I was scanning Kickstarter the other day and saw a very unique and interesting looking solo game called Third Option: Global Clandestine Operations. Definitely an interesting looking concept where the player manages a set of missions and objectives by building various teams to gather intel and take action on that information. The game is currently on Kickstarter so I reached out quickly to the designer Joe Fernandez to get some insight into the game and how it plays.

If you are interested in Third Option: Global Clandestine Operations, you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danverssengames/dvg-third-option

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

Joe: I am a retired special agent (criminal investigator), worked for the U.S. government at various agencies during my tenure. I also served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Div. and 25th Infantry Division. My hobbies are (war)gaming, wargame design, and reading. I now live a quiet life in rural Virginia where I also enjoy bowhunting, and lake life.

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

Joe: I had an interest in wargame design early on, I’d say from the time I opened John Hill’s Squad Leader and I knew this was going to be a part of my life. Then James Dunnigan’s “Wargame Design Handbook” put the hooks in me as far as seeding the idea of becoming a designer someday. I have many notebooks filled with wargame and general game design ideas I’ve accrued for decades. My profession kept me from any significant face-to-face gaming, so I would buy wargames, open and study them and start tinkering with ideas of my own. To me personally, the creation of something I enjoy, which covers an idea or historical period I like, or would like to explore further is important. I always wanted to play a solo Stuka game and in 2019 I submitted Storm of Steel: Ju-87 STUKA, Eastern Front to Compass and they liked it. I can’t work on a design that I have no interest in.

Grant: What historical period does your upcoming game Third Option cover?

Joe: Third Option is a game about global clandestine operations and covers most of the post 9-11 actions, Forever War, and as well as current affairs. There are no specific missions like Neptune Spear appearing in the game. Players get varied mission types, locations, objectives, and threat areas. 

Grant: What is the meaning of the phrase “Third Option”?

Joe: Third Option is the motto of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Center, and it represents its mission; covert paramilitary actions as an option within the realm of national security when diplomacy and direct military action are not feasible. It’s a grey area where America’s shadow warriors operate.

Grant: Why was this a subject that drew your interest?

Joe: My military, law enforcement, and intelligence background made it a natural topic for me to gravitate towards. And although it’s a game, I believe it treats the subject with a very small and measured amount of authenticity within its abstract nature.

Grant: What research did you do to get the details correct? What one must read source would you recommend?

Joe: This is a complete work of fiction except for some component names. All material used in the game is available publicly as open source. I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins, it is a well-researched and superbly written non-fiction book. I think anyone who wants a glimpse into this world should read it. I also delved into open-source documents and various field manuals.

Grant: As a solitaire game what type of experience does the game create?

Joe: As with all my solitaire designs, I always try to provide the player with a solid narrative experience. I also think the object of games is not exclusively to win but also to complement the gameplay and how the narrative evolves. A mission may be a harrowing one that may end up in a loss but creates memorable moments in between. The abstraction also serves the purpose of allowing the player to fill in abstract spaces with their own imagination.

Grant: How does the AI work against the player?

Joe: The first thing is the player selects a mission, his teams, and assets before he gets to know enemy numbers and disposition. This may turn out to be anything from a fairly ‘easy’ mission to a highly dangerous one and everything in between. During the Recon Phase enemy Intelligence unit rolls, for example, are straightforward but the way they work makes for suspense and uncertainty. As teams move to and through the Direct Action and on to the objective area, randomly drawn Hostile Action Cards provide further problems and obstacles for the player to deal with and overcome with their chosen assets. Event Cards are used before every action round (combat) creating further uncertainty which could potentially help the AI and hurt the player.

Grant: How does the player go about preparing for, planning, and executing highly classified Covert Missions across the globe?

Joe: After selecting one of the 10 included Missions (8 additional ones as pending as a stretch goal in the campaign), randomly drawing a Mission, or using the Random Mission Generator (which provides infinite playing possibilities) the player then selects his teams and assets for the mission with the allocated Asset Points identified, which every mission type has. These points are determined by the area’s threat level. Low-Threat areas require fewer points than High-Threat areas for example. Low represents a lower-than-normal enemy sophistication level and High a sophisticated enemy that will require significantly more resources, assets and a little bit of luck. Area Threat l Levels translate to higher enemy to-hit, numbers, and specific Asset Cards that are available and may be purchased depending on the Threat Area. For example, a mission in EUROCOM is deemed a High-Threat, therefore the use of Reaper drones is not permitted. 

Grant: How does the player go about recruiting teams while balancing asset procurement and planning?

Joe: Players are provided an Asset Procurement Value from the Mission Card based on the mission type and Threat Area and then select teams; both Special Operations Group, Recon Group, and assets limited by expending those points. There is always a need for more assets than can be purchased with the limited resources available to the players and making these touch decisions about what is most needed for mission success is central to the game.

Grant: How do players obtain intelligence to enhance their mission’s chances of success?

Joe: Intelligence is abstracted as Phase Two or the Reconnaissance Phase where the player’s Recon Teams attempt to undermine enemy Intelligence units. A failed Reconnaissance Phase means that the player must roll a die and add the number of enemies to the next phase as their activities tipped of the enemy to the upcoming mission.

Grant: What is the Direct-Action phase? Why is this phase so critical?

