While attending Buckeye Game Fest in the spring of 2022, we met two new designers who had a very cool looking prototype copy of their new game setup in the War Room called Song for War: Mediterranean Theater. Chris Helm and Seth Stigliano were really nice guys who obviously had put a ton of time into their game and it was immediately evident that this was going to be a different experience. Unfortunately, because of our crazy schedule of events and already committed to games, we were unable to sit down and play the game but got a crash course into the design as well as a good look at the awesome components. Recently, with the Kickstarter launch on the horizon, we reached back out to Chris and Seth to get some more details about the design to share ahead of the project.
If you are interested in the game, you can get a great look at the rulebook and a general overview of the game by visiting the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/invictarexgames/song-for-war-mediterranean-theater
Grant: First off Chris and Seth, please tell us a little about yourselves. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Chris: Seth is an Engineering Coordinator at Dearing Compressor and Pump, an Ohio-based company serving customers US-wide primarily in oil & gas. I am the Director of Operations for the Americas Assurance Practice of the Big 4 firm Ernst & Young, which has ~$40b in annual revenue across ~150 countries.
In addition to tabletop gaming and starting Invicta Rex Games, Seth and I share a number of interests including all things sci-fi and fantasy. We grew up playing Axis & Allies and various RPG’s. Seth is a fan of Supreme Commander (RTS game). I have an M.A. in American History and am a history lover – Civil War, WW2, American Revolution. I play (aka “lose often at”) basketball with my oldest who is 22.
Grant: How did you come to team up on this design?
Chris: We were friends and fellow gamers before we became aspiring designers. We played A&A semi regularly though we were not wargamers really – we’ve played a lot of Twilight Imperium, RPG’s, etc. The origins for Song for War started on our game night. We often found ourselves asking open questions about mechanics and game play, and our thinking steadily gravitated to theater level war games:
What would make a game like A&A more realistic, strategic, and deeper in history without sacrificing game speed and extending play times beyond what they already are? How can we think differently about turn sequence so nations can play as teammates and work together? War isn’t sequential so why do we have to move, fight, roll, take casualties, resupply one nation / one player at a time? I looked at various rule books and many had sequential, nation-based movement / turns. Seemed clunky and not realistic for a wargame with multiple actors.
How do we reduce long down times – or, at minimum, use the play time usually required for these games more effectively, e.g., can different nations/players engage in the same activity or different activities simultaneously without it feeling like chaos? When battles occur, why does it often end up with large clumps of different types of units moving at the same time and pushed into spaces all at once? Battles are fought in waves using combined forces to stage actions, maximize impact and seize objectives, so why do infantry, tanks, artillery, bombers, etc. often seem to have to do things together?
Why can’t front lines change? How can we create different hot spots on the board that can be of strategic importance for one game but each game be different? Why do we have to resupply the same locations on the board? In the war, the Axis or Allies were always trying to capture an objective because of its key geographical location or because it had a big strategically important port/harbor. Shouldn’t we be able to take an objective away from an enemy and then resupply it as a forward position?
Why is it that every unit can hit every other unit? Why can infantry shoot down heavy bombers or Fighters? Should Fighters be able to take down battleships? Seemed like a no to us. Why do we always have to capture the same objectives or spaces to win the game? How can we make it so that every objective can be within reach should a nation choose to go after it? And so we can have multiple paths to victory and make the entire game board potentially active?
As we started doing research we saw a gap between the deeper history, unit detail and game play of hex and counter games compared to the larger-board, theater tabletop war games. It seemed like an opportunity to create an interesting new game and also reach a broader gaming market.
Grant: What strengths do each of you bring to the design process?
Chris: We often say “thank goodness for [the other guy]” because of the different skills we bring. Seth’s engineering background is critical. The quality of the prototype has been eye-catching for gamers, folks at conferences, play-testers and reviewers. Seth also has a knack for materials, components, etc. He also has experience in supply chains and the associated costs, logistics, working with vendors, etc. But the biggest and most pleasant surprise is Seth has an incredible ability in graphic design, the use of color – e.g., the game board, NS cards, web site, our KS page coming along, etc.
My background in history and prior days of looking at primary and secondary documents has been a big help. I am the research guy to tie game units, mechanics, cards, etc. to history. Due to my job, I have a good general business background and work with accountants, auditors, lawyers, and often present info, work with groups, etc. I also handle marketing and the writing tasks – rule book, web site content, etc.
Grant: What historical period does Song for War cover? Also, what was the logic in choosing to start with the Mediterranean Theater?
Chris: The longer-game scenario starts in November 1942 just before Operation Torch begins, and it has up to 6 stages (with stages 1-5 having all 4 phases but stage six ends after stage 2 which is when victory points are counted). The 1943 scenario starts roughly in April 1943 with the Allies making their way across North Africa toward Tunis – so a different starting point in history (and the 1943 game starts out at Stage 3 and runs up to 4 stages (3, 4, 5 and phase 1 and phase 2 of stage 6)). However, each of these scenarios are intentionally designed to be jumping off points that allow the players to execute the war they want to from there. This is not a game where players follow the same path as history – should the Allies want to focus their efforts in moving toward Italy to win the game, or Greece, or stay with North Africa, or divide and conquer, they can do that. We have a lot of ways to win by taking key objectives across the game board to get the needed victory points.
