I know that we have not posted on the blog much over the past 6 months, but I am ready to get back on the horse gingerly and at least resume some of our Designer Interviews. Several months ago, probably actually in early May, I reached out to Chip Saltsman who was working as developer on an OCS game called The Third Winter designed by Tony Birkett that covers the third winter on the Eastern Front and deals with the German Army Group South as they retreat to the Dnieper River and then the Carpathian Mountains. They were both very helpful and shared lots of great insight into the game and its makeup.

If you are interested in The Third Winter: The Campaign for the Ukraine, September 1943 – April 1944 you can order a copy for $200 from the Multi-Man Publishing website at the following link: https://mmpgamers.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=188

Grant: First off Tony and Chip please tell us a little about yourselves. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

Tony: I live in the UK and have spent most of my life in International Roles for large multinationals such as GSK, GE Healthcare. My roles include CIO and lastly as an Associate Partner at EY LLP leading their UK Health Service IT team. I took early retirement to spend more time with my family, granddaughter and to design and develop board wargames. This follows a hobby of wargaming and military board gaming going back to the early 1970’s. I run and have completed many marathons including a memorable and emotional one just after 9/11 in New York. 

Chip: I live on the US East Coast. I spent four years as an Army officer in Germany, and then had the bulk of my career in management consulting. I have been interested in military history for as long as I can remember and got my first game at age 10 (Avalon Hill’s U-Boat). I didn’t play my first OCS game until about 10 years ago, and really got involved when Reluctant Enemies designer Curtis Baer asked me to create what became the “Starter Guide” for that game. Hobbies are home renovation, bicycling, family and getting chased by grandchildren.

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?

Tony: My passion and main interest has been the Eastern Front in WW2. I felt that at the operational level many excellent campaigns of the later war, were either neglected or simply were not challenging and enjoyable to play for both sides. This I decided to rectify. I have enjoyed learning new skills such as Adobe illustrator to build maps, counters and researching the topic to develop innovating rules for the games.

 What designers have influenced your style?

Tony: Without a doubt the OCS system first developed by Dean Essig and The Gamers in the 1990’s. It was a great privilege to attend the Homercon event at Dean’s home and see him at work. Also, to Jack Radey who has championed the efforts of the Red Army as being both a skillful and innovative armed force in WW2 with his designs over the decades.

Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?

Tony: Breaking a campaign down into potentially a series of games or modules is perplexing. Here the Order of Battle checks can be endless. Next, deciding raw combat factors and levels of supply and ammunition to ensure you have a game design that mirrors the potential for both sides in the campaign.

I believe I generate a game that both sides will find fun and challenging to play, whilst also mirroring both the period and challenges faced by both sides.

Grant: What designs have you completed to date? What do you feel those designs have taught you that help in your current efforts?

Tony: The Third Winter is my first full design. However, I have developed a number of games for other companies and have play tested and assisted with the development of others over the years.

Grant: What historical event does The Third Winter cover?

Tony: The Third Winter covers the critical campaigns in the Ukraine during the period of September 1943 – April 1944. This series of battles pulled in 75% of the Soviet and 85% of the German armored and mechanized forces, nearly 60 mobile divisions. The campaign proved to be the bloodiest in the war to date and The Third Winter covers the major engagements: the Battle for Kiev, the winter counterstroke of Manstein’s ‘fire brigades’, the tank battles at Kirovograd, the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket, the moving 1st Panzer Army battles (known as Hube’s Pocket), the fortress battles around Ternopol in the spring of 1944, the baptism of fire for II SS Panzer Corps and the slugfest in Romania. The spring mud season brought The Third Winter campaign to an end, by which time both armies were exhausted. The Red Army though would quickly recover, the Wehrmacht could not.

Grant: What was your inspiration for the name and what do you want it to convey?

Tony: I chose the name to convey how long the Russo-German war had been in progress by the time this game begins—it is “The Third Winter” of this conflict. The title comes from a German veteran’s interview where he stated that after experiencing Moscow in 1941 and Stalingrad in 1942 that this third Russian winter was bloodier and more ferocious than either of the previous two. The box art does a wonderful job of evoking this dark dreary feeling.

Grant: I see that you are listed as one of three designers. Who are your co-designers?

