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What Was Mussolini Thinking?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Under the Hood of the ETO Mussolini Bot

By the ETO Development Team

In a previous article, we presented a deep dive on ETO’s Stalin Bot [click here]. The Soviet Premier’s diktats manage the Soviet Union’s affairs before going to war with the Axis through the Stalin bot. Important: the Stalin bot is used only in a multi-volume Campaign Game of this series (e.g., you are combining Volume I with Volumes II and/or III and playing together a Campaign Game that begins before Barbarossa). Once the Nazi-Soviet war begins, the Stalin bot sunsets and the Soviet player joins the game and manages the Soviet Faction from that point forward. The Stalin Bot deck neatly and easily keeps the Soviet Faction on a fairly historical trajectory during this period. Yet, it allows A) the Axis to attack the Soviet Faction at an alternate time, and B) opens the possibility that the Soviets might complete their war preparations and bring themselves into the war by attacking the Axis Faction.

Getting Italy’s (roughly) first year participating in WWII to feel “right with history” has always presented anxieties to strategic WWII game designers. After all, what Italian/Axis player would find much (if any) advantage in doing what Mussolini did historically? Italy’s mass demobilization and declaration of war on Greece come immediately to mind as problematic decisions imposed by Italy’s dictator. We feel that having Mussolini “advise” the Axis player in ETO is an appropriate storyboarding for this chapter of WWII’s Mediterranean Theater. Thus, we handle the Italian dictator’s notable will by an Axis “bot assistant.” It remains in play during Mussolini’s time at center stage in the Mediterranean Theater (i.e., before his ultimate eclipse by Hitler and Germany’s war aims –giving the Axis player complete authority over Italy).

Answering the Big Questions

Can the Allies influence Italy before it participates in the war?

No. Italy always joins the Axis Faction to keep the released version of ETO’s five-volume series on the rails. Currently, our thinking is that this event should occur during the Axis Declaration of War Step in which the Germans had a Ground unit in or adjacent to Paris. That event seems to hit all the right notes about Italian entry. The French Navy in the Mediterranean was a big factor in Italy not joining the war before France’s fate was all but sealed.

How can the Axis player justify Italy’s historically questionable decisions, such as a major demobilization followed by a declaration of war on Greece? How can the Axis player rationally adhere to something resembling Italy’s “historical script,” including its solo operations in the desert, while avoiding strict “artificial stupidity” rules?

That is the subject of this article.

How do the Stalin and Mussolini Bots Compare?

The Stalin bot completely manages the entire USSR before entering into the war. It does so only when playing a multi-volume combined campaign game that begins before Barbarossa. Players must do what the Stalin bot dictates without requiring any human decision input, and the Stalin bot is removed (and the Soviet player enters the game) when the Axis and Soviet Factions go to war.

On the other hand, the Mussolini bot (or “Moose bot,” as the wags among the team sometimes call it) has a completely different function. Unlike the Stalin bot, which ends when the USSR enters the war, the Mussolini bot begins when Italy enters. And where Stalin dictates what players must do with the USSR, Mussolini largely suggests to the Axis player what would make Italy “happy,” leaving the Axis player free to whether or not to pursue that suggestion.

In effect, the Mussolini bot offers Monthly “Italian mini-quests” for the Axis player to consider; these quests outline Italy’s ambitions in the Mediterranean. Like 3rd Republic France, Italy goes to war reluctantly with a bank of national Morale Points greatly exposed by the size of its empire. During this first year of Italy’s participation in the war, the Axis player must be mindful of things that add to (and subtract from) Italy’s nominal Morale Point total. It is entirely the Axis player’s choice to eschew or embrace Mussolini’s latest whim-of-the-month scheme regarding Italian war ambitions. To ignore or acquiesce to Italy’s latest mini-quest requires some consideration. Italy’s proclaimed war goals could help focus the Axis player’s goals in the Mediterranean Theater before the Total War period (i.e., when the Soviets are at war with the Axis) to build a more enduring Italian nation.

The Curtain Rises

Italy and Germany remained closely tied after their joint efforts to help Franco win the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s for the Fascists. Italy perceived its foes to be the Democracies of the West and sought a foreign empire akin to theirs. Italy built a modern (post-WWI) Navy to challenge them and secure their burgeoning empire. Before it entered into the war, Italy worked its ambitious blueprints by modernizing its current forces and building for greater victories in the future.

Historically, the lynchpin holding Italy to its neutrality was the French and UK’s combined Mediterranean fleets. Together, they corked Italy’s ambitions in the spreading world war. However, as France was falling to Germany’s 1940 invasion, Mussolini took the opportunity to (as President Roosevelt would describe it) stab her neighbor (France) in the back. Italy joined the war for the Axis to make easy gains against the French and the lure of spoils after France’s imminent collapse. But the Italian Army did not secure great victories over the French militarily, and the Germans accepted France’s surrender terms creating a neutral Vichy France that yielded Italy nothing.

