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David Freer

Moscow '42David Freer and FriendKharkov '43

This interview was conducted at the time Moscow '42 was released; it dates to November 2012. I also expect David will be open to sharing some further thoughts when his latest project is published.

Recently Scenario Design Center sat down with David Freer, who among his many titles is also a project manager as well as a lead scenario designer for John Tiller Software for a one on one conversation about his latest project- Panzer Campaigns: Moscow '42.

SDC: Your Moscow '42 title features scenarios from both a historical campaign, the Soviet winter offensive around Moscow from December 1941 through the middle of February 1942, as well as taking on an alternate German summer strategy in 1942 where their objective was resuming the battle for Moscow instead of the historical drive to the oilfields of the Caucasus. While with the historical scenarios there are obviously going to be source material regarding specific events, but the same sort of source material wouldn't be available in an alternate history type setting. That situation seems to suggest that there has to be a different approach to designing for hypothetical campaign games compared to historical campaign games. Is one more difficult of a challenge than the other?

DF: Campaign design is certainly an area that you can go multiple routes. For the historical & hypothetical campaigns in Moscow '42 there was essentially the same creation process. I had very good details for all the starting positions of all the units on the day each campaign started. This allowed me to setup the various formations where they were historically. The big difference after that is in the historical scenarios you are aware where forces moved to or fought historically. In the hypothetical campaigns you had to postulate positions and situations that would have resulted based upon the time that had elapsed. For example, in the test games we were able to determine how long the Axis forces would take to break through the Soviet defenses and what condition they were in. With this knowledge after a number of play-throughs it was easy to work out advance rates that then determined the timing for later scenarios. With a historical campaign you are in some respects constrained by 'history' – you have to try and reflect the historical outcome assuming players essentially play as the real world commanders did. With the hypothetical situations, there are far fewer restrictions and after the starting setup there is freedom to build the situation as the designer likes.

SDC: In light of the above, as a professional lead scenario designer, how do you go about preparing for the construction of a hypothetical or alternate history type of campaign?

DF: The hypothetical campaigns are certainly fun to design for. That said it has to be both plausible and 'historical'. This is the same basis the other hypothetical Panzer Campaigns title was built on (Sealion '40). Sealion'40 utilised the available German planning documents as well as the Allied forces known to be in the UK at the time. For the summer scenarios in Moscow '42, exactly the same approach was taken. A starting date of June 28th was chosen as that coincided with historical launching of Fall Blau (Operation Blue). The available forces were looked at in two passes. The first pass was related to which units had historically setup on the map. In this case it was the Heeresgruppe Mitte forces as well as all the Soviet Forces. The second pass was what additional forces might be used in the attack on Moscow. It was an easy decision to use Heeresgruppe von Weichs as it was setup just off map to the south and was used as the northern arm of the actual Fall Blau. To make it even more interesting various different starting positions were chosen for Heeresgruppe von Weichs to allow different approaches to Moscow to be tried. Once all the units are placed, a decision around what units should engage in battle and when is made. Again, the historical schedule from Fall Blau was considered and formations such as the Soviet 3rd & 5th Tank Armies release when they historically were. All of this requires some trial and error as well as play testing. When it comes to setting the overall objectives, obviously capturing Moscow is the ultimate focus, so everything is set with that considered. It's important to note that I always design the campaigns first and then carve the scenarios out of these big campaigns. These smaller scenarios are usually the most interesting situations and also allow the play testers to make certain the game plays the way we want it to.

SDC: I was wondering if when working with alternate history (or even 'what if' scenarios) you created a sort of flow chart or story board, or basically have a set sort of narrative even if only in your head before you start in with the design work itself? I suppose there are so many variables in that situation that you can take a flexible approach as to what works best.

DF: You have to think about some form of story or flow, as the length of the scenario, the objectives and the forces involved require that. For Fall Kreml many of the scenarios are based on the first day so they are the easiest ones. That said there are three scenarios that are at a later date and the preceding events had to be considered. Decisions on how far the Axis forces would have come, their strength and fatigue levels all had to be factored in. It's worth reading the scenario descriptions as they cover off a little of the preceding action. Fall Kreml was always a bonus addition to Moscow '42, so has not been 'done' to the depth of a full standalone title. With that in mind there is so much more that could be done and if there is enough interest from the community we may flesh out the history more and build some further scenarios. From the play testing we have done we think players will be creating their own versions of 'exciting' history from these scenarios. Looking forward to all the after action reports!

SDC: We have spent a bit of time talking about the alternate scenarios in Moscow '42. Are the historical winter scenarios just a follow on to the material in Moscow '41? What is it that you see as new and exciting here?

DF: After releasing Kharkov '43, I was in discussions with Glenn Saunders (JTS project manager and designer) about potential future projects. The biggest proviso for any title is the map. Map making is an extremely time consuming and labour intensive exercise. Using existing maps for new projects allows a quicker release cycle. Glenn steered me towards looking at a follow on to Moscow '41 as the Soviet counterattacks had not been the focus of that title and he believed that there was a game there. As mentioned in the designers notes for Moscow '42, we were skeptical we had enough content for a game – that all changed after the first book was read detailing the period from December 6th 1941 into the 1942 New Year. There was a number of firsts during this campaign. The first big Soviet Para drop in January 1942 near Vyazma is one example. The use of Siberian troops and their impact on the Axis forces was another. The impact of Hitler's stand fast order and the way the front line became fragmented creating challenges and opportunities for both sides meant that there was some real meat to build on. Finally, the German drive to Moscow has been well documented but the Soviet counterattack has had much less focus historically and this was a chance to put a spotlight on what was the biggest battle in World War 2 for the number of engaged combatants.

