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Thank a Playtester

ETO Game Evolution Stories

By the ETO Development Team

The Development Cycle (in a perfect world)

In this article, we would like to take a moment to reflect upon some key ideas conceived for and evolved through the playtesting of the Frank Chadwick’s ETO game series. While creating a more perfect game system for the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series, ideas for small-but-important improvements have reached us, and some have been adopted. Primarily, these insights emerge from those persuasively stating their cases. After the development team considers these ideas’ implications and compatibility with the design philosophy, some make it to the next step. A playtest proposal goes out (and feedback comes back), leading to that idea’s ultimate adoption (or rejection) following playtesting adjustments. Occasionally, the designer (Frank Chadwick himself) or someone on the development team will submit an idea, but every suggestion goes through this review process.

A Half-Step to the Right

Ken Keller (L) and Designer Frank Chadwick (R) playtest a campaign in Italy

In early testing, Vassal Guy Ken Keller noted in a face-to-face game with the ETO team at ConsimWorld that the pace of removing quality German troops to the Force Pool (through normal combat attrition) was overwhelming the Axis player’s ability to keep pieces on the map. The economic value of targeting reduced strength German Corps proved to be hugely beneficial (and for Motorized units in particular, as they are very expensive to recover from the Force Pool, requiring Fuel Points.) The upshot saw the Germans often facing blunted momentum and creating larger time gaps in the narrative than occurred historically. Could anything be done for these 2-step units? Could they “gain a half-step” before being removed from the map and keep the wheels from falling off the Wehrmacht too quickly?

As with any new idea, our first task is to reduce it to its essence, making it as simple as possible to understand and implement. The next step is to broadly apply that idea across the entire series (as a standard rule and not an exception) and explore its ramifications. After considerable discussions over the table, hand-made counters representing Corps Remnants appeared in the next playtest game at that convention. We playtested these with vigor, amply proving their mettle to address these historical narrative concerns. They evolved to be broadly applicable in this matter: Essentially, Medium two-step units with a strength of 3 or more on their last step receive a “medal” (icon) indicating that, although they have a single step left (shown by the stripe behind their unit values), their high troop quality allows them to form a Corps Remnant (e.g., a German Korps Gruppe or “KG”) in that hex when removed from the map.

These Corps Remnants are Small units having a Type (e.g., Leg, Heavy, etc.). Each exists as a unit on the map (and can take its place on the front lines in desperate situations), but they are usually built back up to a reduced-strength Medium size unit for half that step’s normal RP cost (and no Fuel Points). This discount build-back idea playtested very well, and to it was soon added a clarifying proviso: When replacing Corps Remnants on the map with rebuilt Corps units, the weakest unit of that Corps Remnant’s Type having a medal icon must be taken from the Force Pool in preference to a stronger unit of the same Type (if also available in the Force Pool) representing a small, attritional degradation of troop quality.

These particular innovations also evolved from this idea of having Corps Remnants:

Lance McMillan (L) and Joe Miranda (R) enjoying a Nappy 20 series game
  1. Thanks to the case made by developer Lance McMillan, USSR Guards units also received a medal (and were thus eligible to form Corps Remnants) while their regular Untried Corps units were not.

  2. Reflecting their ability to raise scratch formations from any hodgepodge of local forces, the UK gained the permanent ability to build Corps Remnants directly from their Force Pool.

  3. And most importantly, because the Germans often rotated and rested formations depleted through combat, they gained the ability to convert 1 Free Stuff into a free KG replacement for a unit actually “resting” in Germany. It is a small RP saving that requires some to-ing and fro-ing to realize, but it can add up over time, especially, in particular, when the roof is caving in on the Reich.

The Maximum Min-Maxxer, David Brown

The team has been very fortunate to include the Devil’s own Rules Lawyer, David Brown. In the best Hollywood storytelling tradition, David believes in “show, don’t tell” whenever he found a rule that could be bent beyond its intent and distorted to a player’s advantage. Through his playtest demonstrations, he showed us many “Hmm… that was not intended” moments that required ironing out, and, iron in hand, we smoothed those wrinkles out of the game.

For example, Dave twisted the tail of unit demobilization. So much so that large pockets of helpless troops could suddenly go “poof,” adding their RPs back into the pool from almost-magical demobilizing. Now, there are guard rails that more precisely define which units are eligible for demobilization.

