I really like the idea of monster wargames! Lots of counters, multiple maps, an encyclopedic rulebook with 50+ pages. These concepts all sound really inviting and interesting to me. But, in reality when I get a monster wargame, not that I have purchased many, I begin to sweat bullets thinking about clipping and organization of 1,000+ counters, reading through those encyclopedic rule books and finding table space to splay out and play on 5 maps the size of Texas. With that being said, I have never taken the plunge and purchased one of the large, monster wargames from the good folks at Thin Red Line Games. They have a whole line of them and they all look amazing including the C3 Series, focused on Command, Control and Communication and pioneered by Less Than 60 Miles. Recently, they released their newest Module in the C3 Series called Die Festung Hamburg and it sold out within weeks. I reached out to the designer and owner of Thin Red Line Games Fabrizio Vianello to try and get some intel into the SOP’s of the C3 Series and just what lies within that monster box that is so appealing to so many.
Grant: First off Fabrizio please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Fabrizio: I’m an IT consultant, but the amount of my time dedicated to Thin Red Line Games is slowly increasing….We will see what happens in the future, but I’d need much bigger print runs to make out a living! Wargames aside, tennis and motorbikes are the only hobbies still surviving in my quite busy daily schedule.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Fabrizio: The first, original spark came while playing the revered The Next War by SPI. We wanted a version set 5 – 10 years later than the original, updated and re-assessed using the information available in the post-Soviet, internet era. The research and the map design are the part I have and that I’m still enjoying most. I have always had a real passion for maps since I was probably 5 or 6 years old.
Grant: What designers would you say have influenced your style?
Fabrizio: I’m a traditionalist on this: James Dunnigan, Mark Herman and Richard Berg are the guiding lights. Each time we start a new design, I’m surprised by the quantity and quality of things they were able to get right with the limited, difficult to retrieve information they had in the “golden years” of the hobby.
Grant: How do you feel about publishing wargames? How is the experience?
Fabrizio: In short, I simply love it, even though when we started we had no idea in what kind of mess we were going to plunge! Completing the first prototype took two years and risks of divorce. I also think that creating a (hopefully) quality product requires a true passion for the subject, as an unimaginable quantity of energy must be spent on apparently secondary details. As an example, defining exactly how the mobilisation process of Denmark would have worked in case of war took a couple of months and required help from contacts in the Royal Danish Defence College (Thanks Mark and Erik!)
Grant: What historical(?) period does Die Festung Hamburg cover?
Fabrizio: The whole series has an alternate history timeline departing from June, 1985: The hard-liners in the Kremlin successfully take power with a military coup, and decide the only alternative to an impeding collapse of the Soviet system is to use the shrinking military advantage of the Warsaw Pact before time runs out.
Grant: What do you think is the attraction to these 1985 what if style wargames?
Fabrizio: Most of us grew up during the coldest days of the Cold War, avidly eating up any information or news about troop movements, upgraded technologies, and new weapon systems. Each time a new issue of Strategy & Tactics arrived, we hurried to read multiple times the “For You Information” column to absorb the latest about the Soviet reorganization or the development of the Apache attack helicopter. When the (first) Cold War finally ended, I think a question remained in our minds: What in the heck would have really happened?
Grant: What was your inspiration for this game? Why did you feel drawn to the subject?
Fabrizio: I’ve always thought that some of the inner most important mechanisms of warfare have not been sufficiently explored in other wargames on the subject, particularly for the modern period: Most was too predictable, computable and immediate. This is usually intentional and not an oversight by the designer, as he must decide since the start which aspects will be covered in detail, and which ones will be left in the background. NATO: Division Commander stood out as one of the few exceptions in this regard, at least until a few years ago, and after reading about John Boyd and playing the exceptional Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm by Matrix Games, I made up my mind: I wanted a game covering how war is organized and waged, as seen by the command post.
Grant: What was your design goal with the game?
Fabrizio: The main goal was to give a full accounting of two key aspects of warfare, specifically that is time and uncertainty. This translates in the game into several effects:
• Every plan has its own inertia, and changing it drastically will require time and resources that the enemy could deny.
