We have done interviews covering the Fast Action Battle Series (FAB) from GMT Games in the past, most recently in 2017 with Michael Gustavsson for his FAB #5: North Africa and we really like the Block Wargame as it creates some very interesting and unique takes on warfare with hidden unit strengths. In the April 2021 Monthly Update email, a new game in the series was announced from a new-to-me designer named Francisco Ronco. This new volume would take the FAB Series to the East Front of World War II for one of the largest tank battles in history so we were definitely interested in talking to Francisco about his take on the series.
Please keep in mind that the materials used in this interview of the components, maps, player boards and card are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development, details about the game may still change prior to publication.
Grant: First off Francisco please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Francisco: Hi, first of all I want to thank The Player’s Aid for giving visibility to the latest FAB game. I am 52 years old and live in Seville, Spain but I was born in Cádiz. I teach for a living. I studied Philosophy at College and I teach at a High School. I’m happily married and have a son. All of us at home play wargames and other tabletop games. Of course, I read a lot about military history.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Francisco: This is a long story. I made my first designs several decades ago. When I was a child I played every week with my old friend Daniel Peña and we both tuned the few games we had access to after playing them a lot. In the 70’s there were very few wargames available in Cádiz. So, we began designing our first games about battles we had no other games about. My published designs were born in the same mood: I designed the games I’d like to play, because if I didn’t design them probably nobody would do it. I love wargames and I love designing them. I see wargaming not only as a hobby but also as an educational tool, an instrument to learn about military history. So, I love modeling what I read and know about a conflict or campaign into a wargame. That’s great fun!
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Francisco: I am not aware of the influences I have received, but I could mention some great designers whose games I play and love. Usually, In the dichotomy simulation vs. gaming I prefer games and designers that highlight the simulation aspects of the game. Dean Essig and his Tactical Combat Series & Operational Combat Series systems are top notch. Also Jack Radey, Carl Paradis, Richard Berg or Volko Ruhnke, among others, have very good simulations among their games. My focus designing is on C3i as I think these are the main elements of warfare that can be better modeled into a tabletop board game. Leadership, Command, Logistics, Uncertainty and Chaos are the core of any workable gaming simulation at the operational level, and there are several good examples on my shelves.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Francisco: I design games about topics I love, so my main challenge is to properly model the topic. Fitting into a playable and enjoyable game every aspect I want to reflect, and knowing what must be left out and what to include in the design. I am very fast at seeing the connection and interactions between different rules inside a game system. And I think I am good at designing direct, simple rules.
What designs have you completed to date? What do you feel those designs have taught you that help in your current efforts?
Francisco: I have published with my own company – Bellica Third Generation – four designs: Age of Muskets Series Vol I Tomb for an Empire and Volumes I to III of Campaign Commander Series (Roads to Stalingrad, Coral Sea & Punic Island). A new Spanish Wargames company called NAC WARGAMES is going to publish several of my designs beginning with Von Manstein’s Triumph. I am going to publish Campaign Commander Vol IV entitled White Sea with my own company next year. As I have designed game systems anew I have also learnt to implement existing rules into new topics and that is what I have done for Dubno ’41.
Grant: What historical event does Dubno ‘41 cover?
Francisco: The initial 10 days of Operation Barbarossa in Army Group South and the Kiev Special Military District area: the battle of Brody-Dubno in Soviet occupied Poland.
Grant: Why do we need another game on the East Front? What new ground do you hope to open with this design?
Francisco: I think we need at least one East Front game in the FAB Series. This series is ideal for the kind of mobile battles that were fought on the Soviet-German front. The elements of the FAB system (hidden units, reserves, special actions, events & assets) allow players to play fast & furious armor battles and the East Front was full of them. So, if this title is well received maybe I would finish several more FAB designs centered on East Front battles.
Grant: How does it effect your design effort when you are doing a game in a well established system like the Fast Action Battle Series?
Francisco: It eases my job. As I said before I have played a lot of games, including a lot of plays to previous FAB games and many hours of analysis of the games and system. It was very easy to insert the battle in the system. I knew very well the battle and the system so I only needed two weeks to design the initial prototype of Dubno ’41, including manufacturing the physical sample.
