Interview: Hermann Luttmann, designer of Dawn of the Zeds & At Any Cost

Hermann Luttmann, designer of At Any Cost, Attack of the 50 Foot Colossi, Crowbar and many more joins Diagonal Move to discuss his wargame design career.

At Any Cost Wargame
At Any Cost

DM: Thank you for joining us Hermann. Please can you tell us how you got started? Were you always a wargame designer?

HL: Thanks for having me Neil! I “officially” started back in 2011 when Victory Point Games (VPG) published my first design, Gettysburg: The Wheatfield.

Ironically, that game was based on an unpublished set of American Civil War (ACW) miniatures rules called Tattered Flags that my friend and I designed back in the 1990’s. We did try to sell them to Clash of Arms Games as a miniatures series, but it didn’t work out.

So, to answer the second part of your question first, like most wargamers (and especially miniatures gamers) I’ve always dabbled in design work. I was even able to develop and playtest some games for 3W and Clash of Arms. So, I had that bug way back when.

My first honest effort at getting a design published happened around 2010. I was a huge fan of VPG’s line of games. Alan Emrich (VPG founder) and I exchanged correspondence about various games in their catalogue. Somehow, we got onto the subject of GDW’s old “System 7” miniatures line, which we both loved. I happened to mention that I had designed a set of ACW miniatures rules and we both set about discussing how we could turn them essentially into a new version of “System 7”. That brought about Gettysburg: The Wheatfield and with that my career began.

After that, I designed Dawn of the Zeds because I had just played Zulus on the Ramparts, loved it and it “dawned” on me that this system would work great for a zombie apocalypse game as well. I assumed that the idea was so obvious that Alan had such a design already in the pipeline. I was shocked that no one had thought of it and thus was born (from the undead, apparently) my second, and by far the most popular, published design. 

Dawn of the Zeds
Hermann’s most popular design

DM: Your games cover a diverse range of topics including the two World Wars, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, zombies, and sentient space rocks.  What is it about those subjects that interest you?

HL: That’s admittedly a tough one. Some wargame designers get locked in on a certain topic or period of time and I didn’t want to do that. For me, there’s just too much interesting military history to be discovered to allow myself to be pigeon-holed like that.

So how do I pick my subjects? Well, it could be from a movie I saw, a book I read, a game I played or from another person’s suggestion. For example, Stonewall’s Sword came from a terrific post on the Obscure Battle blog site by Jeff Berry about the Battle of Cedar Mountain. I knew nothing about the battle but that article was so compelling that I just had to do a game design on it.

My interest in the Franco-Prussian War started when I played Rob Markham’s Blood and Iron game by 3W. It made me realize that the fighting tactics and equipment of the two armies were so different that it had to be further explored in a game.

Invaders From Dimension X was designed on a dare! Jeff McAleer from The Gaming Gang website was teasing me about my love for chaos and challenged me to design a game based totally on chaos and randomness. Well, to do that I had to venture into science fiction to justify a totally chaotic enemy – and thus was born the Kay’Otz from another dimension. The other games in that series are based roughly on science fiction movies – “Them!” and “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”. You take inspiration from whatever sources you can.

Crowbar! came from a long-time mental note that I made after watching the movie “The Longest Day” and being struck by the scene of the Rangers climbing the cliffs. But it was reading an article about President Reagan’s speech at Normandy – the “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” – that brought back that mental note I had made and turned it all into a game. These ideas do come from many different sources.

Blind swords wargame system
Thunder in the Ozarks, from the Blind Swords series

DM: Many of your games feature chit-pull as a central mechanic and you have even developed a system – Blind Swords – based upon it.  What appeals to you about this mechanic and how does Blind Swords adapt it?

HL: One thing you’ll never see in any of my designs is the old IGO-UGO turn order sequence. That’s because, in my opinion, not only is it one of most boring mechanics for the players themselves, it is also a highly unrealistic simulation of command decision-making (at any level).

From the player’s perspective, the chit-pull mechanic keeps all players fully engaged for the entire turn by randomly activating portions of their force. There is no situation (normally) where it’s Joe’s turn to go and everyone else can wander off for 30 minutes while he does his moves. It keeps players at the table and paying attention.

The other thing the mechanic does is challenge players to think on their feet. There is no pre-planning the perfect chess move. Players must be prepared for the unknown and the unexpected, which is certainly a more realistic simulation of what actual field officers and soldiers need to worry about.

Players must plan contingencies and be ready for anything – the player who is the most flexible and can take advantage of a good situation or conversely minimize a bad one – and those players who can think “on the fly” are rewarded.

