Our friend Gregory M. Smith is a solitaire genius and has done many of these solo, narrative driven wargames that we have all enjoyed for hours on end while we have been unable to find an opponent or just because we want to play a game on our timeline. We have interviewed him many times for his games such as Zeppelin Raider, Interceptor Ace, The Hunted, Western Front Ace, Amerika Bomber and most recently Defending America. Greg always has something cooking in his game design kitchen and we recently became aware of his newest project taking a look at ground combat in the the European Theater of Operations of World War II in American Tank Ace: Europe, 1944-1945 currently up for pre-order on Compass Games. I reached out to Greg and he was more than willing to talk with me about this new game with a much different focus than his previous work.
*Note: Any graphics or pictures used in this interview of components are nothing more than the prototype version created by the designer intended for playtesting purposes. Also, details of the game play and mechanics may also change throughout playtesting and final development prior to publication.
Grant: You have done a lot of solitaire Wargames focused first on submarines (Silent Victory, The Hunters, The Hunted) and then the air war (Nightfighter Ace, Interceptor Ace, Amerika Bomber). Now you are switching to ground combat. What new challenges did you have to overcome with this change?
Greg: Great question, but it boils down mainly to terrain. If you think about planes and subs, they operate in a very simple environment: air, or water. There’s a bit of a 3-dimensional aspect to this combat, involving altitude and depth, but for the most part, it is a very simple environment to replicate and abstract. Well, not quite the case on land. There are trees, buildings, ridgelines, open areas, ad infinitum. Add snow, mud, and rain to the equation, and it gets pretty complicated pretty fast. So I had to come up with a playable way to account for terrain in an abstract yet reasonable way.
Grant: What problems did you find you had to think outside the box to solve?
Greg: The biggest problem, to my mind, was representing how combat would work. Unlike the final scene of the movie Fury, tanks rarely operated alone. So I had to create routines to represent the fact you were operating as part of a unit, and not alone. I also had to make said routines make sense, based actually on my own training and experience. At one point, I had flank forces on the map and you were moving around a lot of NPC’s, but realized it just got too tedious and the game didn’t stay focused on YOU, as the tank commander. So I finally came up with a routine that gave you results from the forces fighting with you, which can either be good or of no impact to your personal situation. This worked very well, was cleaner, gave fast gameplay, and I just liked it better.
Grant: What is your new game called American Tank Ace about?
Greg: I hate to call up the movie Fury again, but basically, you are Brad Pitt. Curiously enough, this didn’t confuse or fool my wife during testing 🙂 but you are in command of an American medium tank, starting right after D-Day. The game follows your career as you (hopefully) fight your way across France and into Germany. You start as a Staff Sergeant, the normal rank of a tank commander, but can be promoted and even receive a battlefield commission. You will receive awards and improve your skills, if you survive. As the war progresses, new and better versions of tanks become available to choose from.
Grant: What inspired you to do this design which is your fist entry into ground combat?
Greg: Lee Smith, a Facebook friend of mine, begged me to do it, basically. He wanted me to re-do the classic Patton’s Best but in my style of design. He’s a big fan and in fact, has created some very nice add-ons for Nightfighter Ace. To be perfectly honest, I really have stayed away from tank games so far for two reasons. I mean, I know tanks. I love history and I get more excited researching topics (submarines, Zeppelins, whatever) that I don’t know much about. So that’s one reason. The other thing was, I was an Armor Officer for 20 years in the U.S. Army, and actually fought in a couple of tank battles in 1991. So I’ve done it for real. I will probably dedicate this game to my best friend, who died in Fallujah in 2007. I think enough time has passed, though, that I should do this game. And I just couldn’t say “no” to Lee. 🙂
Grant: What theater of war is the design set in and what is the time frame? I know when American tanks arrive on scene in Europe but was wondering about where it goes.
Greg: The game begins just after the D-Day invasion in June 1944 in France, and continues to the end of the war in the European Theater of Operations in May 1945. I wanted to look at American tanks so this is the starting point for the design.
Grant: Why did you start with the European Theater? Why not start with North Africa which was the start to American involvement?
Greg: A fair question, but just like with the The Hunters only covering the first half of the war, I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew with the game. One could argue I could have thrown the Pacific in as well, really, but at a certain point you need to keep things manageable. Adding North Africa would have required a lot more charts, special rules, etc. etc. Trust me, it’s plenty long enough as it stands.
Grant: What American tank doctrine guided your design choices and efforts?
Greg: The U.S. Army Armor School, when I attended, still had a lot of doctrine left in place from World War II, believe it or not. There was a huge emphasis on shooting first (the tank that fires first usually wins the fight, as they can adjust the second round based on where the first hits,) flank shots, and crew training. So these elements are featured in the game and form the basis for the approach of your tank and unit.
Grant: What sources did you consult about the tanks and tank warfare during WWII?
Greg: The R.P. Hunnicutt series of books (Sherman, Pershing, etc.) were the best overall technical resource for the American side. The German “Bible” for this effort was the Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two by Chamberlain and Doyle. As far as tank warfare and operations, there’s probably too many to list, but I give numerous examples in the bibliography.
