David Thompson has done a fantastic job with his amazingly detailed and engaging solitaire games in the Valiant Defense Series. I have played all three entries in the Valiant Defense Series to date, including Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter and Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms and have really enjoyed them. Now comes the fourth volume in the series called Lanzerath Ridge: Battle of the Bulge, which is coming to Kickstarter as of January 25th. The game deals with a small engagement on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge where a US Intel & Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon (along with a forward observer team) hold out against 500+ German paratroopers who are the spearhead for a Panzer Division. We reached out to David and he was more than willing to answer our questions about the design.
Grant: Why do you believe your Valiant Defense Series has been so well received with solitaire wargamers?
David: That’s a great question. I think the series has a lot of things going for it that creates interest and appeals to a large cross section of gamers, not just wargamers: the games have relatively straightforward gameplay with easy to understand rules and mechanics, which means a low barrier to entry; they are steeped in history and deal with some of the most interesting stories out there; and they have the ability to craft a narrative around key elements and experiences of the battle. I’m fortunate that gamers have been so welcoming of the somewhat obscure engagements that I’ve chosen to feature in the series. Part of this is that most of these battles have never really ben gamed so there is the element of surprise and learning about new history that was simply not known. And I’m just overjoyed that so many people are having fun playing the games!
Grant: Did you ever think that your designs would be this well received and that you would now be on the 4th volume in the series?
David: No, absolutely not. At least not until we (meaning Dan Verssen Games and I) saw the success of Castle Itter and Pavlov’s House. After those first two games, we decided to launch the Valiant Defense Series. The design for Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms was already well underway at that point. So Lanzerath Ridge was the first game designed after we knew that there would be an official series of games.
Grant: What is your upcoming Valiant Defense Series Volume 4: Lanzerath Ridge: Battle of the Bulge about?
David: It’s about a small engagement on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. A US Intel & Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon (along with a forward observer team) hold out against 500+ German paratroopers who are the spearhead for a Panzer Division. Incredibly, the small American unit helped delay the German advance for a day.
Grant: Why did you feel this was a great fit for the Valiant Defense Series?
David: The Valiant Defense Series is about stories of unimaginable odds and extreme acts of heroism. When I first learned about the Battle of Lanzerath Ridge, I knew it HAD to be in the series. It was just too perfect a fit not to include.
Grant: What parts of the battle did you want to make sure to incorporate into the game play?
David: The game does a good job of including all the critical elements of the battle, I think. First, the overall structure of the game (four distinct attacks) reflects the actual flow of the battle. Second, I made sure that elements important to this battle were included, even if they differed from previous installments. Weapon range — while not pivotal in other games in the series — is very important here. As is the ammunition conservation. The game also features some defensive obstacles not seen in prior games (such as grenade booby traps and a key barbed wire fence). Finally, this is the first game in the series that models individual defender’s “Valor”, a gameplay concept that reflects their actual contributions during the battle.
Grant: What historical resources did you consult and what one book would you recommend someone to read on the subject?
David: As always, I try to use primary sources whenever possible. I was super fortunate that there are extensive video interviews with members of the platoon, talking about the battle. There’s obviously no better source than the defenders themselves. The most popular book in the series is Alex Kershaw’s “The Longest Winter.” Generally speaking, it’s a good, quick, entertaining read. It provides extensive background context on the platoon and it details their experiences as PoW’s. Where it falls a bit short, in my opinion, is in some of the battle details. Kershaw conflates some of the specifics. A casual reader might not notice (or even care!), but when you’re trying to model a battle, it’s a challenge. I’ve included the full source list at the end of this interview for folks who are interested.
Grant: How does Lanzerath Ridge differ from Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter and Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms?
David: It’s most different from Pavlov’s House in that it doesn’t include operational elements, and the timeframe is a single day. In those regards, it is much closer to Castle Itter and Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms stands apart in the series because of the way it details the conflict inside the post office. So that leaves Castle Itter and Lanzerath Ridge that would seem the most similar. But perhaps more than anything, Lanzerath Ridge represents six years of refinement of the core systems in the Valiant Defense System. I think ultimately that improved smoothness and streamlining of play is one of the game’s greatest strengths overall. But at the granular level they differ in many ways. As I mentioned before, weapon range and ammunition conservation play a huge role in Lanzerath Ridge. It also models time in a different way, stressing the extremely rapid periods of conflict. Although the rules differences for this are minimal, the outcome is a much more tense gameplay experience. And finally, Lanzerath Ridge has the four attack periods (similar to the structure in Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms) that gives the game four distinct arcs.
Grant: Do you feel pressure to make a new experience with each entry in the series?