The Blind Swords system “doubles-down” on that general concept by including random events within the mix of unit activation chits. By doing this, it further adds the “historical chaos” elements of actual battlefield conflict by interjecting even more opportunities and problems for the players to deal with.

These random event chits are carefully constructed so that they reflect events and conditions that could happen not only on any American Civil War battlefield, but specifically at the battle which the game is simulating.

Through this mechanism, and without all sorts of special rules conditions or scripting restrictions, players will “feel” like they are fighting an accurate historical representation of that battle. At the same time, the system also makes sure that the game flow is variable and therefore interesting and different every time it’s played.

Crowbar wargame
Inspired by the film, The Longest Day

DM: Thunder in the Ozarks, Stonewalls Sword, The Devils to Pay, Longstreet Attacks and In Magnificent Style are all American Civil War games. Given the similarity in historical setting, how do you differentiate the games from each other and from the large number of other games on the subject?

HL: The one that stands out in that list is In Magnificent Style. That one is an example of a design that I wanted to do because no one would be crazy enough to do it.  I specifically created a design to meet a challenge of making a fun game out of a seemingly impossible situation.

It is a solitaire, push-your-luck game where the player is the hapless Rebel force launched against the strong Union positions on Cemetery Hill during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It sounds very boring and one-sided.  However, by using push-your-luck mechanics, where bad things are constantly happening, you may – with proper management and timing –  be able to pull off a victory for the Confederates.

Stonewall’s Sword, Thunder in the Ozarks and Longstreet Attacks are all in the same series – the regimental scale ACW line by Revolution Games. These all share the same system with only minor variations amongst them. The goal here is to present interesting – but not always the most popular – battles from the ACW. This allows players to study how each is different using the same core system. Again, how we construct the various Event Chits for each game and how the scenarios are structured will normally bring out the uniqueness of each battle.

The Devil’s To Pay was designed to repair a weakness in the regimental-scale systems. Those systems have a practical maximum-sized battle that they can handle and still be playable. Doing all of Gettysburg at regimental scale is not within the purview of most gamers. So TDTP was designed to upscale the system and make the mechanics a bit smoother and simpler so that players can use the Blind Swords system for larger battles and still keep them manageable.

In fact, this system is getting another upgrade with the forthcoming A Most Fearful Sacrifice by Flying Pig Games, which is a design that will encompass all three days of Gettysburg. It is designed that players can play any of the 13 scenarios in a reasonable amount of time, many in only an hour or two.

In my opinion, what makes these games different than the bazillion other ACW games is that they remain accessible and have a different feel to them. The one comment I get all the time about the Blind Swords series is that players say the narrative is really strong. Players say that they feel like they are playing a game that actually simulates real events that could have occurred on a Civil War battlefield. And for me, that’s the perfect feedback.

Dimension X
Solo wargames from another dimension

DM: Many of your games are solo specific or adapt well to a solitaire player. How does the design process of a solo game differ from that of a multiplayer game?

HL: Designing a solitaire game – a good, effective solitaire game – is one of the hardest tasks a designer can undertake. I believe every designer should try to create a solo game as it is a wonderful exercise in developing and fine-tuning your design skills.

Obviously, the hardest part is crafting the AI (artificial intelligence – in this case the “opponent”) to be somewhat intelligent and not totally random. Giving the AI a realistic set of parameters and getting it to act in an unpredictable, yet logical, manner is really hard. It’s especially hard to do that and not burden the game with complex mechanics that then bog down the player.  

My #1 rule for solo game design is: don’t give the player so much work running the AI’s turn that they spend most of their game time resolving their opponent’s activation. It must be done swiftly, easily and without decision-making by the player. That’s the whole purpose of having an AI in the first place. There’s nothing more frustrating for a solo player than to spend 15 minutes a game doing the AI moves and also being asked to make “judgement calls” on the AI’s behalf.

Solitaire games also need to be hard to win. I liken this to a good video game, the one that beats you down the first time you play it but you have that glimmer of hope that if you just do something different, you can make progress. It keeps you coming back for more.

A good solo boardgame should do the same and that’s why, for example, I made Dawn of the Zeds so hard to win. Well, that and the fact that it is a zombie apocalypse after all … things are supposed to go horribly wrong!

With all that in mind – yes, designing a solitaire game, or even just a solo mode for a game, is a great challenge. I’ve tried to incorporate all the previously mentioned aspects into my games – a somewhat intelligent AI, fast-playing AI mechanisms and a very challenging experience – to varying degrees of success.  

At Any Cost wargame campain
Some of the Event Chits from At Any Cost

DM: The Invaders from Dimension X series are small scale games playable in one evening. At Any Cost, in its campaign scenarios, can take an entire weekend. How does designing game at one end of that time scale compare to the other extreme?

