The Great Terror: Stalin’s Quest for Power

NKVD officers

As I continue work on Hero of the Soviet Union, other short-term projects emerge as secondary efforts to keep the creative process moving. This month’s print and play project is The Great Terror: Stalin’s Quest for Power. In this solitaire game, the player attempts to survive Stalinist repression.

Like all print and play projects of mine, I aim to build an engaging, fast-moving simulation of a complex (and sometimes controversial) historical event on an 8.5×11 sheet with minimal counters and/or cards. In GT, the player has to navigate the dangerous political and social landscape of 1930s Soviet Union.

Draft game board

The game consists of four turns, each of which include three rounds of Terror. Each round of Terror targets a different segment of the Soviet state, including the Politburo, the NKVD, the Party, Society, and Nationalities. In between each Terror round, the player has to strategically support or denounce key party members or social elements. Each action increases or reduces the player’s Influence or Suspicion (or both), either protecting the player from the purge or making the player more vulnerable. Influence can also be used to transfer party posts or seek out promotions.

Not depicted in the image above are the various key party members, from the Old Bolsheviks to young, upcoming political and security figures. Some of these characters have special skills, belong to a social element or party faction, or are allied with or in opposition of Stalin.

As party members are purged, the player may advance in rank, gaining special abilities, and may even become an ally of Stalin himself on the Politburo. But beware, the Terror can strike anyone at any time. When allies are arrested and confess to the crimes of their co-conspirators, the NKVD may come knocking on the player’s door next.

Game Release: Not Yet Lost

In recognition of the start of World War II with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, I have made Not Yet Lost available as a free print and play game here.

A solitaire game, NYL depicts the brave defense of the Polish post office in Danzig against repeated German attacks. The Polish defenders repelled multiple attacks over the course of 15 hours, surrendering only after the Germans lit the building on fire. The actions of the Polish soldiers and postmen reflect great credit upon the Polish military tradition.

Enjoy the game.

Developer Note: Not Yet Lost

German soldiers attack the Polish post office in Danzig

When Germany launched it’s assault on Poland in September, 1939, it unleashed a murderous war that would violently shake the foundation of the world. But even as darkness consumed Mankind,  isolated pockets of heroism inspired resistance to tyranny. As German panzers raced across Poland, 55 militiamen and civilians held off the German onslaught for 15 hours in Danzig’s post office building.

Not Yet lost

The defenders of the post office, ultimately overcome by gasoline fire and fumes, repelled repeated German assaults. Their example is an excellent opportunity to tell a story not widely known in the West.

Playtest map for Not Yet Lost

In the solitaire wargame Not Yet Lost, the player controls the brave Polish defenders. The player must survive 15 turns of harrowing close combat, including assaults by the SS, German armored vehicles, and explosives laid by sappers.

Armed with only several machine-guns and rifles, the player has to make difficult tactical decisions each turn. Do you further fortify the entrances and interior rooms or fire at the approaching Germans hoping to suppress or repel them for a turn? Do you retreat into the interior of the building or do you fight for every room? The actions available to the player depend on the surviving units and operational weapons, while card draws determine the German reinforcements and advance.

Playtesting for this project starts soon!

Board Game Review #8: D-Day at Iwo Jima

D-Day at Iwo Jima is the fourth “D-Day” series game by Decision Games. A solitaire game, It depicts the bloody struggle for the island by calling up the player to lead the U.S. Marines into battle. The player aims to capture the entirety of the island by the last turn and without exhausting all of the Marines’ casualty replacements.


Using traditional hex and counters, the game represents the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions down to the company level. The mechanics provide for battalion and regimental headquarters, engineers, armor and artillery support, and heroes. Unlike most war-games however, combat is not resolved through die rolling,  but instead through a convoluted system of card draws and shape and color matching. All of this takes place on a colorful mounted board.

Marines preparing to disembark on Iwo Jima

The player alternates between moving U.S. units and conducting Japanese fire. The rotations are punctuated by phases for special events and artillery. There are special rules for fortifications, Japanese raids, smoke, naval gunfire, and other battlefield effects. Once the player has an understanding of the rules, the operational tempo of the game flows fairly quickly.

