Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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The history of the Zeds – an interview with Dawn of the Zeds designer Hermann Luttmann

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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If I where to name two game designers who got me hooked on solo gaming then one of them would be Hermann Luttmann and since starting this blog doing an interview with him has been at the top of my list of goals.

The game that made Hermann stand out to me is Dawn of the Zeds, which for me ranks as the best solo game I’ve tried (and as the second bestselling game for the Publisher VPG) and I thought that the current Kickstarter for the third edition of that game was a good opportunity to do the interview.

Apart form Dawn of the Zeds Hermann has made several other games, such as In Magnificent Style: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg and A Spoiled Victory: Dunkirk 1940. Hermann stands out as one of those all-round nice guys, he’s very active in responding to rule questions about his games here on BGG and in the large number of comments, I’ve seen from him I don’t think there’s ever been a single negative word .

Now, I said that this interview as triggered by the third edition of Dawn of the Zeds, but actually Hermann wasn’t much involved in the making of the third edition, and I’ve already done two interviews regarding the making of that edition (interview with the publisher; interview with part of the playtest team).

This interview will therefore mainly focus on the history of the game, nonetheless we’ll start with the third edition.

Morten: I know that the publisher Alan Emrich has stated that he declined your first submission of Dawn of the Zeds and he wanted you to reduce and simplify it. That makes me think that you initially envisioned a more complex game than what was published and now a new version is being made that reduce and simplify it even more. Do you think that the game still stays true to your vision or has it become too simple? And, how do you feel about other people reworking your game?

Hermann: Well, Morten, let me first thank you for your wonderful support of not only the Dawn of the Zeds franchise but of the whole solitaire gaming genre as well. It’s gamers like you that make this so much fun for designers and other players.

It’s true that my first effort at Dawn of the Zeds did not go well! It’s interesting that Zeds was actually my first-ever submission to VPG, though Gettysburg: The Wheatfield was my first published game. I was working on fixing Zeds while I was putting together G:TW and that’s why they came out fairly close together. So Zeds is actually my “rookie” effort and thus needed the most re-work.

I don’t think my first attempt at Zeds was “complicated” per se – it was just a more “wargamey” take on the States of Siege (SoS) engine. So it had all sorts of units wandering all over the place, a more involved Combat Results Table, more types of units, etc. This was the environment from which I came as a player and thus naturally colored my design approach. After Alan gave me his feedback from that first version, I began to realize what Darin Leviloff’s simple but ingenious States of Siege system was all about. So I had to change my focus and get what I wanted to get done within Darin’s framework. But as with all my designs, I try not to copy mechanics and systems – I try to use them as a guide and then blaze myself a new trail of some sort. So complexity was not my goal, but texture, choices, layering, storytelling and yes – chaos – was the objective.

The new Zeds 3 is not “simple” at all. I think it actually has more rules and sub-systems than the second edition does, but it’s also organized differently and more clearly and aimed at a different type of gamer. The problem with the second edition game was that it was a conglomeration of the intended expansion of the first edition game with even further added elements and all presented in a new production package. The additions were not going to be just “more of the same” – I insisted on doing some new stuff all together. So writing the rules with all these new dimensions, mechanics and add-ons from various sources made the game at least seem more difficult by trying to cobble it all together into a cohesive whole.

As far as others reworking my game, I’m not offended at all – quite the opposite, I’m flattered! Even with the second edition of Dawn of the Zeds, the brilliant (and evil) Wes Erni eventually figured out a way to beat the game each time he played. Instead of getting all depressed about it, I instead contacted him and we figured out what needed to be fixed. Granted, 99% of the players hadn’t played the game the way Wes did, but I still felt that we needed to plug these holes and that’s what we tried to do with the Director’s Cut expansion. So the general concept of re-working any of my designs is not foreign to me and I welcome it when justified.

As far as Zeds 3, it’s an honor that Alan and VPG selected Dawn of the Zeds as the subject of their first foray into the world of “big box games”. This third edition began as exactly that – a third edition with more new stuff but hopefully better presented and organized. And then yes – the concept of a legitimate multiplayer, co-operative play and versus system evolved as well. At the start, I was involved and my new Heroes and Super Zeds did make it for the most part into this new edition. But then my approach to how to do multiplayer – each player controlling a track and Hero (essentially becoming mayors of each track) and also having each player with individual “hidden-agenda” goals – was vetoed and the design crew went in a different direction. Which is fine and I think it works for the audience to which they are attempting to appeal. That type of game is just not in my design “wheelhouse” and thus I have stepped aside from the inside design process and cheered them on as they did their “thing” with this version of the continuation of the Zeds universe.