HL: The bigger games are a ton more work than the smaller ones. That might seem obvious, but it’s actually worse than you would think.

The game’s subject matter usually dictates to you at what scale and size the design itself will end up being. Invaders was always meant to be a small, fun and honestly experimental little design. On the other hand, simulating the fighting around Metz in 1870 required At Any Cost to be a campaign-level game.

One reason for that is that it was an interesting military situation that any wargamer would want to explore. The other reason is that no previous game design had even touched on the idea of focusing on a specific campaign of the Franco-Prussian War (FPW).

Most of the few other designs involving the FPW simulated it at the grand strategic level (the scale that I find the least interesting – especially for the FPW) with a few battle-level games.

To fully capture the most interesting aspects of the Metz campaign, I had to go for a large, sweeping depiction of the fighting there. And thus was born At Any Cost: Metz 1870.

This led to the most arduous and time-consuming game design I have ever done. Not only are there tons of game mechanics details but developing the right rules and procedures for a multi-day continuous-play campaign was a real grind.

The worst of it, and this is where the large-design workload geometrically shoots ahead of smaller designs, is the challenge of getting it all properly play tested. A designer can spend months crafting a wonderfully complex game design and think they have it all down perfectly. But one never knows until it is tested by an independent group of gamers (i.e. “blind” play testing).

Getting that large, complex, multi-faceted game design tested properly is where things really get challenging. It is an absolute nightmare to coordinate and manage and edit an on-going play test group that is desperately trying to test huge scenarios efficiently and in a timely manner. That aspect of designing large games – and designing them well – is the real difference between them and the smaller designs.

A most fearful sacrifice wargame
A prototype copy of the forthcoming ‘A Most Fearful Sacrifice’

DM: What general challenges are faced by designers of war or historical simulation games?

Well, if you have a solid wargame and want to get it published, there are plenty of wargame publishers out there … both large and small. Granted, if this is a first design, a really obscure topic or a very small/very large game, certain companies will fit better with those parameters than others.

There are more wargame publishers now than ever before and if you have a good game, it will get published. However, if you’re thinking you’re going to become independently wealthy from this endeavour, forget about it.

The wargame market is notoriously niche. Even the biggest and baddest wargame companies you can think of pale in comparison even to an average-sized Eurogame or general audience game publisher. The challenge is not so much getting the game published but rather getting the kind of decent sales figures that will get noticed in the general gaming industry.

If you’re cool with that, then you can have great success within the wargame community. For example, Dawn of the Zeds has sold more copies than all of my wargame sales added together … three times over. That includes At Any Cost which has sold out at GMT and therefore has sold about 3000 copies.

It is a true rarity that wargames get noticed outside of our zone but it can happen. Obviously Twilight Struggle qualifies for such notoriety – without wishing to start a debate about whether that’s a wargame or not. Also, David Thompson’s Undaunted Normandy has made waves in the general gaming community.

It’s the success of those games that keep wargame designers hopeful that more progress and exposure can be achieved some day.

Beware the Shades
Beware the Shades…one of Hermann’s many projects in development

DM: Final question: do you have any projects in the pipeline?

HL: Ha! Well, I’ve been as busy lately as I have ever been. I’m retired now and I just joked to my girlfriend Nancy that I think I’m actually busier all day now than when I worked for a living! So yeah – it has been hectic.

The two big games I have cooking now are indeed huge. One is a cooperative horror game called Beware The Shades! for GMT Games. It will feature four asymmetric factions which are trying to cooperate with one another as they attempt to stop a monstrous outbreak of Shades, horrific mutated beasts that were once human.

The other project, for Flying Pig Games, is the aforementioned A Most Fearful Sacrifice. It will have two huge mounted map boards, over 500 1” counters, activation cards, over a dozen scenarios, etc. That should be on Kickstarter this summer.

I just signed a deal with Worthington Publishing to do a new, updated edition of In Magnificent Style. That should also be on Kickstarter in July.

Aside from those, I have to finish Miracle at Dunkerque for Legion Wargames which has been in limbo for quite a while.

Soon I need to start working on Hell’s Half Acre for Revolution Games. That is the next Blind Swords game for them and is about the Battle of Stone’s River…

….the next science fiction game for Tiny Battle Publishing called Planet of the Mossmen! ….

They March Against Us (Leipzig 1813), also for Tiny Battle Publishing, which will be the first Napoleonic-era Blind Swords game ….

….and a new World War I series for Worthington…

…And…I’m sure I forgot something.