Conversely the Axis can choose how much they want to play defense vs. offense – and where they want to counter punch where the Allies may have left holes in their advance. Either way, the game does not reward passive play – you really can’t turtle up as the Axis, and you cannot lay back as the Allies. The Allies have to be aggressive while being careful to not overreach and leave key objectives and their victory points overly vulnerable to counterattack. When I was trying to pick a theater for the board, I happened to see a map of the Mediterranean Theater in an oversized book and thought 1) with the right boundaries this could be a perfect sized board that also allowed for land, sea and air in nearly equal measure; and 2) we have not seen the Med much at all in tabletop war games (and not at this scale), so it seemed like fertile ground.
Grant: What was the inspiration for the title?
Chris: Seth found it, actually. It was a poem written in 1945 by W.R. Rodgers. It has a WW2 theme and we thought it would be a different type of title, so we went with it.
Grant: What research did you do to get the details correct? What one must read source would you recommend?
Chris: Particularly helpful have been the oversized atlas-type books that sit on the top shelves at used bookstores for years on end. Historical atlases of WW2 battles and theaters – and/or encyclopedias of aircraft, tanks or whatever. You find helpful nuggets like topographical views that I used to decide where to put key mountain spaces or impassable spaces – or circle graphs of the range of fighters or bombers which we visually overlaid to our map to get a sense of how many spaces to give units for their movement.
Usual desktop research – various web sites ranging from the US armed forces to Wikipedia. And can’t ever discount the WW2 in color and all the other documentary series that usually spend one episode on the Mediterranean.
The gold mine source, however, has been The Oxford Companion to World War II, edited by I.C.B. Dear. It has so much information in it in an encyclopedia form. It has so many stats on units, for example, that I translated into armor strength or firepower strength, movement, as part of upgrades, etc.
Along they way, I jotted down events that happened in the Med in 1942 or 1943 (or close enough) – e.g., when Berlin sent troops south to Greece – and used those as Event Cards in the National Support Deck. I also tried to align units used in the theater at the time to the Unit Upgrade Cards. But I wasn’t overly strict about this as game play and fun are the ultimate goal.
Grant: The game is designed as a 2-4 player experience. How do players get divided up? Does each side have autonomy and enough to do (I’m looking at the Italians)?
Chris: We thought about this a lot during design. We wanted to ensure that each player has a lot to do and a roughly equal amount of engagement and importance while also making sure each nation is a unique experience to play. This goes back to another of our original early questions to spark Song for War – why the heck would I want to sit around a table for 8 hours and play a nation that does not have a big contribution or role in the game while watching others? Just seemed boring to us.
Italy of course was the key one to think about. However, after doing the research it solved itself because the Italians actually had a strong navy to start in the early days of the theater. It was all part of the Mare Nostrum view of Mussolini and the Italian expansionist view that drove them to move into North Africa to begin with. Mare Nostrum is also an event card to capture the Italian mantra. The Italians are fun to play – and play testers often gravitated toward Italy simply because it often does not play a big role in a game. But here it does – an equal and distinct nation.
When dividing players its straightforward – 2 player game = player one plays both Axis nations vs player two who plays both Allied nations; 3 player game = players one and two take the Axis nations (1 nation each) vs. player three who plays both allied nations (of course you could reverse that); and in a 4-player game is 2 vs 2 (each player takes 1 nation).
Grant: With no dedicated solo AI how can players play the game solo? Are there any rules changes needed?
Chris: Lot of thought here too. No surprise, among tried-and-true wargamers, the lack of a dedicated solo player bot / process will likely be perceived as a miss – and we did hear this question a lot as part of play testing. We even thought about using development of a possible bot as part of the stretch goals but decided ultimately against developing a separate bot because the game was designed to be collaborative and simultaneous. But… next bullet….
That said – when Zilla Blitz reviewed the game – he observed that the mechanics allow for 1 player to play it solo and play all 4 nations. The only key rule change needed is you have to take out the hidden fleet mechanic as there is no logic to hiding the fleet from yourself. But it works.
Grant: This is a big production with a large and gorgeous board, lots of unique unit pieces and fantastic art. Is this game overly ambitious particularly as your first game?
Chris: First off, thanks for saying that. See the shout out to Seth’s graphic design abilities above. But from the start, we thought that if we were going to hit a larger mainstream gaming audience, we needed to have a lot of pop in the materials, commissioned art, graphics, etc. And totally 100% over ambitious. But when you’re totally naïve I guess you just blissfully walk into a project. We’ve managed to find almost every pitfall, but we’re learning a ton along the way and sorting it all out. The larger gaming and design community is really a good sharing group, too.
Grant: How have you focused on integrating mechanics to model WWII in the Mediterranean?
