In late 2019, GMT announced a new naval game from designer Jeff Horger of Manoeuvre and Thunder Alley fame. The game is focused on the battle for control of the seas during World War II and in the games promotion materials the phrase “too much sea to cover with too few ships” keeps coming up and has really intrigued me. I have not played many naval based games but recently had my interest piqued by playing Atlantic Chase by Jerry White. With that, I reached out to Jeff and he was willing to share details of the design with us.
*Note: The pictures of components, including the board and counters are still just the prototype version which is only intended for playtesting purposes and the design and and rules discussed might still change prior to final development and publication.
Grant: First off Jeff please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Jeff: I was a florist for 17 years, both retail and floral. In 2009, I had a serious heart incident and in 2011 I had to stop working. That means that I am essentially at home most of the time designing and developing games.
As for hobbies, I obviously have gamed for quite a while. Board games for as long as I can remember, way back into the early 70’s. Then RPG’s starting in 1978 with Dungeons & Dragons and most every system that followed on. In the early 80’s I also started video gaming. I have a wide variety of game styles and systems in my memory logs and a few of them even come with some deep knowledge. Mostly, I just love to “see what’s out there.”
I’m also a rabid sports fan and enjoy watching virtually any sport from football to golf, to biathlon to horse racing. If people compete in a sport, I will watch them. Before my heart issues, I also played more than my fair share of sports as well.
I also like to read, especially fantasy and reference books and watch movies.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design?
Jeff: I began designing games in fourth grade to pass the time at school. I was not always challenged at school, so often I would spend my days creating puzzles and challenges for others to master.
In the late 90’s I sort of became frustrated with the lack of clear rules in many of the games we were playing. I was sure that I could refine those rules and make them clearer. I also have a love for war gaming, but often what I could see as a really great game would be lost in the shuffle of strange rules. I always understood that a certain amount of historical flair was needed, but often these games would fall apart when players played “to win” as opposed to re-create an historical outcome.
So I believed that I could overcome that gap… and somehow I ended up specializing in race games… huh.
Grant: What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Jeff: The most enjoyable aspect of designing is that my favorite person in the whole world has joined me on this journey. After I created Manoeuvre, Carla decided to join forces with me on Thunder Alley and we have never looked back. I can’t tell you how fantastic it is to share the fun and joy of gaming with my spouse.
If you want me to step outside of that bubble, then I have to say it is the people in the hobby. There are a lot of smart and friendly people that make up this hobby and many of the coolest are the ones that work in the industry. The great people I have met keep me going with their energy and support. To return the favor, I try hard to share my knowledge and access with others, particularly those starting out.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Jeff: That is hard to say, I feel that I have tried to take some of the best aspects of a number of different designers and incorporate them into my style. I also have to say that the games I really enjoy are often older. Some of the key ones that come to mind are Richard Berg, Richard Borg, Reiner Knizia, Sid Sackson, Richard Launius and James Ernest
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process?
Jeff: I’m fairly shy. I don’t really lack for confidence, but I do have issues approaching people. Clearly in an industry where you are essentially selling yourself to both publishers and then customers, this can be a problem. I have always thought that I, and later Carla & I make really good games, but getting that across to the world has been a tough road for me.
Grant: What do you feel you do really well?
Jeff: I think I’m quite good at seeing the problems in a design and fixing problems that people might not see. I have a knack for playing a game and seeing where the flaws will come to the surface and then tweaking the system on the fly.
Grant: What is your upcoming game Seas of Thunder about?
Jeff: Seas of Thunder is a global naval game covering World War II. Players control the Axis or the Allies and try to slug it out for control of various sea zones. It is a simple concept and uses a modified tried but true mechanic. What Chuck, Neal and I added was a global arena with no edges. Players must deal with the globe as a whole and I can tell you, no side ever feels like they have enough ships to cover the battle areas.
Grant: What was your vision for the name of the game? What do you want it to convey to players?
Jeff: I wanted the name to convey the sound of the 16 inch guns firing off a salvo and at the same time provide the plural of sea so players immediately realize that the fight will be violent and all-encompassing.