Board Game Publisher: Victory Point Games

Hermann Luttman in the middle flanked by Frank Chadwick on the left and Tim Allen on the right. The game being played is Gettysburg: The Wheatfield. Image credit: Victory Point Games.

Morten: While the States of Siege engine was originally created for the game Israeli Independence about the Arab-Israeli war in 1948-9, then to me that it looks as if it was actually created for the zombie genre . It’s very well suited for simulating overwhelming but uncoordinated hordes marching mindlessly towards you and it has constant and barely controlled chaos, where hanging on by the skin of your nails is a best case scenario. And no, I’m not calling Arabs mindless uncoordinated hordes .

Did you have a “Hey this game engine looks like it was created to simulate a zombie movie”-moment when playing one of the previous games in the series?

Hermann: Yup! I was playing Zulus on the Ramparts and I had a series of rushes by the Zulus that instantly reminded me of a zombie movie. As you say, it just clicked in my brain at that second. Then when I sat back and looked at what the SoS series was replicating, the whole idea of a non-historical application seemed obvious. How could this NOT work for a zombie game? As a matter of fact, when I first asked Alan about doing a zombie game, I just assumed that he would tell me that he already had a dozen proposals lined up. When he said there were none, I was downright shocked. How could no one have thought of this before me? Indeed, it might have been that potential SoS designers were thinking only in historical terms and that was somewhat confirmed for me when even Alan was at first reluctant to go the zombie route with the game. But I eventually convinced him that “zombies sell” and that SoS was a nearly perfect vehicle for such a game.

Morten: On the topic of zombie movies, then what really makes DotZ stand out to me is the way in which the game tells a story and generates cinematic moments. It’s the closest a board game has come to make me feel like playing out a movie. Did you set out to recreate zombie movies in a board game or did you set out to do a States of Siege game about zombies?

Hermann: It started as a SoS game about zombies. I’m not even that big a zombie buff, no more than your average guy, I guess. But when I saw the potential here, I started re-watching the classic movies we have all seen at one time or another and then started checking out others I had skipped over. So all those movie elements then made it into the Event cards (and then later the Fate cards) in some form or another.

And this all delves into my deeper design philosophy, whether it’s Zeds or In Magnificent Style or Stonewall’s Sword or any of my other designs. I am a gamer to experience the excitement of it – for the “adventure”. I personally don’t give a hoot about winning or losing, figuring out perfect opening moves, reading in-depth strategy articles about how to best play a game system and all that. My reason for gaming is to be surprised and challenged – to be part of an adventure story (whether a zombie story or a military history one). As such, my systems are built on various levels of “chaos”. The historical games have historically-framed chaos and in my opinion actually better reflect the unknowns and fog-of-war of the battlefield. In the fictional realm, it’s “chaos, baby!” to a greater degree. There are no perfect strategies or tactics as the situation will always change. Players must react as the unknown comes hurtling towards them. It’s about drama and surprise and the skill comes in by knowing how to best react as the story unfolds. So yes, there are general “do’s” and “don’ts” but reading the situation each turn and applying your assets as best you can at that time is what my games are usually about. And Dawn of the Zeds is the premier example of that, I think. That’s why gamers talk about its storytelling, theme and immersion – the game is designed to drag you along with the story and make you part of it.

Morten: As said DotZ is based on the States of Siege game engine which was spawned by the game Israeli Independence, but it takes that engine waaay beyond what it originally was. DotZ also seems to take some of the additions from other games in the series and goes further with them, such as

1 Constructing the event deck to create a story arc, which was a mechanic introduced by Soviet Dawn, but DotZ has a more complex five act structure (the first edition had a three act structure IIRC) that is more controlled than the add three decks on top of each other mechanic from Soviet Dawn.

2 Having the player’s units move around the map, which Legions of Darkness had (though there are some games before Legions in the series that I haven’t tried, so Legions might not have been the first to do this). In legions you had a few heroes that could be assigned to one track at a time, but the main forces of the player where only present in abstract form as is the norm in States of Siege games. DotZ has each and every player unit present on the board and they can move around each space on the game board quite freely.

3 Allowing the player to build fortifications on the game tracks like in for example Empires in America. Well, OK, in this case DotZ might not have taken the idea much further, but it feels much more interesting to me in DotZ because it interacts with the movement of player units.

Did you start out studying the previous States of Siege games or was it more a case of parallel invention?