Chris: Good question. Also see the response above. History wise, we keep one foot in history while bending facts just a bit (but not often) for the sake of game play – for example, I don’t think there were many if any German Battleships in the Med, but hey.
Mechanics wise – the circumstances of the Mediterranean come out in:
- Starting units at set up – I did research to see which units were where prior to Torch, and for which nation(s). The map and atlas books mentioned above were key. So, for example, by 1943 the German staged defense in Tunisia and the land bridge were in full swing so for the starting 1943 scenario we tried to emulate that point in time. And to start the 1942 scenario.
- Hidden Fleets – We really wanted to recreate the real-life uncertainty and tension of the invasion fleet that the Allies and Axis felt. For the Allies, where should it land? How aggressive should the Allies be? Should they show their hand early in Tunisia or land near Algiers (even more conservative) or should they wait a game stage or two and surprise the Axis in Sicily, mainland Italy, Greece (more risky tho!)…or maybe reinforce Malta? And for the Axis, we know Hitler was worried about where that Allied fleet was going to hit – so we wanted to re-create that stress for the Axis players (and the Allies of course can change their plans mid-stream!). We also worked in hidden fleet options for all the nations so you can use them anytime to add fun.
- Objectives – The most valuable ones on the board (measured by resupply and victory point value) are either where major battles took place or the important hubs held by Axis or Allies; and we emulated which Objectives were held by which nation at the start of the scenarios (e.g. Italy holds Taranto, Tripoli in 1942. Malta never fell and was in the hands of the Allies. Algiers was chosen as the key Torch landing spot and is the only Objective held by the US to start 1942, etc.).
- National Support Cards – These take a ton of work and research. For unit upgrades, unique units and especially for events, I always tried to incorporate period relevant events, starting units, unit upgrades, etc. to the Med theater around 1942 or 1943. If an event a unit didn’t appear until 1944 or 45 – or was too early, I didn’t include it in most cases.
- Standard Unit Abilities, Movement and Battle – these are not Mediterranean specific by design. Standard units (which all nations have) each have their own inherent abilities to make the game deep and fun (a classic example is the strategic bombing ability of heavy bombers to hit resupply values vs. enemy units – but every standard unit has abilities to consider. And for movement and battle, combined forces were used in all theaters in the war not just the Med – e.g., using fighters to clear air space (so they move first with subs for example), using artillery and bombers and larger ships to bombard from distance, and finally sending in tanks or infantry. This is how battles were fought – and while not specific to the Med, key to better WW2 game movement and battle mechanics.
Grant: What are the initial setup options for the 1942 and 1943 scenarios? How does setup different? What is the playtime of each setup?
Chris: We just covered this but I would reiterate that the goal was to emulate a snapshot in time for Nov 1942 or April 1943 based on history in the Mediterranean Theater at that time, which nation held what, starting units etc. From there, combatants can prosecute the war as they see fit. On the back of the player aids are starting unit scenarios for 1942 and 1943. The 1942 scenario takes approximately 4-7 hours to play. The 1943 scenario takes approximately 2-4 hours. That assumes of course that folks have become familiar with the rules before they sit down.
Grant: What are the relative differences between the USA, Great Britain, Italy and German units?
Chris: Nations don’t start with the same number or type of units on the board, as one would likely assume – to emulate generally that point in Med WW2 history for each nation to start each game. From a standard unit perspective, it’s a level playing field. All nations have the same standard units, e.g., the abilities and limitations of any standard (i.e., not upgraded) German tank are the same as an Italian, US or British one.
Where the individuality of each nation enters is by playing each nations unit upgrade and unique unit National Support Cards (16 per nation). For instance, the US can upgrade all its infantry to Bazooka Anti-Tank Units, or all its Sea Transports to LST-388’s with more carrying capacity, or its tanks to all Shermans which are more mobile – or introduce its powerful unique unit, the B-17 bomber (all of the unique units will be 3D plastic pieces). Italy (upgrades to the Zara Cruiser, Savoia bomber, etc. and its unique unit the Alpini Mountain Infantry), Germany (Stuka, Tiger, 88 artillery/ flak gun upgrades (and more), along with its unique Schwerer Gustav Rail Gun unit). And Great Britain (upgrades such as the Mosquito longer-range light bomber, Spitfire, or its unique unit the King George Battleship). These are fun to introduce and create replay-ability for each nation.
Grant: How do the allied chaps have to strategize together?
Chris: At the start of both scenarios – and especially 1942 – the Axis control most of the objectives across the game board. The Allied nations are the invaders. However, the US is centered in the West near Algiers to emulate where their forces historically focused. The British control Gibraltar in the West near the US but the vast majority of British power lies far to the East with a strong base in Alexandria – and the Brits also control the critical space of Malta at the center of the game board.