Grant: Who are your codesigners Chuck Maher and Neal Cebulskie? How did you come together to design this game?
Jeff: Chuck and Neal are two of my oldest friends and members of my gaming group for over 25 years now. Both of them played a part in the inception of Manoeuvre and over the years have play tested almost every game Carla & I have ever worked on. They both have decades of experience in gaming over a wide variety of titles and styles.
Originally the game was begun with just Chuck and myself. Chuck is a huge naval history buff and I thought he’d be an excellent collaborator to help me on the historical details of the game. He did not let me down in that hope. Neal was our single most-dedicated play tester and after a couple of years of solid play and many helpful additions (and subtractions) to the game, Chuck and I agreed that he deserved to be a part of the design team.
Grant: What was your design goal with the game? What type of experience do you want to provide to players?
Jeff: I had two main pressures that I wanted the players to have to face. The fog of war and the pressure of dealing with a global naval challenge.
Grant: What adjustments historically have you had to make to balance out the game to be more competitive? What did you hate to sacrifice from history?
Jeff: We had to tweak the Sequence of Play the most. The Axis player needs to go last and set the conflict parameters in most of the scenarios. To do that we literally force the Allied player to spread their forces out across the map to cover every sea zone. Both sides end up not having enough ships to do what they would optimally like to do.
Historically, I don’t have anything I won’t give up to make the game a better game. If I had to pick something it would be the port usage by nation and perhaps the number of ports. Originally we wanted more ports, but the port cards limited the number we could use. Additionally, to make players separate their forces we had to provide artificial limits to the number of ships that could occupy each port. We found in play that players tended to congregate ships at high-value ports and ignore the rest. While, I acknowledge it could be considered a sub-optimal option, it seriously detracted from the game experience. Limiting nations and ships available in each port kept the game spread out as intended.
Grant: What do you mean by the statement “Beyond the edges of the map”? How has this guided your design choices?
Jeff: Any theater naval game always has oceans outside of the edge of the map. War at Sea hides the Pacific and Indian theaters and really limits the Caribbean. Victory in the Pacific does just the opposite. In fact, most of the games I have played that weren’t strategic level games (where naval is usually a side-show) stop somewhere and the battle continues beyond the paper horizon. I wanted this game to have no location that was unplayable and no place to hide from a global enemy.
Grant: The game’s scope is massive as it covers the entire globe and many different oceans and seas. How can you possibly boil all that down into a playable game?
Jeff: It was not as hard as it might seem. Of course to play the war from 1939 until the fall of Japan would take about 60 hours or so. It can be done and we did the full game three times in testing. But I like finishing games even if it takes a long weekend. I really like getting a conclusion and I demanded one here as well. We achieved the goal through scenarios. The game comes with seven scenarios and they cover 3 or 4 game turns each. Each scenario starts or ends when a nation joins or leaves the conflict for very easy separation. The full game even scores using scenario rules and that makes it easy to complete a scenario, score it, pack it away, and resume with the next scenario at a future date.
Grant: What nation’s naval units are included in the game?
Jeff: We have the big seven: USA, USSR, Germany, Japan, UK, France and Italy.
There are also appearances by The Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Romania, Finland, Brazil, Peru, Yugoslavia, and Cuba. There is also a way to draw Turkey into the war and their ships are included as a possible fleet. We hope that if the game does well, we can create some extra modules to add in politics/alliances and bring other nations like Sweden, Spain, Argentina, Thailand and others into play.
Grant: The game allows for 2-8 players. How does this work with divvying up nations?
Jeff: Pretty much just like that. We provide some suggested breakdowns by sides and number of players on each scenario. But really its always a team game so there are only ever two sides competing. But I will say extra players really accelerates the speed of play.
Grant: What different naval units are represented in the game?
Jeff: We set the base game at the following categories: Battleships, Battlecruisers, Cruisers, Carriers (All sizes), Seaplane Tenders, Destroyers (each counter represents 6-10 ships), Submarines (also 6-10 ships each), Minelayers, Minesweepers (about a 5-1 ratio per counter), and Auxiliary Cruisers. Smaller ships are not included (here…)
Grant: What is the anatomy of counters?