Grant: What sources did you consult to get the details of the history correct? What one source would you recommend as a must read?
Francisco: There are not many monographies about the battle. All general works (Glantz, Forczyk, Erickson) devote more or less space to the battle, but not too much. There are only two books about the battle in English: Victor Kamenir’s “The Bloody Triangle” and Alexsey Isaev “Dubno 1941”. Both of them have weak points -Isaev’s book is very badly translated into English – and strengths. Kamenir is more “objective” and balanced but gives no clue about air operations. Isaev is very biased towards the Soviet side -they were unprepared, weak in numbers, underequipped…- but gives a very good account of the air war and shows more Soviet documents than Kamenir. Also there are Russian websites with Soviet original documents and accounts translated into English. The Glantz atlas on the battle was very useful.
Grant: What from the history of the conflict did you need to model in the design?
Francisco: The battle provides the facts to be modeled: blocks (type, strengths, quality), map (types of terrain, victory point locations), events (those unique aspects of the battle that give the flavor and chrome to the game) and assets (support and specialized units for both sides). Also I have to add some specific rules but, as I designed aiming to respect the original FAB system, they are very few and very logical. We have to encounter in the game the Wehrmacht at its peak, with the flexibility of their panzer formations in full swing, a strong infantry arm, without much Luftwaffe support (not a single Stuka in the battle) and very demanding objectives against a very numerous enemy, but half prepared for battle and less for offensive operations, trying to implement a mobile battle according to plan without the means for doing it and with strong air support.
Grant: What is the force structure and makeup of the opposing armies?
Francisco: In FAB units (blocks) are usually divisions and Higher Echelons (Armies) are depicted. So, German units are part of Army Group South’s 6th Army and 1st Panzer Group. 6th Army infantry divisions were attached to both Mobile Korps from 1st Panzer Group (III & XLVIII) that took part in the battle, so in the game they appear as part of the panzer force. A total of 12 infantry divisions, 2 motorized and 5 panzer. Soviets also fielded two combined arms armies (5th & 6th) plus a General Reserve that can be added to any army. Mechanized Corps were organic to each Army and also others from the General Reserve were added for the planned big counterthrust, so I included them as part of the Armies to which they were attached.
Grant: What advantages does each side have in the fight?
Francisco: Soviets have a theoretical numerical superiority, or so it is if you count all the reinforcements the Soviets receive during the game. Their forces were dispersed over a wide area and some units were moving to the frontier days before the attack and were strung over dirty roads between Kiev and the front line: 19 rifle, 2 cavalry, 12 tank divisions plus 3 ukreplyonny raion and 1 Anti Tank brigade. So, time is on their side, if they contain enough the German onslaught they can win. They also have Soviet air support that can hamper the German advance by interdicting roads. And they have events to reflect the hard to kill T-34 and KV tank models, plus the Soviet flamethrower tanks, and political commissars that allow Soviet troops to maintain their positions and do not retreat. They have a lot of possibilities to slow and even stall the German invasion. Germans have better troops and very mobile ones. In the game units are mainly divisions but for the 5 panzer divisions I have chosen to depict them in three blocks: one for the Aufklärung element and one each for the armor and motorized kampfgruppen that usually were formed in each division. This gives Germans more mobile units and greater flexibility in the use of their panzer divisions and the terrain they can cover and even defend. The Germans are releasing a prepared offensive, so they have the initial numbers, type and quality of assets needed for the task, including two companies of the famous Lehr und Bau Kompanie zur besonderen Verwendung 800, the Brandenburguers, to seize initial bridges over the Western Bug river. Germans strike more and harder than the Soviets. Luftwaffe support in this battles is totally different to popular images of Blitzkrieg warfare: no a single Stuka was assigned to the V Fliegerkorps, the one supporting the attack, and most German sorties during the first week of the war were air supremacy strikes over the soviets airfields. Anyway air interdiction played a role in delaying Soviet reinforcements and disrupting Soviet counterattacking plans.