David: Yes, but not so much for fans of the series, but more for myself. If a conflict doesn’t offer something new or unique, I’m not really interested in designing a game about it. Each game needs to be a new “puzzle” for me to solve from a game modeling perspective. It seems unlikely, but if I get to the point where I don’t feel the series can explore conflict in a new, unique way, then that would be the end of the series.
Grant: What is the general layout of the map? What do the different tracks represent?
David: The board is based on a combination of hand drawn map, geospatial data (the battlefield has gone unchanged over the last 75+ years), and two aerial photos from the time of the battle. On the American side, the map represents the dugout positions occupied by the I&R platoon and forward observers. They had a few days to improve the positions, both in terms of cover and concealment. The German attack routes represent those actually used by the German paratroopers for their attacks on the Americans. Most of the attacks were straightforward charges up the hill, but eventually they flanked the American position.
Grant: The art really pops and gives a totally different feel from the other games in the series. Who is the artist and how did you convince DVG to use them?
David: I’m fortunate that DVG entrusts me with full creative control over the games I design for them, which means it’s up to me to figure out how best to integrate the art into each game. The art is from the amazing Nils Johansson. I’m a HUGE fan of Nils work. He’s one of my favorite artists (alongside Matt White and Iván Cáceres). I was fortunate to have Matt work on the cards and some of the counters for Castle Itter and Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. But with Lanzerath Ridge, I wanted to team with someone that could do all of the art and graphic design work, to include the board design. Having seen some of Nils’ board artwork, I knew he would be a perfect fit. I reached out to him and fortunately he agreed. The difference with this project, though, is that it has been a sort of co-creation from the start, with me leading the design and Nils leading all the art and graphic design. To that end, we’re credited as co-creators for the game – a little unusual, but I wanted folks to understand the importance and extent of his work.
Grant: I notice that there are what appear to be barbed wire fence markers in circular spaces. What are these areas and how do they effect the German advance and attack?
David: The barbed wire fence that bisected the field crossed by the German attackers was a huge, huge help for the American defenders. It forced the Germans to expose themselves to gunfire, and this is where most of the German casualties mounted. The German attackers understandably were hesitant to try to push past the fence, so in the game this is represented by counters stacking at the fence. They stack until they’ve either built a large enough force to make a push for the Americans (three counters are stacked) or until commanded to move forward by one of their leaders.
Grant: What are Booby Traps and how do they operate to the defenders advantage?
David: The Americans were armed with plenty of hand grenades as they constructed and improved their defensive positions. They used the hand grenades as a last line of defense, wiring them as booby traps for attackers who approached their positions. In the game, the grenades provide a deterministic attack (no chance of failure) against the first German assault counter to move from the attack route into the defenders’ positions. But the grenades are not replaced during the game – once expended they are gone.
Grant: What is the dotted line with +1 modifiers listed? What do these represent from the battle and why were they important to include?
David: These are range modifiers. In order for the game to have an extremely simple but accurate line of sight system and model effective weapon range, I needed a simple way to affect attacks across the board. Adding these two lines with their defense bonus for the German counters allowed me to do just that.
Grant: I also notice the new Intelligence Track and the Morale Track. What purpose do these serve and what do they represent?
David: These both represent critical parts of the actual battle. Lt. Bouck, the leader of the American defense, had to decide throughout the day whether to continue to hold or withdraw his platoon. Morale remained high throughout the day, despite casualties. But had more of the defenders been injured or killed, their morale likely would have broken, leading them to abandon their position early. In addition to their defensive stand, the platoon was tasked with reporting the Germans’ position and actions. The intelligence track reflects those actions.
Grant: I also spot some spaces for the tracking of ammunition on the boards. How are these used by the player?
David: These ammunition spaces are tied to the machine guns used in the game. Ammunition was limited, and managing it is an important part of the game. You’ll want to optimize how the defenders are manning the machine guns, reloading them, etc.
Grant: I notice there are several type of weapons available to the defenders. What are these weapons and how are they used?
David: Use of machine guns played an extremely important role during the battle, and as such they are modeled to a greater extent than in past Valiant Defense Series games. This is reflected in multiple ways: effective weapon range, ammunition, and emplacement. The game includes M2, M1919, and M1918 (BAR) machine guns. The are used by defenders with a special “Machine Gunner” action designation, which allows them to use a new action in the Valiant Defense Series: Adjust Fire.
Grant: It appears that some weapons have a d8 and d10 designation on them. How important are the different dice and how does this effect strategy?