The combat resolution system will be a learning curve for anyone new to the D-Day series. Essentially, the player draws a card and matches the  color of it with Japanese fighting positions (looking for these can be a challenge in of itself). These are the positions that will be activated for combat. Then, the player matches the shape on the card with the shapes on the U.S. counters – if any are within range of the activated fighting positions, they suffer a casualty (step loss). There are additional modifiers (specific Japanese positions activate every turn), including suppressed fighting positions, range, close combat, etc.


The combat system would not be difficult grasp if it were not for the rulebook, which significantly lowers the satisfaction of this game.

The rule-book is dotted with internal references to other chapters but does not cite their location. This is compounded by the fact that the rules are not written in the order of the sequence of play. The result is that the player is constantly flipping back and forth through the rule book instead of playing the game.

Although the game comes with a sequence of play chart, it does not list all actions undertaken for each phase. Consequently, rules are frequently discovered (or remembered)  after the fact.

These two drawbacks create a feeling of confusion and frustration, which is further aggravated by the fact that the game does not have a complete set of markers. The player is required to track a number of metrics, such as replacements for each Marine Division, but the game did not provide a marker to do so. Instead, the player must use a “spare” counter for these basic functions.

Marines approach The Quarry, the location of heavy fighting

As the battle unfolds, chaos reigns. Units may drift from the appropriate landing zones. Events and artillery may incur unexpected casualties, and assaults on Japanese positions will no doubt fail. Keeping battalions and regiments together is a challenge, and the player will struggle maintaining the offensive momentum.

U.S. Marines raise the American flag on Mt. Surabachi

Despite the technical shortcomings of the game, it does provide an immersive and enjoyable experience. Players familiar with the series and quick-learners will enjoy it once they comprehend the convoluted rule system. But those turned off by a marginally steep learning curve compounded by a poorly written rule book would be better off staying away. In the spirit of Carl von Clausewitz: the rules are simple, but it is not easy.

Board Game Review #7: Skies Above the Reich

The website BoardGameGeek lists almost 5,000 World War II games. Many games treat the same aspects of the conflict, including the air war over Europe between the American and British air forces and the German Luftwaffe. During this campaign, the Allies sought to break the morale and industrial back of the German war-machine by devastating its cities and factories with continuous bombing raids. But Skies Above the Reich, published by GMT Games, takes a unique perspective to this part of the conflict: the German fighter squadrons that fought a futile battle against the Western Allies’ industrial superiority.

the skies above the reich

The game consists of a series of battles tied together into a campaign, of which there are several to choose from. Additionally, the player can experience the campaigns in order. Before the start of each battle, the player has to establish the conditions of the engagement; everything from the size of the bomber formation, the presence and number of escorts, the availability of German fighters and armaments, and even the position of the sun.

The board (of which there are five possible layouts) consists of the bomber formation. The player then decides which pilots to employ, some of whom may have special skills or even demerits, as well as an additional support fighters or weapons (such as bombs and rockets). The battle requires the player to move the fighters from position and approach boxes to maneuver through the bomber formation. This repeats until the player decides to withdraw or the number of predetermined turns is exhausted.

Fighters making a pass at a bomber formation

In some instances, the player will discover that he is at a great disadvantage. The size of the formation, the presence of escorts, and a small number of German fighters might result in a very short battle consisting of only one pass. Alternatively, the player could come across a mission with a vulnerable bomber stream that has no escorts. The randomness of mission generation ensures that every campaign unfolds very differently.

Turn Track and Escort Display

Bandits 12 o’clock high!

The fighters, represented by blocks, are the core of the game’s combat mechanics. During a mission, the player will maneuver his fighters by placing them in the movement and approach boxes before deploying them at a formation.

When attacking a bomber, the player can decide to attack aggressively or conservatively, and also the direction to which the fighter will break, which will determine from where the fighter will attack next. The player can also decide the altitude of the attack. Multiple factors, such as the position of the sun, formation anchoring, escorts, and benefits from grouping fighters in attack waves, will drive much of the tactics.

