Crowbar! An Interview with Designer Hermann Luttmann

Hermann Luttmann is a prolific game designer with credits that span many genres, complexities, and themes. His newest offering is Crowbar! published by Flying Pig Games, and its currently doing the rounds on Kickstarter. Here’s what he had to say about it:

Why did you choose this particular topic?

Well, I was kind of spurned into action when I saw a number of posts on Facebook and elsewhere in which players were talking about their current plays of In Magnificent Style (IMS).

I was honestly shocked that people were still playing and talking about the game, as it was published back in 2012. I had been toying with the idea of eventually doing another game in the series, especially since a couple of proposed designs (by other designers) for the series never got off the ground.

I was contemplating for a long time what ideal military situation would be appropriate for the system. Then I believe it was the Pointe Du Hoc scene from The Longest Day movie that made that situation click for me. The IMS system is built around simulating attacks that seem, on their face, to be impossible or suicidal endeavors.

Well the Pointe Du Hoc assault apparently clicked all the right boxes. When I continued with further research into the detailed particulars of the battle, it developed into a much deeper and even more interesting story than I originally imagined.

I decided then that this was the perfect next topic for this system – it was an iconic WWII battle that occurred as part of the D-Day landings (a popular gaming topic), undertaken by a legendary military formation and involved that formation accomplishing multiple missions in a short amount of time … all wonderful gameplay fodder for the IMS system.

Can you give me a brief rundown of how the game plays?
The player(s) will have a number of Ranger units organized into the three historical companies that attacked Pointe Du Hoc (Dog, Easy and Fox companies). You choose a company and then select one of its units to activate. By the way, each unit represents a group of about 20 soldiers.

Activation normally involves rolling one or more Movement Dice for that unit and applying the rolled result. But there are four dice to choose from, each of a different color and each carrying a different risk/reward ratio of results.

You can start “safe” with the Green die (which has few chances of casualties but also allows less movement) or go full risk and roll the Black die (lots of casualty and morale loss possibilities, but also the most possible movement) or any combination thereof. But each colored die can only be rolled once per unit – once used, you must then choose a different die to roll.

The more you move forward, the better the progress towards your goals but the more risk you then take on as the unit starts to outrun its support. If you happen to roll a “Stop” or worse, the unit will be stuck in its last position and is done for the turn. It could also suffer casualties equal to the distance it is from its rally point, so the harder you push the more possible losses the unit will take.

The dice handle most of the German combat effects, inflicting “friction” hits on the Ranger units as they move and get certain results. Some of the dice results also cause morale effects and even force the player to draw Event Chits, which can be good or bad for you. These will create independent, historically-based events to occur which will involve everything from German bombardments and counterattacks to Ranger reinforcements landing.

Add to this the occasionally required drawing of Event Cards, which act as a random timing mechanism. These cards can invoke the passing of game time (Time Increments), the preparation and timing of German Counterattacks or the progress of the relief column on its way from Omaha Beach. So the player must constantly mitigate the risk with the rewards and “push his luck” as much as he sees fit.

The object is to defeat German forces, find the hidden German artillery pieces that threaten Omaha and Utah beaches (these could be in many different places), setup roadblocks on the highway to hold up the German reinforcements and to withstand numerous organized German counterattacks.

When the third day ends – or the relief column arrives – the game ends and the player will add up his Victory Points to see how he did. 

How has the game evolved during development?
At the start, I used the original IMS game as the starting point. But I quickly realized that it would need some updating and more specifically, it had to be made more user-friendly and play more smoothly.

I knew that Crowbar would be a much bigger game, physically and scope-wise, and I also knew that I wanted to make the game more appealing to the greater gaming public. To that end, the first mechanic I dropped from the original was the d6 Dice Matrix for determining movement.

I opted instead to go with custom icon dice in order to remove the need to constantly check the chart for your movement result. Luckily, Mark Walker totally agreed with my decision, as he also is on a mission (from God!) to make our wargames more palatable to all gamers.

