About a year ago, I started to see information coming out on an upcoming game designed by a first time designer named Sebastian Bae. He was a bit different though as he was a Marine and was working in a think tank and with a group at Georgetown University that did wargames and used them as an educational assistant to teach tactics and decision making. The game is a Near Future War style of game that deals with warfare in the Indo-Pacific and is called Littoral Commander. I reached out to Sebastian, as he had just recently announced that The Dietz Foundation had picked up his game and put it up on pre-order.
Grant: First off Sebastian please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Sebastian: My name is Sebastian J. Bae, and I am a research analyst and game designer for a think tank, where most of my work focuses on the future of warfare, emerging technologies, and strategy and doctrine. In essence, I research, design, and develop games, mostly wargames, to explore a wide range of defense and national security issues. Previously, I served six years in the Marine Corps, leaving as a Sergeant in the infantry. With the Marines, I deployed to Ramadi, Iraq with 2/23 Echo Company. As for hobbies, I have several including being an avid hobby gamer, rock climbing, and used to be a surfer when I lived in warmer climates. I also have an adorable dog named Winston who can either be the best or worst work from home officemate – depending on the day.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Sebastian: I have designed several professional games for educational and analytical purposes, but this is my first commercial title publication. Littoral Commander – The Indo-Pacific originally was a pandemic quarantine pet project where I wanted to design a game for military units. I wanted to design an accessible yet educational tool for professional warfighters, from enlisted to officers, to be able to play and exercise their tactical decision-making for future challenges and conflicts. For me, the best part has been receiving feedback from the various units who have received one or more of the 90+ early prototypes of the game. To help cultivate educational wargaming at the tactical edge has been a profound honor for me – especially as a former Marine myself.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Sebastian: For my day job, I design a myriad of games on a vast spectrum of topics from nature disasters to future conflicts. So, as a designer, I draw inspiration from all types of games and designers from Euro games to your traditional hex and counter games. In the commercial realm, I would say some chief influences include Volko Ruhnke, Harold Buchanan, Cole Wehrle, David Thompson, Jason Matthews, and so many others. In the professional defense sector, I am blessed by the mentorship of so many – such as Ed McGrady, James Sterrett, Peter Perla, Yuna Wong, Mitch Reed, and countless others.
Grant: How does your career help you with design?
Sebastian: Being able to design games for a living is a blessing and a daily intellectual challenge. Each project, each design poses new problems to be solved and honestly, each experience makes you a better designer. Even if that means figuring out what does and does not work. For instance, during the pandemic, many if not all of our games shifted to the virtual realm and that forced a paradigm shift in how many designers in my field approached games.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Sebastian: For me, the hardest part is getting over that first hurdle of simply starting. It is the daunting challenge of the ‘blank page.’ I have a notebook filled with half-baked designs and ideas for games that never made it to my desk properly. But, when I get into a project or design, I am deep down the rabbit hole with it and love the creative element of forging and honing a design again and again. As a research analyst, I would say my research is one of my stronger elements as a designer.
Grant: What historical event does you new game Littoral Commander cover?
Sebastian: Unlike a lot of wargames, Littoral Commander is not a historical wargame, but a wargame that projects forward into the future. At its core, Littoral Commander is an educational wargame designed to serve as an intellectual sandbox – to enable players to explore what future challenges the modern battlefield poses. This includes everything from tactical cyber attacks to hypersonics to unmanned systems.
Grant: I see that the name has been been changed from Fleet Marine Force to Littoral Commander: The Indo-Pacific. Why is this a more appropriate title for your vision?
Sebastian: The name change is mainly due to the US Marine Corps Trademark office. But at the same time, I hope the new change titles helps players, both hobby gamers and professionals, understand the underlying theme of littoral warfare in this game and hopefully longer series.
Grant: What is the Indo-Pacific and why is it the focus of your game?
Sebastian: The Indo-Pacific is a military term to describe the region from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This term came in vogue with the military’s ‘pivot to Asia’ but also to reflect the wider commitment to challenges spanning the whole region – not just the Pacific Ocean. This was the focus of the game for several reasons. Most of all, it reflects my own personal and professional research interests, which include the theory of sea power, the naval campaigns in the Second World War, and littoral and amphibious warfare.
Grant: What elements did you need to include in your design to replicate the conditions and strategies needed for the Indo-Pacific region?
Sebastian: Littoral Commander is a grand tactical wargame where players typically represent company or battalion commanders, so it focuses on the challenges those commanders may have to face in the future. As a designer, that boiled down to – How do I identify the enemy? How do I track the enemy? How do I persecute my target in order to delay, disrupt, or destroy the enemy? In the age of long-range missiles and threat vectors from multiple domains – from under the sea to within cyberspace – this was a fascinating tactical challenge to tackle. In terms of the design, many will recognize the ‘bucket of dice’ mechanic for the combat engine – where one side rolls to hit certain values while the other side tries to save themselves. This represents the dynamic between long-range fires and integrated air and missile defense. Other capabilities were mainly represented via cards, where they have special effects on units or even the players.