David: For the first time in a Valiant Defense Series game, weapons use different dice types to represent effective range. Short-range weapons, such as Bouck and Sharpe’s carbines, have the lowest dice type (d6), while the M2 machine gun has the highest dice type (d12). This allows the game to elegantly model the upper limit of effective weapon range. Weapon efficacy is separately modeled by the use of multiple dice, through a combination of the the Inspire attribute and Adjust Fire action (Bouck and Sharpe’s carbines also use 2d6 for their combat values, representing the effectiveness of the semi-automatic weapons at close range). Machine guns can be dismounted and moved during the defense, albeit at the cost of reduced effective weapon range. Extensive use of the machine guns can lead to overheating, reflecting what actually happened to the M1919. Machine gun ammunition must be managed, and for optimal use defenders should be dedicated to reloading them.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the defender counters? What is their Valor Rating?
David: Each defender counter features an image (with a historical photo of the actual defender when possible), any special action designations, their attack value, and their valor rating.
The defenders of Lanzerath Ridge are divided into four major groups in the game: commanders, two squads from the I&R platoon, and the forward observers (referred to as “squad C” for gameplay purposes). The commanders include Lt. Bouck and Technical Sergeant Slape. The two squads are led by Sergeants Dustman and Redmond. The forward observers are led by Lt. Springer.
All defenders have a valor rating, a new addition to the Valiant Defense Series of games that replaces the way defense is modeled. In prior games in the series, defense was determined by a combination of a defender’s location and the integrity of the structure around them. In the actual defense of Lanzerath Ridge, all defenders benefitted from exceptionally well-constructed dugouts that provided cover and concealment; they were seldom in physical danger unless Germans were attacking from extremely close range. The actions taken by the defenders throughout the battle ranged widely, as evidenced by the different levels of recognition awarded to the soldiers. Therefore, the valor rating is an abstract measure of the defenders’ willingness to fight under heavy attack. In general, the level of recognition a soldier received was the primary influence for their valor rating. Soldiers who earned the Distinguished Service Cross have a valor rating of 6, those who earned the Silver Star have a valor rating of 5, and those who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device have a 3 valor rating. There are some exceptions to this: the two squad leaders (Dustman and Redmond) have a 4 valor rating, primarily for gameplay purposes. In addition, even though all the members of the forward observer team received Silver Stars, their valor ratings are either 3 (for Springer) or 2 (for the other members). Despite being awarded Silver Stars, the forward observers were much less active in the defense than their I&R platoon counterparts.
Grant: There appear to be Medics amongst the mix of attack counters. How are they used?
David: There are three medic counters in the game, which represent German medics. Following the second attack, a German medic waving a white flag walked onto the field from the town below. He requested time to remove the wounded Germans from the battlefield, and Lt. Bouck agreed. The Americans watched as the German medics assembled litter teams and carried the wounded Germans into town.
While the Germans were tending to their wounded, one of the American soldiers saw one of the medics leaning over a German soldier the American defender thought was dead and the medic appeared to be talking into a radio. Soon mortar fire landed near the platoon’s location. The American defender killed the disguised forward observer with a carefully aimed shot from an M1 rifle.
In the game, one of the three medic counters has a reverse side of the counter with a “forward observer” face. During the third attack you will need to identify the forward observer and kill him in order to decrease the effectiveness of German mortar attacks.
Grant: What role do Vehicles play in the game? Why did you feel this was necessary to include?
David: There are three jeeps in the game: a jeep with a mounted M2 machine gun, a jeep with a radio used by the forward observers to call in artillery strikes, and a jeep with a radio used by the I&R platoon to communicate with their regiment. The jeeps are placed in their historic locations, and provide a way of conveying to the player how to take those special, critical actions (using the machine gun, radioing for artillery support, and reporting back intel).
Grant: Why does the game have 4 different Assault decks? What does this represent?
David: A game of Lanzerath Ridge is divided into four acts, each of which correspond to a discrete attack (and corresponding deck of cards).
During the initial attack, two fallschirmjäger platoons, supported by machine gun fire, charge straight up the hill at the defenders. The barbed wire fence serves as a major obstacle for the attackers, though the presence of platoon leaders will force the attackers forward (during the actual battle, the defenders reported that German attackers would often dive to the ground for cover, and only press on if commanded to do so). During this attack, the defenders will concentrate on the avenues of approach straight up the hill, as the attackers won’t conduct flanking attacks.
The second attack also consists of a straight-forward charge up the hill by the attackers, though limited efforts are made to flank the Americans. In addition to machine gun fire, the attackers are supported by a small amount of mortar fire. The second attack will likely serve as the first major challenge for the defenders. They must guard against both the central avenues of approach as well as both flanks. Machine gun fire can disrupt the Americans’ defensive plans, and mortar attacks can damage the radios.