Grant: Known as the greatest tank battle in history, how did you make sure tanks were front and center in the game?
Francisco: It is not my merit, but the FAB system highlights the superiority of armor in the attack. I designed this game about THIS battle because I wanted very mobile battles to be depicted with the FAB system and this is one. Also I like to make games about obscure and neglected topics, but there are a lot of other designers to make games about already well known battles. And in this battle German armor -and motorized infantry – lead the attack and Soviet armor will lead the counterattacks, so the scene is set for the big battle. When armor fights armor in the FAB system they cancel out each other’s advantage, but if armor strikes non armor the odds are with the armor blocks. This respects fight power, but armor’s main weapon is mobility and the German player will soon discover that bold advances are rewarded and mild attacks penalized, so if the Germans keep the battle fluid they will overwhelm their Soviet opponents. Soviets have to evaluate where and when to amass their armor to strike and cut off the German flanks.
Grant: How did you model the Soviet unpreparedness for war in June 1941?
Francisco: Soviet armed forces were not in war footing when the attack began. Stalin didn’t want to give any excuse for German aggression. So, most Soviet units were understrength and lacked transport, support units or event transport means. In Dubno ’41 Soviet infantry divisions are divided into rifle and motorized rifle divisions. Rifle divisions are 2-3 steps strong and motorized ones 3-4, as they were more up to strength than the others. Also their strength is mainly of Green quality. German infantry divisions are 5 steps strong – including an infantry asset per division – and mostly of Veteran quality. The Soviet Mechanized Corps were huge organizations (up to 1,000 tanks and 36,000 men in two tanks and one motorized infantry division plus one motorcycle regiment) quite unprepared for the oncoming struggle. So, I added some tips to the game: Soviet Mech Corps are brittle, they possess only a few assets and if they lose them they will be in trouble to survive combat. Those assets do not include artillery and I added a rule to force Soviet Mech Corps to use in combat only their OWN assets, those assets are identified as well as the blocks belonging to a given Mech Corps by a colored band, so they will fight without artillery support – most guns were left behind due to lack of transport. Also, as you have many assets and events in the draw cup they may even show themselves outdated leaving the Soviet player with tough choices about how to employ his Mech forces. Also, in the first turns there are several “Asset delayed” events that are useless and occupy the place of a real asset or event damage the Soviet side possibilities. During the game usually the Soviets draw less assets & events from the draw cup and some of them are damaging to his Mech forces. Both sides have events in their draw cups that affect the other side: “Mechanical Breakdown” is an event that force players to choose one Soviet Mech Corps and to make a Moral Check with each on map block from that Mech Corps and if they fail the check they lose on step, and the German player has an event (Low Fuel) that makes a Mech Corps to move only 3 areas in a given turn. That only hurts the tank divisions as the Soviet Motorized divisions are only “motorized” by name, behaving like normal foot rifle divisions; except for the use of only one Soviet event (Commandeered Trucks) that allows ONE Soviet Motorized division to move like that in a given turn. This is added to the game to reflect the expedient executed by Rokossovsky to push forward his infantry by requisition of every truck and car in Rovno at the beginning of the battle. Many Soviet tank crews were very inexperienced with the new models of tanks (T-34 and KV) so many steps in Soviet tank divisions are of Green quality. Anyway, there are a lot of them…
Grant: What special units are included in each sides’ OOB?
Francisco: There are plenty! Not only as blocks but also as Events/Assets. As I said earlier German Pz Divisions are depicted as a three block formation to allow players to use them with greater flexibility than foot divisions. Two of those Pz Divs had ONE infantry company mounted in half tracks and they appear in the game as valuable assets of elite quality. Also some special units as Assault Guns battalions (191st & 197th) and 88 mm guns in AT roles are depicted by two battalions as assets. And last but not least the 670th Panzerjäger Abteilung with its 27 Panzerjäger I, that took a heavy toll on Soviet armor, is another asset available to the German player. The Soviet side has its full array of units: cavalry, rifle units, “motorised” infantry, tanks and those ukreplyonny raioni that were sited on the border with German occupied Poland. Ukreplyonny raioni were heavy armed units, with a small infantry component and a full supply of heavy weapons (MG, AT guns and artillery), and nearly no mobile park. A special “asset” is the “remnants” counter; they reflect the fragments of border units that suffered the main German onslaught in the first days of the offensive and remained fighting against the invaders on their own. They can be placed by the Soviet player anywhere inside initially Soviet held territory, ¡even in the German rear! They arrive as reinforcements avoiding the Assets/Events drawing cycle.