Once we started down that path, the counters grew to typical Flying Pig Games 1” squares, the map became much more spacious and the old CRT and modifier-heavy combat mechanism graduated to a much simpler Combat Dice system.

In addition, a certain “exploration” aspect to the game blossomed in that the player could not only discover the much-sought-after hidden guns, but he would also encounter other historically-based surprises.

Also, I decided to add a cooperative and multi-player mode to the game so that larger groups of gamers could enjoy the game together, something that I think all wargames need to do more of. So the design really did evolve in many constructive ways and all in an effort to make the design more attractive to a more diverse pool of gamers. 

What were your inspirations when designing the game?
Well, as you know Crowbar grew from a desire to do another IMS style of game. In addition, solo games are becoming more popular than ever, as are multi-player and cooperative games. So I wanted to take advantage of both those factors.

The system itself was inspired by a simple push-your-luck dice game that I played with my grandmother when she came over from Germany. It was called “Schwein” (or “Pig” … no, not “Flying Pig”) and I remember the intense drama of deciding whether to roll those dice again and risk a “snake eyes” or stop and take what I had accumulated to that point. So I wanted to emulate that kind of gut-wrenching and just plain fun decision making in a wargame setting.

So marrying those kinds of chance dice rolls with the movement forward of a military unit, while also then including the enemy’s “wall of fire” into that result, made sense. It removed the need to conduct the enemy’s turn as a separate, time-consuming combat resolution.

The concept of Rally Point markers then was used to set the unit’s start point and from which the increasing risk of an unsupported advance could be measured. This also made thematic sense in an abstracted way and it all fell into place very nicely.

As far as this design is concerned, the attack at Pointe Du Hoc really represents an almost perfect historical situation to allow this system to “do its thing”. 

What do you think players will learn from playing this game?
As with most wargames, I would hope that players gain an appreciation for what these men had to go through to accomplish what they did historically. Obviously, no game can truly simulate the horrors of war, but we can at least try to show people the elements that challenged the real life participants.

As far as Crowbar itself is concerned, the Pointe Du Hoc assault was truly a “mission impossible”. In fact, one officer remarked that “three old women with brooms could sweep us off those cliffs!”.

So aside from having a fun, tense gameplaying experience, I did also design the game to include many historical events so that players will feel like they are part of the Rangers and suffering through the same action and making similar types of tactical and strategic decisions.

What was it like to try and accomplish an impossible mission? I’m hoping that players will have at least gain some kind of concept of what a brave and amazing accomplishment this was by the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

So I did make a point of including as many of the actual events, conditions and units that actually did take part in the three-day battle to players would learn what actually happened on top of those cliffs. But I also added a few elements that did not actually happen, but that could have happened.

For me, that rounds out the “simulation” portion of the game design very nicely.

How do you think your designs have changed throughout your career as a game designer?
As I may have hinted at already in the previous questions, I am really trying to draw more people into the wargame end of the gaming hobby and to do that, I’m trying to develop and utilize mechanics, procedures and rules that will not be as off-putting as many traditional wargames mechanics.

I have always tried to design non-traditional wargames about unique topics – that’s why I got into designing in the first place – but many of my early endeavors still relied on more of the classic “wargamey” gameplay styles.

As I’ve progressed in design style, spoken to more people and been exposed to more games of all kinds, I realized that the main barriers for the general gaming public is the process-heavy mechanics of most wargames along with their rather drab and confusing physical presentation.

So with those revelations, I have really tried to get wargaming to be more acceptable and attractive while at the same time, telling my wargaming friends that it’s really OK to play Ameritrash and Eurogames because there are some absolutely brilliant designs out there!

And that’s another part of my evolving design philosophy – to learn from other designers of all stripes. There are so many elegant and clever mechanics in other styles of games that can be adapted to wargames and I am educating myself to bring those design mechanics into my own creations. If it works for those games then I’m confident that I can make it work for wargame designs as well.

What’s next?
Well if Crowbar is popular and gamers enjoy that kind of approach, we’ll be on the hunt for another historical battle or campaign that this system can work for.