Jeff: Using the British counters they have the following aspects:
The letters/numbers in the bar across the center indicate the ship class and the turn it enters the game. If it has a colored bar, that also indicates the scenario that it is historically lost in and thus is unavailable for future scenarios.
The first number on the bottom is the firepower factor, the number of dice rolled to attack.
The middle number on the bottom is the hull value of the ship. These range from 1 to 20.
The last number is the range in sea areas that the ship can move.
Many units have a specialist ability which provides them with additional capabilities that can be used to strategic advantage. In this case, the HMS Eagle is an aircraft carrier and it has an air component (AIR) which is noted to the right of the ship classification. That means it can enter a box with AIR capability. The specialist value is indicated in parenthesis next to the ships normal firepower factor.
Submarines have a SUB value (usually, though they may have a MINE value or rarely an AIR value).
This N-Class Destroyer counter has no colored bar and so it will enter on the 12th turn and be available for every scenario thereafter.
Grant: What information do naval base counters have? How are they used in the game?
Jeff: There are no Naval Base Counters. There are holding boxes on player mats where ships are based between turns. The bases indicate what nation may base ships there and if they can fly air out of that base. There is also a flag that matches the flag of the on-map port for easy identification. Finally, there is a number that determines how many ships may base at that port.
Grant: What are the early years of the war like with Wolfpacks and their dance with Destroyers?
Jeff: Like so much in this game, each of the finer aspects of the conflict are abstracted. For Seas of Thunder, the turn order is the key to the conflict. It feels right as there are more ASW assets as the game progresses, but the minutia is not covered. We did have a lot more detail at the beginning of the game, but as we had to cut things for time and production expense, things became more abstract.
Grant: How do submarines attack differently than other ships in the design? What are their targets?
Jeff: Submarines do have an attack that allows them to strike prior to naval combat. They also have an ability to pick and choose targets. They have an ability to disappear from the sea zone. If they do this they can’t control the sea zone, but they are immune from surface combat. Finally, they roll two dice when attacking convoys, not just 1 like every other ship.
Grant: What happens when players get into combat and they have to set up the line for battle? How does this process work?
Jeff: I think that showing the Combat Chart is the best way to answer questions. Players secretly deploy their forces for each battle on the card then they are revealed. Then the combat card is resolved in the order indicated. If ships have a specialty, then there is a special place for them or they can go into the surface line. For some ships this is obvious, for others, it is a question. Is it worth it to lay the mines first before surface combat, even if they get three dice for guns versus two for mines?
Grant: Can you describe the layout of the map and the different numbers in sea zones and what they mean?
Jeff: The map is skewed to show more water and less land than a normal map. I look forward to seeing someone with skill render it. The zone don’t have much information on them. There is a name, attached ports, a zone number and the values (if any). The zone number is only used for resolving combat. With so many zones to deal with, it can be easy to forget what zones have been resolved and what ones have not. Since it is completely possible to have ships from both sides remain in the zone at the end of combat, you can’t just look and see if it only has one side’s ships there. So we numbered them and resolve the zones in order. If we have four (or more) players, we also tend to work backwards at the same time. It works out good as the Atlantic are usually the low numbers and the Pacific are the high numbers. Usually the two sides meet in the Indian Ocean somewhere.
The scoring values are always two numbers. Axis value and Allied Value. These represent the points gained by the side that controls the sea zone. As mentioned above, if both sides are present, no one controls. Some of the values indicate changes in the sea zone for certain new introductions. On the early war map, there are new scoring values when Italy enters the game (Mediterranean) and Russia (Black Sea, Arctic & Northwest Pacific). The late war map coincides with the arrival of Japan and therefore increases the value of Pacific zones.
Grant: What is the significance of the screen and why do you have to hide the ships from your opponent? What does this model from history?