Grant: What opportunities does the use of blocks provide?
Francisco: Block games always put on the board a maximum of fog of war. The FAB system doubles the forces at the disposal of players by adding Assets/Events to the blocks and the combination of both allow for many surprises and opportunities for players to exploit. Adding to this the Special Rule about Soviet Mech Corps this gives both players more food for thought.
Grant: What is the Kiev Special Military District and what do they bring to the fight?
Francisco: The Kiev Special Military District was the command structure that controlled all the Soviet forces deployed in Western Ukraine and Soviet occupied Poland. It was under the command of the capable commander Colonel General Mikhail Kirponos and comprised more than 900,000 men, 7,700 guns and howitzers, 7,000 mortars, 329 heavy tanks, 711 medium, 4,168 light and 248 flamethrower tanks, 1,216 armored cars and 11 mixed aviation divisions with 1,166 (may of them obsolete models), 587 bombers and 197 ground attack aircraft. A huge and impressive force, but in the midst of a reorganization change and reequipping its armored units with new tanks (KV and T-34 models). The full force could not be brought to bear as the units were on peace footing and most of them were understrength and under equipped (rear echelons were nearly non-existent and many soldiers were totally unaccustomed to the new equipment). As David Glantz stated, a “Stumbling Colossus”.
Grant: How does combat work in the design? How do you model the difference in armor in this combat?
Francisco: The FAB system uses a classical “to-hit” block combat system. Each block (and asset) involved in combat rolls a number of dice depending on its current strength. The basic number “to-hit” is “5”, on a d10 die. The die rolls from 1 to 10. “1” is always a success and any “10” automatically misses. Then you modify the number needed to hit for a particular block or asset by different modifiers that includes troop quality (you can have up to two blocks in a combat so you must predesignate one of them to be the “point” unit, its quality and type of unit will modify ALL enemy rolls), terrain, fortifications, and troops type. An armor has a clear advantage over non-armor: armor always adds 1 (+1) to its success rolls and always subtracts 1 (-1) to enemy rolls. So armor is the ideal “point unit” in combat. Of course, combat is not only a matter of rolling dice and seeing who survives, but has a full array of choices to be made by the players. The combat sequence makes you first decide, as defender, if you want to stand, withdraw from battle or reinforce a battle. If you want to withdraw or reinforce you have to spend a “Special Action” counter or block, so you have to assess each situation properly. Then, attacker first, you have to commit assets to battle – without knowing the composition of the forces you are fighting with as you only reveal your blocks AFTER you designed your “point unit”. After this attacker artillery/air attacks fire first, then defender, and in the final steps defending blocks and assets fire and, at last, attackers surviving blocks and assets fire. And so we go to the next question
Grant: How does the Hit Priority matrix work?
Francisco: This is a very clever mechanism from Rick Young that has to be praised as it is a very simple and straightforward mechanic to reflect the different effects of fire and combat in XXth Century warfare. It is a table with two columns: one for the attacker, one for the defender. Each column lists a priority order of effects for the hits suffered by a given force. Defenders always lose their cover (field works), if present, as the first effect of enemy fire. So, as the attacker artillery/air always fires first one of the expected outcomes is to soften prepared defenses. The second hit suffered in the same segment of combat by the defender forces has different effects depending on the source of the fire: if there are no fieldworks present or you suffer a second hit by artillery/air attack you can DISRUPT all your present units, if at least one block was not already disrupted. Then all remaining hits have to be accepted as losses. If the attacking fire was from blocks and/or assets, defender forces can retreat one area and become DISRUPTED. Then all remaining hits have to be applied as losses. Losses can be absorbed by subtracting steps from your blocks or you can also lose assets committed to the battle, so it is very important to manage your assets. You have to remember each block eliminated is worth 1 VP to your enemy, and this is a lot!
