Interviews with the Masters: Huib Versloot

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: Huib Versloot

Campaign Series West Front | Scenario Designer Huib Versloot

Huib Versloot (right)

1:  How long have you been playing CS?

I have been playing CS since EF I came out somewhere in the nineties. Before that I used to play a game called Close Combat or something. I think it was a Microsoft game at that time but I’m not sure. Shortly thereafter I started playing Steel Panthers. In the beginning of CS I merely played without much thinking. I used to play by email against a Danish guy and lost all the time. Only later at the same time when I started designing scenarios my gameplay became much better and more serious.

2:  What prompted you to start designing scenarios?

I did a few fictional things in the scenario editor for fun in the beginning, but a few years later I started to combine it with my other hobbies: WWII history and battlefield archaeology in particular. For years I would make annual trips with my elder brother to the Ardennes and explore what still could be seen and found on those former battlefields. We would usually prepare those trips by reading a particular book on a certain part of the battle in advance. In 2002 or 2003 we read the book The Battle of The Bulge in Luxembourg by Roland Gaul. After the battlefield visit to this southern flank of the Bulge, I tried to replicate the events I read in the book and the battlefield and landscape I had seen in the scenario and map editor of CS WF.  At that time the first version of the later “Southern Shoulder” scenarios was born. I posted the scenario on “wargamer.com” and after a while I received some positive feedback from 2 gentlemen by the names of Jim Puff and Don Fox. They invited me to join a wargaming community called The Blitz and from there on the scenario designing became serious fun. Sadly, within one or two years Jim Puff suddenly passed away after a heart attack while at his work place I think it was.

Scenario Designer Huib Versloot | The Ardennes

Huib taking a walk in the Ardennes

3: What is the scenario(s) are you proudest of.

I don’t remember how many scenarios for CS I made anymore, quite a few I think and some in cooperation with other designers.  Probably the best scenario I made as far as I’m concerned is “A Pivotal Day for the 82nd”. It deals with the 82nd Airborne Division combat around Nijmegen during Market Garden. For the Allied side of that history I used a book called “All American All the Way” by Phil Nordyke which is an excellent unit history. About the Germans in these events much less was known. Even if you have a book like “It Never Snows In September” it doesn’t give you all the detail needed about the German counterattack towards Nijmegen. Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of a very rare book by Heinz Bliss and Bernd Bosshammer called “Das Fallschirmjäger Lehr-Regiment” that is very detailed on what happened there from the German perspective.

While this scenario was my highlight I guess, after that I made some interesting scenarios and scenario plans. Unfortunately, they were never released or finished since after that at the CS legion we needed to concentrate on Middle East and the same time my spare time was dwindling as I moved to a more demanding position in my working life. So eventually I dropped out of the CS legion and transferred the things I had done for CS ME and Vietnam to Jason. CS WF stuff remained on the shelf and I might even have lost the files over time.

CS West Front Scenario by Huib Versloot | 82nd Airborne at Nijmegen

CS West Front Scenario by Huib Versloot

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?

I don’t remember the precise process anymore as it has been a while. In the previous interview you had with Don, I think he described it well. You start by designing the map and you determine the scope. In the past I wrote a few documents about scenario designing and map making. I don’t know if they still exist somewhere but I would guess they still apply.

Making a good scenario is almost like writing a book to me. You have to make sure to get all the details right (at least I’m quite purist when it comes to the OOB etc.). I would always like to have both sides of the story. So normally I would want to have both Allied and German documentation. I read and write German as well so that makes it easier.

In most cases I would also combine with my other hobby, which is visiting the battlefield, but that is only nice and not necessary to deliver a good scenario. For enjoyability and balance some “feeling” is involved I think. For balance you can do a lot with victory conditions and points vs unit losses etc. I think I described that somewhere in one of those documents. I had a “system” that worked very well, but by now I have forgotten that “system” lol.

5: You mentioned that visiting a battlefield in not necessary to deliver a good scenario? Is this because of the nature of the period you are designing a scenario for (larger battlefields over wide areas as opposed to, for example, Waterloo) or the terrain has changed over time (urbanisation or regrowth of forests) or maybe personal inclination?