• Almost nothing happens immediately, but needs to be planned, propagated and executed. You cannot simply decide to counterattack and have your troops ready in zero time, and you cannot reorganize your defensive plan with a couple of quick, improvized moves.
• In critical contingencies, there’s simply not enough time to analyze every aspect of the situation and act in a proper, coordinated way. If you focus on a primary aspect of a crisis, something else will have to be ignored at least for the moment.
• No matter how well you have prepared, when the actual fight starts you enter the realm of uncertainty. You cannot simply calculate the combat odds and determine your success percentage, the best you can do is having a general assessment of how the situation could develop in the following hours.
Grant: What type of research did you do to get the details correct? What one must read source would you recommend?
Fabrizio: There’s a partial reference biography that will be published soon on a couple of sites together with the Designers’ Notes, but as a starter I would strongly recommend Patterns of Conflict by John Boyd. It is not an easy reading, as you expect some sort of manual about maneuvers, attacks and defensive lines, and what you find instead is an almost philosophical dissertation about warfare. But once the central concept starts to be absorbed it is a sort of revelation, or at least it was for me: you don’t have to throw more tanks at the enemy, but you have to “Penetrate adversary’s moral-mental-physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system”. A piece of genius.
Grant: Die Festung Hamburg is now the third module of the C3 Series. What is the focus of the series and how is this third game different?
Fabrizio: The focus is to represent a hypothetical NATO – Warsaw Pact conflict at operational level, with a strong emphasis on the Command, Control and Communication problems. Die Festung Hamburg is different in several key aspects:
• Within the strategic premises used for the whole series, NATO is surprisingly unprepared. The Netherlands I Corps, the main formation assigned to this sector, is simply not there and will be not for at least a couple of days. The Danish Jutland division, that should help defending the key Schleswig-Holstein area, is also missing when war starts.
• The critical boundary between NATO AFCENT and AFNORTH runs right along the Elbe river, giving the NATO commander an additional and unwanted problem.
• The Warsaw Pact commander also has additional headaches, as he must pursue two diverging and not mutually supporting strategic goals: breaking thru NATO defense and reach the Weser, and cut out Denmark and the Baltic Sea from NATO lines of communication.
Grant: How can you possibly cover all the elements of modern mechanized warfare in this system? How have you gone about that task?
Fabrizio: It’s impossible to cover everything at the same detail level, unless you want to design Campaign for North Africa in central Europe…For example, the air war and antiaircraft defense in the C3 Series are quite abstracted.
Grant: What is the OODA Loop? How is it a hallmark of your system?
Fabrizio: Tough question! The Observe – Orient – Decide – Act loop was first theorized by John Boyd, a US Air Force officer. It has been used by military planners as one of the core concepts for developing the Air/Land Battle and Counter-Strike doctrine, and also found application in several non-military fields. In my opinion, its most important innovation was the introduction of a completely new method to analyse the battlefield, focused on how quickly a military unit of any size can react to new information and to an evolving situation. In the end, the Commander’s goal is to put the enemy in a state where his actions are neither appropriate nor timely for the current situation on the battlefield.
In the C3 System, very few actions can be completed immediately by a unit, and the time needed heavily depends upon having a working command chain, a command staff not overloaded with other tasks, and by the tactical situation of the unit on the battlefield. A cunning commander can exploit the enemy’s slowness to take it off-guard, or even to have him react in an inappropriate manner to the unfolding events. As an example, an entire Soviet army could be plunged into chaos by a well-executed and well-timed counterattack from a single NATO brigade (been there, seen that!).
Grant: How have you gone about modeling the military doctrine, tactics and peculiarities for both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces?