Attackers suffer different effects from enemy fire: the first hit has to be accepted as a loss (for the point unit or any asset involved). If there are more hits you have to take a very important decision: to absorb more losses or abort combat. If you want to preserve your force you lose only one step/asset but your forces will not roll to hit. If you want to press the attack you have to accept losses and roll to hit. Very realistic, indeed…
Grant: What role does morale play in the combat process? Why was this important to include?
Francisco: Morale or Quality is a property of each step of blocks and assets alike. It is graded in three ranges: red is for elite troops, black for veterans and white for rookies. Each asset has only one morale value as they have only one step. In FAB Dubno ’41 the Germans have several red (elite) assets, a lot of black (veteran) and some white (green troops) to be used as cannon fodder to avoid losses on more important blocks (as tanks or elite blocks). One hit kills one step regardless of its morale/quality. This is a very clever idea: you have to protect your better units or combat will wear and tear them apart. Soviets only have black and white troops. Blocks can have different morale values for different steps, so a division can be veteran on three steps and then, its last one, can be green to reflect the battered state of the formation if it arrives at that depleted state. Others can upgrade from green to veteran on its last step, to reflect the remaining core of veterans once the units has suffered losses, or in the case of several Soviet tank divisions to reflect the higher survivability of KV and T-34 models opposed to lighter tank models (T-26/BT). Also morale values are used to add and subtract to the “to hit” base number of your units and enemies, as I have explained earlier.
Grant: What role do Events play in the design? How are they triggered?
Francisco: The ability of the FAB system to incorporate events to the flow of play is really brilliant. So, several important facts or special actions that took place during a given battle can be added without the burden of extra rules to be remembered and forgotten… Every player turn (twice every game turn) both players draw from their “selection cup” – an opaque container supplied by players – a fixed number of events/assets chits. Those chits came from the reinforcement received each turn and from the previous turn used ones. Assets used and not destroyed in combat and re-usable events go to the cup next turn. So you draw a mixture of events and assets to be used. In FAB Dubno ´41 some events are mandatory to be played as soon as they are drawn from the cup. Others can be withheld to be used as the players see fit. Some “mandatory” events are, for example the two “Brandenburguers” events for the first turn of play, to facilitate the capture of bridges over the Western Bug river for the Germans, or the “Mechanical Breakdown” events that force players to choose one Soviet Mech Corps and make a morale check with each block, inflicting a loss on each one that fails the test.
If the event is drawn by the German the German player chooses which Soviet Corps will check and if the event is drawn from the Soviet cup the Soviet player has to choose one of his own Mech Corps to suffer mechanical breakdowns… Reusable events are the “Air strikes”, that go to the cup everytime they are used, so the Soviets appear more often at the beginning of play and as play goes on and more chits arrive to the cup they appear less often… Other events can be used by players and different phases during a turn as they see fit. One of them is the Soviet “KV-1”, that is one Soviet combat event and can be played during a combat (in FAB you can only use one combat event per battle per side) to avoid losing one step from a veteran tank block, or the “Aufgragstakticks” German event that can be used in any Movement or Exploitation Phase to allow German blocks to move to Soviet controlled or contested areas from a contested area, making German blocks able to “infiltrate” between Soviet defenders… They also add a lot of replayability to the game as not the same assets/events happen to appear always at the same time in different plays, or some events may appear and others don’t, making each play really fresh and different.
Grant: What area does the map cover?
Francisco: The battle took place mainly in the Southern portion of Soviet occupied Poland, bordering Western Ukraine. Approximately a rectangle 250 miles long and 60 miles wide from the Western Bug river to Ostrog, in the Ukraine frontier. The battle was fought mainly on the triangle formed by Lutsk-Dubno-Brody.