Unlike most war games, Skies Above the Reich does not resolve its combat by die rolling. Instead, players flip over the appropriate card for the attack direction, and then consults the appropriate space on the card for the type of attack, risk faced by the fighter (called lethal level), and altitude. Although a unique mechanic to resolve combat, I think this is the weakest part of the game. The range and probability of outcomes are constrained by the results of the cards (in turn determined by the card order). It also slows the otherwise fast-paced nature of the game, which is valuable in a game simulating fighter combat.

The aftermath of one mission

That said, the combat system is not broken by any means. In each pass, there is a danger that fighters will be damaged or lost, or that the situation may dictate the break up of the attacking formation, forcing the player to adapt a new strategy for the mission. As fighters are lost, bombers fall out of formation, and escorts arrive, the player will face many difficult and sub-optimal choices. How many fighters to release to pursue straggling bombers? When? Which bomber is the most vulnerable in the formation and from what approach position?

Pursuit Map

When bombers fall out of formation, the player can decide to dedicate fighters to pursue them. This is actually an optional rule to the game system. When doing so, the player moves the bomber’s damage chits to the pursuit map, and then makes one or more passes against the lumbering fortress with the available fighters. Passes are limited, but these kinds of pursuits are essential to securing the necessary victory points to win a mission, and ultimately the campaign.

“The progressive destruction… of the German military…”

The game offers a perspective of the war not thoroughly explored. Some people may be unsettled about the prospect of shooting down American bombers in a game; after all, American pilots and crew from that era are highly regarded in the country’s military tradition. The parents and grandparents of many wargamers were pilots or crew themselves. This is something that each individual player must decide for themselves.

Ultimately, Skies Above the Reich delivers an easy-to-learn game of aerial combat. With high quality components and streamlined rules with a mostly logical rulebook to explain them, the game should be on every solitaire war-gamer’s shelf.

Book Review #12: Hamilton Part 2

Alexander Hamilton, the West Indian upstart central to America’s founding, found himself out of power with the election of John Adams in 1797 as the second U.S. President. The rivalry of the two men would lead to the self-destruction of the Federalists and a generation of Jeffersonian Republicans occupying the presidency. Adams resented Hamilton’s influence over the Federalists, and the perception of Hamilton’s interference in the policies of his administration. For his part, Adams created friction within the Federalists through his detached and arrogant manner. Ron Chernow describes Hamilton’s descent in detail.

real patriots and fake news

Chernow describes one of the most fascinating aspects of the political combat of the time: the widespread use of fake news, particularly to attack Hamilton as a corrupt aristocrat scheming to install a monarchy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, even as Secretary of State under George Washington while Hamilton served as Secretary of Treasury, funded through government money a newspaper to disparage Hamilton with outlandish insults and conspiracies.

Not one to shy from challenge, Hamilton expended a significant amount of effort to dispel these assaults, writing extensively in the papers about his conduct and that of his opposition. He faced accusations about his birthplace, his behavior during the Revolutionary War (where he served as General Washington’s aide, essential to the organization and performance of the Continental Army), and the laying of the foundation of the American System as a means to enrich himself. How he managed this combined with his official duties is a wonder; Chernow notes Hamilton’s unparalleled industriousness throughout the book. Although Hamilton had his vices, pride being  chief among them, he never wavered from his commitment to the country’s success. By the time he neared his untimely death, he had significant debt (though not bankrupt) and was generally cash poor. He relied on his income from his private practice as a lawyer.

While out of power, Hamilton continued to influence the direction of the Federalists, despite the intense and personal battle with Jefferson and James Madison. This brought him into direct conflict with Adams first, and finally Aaron Burr. The enmity between Adams and Hamilton resulted in the latter’s eventual political isolation, as he passionately waged war against Adams no matter the political cost. Whatever Hamilton’s faults, he always fought on principle.

The fate of the duel

Duel between Burr and Hamilton

Hamilton never trusted Burr, and opposed the latter’s attempt to run on the Federalist ticket for President. Hamilton preferred his long-time rival Jefferson than his own party’s Burr because of Burr’s reputation as a manipulative self-interested politician. Burr went so far as to undermine the Federalist’s power in New York to ingratiate himself with the Jeffersonians, resulting his election as Vice President under Jefferson himself.