I’m inclined to look at something of a larger scope so that the game has a different feel to it and is not just a rehash of Crowbar and IMS. One thought was the Verdun campaign of 1916 where the player would play the German forces as they race against the clock to defeat or “bleed white” the French forces around that fortress complex before they are reinforced and supplies run low.

I’m also discussing with Mark the possibility of me doing a military science-fiction version of this game. The player would play a force of Galactic Marines as they travel from planet to planet assaulting alien strongholds before the aliens can obliterate the planets. Now that would be fun to design for sure!

So there are a number of possibilities for this system and I look forward to designing them and hopefully making then successful for Flying Pig Games.

Interview with a Blogger: Aaron from Here’s No Great Matter

One of my favorite gaming blogs is Here’s No Great Matter, written by a good friend of mine named Aaron. Whereas I tend to focus on hex and counter moderns, Aaron has an eclectic taste that runs from ancients all the way up to present day.

Like me, Aaron is an ex-pat who has settled down in Japan. Sadly, we live too far from each other to meet up and game but we have played out some Sixth Fleet by email before and had great fun. Besides blogging, he somehow manages to have a full-time job and be a dad too. The guy has lots of energy and talent.

Aaron demonstrates his war face for the camera.

One of my favorite posts from Aaron’s blog is the tale of trying to track down two parcels of games after returning from a vacation and…well, you’ll just have to read it yourself. The story is so funny and so quintessentially Japanese that I became an immediate subscriber to Aaron’s blog after reading it.

I wrote a small blurb about Aaron’s blog (and several others) years ago in an article titled “The Blogs of War”for Line of Fire issue 12. Since then, I always wanted to do his blog more justice by giving it the attention it deserves with a good interview. So without further delay, here’s my chat with Aaron about Here’s No Great Matter:

HaH: Can you give me a little background about “Here’s No Great Matter”?  Why did you start it and how has it changed over time?

HNGM: First off, thank you for sending these questions my way, Brad. I enjoy your posts and attitude to the hobby so it’s a real pleasure to be approached for comment.

I started the blog back in 2010 as a sort of wargaming diary. I like to record the games I play and it’s easier to document them online than it is to document them in a notebook. Since I mostly game with miniatures, I also hoped that the need to post photographs would force me to improve my painting skills and increase the painting output. I’ve had mixed results!

How has the blog changed? I don’t go back and re-read old posts very much, but I suppose you develop different interests and have periods when you are ‘on’ and periods when you are ‘off’. I’m probably a little less focused on game reports than I used to be. There are only so many times you can re-fight Cannae before you run out of new and interesting things to say.

HaH: I’ve noticed you like to play lots of ancients. What in particular attracts you to that genre?

HNGM: I love the ancient texts: Caesar, Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian, Tacitus and so on. The people and events are fascinating, and the social and political issues the ancients were faced with are similar to the kinds of things that we are faced with today. There also happen to be some very good games on the ancient period: Pax Romana, Commands & Colors: Ancients and Lost Battles, for starters. The era lends itself well to solo play, and the effect of massed 15mm ancient armies on the table is satisfying. There is also, through the Society of Ancients, the opportunity to write articles on things of interest, which is a good way to keep the old writing/researching/blathering-about-obscure-topics hand in.

Aaron has some very cool Command & Colors AARs on his blog.

HaH: Tell me about a game you love and a game you love to hate and why. 

HNGM: I have an abiding passion for A Victory Lost, by Tetsuya Nakamura. It’s on Operation Saturn and von Manstein’s backhand blow, and it’s the tensest thing I’ve ever found in a two-player wargame. It’s brilliant for play-by-email, and is one of those “I can’t sleep because I keep going over my last move in my head trying to reassure myself I haven’t made a mistake” types of games. I love to hate chess. As a kid I fancied myself a chess player but the reality is I’m crap. I’ll occasionally have a few drinks and play online, either doing really well and feeling inordinately pleased, or else losing embarrassingly badly and getting extremely annoyed with myself. A legacy of playing against my old man is that I am always very polite when losing. I may be seething and contemplating throwing something against the wall because of a mistake I’ve made but I’ll always finish with a bright and cheerful ‘good game’..

von Manstein’s ‘Backhand blow’ in A Victory Lost

HaH:What would your 3 main pieces of advice be for anyone who is looking to get into miniature wargaming as a hobby?