I read a book once that said strategy is really about choosing what you are not going to do – and making tradeoffs. We really try and capture that here. There are a number of strategic questions the Allies must answer – a few examples:
- Big picture – Where are the Allies going to get enough victory points to win the game? Each objective, airfield, and defensive line gives its controlling nation (and its side, Axis or Allies) a certain number of victory points. And there are a lot of combinations the Allies can use to get there by taking control away in different locations across North Africa, across the Med Sea and into Italy and Greece. And it’s common for objectives, airfields and defensive lines to change hands multiple times. But the Allies are the invaders – and if they do not reach the required victory point total, the Axis win by default. As a result, if the Allies “play it by ear”, it’s hard to win. While there’s always time to pivot the plan should a battle go poorly or a weakness in the Axis forces is spotted somewhere, if the Allies don’t focus together to execute a plan, it’s hard to win the game.
- Where to land the hidden fleet – Algiers, Tunisia or somewhere else?
- Team up vs. divide and conquer – History tells us the Brits moved west, the US moved east, they met in Tunisia and then went up thru Sicily and invaded Italy. But it doesn’t have to go that way in Song for War. Sometimes the Allies divide and conquer (Britain, see if you can clear the sea and place pressure on Crete and Greece while the US moves its way east). And sometimes they make an attempt to converge sooner and go all in around a couple of Objectives to draw the Axis out since the Allies have superior resupply long term. But if a big early battle goes poorly, this could set the Allies back considerably. So there is risk here too.
- Press Tunisia or no? Sometimes the US just feints at Tunisia to make the Axis think it will focus there, then uses transports and hidden fleets to do an end around and meet up with Britain sooner and reinforce Malta or hammer Sicily for example.
- Malta or no? Malta is strategically valuable and has a solid number of victory points – the problem is if the Axis focus there early, it’s hard to hold on to. The Allies sometimes concede it and look to jump on any gaps in other spots created by Axis forces concentrating around Malta – sometimes the Allies fight back hard so as not to lose the key victory points up front.
- Which National Support Cards to play – Allied and Axis nations con confer to decide which cards they will play to maximize the combined effect and gain an edge on the battlefield, economics and resupply for this phase, etc.
- Of course, the Axis nations have their own strategic decisions and tradeoffs to make.
Grant: What area does the board cover? What strategic considerations are presented due to terrain?
Chris: It covers the entire Mediterranean and runs across the coast of North Africa, with Italy and Greece across the top of the board. Furthest East is Gibraltar, and furthest West is Alexandria.
Terrain – Read a great book on Omar Bradley, and there was a lot of interesting references to key hills, passes, mountains, and strategic locations that had to be protected or cleared to advance. That book and a fair amount of time with maps and key battles (El Alamein, Tobruk, Taranto, etc.) helped inform our thinking on mountains, impassable spaces, etc. We also wanted to be able to emulate the “skipping and flanking” trick that Rommel employed in North Africa where he would do quick encirclements to flank and maneuver around enemies – and / or use sea transports to move units faster to quickly encircle enemies rather than move over land.
Terrain was also used in combination with the abilities of standard units to create depth and make the units more interesting in how and where they move and fight. For example, standard tank units may not enter mountains, standard infantry receive a bonus when defending from mountains, standard artillery units get a bonus to range when located in mountains. Unit upgrades help standard units get around these limitations, which can be advantageous. Some unique units also get bonuses – e.g., the Italian Alpini can be dropped off into mountain spaces by transports where standard infantry may not.
Map: There are 17 objectives on the game board (colored spaces). These are the most important spaces because they confer victory points, have built in airfields for air units to return safely on Movement Step 6, and they also can be resupplied by the nation that controls it – this is a key difference in the game in that if you take an objective, it can be resupplied as a forward position (though, like always, there are choices and not every objective has the same resupply value so you have to be smart about where you resupply and where you do not). Some objectives, e.g., Alexandria, Rome, Algiers, Athens are worth more than others – but the victory points range and combinations can be captured to win. It is not uncommon for objectives to change hands multiple times as the battles rage.
There are also standalone airfields and defensive lines that confer victory points. And I can’t tell you how many times a critical airfield or objective is taken and a nation’s planes can no longer reach a safe landing space on Movement Step 6 and must be taken as casualties. Lastly, there are shipping lanes that, when controlled, can impact the resupply values of enemy objectives – economics can play a big part in winning the game over time.
During the war, Malta was under constant siege because of its strategically advantageous location near the center of the Mediterranean. While it does not have a substantial resupply value, it can be critical in a pinch (especially if its resupply is boosted by a National Support Card) and – more importantly – very valuable as an airfield where fighters, bombers and transports can be stationed and quickly deployed in any number of directions to take objectives, provide support, etc.
We incorporated locations where the land bridge of sea transports can be used (across the Strait of Messina for example like the Germans did), or some objectives that are just in (or out of) reach of the air transport or bomber – or some that can be reached with upgraded or unique units (a B-17 can move like 9 or 10 spaces) and that can be a heck of a surprise attack.
Grant: What role do the Hidden Fleet Markers play? What type of tension does this create for players?
Chris: Incorporating Hidden Fleets was critical as the game is about operation torch. But it took a while to develop the mechanics for hiding, moving, revealing, declaring combat, taking part in combat, and how to search for and reveal an enemy Hidden Fleet using subs or aircraft carriers. The hidden fleet markers correspond to the sea spaces on the game board so nations can move and track fleets (and teammates can strategize together) without enemies being able to see.
