This interview has a been a bit of a whirlwind but about 5 days ago, I found out about a new Kickstarter project from Worthington Publishing that was set to launch any day now. The game is called Archie’s War: The Battle for Guadalcanal and is a 1-2 player game. I immediately contacted Grant Wiley (the dude with the coolest name in history) and asked if we could be introduced to the designer Derek Croxton. Grant immediately obliged and sent an email introduction and in about the period of 24 hours, I had questions to Derek, he responded to them and I was able to get these edited and put up on the blog just a few days after the start of the campaign, which began on Wednesday, September 7th.

If you are interested in Archie’s War: The Battle for Guadalcanal, you can order a copy on the Kickstarter page at the following link:

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

Derek: I am a mild-mannered software developer by day. I got a Ph.D. in European history in 1996. I’ve been out of the profession formally for over 20 years, but I still occasionally get invited to conferences or to write an article on my specialty, which is the Peace of Westphalia. I maintain a website at and I have put up a few videos on related topics on YouTube, but I don’t have enough time to devote to either. Besides history and work, I spend most of my time playing or inventing games. I have two sons who are out of college or almost out, so it is quiet at home.

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

Derek: Being a game designer was my biggest wish since I got into board gaming in the early 1980’s. I have designed a number of games in my life and I have been trying actively to get published for quite a while. I love it when players are playing one of my games and they are puzzling over a difficult decision, because that’s what games are about.

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

Derek: Growing up, I admired James Dunnigan, Frank Chadwick, Eric Lee Smith, and Mark Herman. This game is most influenced, at least originally, by Craig Besinque’s Rommel in the Desert, which has always been one of my favorites. I’m like a lot of people in that I played monster games when I was younger (Scorched Earth at a rate of one turn per week) but I don’t have the time, space, or inclination to do that now. I am interested in the Second Punic War, and I remember that Aulic Council did a game in the early 1980’s that I dismissed at first because it used large areas instead of hexes. I later came to appreciate the elegance of a design that can use unique elements to capture the feeling of a war without necessarily having the detail of a traditional wargame. Rommel in the Desert is obviously one of those, and we’ve seen a lot more small, short, simple wargames in the past 10-20 years. People sometimes joke about Reiner Knizia doing a game on the Battle of the Bulge, but I think there really is room for a fusion of Euro-style simplicity with wargaming situations.

Grant: What historical event does Archie’s War cover?

Derek: It covers the ground war for Guadalcanal, roughly over the period of August through October.  (After October, the Americans moved increasingly to the offensive to kick the Japanese off of the island.)

Grant: Historically who was General “Archie” Vandegrift? What do we need to know about him?

Derek: Vandegrift was the commander of the First Marine Division and oversaw the defenses the whole time. Later, he became commandant of the Marine Corps and the first Marine 4-star General on active duty. He was responsible for setting up a cordon defense. It was frowned upon by most, but with the depth of his inland flank measured in feet rather than miles, he didn’t have much room to spare. His boss, Kelly Turner, wanted to land small detachments around the island. I can’t for the life of me see how this would have helped, and the diversion of troops might have lost the battle. Fortunately, Vandegrift was able to convince him otherwise.

Vandegrift is also from Charlottesville, Virginia, which is my hometown. He graduated from the same high school that I did. I didn’t realize he was from Charlottesville until I started the research for this game — no one talks about it here. There’s a plaque to him somewhere downtown, but I have not seen it. That is irrelevant, however, to why I named the game after him. The fact is that I didn’t want to call the game “Guadalcanal,” like so many others, and the other obvious names (Operation Shoestring, Operation Watchtower) were also taken. I was struck by the fact that Vandegrift went by his middle name, so I initially called it “Archie,” which sounded distinctive and yet referred to a central figure in the battle. It is also a kids’ cartoon, so kudos to Mike Wiley for coming up with the much better name of Archie’s War.

Grant: What was your inspiration for this design? What challenges did you have to overcome?