By 1804, both men had recognized the end of their political careers approached. Hamilton had been alienated from the Federalists because of his rivalry with Adams, while Burr recognized that both Federalists and Jeffersonians had a strong distaste for him. Expecting to be dropped during the upcoming presidential election, Burr engineered a duel with Hamilton in the hopes of restoring his honor by claiming to be an aggrieved party by one of Hamilton’s alleged insults.

Hamilton entered into this fateful dance – with all the negotiations and pomp and circumstance of setting up the duel – with some malaise. He maintained his faith with the ritual despite the recent death of his oldest son to a recent duel. Chernow speculates that Hamilton intended to intentionally misfire to demonstrate his high character and turn Burr’s ploy against him.

Whatever the intentions, Burr’s shot mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Although essential to the Revolutionary War’s outcome and the design and implementation of the Constitution, Hamilton’s death left his legacy largely in the hands of his rivals, who expressed no sadness over the loss.

But in credit to his undertaken and his integrity, his wife Eliza advocated his cause for another 50 years, while the country he helped establish would become the world’s leader in democratic governance, wealth, technology, and education.


Hero of the Soviet Union Developer Note #11: Alpha Testing #2

After some substantial rules revisions as a result of the first alpha test conducted last month, I’m ready to embark upon the second test. This test includes a restructured Operations Segment, a more substantive tactics system, and some other new features.

the making of a hero

At the core of Hero of the Soviet Union is the solitary Red Army Soldier. To keep track of the Soldier’s abilities and experiences, the Soldier Aid includes the Soldier Layout (formerly on the Campaign Board), the Home Front, and Comrades. The Home Front shows the status of the Soldier’s spouse and family, the Party, and the Country. It also includes persistent events that may last for the duration of an operation or even the whole campaign. In this round of alpha testing, the Soldier is Mikhail Olegovich Ivanov, a vagrant from Gorky turned into a well-connected Chekist. Each trait provides affects attributes and skills differently, as shown on the example Soldier Aid.

Soldier Aid

In this case, as a Chekist Ivanov receives higher pay and can participate in special missions otherwise not available during the Battle Segment. Additionally, being Well-Connected, he receives a free starting Comrade and can make requests during the Operations Segment for provisions, weapons, or assignments (a free re-roll).

Comrades is feature newly introduced during this round of play-testing. These are fellow Red Army squad-mates with which the Soldier has developed a special bond. There will be at least 30 such characters. To track relations, equipment, and abilities, the player will simply place the appropriate markers on the Comrade card. Some actions and events, such as a sweep of arrests by the secret police, may introduce new Comrades or remove existing ones.

The great patriotic war

With the Soldier Layout now removed from the Campaign Board, the Operations Map now takes its place. Previously, the Operations Segment was rigidly structured sequentially, which removed an element of control from the player and also made the game fairly predictable.

But war is chaos, so now the Operations Segment is conducted on the Operations Map, which has seven different locations. At each location, the Soldier can conduct specific actions that may affect the squad and Comrades, skills, promotions, equipment, morale, and other traits. The number of actions is limited before the start of the next Battle Segment. Additionally, after movement from one space to another, the play draws an Event card, of which there are currently 120. These events may be a NKVD interrogation, a German ambush or assault, (thus starting the battle segment earlier than expected), or the discovery of a hidden cache of vodka. Some events are conditional, and the effects can be either temporary or permanent. Does the NKVD suspect you of desertion while you were foraging for rations because corrupt officers stole your food? Is your unit assigned to an upcoming major offensive with men and materiel pouring in? The events do not only affect the Soldier – they can also affect Comrades, the next Battle Segment, or even the whole operation. Players will have to weigh the risks of their decisions off the battlefield as much as on it.

Campaign Board

Additionally, the Battle Segment map was changed from hexes to squares to maximize space on the board. The placement of terrain remains the same: random terrain tile draws from a mix determined by the battle’s location. The tactics system also includes some new nuances, such as night combat and illumination, smoke, a detection mechanic, and even anti-tank dogs.