Joe: The Direct-Action Phase is where the kinetic capable units (combat-ready special operators) execute the mission and where everything comes together or falls apart. During the phase, the player conducts infiltration, abstracted movement to the objective area, and combat if necessary. The player then must egress and exfiltrate successfully for the mission to be considered a success. As a historical background, “Direct-Action” is a term used by the CIA, which allows it’s officers and operators Title 50 authority (U.S. War and National Defense Act) not available to anyone else in the United States armed forces unless expressly directed by the President of the United States.

Grant: What is the purpose of the Mission Mat? What different information is contained on it?

Joe: The Mission Mat is where the player places all the game components including counters, markers, and cards. It also serves to inform and remind the player of the different steps to take during the Sequence of Play without having to look at the rulebook or play aids constantly. Also, the Mission Mat format dividing the three phases serves to keep gameplay in a cohesive and structured manner.

Grant: How does the game use cards?

Joe: The game uses cards for the Mission details, Player teams, and both Reconnaissance Teams and Special Operations Teams. Player Asset Cards, which provide additional equipment and enhanced capacities to the teams and mission. Event Cards are used to create uncertainty during action rounds and at different stages of the mission. Hostile Action Cards provide the bot with instructions at certain points during the game.

Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play and flow of the game?

Joe: Generally, the game is divided into three phases which are:

Phase 1 – Planning Phase. Select Mission, Teams, and Assets.

Phase 2 – Reconnaissance Phase. Attempt to neutralize enemy Intel units to gain an advantage during the next phase.

Phase 3 – Direct Action Phase. Infiltrate into the area your combat-ready teams to execute the mission by going through a gauntlet of events, successfully executing the mission, and extraction with most of your units intact.

The rulebook is divided into three phases as is the included flowchart to help the player better navigate the rules by compartmentalizing them.

Sequence of Play

1. Select Mission or Operation

2. Recruit Team and Assets (Equal or Less than the total Mission Asset Points).

3. Place Friendly Teams on Mission Mat.

4. Roll for enemy Fighters/Intel. Place them in Recon Phase area.

5. Shuffle and place three Enemy Action Cards Face Down on the Mission mat.

6. Shuffle and place Event Cards on Mission Mat.

7. Conduct Recon Phase actions.

8. Conduct Direct Action Phase actions.

9. Score mission/operation.

Grant: What choices do players have? How do these choices affect the outcome of missions?

Joe: Choices begin during the Planning Phase by selecting the best balance of teams and assets to complete the mission. There are also abort points at specific areas where an abort may be a better choice than a loss when playing a multi-mission operation. The assignment of hits which lead to ‘casualties’ (removal of non-effective teams are referred to as casualties which do not necessarily mean killed in the game) is random, however, Asset and specific Team Cards are available to mitigate outcomes. In the end, there are dice rolls but these too may have a way to be influenced by choosing units with specific Mission-Critical Die Roll Modifiers or cards.

Grant: How does the random hostile draw mechanic work?

Joe: As part of Phase 1 the Planning Phase, players place three randomly drawn Hostile Cards on the Mission Mat which are revealed during Phase 3 the Direct-Action Phase. These provide the bot with additional as yet unknown actions in addition to the fighters which are already deployed on the Mat.

Grant: What different missions are available to the player?

Joe: The player can choose from several different types of Missions, including Reconnaissance, F3 (Find, Fix, and Finish), Raid, Sabotage, Capture, and Rescue.

Grant: How are these Missions chosen?

Joe: The Missions can be chosen by the player, randomly drawn, or randomly generated individual missions. There are also several operations included where the player must complete one before moving on to the next mission in a sort of campaign fashion.

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

Joe: The subject matter and the way it creates a narrative experience on a topic that is somewhat obscure in every sense of the word. It is also a very simple design-a low threat-level mission that can be played in as little as 20 minutes. The Mission Mat provides most of the information so the player doesn’t have to refer to the manual as often. Also, the flowchart and Play Aid help. It’s abstract enough that the player can use his imagination but with enough detail to form that idea. At its core, it’s a fun simple card-driven game that uses dice as a random element that may turn an otherwise perfect mission into a FUBAR one. The cards are a mix of good, bad, SNAFU with a dash of “Murphy” thrown in for good measure. It turns out that as in real-life operations, things that can go bad will go really bad-really quick. The game is easy to learn, and setup, and moves fast once you play a few missions. I think it flows well.

Grant: What other designs are you working on?

Joe: For this year I have Storm of Steel: Ju87 Stuka -Eastern Front coming out soon from Compass Games and a few more (to be announced) Storm of Steel Series games. Crossed Rifles is an introductory modern tactical level game and a few others which will be announced at a later date with Compass. I also have a couple of WWI operational-level wargames pending with Worthington, and my line of book wargames under my one-man studio “Art of Wargames”. Finishing up a modern tactical trilogy for Men of War called Rhodesian Bush War, French Foreign Legion-Indochina and Contras. I’m close to announcing the first in an operational-level solo wargame system. All of my current games are designed as solitaire from the ground up.

Thank you for the interview and the opportunity to share my game with our community.

Thanks for your time in answering our questions Joe. I really am fascinated by this game and its topic and really look forward to trying my hand at these missions. A solitaire game that can play in 20-30 minutes is always high on my list as I rarely get large blocks of time to play uninterrupted.

If you are interested in Third Option: Global Clandestine Operations, you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danverssengames/dvg-third-option