Interviews with the Masters: Don M. Fox

Foreword by Scott Cole

I have been playing CS ever since the original East Front was released. At times, I would take a break from the game, mostly due to time commitments elsewhere, and have played other games but I have always returned to CS. I attribute my continued enjoyment of this long running game franchise to our community of gamers, the friendships among us that have developed over the years and the incredible number of scenarios covering everything from the Spanish Civil War, the Italians fighting in Ethiopia, the Pacific Theater and, of course, the carnage on the Russian Front.

Full credit must be given to all the scenario designers and I will embark on a series of Q&As with the designers I have derived countless hours of enjoyment by playing their games. I won’t be able to interview everyone and while I was absent from CS there has been a few designers such as Tanker Tony and Dan Caviness creating ambitious games. If designing scenarios were easy, I would have created a ton of them by now, so even if this Q&A series misses a few of your favorite scenario designers I would like to extend my appreciation to everyone that has spent the many hours creating scenarios, thereby strengthening our gaming community.

Interviews with the Masters: Don M. Fox

Don M. Fox

Leading this series off with Don Fox. I’ve enjoyed a few games with Don over the years and have always noticed the attention to detail he puts into scenario design, especially the fact that many of the leaders appearing in his games are actual soldiers he has communicated with.  I don’t know where he gets the time, between his day job and writing an excellent book on the 4th Armored Division. You’ll find out all about it below.

1:  How long have you been playing CS?

I believe that my first games were in 1998. At that time, I reconnected via email with an old high school friend, Tom DeHoff. We had spent many years in band together, which is where our friendship really started. But it turned out we both had an interest in wargaming. Tom’s interest was heavily centered on the Civil War, and he compelled me to purchase my first PBEM turn-based computer wargame (a civil war simulation).  My main interest was always WWII history (with an emphasis on the campaign on the 1944/45 campaign on NW Europe), and it wasn’t long after that when we started playing Talon Soft’s West Front. I believe I joined the Blitz in 1999 or 2000 (as did Tom), and the rest is history. While I don’t play nearly as often as I did during those early years, I still retain a little bit of pride in remaining in the top 10 after all this time. But I sure wish I had been able to stay above a .500 win percentage! LOL

2:  What prompted you to start designing scenarios?

I have always had an affinity for the US 4th Armored Division. There were few stock scenarios that featured the 4th (two that come to mind are “Melee at Moncourt” and ‘Old Friends”), and I had a yearning to play some scenarios that dealt with the 4th AD.  My goal from the start was to create some scenarios that were as authentic as possible, specifically in regard to the Order of Battle (down to the strength of the platoons if I could uncover those facts) and the accuracy of the maps.  In total, I have designed 21 scenarios (one of which was done in tandem with Huib Versloot). Many of those scenarios feature the 4th Armored (not only at the Bulge, but also a couple of scenarios centered on Arracourt, and one simulating the attack on Troyes). But eventually I turned my attention to other units and battlefields. I designed a series of scenarios based upon action along the 6th SS Panzer Army front during the early days of the Bulge, the 5th Panzer Armies assault on Bastogne, and the US XX Corps attack toward the Moselle during September.

3: What is the scenario(s) you feel most proud of?

That is like asking who your favorite child is!  Every one of them has a special place in my designer’s heart; I never short-changed my research on any of them, and when complete, felt confident that they would stand up to scrutiny by the most hard core gamers interested in accuracy (to some, accuracy is of no concern…but I always strive to appeal to that subset of players who really are interested in replicating history to the greatest degree possible). Through the research, I learned a tremendous amount more about the battle than I did before I began the project.  I guess if I had to pick one, however, it would be “Drive to Bastogne.”  It is a big scene, with the entire 4th AD and most of the 101st Airborne and supporting units in play.  This map and OB was used to spin off a number of other scenarios based upon the fighting around Bastogne. With the work done on the OB and map, the other scenes become relatively easy by comparison. This is really where it all started.  And most importantly, it was the work on this scenario that eventually led to my writing “Patton’s Vanguard”, which was truly a life-changing experience.