Fabrizio: I’m a big fan of the “Design for Cause” school, so we didn’t try to model the doctrine or tactics directly by writing specific rules. There are of course exceptions, but in most cases the doctrine and the tactics to adopt are the result of the building blocks we placed as basic structure. For example, Warsaw Pact needs to echelon its forces to avoid a gigantic traffic jam; NATO needs to keep reserves at brigade, division and even Corps level or risk the collapse at the first unexpected event; Artillery must stay behind the contact line, or risk being vaporized by enemy counter-battery fire or air strikes; the NATO command system is inherently more flexible and reactive thanks to its less centralized structure, and so on.
Grant: What is the scale and force structure of units? How has this choice in the design assisted you in telling this story?
Fabrizio: The maneuver unit is the battalion for NATO and the regiment for Warsaw Pact. The force structure then expands to Brigade -> Division -> Corps for NATO, and to Division -> Army -> Front for Warsaw Pact. This choice allowed us to represent several peculiarities of the two armed forces, like the extreme flexibility and resilience of West German brigades or the excessive centralization of the Warsaw Pact command structure.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters? Can you share several example NATO and Warsaw Pact units for comparison?
Fabrizio: Let’s start with the basic combat unit: each counter has:
• A standard NATO symbol defining the type of unit, and a silhouette of the main equipment used.
• Attack and defense values, more correctly defined as “armored combat” and “combined combat” values.
• A Cadre Rating, defining immaterial aspects like training level, CO’s quality and will to fight.
• Amphibious crossing capability.
• “Soft” target identification, when the unit has few or no armored AFV’s and is therefore more vulnerable to artillery fire.
• Designation and higher level HQ.
• A colored band indicating the higher level formation.
Support Units follow the same guidelines, but each one has specific information related to its utilization:
• Artillery and Missile units have full strength bombardment, reduced strength bombardment and range.
• Helicopters have strike strength and range.
• HQ units have Command Range and possible EW capability.
Grant: How can this game be played along with the other modules covering the whole Central Front?
Fabrizio: An additional, combined campaign rules booklet (Field Manual in the Thin Red Line Games jargon) is available on our web site and is updated at the release of each new module. The combined campaign adds several strategic choices and problems to both sides, further increasing the pressure of command.
To give an idea, here’s the map for the July is the Cruellest Month combined campaign, with the advance lines defined by STAVKA for a successful Warsaw Pact offensive.
Grant: How many maps are included in this module? What tactical challenges and opportunities are created by the terrain in the Central Front?
Fabrizio: Die Festung Hamburg includes one 100x75cm map, bigger than the other modules as we included a big chunk of the Jutland peninsula. The terrain in the sector has been often defined as perfect for tanks, but I’m not sure this is correct. A Warsaw Pact offensive must immediately deal with several large water obstacles – The River Elbe and the nasty Elbe / Lubeck Kanal with its anti-crossing design – and later with the River Weser and the Nord Ostsee Kanal. In the middle, there’s dozens of large towns and cities, each one offering a good defensive spot for NATO mechanized infantry and its anti-tank guided missiles.
For NATO, the main problem is the practically complete absence at start of the Netherlands I Corps and of the Danish Jutland Division, leaving a couple of still reorganizing West German divisions as the only available forces. In short, it’s very challenging for both sides.
Grant: How does combat function in the design?
Fabrizio: Players will immediately discover that hardware has a limited impact on combat and what really counts are a myriad of other factors: tactical deployment, artillery support, air support, command chain, cohesion, electronic warfare, support from flank and rear areas, engagement status, terrain, proximity of command HQ, reconnaissance, even intelligence on enemy units are some of them.
Moreover, it’s impossible to know in advance the effectiveness of artillery support, air support and electronic warfare. There’s no “I’ll just add one artillery point and attack on the 3-1 column” here, certainty is not available.
Grant: What is the makeup of the Combat Results Table?
Fabrizio: The CRT works by differential and could convey the impression of being not particularly bloody or decisive: a successful combat will increase the enemy attrition of one or maybe two points…But each attrition point worsens the combat efficiency, and a unit could be attacked even 4 or 6 times in a single turn. In the end, a single attrition point could make the difference between a defender that can still hold the position, and one that must retreat immediately or risk destruction.