Tony:  Well, “designer” is the only category we have on Boardgamegeek to list key people associated with bringing this game to life. Dean Essig is the creator of the Operational Combat Series and designer of many of its games. He is a prolific and very talented designer of game systems, having created no less than six (OCS, the Strategic Combat System, the Tactical Combat System, the Civil War Brigade Combat System, the Line of Battle Series, the Napoleonic Battle Series and the Battalion Combat Series). There are more than 85 games which have been published in these various series. The wargaming community owes a huge debt to Dean’s prolific energy. I am the designer, as in the person who conceived of a game covering this period, did the historical research on Order of Battle, developed counters and maps. The initial maps allowed me to work alongside a great friend, Hans Kishel. I also began playtesting and produced a draft set of rules. However, without 2 other great friends there would not be a finished product. Chip Saltsman was the developer, or the games components editor, who checks and challenges everything. He worked with Curtis Baer (OCS Series honcho) to complete playtesting, set all the game materials into production form, coordinated the proofreading process, and completed the graphics presentation of all contents inside the box. Behind this there is an army of play testers whom I believe all get credit in the game’s rules.  

Chip: There are 51 playtesters listed for The Third Winter, and I had at least 30 more people proof the rules, counters, map and charts/displays. Bringing a game this large to market in as fully-tested and prepared manner as possible requires a whole team of OCS enthusiasts. But when you get it right, you can really tell. I was trying to emulate Beyond the Rhine, which is so finely balanced that the several full campaign games I have participated in each came down to the last turn before victory was decided.

Grant: What is it like working with the great Dean Essig?

Tony: Dean is very supportive of new designs in the system in a “tough but fair” way. He also has a rare gift of seeing past a fog of minutiae to the essence of any question. He is properly challenging to designers on whether the value a potential game-specific rule is worth its inclusion and insists that any new games meet his standards.

Grant: What sources did you consult to get the details of the history correct? What one source would you recommend as a must read?

Tony: I would list the most useful sources as the Lage Ost maps, Marchands and Sharps multi volumes on the Red Army and Georg Tessin volumes on the Wehrmacht.

Chip:  For such a critical campaign, there are surprisingly few single-volume sources. I would recommend Brit Buttar’s two books “Retribution: The Soviet Conquest of Central Ukraine, 1943” and “The Reckoning: The Defeat of Army Group South, 1944” as the best general books. Rolf Hinze’s “Crucible of Combat” also covers this period, but is heavier going.

Grant: What from the history of the conflict did you need to model in the design?

Tony: The Wehrmacht is on the strategic defensive, and this was the period that their divisional structure was really breaking down. The Soviet operational capability is on the upswing and we had to reflect these capabilities. The warfare and deep-attack doctrine developed in 1943-44 was one the Red Army adhered to until the 1980’s.

Grant: What is it like to design a game in such an established system as OCS?

Tony: In many ways, it is very easy on the designer: the bulk of the mechanics are part of a proven system. So, the designer is looking at what was unique enough to warrant game-specific rules. When you encounter something, you have to decide whether it is worth of a rule, or affects the ratings of a particular counter, might be a random event, or excluded.

Grant: Did you make any rules changes or additions for this volume? What are those changes and why were they necessary?

Tony: The biggest thing that an experienced OCS player will encounter will be related to HQ units and their game-play effects. Germans have Army and Army Group HQ units, which function as SP/Replacement arrival locations and whose VP value make them Soviet targets. The Germans also have some Kampfgruppe markers (similar to DAK) and Kessel HQ’s that enable surrounded forces to hold on or slip through the Russian lines. The Soviet player has four Front HQ’s which channel their operations into a historical pattern of being in an offensive or paused posture. They also have RVGK markers, which represent areas that refitting is taking place and serve to disguise preparations for an offensive. This reflects the rotational nature of the Red Army and also its Frontal offensives followed by a period of recovery that characterized this period in the war.

Grant: What different German armies and Soviet armies are included in this battle?

Tony: The Soviet forces are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts. Axis is Army Group South, with the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, the 6th Army (reconstituted) and 8th Army, the 3rd and 4th Rumanian Armies and units of the 1st Hungarian Army. Essentially it is everything south of the Pripet Marshes during this period.

Grant: How did you go about researching the OOB?

Tony: I have gamed and read and collected from the period in question for 35 years. This provided an invaluable background. The OOB I already had in the volumes commercially available in hard and soft copy. The challenges were the conflicts in unit locations, etc. the changing nature of composition of units throughout the time period and deciding ultimately what to include and also leave out for various reasons. One of the particular things we needed to deal with was how many transfers in/out of the play area happened during the campaign. If the Order of Arrival were precisely historical you would see many Soviet divisions swap in and out each turn. We chose to manage the number of divisions instead of every single move.