Grant: What are the various victory conditions? Which side has the tougher challenge in reaching these conditions?
Francisco: In the FAB system players have to compete for the control of certain areas. Usually one side has to attack and the other begins the game with a VP advantage. In Dubno ´41 six cities are VP locations for the Soviets, so each one the German conquers reduces the initial 6VP the Soviet side has. Also, if the Soviets counterattack – the initial Soviet plan – and reaches German held Poland EACH area is worth 1 VP for them. As the battle was not expected by the German command, the German side also obtains VP by exiting the Eastern edge of the map through two areas marked: their real objective was further East. Eliminated enemy blocks earn players also 1 VP. During the first three turns there is no Automatic Victory check, but from turn 4 onward, at the end of each turn, players have to see if they achieve an Automatic Victory. All games in the FAB series present a real challenge for the attacking player as he has to overcome the initial defense and exploit the success properly. If not, he will lose fast. A German Automatic Victory assumes the Soviet player is not capable of managing the German onslaught and German blocks are able to exit the map. If players of equal experience play the game the German has a tougher task to, first, avoid losing during the first 4-5 turns and then win in the end.
Grant: What scenarios are included?
Francisco: As in every FAB game there are three scenarios: the full campaign game, a shorter – the initial onslaught, 4 turns – tournament scenario and an even shorter introductory scenario – with its own mini-map – depicting the Soviet Southern counterattack on 26th to 28th of June.
Grant: What issues are you still trying to work through in the playtest process?
Francisco: Balance. The main issue now is to be sure the game is properly balanced and Victory Conditions are sound and achievable. Germans have to attack properly to avoid losing during turns 4-5. Then comes the Soviet counterattack and the German possibilities to win grow. As the game advances Soviet strength vanishes and Germans usually win at the end of the game. Of course, many inexperienced German players often lose on turn 4 of the game…
Grant: What great suggestions have your playtest team recommended?
Francisco: Not many, really. During the first plays we observed Soviets should not have elite troops – they were inexperienced – we had to add more remnants as German advance was too fast and not many more. From the beginning we used David Glantz atlas on this battle and we easily obtained a game flow very adjusted to the historical battle. I think the main point is that FAB is a very sound system, already tested and it was easy to create a new setting within its frame. So, my own design didn’t need too much adjustment.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Francisco: Precisely the easiness to obtain a sound design that depicts very precisely the real battle. If the German player maintains the battle mobile it is a good example of Blitzkrieg at its peak. I also think the modelling I have obtained about the unpreparedness of the Soviet army for war is very sound. And this without making winning the game an impossible task -not the battle, Soviets only could defeat the German army if the German player is totally inexperienced with the FAB system and let themselves get pocketed and destroyed… Many games assume Barbarossa was an unstoppable assault and Soviets were doomed from the start, but this battle was a “very run near thing”, delaying Army Group South objectives for a week. Of course, the cost was enormous for the Soviets as the Germans grinded their way East. This is a very neglected battle on the gameboard and I felt it deserves a nice game!
Grant: What other design ideas are you working on or stewing over?
Francisco: For the FAB system I have at least 3 more designs set in the Eastern Front. 1943 was a year full of battles worth modelling on the FAB system. Apart from the games I mentioned earlier, I am now developing for publishing with my own company several titles/series: Napoleon’s Iberian Ulcer, designed by Rasmus Larsen from Denmark, about the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon (1808-1814), a simple card-driven block game; another series Queen of Battles will depict at the operational level warfare during the XVI and XVII Centuries and Schwerpunkt!, a series for modeling battles, at the grand tactical level, from 1870 to 1973 – we first want to release a title with tanks, maybe battles from France 1940 (Sedan, Hannut, Abeville, Arras…)
Thanks again for the opportunity to explain myself guided by your very clever questions, Grant. Thanks for the visibility given to FAB Dubno ’41.
If you are interested in Fast Action Battle Series #5: Dubno ’41, you can pre-order a copy on the game page from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-925-dubno-41.aspx