David Thompson burst onto the board game design scene with his first game released in 2018 called War Chest, followed closely by the release of Pavlov’s House. His actual first game designed was For What Remains, which is a tactical skirmish game set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic wasteland where factions fight each other for supremacy, but it was not released until 2020 after a successful Kickstarter. Pavlov’s House was his first foray into the historical board game genre and its success has spawned two follow-up games in the Valiant Defense Series with a fourth game currently in design. David is a very conscientious designer and wants to put the time in to make sure his games are not only realistic in their play but representative of the time period covered. David also established Digital Capricorn Studios to support his board game design habit and on that website he offers the following about his process and focus:
I don’t have any specific restrictions for the types of games I design. I usually start with theme and a general concept, and try to craft mechanisms that support the theme.
I’m also extremely dedicated to complete transparency throughout the entire development process. I am very active on Board Game Geek, where I post under the username Skirmish Tactics. I discuss all of my game designs there, and I make the complete designs available as print and play downloads.
So that you can get a better feel for who David is and what he stands for, here is a link to a virtual interview that we did with him during the Pandemic Lockdown in the spring of 2020. Notice the stack of books in the background on the table that he uses as reference material for his games.
Before we get to the list, I want to make sure you understand that I have not played each of David Thompson’s designs. I have played Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter, Undaunted: Normandy, Undaunted: North Africa, For What Remains, Europe Divided, By Stealth and Sea and a prototype copy of Soldier’s in Postmen’s Uniforms. I have not played War Chest, War Chest: Nobility, Orc-lympics, Sniper Elite or Armageddon. The three games that I chose are simply my favorite of his and are really representative of his style and focus in designs. You will also notice that 2 of the 3 games on the list are Solitaire games and I don’t consider myself a solo gamer! They are simply that good.
3. Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WWII from Dan Verssen Games
Castle Itter is a fantastic solitaire wargame in the Valiant Defense Series. The setting for Castle Itter is during the final days of World War II as a motley crew of soldiers including Americans, Wehrmacht infantrymen, an SS officer, an Austrian resistance fighter, recently freed French prisoners of war and a professional tennis player. The game uses a track system down which enemy units move through the play of cards from the SS Deck and if they ever breach the walls of the Castle the player loses. The game plays in about 60 minutes and has a few variants, including a deck of Tactics Cards that increase difficulty, so no two plays are ever the same.
The game is played as the defender has five actions each round and must move his units in the form of counters around the board to take actions to attack advancing German Waffen-SS counters as they progress up various colored assault tracks. Scoring is based on how well players did in defending the castle, and for bravery (did the Besotten Jenny get blown up?), and running away (as you get extra points for escaping the French tennis player).
I love the combat positions and line of sight as it is critical to determine what units can attack what areas of the assault tracks. And they are color coded, which makes it really simple to determine. I also love the inclusion of the Besotten Jenny, which is an M4 Sherman Tank that is parked at the Gate House to defend against any frontal assaults and gives the player the most firepower in the area where the most defenders will spawn with the 76MM Cannon (there also is a special loading position), M2HB Browning .50 caliber Machine Gun and two M1919A4 Browning .30 caliber Machine Guns.
The game is simple but not simplistic and it really creates an air of tense consternation as you must decide what you do with your limited actions. You have lots of tactical choices, such as suppressing units as they come on the board, attacking with only certain units with good statistics or enhancing attacks by moving your counters with special abilities around to benefit your actions. All told this game is about surviving to live another round as you never know what can happen or if the dice and cards will be in your favor. In the Valiant Defense Series, this is the game that I would recommend as a person’s first experience with a wargame as it is a bit more straightforward than the others in the series.
I recorded a two part playthrough video to give you an idea how the mechanics work.
I also put together a series of Action Point posts on this one and you can dive into them to get more familiar with the game. In Action Point 1, we looked at the game board focusing on the locations, combat positions and assault tracks for the SS. In Action Point 2, we examined the SS Card Deck and how the cards drive the assault and work against the player. In Action Point 3, we looked at the various Defender Units, some of their Defender Actions and their Special Actions/Attributes. In Action Point 4, we discussed some points of strategy regarding deployment of your Defender Units on the board, actions that you should be taking and a general overview of my thoughts on how best to defend the castle.
This is a good one, but not quite my favorite. Another in the series takes that spot but up next is a very fresh take on one of the most famous of all World War II battles.
2. Undaunted: Normandy from Osprey Games
I love a good historically themed game….that also is a bit of a wargame with combat, tactics and the need for planning. I also love it when a designer takes an uncommon mechanic, such as deckbuilding, and builds a war themed game around it that ends up working really well and mimicking some of the difficulties and confusion of the battlefield.
David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin have accomplished just that with this masterpiece Undaunted: Normandy, which is a tactical card based game that uses very interesting mechanics to simulate small squads of soldiers from the 30th Infantry Division and their enemies the defending Germans in and around Normandy, France as you battle over Control of various Objectives on a modular board of the French countryside.
The game play is very smart and really strategic as you have to assess the overall situation, determine what units under your control you need, add them to your deck to increase your chances of drawing them out when you need them and then figure out how to foil your opponent as you chase control of Objectives for victory points. This is the perfect filler type wargame as it is a more casual play experience with most scenarios playing in 30-45 minutes and can be a great introduction into historical themed games.