Grant: Did you learn anything that surprised you about the forces involved?

Tony: The incredible ability of both side’s senior commanders to command and control forces of over 1-2 million men with basic radios. The utter ferocious nature of the war in its third year. Finally, the differing emphasis of operational structure and tactics employed by both armies. They were simply not the grey counters and the red counters.

Grant: What is the game scale and force structure of the units?

Tony: The map scale is five miles to the hex. Units are divisions, brigades and battalions.

Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters? What special units are included?

Chip: The counters are standard OCS design. Some of the special ones include Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s tank-buster unit, Hartman’s JG 52 elite fighter unit, some Soviet tank units equipped with Lend-Lease tanks, and some of the heavier tanks then being fielded. We had quite a debate over how to represent Tiger tanks, which were usually committed to battle in Company-sized formations. Soviet JS2 tanks tended to show up in Brigade strength, so that is how we represented them.  We also worked with several other OCS designers to create a common way of representing Soviet SU vehicles. An SU-76 in an infantry support role was very different from an SU-85 tank destroyer or the SU-122/152 assault guns.

Grant: What different Random events are included in the design?

Chip: Well, there are 46 of them, most related to actual occurrences during the campaign. You might have a key commander killed, Soviet Patrol Boat raids, or Partisan attacks. Some of my personal favorites are the “Re-Roll Counter” (it allows you to re-roll the just-thrown dice, but then you give it to your opponent) and the “Hero” counter (+1 to one unit’s Action Rating for a turn).

Grant: What did you want to accomplish with their inclusion in the design?

Chip: Random events are great ways to include historical events that are small in the context of such a big game, but really help set a memorable narrative. They can’t be big enough to throw the game (but beware the Rumanian surrender)!

Grant: What unique situations deal with the Dnepr River crossings?

Chip: The Dnepr is a major military obstacle.  Part of it can be represented by standard OCS “Major River” terrain. Part of it is OCS “Volga Class River,” over a mile across. This latter requires pontoon units to create Ferries for crossing until a bridge is captured/repaired. The five road bridges and two rail bridges across the Volga-Class portion of the river focus the efforts of each army.

Grant: How did you model the command styles of the leaders involved into the makeup of HQ units?

Chip: OCS doesn’t focus so much on leaders, but I think it does represent characteristics of the combatant forces. You can’t effectively play the Soviets the same way as the Germans and vice versa. It really is a case of rapier versus sledgehammer. We have a combat modifier to represent Manstein’s leadership and STAVKA’s influence plays into the way the Soviet Fronts switch on and off, but the leadership comes from the players themselves.

Grant: How does combat work in the design?

Chip: The combat is the normal OCS model. Players calculate odds and roll on the combat table. If you are new to OCS, there is a “surprise roll” that can move the odds up to six columns in either direction. I love this effect because it replicates the extreme results and chaos that can happen in war, but the unexpected shifts can really bother some players. There is also an entire air campaign to manage, which is a game within a game.

Grant: Anything unique about the CRT?

Chip: Combat odds can move around because of the “surprise” effects, as I mentioned. OCS also takes into account qualitative differences between units via an “Action Rating”. You will see on the CRT odds listed for Open Terrain, Close (think villages and hills), Very Close (Rough or Swamps) and Extremely Close (Cities and Mountains in some cases).

Grant: What area of the battles does the map cover? Can we get a look at the playtest maps?

Chip: Lvov is in the northwest corner and Ploesti is just off-map in the southwest. Kursk is just off the northeast corner and Melitopol in the southeast.

Grant: Who is the artist for the game and how does their work set the theme of the game?

Tony: It was a multi-person effort. We were really pleased at the cover art, done by Nicolás Eskubi. He does a lot of MMP’s art. He took my photograph of Leibstandarte counterattacking in a blizzard and turned it into the artwork box cover you now see. The map was created by Hans Kishel and then I edited and finally Dean Essig turned to production—Dean is a cartographer (his university degree is in the subject), and he takes a keen interest in OCS maps and the consistent look between games.

Curtis Baer did all the off map displays and edited and finalized the counters. Chip Saltsman made all the examples of play in the rule book and frankly pulled all the other parts together to ensure we had a complete game.

Grant: What different scenarios are included?