As mentioned in the response above, we really wanted to recreate the real-life uncertainty and tension of the invasion fleet that the Allies and Axis felt. For the Allies, where should it land? How aggressive should the Allies be? And for the Axis, we know Hitler was worried about where that Allied fleet was going to hit – so we wanted to re-create that stress for the Axis players. We also worked in Hidden Fleet options for all the nations so you can use them anytime to add fun.
Grant: What are the National Support Cards and how do players use them?
Chris: Each nation has its own deck of National Support Cards (16 each) which is shuffled and placed face down during game set up. At the start of the National Support Phase, each nation receives 2 National Support tokens to spend. Each NS Card ranges from 1-3 NS in cost to play (3 for unique units for example as the highest cost). Next, each nation draws two cards from the top of its nation’s deck. Since they only draw two, in the 1942 scenario, a nation will see a total of 10 of 16 possible cards (stages 1-5) since on stage 6 the game ends after stage 2, victory. In the 1943 scenario, they only see 6 cards (stages 3-5). It is not required to play a card – you can save up the NS tokens. Teammate nations can confer on which cards to play as they can coordinate efforts as part of their larger strategy – and some cards really align well with others – e.g. doubling up economic benefits.
There are 4 types of National Support Cards:
- Strategy: All nations have the same strategy cards which provide tactical or economic benefits. These include cards like Counter-Intelligence (allowing you to move an enemy’s units simulating bad orders or re-arrange an enemy’s National Support Deck), Logistics (which allows you to immediately move your own units around the board (e.g. from one controlled objective to another) prior to the tactical phase in the upcoming next stage), Supply Lines to boost the resupply of a key Objective for the next resupply phase (a big help to bolster forward positions), combat engineer (allows you to place fortresses and mines), and Resistance (which allows you to place friendly units in spaces near the most important held objectives of the enemy to cause trouble, etc.
- Unit Upgrade: Upgrades one type of Standard Unit (infantry, light bombers, cruiser, etc.) for the nation that plays the National Support Card. The upgrade takes effect immediately when the card is played, upgrades all of the standard units of that type on the board now for that nation and also applies to all future units of that type for the rest of the game when placed during resupply. The upgrades come in a lot of forms: stronger firepower or armor, increased movement (including for some units moving on an additional Movement Step (noted on the player aid movement steps), getting an extra roll/shot during the Battle Steps (also noted on player aid), increased carrying capacity for transports, and others. Unit upgrades are where many of the fun units for a nation come into play – such as Germany’s Stuka, Tiger Tank, BF-109 Fighter, and Type XXI Submarine; Italy’s Savoia-Marchetti long distance light bomber, Semovente mobile anti-tank artillery, Zara Heavy Cruiser, the Soldati Destroyer which can double as a transport; The US’s Bazooka Anti-Tank Infantry, LST-388 Heavy Sea Transport, C-47 Sky Train long range Air Transport, Ranger Class Aircraft Carrier; and Great Britain’s Matilda Heavy Tank, Spitfire Fighter, Battle Class Destroyer which gives AA to all of Britain’s destroyers, the Mosquito Light Bomber (red firepower), and QF Anti-Air Gun.
- Unique Unit: Allows a nation to build powerful units during Phase 4: Resupply for the rest of the game. These being 3D plastic pieces, there is joy in placing these on the board to strike fear in the hearts of enemies. Each nation has 1 Unique Unit so it does not always make it to the board. The US has the B-17 Bomber, which has a movement of 10 spaces (quite far), drops bombs that are a mix of red (heavy) and yellow (medium) (the standard heavy bomber only has yellow), and has a yellow armor so to destroy it requires either concentrated fire from more than one Axis Fighter or a hit from a BF-109 German Fighter; Germany has the Schwerer Rail Gun which has a range of 3 (so 2 more than a standard artillery), and rolls red (heavy), for every hit gets another roll; Italy’s Alpini Mountain Infantry which can be dropped off in mountains by transports (standard infantry may not), are not subject landing defense rolls when making an amphibious assaults, and are given a yellow firepower so can singlehandedly destroy a tank); and Great Britain’s King George Battleship which has the special black level armor (a level higher than red so requires a roll of 12 by an enemy with red firepower to destroy it or a fair amount of concentrated fire from a number of yellow firepower enemies), along with other key benefits for the George.
- Event: Recreates historical events to gain a boost or hurt enemies. These include Mare Nostrum for Italy which allows Italy to place heavy ships in various sea spaces on the Med; Great Britain discovering German Enigma machines which allows the Brits to greatly confuse the German ships; the arrival of Rommel to Libya; the German reinforcement of Greece; the Allied reinforcement of Malta by operation pedestal; hefty multi-lateral trade agreements for the US and Great Britain; Italy’s use of Frogmen to sabotage British ships in the Alexandria harbor, and others.