Grant: What sources can readers explore to better understand the thesis of the design?
Sebastian: As a research analyst, my list of sources is a mile long. But for some top recommendations, I would recommend the following: Fleet Tactics by Wayne Hughes, Developing the Naval Mind by BJ Armstrong, To Provide and Maintain a Navy by Henry Hendrix, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations by the US Marine Corps, and The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations in 2028 by the US Army.
Grant: I see where the game is described as a “rich and interactive ‘intellectual sandbox’ for inquisitive minds to explore and engage with the daunting challenges of current and future wartime operations”. What does this mean to you and more importantly what can players expect?
Sebastian: Wargaming the future is always difficult. No one has a crystal ball and even with the best rigorous research, there can be massive holes in what the future may hold for us. Therefore, as an educational wargame, Littoral Commander doesn’t offer a singular image of the future. Instead, the scenario-based system of the game and a wide range of capabilities represented in the cards, it allows players to explore all sorts of future tactical challenges. Some of the scenarios will involve exerting sea control and sea denial and stopping hostile Chinese warships. Other scenarios examine what role littoral forces have in anti-submarine operations paired with unmanned underwater vehicles. The future is unknown, and I wanted to represent that openness in the design and play of the game.
Grant: What is dynamic about the card-oriented game system used in the design?
Sebastian: Modern military operations are exponentially more complex and cut across multiple domains from the sea to space. Moreover, tactical formations are increasingly more capable and equipped with a wider range of weapons systems and capabilities. So even in a grand tactical wargame like Littoral Commander, the need to integrate a very large pool of military capabilities was necessary and unavoidable. So, the cards allow players to use capabilities and effects from the wider joint military force without a litany of rules and sub-rules. Instead, you select the cards you want (as allowed by the scenario limitations) and use those effects when needed. Fundamentally, the card-based engine was designed to flatten the learning curve and add more robustness to the wargame.
Grant: What different types of cards are included? How do the cards function?
Sebastian: In Littoral Commander, each card is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 Command Points – think of this of how difficult it is to acquire for a battalion commander. Cards with a value of one may represent organic equipment like unmanned drones or different types of munitions. Joint missions tend to be about 3 or so. Cards with a value of 5 usually mean they are national technical means or capabilities organic to other services. And each scenario gives each team an allotment of Command Points to pick their cards. If you have 15 Command Points for a scenario, you and your teammate have to decide how you are going to divvy that up from cyber attacks to combat air patrols. This is designed to represent the professional military planning decision space and its inherent tradeoffs. As for the card effects, they are straightforward – you play a card and roll for its effect. The effect can vary from long-range strikes that can destroy units on the board to forcing a player to skip their turn because they have been jammed.
Grant: Can you give a few examples of cards and explain how they work/are used?
Sebastian: There are four principal types of cards in Littoral Commander: one-time use, persistent, attachments, and nullifying cards. One-time use cards can be any card that is discarded after its use, such as a sortie of bombers striking at enemy warships or a tactical cyber card that can paralyze units in a hex. Persistent cards represent enduring missions like combat air patrol where they consistently provide air cover and fight off other aerial cards. Attachments usually represent capabilities or units attached to other units on the board, such as combat engineers that can create obstacles or clear mines. Nullifying cards are reactionary cards aimed at defending against specific threats like cyber defenses nullifying cyber attacks.
Grant: What are the four stages of the game?
Sebastian: The four stages of the game are: planning, deployment, action, and check. In the planning stage, teams coordinate their tactical concept and their card choices. Think of military staffs coordinating their plans. In the deployment stage, each team deploys their units to their designated areas according to the scenario. The majority of the game occurs in the action stage where players execute their actions in alternating impulses. Lastly, the check stage is to see if initiative has changed due to battlefield losses or if anyone has satisfied their victory conditions.
Grant: What area of the Indo-Pacific does the map cover?
Sebastian: The professional educational prototype had several different scenarios and associated maps. For the commercial release, it will most likely have 2-3 maps – the Philippines, the Straits of Malacca, and Taiwan. The hope is that we can garner enough success with the first release that we can release more maps for the game.
Grant: What key strategic considerations must players think about to be successful at the game?
Sebastian: To be at good Littoral Commander, my advice is to choose your cards very carefully with your final objective in mind and to coordinate with your teammates. Originally an educational tool, the game does not have many ‘internally balancing’ mechanics – reflective of my own personal teaching style of mistakes are punished mentality. So, choosing the right mix of cards that allow flexibility and key capabilities is incredibly important.