The best part of the design is how David included the deck building element and used that to represent a commander’s direction of their fighting forces. The player must look at the board to first determine their plan of attack, then review the available soldiers in their Supply and then utilize the special abilities of their troops to attack their Objectives. Deckbuilding seems to be an odd fit for a wargame but it fits and works well as units are attacked, wounded and then removed from the game possibly hampering the ability of the player to control Objectives or move across the board. Some of my favorite aspects of the deckbuilding is the use of the Scout units to remove Fog of War cards from your deck as these cards simply take up space and make it so you cannot draw your good cards when you need them. Players can also place these Fog of War cards into their opponent’s deck which makes for a great cat and mouse game. Finally, when you are nearing your Objectives and need certain cards to come up, such as an Infantry to be able to Control an Objective, you can use the tactic of Hunkering Down and removing certain cards from your deck and placing them back in the Supply so that you thin out your deck and improve your chances of drawing what you need. Such a great use of this mechanic to simulate the confusion and tactical decisions on a battlefield.
I also put together a series of Action Point posts on this one and you can dive into them to get more familiar with the game. In Action Point 1, we looked at the deck makeup and how you “build” the deck into a well oiled fighting machine. In Action Point 2, we dove into the various unit types and their actions and special abilities. In Action Point 3, we looked at the modular board and how it works in the design. In this final Action Point we will discuss strategies about how to defeat your opponent through offensive attacks as well as through stratagem and deck manipulation.
You can also check out our video review of the game: Video Review of Undaunted: Normandy
This is a special game and it has limitless options for expansion as there are many other theaters of war that could be explored from World War II. In fact, in 2020, Undaunted: North Africa was released and this game takes us to the North African deserts to pit the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group against the Italians and their tanks. But this game is not just a rehash but changes scale, focus and adds new units and special abilities as well as new terrain. The next volume up is called Undaunted: Reinforcements and it should be deploying in August 2021.
Now we come to my favorite game from David that is also a solitaire game and uses similar mechanics to the first game on this list.
1. Pavlov’s House: The Battle of Stalingrad from Dan Verssen Games
Pavlov’s House: The Battle of Stalingrad is a very interesting solitaire game that focuses on the defense of the fortified apartment building that was nicknamed “Pavlov’s House” by the Soviet 62nd Army after they withstood two months of attempts at storming from the German Wehrmacht during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. The name came from one of the building’s heroic defenders named Yakov Pavlov, not from the famous psychologist and his salivating dogs, and was a huge “psychological” victory for the Soviets during that difficult period. This is the game that started the Valiant Defense Series and is my favorite. Why is it my favorite? Well, you will have to read on to figure that out but I can tell you that I loved the board, which is divided into three different vantage points of the battle, and this one is a bit more involved than Castle Itter and keeps me even more engaged over the 90 minute play time.
The game board depicts three different views of the Stalingrad battlefield that all play a key role in the success or failure of the defenders in Pavlov’s House and this is such a great way to approach this subject. On the left side is a view of the inside of Pavlov’s House and covers the tactical-level movement and actions of the Soviet defenders in the form of counters. In the middle of the board is a view of the area immediately surrounding Pavlov’s House which mainly consists of the area called 9 January Square. This area shows the location of various colored tracks that are assault lanes for the German Wehrmacht counters and also provides for locations where the Soviet defender can place special Sapper units that act as a last line of defense. As German counters are drawn, they are placed on one of these 6 tracks via a die roll and as there are other units placed on each track the units advance toward Pavlov’s House. On the far right side of the board is the Volga River and the operational-level of the Soviet 62nd Army.
The player is charged with managing their array of counters located inside Pavlov’s House, including different weapons teams, commanders and weapons to fight off the advancing Wehrmacht soldiers before they can enter the base. The operational side of the game is also important as the player must try to get supplies across the river to the beleaguered apartment building while providing various assets to the defenders such as artillery strikes and extra actions through establishing a communications system. The player will have to make it through the Wehrmacht deck and survive to the end of the siege to win.
This game is a blast and plays in about 90 minutes. But it takes some focus and attention and requires the player to think about what is most important in each of the sectors as they all work together and effect teh outcome of the game. If you don’t control the Stuka Dive-bombers, by investing in anti-aircraft fire, then you will find that you don’t have a functioning command center any more and your troops will surrender. If you don’t build up the artillery strikes then your defenders will not have enough actions to deal with the continuous flow of men and material against them in the fortified apartment. Or if you can’t keep the river crossing rolling you will find that you don’t have the resources needed to keep fighting. It just works so well and really is an interesting study of this conflict.
If you are interested, I have written a series of Action Points giving a look inside the game’s mechanics. In our 1st Action Point we took a look at the Volga River operational-level board to understand how those actions hinder or help the defenders in Pavlov’s House. In Action Point 2, we took a closer look at the 9 January Square portion of the board and how the Wehrmacht Cards work. In Action Point 3, we took a look at the inside of Pavlov’s House and how the player can use the Soviet counters to ward off the Germans. In the 4th and final Action Point, we examine the special Resupply/Storm Group Cards and discuss how you score victory points.
So there you have my list of my favorite David Thompson designs. I can tell you that I also really enjoy the other games he has designed, but this list could only hold 3. I love Europe Divided as it pits players against each other to place influence in areas to control them and then score VP from meeting special goals from the cards. I love By Stealth and Sea as it is another high quality solitaire wargame that has an ongoing campaign of 9 missions covering a rarely gamed subject and I enjoyed the interesting tactical elements of For What Remains. What are your favorites?