With the National Support Cards, as part of design we focused on:
Each deck has unit upgrades, unique units and events specific to each nation that would create replay value. Play testers often say that they would like to play again just to have a chance to get play more of the cards in future games. Each card has a material impact and is enticing to play to make the cards more fun, require tough decisions and tradeoffs. The cards are powerful by design.
Enabling synergies in playing different cards so they connect to create synergy benefits – for ex, we know there was pro-Axis Vichy resistance in Algiers – Germany has one card that allows them to ignite the resistance but there is also a separate build up card in the German deck that allows Germany to place new units on the card and if the Vichy card is also played later, it allows for the immediate placement of the stored up units PLUS the benefits of the Vichy card. Other examples are some unit upgrades, such as the German BF-109 Fighter has a higher firepower that allows it to penetrate the higher armor of the US B-17 bomber, thus it’s possible to counteract the B-17 should the cards fall into place.
Grant: How do players strategically deploy units as combined forces?
Chris: Combined forces and thinking ahead is really the crux of the game. We approached it in several different ways:
Movement Steps (1-6)
Going thru these in order constitute the tactical phase. Once all Movement Steps are done, the tactical phase is over. The Movement Steps are unit-based. This is how we got around nation by nation sequential turns – instead of thinking it’s Great Britain’s turn, players think it’s Movement Step 5, time for Tanks and Infantry.
And in each movement step, both sides get a chance to move their units shown in the step. For example, in movement step 1 the Allies get to move their fighters and subs and declare and resolve all battles, then the Axis nations get to do the same – once both sides have had a chance to move, declare and resolve, the step is over. Go to the next one.
Lighter, faster units move, declare, and resolve battles in more than one Movement Step, whereas heavier, slower units, only get one Step to do so. This creates a lot of movement and variation in how you deploy your units in a combined, stacked way – and thinking ahead. For example: On Movement Step 1, fighters and subs move. Fighters can clear air space while subs use sneak attacks to clear shipping lanes or key sea spaces for coming amphibious landings. On Movement Step 2, fighters get to move again, but so do light bombers, heavy bombers and air transports; fighters can thus serve as escorts for these units, providing protection so bombers can attack, or air transports can drop troops at key locations; also on movement step 2 are destroyers as well as sea transports; destroyers also serve as escorts enabling sea transports to drop off. And all this happens simultaneously so you can see how things can work together in fast action. On Movement Step 3, the big ships get into the action, fighting each other or those with range can bombard key land spaces from range to assist in amphibious landings or battles inland. On Movement Step 4 and 5, here come the land units – artillery, tanks, infantry and land transports, now that all of the landings are done and bombing and bombards to soften up enemies. On the last Movement Step, air units must return to friendly objective, airfield or carrier. So you can see how it all has be coordinated.
Only the units active in the Movement Step can declare battles. However, with some units getting to move, declare, and resolve in more than one movement step – and teammate nations getting to work together at the same time, it creates a lot of opportunities for a lot of combined forces and teaming. For example, you can unload troops on Movement Step 2 to declare and resolve a battle in Rome. Next, on Movement Step 3 declare another battle in Rome using Battleships from range. On movement step 4 use artillery nearby or move in some tanks to spark another battle in Rome, then in movement step 5 declare yet another battle by using the units you dropped off back in Movement step 2.
And when a battle is declared, ALL of the units in the battle activated space as well as any units in range can choose to take part in the battle. So you can see that when you and your nation teammate join forces, and you have combined forces working together, you can really hit a location hard with multiple battles.
For each Battle declared, you have to proceed through the Battle Steps in order (1-7). All combatants roll simultaneously, keeping track of hits. And (important), casualties are tallied and nations remove casualties at the end of each battle step.
You will notice that the Battle Steps are also ordered in a way that rewards combined forces. For example, AA always shoot first (so if you have a lot AA that hit enemy air units, you can clear the air space even before enemy air units can fire), then come the fighters in step 2, followed by the bombers in step 3 (assuming they have survived the AA and fighters), next are the faster ships, then the big ships and artillery, and finally the land units last.
So nations that intelligently use combined forces get a big advantage in battle. In Song for War, unit abilities – standard units, upgraded units and unique units have been designed to reward combined forces and teamwork.
Grant: How are these units differentiated in relation to movement?
Chris: Unit movement: The board is physically big but our approach to movement really opens it up and units can get across the board pretty quickly. This was key for the design to open up the board, entice a lot of battles across the theater and make for a lot of surprises if you don’t protect rear locations. For example, both heavy bombers and air transports move 7 spaces – that can cover a lot of ground if you aren’t vigilant – and can give players opportunities to turn the tide fast.
The Movement Steps were designed so that faster / quicker units that get to move in more than one movement step. For example, fighters can move and declare battles on movement steps 1, 2, and 6 – moving 4 spaces each time and declaring and resolving battles. Transports, subs, and destroyers as well get to move, declare and resolve in more than one Movement Step. But the heavier units (battleships, aircraft carriers, heavy bombers, etc.) only get to move, declare, and resolve on a single movement step.
Grant: Why is this aspect central to the design?