4: What is your process for scenario design? It must be difficult to try and recreate a historical event but also create an enjoyable scenario. How do you go about addressing this?

It begins with an interest in the battle, and a belief that the engagement will be compelling in some way for the players.

The very first requirement before getting started, however, is accessing a topographic map of the area that can be use to prepare a map to proper scale using the CS scenario design tool.  I went so far as to purchase 1:50,000 scale maps, and then worked meticulously to translate them. Along the line, Huib [Versloot] did me the HUGE favor of sending me a hex grid template for that scale that I printed on a transparency. Oh my goodness, had I had that a the start, life would have been SO much easier! Creating the map requires a great amount of judgment on the part of the designed. Not all terrain features, road, and population centers line up neatly within the context of the hexagon grid. You have to make a constant series of compromises, and if you are really taking your time with it, doing so in an attempt to preserve as much as you can of the real line of sight obstructions (or more importantly, where there SHOULD be critical lanes of observation and direct fire that were important on the real battlefield.  Trust me, to get it as close to right as possible is no small task.

Once the map is complete, I turn my attention to develop the OoB. It begins with basic research on the unit designations, but then the real challenge is making adjustments to platoon strengths to best represent the historic strengths. Admittedly, this involves some educated guesses from time to time (particularly for the German side, since the historical information pales compared to what you can find for the American forces.

Once you have the OoB, the next step in your research is to establish the starting positions as accurately as you can from your research.  The lastly, establishing the victory hexes, their values, and the overall victory point levels.  Setting the victory levels is really where the playtesting comes in.  There are basically two different philosophies among designers when it comes to the assignment of VPs for objective hexes, and frankly, I can see the merits of both (though I have always used just one).

A common feature in my designs has been the assignment of very large point values for key objectives. Attrition can certainly play an important role in determining victory or defeat in my scenes, but the design is usually such that the players cannot focus solely on the attrition differential to determine the outcome. Since the primary goal of a military force is almost always incapacitating the enemy (while limiting one’s own losses) I can understand the merits of designs that lean more in that direction.  But I have always opted to replicate the act of seizing key objectives (or the defense of those objectives) that are usually critical to any action.

5: I believe a few of your scenarios contain leaders of actual participants you interviewed?

Without exception, I place as many historical figures into the scenes as I can. I have never used a fictional personality for any American figures. I try to avoid it for the German side, but if my research can’t come up with enough names that played a key role in the battle, I might have used some fictional characters in order to achieve some play balance (but frankly, I would have to even double check that, because I am such a stickler about it!).  I place historical figures of all ranks, and generally place as many as I can find in the record. This is as much to honor the memories of these men as it is anything else.

Campaign Series Scenario Design

It was during my research for “Drive to Bastogne” that I came across emails for the company commanders for A/37 (John Whitehill) and B/37 (Jimmie Leach). This led to correspondence with them to better determine the composition of the 37th Tank Battalion. And it wasn’t long after my correspondence with them that they introduced me to Albin F. Irzyk, who commanded the 8th Tank Battalion (a 27-year-old Major during the Bulge).  My many months of corresponding with these veterans for the purposes of war game design led to my decision to broaden my research in order to write the unit history of the 4th Armored.

Unfortunately, both John and Jimmie have passed away (as have most of the other veteran I interviewed). However, “Al” Irzyk, who retired as a Brigadier General after Vietnam, recently celebrated his 101st birthday! I wrote the book for the veterans and their families, and I was fortunate to find a traditional publisher (and better yet, the book is still in print).

To this day, families of 4th AD veterans will reach out to me for additional insight about their loved ones, and it is a honor for me to be able to help many of them find more information about what role their father or grandfather had during the war. It is the gift that keeps on giving. And it would have never happened without a strong interest in wargaming, and the Campaign Series in particular!

6:  I believe the interviews I mentioned previously were conducted as research for your book Pattons Vanguard?  Do you have a couple of example where your work designing scenarios helped you with book research (and vice versa)?

The work on the master scenario “Drive to Bastogne” was basically the catalyst for the book. I had spent well over a year doing the research and refining the scenario. After completing the project, I realized what a shame it would be to not make better use of all of the research and interview notes (only a portion of which made its way functionally into the scenario.