The changes described above only capture a small portion of the underlying engine driving the design in an effort to capture the terrifying experience of a soldier at war.

Upcoming Books: 3rd Quarter 2018

For the upcoming quarter, I’ve mixed up my selection some and am excited by the diversity of subjects covered in the current batch of books. I recently finished a string of political and military history books, including Hamilton, The Ghost Warriors, and Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. The tranches I read typically don’t have any particular theme to them, but usually relate to current interests at the time.

The Rise and fall of the dinosaurs

I recently listened to an interview of Steve Brusatte on NPR’s 1A, and his passion for the subject renewed my interest in dinosaurs. It helped that Jurassic World 2 had recently released, and I realized that about 90% of my dinosaur knowledge came from that franchise. The timing seemed right to learn about the real dinosaurs that roamed the earth 65 million years ago.




Firearms dramatically changed the course of history. More than that, the AK-47, and its successors, have featured prominently in the struggles and conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. One country even has the AK-47 on its flag. This book promises to tell the story of that gun and how it has influenced the world today.




The Pentagon’s brain

Burrowed within the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, scientists, some of whom the public might  describe as ‘mad’, conjure fascinating next generation technology for use in America’s future wars. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has played a leading role in ensure America’s technological dominance. Yes! I would like to know more.




   The billion dollar spy

David Hoffman wrote another exciting book, The Dead Hand, about Russia’s semi-autonomous nuclear launch system. So, seeing his name as the author of a true-espionage story immediately sparks interest. As relations between the U.S. and Russia ebb and flow between tense and “holy sh*t”, a story about the experiences of the people in the wilderness of mirrors is aptly appropriate.




No – this is not a novelization of that quirky and amazing first-person shooter about vault-hunters. This is about the history of the Ukrainian nation, which was thrust into international spotlight when its people revolted against corruption in the Maiden. I hope to learn a little more about the importance of Ukraine to Russia and to Europe, and why we should be concerned about the conflict today.



Private empire

Energy politics drive a considerable portion of American and international (in)security, and ExxonMobil drives a considerable portion of energy politics. I first heard about this when Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive, when he was nominated as America’s top diplomat. This book should provide insight into the world from which he came.




Russia’s war

More than twenty million Soviet citizens died during the world’s most cruel and bloody conflict in World War II’s Eastern Front. The titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union cost Germany 80% of its total war casualties and redefined the global order. Richard Overy invites us to witness, in a small and detached way, that epic contest that still echoes today.




Who is he? Where did he come from? Reza Aslan tells that story in this history of God. I first heard about this on the Crooked Conversation podcast when Ana Marie Cox interviewed Aslan. No single idea has more shaped human philosophy, behavior, and attitudes than God, and all that followed from it.

Hero of the Soviet Union Developer Note #10: Alpha Testing Evaluation

Soviet Victory Day Parade, May, 1945

Last week, I completed the first round of Alpha Testing for Hero of the Soviet Union. The test consisted of character creation, one Operations Segment, and one Battle Segment. The purpose of the practice was to flush out gaps in the rules system.

The most significant change to the system will be converting the Battle Map from hexes to squares. These squares may be aligned or off-set. This change is necessary to maximize the space of the Battle Map, as hexes would lead to unused space. I don’t anticipate this negatively affecting the tactical portion of the game. The squares are 1×1 inch (the counters are .625in x .625in), making the Battle Segment space 192 square inches. The new terrain tiles themselves are 4×4 inches, meaning 12 tiles are placed per battle. With 60 terrain tiles, each with 4 sides, there are millions of random combinations that can be made, guaranteeing a different experience each time.

Game Board v.2

Additionally, the board has some new features: campaign year, campaign season, a box for tactical reserves, and trackers for activated units and losses during the Battle Segment. These features will help facilitate game play.

Other changes include:

– consumption of rations at the end of each Battle Segment with an exhaustion penalty if no rations are available

– Line of sight rules

– mechanism for random placement of friendly and enemy units

– smoke and detection rules

– artillery and pre-bombardment effects

– Battle Segment end conditions