HNGM:Try and find a fellow player somewhere nearby. Collect armies because you like them, not because they are on special. Take the time to learn a few games very well, and make sure at least one of them works well solo.

HaH: What are the big differences/challenges/good points of being a gamer in Japan?

HNGM:I’ve only started gaming seriously since I’ve been here, so I can’t compare to back home. The biggest thing has been having the disposable income to afford games and figures. You can buy board wargames locally through yahoo auctions, but if you want to play historical miniatures you have to buy from overseas, so it can get a bit pricey. Luckily, I got into it when shipping was still relatively reasonable, the yen was quite strong, and the kids were young. I picked up a lot of my figures years ago and have enough to keep me going for a while. Another point is that Japan is a country that embraces hobbies of all kinds and has the population to support manufacturers, so paint, brushes, varnish and everything else you need is produced locally, which over here means the quality is high, the cost is fairly low, and the availability is excellent.

If I were back home in New Zealand I would probably still be playing music and social sports and would not have got into wargaming at all.

HaH: How has this hobby changed your life?

HNGM: I wouldn’t say it’s changed my life, but it gives me something to do in the evenings, and I’ve met a few good people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Interview with a Designer: Mark H. Walker’s ‘Sticks & Stones’

Earlier this month, I played through the three scenarios in the Sticks and Stones module called “Poland Strikes!” from Yaah! magazine issue 4. This is a modern platoon-level tactical combat game from Mark H. Walker, the same designer of the World at War series, which had a similar theme.
As I noted in my previous playthroughs, the design of Sticks and Stones is quite a departure from the World at War series in a number of ways. Having enjoyed playing both series, I wondered what brought Mr. Walker back to this genre again and what his plans were for this new series. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mark!

HaH: What drew you to this particular theme? What is it about modern combat that catches your imagination?

MHW:  I wish I knew the answer myself. LOL. Or maybe it’s that I do know the answer/s and there are just too many of them. Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War is what sparked my initial interest. To be honest, I thought the political aspects of the book were dull–well written and beautifully conceived, but just not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I ate the combat scenes with a spoon, rereading them multiple times.

Then I found Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee. I remember reading the book in one sitting. I was duty officer at EOD Mobile Unit  Three, it was a slow night, and I just sat and read, mesmerized. Probably should have been making rounds or something.

There’s also something about the balance and disparity of forces that makes for great gaming. By 1985 America’s military was recovering from the post-Vietnam gutting and becoming a well-trained, well-equipped force. Analysts believed that on defense an American battle group could handle one three times its size. It’s exciting to command a few, elite cardboard warriors as they fight the Russian hordes. That said, I believe first line Russian tankers would have fought well, and the T-80 and T-64 are not the slouch tanks that Iraq’s export T-72s were.

Finally. Madonna. The mid-eighties were just a great time. Girls wore bustiers to nightclubs, Mike Schmidt played third base, and no one judged you when you downed two cheeseburgers and a large fries.

Bottom line, I just like the era… and throw in paranormal (which Sticks and Stones doesn’t have) and it’s like catnip/scotch/whatever your addiction is. In fact, I *think* the next module of ’65 will be titled Dark War, take place in 1985, and include not only Abrams, M203s, and Soviet T-80s, but also the characters from Dark War: Retribution. The power system, card-driven play, and importance of heroes make the ’65 tactical system a natural for getting characters such as Katarina and Mike Hudson into the gaming mix. Uh… sorry for the self-promo, but not really.

HaH:  What can you tell us about any other planned expansions or modules for the Sticks & Stones/Platoon Commander series?

