I first became familiar with Mike Bertucelli from his first design Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs in 2016. Since then, Mike has been pretty busy with several expansions to Tank Duel in the form of smaller Tank Packs as well as a large expansion in Tank Duel Expansion #1: North Africa. Recently, I reached out to Mike wanting to take a deeper dive (pun totally intended here) into his new design called Wolfpack. He was more than gracious in answering our questions.
*Note: The components shown in this interview, as well as the art and any text referenced from the rules are still just the prototype versions which are only intended for playtesting purposes and the design and rules might still change prior to final development and publication.
Grant: What is your new game Wolfpack about? What historical event does it focus on?
Mike: First off Grant, thank you for your interest in Wolfpack. I would also like to mention that Joel Toppen is the developer and Kai Jensen is the rules writer. I am very lucky to have them involved with the project and the game will be better with their participation. The game focuses on the struggle between the German U-Boats trying to prevent the Allied convoys from supplying materials and arms to the European Theater allies. The game focus (starts) is in the last three months of 1941. This is at the end of the happy times, when the U-Boats operated with little resistance from the Allies and it covers the time period through March of 1943.
Grant: What from the history of the Battle of the Atlantic did you need to take care to include and model in your design?
Mike: This game focuses on only a portion of the North Atlantic. The U-Boats would operate in this section of the Atlantic, out of air range from both England and North America. The Germans formed groups of submarines, called Wolfpacks. They would set up lone submarines in a picket line searching for convoys. When one submarine would find a convoy it would radio the convoys position, bearing and speed to the German Submarine Command. They would then radio all subs in the area to converge and attack the convoy. This game focuses on attacking as a group (in a Wolfpack) opposed to a single submarine on patrol. I wanted to include various types of Allied escorts and anti-submarine equipment that they possessed along with the improvements in that equipment.
Grant: What is your overarching design goal for this game?
Mike: First and foremost, with all my designs, the game has to be fun! Wolfpack is not a strict submarine simulation type of game. When the players are finished, I want them to feel like they have played an accurate, fun submarine game. I also want the player(s) to feel the weight of the decisions that the U-Boat captains had to make and the tension those decisions will bring from making a successful attack run on the convoy to being hunted by the escorts. The players will have to work together to achieve victory.
Grant: Why do we need a new submarine warfare game? What does your design do differently than other games on the subject?
Mike: Well I’m not sure “WE” need a new submarine game but I know I need a new one. There really isn’t a game on the subject the I enjoy playing, so you know what they say “if you don’t like it, design your own game” so I did. There isn’t another submarine game, at least that I know of, like this one. Wolfpack is a tactical game with many in game decisions that plays (Single patrol) in 3 to 4 hours that focuses on maneuver evasion and crew management. What it isn’t, is a huge 300 hour game or a roll a die and check a chart kind of game. There is nothing wrong with those types of games if that’s what you enjoy playing. For myself, I wanted more of a tactical submarine game.
Grant: What sources did you consult and what one must read source would you recommend to anyone wanting to know more?
Mike: Hitler’s U-Boat War (must read), U-Boat Tactics in World War II, The Good Shepherd, Hitler’s Attack U-Boats and U-Boat War Patrol.
Grant: What game did you use as inspiration for your design approach?
Mike: It all started a few years ago at the GMT West Con. My friends and I were playing Skies Above the Reich cooperatively. One of my friends Michael said, “you know this could work with submarines”. I went to sleep that night and my mind was racing. The next day I had a game. I approached Jeremy White to see if he wanted to do something together. He told me, with his blessing, to run with it and make it your own game. So, my inspiration came from his game but it is totally its own game. People tell me it feels like a blend between Tank Duel and Skies Above the Reich.
Grant: The game is designed as a 1-4 player solitaire/team game. How does this work?
Mike: As a solitaire game the player will control all four submarines. As a team game with 3 or 4 players, each will control 1 submarine. With 2 players each will control 2. In all situations you will add all submarines victory points together to achieve the needed total for a successful patrol.
Grant: The convoy merchant ships and escorts are controlled by an AI system. How does the AI system prioritize its actions and movements?
Mike: The approach portion of the map has patrol boxes. The AI uses these boxes in conjunction with the battle card deck. This will determine if an escort ship is in the same area as the submarine. At this point, the escort will attempt to make contact. If contact is made, you will have to determine the level of surprise the escort has achieved. Then “you”, as the submarine player will have to deal with the threat. You will have to make decisions like, will I crash dive, how deep will I dive, should we run silent. When the submarines are operating in the attack portions of the map, the mechanics change slightly. However, the tough decisions still remain.