Chris: Unit based movement steps are what allowed us to abandon nation by nation sequential turns, emulate how the war was actually fought using combined forces, force players to think well ahead, and answer a lot of the game play questions on page 1 that got us thinking about designing a game.
Also – the board is pretty wide open all the time – which allows for surprise flanking attacks, the ability to swoop in and take key objectives left unguarded – makes for a lot of game drama and comebacks.
Grant: How does Battle work?
Chris: In Movement Steps 1-5, each side has a chance to move the units shown in the box for that step and declare battles with those units. Once all battles are declared, the battles are resolved in the order chosen by the side doing the moving / declaring / attacking. This can be important as you may want to resole battle A before starting battle B. Sometimes there are no battles declared, sometimes 5 or 6.
For each Battle declared, go thru Battle Steps in order (1-7). All combatants with units in the fight get to roll simultaneously, keeping track of hits. Hits are tallied and nations remove casualties at the end of each battle step. As mentioned above, this system really rewards combined forces and teaming.
Several additional important mechanics make battle more realistic and interesting:
- Not every unit can attack and defend against every unit. Each unit has a Firepower Rating that tells you: a) how strong its attack or defense is (red heavy, yellow medium, blue light); b) which types of enemy units it can attack and defend against (star for land, anchor for sea, wings for air) – so, for ex, infantry have a star so they can only attack and defend against enemy land units; thus an infantry will only ever cause a land casualty; and c) the minimum die roll you need for a hit.
- Some units are tougher to kill than others. Each unit also has an Armor rating that tells you the level of firepower an enemy needs to kill it (red heavy, yellow medium, blue light). Units with red armor can be tough to kill as it requires an enemy able to shoot at it in the first place (per bullet above) AND that enemy must also have strong enough firepower to kill it (e.g., red to red).
- Some units has a “level up” ability (indicated by the hex with an arrow on the player aid), which means when they roll at 12 (whether attacking or defending), their firepower goes up a level higher and now they can destroy enemies with tougher armor. For example, an Infantry only has a blue / light firepower, whereas tanks have a yellow armor. This means infantry are outmatched – BUT if the infantry rolls a 12 that Firepower hit levels up from blue to yellow and now it can take out a tank. There are other abilities of standard units too that make battle interesting.
- Casualties. The greater the firepower the more damage. For each red hit, for example, the enemy must take 1 unit with red armor OR 2 units with yellow armor OR 3 units with blue armor.
- Range. Some units have range. You can use this to attack enemies from distance and they may not even receive a roll back. For example, an artillery nestled in the mountains has a range of 2 spaces. This means they can attack or provide support to nearby battles – in some cases well out of range of enemies. It’s like a free shot.
- Support. Mentioned above, whenever a battle is declared, ALL the units in a battle activated space are activated for battle (not just the ones moving for that step) AND any friendly units in range also have the option to provide support to the battle. This means units can get to take part battles over the course of multiple movement steps.
- Concentrated Fire. Allows units with like firepower to tackle a tougher enemy. But there’s risk.
Grant: How does the color of units fit into the concept of Battle?
Chris: From a national color perspective (green US, blue GB, red Germany, yellow Italy) it doesn’t so much. But for Firepower and Armor it does (blue light, yellow medium, red heavy) – see resolving battles iabove for examples of why and how. There is also a special black armor for the King George Battleship – Great Britain’s unique unit that is a level up above red.
Grant: How did you land on the decision to use 12-sided dice for Battle?
Chris: We have a fair amount of standard units – then factoring in upgrades to standard units as well as the unique units. We needed enough numerical options to make them feel different and valuable. We found the 12 sided die gives us enough variation while also being fairly common to find. It might be odd to go the 14-sided die, for example. Ten sides just weren’t enough.
Grant: How can units Level Up? How does this change their statistics and effectiveness on the battlefield?
Chris: We wanted standard units to have their own abilities (page 7 of rule book) to make the game interesting and make battle decisions and outcomes much more nuanced. We also needed a way to allow for an outside chance of a weaker unit successfully destroying a tougher one – otherwise the rules around firepower and armor could be too rigid. Plus, it’s realistic. Sure, a lone Cruiser likely would not be able to singlehandedly destroy a Battleship – or a Destroyer killing a Cruiser on its own, but it COULD happen – so how do we capture that?
Leveling up was our answer. Units with the white hex with the red up arrow on the player aid have the level up ability. When these units roll a 12 in battle (whether rolling as the attacker or defender), that hit levels up to the next highest firepower color. So, for example, a Destroyer has a Firepower of blue / light, and it can attack and defend against enemy sea units only (indicated by the blue anchor). Reason for this is that Destroyers were escorts and key vs. submarines mostly. On a normal hit by a Destroyer, the enemy must take a sea unit with blue armor as a casualty (blue to blue – such as a destroyer or sub). BUT when a Destroyer rolls a 12, that hit levels up to a yellow / medium and now the enemy must take a yellow armored unit as a casualty such as a Cruiser or Aircraft Carrier not accompanied by fighters). This can make for fun game play and the occasional lucky shot (~8% of the time – so not frequent but not altogether rare either – and it seems to work out in play testing). It also shows why combined forces are key, and using support, etc.