Tony: Here is a list of the scenarios:

1. The Dnepr Battles (Campaign Game Start, 4 maps) 26 Sept 1943 to 26 April 1944 (63 Turns) – This is the full campaign game from start to finish.

2. Die Götterdämmerung (January Campaign Start, 4 maps) 26 Jan 44 to 26 April 44 (27 turns) – This campaign game picks up just at the start of the “Korsun Pocket” battle andcovers the portion where the Germans were pushed to the Carpathian Mountains. The Soviets need to hustle to recreate the historical result, while the Axis player is desperately trying to maintain a cohesive force.

3. Red Thunder (April Campaign Start, 2 maps), 8 Apr 44 to 26 April 44 (6 turns) – This is a short scenario as the mud season sets in.  The Soviets must hold off the counterattack of the II SS Pz Corps and try to force the surrender of Rumania.

4. Manstein’s Fire Brigades (1 map, west of Kiev) 26 Dec 43 to 22 Jan 44 (9 turns). The Soviets pressed forward after the capture of Kiev.  But their advance ran into a furious counterattack by a mobile force Manstein had assembled to restore the situation.

5. II SS Pz Corps Strikes Back (1 map, near Lvov) 8 Apr 44 to 26 April 44 (6 turns). The northern half of “Red Thunder” starts as Hube’s Pocket has just reached the Axis lines, and the II SS Pz Corps tries to breakthrough to surrounded forces at Tarnopol.

6. Rumanian Finish (1 map, Odessa) 8 Apr 44 to 26 April 44 (6 turns). Soviet forces are at the gates of Iasi and Odessa, and a strong push might push Rumania to surrender.

7. Hube’s Pocket (1 map) 22 Mar 44 to 15 Apr 44 (8 turns). The ‘moving pocket’ was Hube’s masterpiece of breakout from a pocket.

8. Korsun Pocket: Scorpions in a Bottle (special Korsun map) 26 Jan 44 to 19 Feb 44 (8 turns). This is the Korsun Pocket battle, conducted on a special mini-map.  Powerful forces in a confined space make for a fast-moving and violent encounter.

Grant: How is victory generally achieved by both sides? Are there any what if style victory conditions?

Tony: I like Victory conditions to be clear cut and simple. At an Operational level it is control of key objectives and how this relates to the aims of both armies and a comparison with the historical parallel. The Soviets must clear a great deal of the map, attempt to break into Poland and knock Romania out of the war…..if they can. The Axis powers CAN win the game, by tenaciously holding on territorial objectives such as the mines in the Dnepr bend and protecting their allies.

Grant: What variant rules are included? What experience do these variants create?

Chip: There is an option to bring in the German “Operation Marguerite” forces late in the game. What we have found during play is that there are many approaches for each side to explore, and the variations come from play styles and strategies.

Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?

Tony: The game plays very well for both sides and the initial reaction from players in the hobby is a positive one. The RVGK mechanism plays well but is not a long logistics exercise. The front rules simulate the ebb and flow of campaigns. The supply levels allow the Germans to race around the map plugging gaps but does not allow them much other leeway.  And I have to say how much fun it has been to see the positive reception the game has received as players unboxed their copies and began play.

Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?

Tony: We had a very positive response from the core group here in the UK and they worldwide have inputted so many great ideas and challenges that have meant we have a refined end game.

Chip: The most interesting playtests have taken place at Consimworld Expo and several other conventions. The Third Winter is an ideal game for team play, and has the effect that both sides feel they are facing imminent disaster.

Grant: What other games are you currently working on?

Tony: Several all related to TTW. TTW forms Volume 1 of my OST front series. All can be played separately or together. Volume 1 is Sept 43 – Apr 44 – The Crimea/Taman module is in development with Chip. This is being boxed with a Crimea 1941-42 campaign game from designer Guy Wilde.- The Forgotten battles- Army Group Centre campaign. In playtest and this will be with Chip for development this year.- The Hero City – Army Group North campaign. In initial play test and hopefully with Chip, next year. 

Volume 2 of OST Front. This covers May 1944-May 1945 – Currently map work, OOB and counters completed. Exclusive rules are being finished. Probably 2-3 games and these will be on the table for the first time later this year.

Thanks to both of you for your willingness to discuss the game and its design and development. As gamers, we learn a great deal from how the games make it to the table and I appreciate your insight.

If you are interested in The Third Winter: The Campaign for the Ukraine, September 1943 – April 1944 you can order a copy for $200 from the Multi-Man Publishing website at the following link: https://mmpgamers.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=188