Katz, the head playtester:
“The game has a great mix of familiarity and novelty, for me at least, because WWII and even WWII airborne operations are pretty well known, but not this operation and not gaming at this level. It was interesting to engage in a fight that had US and Brit units both, and even some French involved, and to have some unfamiliar German forces as well. The tension was greater because of the mixed forces, uncertainties, and due to the competing demands—for both sides—to assemble forces and both attack and defend. The novel aspects and the uncertainty made playtesting fun and engaging, and I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to help with the games development.”
Grant: What have been some changes throughout the playtest process?
Dan: We playtested the game throughout two years of development. Initially, there were frequent major changes in unit types and the chit-pull Command and combat systems. By the end of the first year, the rules were solidified. Later changes were mostly, such as:
(1) reducing the randomness of the initial para-drop;
(2) adjusting unit values and entry procedures;
(3) fine-tuning the VPs assigned to each Objective; and
(4) tweaking the victory conditions.
Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?
Dan: Battle of the Bulge 1944 has been completed and Worthington Games is projected to ship this game in December. I am currently working on another WW2 game, D-Day to the Rhine, that will use the same Hold Fast System as my Bulge game. I am also working on a number of ancient games including: Siege of Syracuse, 414-13 BC (a solitaire game), To the Strongest (the Successor Wars) and Hannibal at the Gates (the Second Punic War). I also continue writing for C3i Magazine and will have Designer Notes for Drop Zone: Southern France and an SPQR article and scenario, the Deluxe Battle of Agrigentum, 262 BC, in the upcoming C3i issue #34. Finally, I have been writing a series of articles on Drop Zone: Southern France for the IndsideGMT blog, initially going into detail on the organization of Allied and German forces in this campaign. Future articles will provide the historical background of units and leaders, descriptions of the fighting in the historical campaign and other designer’s notes.
Grant: As you have mentioned, the game now has a solitaire mode. How does the AI work in the game? What priorities does it choose to follow? What type of experience does the solitaire game provide?
Dan: The solitaire version of Drop Zone: Southern France allows a player to control the Allies, with the Germans controlled by the AI. The randomized arrival of German units around the board, on the spokes of a wheel so to speak, made it a smooth transition to solitaire. German bot priorities are phased over time:
Turn 1: German units move immediately to attack the nearest Allied unit. This was German doctrine, to attack airborne forces as soon as possible while they are most vulnerable.
Turn 2-3: German units move towards Drop Zone A or Landing Zone O, making favorable attacks along the way. This reflects the German attempt to break up the airhead and prevent further landings.
Turns 4-6: German units secure Objectives, by occupying and defending or attacking and seizing, with main efforts directed at the highest VP Objectives. This results in the bloody battles that occurred as the Germans attempted to seize key terrain and prevent a rapid Allied breakout from the beaches.
The bot directs German actions to achieve these shifting goals over time, mirroring the German actions in the historical campaign. Although the Allied player knows what the German bot is trying to accomplish, he never knows where the next German reinforcements will arrive, nor how successful the Germans will be. In particular, the chit pull Command system means that sometimes the AI-controlled German forces may get two moves in a row. Even the best laid Allied plans may founder. The player can adjust the difficulty level of the Victory Conditions, making the game as challenging as desired.
Thank you so much for the information on this very interesting looking game. I must say I was initially interested but now want to play this one soon. I also look forward to your other projects as well.
If you are interested in Drop Zone: Southern France you can pre-order a copy from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-867-drop-zone-southern-france.aspx