In the third attack the fallschirmjäger once again charge straight up the hill, with no effort to flank the defenders. But the third attack will likely leave the defenders heavily disrupted, low on ammunition, and with their equipment damaged. The third attack might not result in the Germans penetrating the I&R platoon’s line, but it will almost certainly leave the Americans weakened.
The Americans have many competing priorities in the final attack. First and foremost, they must hold out against overwhelming German forces, which focus on penetrating the I&R platoon’s lines via flanking attacks for the first time. In addition to defending their line, the Americans will want to send back members of the platoon to contact regimental headquarters, and they’ll want to destroy their equipment so that the Germans can’t use it.
Grant: This iteration of the series seems to have a longer play time. How has that changed the feel of the experience?
David: The playtime listed on the game is longer than others in the series, but in reality the playtime should be similar to Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms and Pavlov’s House (and a bit longer than Castle Itter). What we found was that an average game in the series was taking a bit longer to play for most folks than it did in playtests, so we just wanted to accurately reflect that time on the box for Lanzerath Ridge.
Grant: How do the German units move along the assault tracks? What different type of German units are activated?
David: Each turn you resolve three cards for the German AI. Many of the cards instruct you to place assault counters in the tracks or paths that lead to the American defenders. When you place a new German assault counter on a path, it pushes all the other counters already on the path forward (excepting for the impact of the barbed wire fence).
There are four different types of German assault counters: riflemen, submachine gunners, grenadiers, and leaders. The first three are identical in resolution, though differ in attack strength. The leaders are similar to the others, but their presence on a track means that the assault counters ignore the effects of the fence.
Grant: What is the nasty unit in this game that mimics Howitzers (Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms), Stukas (Pavlov’s House) and Pak 40’s and Flak Guns (Castle Itter)?
David: The mortars are especially nasty because they can damage the Americans’ jeeps, making it more difficult to call in artillery, report back intel, and possibly even destroy the M2 machine gun.
Grant: How many actions each turn does the defender have? This is the most to date. Why?
David: The defenders get five actions per turn, but in some ways this could be viewed as fewer actions than in prior games. That’s because Lanzerath Ridge does away with the distinction of movement and actions. Instead, movement is incorporated into the options you can perform as an action. Lanzerath Ridge also adds the concept of Major and Minor actions, which determines whether a counter is exhausted (meaning it can’t be used again during an Attack Period).
Grant: What different actions can the player take?
David: There are a lot! I won’t go into detail for each, because that would be a couple pages of information, but here’s a list of the actions from the rulebook:
- Close Combat
- Adjust Fire
- Dismount Weapon
- Emplace Weapon
- Transfer Ammo
Grant: What are the different objective cards and what role do they play? How does this change the game?
David: There are three special objective cards in the game. These objectives reflect critical elements of the actual historic battle. The third attack includes the first of three objective cards — the German forward observer disguised as a medic. If not dealt with quickly by the defenders, the forward observer will significantly improve the effectiveness of the German mortars. In the final attack, the Americans will want to send back members of the platoon to contact regimental headquarters (the Make Contact objective), and they’ll want to destroy their equipment so that the Germans can’t use it (the Deny Equipment objective).
Grant: How does the game end? How is it scored?
David: The game ends immediately if the defenders’ morale drops to 0 or if there is an enemy assault counter in a defender combat position at the end of the Defense Phase. Otherwise, the game ends at the end of the last turn of Attack Period 4, when you complete the Defense Phase and there are no more enemy cards to draw. Your score is based on the morale track value, intelligence track value, and any objectives you accomplished.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
David: Of all the Valiant Defense Series games, I think Lanzerath Ridge likely provides the best ratio of quality of gameplay to complexity level. It provides quite a bit of tactical depth, tons of different action options, lots of replay value through tactics cards that affect difficulty, and variant setups. But it is also arguably less complex than both Pavlov’s House and Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. I wanted it to provide a different option as an entry point to the series than Castle Itter, and I think it delivers on that.
Grant: What is the schedule for the game and who will publish it?
David: Lanzerath Ridge will launch on Kickstarter on 25 January 2022. It’s being published by DVG (Dan Verssen Games), like all the games in the series. It will likely be available in mid-to-late 2022.
Grant: What other battles are you looking at to use this system with?
