Frank Chadwick's ETO on the Playtest Tables

At ConsimWorld Expo (CSWX) 2017, the developers for Frank Chadwick's ETO Vol. I: Thunder in the East (TitE) gathered to put some beta testing polish on this new operational/strategic level WWII wargame series, whose famous antecedent is the classic introductory wargame, Battle for Moscow. Also on the tables, an alpha version of the second volume in this series, The Middle Sea (TMS), a Mediterranean wargame which was given a great first shakedown. If you are following this series' development, here is the news from ConsimWorld.

Well Begun is Halfway Done

Thunder in the East (TitE) has been in testing along with the entire ETO series game engine for a few years now, so it was no surprise at CSWX that the game's core systems and mechanics played very smoothly together. Logistics, economics, and card play were all fitted to the game's basic Special Move-Fight-Regular Move sequence of play. Veterans of Battle for Moscow (B4M) or the Frank Chadwick's Campaigns in Russia (CiR) games will feel very familiar with this turn structure and happy to discover that some meat has been added to its bones to allow for more robust "peripheral systems," including an air system that is highly regarded by the playtesters and overruns added to movement to prevent over-effective "speed bump" delaying tactics.

Passersby at CSWX, wargamers all, were impressed to see the scope of these games as this series evolves, and meet its designer in person, the legendary Frank Chadwick. Answering questions was a joyous part of the show for the developers, but even more so was offering up commands during the playtesting so interested gamers could test drive TitE for themselves.

Playtesting focused intensely on the beginning of the campaign game, with the opening turns of Operation Barbarossa under particular scrutiny. As an experienced wargame development team under the guidance of Lance McMillan, we know that if Barbarossa doesn't go right in your WWII East Front game, then the whole thing goes wrong. Thus, we took this singular meeting opportunity to really focus in on this and made some great little adjustments to ensure the game's narrative of the war's opening on the Russian Front hummed like a tuning fork.

Playtesters John Tiehen and Vassal guru Ken Keller also contributed several distinct strategies for both the Soviet defense and Axis attack in 1941-42. With dozens of games under their belts, and several more at CSWX, we confirmed that strategies for both sides present meaningful choices that shape how Barbarossa develops, while maintaining real historical plausibility.

TITE team "TITE-ans" playtesting at CSW 2017

Team TitE-ans developers from left to right: John Tiehen, designer Frank Chadwick, Kevin Roust, developer Lance McMillan, Daniel Duldig, and exuberant publisher Alan Emrich.

Polishing Thunder in the East

The rewarding part of playtesting is finding things to fix and polish. With the ETO brain trust in congress at the show and communicating across the tables via sneaker-net instead of internet, things moved quickly as matters were discovered and discussed, solutions proffered and immediately vetted on the game table. From a game development standpoint, it was a beautiful thing! Some excellent refinements made at the show included:  

TITE Soviet Labor Battalions cardTelling a better story with the Soviet untried Rifle Infantry Corps units. That is, adding the (crummier) Militia and Conscript units (which pollute the pool) via card play, but allowing the Soviet player to remove them from the pool once discovered on the map (and then removed from it). The Soviets have gained some interesting (yet simple) strategic decisions to make regarding the quality of their troop training levels, and everything neatly fits into the current games' systems without a bunch of new rules and exceptions.  

Vetting the Close Support custom dice system. There are a lot of Close Air Support Missions that get flown in TitE, and using these custom dice to generate (or not) additional Combat Results Tables shifts worked out amazingly well. Better still, they too contribute to the narrative as some of the shifts are conditional on having the right balance of forces in that battle. It worked out to be very simple, very fun, and perfectly evocative for this series' scope and scale.  

ETO HQ breakdownWe already had in the system that logistics would work in bounds; that is, advancing troops would outrun their supply lines and would slow down while the logistics caught up and put the front lines back in supply. In an absolute facepalm moment of utter clarity, the nits that we didn't like about the (old) systems we had been using disappeared with the playtesters' unifying suggestion of using small Countdown markers on the affected pieces/locations showing their repair time. That is, before a just-moved HQ, or a just-captured Supply or Anchorage City hex, is fully functional again, it takes some turns (Weeks) to mend. The simple Countdown marker system brought a lot of elegance to the whole process and we couldn't be happier that bit of the story is so much better told now.  

TITE sample Axis cardOnlookers seemed particularly interested in the TitE cards game engine. The cards do not drive the game in ETO, merely supplement the story with things that happened outside the scale of, or that historically occurred on the periphery of, this wargame's systems. Essentially, players see the cards as providing buffs applicable to different strategies they might employ, bringing historical edge cases to life (without a lot of complex systems and exceptions to achieve them via this simple card mechanic). Historical gamers recognized and reveled in the myriad evocative cards for the Soviet and Axis factions, noting that the narrative scope of events ranged from big (Soviet Emergency Mobilization, Militia Mobilized, and The Great Patriotic War, in addition to the Axis' Blitzkrieg! and Standfast! cards) to more operational in nature. Essentially, players select either one Major or two Minor cards each month and have a limited hand size from which to retain them over time to combo them. We experimented with many card permutations at CSWX and were very happy with the results. Even the obvious cards offer subtleties, and timing is everything!