Grant: What does the AI do well? What areas are still being developed?
Mike: I’m very happy with the way that the AI is working. The fog of war and the way that the escorts make life miserable for the submarine players is working just like I intended it to. It really gives you the feeling of being a U-Boat captain during the war. So at this point I’m just tweaking things. A game is never finished being designed it just gets published.
Grant: What different type of submarines do players have access to?
Mike: Mainly type VII’s, players will also have opportunities to play type IX’s, but the main workhorse in the North Atlantic was the type VII.
Grant: What different technologies can they choose to equip to assist in their mission?
Mike: This part of the design uses Tactical Points to abstract the different technologies. Players will spend TP’s for evasive maneuvers, crash diving and the ability to re-pull certain game cards. The tension here is that there is never enough TP’s, so be careful how and when you use them.
Grant: How do players attempt to make it through the escort’s screen undetected to attack merchant shipping?
Mike: During the first 10 turns, the submarines will abstractly move towards an attack position against the convoy. The players will have no idea where the the escorts are, or if the convoy is even protected with an escort screen. This portion of the game is designed to play very quickly but with a lot of tension. If the convoy is protected and an escort makes contact with you, you’re going to have to put some work in to survive.
Grant: What are the steps to an attack run on the convoy?
Mike: The first thing during the observation phase, the player(s) will need to spot and identify good targets of opportunity within the convoy. After selecting their target(s), each submarine will need to maneuver towards the best firing angle while making Torpedo Date Computer (TDC) calculations on each of their victims.
Grant: What decisions do commanders have as they make this attack run?
Mike: Commanders will have skills which represents experience gained. These skills help with the Quality of the TDC calculation and the number of calculations that could be made during a single turn.
Grant: What are TDC (Torpedo Data Computer) calculations? How do players accomplish these calculations? Is algebra involved?
Mike: Well first of all, this is a no algebra zone, just simple DRM’s something us wargamers are very used to. A TDC calculation is a DRM that is assigned to a loaded or loading torpedo that hopefully, will help that torpedo make contact with a convoy ship.
Grant: How do the crew members receive wounds and KIA’s? What happens when key crew are KIA?
Mike: During ASW attacks, locations like Diesel Engines, Torpedo Tubes and the Deck Gun, will take levels of damage. Hull/Fooding, Fire, and Gas damage levels will become a serious problem if not attended too. Can you say “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” God Father if you need to look it up. Officers and crew sections (Bow, Mid, and Stern) will receive wounds (light, medium, heavy, and KIA) during attacks. If an officer becomes incapacitated (heavy or KIA) they will have to be replaced by a lower ranking officer. As crew sections receive wounds, it will become more difficult to make repairs during the damage control phase. With too many wounded crew sections, the operation of the submarine may even be compromised.
Grant: What is unique about the card system used to resolve many of the game effects? How does it work?
Mike: If you have played my game Tank Duel, then you will know that I like me some cards. There is only one very small chart that is used during the game. Every other mechanic uses cards to determine game outcomes. There’s something very satisfying in pulling a card to see what happens. Just speaking for myself, I find pulling a card more dramatic than rolling dice. It’s a mechanic that I really enjoy.
Grant: Can you show us some examples of the different cards and explain how they are used?
Mike: Here are some card examples with notes to the side.
Grant: What is the purpose of the submarine player boards?
Mike: Each player will have one of these boards, matching the type of submarine the player is using for the patrol. These sub boards have locations for your loaded or loading torpedo tubes. You will place your torpedo counters in these locations. There is also a box to hold your Tactical Points counter. Players have locations for all of the main components of the submarine, where you will track damage and wounds. Players will have to manage these boards during the game to maximize their chances for victory, or to just simply survive. Players will make their TDC calculations on the this board. Also, allocate crew for repair purposes. You’ll have to make difficult decisions on what and when to repair the various damaged locations. You will need to first contain flooding and fires before you can begin the procedure to repair their damage. The two sure ways to go to the bottom is from flooding and fires.
Grant: What does the map look like? What are the purpose of the various boxes?