MHW:  A friend of mine, David van Hoose (his daughter edited both my Revelation and Retribution novels) is almost finished with a Platoon Commander Indo-Pakistan module. Counter art is complete, scenarios are designed; we just need map and card art and testing.

Right now, I’m jazzed about designing a Night of Man/Platoon Commander mashup for Yaah! #7. It
will be a Platoon Commander mini-module based in the Night of Man universe. The Earth Militia will have platoons of Abrams, M113s, Bradleys, infantry and TOWs pitted against troops of plasma-firing alien tanks, power-armored infantry, and Spider Bots; it’s the kind of stuff that gets my heart pumping. I love mixing games, genres, and universes.

Those are in the immediate future, but I’m always thinking about the system. Sticks and Stones is Tiny Battle’s bestseller and Korea 1950 is in the top five, so I think folks like pushing Platoon Commander counters around. I’d love to take it to the West Front WW2, and there are a lot of 1987ish battles left to fight. To be honest, if I had a real strong idea of what people wanted to see next, that’s what I would design, but that type of input is difficult to get.

HaH: What was the inspiration behind covering a conflict between Poland and Hungary?

MHW: That is a strange combination/confrontation, isn’t it? If I remember correctly, I didn’t want to do the standard West German vs Soviet thing and I was searching for other European grudge matches, so to speak. I asked my friend, Ania Ziolkowska, and she pointed out that Poland and Hungary have a bit of a feud, so Poland Strikes was born. Perhaps we would have been served better with  more traditional opponents, but it’s worked out okay. Yaah! #4 remains our best-selling issue.

Big Heart, Tiny Battle: An Interview with Mary Holland Russell

Following up from my interview with Mark H. Walker about Flying Pig Games, I recently had a chance to talk with Mary Holland Russell, the head honcho over at his other gaming company, Tiny Battle Publishing, Mary was kind enough to take some time from her very hectic schedule to answer my questions and here’s what she had to say:

HaH: Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be involved with Tiny Battle Publishing.
MHR: My husband is the editor of Yaah! magazine. Mark Walker asked Tom to recommend someone to run Tiny Battle, and he threw my name out there. I don’t have a wargaming background, but I have a lot of business experience and have dealt with creative types in the past.
HaH: What are your own gaming interests?  Do you have a favorite game or era that you prefer?  Any favorite designers?
MHR: I got into modern gaming by playing Eurogames, train games and D&D. Outside of the games we publish through Tiny Battle, most of my gaming still falls into those categories, some of my favorite games are Dominion, Le Havre, Chicago Express, TransEuropa, Puerto Rico, Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, Sushi Go, Dead of Winter, and so many more. I also play video games and I especially like open world games such as Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Infamous, and Borderlands, but I also like other games such as Ratchet and Clank, Bio-Shock, Diablo, and Little Big Planet. I have diverse and eclectic tastes.

Tom Russell’s Blood on the Alma (photo by Hipshot)