Grant: What tanks are available to the player?
Greg: There are 10 different tanks to choose from, starting with most of the Sherman models, starting with the plain jane M4 and moving up to the M4A3E8 (“Easy Eight”). The final upgrade in the game is to the M26 Pershing.
Grant: What type of research did you do to craft and quantify the specs and performance for these tanks?
Greg: Again, the Hunnicutt books were just insanely detailed about technical specifications, as was the Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two. So once I got those books, that was easy. The hard part was boiling these actual values into game values that made sense without too much abstraction. Armor strength is expressed in points, which not only accounts for thickness but also the angling.
Grant: What tanks are your personal favorites and why?
Greg: I’m a sucker for anything Sherman armed with a 76mm gun. Yes, the “Easy Eight” is a favorite, but the M4A1 76 is probably my early game favorite. The which stands for “Wet Stowage” of ammunition gives you a slightly better chance to survive a hit without catching on fire, and of course the 76mm gun finally puts you on par with most of the earlier German tanks, at least. The 75mm gun is just junk against any decent German tank or tank destroyer, although it’s actually better against soft targets.
Grant: Can you share a few of the Tank Display Mats with us and discuss the benefits and weaknesses of each?
Greg: Here’s the starting tank, the M4 Sherman (just a prototype mat). I’ll be honest, not a lot to be excited about with this tank. The 75mm gun is barely adequate, at best, the armor is the worst of all the American tanks, and there’s no loader hatch (which hurts survival chances if you need to bail out). The only bright point is the 8 round ready rack.
Here’s an example of the M4A3E8 Tank Display Mat (again, only a prototype, mind you). For strengths, I’d have to list the 76mm gun, the wet stowage (both points discussed above,) the 2″ smoke mortar and slightly better armor. If I had to dislike anything about this tank, it would be the six-round ready rack.
Grant: What is the makeup of the crew found in these tanks?
Greg: The crews of American medium tanks were all the same in World War II, consisting of five brave men. The Commander (you, in the game), the gunner (for your main gun and coax MG), the loader (for the main gun), the driver and the assistant driver (who operated the bow machine gun).
Grant: I know the narrative of the game is focused around the crew with such things as skills and awards. Any new skills being added to the game?
Greg: Actually, yes. Some skills will be familiar to owners of my other games, but in name only, as they have different effects. But I added “Eye for Terrain” as a skill for your driver, which helps him find hull down terrain. The loader gets a new skill called “Adrenaline Rush”, which assists in loading in an emergency. The tank commander, who directs the actions of the other crew, has a new skill called “Focus”, which gives him an extra action point during a round of combat.
Grant: What are the available awards for crew? What is the most difficult to earn?
Greg: The awards are all the standard American awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star, etc. A new award is peculiar to this game, the EUROPEAN-AFRICAN-MIDDLE EASTERN CAMPAIGN MEDAL, which is the campaign medal for participation in the ETO, basically. Obviously the most difficult medal to earn is the Medal of Honor.
Grant: What role does the Fort Knox Tank School play? What choices do players have at this step?
Greg: I actually loved adding this to the game, it brought back good memories of Fort Knox to me. But as the first step in the game, you go through required training, and may or may not excel at certain aspects of that training and receive minor game benefits if successful. The choice a player has to make (which makes perfect logical sense to me, actually) is how to spend his off-duty time. So, the player chooses to either spend his spare time working out physically, extra study time, or just plain “carousing” at the local bars. Each option has a different game impact, and it is a real choice you have to make to start the game.
Grant: What is the Bar Fight you can get into at Tank School? What role does it play in the prequel step?
Greg: The concept was that of the iconic “bar fight” from many WW2 movies, where the hero insults or gets insulted by members of a different unit or branch, and a fight ensues. This gives the player a Prestige Point as he gains a reputation, but it also gives him a negative DRM for his first promotion attempt. That might seem to be a mixed bag (and it is, to a degree) but starting with a Prestige Point should not be dismissed, as you can get into a better tank faster and increase your odds of surviving. It just seemed like fun, and was thematic. Any resemblance to my personal carousing at the Louisville bars when I attended the Armor School is completely overstated and coincidental. 🙂
Grant: What kind of different missions can the tank be assigned? How are these determined?
Greg: The missions are essentially taken straight from Army doctrine – Movement to Contact, Hasty Attack (Attack,) Deliberate Attack (Assault) and Defense. There is also a game mechanic mission, “Refit” where you don’t do anything except refit, rearm, refuel, etc. Basically that represents the “down time” which occurs more often in combat than most people realize.
Grant: What role does the Battle Board play in missions?
Greg: The Battle Board is where it all happens, basically. It is a tactical display where your tank is in the middle, and the German forces are somewhat randomly arrayed to your front. The initial range is somewhat dependent on terrain – in Bocage, for example, you start off at close range due to the restrictive nature of the terrain.
Grant: How is combat conducted?