Other units have different abilities such as the precise shot (which allows the roller to pick the casualty the enemy must take – super helpful if you roll a 12 with a fighter and get to choose that heavy bomber enemy as casualty despite it having fighter coverage). Some units when rolling a 12 get one bonus roll for each 12 rolled (e.g. a heavy bomber).
Grant: How do players earn victory?
Chris: Each objective, airfield and defensive line confers victory points to the side that controls it. Control is a specifically designed condition in the rule book. At no point are these not in control of one nation / side or another – they are always controlled by someone. During the Tactical Phase (Phase 1), control of the objectives, airfields and defensive lines can change hands during battle. At the start of the game the Axis nations control most of the theater and thus most of the victory points.
During the Victory Phase (phase 2), each side tallies up the victory points for each objective, airfield, and defensive line that they control. If the Allies reach a magic number of victory points (it varies based on whether you play the 1942 or 1943 scenario), then the Allies win and the game is over. If they have not reached it, then play continues to the next stage. Upon reaching the final stage of the game (stage 6), if the Allies have not reached the magic number of victory points, the Axis win by default.
The Axis nations also have a magic win number – but that has yet to be reached – which is fine as we want that to be a very rare occurrence. It’s built in as a mercy rule in case the Axis are way far ahead. There are many ways to mix and match the objectives, airfields, and defensive lines to win.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Chris: The movement and battles steps – these are the critical mechanics along with the firepower and armor of units. But the movement and battle steps are what keep people thinking ahead, drive the combined forces aspect, and got rid of the down time. The graphic design – which was more luck than anything. Seth did a great job and we get a lot of good feedback. Games often hang in the balance till the end. The fast game play, the ability of units to move across the board pretty far – it creates surprises and we’ve seen a lot of very close matches and comebacks. This also may be more luck in design than anything!
Grant: What has been the response of play-testers?
Chris: We’ve run the gamut. And while I’m sure not everyone has walked away happy, reaction to the game has been positive – a few key takeaways:
First – folks aren’t shy. We love constructive feedback. But we ignore the destructive kind… The game plays fast – we start with the tactical phase and in Movement Step 1 its fighters and subs for the Allies who have to get to it – at conferences this requires a minute for folks to get going because they got just a 10 minute overview by me in a loud room – but you have to hit the ground running. Zilla mentions this as well in his review, which he liked. Most folks do, but not everyone as it’s not a slow burn.
Replay value – very happy about this one. We constantly hear, “I really want to play X nation again so I can do Y differently and have another shot at it and also get new cards” – and there are 4 distinct nations so folks can get a lot of returning joy we find.
Those who expect to follow history to the letter don’t love that the game is open ended, or if one type of unit wasn’t in the theater in real life. We respect that view for sure, but we deliberately kept one foot in history while also staying true to the goal of fun first. By design we ask: you are now in charge of X nation’s forces in Mediterranean Theater of WW2; how will you prosecute the war and recreate history?
National Support Cards are popular. Some cards are the same for each nation (strategy cards) but most are unique to each nation (unit upgrades, unique units, events). We spent time calibrating these to each nation to give a lot of unique flavor and replay-ability. We also wanted every card to have a hefty impact – introducing unit upgrades, events or unique units can change the game – but we also built a separation of powers into the cards to level the playing field and neutralize those played by enemies.
Grant: What other designs are you working on?
Chris: Should Song for War fund and gain momentum, we plan to keep the series going. I did a recent Twitter poll about which theater to look into next, and we are leaning heavily toward the Pacific given the balance of sea, land, and air. Song for War: Pacific Theater. I’ve been doing some preliminary reading to get a sense of some tweaks to mechanics, events, unit upgrades and unique units, map and objectives, etc. I like the idea of the US, GB, Australia vs. Japan – almost like a 3 on 1 perhaps – TBD.
We’d also love to do a fantasy tabletop strategy game that thinks and looks differently than the myriad games we see now – nuanced movement and battle mechanics plus fantasy could be a lot of fun.
Grant: When can we expect the game to fulfill?
Chris: Still working out the details for the KS but we are aiming for April 2024 should we fund.
Thanks guys for your time in answering our many questions. This game looks really interesting and I think is more than a pretty face! I am very interested in giving the game a go and cannot wait for it to fund on Kickstarter.
If you are interested in the game, you can back the project by visiting the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/invictarexgames/song-for-war-mediterranean-theater
Good interview Grant. This game has promise — not your average wargame, with production value like a boardgame, but certainly keeping the flavor while at the theatre level (makes me want those push sticks you see the movies moving ships and troop around a map).
I’ll be giving this another look (not that I need any more games thanks to you, Alexander, Luttmann, Herman, et al…lol) and hope they get funded.
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Thank you James! Much appreciated. Reach out with questions any time on our web site, social media, or at email@example.com. And if at all possible, help spread the word! Chris – Invicta Rex Games.
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