Disengagement is also particularly important during combat, as there’s no automatic retreat for the defender. And the more the defender tries to hold a compromised defensive position, the less its disengagement chances are.
Grant: How are Chemical and Nuclear warfare modeled?
Fabrizio: Chemical warfare can be waged with persistent or non-persistent agents. It has an immediate and direct impact on ground combat and it makes artillery bombardments potentially more effective. Persistent agents can also be used in an interdiction bombardment, and could make the target hex even more difficult to move into.
Nuclear weapons are of tactical type and can be delivered by artillery, aircraft or missiles during a bombardment / strike. If a high number of kilotons are used, the attack can inflict damage not only to the target (direct damage), but also to every other unit in the same hex (indirect damage). Another interesting aspect of nuclear attacks is the effect of the terrain: urban areas become practically a death trap, while hills will decrease the impact.
Last but not least, an optional rule allows to fully simulate the effect a so-called “integrated battlefield” (i.e. nuclear or chemical) would have on the command chain according to the US Army Field Manuals: the time needed to plan and execute orders is doubled, and this has a severe impact on a simulation based on Command, Control and Communication.
Grant: How are specific events for Warsaw Pact and NATO determined and what effect do they have?
Fabrizio: The possible events and strategic actions are dictated by the real possibility each side had, and by our evaluation of the possible developments on the battlefield. For example, events and actions affecting positively the NATO air power tend to increase after the first day of war, while Warsaw Pact could experience mass defections or internal revolts as the war goes on.
Grant: How are Random events different and how do they further increase battlefield chaos?
Fabrizio: The Random Events are practically a list of possible screw-ups or opportunities that history showed us are constantly happening on a battlefield in every era: units paralyzed by traffic jams or wrong orders, direct hits on critical command posts, enemy battle plans captured by chance, captured officers interrogated, and so on.
Grant: How many campaign games and scenarios are included?
Fabrizio: Die Festung Hamburg includes four scenarios of increasing difficulty and two different campaigns: The North Stygian Plain, where NATO is taken partially by surprise, and One Minute to Midnight, where both sides had several days of build-up before war erupts.
Grant: What are the Optional and Campaign victory conditions?
Fabrizio: The standard victory conditions are based on the capture of geographical objectives for Warsaw Pact, on the losses inflicted to the invading forces for NATO, and on the commitment of strategic reserves for both sides. The optional victory conditions are based on Anthony Morphet’s inner knowledge of NATO’s plans and assumptions about Warsaw Pact political objectives, and leave no space for compromise: Warsaw Pact must decisively break through NATO defenses, while NATO must practically destroy the communist war machine.
Grant: I chuckled when I read this is in the rules. “…completely ignoring whining arguments about “unbalanced play”. How do your chosen victory conditions overcome Grognard grumbling?
Fabrizio: They don’t! That refers to the optional, hard-liners, ultra-realistic victory conditions. If you’re not man enough to face them, report to command immediately!
Grant: What is next for the series?
Fabrizio: The next module will shift the focus on the US VII Corps Area of Responsibility, not an easy nut to crack for the Soviets. The working title is In a Dark Wood.
Grant: Also as Die Festung Hamburg is already sold out but when is the reprint run going to start?
Fabrizio: The Thin Red Line Games Central Committee for Resources Assignment has not yet deliberated on this specific issue. We are all waiting for their scientifically planned decisions.
Grant: What other games are you working on Fabrizio?
Fabrizio: Right now, we are preparing the second edition (Second Echelon in the TRL Games jargon) of Less Than 60 Miles, first module of the series centered on US V Corps sector. Report for Duty (that is, reserve a copy) by writing to info@TRLGames.com!
At the same time, we are working on a new project whose details are still classified as NATO COSMIC SECRET. More on this in the coming months!
As mentioned, the game is already sold out and the Thin Red Line Games Central Committee for Resources Assignment has not yet deliberated on whether or not there will be a 2nd Echelon in the near future, but while we are waiting you can review the game on the the Thin Red Line Games website at the following link: https://trlgames.com/