Dave also earned the title of Cheap Playtester – not Chief Playtester (although he arguably earned that title as well), but Cheap Playtester as he demonstrated every possible exploitable situation to save on the RP costs of running a war. With his mathematical mind, Dave laudably worked every corner that could be cut. However, his favorite was always having an army of “ants” (Small units) that could be sacrificed in combat instead of taking step losses to the larger units they stacked with. He created a horsemeat grinder for Soviet Cavalry that was truly astounding. While most of Dave’s frugality remains baked into the cake as clever gameplay, the “Army Ants” tactic went too far and felt very “gamey.” We adopted the Leading Strong rule – players selecting their own combat step loss must lose a “real” step instead of the cheapest one they have in that Battle. Leading Strong looks better and plays better. Thanks, Dave!

Dave then presented the hard statistics and demonstrated the overwhelming value of a Soviet “run away!” strategy to meet Barbarossa. No matter how you sliced it, this strategy proved superior to the Soviets taking unequal losses by counterattacking in 1941. Running away granted the Soviets such a huge Army of 8-4s in a nigh-impenetrable line by 1942 that the Axis were hard-pressed to make any gains against that year (which was only somewhat offset by all the additional gains they made in 1941 as the Soviet Army fled). Many small refinements occurred to balance the “run away!” strategy against a “stand and fight” strategy for the Soviets in 1941. These include:

  • The “Stalin’s Purges” effect limited the Soviets to raising only two Armies per turn to their 3-step (8-4) sides. This restriction kept the showstopping “wall of 8s” from being erected too quickly and too far forward. The Soviets can still put three steps in a hex (a 4-5-4, 2-step Army plus a 1-step Rifle Infantry Corps, but this is not nearly as efficient as a single 8-strength Army unit). The USSR recovered from this Stalin’s Purges effect in April of 1942 (after enough high-ranking officers were available that had survived long enough to know how to fight the Axis). In the meantime, however, they could not simply fall back and instantly build a long, solid line of 8-4s.

  • The introduction of the Repel the Invader! card, which gives the Soviets a strong opportunity to counterattack the invader (think the battles around Smolensk in July ‘41) and includes an infusion of Morale Points for a nation now fighting and not retreating pell-mell. If the Soviet player opts to repel the invader, August of 1941 becomes a tense knife fight across the map as the Soviets can make a short, decisive stand and deliver a real bloody nose to the Wehrmacht.

Now there exists an important, carefully balanced political/morale aspect to the fight-or-flight decision the USSR faced in 1941.

Wile E. Coyote

Like the antagonist in the Road Runner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote, many playtesters demonstrated historically dubious gameplay that was the superior approach to winning. We vetted solutions that worked to the playtest/development team’s satisfaction by carefully studying these playtests. Some examples of these include:

Flooding the map with purchasable Improved Defense markers (IDMs) proved abusive (and a map littered with Improved Defense markers looks more like WWI than WWII). The adjustment was that IDMs are no longer purchasable with Resource Points (RPs). Instead, Improved Defense markers trickle in through Free Stuff options and are now welcome additions on certain Event cards.

Flooding the skies was a big problem that designer Frank Chadwick needed to address properly. Flooding the skies with Air unit builds and upgrades was shown, quite simply, to be much too fast to approximate history. Frank’s reply came back elegant and simple. 1) Require Specialist Personnel Points to build new Air units and 2) limit Air unit upgrades and opportunities to raise them from the Destroyed/Newly Built box on the Air Display to the First Week of each Month. With this “drag” on the “airspeed” required to build/upgrade the number of planes represented by each Air unit, everything settled into realistic, historical rates for evolving new/improved Air units into play. To build a new Air unit from the Force Pool to fighting on the map would now take about three months.

Then there was the Partisan Placement Pickle. Tony Ferrari demonstrated that leaving (i.e., “growing”) Partisan Detachments on the map between turns became a very “gamey” tactic as players could twist things to guarantee their Detachments’ success. Therefore, Partisan Detachments changed to the current system of sudden “there and gone” attacks that were far more problematic in their results relying upon improving the mixture in their draw pool (as intended).

Bulldozer dominance in inclement weather also required attention. Large Motorized units (e.g., most Allied Armies, German Panzer, and Soviet Tank Armies) were demonstrably too effective in suboptimal conditions, allowing them to keep hitting “above their weight” in adverse environmental circumstances. Therefore, this solution became a feature of inclement ground weather – simply preventing their movement. Thus, these Army (Large) units can stay assembled as a Large Motorized Armies and sit there waiting for the ground weather conditions to improve or break down into their constituent Corps/Division units that can move in inclement ground conditions. Keeping in mind that ETO is a Corps level (i.e., Medium size unit) series, this embraced perfectly one of the game’s key design goals.