Grant: What units are included and what is their scale?
Sebastian: Most of the units are sections, platoons, or individual ships. The hexes are 20kms across, which is quite large for most tactical games, but with the advent of long-range missiles – this was unavoidable for littoral warfare.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the unit blocks and what do the values represent?
Sebastian: Each unit has a symbol indicating its unit type and size. The gray hex in the right-hand corner represents its Mobility Points, indicating the types of hexes it can traverse. The colored boxes represent different capabilities. Green is close combat, orange is long-range fires, and purple is integrated air and missile defense. The big number is the number or less than that you must roll to secure a hit. The same exponent or superscript is the range in hexes.
Grant: How does combat work? What are the results of combat?
Sebastian: Most of the combat is usually a duel between long-range fires, units slinging missiles at each other. In simplest terms, units allocate the number of dice they are rolling available in their unit supply. Each dice represents roughly 4-6 missiles or rockets. Then the defender can allocate any available air defense in the vicinity of the attacker’s target. Each side rolls their allocated dice, aiming to hit equal or less than their combat value on their unit. Each successful interception roll negates a successful long-range fires roll. This combat system abstracts a lot of elements, but it enables rapid play and iterative learning. The cards add a lot of texture to these engagements – by modifying rolls, adding more dice, and other effects.
Grant: How are the outcomes of battles decided? Die rolls, CRT or card off?
Sebastian: The outcomes are mainly decided via dice rolls. Some cards will face off against one another, but even those engagements are determined by dice rolls. I wanted to avoid CRT’s because I wanted to make it easy and fun for professionals and hobbyists to get into easy. I wanted this game to be easy enough for you to play with your kids, but also robust enough to be useful in professional military settings.
Grant: What are the keys to victory and how does each side win the game?
Sebastian: Each scenario has their own specific victory objectives. One scenario involves denying passage of Chinese warships across a specific piece of maritime terrain. The US player must either delay their transit until notional reinforcements arrive or completely wipe out the Chinese fleet. Another scenario is about resisting an amphibious landing by the enemy force and focuses on destroying their amphibious transports at sea and penetrating the defenses of their naval escorts. The scenario system allows a lot of flexibility. My hope is that the community around Littoral Commander will add more interesting twists and turns to the game as it grows.
Grant: What scenarios are included and what is the playtime?
Sebastian: The exact scenarios included are still a bit in flux, but the two scenarios above will most likely be among them. I want to include scenarios of varying difficulty from easy introductory scenarios to more advanced, multi-faceted ones. Introductory scenarios usually take about an hour for the first playthrough while more advanced scenarios can be around 4 hours.
Grant: What do you feel the game models well?
Sebastian: Overall, I believe Littoral Commander really models the complexity of modern and future tactical combat well. As a player, you have so many threats to worry about. Your opponent may have a tactical cyber attack waiting to paralyze your clustered units or a devastating ballistic missile barrage waiting to rain down hell on you. There are no easy answers and that is something I wanted the game to drive home for the players.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Sebastian: Through the course of the prototyping and playtesting, Littoral Commander has evolved significantly. Our playtesters involved subject matter experts, uniformed service members of various branches, analysts, and even my graduate students. As expected, the very early playtests focused on working out the kinks in the system. Later, as the prototype was used in military units, schoolhouses, and elsewhere, the feedback was immensely positive. I recently received an email from a unit commander who wanted to let me know how much his staff enjoyed the game and how much utility they found in it. Those kinds of moments really make all the late nights worth it.
Grant: When can we expect it to be fulfilled?
Sebastian: The plan is to get the first copies by the end of the year or early 2023. We do not want to rush the process and make sure we are meticulous in the transition of the game.
Grant: How has it been working with The Dietz Foundation?
Sebastian: Admittedly, this is my first time publishing commercially, so my experience is limited in this. But The Dietz Foundation has been immensely responsive, helpful, and forward leaning with this game. When I was choosing a publisher, many were uninterested in an educational professional military wargame – even from some of the usual suspects. But The Dietz Foundation with its educational focus really embraced my vision for Littoral Commander and has been incredibly supportive.
Grant: What other designs are you contemplating or already working on?
Sebastian: My current focus is the commercialization of Littoral Commander – especially when the fundraising portion of the campaign is finished. On a related note, I am already working on future expansions of the Littoral Commander series with a European theater expansion featuring Russian forces. I am also working on an educational game on malign influence and disinformation which remains a working prototype. I have been designing that game with some talented colleagues in my field – Grace Hwang, Emily Yoder, and Jared Cooper – and I am excited to share more about that game in the coming months.
If you are interested, you can back Littoral Commander: The Indo-Pacific on The Dietz Foundation website at the following link: https://dietzfoundation.org/product/littoral-commander-the-indo-pacific/#