Indeed, it is not necessary, it is fun though. What is necessary is a good period topographical map, or knowledge of the terrain changes since the events in case you would use google earth to map for example. I used to use both; the topographical map to know what human structures and terrain type existed and google earth to know the terrain heights. I would then make a transparent hex overlay in google earth and by hovering the mouse over each hex I would know the height value of that hex.

6: Please tell me more about battlefield archaeology.

Every year I used to go to the Ardennes with my elder brother for a mid-week, to investigate a subject, (mostly a unit that participated in the battle of the Bulge or Hürtgen) that we had studied beforehand. The last years we were also joined by a friend of ours who has been a staff sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was very skilled in using the metal detector and could identify almost any rusty object we dug up.  On the last trip we dug up a piece of metal and it wasn’t even completely out of the soil and he said “It’s a Garand”, before I could even see it was a rifle.

As I said we would read /study and from what we read we would try to find evidence. For example, we read the book “Victory was beyond their grasp” about the German 272nd VG division and they had been in very close combat with the Americans on a slope just east of Kommerscheidt. We found cartridges of both sides mixed and hand grenades etc. It was evidence that had really been a fight of man to man as described in the source.

7: When I visited Holland a few years back and we were driving to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein you were telling me about another hobby. It is not game related but I think interesting in how you catalogue bird activity in a certain area over time. I’m not sure how but I think the same attention to detail and aspect of discovery and documentation required for bird watching would come in useful for game scenario design?

My other hobby is something that I actually already started when I was a child. It is bird watching. This hobby ended basically at the age when you get interested in “other birds” lol. When my dad gave him his camera with zoom lens a few years ago, it just started from there again. You never forgot what you learn at a young age so I could still identify a lot of bird species. The good thing is that just like battlefield archeology it is outdoors. In Holland quite a bit of statistical data is collected of birds and nature. So each year I count all the breeding birds in a patch of nature near Amsterdam, that has bit of forest, swamp and a lake so has many different species of birds.  Very early in the morning is the best time walk your round to count the birds, as they are singing and you can identify them by their song, as that is much easier than by visual recognition. You enter the species in the app (with GPS coordinates) on your smartphone and send it over to SOVON (which is the institute that collects the data). Over the months that the birds are breeding (from March to July) you walk several rounds and software (each species has certain parameters) calculates how many individual territoria of each species are present. Modern technology is very helpful in this.

The sad thing is that since I was young there are now 50% less birds in Europe. Like in many areas, the rise of industrial agriculture has wiped out many wild plants, insects and ultimately the animals that eat insects: birds.

 

 

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.

Romanian Order of Battle in East Front III

I’m putting together the Romanian order of battle for Campaign Series: East Front III, a platoon-scale tactical wargame covering battles in WW2 Eastern Front during 1939-1941. This blog post supplements Jason’s recent German OOB post by revealing what’s in store for one of the minor Axis allies.

Romanians in Campaign Series: East Front III

I believe the common perception of the Axis Minor Allies performance on the East Front is accurate to a degree but probably too harsh (excepting, of course, the well-regarded Finns) and the Romanians prove the point.

The Romanians fielded a mostly illiterate army of conscripts with inadequate transport and fought the entire war at a constant disadvantage in equipment and weaponry. In short, they were fundamentally unsuited to a mechanized and ideological war on the Russian steepe. On the other hand, the Romanians provided the Axis its third largest army and captured Odessa with limited German ground support (though this battle was a drain on Luftwaffe assets). Some may debate the value of the costly Odessa campaign but the Soviets viewed its recapture in 1944 as significant enough to merit a 324-gun salute of 24 salvos in Moscow. This was a rare honor and only ordered after significant achievements such as the capture of Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna (Ref – Stalin’s Orders of the Day).

Campaign Series East Front III Romanian Order of Battle

The Romanian Army in World War II was unsuited for a mechanized, technical and ideological war but thought should be given on how far the Germans could have advanced in the south without Romanian support. I tend to think that the Germans bear much of the blame for overly ambitious plans relying on resources that were not available or up to the task.

