Storm and Steel – Now Available!

Storm and Steel has just been released in the Amazon Kindle store. This is the latest entry in the “Tales of World War III: 1985” series and perhaps one of my favorite so far.

It’s got just the right mix of realism and action to entertain the reader. It also fills in a missing spot in the series by looking at war from the perspective of the West Germans.

So often, Cold War Hot fiction focuses on the Americans (“Team Yankee”) or the British (“Chieftain”). I thought it was time to consider how the West Germans would have felt watching their homeland being invaded and fighting for their homes and families.

The action this time is focused tightly on a tank company commander. Here’s a brief synopsis of the plot:

May 1985: A panzer company commander faces his first harrowing day of war versus the Warsaw Pact. Against the relentless onslaught of Russian and Czechoslovakian divisions pouring into West Germany, Captain Kurt Mohr and his tank crews wage a desperate battle to delay the enemy advance. As a brand new company commander, he must also prove his metal to the men who serve under him. Amid the breakneck speed of mechanized warfare, Mohr battles his own self-doubt and fear in order to quickly adapt to the fast-paced battlefield environment.

Fighting in Lower Bavaria also poses unique challenges to his command abilities as the close-in nature of the terrain forces him to deal with threats at point blank range. As the conflict’s first day progresses, the brutal reality of war hits home. With the future of their nation at stake, Mohr and his men become the storm and steel that avenge the countrymen whose lives they are sworn to protect.

At a Glance: Agricola

Agricola from Hollandspiele Games is a solitaire design from Tom Russell released in 2016 from the fledgling company run by Tom and Mary. I’ve never played a Hollandspiele Game before so I was really excited to get my hands on this one.

Agricola lets the player take on the role of the famed Roman general and governor of Brittania in the first century AD. You’re faced with the tough job of making friends and outwitting your enemies. The problem is that you’re never quite sure who is in which camp until certain points in the game. Sometimes you think you’re making all the right moves and you end up with a knife planted firmly in your back. In addition to your own decisions, the game uses a really neat chit-pull mechanic to help determine how things play out. 
Add to all this is the fact that you’re under pressure from Rome to achieve great things while you’re up in Brittania. The empire is crumbling fast and Rome is desperately trying to buttress their defenses by getting as much as they can from their far-flung territories. If you don’t perform well, expect to be replaced rather quickly. 
Let’s take a look at this bad boy:
Game Box – Front
You get a pretty sturdy box with a nice cover. Lots of information on the side of the box. This thing is for 1 player, duration of 90 minutes, high solitaire suitability, and medium weight. Hey, what’s this? The art is by Ania Ziolkowska and Gonzalo Santacruz! They add a nice layer of cool to this thing.
Inside the box…
The rulebook is 12 pages and has nice bold font throughout. It’s full color with corrections from the previous ruleset in red. The final page is a Player’s Aid. 
There is a full-color map sheet of Britain, neatly organized with game turn, VP, and legion actions tracks. The other full-color sheet is used to track Force Pool, Dead Pool and Legion holding boxes.
There is one countersheet in here with 88 counters. These are nice thick quality counters. Two rows of the counters had fallen out of their sheet during transit to Japan and they were in perfect condition when I opened the box.
A few of the counters from Agricola
The game counters are clear and colorful with essential information (attack, defense ratings, etc.) easy to read at a glance. I am very happy to report that the colors are very distinct, which is a welcome relief as a color-blind person who has been struggling mightily with Central America’s terrain color system for the last two weeks. 
Finally, you have an eight-sided die included in the game, used to resolve combat. Its probably because of my D&D roots that I love games that use unconventional die.

So how does this thing play?
There are four cups from which you pull chits in Agricola. Three cups represents friendly, unfriendly, and hostile tribes. The fourth one is a battle cup.
With each turn, you take Legion Actions. This might mean moving legions to a tribal box, suppressing dissent, garrisoning units, peacekeeping, battle, or passing the turn. You can also use your leaders to  help reorganize a legion or negotiate with tribal units. Depending on what you do, this influences the movement of chits among the various cups. For example, you might need to move two friendly chits to the unfriendly cup. In this fashion, you know you’re likely making someone unhappy but you’re not exactly sure who and how much. You won’t know until the next phase.