Gentle Seasoning to Taste

Playtesters offered other small but important changes. They had the design philosophy in mind while offering small discoveries that led to edifying adjustments for history, play balance, and good old-fashioned fun. These include:

More decision points in the Air and Ground Combat Results tables. After testing and evolving the right ratio of attritional outcomes in these busy combat tables, adding small decision points on a few key results allowed players to make occasional interesting, quasi-operational decisions.

Thus, in an Air Battle, you might be offered to “Press” it; i.e., exchange inflicting more pain on the opponent’s Air unit(s) by suffering a lesser-but-increasing amount on your own – how hard do you wish to press this combat?

In ground combat, close results yield dichotomized player decisions when the Attacker or the Defender is Pressed. Even a Defender Retreat has an option for the defending force to lose a step (as a “rearguard”) to control that retreat or spare itself that additional step loss and allow the Attacking player to conduct that Defender Retreat result. These clear decisions create very satisfying variations in on-map post-combat situations that enhance the gameplay narrative and player fun. When encountered in combat, these decision points have proven themselves delicious dilemmas in actual gameplay, increasing the player’s agency in owning the outcomes of particular results. We want to thank Alberto Natta and Jeff Nyquist for their thoughtful analysis in refining these combat tables for these great gameplay moments.

An Exceptional Observation was not sought but found regarding Motorized units’ advantages during inclement ground conditions. Although the team strives to reduce rules exceptions to improve playability, sometimes deciding otherwise bows to a compelling reason. In this case, Motorized units enjoy a double supply range from HQs in Attack Mode, and Heavy units can often Retreat through the first hex of an enemy’s ZOC without penalty. Previously, these advantages were universal, but Tony Ferrari from the UK demonstrated that they should be (and are now) dependent upon clement ground weather. Recognizing bad ground weather keeps ground campaigns moving at the proper speeds and risks during inclement ground weather when supply lines shorten and battles are more set-piece.

At a ConsimWorld face-to-face game, veteran playtesters “Ike” Eicher and Jim Lauffenburger helped put the German’s Jericho

Jim Lauffenburger in command

Trumpets card through its paces and delivered its perfect balancing point. They also put Mobile Assaults on the operating table. By increasing their cost to +2 Movement Points and developing a less-lethal (but not less decisive) range of outcomes when close results occurred, they discovered exactly what was needed to get players to avail themselves of the risks of these assaults.

Moreover, our last mention here goes to designer Frank Chadwick. The original Barbarossa Historical setup, while accurate, had a gameplay flaw [Click here for the full article]. By further delving into the Soviet deployment, the myriad USSR 8-4s previously adorning the border were “broken down” for setup into 4-5-4 Armies + one ?-4 “Mystery Meat” Rifle Corps unit, and these allowed some spreading out and more depth to the initial Soviet defenses. This adjustment allowed us to verify the cascading improvements in:

  1. Stalin’s Purges aftermath effects (i.e., until the first Spring, the Soviets could only raise two Army units to 8-4s each turn as they sought competent combat leadership)

  2. Refining the Militia Mobilized event (now spread out over four turns and delivered at Moscow instead of received as a “lump sum” across the hinterlands) and

  3. The Emergency Mobilization event yielding an HQ marker and a few more ?-4 Mystery Meats.

Together, these triggered a “we love it when a plan comes together” effect for the Barbarossa scenario that we are very happy with. Our team has enjoyed the repeated playing of this setup, and it is much more balanced and exciting.

Note that this article is not comprehensive. Outstanding developers like Kevin Roust and many others have left their indelibly positive fingerprints on many aspects of the series, from calculations to presentation. Thanks to these developers’ efforts, the bar is raised very high for such a well-polished game on such a grand subject, scope, and scale.

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Gordon Johansen
Gordon Johansen
Apr 30, 2022

Interesting writeup on this. While we have not had to deal with the first no-kg games or tried the latest setup rules, all of the other issues were ones that we felt were problems too. The new changes look good but we'll see how they play out on the table. Personally, I still think the air table should have the results shifted one column to the right but have not tested this. Perhaps we are missing something but I see no reason to fly if your opponent can get a +2 column result, let alone the higher columns.

Alan Emrich
Alan Emrich
Apr 30, 2022
Replying to

Thanks! We have been blessed with great quality playtesting over the course of this project.

As for the Air Table, consider "flooding the zone" with several Air Missions knowing that some will be sacrificed so that others can get through OR flying single, unescorted bombers which (now, thanks to playtesting) can only be intercepted by single fighter units. 😊

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