David: This is a question I get asked a lot! First off, the next game in the series (Volume 5) is currently being designed – and for the first time for the series I won’t be the primary designer! Vince Cooper will lead the design, with me providing development assistance. I recently spoke with Liz Davidson about games I think would be a good fit for the series (you can watch that discussion here: https://youtu.be/FoOPEPzcxLs). My “top 5” (without spoiling anything already in work) were: Sihang Warehouse, Battle of Bengtskär, Battle of Mortain, Siege of Jadotville, and the Battle of Kamdesh.
Sources used in the design of the game:
- Astor, G. (1993). A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It (Dell World War II Library) (First Thus ed.). Dell.
- Cavanagh, W. C. C. (1994). Dauntless: A History of the 99th Infantry Division. Taylor Pub.
- Cavanagh, W. C. C. (2005). The Battle East of Elsenborn and the Twin Villages (Reprint ed.). Pen & Sword Military.
- Cirillo, R. (1995). Ardennes-Alsace: The United States Army Campaigns Of World War 2. [Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., distributor.
- Cole, H. M. (2016). The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (U.S. Army in World War II). St. John’s Press.
- Della-Giustina, Captain John (January–March 1996). “The Heroic Stand of an Intelligence Platoon” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin.
- Eisenhower, J. S. D. (1995). The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge (1st Da Capo Press ed). Da Capo Press.
- Finch, John R., Lt-Col, US Army (Retired) (1992). Miracles : A Platoon’s Heroic Stand at Lanzerath. Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939. Maj George J. Mordica II. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: US Army Command and General Staff College Press.
- Frühbeisser, R. (1977). Im Rücken der Amerikaner: Deutsche Fallschirmjäger im Kommando-Einsatz (German Edition). H. Cramer.
- General Orders No. 26 (Unit Commendations). Headquarters, Department of the Army. October 29, 1981.
- “The Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment”. National World War II Museum 2008 Annual Report.
- Kershaw, A. (2005). The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII’s Most Decorated Platoon (14th Ptg. ed.). Da Capo Press.
- Kinrade, W. (2015, August). A Brave Defence of Lanzerath. Wargames Soldiers & Strategy, 80.
- MacDonald, C. B. (1997). A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. William Morrow Paperbacks.
- Military Award Case Files Relating to the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, 1979 – 1981. Record Group 319: Records of the Army Staff, 1903 – 2009. Department of Defense. Department of the Army. U.S. Army Military Personnel Center. Personnel Plans and Operations Directorate. Personnel Management Support Division. Military Awards Branch. (ca. 1981 – 1982).
- National Collection of Aerial Photography. Sortie series US31/4166. Lanuerath; Prov. Liège; Belgium. 16 February 1945. 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (USAAF). Allied Central Interpretation Unit.
- Passmore, D. & Harrison, S. (2008). Landscapes of the Battle of the Bulge: WW2 Field Fortifications in the Ardennes Forests of Belgium. Journal of Conflict Archaeology. 4. 87-107.
- Quarrie, B. (1999). The Ardennes Offensive US V Corps & XVIII (Airborne) Corps: Northern Sector (Order of Battle). Osprey Publishing.
- Quarrie, B. (1999). The Ardennes Offensive VI Panzer Armee: Northern Sector (Order of Battle). Osprey Publishing.
- Quarrie, B., & Vuksic, V. (2012). Fallschirmjäger: German Paratrooper 1935–45 (Warrior Book 38) (1st ed.). Osprey Publishing.
- Rusiecki, S. M. (2009). The Key to the Bulge: The Battle for Losheimergraben (Stackpole Military History Series) (Illustrated ed.). Stackpole Books.
- Wijers, H. “The Battle for Lanzerath Hill – The True Story – 16 December 1944.” http://home.planet.nl/~wijer037/Bulge/Forms/The 99th Infantry Division/Lanzerath 20Hill.htm
- Wijers, H. (2014). Battle of the Bulge: The 3rd Fallschirmjager Division in Action, December 1944-January 1945 (Volume 3) (Stackpole Military History Series (Volume 3)) (Illustrated ed.). Stackpole Books.
- War Department; Table of Equipment and Organization 7-12: Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Infantry Regiment; 26 February 1944.
- War Department; Table of Equipment and Organization 6-27: Field Artillery Battery, Motorized, 105mm Howitzer, Truck Drawn; 27 September 1944.
- Video interviews with Lyle Bouck, Samuel Jenkins, Louis J. Kalil, and Risto Milosevich; https://www.ww2online.org.
As always David thank you for you time in answering our questions and for your tireless desire to bring these great games to our gaming tables. It is great to see you have such success and I look forward to many more games in the future.
If you are interested in Lanzareth Ridge: Battle of the Bulge you check out the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danverssengames/dvg-valiant-defense-lanzerath-ridge/