After each legion action, hostile tribes react to what you have done. You pull chits from the hostile cup and match them to their tribal box. Depending on what’s in that tribe’s box, the unit could be eliminated outright or you might end up with a dead garrison. Tribal leaders could be drawn from the cup, resulting in a warming of relations (to just “unfriendly” instead of hostile). Your legions might get ambushed or face set-piece battles. You might also have tribes going to war with each other. What a headache!

Battle is resolved very quickly with a Deployment phase then an Attack and Defense Round. This goes on until one side is eliminated. Attack and Defense are resolved by rolling the die and adding the result to your unit’s attack or defense factor (depending on what you are doing). If it’s greater than the enemy’s relevant factor, you eliminate the enemy unit.
You can then promote and reorganize your units. The number of chits in the cups is adjusted (you move chits from cup to cup blindly) according to how your legions and auxillaries fared in the battle. 
There is a housekeeping phase that allows the enemy to raid your settlements and steal from your treasury. Tribes can be paid off with public works to play nice. You get new soldiers and auxillaries. And then you check your VPs.  Each turn has a VP threshold that you must meet. In addition to other triggers, one of the things I like here is that if you don’t make a certain number of VPs per turn, the game ends in defeat.
To win the game, you collect VPs by enhancing settlements, having regions without tribal units, having an empty hostile chit cup, and generally bringing peace and prosperity to Brittania. 
Agricola looks fun and interesting with some cool mechanics. I especially like the fog of war aspect of the game. You have a general impression of how things are going over with the tribes but you’re always on your toes. What’s more, you never really know when you’re going to face an all-out rebellion. The Battle of Mons Groupius, once triggered, brings all thirteen enemy battle units on to the board for a big showdown with your legions. If you win, it eliminates a big chunk of hostile tribal units and you can rest easy for a turn or two. If you lose, the game is over. Lots of tension and high stakes in this game. Definitely worth checking out!

Happy New Year!

 

Late last month, I made all the books from 2017 available in a single volume. At first, I was honestly tempted to stop writing the series at this point and just put the offering there for anyone who wanted to read and enjoy the series. Looking back over the books I had written was invigorating! Some of them worked out well while a couple of them fizzle out. However, there was enough good material and enough lessons learned to keep me going with the series in the new year.

Today, I began work on the next installment of the series. The next book will feature a look at Operation Gladio. This was reportedly a covert NATO operation to have a stay-behind force to conduct guerrilla operations in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe. Although little is really known about Gladio, there have been enough hair-raising headlines to offer a good fiction-writer some ideas for a story set in the Tales of World War III: 1985 series. I’m enjoying the developing characters and dilemmas that the characters face in the story and – not to worry – there are some fun action sequences to satisfy readers who want a thrilling read. I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the book throughout the month. Thanks for reading.

NATO Air Commander – Designer’s Thoughts

I spent a lot of time this year in what one might generously term “interesting circumstances”.

One of the outcomes of that was a game I had in the back of my mind for years.

NATO Air Commander is the first game I have ever designed and I’m particularly humbled by the show of early support from playtesters and wargamers. Tom and Mary Russell, the heads of Hollandspiele Games, were particularly supportive and I am especially grateful for that.

Just like the title says, this is a solitaire game that is supposed to put the player in the shoes of an Allied Air Commander during a hypothetical World War III set around 1987.

To that end, the decisions you make in this game are big theater decisions and the scale of the game works on the level of flights of aircraft. Each turn, you’re creating and assembling raids and assigning missions to air units, hoping to influence the ground war – over which you have limited control.