Mike: The game map is divided into three main sections. The boxes around the outside of the map is the approach section. It is in effect for approximately the first 10 turns of the game. Here is where the submarines will approach the convoy, while trying to avoid or survive the escort screen. The 2nd section of the map are the boxes and spots in the Central portion of the map, these are called spaces. Here is where most of the action we’ll take place. Players will maneuver their submarines, observe and identify possible targets of opportunity. Captains will make TDC calculations, position their submarines for the best possible attack angle, and fire their torpedoes. All while keeping a close look out for any escorts bearing down on their position. The 3rd section is the Depth and detection box. Here players will record their submarines current depth and any escorts that have detected and are possibly attacking. The remaining boxes are sequence of play and general game information.
Grant: What is the campaign system? How do players track the progress of their crews during the campaign?
Mike: The game is designed to be played as campaign, and that is the heart of the game. With that being said, it can be played as a single patrol mission. The campaign starts in October 1941 and finishes at the end of March 1943. The campaign is broken up into 6 different war periods. Each period consist of 3 months. Each month, the players will select one submarine to take out on patrol. The campaign can consist of up to 18 patrols. One of the things that I wanted to achieve with this design, is to be able to make it so that you do not have to play the campaign with the same group of people. The final thing that players will perform after a patrol is to prepare the campaign for the next group of players. After finishing the patrol, players will calculate their experience points gained. At this point players will convert any amount of their experience points into Flotilla Points. These points are added together from all players to the Flotilla Points total. All remaining players experience points are then added to their individual experience points total. When a new group of players sit down to play the campaign they will be up-to-date for their session. Then they will prepare for the next group when they’re done with their patrol.
Grant: How is experience gained and what can it be used for?
Mike: Experience points are gained by each submarine during a patrol by sinking or damaging merchant ships. The amount of experience points is determined by the size in tons of the merchant ship. Plus, winning the patrol and returning to base. These experience points will be spent at the end of the patrol when the submarine returns to base. The experience points may be spent for officer and crew improvements using a skill tech tree. They may also be given to the flotilla to be used for setup of the future patrols.
Grant: How is the game won or lost?
Mike: Each patrol will have a set number of Victory Points needed to win each patrol. Players will need to win two out of the three patrols in each war period to win that war period. To have victory in the campaign, players will need to win four out of the six war periods. This game is not about the Germans winning World War II. Success or winning the campaign, just means that the German U-Boats are making it difficult on the Allies for their inevitable victory in Europe. Victory in the campaign, signifies the player is performing better than their historical counterparts.
Grant: What have been some changes that have come about through the playtest process? What still needs work?
Mike: I can speak for all of the games I have been involved with from designing to developing. The finished product hardly ever looks like it did in the beginning. Same with Wolfpack, the changes are too numerous to mention. What I can say, is that the development process has made Wolfpack something I’m very pleased with. As far as what still needs work, I would say, not much. The game is probably 95% finished with design and now as it gets play tested. We will fine-tune Victory conditions and game mechanics.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Mike: I’m really happy with the tactical feel the game portrays, along with a 3 to 4 hour patrol playtime. One of the things I really wanted to achieve with this design, was the feeling that the U-Boat captains must have felt in those small steel coffins. I really feel we captured that feeling. When depth charge after depth charge are exploding around your sub, and your focus turns from the hunt to just trying to survive.
Grant: What has been the response of your playtesters? How do they feel about the time period now?
Mike: People that have played the game seem to really like it. The feedback has been very positive. A lot of people have offered to playtest after they play it for the first time, which is always a good sign. The other thing that I find, is that the talk around the table is about the story and not the game mechanics, “I can’t believe I was able to shake that destroyer” or “I have to dive deeper to survive these depth charges, but I may implode”, “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”. Like I said in the beginning, I designed a game that I want to play.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
Mike: I am currently working on another Tank Pack for Tank Duel. It will focus on the East Front, with historical scenarios and a mini campaign. Plus, I have 8 two sided new tank boards. There will be a new big box expansion for Tank Duel focused on the West Front. This expansion will come with 16 tank boards, historical scenarios and a large multi front campaign game system. We plan to release another Tank Pack with possibly some very early war stuff. I also have one more design in the Enemy in the Crosshairs System that I am working on, more on that in the future but I will say it’s going to be BIG! I am also working as developer for Mr. President designed by Gene Billingsley and we will be wrapping that one up very soon.
Thanks Mike for your efforts in answering our questions and for designing such an interesting looking game. I cannot wait to give this one a try!
If you are interested in Wolfpack: The North Atlantic Convoy Struggles, October 1941-March 1943, you can pre-order a copy for $52.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-896-wolfpack.aspx