Romanian Order of Battle 1939-1941

East Front III will cover the period from January 1939 to December 1941 and anyone interested in the Romanian effort in WW2 should keep in mind that the Romanian Army was constantly being destroyed then reconstituted. Mark Axworthy describes these changes occurring in three waves. The Romanian army that started the war “was rendered hors de combat at Odessa and Stalingrad or in the Crimea….” and the army raised to replace these losses in 1943-44 were lost by the time the Romanians defected to the Allies in 1944. A final wave was raised from training formations to be used as cannon fodder by the Russians in 1944-45.

In terms of East Front III, I won’t have to worry about the 2nd and 3rd waves but there is some complexity in the early Barbarossa OOB as some Romanian formations were trained, just prior to hostilities, by the German Army Mission (Deutsches Heeres Mission in Rumanien, or DHM) and the German air force mission (Deutsches Luftwaffe Mission in Rumanien, or DLM).

I have created separate infantry platoons to represent the 5th, 6th, 13th, 18th and 20th Infantry Divisions which were first selected for initial conversion to German training and tactical systems but have yet to decide on how to name these platoons. Separate platoon designations for each of the divisions is too unwieldy so currently, I’m thinking of adding the DHM acronym to the platoon’s identifier. I haven’t talked with Jason on how this will come out in improved factors but think these units will have a little better morale factors (to simulate better German tactics and the attempt to instill NCO leadership) while scenario designers may want to give a Romanian side consisting of DHM trained troops a higher supply factor than usual. This doesn’t mean DHM trained troops had a better supply system (German supply support to their Romanian allies can most charitably be described as stingy and in times of crisis should be described as antagonistic).

Campaign Series East Front Romanian Order of Battle

A Romanian A TACAM T-60 during the National Day parade, 10 May 1943. (c) Public Domain

Initially, the Romanian artillery corps resisted DHM training methods though after the Odessa fiasco of uncoordinated artillery support causing friendly fire casualties along with a general inability to suppress Russian defensive positions they became more receptive.

The 1st Armored Division serves as the best example of the benefits of DHM training. While serving under the German 11th Army the 1st Armored Division was very effective, especially when operating as the armored unit of the German LIV Corps by dislodging Russian defenders on the Cornesti Massif and pushing them back over the Dnestr River. When the armored division was transferred to the Romanian V Corps and were assigned the task of cutting off Odessa to the east they suffered high losses as the Romanian infantry of the 15th Division had not been trained to operate with tanks. In fact, during the Odessa campaign the 1st Armored Division was always subordinated to infantry corps and ordered into ill-coordinated frontal assaults on fortified positions.

I’m sure EF fans will be pleased on the attention to detail we are giving to the Romanian OOB. We are moving beyond a stock infantry and engineer platoon and will cover a wide range of the Romanian infantry available: border guards of the Frontier Division (Axworthy “well-trained, long-service troops”); Royal Guard infantry (“reliant on conscripts but had esprit d’corps”); Naval infantry, Fortification Division troops, Vanatori or mountain troops and much more. The engineers are broken down into mine layers, construction, rail, bridging and even work shop troops.

Campaign Series East Front Romanian Order of Battle

Romanian minelayer Amiral Murgescu (c) Public Domain

For scenario designers interested in operations in and around the Black Sea and Danube Delta the new OOB file covers every ship in the Romanian Navy to include all the river monitors, torpedo and gun boats along with all the major coastal defense gun batteries and associated AA batteries if one wants to include such locations as Constanta and Sulina.

Conclusion

Jason designed a lot of the Odessa scenarios for the original EF games and he’s planning on updating them with not only the new Romanian OOB but also on the Russian side. Russian Naval infantry will be represented (they played a role not only in the original Odessa campaign but the liberation of Sebastapol in May, 1944. I think he’s also going to add the “Odessa tractors” which were agricultural tractors with armored plate.

Finally, I urge anyone interested in the Eastern Front to take the opportunity of picking up Mark Axworthy’s excellent Third Axis Fourth Ally. Even if you interest in the Romanians is limited it will provide you with a lot of detail on operations in Army Group South. The book is long since out of print and prices online can be prohibitive but if you find a copy at a library or yard sale going for cheap, it is a must buy.