Campaign Series Scenario Design | Patton's Vanguard

During my research, I became aware that a definitive history of the division had never been written (despite its magnificent accomplishments), and I somewhat impulsively promised General Irzyk that I would take on the project.  I thought at the time that perhaps I had the lion’s share of the research already done. But man, oh man, did that turn out to be far from the truth! It took a tremendous amount of work to pull together the history in the manner and level of detail I desired.  I opted to cove the time period from the activation of the division up until the end of the Battle of the Bulge (had I written the full history until the end of the war, and maintained the level of detail in the narrative, the book would have run well over 800 pages, and it is very unlikely that I would have found a publisher for a work of that size.

Now, in contrast to Drive to Bastogne, the other 4th AD scenarios came about BECAUSE of the book. It was through my book research that I was able to construct the Troyes and Arracourt scenarios (plus the Bulge scenario “Hitler’s Last Gamble” which depicts the German attack against the relief corridor at the end of the year).

7:  I'm wondering where you got the time for Campaign Series as I have it on good authority that you have a demanding full-time job?

When I began playing CS, I was a franchise field consultant for Burger King Corporation (I have worked in the restaurant industry for 44 years now).  I am sure some of you can relate to how addictive the game can be, and I must say, during those years, I racked up more time at the PC than was probably wise!  The scenario design work was more intense and deliberate than the gaming, and during that time, it was my primary hobby.

When I began working on the book, it went to an entirely different level. Talk about burning the candle at both ends! I would often leave my home office at 7 or 8 AM, heading off for my BK duties for the day.  Upon arriving home, I’d spend time with the family (I had two young boys at the time), and at some point, hunker down for the night.  One many occasion, I might be up researching and writing until 2 or 3 AM. I’d grab about three or four hours of sleep and be back at it again.  I think it is fair to say that, for most people, when you tell your spouse you are going to write a book, the eyeroll and chant of “riiiigghhttt” is the typical and expected response.  Despite her skepticism, my wife was tolerant of my endeavor. Had she not been supportive, I doubt I could have done it (either that, or it would have been the end of our marriage!).

I left Burger King in early 2003 (or more accurately, Burger King left me!), and I had at that point completed the first draft of the book and had secured the publishing contract. I joined Firehouse Subs shortly thereafter as the Director of Franchise Compliance (the brand had only 65 restaurants at the time). I had some final work to do on the book to prepare it for publication, but the intensity was nowhere near what it had been prior to completing the initial draft.

A tremendous highlight at that time was, upon the recommendation of General Irzyk, contacting the famed historian Martin Blumenson to see if he might contribute a Foreword for the book. To my delight, he agreed, and the rest is history (no pun intended).

During the years that followed, I went on to help grow the Firehouse Subs brand, becoming the COO in 2005, and CEO in 2009. Today, we have 1116 restaurants in 44 states, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.  While the vast amount of my success has been driven by virtue of 44 years in the business and the constant learning along the way, my military studies added immeasurably. The lessons in leadership are many, and all transferable to business.

I have been rewarded in way I could have never predicted. I speak at many industry events around the country, but the most memorable speaking engagements occurred when I have been invited to speak to a military audience. The most humbling was delivering the keynote address in 2014 for the 70th anniversary for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. It is hard to even describe the feeling of standing before veterans of the battle and their families, thinking that they might find anything I might say to be of value. It really brings you down to earth.

In the end, I must say that my success in business is what allowed me the luxury of pursuing an endeavor like this. Had I not worked as hard as I did for so many years to advance in my field, I could have never marshaled the resources of both time and money to make Patton’s Vanguard a reality.

3 Responses

  1. I'm curious how Don and other designers feel about their current designs not being playable in the planned version upgrades of CS. Will he and others be willing to revisit their old scenarios to make them playable when the time comes?
    • Scott Cole
      A good question to ask going forward. At the very least any update requires new ID numbers for units on the OOB files.
  2. Great article Scott! Looking forward to hearing more from scenario designers and how they approach the task at hand :)