Jeff: The screens allow players to set up their ships in secret and create a rock-paper-scissors fog of war element that is really enjoyable. That tension of not knowing what the opposing ships can and will do is so much fun. I think it does mimic historical actions as there are many instances of being too prepared to defend a threat that doesn’t materialize. On the other hand a clever setup can create a victory, or at least a stalemate by an inferior side. Mostly what it does is speeds up the game. I mentioned before that I wanted to finish the games and there are a lot of combats involving a lot of ships. Allowing inspection of the opposition and counter setups would simply be time consuming and provide little to no game benefit. With our system, literally anything can happen.
Grant: How are air assets included in combat and how important are they? What advantage does air have?
Air is the king of the game. We had a meeting about the scope of the game before we ever started and determined that air power would be dominant and we anted to show the swing from the old way to the new over the course of the game. Early in the game, the small number and size of the allied carriers results in a more standard surface battle style of show-down. As more air and specialists appear in the seas, the surface gunnery begins to take more and more of a backseat. When Japan arrives, air rules the battlefield.
Air has many advantages. Land-Based Air gets to be placed after all movement of ships is completed, so they have fast reaction speed and make fighting near enemy bases dangerous. Air can be used to nullify enemy air, it can strike at any ship they see fit and can be used in an ASW role.
Grant: You said earlier that the campaign game is 25 turns and can take 60 hours to play. What smaller scenarios are you creating? How different will these feel from the campaign?
Jeff: There are 7 scenarios.
Invasion of Poland to the beginning of the invasion of Norway & Denmark
Invasion of the West until Operation Barbarossa
Barbarossa to Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor to the Scuttling of the Vichy fleet
Scuttling of the Vichy fleet to the fall of Italy
Fall of Italy to just prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf
Leyte Gulf to the End of the War
By having those breaks we actually use the scenarios and its scoring for the campaign game as well. They just get strung together and historic losses are not applied in the campaign game. So in reality, the scenarios feel like the campaign and the campaign feels like the scenarios. That is my take, but I have played a lot of games. Perhaps once it comes out others will say I’m crazy, but that is how I see it right now.
Grant: How does scoring work?
Jeff: Each side scores VP’s for sea zone control, enemy counters sunk (not damaged), and convoys sunk. Some scenarios have some chrome scoring to make it feel more historical but essentially that is it. Control sea zone, sink enemies and convoys.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Jeff: Most VP’s wins either at the conclusion of a scenario or the full game, or an agreed-upon number of linked scenarios.
Grant: What is you design tram most pleased with about the design?
Jeff: I think we were all amazed at the tension it creates. We had an idea for how we wanted to design the game, but honestly we had no idea how that would play out. Admittedly we had to make some major changes, then more to make the game cost-effective to produce, but in the end the whole game does literally come down to a missing aircraft carrier or lack of ASW or even one ship deployed to the wrong sea zone. Neither side ever feels like they have the ships needed to fulfill all the missions and you are sure the enemy is going to know where that weak spot is and exploit it. But, of course, they are thinking the exact same thing.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Jeff: The ones we had were very happy with the game and the way it played out. Due to the length of the game we ended up with only about a dozen testers over the course of four years as the time commitment was harsh. But all of them were excited to play a game covering the globe.
Grant: What are some challenges you are trying to overcome?
Jeff: Just getting the word out. I am having eye issues and so my time to read and write is very limited each day. I take hours to focus in the morning and then want to spend time with my wife when she comes home. So I now only get to work for a couple of hours a day. Hopefully a surgery this month helps that issue out some.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
Jeff: Wow there is a lot! Carla & I have teamed up with Jonathan Anglin to create Laboratory H and our prime game there is Dark Domains. Currently we are working on a second edition and expansions for that. We also have about a dozen other games we are developing or designing for Laboratory H including Title Chase Football, Title Chase Basketball, Europe Divided 1559-1598, The Big Apple, Thunder Alley and Grand Prix Expansions, Age of Aquarius (Space exploration), Lords of Baseball and many others.
If you are interested in Seas of Thunder you can pre-order a copy for $45.00 from the P500 game page on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-845-seas-of-thunder.aspx