I got into wargames because my husband started designing wargames and he needed a playtester who was available 24/7. I really enjoyed playtesting his game Alma (his very first wargame) and breaking it. That’s basically what I was “hired” to do, break his games. I love history so I don’t have a favorite era, but as far as the war games go, I prefer battle-level and operational games. I enjoy mostly Columbia block games (I once trounced Tom–the Scottish player– so badly in Hammer of the Scots, poor William Wallace was dead before he could do much) and GMT games, and of those, without a doubt, my favorite is Commands and Colors Napoleonics. We recently bought Sekigahara, which I’ve had my eye on for a long time, but we haven’t been able to play it yet because we’re both so busy. I would say that I have a preference for wooden blocks in games as opposed to a particular era.
My favorite designer would be Tom Russell. ‘Nuff said.
HaH: You were involved in the film-making business before coming to Tiny Battle Publishing.  How has that experience shaped your approach to game publishing?
MHR: I’m used to working with artistic-types and various personalities and bringing them together to create a unified whole. The films I made were more idiosyncratic and offbeat so they were intentionally not for every taste. You can’t be too offbeat with a game because all of the elements need to fit together. You can’t have something in a game “just because”, because it’s not a narrative form and doesn’t have room for digressions and counterpoints. But at its heart it’s still about people coming together, working within a budget, and a schedule. And you’re still trying to engage and entertain your audience.
HaH: How does a lower price impact a game beyond the obvious production values (art, number of counters, etc.) ? For example, does it often limit complexity?
John Gorkowski’s upcoming In the Trenches.
MHR: It limits complexity to a degree in that with less counters and smaller maps there is a limit to what you can do. Our standard 17×11-inch map only has something like 250 hexes, that’s like 20 hexes on the x-axis and 13 on the y-axis. You certainly can have more complex rules but they have to work more or less in that format. For example, right now we’re prepping for publication John Gorkowski’s tactical WWI game, In the Trenches. Like most tactical games it has a fair amount of detail and a lot of status markers. But it uses very compact maps so that it makes sense for our model.
We will on occasion use larger maps, but then it becomes more expensive, and so we have to look at how marketable a particular topic will be. For example, Brian Train’s Bulge game, Winter Thunder, uses a 22×17-inch map and a full sheet of counters. This game is costing over twice as much as say one of our Shields and Swords games. But it’s also likely to sell more copies. So these are the kinds of things that I look at when evaluating a submission.

HaH: What do you think makes for an interesting game?  Is there anything specifically that you’re looking for when a game is submitted?

MHR: We’re looking for an interesting hook, mechanism or subject. And obviously it needs to be fun to play, but I also understand that everyone’s idea of fun is subjective. And not coming from a super-grognardy background, I take the opinions of others, such as Tom and Mark, into consideration. For example, I don’t particularly get into tactical games, but I know they have a sizable market so it makes sense to publish those games.

HaH: What are some releases from TBP that you think deserved a bit more attention?  What do you like about that particular game(s)?
MHR: Well, I like the Shields and Swords series not just because it’s Tom’s. We knew going in that these wouldn’t have the same market share as say a WWII game, but we felt that the market for the Middle Ages was big enough, and the cost per unit was low enough, that it was worth pursuing. 

Tom Russell’s Our Royal Bones

But these games aren’t selling as well as we hoped, so unless the sales improve, it’s unlikely that Tom will continue the series with TBP. It was a difficult decision to make. I like the games because of my own interest in the period and the simplicity and elegance of the ruleset. I still enjoy playing the S&S games Tom is working on even if we will be unable to publish them with Tiny Battle. So, it works both ways: just as we will publish games that aren’t my cup of tea, there are also those games that I really enjoy that we won’t be able to publish for market reasons.
HaH: How do you think the gaming business or hobby is changing? Do you see growing room for smaller publishers now that publishing costs are decreasing?
MHR: I think there is plenty of room for smaller publishers. However, unlike a big publisher like GMT , it’s more likely to be a hobby or sideline, because as a small publisher, it’s extremely difficult to make the kind of money that will allow someone to devote their full-time to it. Luckily my spouse works full time. I work somewhere between 6 to 10 hours a day for Tiny Battle, 7 days a week, and if I were to calculate my earnings per hour, I think I would have a conniption fit. So I don’t do that math.

Hermann Luttmann’s Invaders from DimensionX!
HaH: Can you give us a few highlights of any upcoming games that you want to talk about?
MHR: In November, we have the first base set for our iteration of In the Trenches, as well as the second game of the Blood Before Richmond series, Glendale and White Oak Swamp. For December, we have scheduled a second In the Trenches base set and a new Mark Walker’s Platoon Commander game on Korea. We have some other titles in development which might come out by the end of the year, or more likely, early next year. 

There are sequels to Invaders From Dimension X! and Neuschwabenland, a Napoleonics card game, another ACW series this one from Sean Chick, a horror-themed game, lots of other stuff. Tom is working on High Speed Hover Tank, which I’m having a lot of fun testing and breaking.