Derek: I originally wanted to make a Rommel in the Desert for Guadalcanal. There aren’t many games on the ground war in Guadalcanal, which is unusual considering the importance of the battle, and especially the fact that it was an American battle. The trouble with designing a game on this subject is that the battle would never have been fought if the Japanese knew what they were up against. They would have brought in more troops sooner, or they wouldn’t have fought at all. How do you make a game out of a situation like that? Every battle is shaped by limited intelligence, but Guadalcanal more than most. I really wanted to create a traditional block game, with step losses and battles resolved by dice rolls, but with variable forces on each side and victory conditions that varied accordingly. That would be a very challenging design, so I started thinking about how I could create a proof-of-concept version, much simplified in scope. I got really lucky that my initial attempt at this played pretty well — so well, in fact, that I thought it would make a good game itself. I solitaired it a few times, which is inherently difficult with a game based around limited intelligence, but it seemed to work. Then I convinced Alex Lehman to play me, and our first game came down to the last turn. It was quick, so we played again, and it again came down to the end. It seemed to be balanced, and it was definitely exciting. I gave up on the more complex design and have just focused on this version.

One of the most interesting aspects of the design is having a unit that never loses a battle. It didn’t start out that way, but I quickly realized that, if the Japanese were able to attack the Americans successfully next to Henderson, the Americans probably wouldn’t have the strength to counterattack. That meant that one good Japanese attack would effectively end the game. The Vandegrift piece really represents, not Vandegrift himself, but the divisional assets, including vehicles (some tanks) and artillery. They did pack a lot of firepower, so it wasn’t completely unreasonable to allow that piece to win any battle. At the same time, playtesting revealed that having an unbeatable piece on the map could lead an aggressive American player to push the Japanese right out to sea. That’s why we added the limitation that Vandegrift can only move 3 spaces and cannot attack amphibiously — although, again, this makes thematic sense because we’re talking about heavy equipment that would not be moving as quickly as unencumbered infantry.

Grant: What was your overarching design goal?

Derek: I wanted both players to face the same uncertainty that the commanders did historically. From the American perspective, you never know where the Japanese are going to come from or in what strength. Your units are spread thinly and you are tempted to draw back into a small defensive cordon, but you have to think about aggressive action, as Vandegrift did historically. You can’t just sit back and wait to be attacked. From the Japanese perspective, you are significantly weaker than the American player but you can strike anywhere. I think that’s how it felt at the time — except, of course, that the Japanese didn’t know just how strong the Americans were.

Grant: What sources did you consult to get the details about the battles? What one must read source would you recommend?

Derek: The most comprehensive source I read was Richard Frank’s book called Guadalcanal. It covers the naval and air war in at least as much detail as ground combat, but is still the most thorough on ground combat that I found. John Miller’s Guadalcanal: The First Offensive is briefer but helpful to get an overview — it is easy to get lost in the detail of Frank’s book. I read Eric Bergerud’s Touched With Fire about ground combat in the Pacific. I didn’t have a lot of need for that kind of tactical detail at the level of this game, but it was still fascinating. Bergerud’s Fire in the Sky and James Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno have amazing information about air and naval operations, again far beyond my needs. There are many other books specifically about ground operations on Guadalcanal, but none had many more details than Frank’s book. I’m always frustrated by a lack of detail about combat, and this goes for my specialty (the Thirty Years’ War) as well as Guadalcanal. I want to know exactly what units were where and when, but it’s hard to find that. For the early modern period, I know it doesn’t exist. For Guadalcanal, it probably doesn’t, but I could no doubt get more detail by looking in archives, which is what my training tells me to do. Realistically, though, I have to remember that I’m not trying to make an original contribution to our understanding of the battle; I’m just trying to make a game. Also, there is decreasing marginal utility to further detail unless I am going to make a much larger and more detailed game. I may try that some day, but I don’t have a grasp of the operation at a level I would need to.

Grant: How does the game deal with combat? Why did you decide that dice less combat was the best choice?

Derek: Rolling dice for combat works when you have a fair number of units that are relatively close in strength. In this game, many of the “units” are more like dummies on the map. The force pools on the map on any given turn could be widely divergent. If you attack and you are more than one point stronger than the defender, you deserve to win the battle. I didn’t want one guy to win a battle because he rolled a 6 on three dice while the other guy couldn’t roll a 6 on eight dice.

Grant: How does the game play differently in 2-player mode and solitaire? How difficult was it to make these two modes work?