“First they [Italy] were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils.” - Hitler

Mussolini on the Mediterranean Stage

The Mussolini War Bot deck tells the tale of Il Duce’s quest for greater grandeur and the Italian Navy’s significant political influence during this period. While most Mussolini War Bot cards proffer a mini-quest that might affect Italian morale, there is a Joker in the Mussolini Bot deck. Striking the map like a bolt from the blue, Mussolini can arbitrarily order an attack and (often over the Axis player’s objections) commit his Italian forces to it. In the words of Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel in their comedy films of this era, you can almost hear Hitler telling Mussolini, “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

In total, Italy’s War Bot deck is smaller than the Soviets. It starts at five cards and usually winnows down to two or three (one of which brings Hitler fully onstage and removes this War Bot deck from play). Because you select one card from each deck during the 1st Week of each Month, only three will occur each Season, and then the deck is reshuffled. Each bot deck consists of numbered lines of cards (1, 2, etc.) that usually progress in a sequence (A, B, etc.) to its end. Ultimately, each tiny deck sees its cards discarded (to be reshuffled in next Season), replaced (typically by the next-higher letter in its line’s sequence, e.g., card 1A is removed from play and replaced by card 1B in the discard pile for next Season’s reshuffle), or removed (without a replacement, representing the completion of that numbered line).

Designing these decks required some mental gymnastics for proper storyboarding to yield a plausible historical narrative. That narrative required the possibility of some randomness in sequencing the outcomes but would still maintain verisimilitude; it needs to “stay on the rails” for a WWII Campaign Game that demands a high level of player commitment. This issue was a Goldilocks’ Porridge design problem; the trick was to get an answer that was not too hot (variable; although we had to allow for the Italian dictator’s sudden demand for an attack) nor too cold (inflexible), but just right.

In the case of the Italian War Bot, if Mussolini succeeds in getting his way resulting in Italian victories, then it can prolong this Bot’s time in play. Time is something Italy’s Naval High Command greatly desires to achieve its goal of bold reforms that will help it challenge control of the Mediterranean. Eventually, the German and Italian war aims unify which terminates the use of Italy’s War Bot deck, whether Italy is triumphant during its War Bot period (and Mussolini becomes a “more equal” partner) or plagued with setbacks (as it was historically, where Mussolini becomes the de facto junior partner).

And as designer Frank Chadwick has taught the development team, a good place to start is by making a spreadsheet of the historical storyboard and building the Bot card outcome probabilities and sequences from it. By examining the events, timing, and costs, you can see how Mussolini got Italy to their historical game situation from July of ’40 through April of ’41 (i.e., the beginning to the end of the Mussolini Bot deck) when the Germans began their ascendance as the dominant partner in the Mediterranean.

Italian Production
Download XLSX • 25KB

In addition, we present Italy’s waxing and waning RP situation through its collapse in 1943. This storyboard is still subject to playtest tweaking to keep the numbers “approximately correct” by category. Still, you can see the many Italian naval sorties sucking at the teat of the limited Axis Fuel Points available in the Mediterranean. Considerable insight into ETO’s design level appears when studying this spreadsheet.

Pulling the Treads of the Mussolini Bot Deck

The Mussolini War Bot deck begins with five cards (1A – 5A), so there are five event lines at the outset; remember, only three of which are pulled each Season (at the rate of one per Month). This system means that, through the luck of the draw, Italy might never launch an attack (card 5A) or, conversely, they might launch one per Season for the roughly four to six Seasons until Hitler comes onstage. Historically, the Axis player had to manage two appearances of this card (as explained further on).

Card line number 1 presents the Italian Naval command’s ambition to expand its capabilities. Italy does not start with its Frogmen card (1A) or its Naval Fuel Reserve card (1B), but those are reasonably certain to get added to their Event deck while the Mussolini Bot is “helping” the Axis player. With card 1C, Italy receives its Carrier (conversion) units in their Force Pool, and Mussolini desires to build one new Naval unit. Historically, that ambition was thwarted because in February ’41, when drawn, there had just occurred a crescendo of disasters for Italy, and committing its RPs to a long-term shipbuilding project was judged not to be the best immediate use of those resources. Finally, card 1D, which Italy never reached historically, provides an Italian Naval OOB card that adds a Naval HQ, Attack Transport, and Marine Division unit to their Force Pool over time (in the Axis’ desired order). The pressure from each of these assets, when brought into play, must be considered in the Allied player’s calculus for operations in the Mediterranean Theater.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 2 presents Mussolini’s intense domestic policy (2A: Homefront Priorities) where maximizing demobilization yields additional Morale Point rewards (but leaves Italy denuded for that Month); think of this as making the trains run on “wartime.” Next appears the dictator’s other face, which pursues foreign adventurism (2B: New Roman Empire); here, the Italians can score additional Morale Point gains if they are on the march and conquering. This card remains in the deck as long as Italy continues to succeed.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 3 yields another dichotomous take on Mussolini’s ambitions for Italy. On the one hand, Il Duce asserts himself wanting to build up modern, expanded Italian Air/Naval/Armored forces by spending Equipment Points on them that Month (3A and 3C Mussolini Seizes Center Stage). On the other hand, he desires to speak of Italian greatness in conquest to raise national morale (3B Mussolini Rallies Nation). These cards are all classic political maneuvering for public consumption. If the Axis player acquiesces to “making Italy look good,” it raises Italy’s domestic morale.