Greg: The player starts off by determining if he has become the target of any enemy units which aren’t already shooting at him. Smoke decrements (gets thinner, basically) and artillery call for fire markers decrement. If the enemy is defending, they fire and/or move first, otherwise, the player performs actions first. He has two actions (possibly 3 if he uses the “Focus” skill) and can fire, move, or do a host of other actions. At the end of the round, the Event Check occurs, which is the mechanic by which flank force actions occur (actions by “Non-Player Characters” in other words.) Combat continues in rounds until all enemy forces have been destroyed or removed from the Battle Board, or if your tank is destroyed, or if you have withdrawn from the Battle Board. Alternately, if the enemy has been reduced to a single Infantry unit, they are considered to withdraw or surrender and the mission ends.
Grant: What are the various tactical decisions that players have during combat?
Greg: There are numerous decisions, from attempting to move to hull down terrain, to shooting, to firing smoke for cover, to ordering the loader to reload the ready rack, etc. You can also attempt to move for a flank shot against a target tank, which is sometimes required as that would be the only conceivable way your gun can penetrate. It is NOT easy being outgunned and out armored, but in most battles, you will be. You have to play smart.
Grant: What options do players have at the outset of each mission in regards to ammunition loadout?
Greg: Most tanks carried well over 90 rounds of main gun ammunition, so in game terms, AP and HE are unlimited. However, “specialty” rounds such as Smoke and White Phosphorous are limited, so the player really has two main decisions to start with: Which type of rounds, and how many of each, to load in the ready rack, and which type of round to start loaded IN the main gun itself.
Grant: What are Major Events and how do players deal with them?
Greg: Obviously the game is extremely tactical – you are, after all, fighting a single tank with notional units assisting you. The Major Events mechanic is a neat way, I thought, to tie the tactical situation into the overall Operational and Strategic setting of the war. Major Events follow the chronology of the war for the Americans on the continent. Examples include Operation Cobra, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Grenade, etc. The player merely needs to be aware he may be assigned to support or directly participate in a Major Event, and success will earn extra Experience Point credit.
Grant: How is victory determined at the end of a campaign?
Greg: Well, this depends on your personal definition, I’d say surviving is a “win.” But yes, there are victory conditions, based on how many missions you successfully complete. This is actually different from most of my other games, which normally measure victory in terms of aerial victories or tonnage of some sort. This is the Army, and we’re mission-oriented. 🙂
Grant: What was the greatest challenge in the design you had to overcome?
Greg: I think coming up with a combat system that was a) logical and reasonably realistic and b) abstracted enough to make it playable. As I’ve said before, I didn’t care much for Patton’s Best, but when I analyzed what needed to be portrayed, a lot more of the design decisions they made suddenly made more sense to me. So I really had quite the time figuring out how to strike a balance in this design between realism and playability. I’m sure some players will think it’s not abstracted enough, and some will probably think it’s too abstracted. But my hope is the majority will find it somewhere near their “sweet spot.”
Grant: What changes have come about through play testing?
Greg: Quite a few, really. One of the key ones was suggested by Ian Cowley or Christopher Schall (forgive me guys, I can’t remember who) concerning German AT guns. Originally you could just shoot at them right off, but it was pointed out to me they were basically going to be invisible until they fired (they fire the first round, but not necessarily at you). So we made them untargetable the first round (unless they shot at you directly, unluckily) and that made a lot more sense. I should have thought of that, but that’s why we have testers. 🙂 The mechanic of a sole remaining infantry unit surrendering (or running away, whatever) and thus ending the battle was a welcome testing addition, as it sometimes took a ridiculous amount of time to finish off that final guy and in reality, they wouldn’t really do that, and it didn’t add anything to the game as they couldn’t really hurt you if you stayed out of panzerfaust range. So there were a lot of tweaks like that.
Grant: What do you feel the game design excels at?
Greg: I actually think it does a good job of showing the interaction of the tank crew and gives the player tactical decisions a tank commander has to face – do I shoot, run, pop smoke, maneuver for protection, maneuver for a better shot, etc. etc. Having been a tank commander, I feel comfortable with how it is represented. You have to think fast, and there’s a lot going on, to include voices from higher command pestering you at usually the worst moment. So there’s limits to what you can do and the action point system represents that.
Grant: What new subjects are you contemplating for this system?
Greg: Well, let’s not count the chickens before they hatch I suppose. Obviously if it’s well-received, it could easily go to the Eastern Front or maybe North Africa/Italy. At this point I have no plans, because I’m pretty busy with about a half-dozen other projects. But I think doing the Eastern Front would be a no-brainer. If I do go there, I think I’d like to try it from both sides. Everybody knows the German tanks pretty well, but I think it would be fun to have a whole slew of Russian tanks to command. But we’ll see how this does. I hope folks will enjoy it, I certainly have during testing, and that’s always a good sign. 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to interview me for the game, I know you guys are busy, but I am appreciative because you have so many games to cover and you always do good work. So keep it up guys!
You are very welcome Greg and we always appreciate your designs and discussing and sometimes playing them with you. In fact, we are desperately hoping we can attend WBC this year (I am not sure it will happen but who knows?) and would love to get together for a game and maybe some refreshments.
If you are interested in American Tank Ace: Europe, 1944-1945 you can pre-order a copy for $52.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/product/american-tank-ace-europe-1944-45/