Derek: These were actually two different designs that got merged into one, so I didn’t think about making them work together. The solitaire game was more of a roll-and-write. Mike Wiley hit on the excellent idea of making it into a board game and combining the two into one version.

Grant: Why did you feel blocks fit the campaign and told the story you wanted to tell?

Derek: As previously mentioned, I wanted to make a sort of Rommel in the Desert. My main focus was the lack of information about opposing forces, which blocks are good at replicating. I feel that block games generally make insufficient use of dummies, so the fact that some “units” in this game have no combat value brings in a feature that I have often wished for. The idea of using what are basically actions as dummy units was not my initial plan. The trouble is, you have so few units on the board, that if you get one or two actions on a turn, your army is drastically under strength and your opponent can see that. If you put them onto the board like units, though, they add an interesting dimension to the game, especially since you still have to protect them if you want to use them later.

Grant: How is the concept of maneuver, deception and attrition key factors in the game?

Derek: Deception is the heart of the game. I think of it like a poker game, except that both players have potentially winning hands, and your decisions are made in a context that fits with the historical battle. Maneuver is very constricted, which might sound funny since most units can move any distance on a turn. The fact is that the map doesn’t have a lot of room for maneuver; it is definitely large-scale. Moreover, the movement rules are quite restrictive: one move consists of units from a single space, to a single space — no dropping off or picking up. Getting your units concentrated for an attack can be more difficult than you might expect. As the Japanese, you want to present a credible threat without inviting Vandegrift to attack.

Attrition has an interesting role in this game. I mentioned that I wanted to use supply like in Rommel in the Desert, but since these are almost all infantry units rather than tanks, you don’t need much supply to attack. The shortage was in food, not ammunition. This is reflected for the Japanese player in taking attrition four times in the game, and for the American player in taking attrition if the Japanese player plays the actions. Because attrition removes a random unit from a stack, you don’t want to leave an important unit alone, especially, for the Americans, Vandegrift. But the cumulative effect also eats away at Japanese strength. This is less a problem for the Americans, but it can still affect them because they need to defend four spaces. Attrition is also reflected in battle losses, of course, and in one further way:  whenever a player uses an action, the “unit” represented by the action goes away. Sure, it was a blank, but your opponent didn’t know that. Are you giving away too much information by taking that unit away?

Grant: What area of Guadalcanal does the map cover? What strategic pinch points are created by your layout?

Derek: The map covers most of the area where any fighting occurred, from Cape Esperance to Taivu Point. It is a *very* unusual wargame map because it is almost entirely linear — only Bloody Ridge creates a fork off the main road. This reflects the actual structure of the battle, where the jungle was too dense to move troops in normal circumstances. Many Guadalcanal games treat jungle as little more than thick woods, but the Japanese spent weeks hacking through the undergrowth and maneuvering up and down muddy hills to get into position to attack Bloody Ridge. Hence the fact that, in this game, they must lose a unit to move off the coast road. (Originally, I had thought of a whole system to manage their movement, since they were unable to coordinate attacks from inland with those on the coast.) It’s more appropriate to ask what *isn’t* a choke point, and that answer is the difficult trek through the jungle to get to Bloody Ridge or to cross to the other side of the airfield.

Grant: How is Henderson Airfield best defended by the US player?

Derek: That’s kind of the whole gist of the game, isn’t it? At first, the US player will have to defend close to the airfield, because he doesn’t have enough troops to do otherwise. Depending on how aggressive the Japanese player is, he may be able to launch some spoiling attacks that keep the base a little safer, at least on one side. Of course, every game will be different because the troops he has to defend with will vary.

Grant: What is the strategy of the Japanese player to take the airfield?

Derek: Again, that’s what the player has to decide based on his forces. Actually taking Henderson Field is very difficult, since you can only make one attack on a turn. The Japanese ace in the hole is the amphibious action, which allows him to move units by sea directly to Henderson. The American player dare not leave the field completely undefended, but even if he leaves one unit, the Japanese can still hope to attack with two units and have enough to win. Usually, however, the Japanese will be trying to get adjacent to Henderson Field three times to secure a win. Any attack is bound to be met by a counterattack, from Vandegrift if not other American units, so the Japanese are going to have to make three separate attacks during the game.

Grant: How does the state of the runway play a major role in the game? How is it degrades and then repaired?