Italy’s morale, particularly after losing North Africa and (likely) Sicily, can range anywhere from minimal to non-existent (causing Italy’s Morale Collapse). However, if the Axis player can improve and nurture Italy’s Morale Points at each opportunity, then, along the historical timeline, you might find Italian forces holding on a bit longer and helping to defend (for a while) the boot of Italy itself.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card number 4A (Mussolini Boasts of Mare Nostrum; i.e., claiming that the Mediterranean is “our sea”) reflects Italy’s concern for the direct security of the Italian peninsula. To gain Morale Points from this card, Italy must successfully Interdict its neighboring Sea Zones. The Sicilian Narrows and Central Mediterranean Sea Zones (both connected to Malta) are particularly challenging for Italy to interdict. The UK player is well-motivated to challenge their control in these Sea Zones and stick their thumb in Mussolini’s eye to thwart his ambitions from this card. For the Axis player to not lose Morale Points requires an Italian Air or Naval unit purchase (often depriving Italy’s “on the ground” fighting forces the Resource Points needed to sustain their regional efforts).

Card number 5A is the Joker: Mussolini Orders an Attack. Italy’s incursion into Egypt is one historical result of this card. In that case, the Axis player won the “coin toss” and selected Option B. The other is Italy’s famous Declaration of War on Greece. The Allies won that “coin toss” and selected Option A, choosing Greece as the new belligerent nation. Each Season’s reshuffle of the Mussolini War Bot deck sees a new 60% chance (if there are still five cards in the deck, that is!) that this card will appear that Season. Historically, it is selected in consecutive Months, September and, after reshuffling the deck to begin Autumn, October of 1940, and its mere existence is a reason for both the Axis and Allied Factions to be nervous. A sudden Italian attack is a jarring event to both Factions!

Finally, Card 6A is added to the deck’s reshuffle in April ’41 when, historically, it was the first card drawn. The Mussolini War Bot deck had most of the card lines removed at this juncture. The deck was winnowed down to only three total cards: Mare Nostrum (which had only made its first appearance the turn before!), Mussolini Orders an Attack, and this new Unified German-Italian War Effort card. So, in April of ’41, the next War Bot card draw had:

A) a 1/3 chance for something neutral (Mare Nostrum),

B) a 1/3 chance for something bad (Mussolini Orders an Attack – but in all fairness, the Germans arrayed forces around Yugoslavia, so at least they were prepared for this contingency), and

C) a 1/3 chance of ending the Mussolini War Bot deck forever (Unified War Effort).

For better or worse, that last card came up first.

Planning Benito’s Big Exit

The Axis player confronts an interesting and evolving situation caused by having Italy as an ally. If Italy can successfully stay “on the march” and appease the demands of their Naval Construction Program (historically ignored), New Roman Empire, and Mare Nostrum cards, then Benito could still potentially be there “helping” for some Seasons after Spring ’41. While this might be good news for the Italian Navy (giving them time to reach their Supermarina card), what Italy’s naval losses might be propping up their Mare Nostrum card, and army losses expanding a New Roman Empire could be considerable. Only the Axis player can judge if pursuing those events to achieve Italian victory are “worth it” when their time comes.

The Mussolini War Bot deck is a political minefield that the Axis player negotiates during their early war in the Mediterranean Theater. So, whether the Axis player makes a directed effort to endorse or ignore Mussolini’s “suggestions,” it has consequences. Even “deck management” becomes a factor since the more cards there are in the deck, the less chance there will be an unwanted Attack card revealed that Season and the longer this War Bot deck would remain in play. This system rewards good player/political instincts before, ultimately, Benito is no longer the lone star on the stage.

Please study it and let us know what you think!

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Gordon Johansen
Gordon Johansen
Dec 25, 2021

I find that as a long time wargamer, drawing a card to see what is happening is even more interesting in some ways that rolling the die for a combat. I can choose to attack at the odds I like during a ground combat and while I will likely prefer to roll a 6, I have to anticipate a 1. With cards, somehow it seems more random and thus more interesting. I know we can calculate the odds of getting a particular card in the same way but it feels different.

Alan Emrich
Alan Emrich
Dec 25, 2021
Replying to

Well, it SHOULD feel different. There is another whole personality behind those card revelations, and not merely "dispatches from the front" about a Battle's outcome. Keeping the "story" on the rails is very important, but above all is that the player (buying into that story) has fun playing the game.


Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
Dec 20, 2021

Maybe it is not Vegas but, there is a thrill when you flip the card on the 1st of the month. Okay, I have only played on Vassal but, you can still "flip" the top card. You do want a Naval Card (the 1s) every season.

Alan Emrich
Alan Emrich
Dec 20, 2021
Replying to

To me, revealing the next Mussolini Bot cards is like receiving a telegram from Rome and rolling my eyes at the news. 😏

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