The game came out of a desire to see more depth in the air portion of the wargames that I was playing. Quite often in traditional wargames, air units are relegated to bombing the hell out of an enemy counter during a separate air phase and shifting the CRT to the right one or two columns during ground combat. This game is coming at the issue from another angle where you have some deeper decisions over how your air units fit into the overall warplan.

During the early part of the summer, I read a few books that directed the development of the game. The first was Dr. Albert Price’s Air Battle Central Europe. This helped me think about the missions that different aircraft would perform and how they would work together in the “big picture” air war. Another book was Col. James Silfe’s Creech Blue. This book talks about how NATO tactical air was utterly transformed in the post-Vietnam era. That brought me around to reading about General Bernard Rogers, who was NATO’s supreme commander during the 1980s. That pulled me towards the importance of hitting at follow-on-forces since General Rogers thought this would be an intrinsic part of winning any World War III scenario in Central Europe. This paper delves nicely into the topic.

I tried to provide a smorgasbord of missions that would allow you to attack the enemy in your own way and to formulate your own air strategy. You can certainly just shove all your air units to the front and hammer at the enemy with close air support. It may not be enough to turn the tide though. The Warsaw Pact is a huge beast and you’ll find yourself scattered thin in any such attempt.

Or you can go for enemy headquarters and try to stifle overall command and control ability, which will slowly influence how the game plays out from turn to turn. This is done by letting the player remove cards from the game. It takes time for that to work though – and as the NATO player you don’t have much of it.

You can also decide to spend your time and resources hitting at the enemy’s defenses and trying to gain air supremacy. The only problem is that you’ll have to take precious resources away from performing CAS missions at the front or hitting at enemy reinforcements that are rolling to the front. All the while, you’ll be getting screamed at by ground commanders to hit back at the enemy pushing through in their sector.

I wanted the game to provide the player with tough decisions and live with their consequences. I also wanted the feeling of frustration at succeeding in the air war but it still just might not be enough to win things on the ground. I’m not sure I have that right yet and I am hoping the playtesters’ comments will help me guide things in the right direction for that.

I also wanted NATO Air Commander to be a simple and fast-playing game. An ideal playing time would be an hour or so. This is because I’m a really busy guy with not a lot of spare time. I am worried that games of this type tend to get bloated (and some are bloated in amazing ways, mind you).

I learned some very important things with this first design. The first is that WOW – designing a game is definitely not an easy task. I thought NAC would be simple to design because I was trying to make it simple to play. After my first couple of solo playtests with my first version of the rules, I had an inkling of just how hard it was going to be. I revised and tinkered with the rules for months and each time I thought I had things right, something else would pop up that brought me back to the drawing board. When people talk about “unfinished games”, they are really talking about every game.

The second thing I learned is that game design requires a certain amount of faith and a considerable amount of hubris. Making estimations of real-world unit capabilities was one of the toughest things I had ever done. Coming up with a formula for values was nearly impossible. At first, I counted hardpoints on air units, then the issue of range came up, then electronic warfare capabilities, pilot training, etc. There is a tendency to try and take so much into account that the formulas start to break down at some point.

The answer was to simplify. I looked at what other games around that time had done, read about the primary roles of each air unit in real life and the weapons they could carry, and then made some modifications from there. Much of it is guesswork and that’s okay because we’re talking about a conflict that never actually happened. There’s some liberty in that but I know I’ll have people who are unhappy with the A-10’s ground rating of “7” or whatever. I can live with that.

Hopefully though, the game will be enjoyable more than anything else. If it brings a smile to someone’s face, it will have done it’s job.

Battle for Berlin ’85 Released!

The Battle for Berlin: 1985I have just published The Battle for Berlin: 1985, my newest entry in the Tales of World War III: 1985 series. I am very proud of this work and I think it represents my best effort so far.

The book is about a Special Deployment Commando team in West Berlin during an invasion of the city by the Warsaw Pact forces. It deals with the personalities involved in the small elite unit as it learns to fight a losing battle against a numerically superior force.