Derek: The runway doesn’t play a role in the 2-player game other than to mark Japanese victory if they get close enough to bombard it three times. There just isn’t enough granularity in the game to make the state of the runway affect the game in other ways.

In the solitaire game, however, the runway is crucial. Most of the time, if the Japanese don’t attack, they will take a potshot at the field (damaging it on a “1”). There is one Japanese event that can do two damage in a turn, which is a scary possibility. The American player can try to repair the field if he chooses the right action and rolls a 1-3. Getting the field up to where it provides an extra defense factor is crucial, as this also gives the player a little breathing room in case of a successful bombardment. Getting it up to a second defense point is wonderful, but requires some good luck, both in succeeding in repair rolls and in not having more pressing things to do. If the runway is in the zero range, I recommend taking advantage of the rule that lets you repair it on consecutive turns. Keep repairing it until it gets out of that range, or you may find your game ending early with a Japanese victory.

Grant: How do the Japanese use the jungle and fog of war to hide their troops and make their attacks most effective?

Derek: That’s the beauty for the Japanese player: the American player never knows what you have. You can hang back and try to get the American player to attack you — not very useful if Vandegrift is available, but exposing his location can give you the chance to eliminate him with attrition, or to attack elsewhere. One thing you have to accept in this game is that you’re going to have to make attacks that might fail. You don’t know your opponent’s strength unless he just attacked you, so you have to use your judgment.

Grant: What role do events play in the game? How are they determined?

Derek: There are no truly “random” events in the 2-player game. On the other hand, each player gets actions that he can perform that might throw off the other player; for example, the Japanese has three naval bombardments, and both players have the chance to make amphibious attacks. These are among the most important decisions a player can make in the game, because the actions allow you to do things that aren’t normally possible. Sometimes, the threat of being able to do something is more important than actually doing it.

In the solitaire game, the Japanese side will roll on the event table one time in six. The results are almost always bad for the player: a bombardment that can degrade the airfield two steps, a large reinforcement, an attack on the strongest Japanese front. They do not happen often, but the player has to take their possibility into consideration; for example, the airfield is not completely safe in the second box on the track, even though normally it will only be reduced by one in a turn. The player can choose to roll for American events instead of taking a defined action, but this is risky and tends to be more of a desperation move. One in six times, it won’t help you at all; and if it does help, it might not be what you most needed. Getting the Seabees early on, which improves airfield repair rolls to succeed on a 1-4 rather than a 1-3, can be a great bonus if you get it early enough to make a difference.

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

Derek: I think, first and foremost, it is a really fun, tense game. You never feel like you’re pushing pieces around to no purpose. Also, I think it reflects the kinds of decisions that commanders had to make in the actual battle. For the Japanese: we have a big force here, is it enough to take out the Americans defending that sector? For the Americans:  where are the Japanese likely to attack? Where do we need to strengthen our defense?

Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?

Derek: I am happy to say that it has been very positive. I have designed a lot of games (none published so far) and dragged other people into playing them, and I have had the experience of boring or confusing people more than once. This game is simple enough that no one has been confused by it, and engaging enough that no one has been bored by it (so far as I can tell).

Grant: What other games are you currently working on?

Derek: When Worthington originally planned to do the game, it was just the 2-player version, and Mike Wiley asked me if I had anything similar that they could pair with it. My first thought was a game on the Japanese attack in New Guinea, which was occurring at the exact same time as Guadalcanal, and which, like Guadalcanal, has proven difficult to game. Unfortunately, the situation was different enough from Guadalcanal that I had to make major changes in the system, but I think I have a good game there that I hope to see in print eventually. Mike also thought the system would work well for North Africa. I was skeptical at first, but I have a version that I’ve been playtesting and it looks promising so far. Most of my game design efforts have been in more of a Euro direction. I have a diplomatic game that I have been refining, and I have a card game that I hope will be published soon (I won’t provide details so as not to jinx it).

Thanks so much Derek for your quick responses to my emails and for answering these questions so quickly! I can say that the game looks intriguing and I am always up for a simple game with interesting choices and cannot wait to give this one a go.

If you are interested in Archie’s War: The Battle for Guadalcanal, you can order a copy on the Kickstarter page at the following link: