A new company on the scene the last few years is VUCA Simulations and they are coming out with some really great looking games. One of their recent new release games was called Donnerschlag: Escape from Stalingrad and I immediately was interested in this title. I reached out to the designer Patrick Gebhardt who was more than willing to discuss the game with us.

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

Patrick: I am a 36 year old guy from Cologne, Germany. I am the founder of my own company, which I run together with my best friend. Besides our VUCASIMS games we are mainly producing and selling poker supplies. Being married and having a daughter of 4, I enjoy doing sports and playing games, especially together with my buddies. In school we used to play a lot of Axis & Allies and Shogun. In those days, I stumbled across the great boardgamegeek.com. I was very amazed by the selection of games with a historical context. One of the first real consims I played was Case Blue from The Gamers. Although I think it’s a great game and it has a place of honor in my collection, I’ve been moving away from classic monster games and IGO-UGO games more and more. Today I prefer to play more interactive systems, which can also be manageable in terms of game length due to the restricted time available for the hobby.

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

Patrick: We have been playing a lot of games together in the past and we have been discussing the pros and cons of different games & systems for quite some time. Then we came up with the idea for a game that consists of several of our “philosophical” ideas. Like “short” playing time, manageable footprint, high interactivity, high replayability and a truckload of decision making. It was fun to develop a game from scratch and see the project steadily developing and finally coming to reality.

Grant: What designers would you say have influenced your style?

Patrick: I very much like A Victory Lost by Tetsuya Nakamura. It is one of my all-time favourite games and is in the top 3 of my most-played games. I love the game depth combined with such a simple rules set.

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

Patrick: The most challenging part was definitely testing the game over and over again. Making certain changes, some of which were very minor, and then starting over again. This was quite time-consuming.

The replayability of the game and the constant need for decision-making for the players in Donnerschlag would be the things that I think we achieved quite well.

Grant: What historical event does your new game Donnerschlag: Escape from Stalingrad cover?

Patrick: The game is about the Stalingrad relief operation called Unternehmen Wintergewitter, which took place in December 1942 and was led by Heeresgruppe Don to attempt to free the trapped German 6th Army in Stalingrad.

The Axis formations entered with 50,000 men and 250 tanks, while the strength of the Soviet formations was reported to be about three times that. For the enterprise to have any chance of success, the troops in the encirclement had to break out and meet the advancing Axis troops. The breakout had to be precisely coordinated with the advance of the relief troops and was to commence on the cue “Donnerschlag”. The breakout was never ordered and the troops in Stalingrad were never able to be relieved.

Grant: What was your inspiration for this game and why did you want to create a game on the subject?

Patrick: Historically the operation failed due to various reasons. But I liked the topic and I thought the situation would be interesting for a good game. I also liked the idea of giving the players the ability to choose their lanes or attack and maneuver to try their hand at changing the outcome of history.

Grant: What from the history did you want to make sure to include in the design?

Patrick: We wanted to show the historical terrain and the units used in the operation. But of course we had to tweak some values so that the German player has a decent chance to win (opposed to the historical event). For example we decided not to portray any of the logistical challenges in great detail and sacrificed this aspect to make the game more playable by both sides.

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

Patrick: There are a lot of books that do at least touch on the topic. One of the more detailed ones is …bis Stalingrad 48 Kilometer from Horst Scheibert. But I even contacted David Glantz and he sold me some great maps and further material on the operation as well. However, the main goal was to create a game which is based on history – not to create a sophisticated simulation of the operation.

Grant: Who is your codesigner on the project Pepito Shazzeguti? What special skills does he bring to the design?

Patrick: Pepito is an alias for a friend of mine who does not want his name to be published. He has a lot of ideas, so the hard part for me is to decide which ones to leave out 😉

Grant: What is the scale of the game? Force structure of the units?

Patrick: One hex equals about 4km and one turn equals 2-3 days. Units are mostly Brigades & Regiments for the Soviets and Romanians and Battalions & Abteilungen for the Germans.

Grant: What area of Stalingrad does the map cover?

Patrick: The area covered by the map is just south of the city of Stalingrad and East of the Don River.

Grant: What strategic pinch points are created on the map by the layout of spaces and the terrain?

Patrick: There are three rivers that are running in a West-East direction. Those can help the Soviet player to create some pretty strong defensive lines. That is why the German player has to push hard to take some river crossings before the Soviet player is able to reinforce them. Also, the Western flank is very much blocked by the Don River.

Grant: Who is the artist? How has their style helped you in telling the story here?

Patrick: The artist is Pablo, who has been working with us full time since our first game Crossing the Line. We are so happy to have him aboard and his artworks certainly speak for themselves.

I think the look & feel of a game are almost as important to the game as the mechanics themselves, that is why we have put a strong emphasis on the artwork of our projects.

Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters?

Patrick: The counters are pretty standard and are similar to our other publisedh titles. Combat Strength is listed on the bottom left with Movement Allowance on the bottom right. The dots in the upper right hand corner show the Stpes the unit has and there is the NATO symbol denoting unit type, their formation ID, color and symbol to easily identify on the board. In general we have the Soviet forces divided by Army and then sorted by Corps. For the German side, a Corps is the highest level and then the formations are sorted by Division.

Units can be divided into HQ’s, Infantry, Motorized and Mechanized Infantry, Tanks, Recon and Cavalry. This is important for Combined Arms bonuses. All units are either Leg, Motorized or Tank Movement class, which impacts the movement costs.

Grant: The game has quite a few different types of cards? What is the purpose of these different types?

Patrick: Each player has two distinct decks of cards. Activation cards will determine which formations / units a player can activate in a turn and Combat cards can be used for specific events, to modify certain rules or to impact combat resolution.

Grant: How are Activation Cards used? Can you show us a few examples?

Patrick: Activation Cards get played at the beginning of a player’s Activation. It simply states which units may be activated. There are also some wildcards where you can choose a formation at your own discretion.

Grant: How are Combat Cards used? Can you show us a few examples?

Patrick: All Combat Cards have two choices. You can play them for a General event which mostly has a stronger impact on the game. But this comes at a cost: The card effect is less probable to be a success (you have to roll a die most of the times) and is permanently removed from the game if played successfully. On the other hand, you have a tactical event, which mostly impacts combat resolution or movement. This effect is smaller but it is more probable to be successfully played.

Grant: What is the OKH and Stavka Box and how do players use cards in this area? What does this represent from the history?

Patrick: Both players can put a card into their respective holding box to “secure it” from any negative effects of any cards played by the opponent. And sometimes even more valuable is the fact, that a player does not have to roll for its success. If played from the box, the card’s event (general or tactical) is automatically successful.

Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?

Patrick: There is an Admin Phase followed by an Activation Phase. In the Activation Phase, both players alternatingly play an Activation Card and conduct movement and combat with the activated units. This is repeated until both players either pass or are out of Activation Cards. 

Grant: How does combat work in the design?

Patrick: It is a very simple odds-based system with some modifiers (Combined Arms and Terrain), which can be modified in your favor by the play of Combat Cards.

The choice is up to the players, how many cards they use and in which combats.

Grant: What is the special Donnerschlag rule and what does it represent from the battle?

Patrick: The German player must call out “Donnerschlag” at a certain point in the game. It basically simulates the orders to 6th Army (off-map) to prepare and conduct the breakout. 

He secretly chooses a meeting zone on the map and has to reach it at the end of the fourth turn after calling it out to win. The Soviet player of course has to prevent this, although usually he does not know which meeting zone the German player is heading to.

Grant: What are the various victory conditions?

Patrick: There is only one victory condition: Either the German player manages to reach the meeting zone in time (in Supply and in Command) or he doesn’t. The exact timing can be sightly manipulated by the play of certain Combat Cards, but the victory conditions are pretty straight-forward.

Grant: Which side has a tougher time in meeting their objectives?

Patrick: It really depends on the game. 

There were games where the German player had trouble even crossing the first river and there were games where he could easily push through to the meeting zone.

A lot depends on which cards are dealt and which choices are made. I think that is part of the fun and you will never see two games being the same.

Grant: What are some strategy considerations you would share for each side?

Patrick: As the German player, you should really push hard to get across the river first, and possibly even the second river line as soon as you can. Concentrate your forces but take care to protect your supply lines. And try to let your opponent guess which meeting zone you have selected for as long as possible.

As the Soviet player you have to delay the German advance. Use the river lines and then there is one main strategy for you: Hit those German tanks! as they have the most punching power you should hit them whenever there is even the slightest chance for a tank step loss.

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

Patrick: I really like the high interactivity so that you never sit idle bored, waiting for your opponent to finish his turn. The replayability is high and the rules are very simple. But there are a lot of ways to win, so trying out different approaches is very fun.

Grant: What other designs are you mulling over?

Patrick: I am thinking about different topics. Dien Bien Phu certainly is at the top of the list, but also some Napoleonic battles would come to my mind here.

We will see what the next year brings 😉

Thank you so much for your time Patrick. We appreciate the effort in answering our questions and for highlighting the various features of the design. VUCA Simulations is doing a fantastic job with their games and I wish you all the luck in the world.

If you are interested in Donnerschlag: Escape from Stalingrad, you can order a copy for €69,99 (about $73) from the VUCA Simulations website at the following link: https://vucasims.com/products/donnerschlag-escape-from-stalingrad