During the course of the first day’s fighting, the members of the team experience first-hand the trauma and shock of modern warfare, watching and taking part in the destruction of their hometown with nowhere to retreat.

There is intrigue, betrayal, and military action all wrapped up in this one story as the desperate battle for West Berlin is waged on the first day of World War III.

Go and grab your copy here and let me know what you think.

Summer Reading

For this summer, I’m happy to be reading some books from some of my favorite authors. Jim Butcher is great and I am reading Fool Moon from the Dresden Files. Very nice atmosphere and way to take a fresh approach on the pulp noir genre. I also have my sights set on Colder Than Hell by Joseph Owen, an excellent true story about a company commander in the Korean War. Finally, I’ve been reading a book called Creech Blue about Bill Creech’s influence on modern air war strategy in the 1980s. Not as dry as I expected and downright fascinating how one man can make so many positive changes in such a short time.

Enemy Lines – The Revenge Story

So if you read Enemy Lines, you’ll notice there’s a little loose thread at the end of the book that I have left dangling. Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, but there’s a certain someone that has something coming to them. If you’re wondering how that plays out, have no fear. I’m writing that short story right now and I’ll be including it as a free download in the coming weeks.

As for my other works in the series, summer has been busy and I have slowed my pace of writing down a bit. But I have something very nice planned for the next book and I’ll be dropping hints about it in some upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Nord Kapp: How it All Played Out

Quick post today. The scenario depicted in my latest book, “Storm Scarred Banner” was based off a game created in 1983 by legendary designer Charles T. Kamps. For a look at how the game played out, you can read my blog post here over on my game blog. One thing I wish I had talked more about in the book was how the weather influences fighting just as it did in the game. Enjoy!

A Man and a Plan: General Bernard Rogers and FOFA

Since my last book, “Storm Scarred Banner” was released a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been busy with a game design project. Although I can’t say too much about it at this point, I can tell you that it looks at the large-scale events in the book series from a broad top-down perspective.  To that end,  I’ve been conducting research and deepening my knowledge of the wider issues of a Third World War fought in the 1980s.

One of the more interesting ideas I didn’t know about until yesterday was that of FOFA or “Follow On Forces Attack”.

In the 1980s, NATO was trying to figure out the best way to stop the Soviets from succeeding with a conventional war in Europe. Knowing that Soviet doctrine relied on the echelon system, where successive waves of troops would be thrown into battle time and time again, the new NATO strategy came to be that of hitting these successive waves from the air as they came up to their staging areas behind the front.

General Bernard Rogers, who was SACEUR throughout most of the 1980s, was a major proponent of this concept. General Rogers, a force of nature in military circles back then, was  concerned with the overwhelming advantage in numbers of men and tanks that sat behind the Iron Curtain. Despite NATO’s unquestionable technological superiority, Rogers seemed concerned that it was not enough to deter or stop the Warsaw Pact from gaining the upper hand in a conventional fight.

Despite falling out of favor with Washington and forced to resign over comments related to the withdrawal of Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe, Rogers’ FOFA concept was held in esteem by many military thinkers at the time. To read more about FOFA and how it would have been put into practice, check out this study project paper from the US Army War College in 1990. Very interesting reading.

Storm Scarred Banner Released!

A week ago, I uploaded my latest book, “A Storm Scarred Banner” to the Amazon Kindle Store. Since then it has taken off along with the rest of the books in the “Tales of World War III: 1985” series.

The title comes from the lyrics to the Norwegian national anthem, from the line:

“Rugged, storm-scarred o’er the ocean. With her thousand homes”

I thought that was quite stirring and lovely. The effect is almost visceral and the story of how the country was forged through battle and peace was appropriate for a novel of this sort. The banner, of course, refers to the red banner of the Soviet Union and the Red Banner Fleet.

I think this is one of my better works in the series because it looks a little more closely at the soldier’s lot in a war. There are no superheroes in this book – just men trying their best to survive in their current situation.