Partisans got a busy workout at CSWX, and developer Kevin Roust (playing the Soviets) really stress-tested the system. At the end, they seemed initially too successful in their bomb throwing, and so, as we did with the Soviet Rifle Corps, we altered their untried pool by adding more and better Partisan Detachments via card play, thus improving them over time. Simple, and in keeping with the game's systems, the partisan polish is looking shiny-bright now.

Thunder in the East Partisans

Click to enlarge, but the fronts (left) and backs (right) of the Partisan Detachment markers and Corps units are shown here. Note that the former are "untried," so you never know what they'll do!

There was considerable talk among the onlookers about TitE's obvious player accessibility (keeping in mind CSWX is a wargamer's convention). All experience levels were represented among the week's playtesters, while developer Lance McMillan kept them focused on the on the meta-topics for testing while validating the core mechanics remained solid. Play balance; historical TITE Axis Dnepr lunge 2credibility; and constant, fun, and meaningful decisions; plus, as Alan Emrich calls it, "proper gameplay narrative," remained the centers of attention for feedback and debriefs. Wrinkles were smoothly ironed out between the talent assembled and their short line of communication to ask, devise, test, and implement changes. Kudos to one newcomer, Daniel Duldig, a veteran wargamer from Melbourne, Australia, who flew out to CSWX and boldly seized Dnepropetrovsk with a reduced strength Panzer Corps in early August of '41 during one of his first outings in command of Army Group South. Amazing maneuvers like that rely more on balls than ball-bearings, and the gathering was very impressed. See Daniel's report on this exciting action here.  

TITE Ground CRTNotable discussions were also made about what already worked well that performed flawlessly under the harsh playtesting conditions. The Ground and Air Combat Results Tables proved dependable workhorses in TITE, particularly in that players do not blindly chase perfect, dependable (Ground) odds or (Air) differentials as much of the game is settled by the boldness of risk in both maneuver and combat, so chancey battles are a fact of life in TITE. And to really create a gambler's rush, particularly for the Axis early in the war and the Soviets late in it, the Overrun system instantly creates some of the most interesting, dramatic, narrative-inducing die rolls in the game.  

Other small perfections included clearing up a couple map ambiguities, adjusting the amount of surprise shifts that an Airborne drop might (or might not!) yield, and clarifying the state of affairs with the creation, destruction, and upgrading of small Garrison units and Improved position markers. Here, we were getting the seasoning in the game just right. 

Pushing the Limits

With the core mechanics working smoothly, the emphasis on playtesting the peripheral systems proceeded apace. TITE is a scenario-based game with rules divided into three parts: Standard, Optional, and a Campaign Game section. (The Campaign Game allows players to play through game turns otherwise skipped between scenario start dates for a continuous flow of action across Russia). Each of the many scenarios feature one, if not more, operational bounds of maneuver across its start line with players happily engaging their tools of war to be architects of their own offensive and defensive positions.

TITE Typhoon

The view of Operation Typhoon from Moscow (lower-right corner). Here is the initial Axis breakthrough as they approach the Russian ancient capital. The Soviets are about to reveal their card that will place defensive belts and garrisons between the Axis invaders and Moscow's vital position.

Playtesters at CSWX stressed myriad on-map gameplay techniques even further by focusing on play styles that took the Campaign Game's long view (and thus employing the TitE Campaign Game rules which included morale and manufacturing). The Team TitE-an playtesters explored the seams between Campaign Game connected scenarios, validating the gameplay continuity and gauging what happens under extended campaign play conditions. Kevin Roust, the Soviet "God of War" at CSWX 2017, ran a clinic on wringing the most value out of every Resource Point in Frank Chadwick's Soviet economic model, much to the grudging respect of the Axis powers.

Welcome to The Middle Sea

Frank Chadwick explaining The Middle SeaOn a separate set of tables was the second game in the ETO series, The Middle Sea (TMS). As the title implies, this game covers the Mediterranean Theater of WWII and includes operations in Italy, the Balkans, across North Africa, and in the Levant. Since this was an alpha test, much of it was coming together for the very first time and we were particularly watching for these things:

How would the new operational Naval system perform under game conditions?

Would the Corps/Army unit scale of operations in Italy and the Balkans transfer well down the the Division/Corps unit scale required in the wilderness theater of the desert?

Was there enough "there" there to be a fun-to-play, stand-alone game in the series?

By the end of the show, we are pleased to report that the answer to that last question is an emphatic "yes," largely thanks to the playtesting and development that occurred developing TMS from those first two points!

Pictured above, designer Frank Chadwick playtesting The Middle Sea.

