Monday, September 28, 2015

WINTER THUNDER: A NEW OLD GAME (Guest post by Brian Train)

Winter Thunder is an operational-level game of the Battle of the Bulge, the famous German offensive of December 1944 in the region of the Ardennes Forest. It is a substantial revision of Autumn Mist, an earlier design of mine on the Bulge. Among the many changes are: a newly researched order of battle, with revised counter values and reinforcement schedule, cleaned up rules including a solitaire play system, and a drastically revised map with a different ground scale and treatment of terrain. 

Winter Thumder map

We changed the title to reflect these changes and to relate it to Summer Lightning, a game on the 1939 invasion of Poland that Mark Walker cajoled me into designing and publishing w/’ Load in 2011. The two games share most systems, including similar time and unit scales, and in my view nicely bookend the beginning and end of the era of German “blitzkrieg” offensives.

Why do a game on the Bulge? There are already dozens and dozens of games on this battle, at all scales from squad level to corps. It all goes back to an opportunity that presented itself in the waning days of the Microgame Design Group, the first company to publish my designs. The company was approached in 2002-03 by a Spanish magazine that wanted to experiment with putting wargames into its issues, but they only wanted games on the “Big 5 Battles” – Waterloo, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Normandy, and the Bulge. A couple of designers in the “stable” took a swing at designing games with a newer take on the subject battles, but after the deal with the magazine fell through and the Design Group went on hiatus, only mine was picked up by an outside company, Fiery Dragon Productions, in 2004.

This was one of the few times when I have designed a game on something I wasn’t particularly interested in, but I had been working out a game system to handle corps/army operations, and here was an opportunity to get a quick publication. At the time I joked that there was an unwritten rule that every game designer had do to a Bulge game at some point in their career if they wanted to be taken seriously, and this one was mine. My original testbed for the system was to be a game on the 1945 Soviet offensive in Manchuria; after designing four games using this system (Autumn Mist, Summer Lightning, Balkan Gamble, Winter Thunder) I still haven’t gotten around to doing it!

The game’s sequence of play is made interactive by the HQ activation system. Each game turn chits for headquarters (HQ) units are picked randomly from a pool containing all chits from all sides. The corresponding HQ unit on the map can then put a certain number of units near it “under command”, enabling them to move and conduct combat. In 2003 this method was not very new but hadn’t been used in any Bulge game.

The combat system is what I call “near diceless”. The attacking and defending players secretly choose missions based on what they want to do, and what they think the enemy will do. The two are matched on the Mission Matrix Table, which will indicate any advances or retreats and whether one or both sides has to check for casualties, and if so with what modifiers. I am indebted to Jim Stahler for the essence of the Mission Matrix idea, which I have heavily modified, from his variant article for Blitzkrieg in the magazine The General volume 18, number 6 (March-April 1982).

Mission Matrix Table
The two armies represented in the game are differentiated within this system. The Germans have a larger number of HQ units in the pool to activate, and initial numerical superiority. But the Allies (in practice, the Americans: the British 30 Corps is represented fully in the game but enters the fray only if the German threatens the Meuse River crossings) have more divisions overall with more motorized units, faster strategic (road-bound) movement and generous groupings of heavy artillery and airpower. So it’s a question of the German making hay while the snow flies, then switching to a mobile defense when the Allied counterattack gets underway.

There is a campaign game scenario that runs from December 16 to January 3, a bit longer than many Bulge games. There is also a short “Home for Christmas” scenario which assumes the Germans launch an offensive with more localized aims and fewer resources. Also, because so many war games are designed for two but played by one, we included an optional solitaire play method.

I hope you enjoy this game. I appreciated the chance of a do-over, 12 years after its first publication.

Coming in October to Tiny Battle Publishing.

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