SDC: How is it that an Australian living in Singapore comes to find a deep interest in the Russian Front, and on the face of things also has a focus on the Soviet winter offensives as well? There has to be a story or two in that competition of circumstances.

DF: It's something to do to offset the heat here in Singapore!!!

Seriously though, I moved to Singapore due to my work with a large US IT multi-national. I look after 19 countries and Singapore is more central in what is a very large region. My average flight time is still 7+ hours though! As far as my interest in the Russian Front, I have always been a gamer. One of my first really interesting board war games was Jack Radey's Korsun Pocket. After seeing the cut and thrust of that battle, I started to read more on the Eastern Front and was amazed at both the scale and tragedy of it all. There were just so many different situations and decisions that if just slightly different could have seen significantly different outcomes. My focus on the winter campaigns have been largely 'accidental', I did the German hypothetical campaign in June '42 as I needed some sunshine! There is no intention to limit the focus to winter only campaigns.

The one big disadvantage of living in Singapore is the climate and the effect on my library of books. I have collected a lot of specialized texts on the Eastern Front and I hope they last my tenure in the topics. By the way, some of the best books I have in my collection are by a fellow Aussie, Jason Mark of Leaping Horsemen Books absolutely amazing for the depth of research. He has come out with reference works that are second to none.

SDC: In reading through the Moscow '42 designers' notes they state that your M42 map is (paraphrasing here) 'the largest map ever used in a Panzer Campaigns' title.' Is that 'the largest map' or 'the largest map to date?'

DF: Definitely, 'to date' :). Personally, I think we have hit the limit of playability. This map is pretty much the equivalent of Danube '85 and the counter density matches that. Now that said, though there are 8 huge campaigns included with the game, there are many smaller scenarios that are very playable and even small campaigns that are the equivalent to earlier released titles such as Bulge '44. I really think people who buy the game will be getting a lot of value for money.

SDC: ...and along those lines, have you done much reading on the Caucasus Campaign?

DF: Maybe... :). The whole of Fall Blau is too big for the Panzer Campaigns system. Now that said, the summer order of battle includes all the historical forces that the German's used to take Voronezh and you never know what would happen if we had a new map...

SDC: Now that you have designed scenarios for two of JTS's commercial releases, Kharkov '43 and Moscow '42, both of which feature Russian offensives in winter weather conditions in different years of the Second World War, would you take a moment to compare and contrast the tactics needed to succeed as the Russians in both titles?

DF: The Soviets in Moscow '42 are significantly stronger than their opponent, whereas it is the opposite situation in Kharkov '43. Now that said, there is a real paucity of tanks in Moscow '42, but with much more closed terrain compared to Kharkov '43, the Soviet ski and cavalry troops come into their own. There are additional pluses for the Soviets in Moscow '42 in that the German supply is diabolically bad and the frozen penalty an additional negative on their performance. As a footnote, the frozen penalty is only voided when in built up areas. Forest is no longer considered cover. Therefore the Soviets can use some of their traditional strengths such as close assault and expect to see improved results. All the above factors swing the benefit the Soviets way. The other big change in the period is the employment of the Soviet Tank forces. In Moscow '42, the basic tank unit was weak Tank Brigades. In Kharkov '43 it's Tank Corp's (three tank brigades combined) or even Tank Armies.

SDC: With regards to 'Fall Kreml', how many times (as the German player, naturally) have you managed to take Moscow?

DF: Well it depends what scenario I play! There is a scenario called 'Götterdämmerung : Moskau', that only focuses on the final storming of Moscow, so it's not hard in that situation. In a big campaign, once, with a couple of misses the rest of the time! The big campaigns are setup so that the Axis player becomes more hobbled as he approaches Moscow. Supply starts to dwindle while additional Soviet forces release. It all creates a very tense experience.

SDC: Are you working on any future projects in the PzC series?

DF: There are always future products being worked on. That said the community needs to understand that we are hobbyists and do this in our spare time. Moscow '42 was eighteen months in the making and the number of man hours were huge. One example is the photos on the HQ units. Three full weeks were spent searching the web, finding the leaders historical photo and then creating the units – all for aesthetic reasons. Sometimes I think I am crazy for the amount of detail that was put into this release.

SDC: Based upon the level of detail (as well as the scale of the projects that you have completed in the Panzer Campaigns series) I have a feeling that I know the answer to this question, but for the record, are you now, or have you ever been a 'monster gamer?'  If yes, what have you played that have influenced your scenario design philosophy?

DF: Yes – I am a monster gamer! Is there a 'Gamers Anonymous' chapter for that? {editor: yes, there is - but since you already gave your name, David... it might not be that helpful ;) } I have played monster games both as board games and on the PC. For the PC one of my most favourite games is 'War in the Pacific Admirals Edition'. In board games I have used the SPI 'Wacht Am Rhein' & the previously mentioned 'Korsun Pocket' as inspirations. They match the Panzer Campaigns scale and are the epitome of operational war gaming.

SDC: Aside from your own work, what has been your favorite Tiller title and/or scenario? What was it about that title that appealed to you?

DF: I own many of the Panzer Campaigns and Squad battle games. I have played a lot of Smolensk '41, Korsun '44, Market Garden '44, Normandy '44 and Bulge '44. One of my all-time favourites though has been Kharkov '42. It's a classic attack by both sides and you can be hanging on by the skin of your teeth in one sector while making a victorious advance in another. It has a great mix of different unit types as well as Axis Allied forces (Rumanians & Hungarians). To be honest it was the inspiration for doing the summer scenarios in Moscow '42 which in a historical sense is only a month later in June 1942.

SDC: David, thanks for sharing your insights with the community. Moscow '42 promises to be another solid addition to the Panzer Campaigns library, as well as filling a gap in covering major Soviet offensives. All the best with that as well as all of the other projects that you may or may not ;) be working on at the moment.

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