In the main theaters of East and Southern Europe (where Italy and the Balkans are), the standard game pieces are Corps size units (that can build up into Army size formations, and sometimes break down into less-efficient Divisions). So, when the war commences between Italy and Greece (an Allied Faction event card), and again when the Axis invade Yugoslavia or the Allies invade Sicily and Italy, Corps units maneuver about and concentrate into Armies to hammer key hexes when the time comes.

TMS Italy invades Greece

Italy makes slow, bloody inroads into Macedonia.
The stalwart Greek defenders hold on as the Italian Fleet in Toranto (upper-left) prepares to sortie into the Central Med to keep their supply lines open to North Africa.

But shipping forces to the desert requires those Corps to break down into Divisions, and there are so few of them that can be supported in that theater they become the unit of maneuver there. Some will build back up into Corps units (although forming Army units in that theater is prohibited), but troops are pretty scarce in North Africa! The game scaled like a dream between these main and wilderness theaters, and the combat systems held up flawlessly as playtest campaigns raged in the Balkans and across the Egypt/Libya border. There we saw many smiles and had a few laughs when observers remarked "It's almost like you had done this before and knew what you were doing!" Yeah, that's exactly what it was like, and we have a great feeling about how players are going to enjoy the Air-Land battles in TMS.

TMS Italy invades Egypt

Italian Corps unit (with ZOCs) vs. British Divisions (with no ZOCs). There's a lot of Italian manpower in North Africa, if not a lot else to support them right now.

One thing that stood out in testing was that the Italians have the potential to perform more effectively than they did historically, but careful planning is required on the part of the Axis player to help Il Duce rise to that level. Part of Italy's problem is that they are way over-extended: trying to fight private wars in North Africa and Greece while sending forces to the Eastern Front to assist in the fascist crusade against communism. From a practical standpoint, they can accomplish one of those tasks, but not all three! And with the British who exist to interfere with Italy's best efforts, Italian forces soon show signs of severe strain.

TMS Alexandria threatened

We forgot one British Division during setup, so the Italians rolled into Egypt but were still stopped. The Royal Navy, recovering in Alexandria after chasing the Italian fleet around the Central Med, was nervous.

But it was the introduction of the operational naval logistics, movement, and combat that were particularly focused on. In TITE, the naval system is an abstract, custom-built system just for that game (as naval operations only played a peripheral part in the Russian Front campaigns). In the Mediterranean Theater, however, navies are a major actor on the game's stage and they needed their starring role to go off smoothly. Prior to CSWX, we had developed the operational naval system considerably on paper, but you just never quite know what is going to happen when the counters meet the map for the first time and really try things out. So, we took our first bite on this much-anticipated new naval system and it was… okay.

TMS Royal Navy at AlexandriaAs we inspected the results closer, the naval supply system worked very well (Frank designed some very clever mechanics for that which felt natural and told a great story; ultimately the naval war in this theater is about keeping your supply lines open), as did the naval (and air, for that matter) transport systems. With only some tiny tweaks, those quickly started to shine right before our eyes. But getting credible naval combat results remained elusive for the first couple of days until a suggestion came in that simplified Naval Engagements, produced results that were very credible, and proved to be just darn fun to play!

Once we smoothed out what has become the current Naval Engagement system, we invited Jack Greene, who literally wrote the book on Mediterranean Naval Warfare during WWII, and quickly fought some historical battles using their exact counters from the game with our new Naval Engagement system (including the British carrier strike at Taranto, another Allied Faction event card). Jack carefully watched the various actions and noted their results; he pronounced that everything felt well within the range of historical tolerance for the outcomes the game system actually produced. What a great seal of approval from an authority such as Jack!

Things progressed smoothly from there and we walked away from the convention very pleased with the state of The Middle Sea after its initial alpha testing. We should have this game back on the tables of CSWX next year for all to try, and hope those of you in attendance will stop by.

Frank Chadwick explaining The Middle Sea 2

The TMS playtesting team from left to right: developer Lance McMillan, designer Frank Chadwick (making an important point about Malta), and publisher Alan Emrich

See you on Kickstarter at the end of this year!

The series schedule for Frank Chadwick’s ETO series looks like this:

Vol. I: Thunder in the East -- This game will go live on Kickstarter at the end of this year between Christmas and New Year's for a month long campaign. It's a huge project and we really need the advance fundraising to pay the printer for such a big job!

Vol II: The Middle Sea -- We should have this in full alpha testing by next year and, with favorable winds, can quickly get it into beta testing and start ironing out its myriad scenarios.

Vol III: Decision in the West (the Western Front from 1940 to 1945); Vol IV: Northern Fire (Scandinavia and the Arctic theater); Vol V: Victory at Any Cost (the linking kit which combines everything into an uber campaign game); and Vol 0: Dark Beginnings (alternate starts for WWII from 1934 to 1939) -- We have the maps and orders of battle/counters in pretty good shape for all of these and will work on their exclusive rules and scenarios as each moves up the queue following The Middle Sea.