Hermann: Hmmm ….. I have to admit that I have not played Legions of Darkness and Empires in America. So in that case, I’d have to say that the moving units up tracks and building barricades happened as a case of parallel invention. In both cases, I think Zeds screamed out for those approaches. You want Heroes, etc. to do more than sit there waiting for the zombies to attack – one of my primary goals with Zeds was to avoid the “turtle” problem that many of these types of games have. No sitting in a huge pile of counters waiting for the Zeds to attack. You need to be proactive very often. As far as the barricades, that’s definitely a major element in all zombie stories, so they had to be in there as well.

The concept of “Acts” was something that Alan and I both allowed to evolve as the number of Event cards grew and we had to find a way to better control the pacing of the story. If we went total randomness, the game could last only a few cards if a really bad draw came up. In addition, the concept of Acts would allow us to build the story to a logical crescendo and conclusion. So if I remember correctly, I think that this concept came subconsciously from either me playing Soviet Dawn or from Alan being involved in the games development. But again, this was a mechanic that simply had to be in a zombie game, as it helps drive the narrative so much better.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds (Second edition)

Dawn of the Zeds 2nd Edition with the original board. An (in my opinion) much improved board was later made by Tim Allen and made available by VPG

Morten: I don’t think that’s it’s a few clever mechanics that make the theme come so alive in Zeds. Instead I think it’s how the totality of the rules work together. Nevertheless, I’d like to hear what mechanic(s) in the game you think best supports the theme?

Hermann: Well, obviously the Event and Fate cards are the foremost story-drivers. But the key is not to just have them in the game. They actually have to produce the desired effects within the context of gameplay. So it’s not enough to just title the card something “zombie-ish” and then have it do something bland or un-thematic. The card event must actually translate into a game effect that produces a tangible result which makes the entitled event come alive (or undead, in some cases). So I think that’s what sets the Zeds cards apart from many others – the “totality” of the event card effects (as you point out) produces a geometric zombie “feel” into the game.

Other mechanics that I really think assist in the overall zombie-ish-ness of the game are the Chaos markers and the overall difficulty of the game. The Chaos markers help produce the overwhelming sense of doom as the zombies leave their “mark” all around the game map. This mechanic was one of my favorites when I came up with it, as it so easily gave the player something superficially visual to worry about and had a distinctive game effect as well. The difficulty of the game is “dialed up” to almost infinity for two reasons – a solitaire game must, by its nature, be very tough to beat (or the player plays once or twice and puts it away) and if this is a zombie apocalypse, what the heck do you expect? You’re gonna lose unless you can really do a fantastic job and get remarkably lucky! That’s also part of the theme that the game tries to project.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds

First edition Dawn of the Zeds. Image credit: Tracy Baker.

Morten: No matter how thematic a game Dawn of the Zeds is there must have been some moments in the design/development process where you had to compromise the theme to make the game work mechanically. Can you give an example of that?

Hermann: Indeed – there are actually a number of things that were stripped down, altered or eliminated that would have been great theme-wise but needed to be tweaked for game mechanics and playability purposes. The Fighting Table was made quite a bit easier and less detailed; many Hero abilities were simplified to make them easier to remember and apply; the whole Research Track “persona” was made much simpler than I would have liked so its effects could be more easily be used in the game; the National Guard arriving as a card was done for ease of play, though having them actually fight onto the map and into Town Center would have been better. Some of these features are actually now included in Zeds 3 as there is more design room to add them in there. I’m glad they’re finally here!

But the two big examples of sacrificing theme for game mechanics are the way the game ends and the stacking restrictions. Granted, the game ending with the entry of any Zed unit into Town Center is a standard SoS mechanic, but I would have liked to have some kind of “last stand” rule with whatever remnants of Heroes and Civilians trying to hold out in some citadel or something. But that would inevitably lead to “turtling” in the center and that is something I vehemently wanted to avoid. This is also why I did not allow any stacking, despite the fact that the theme would beg for a Hero fighting with a group of civilians to hold a position or to attack a zombie mob. But I didn’t want the player to form a “killer stack” that would overshadow the game – I wanted the player to be really challenged to manage his forces within strict restrictions of maneuver possibilities so that he/she would have to really think about how to deploy units.

Morten: I know that there are plans for more things happening in the Zeds universe, and you’ve previously mentioned a game that turns the States of Siege track system inside out. Could you let us know more about that game or anything else Zeds related?

Hermann: That would be the proposed Armazeddon game. The premise was, again, not to just re-hash Zeds 1 and 2, but to do something completely different. So I thought that reversing the “flow” of the traditional SoS game and having the enemy move from the center out along various paths would be very cool to try. You increase the player’s “angst” by now having even more avenues by which to lose the game! However, with the advent of Zeds 3 and its new approach, I’m not exactly sure what the future holds for this particular idea. I would love to still give the idea a shot, but we’ll first see what the Zeds series has in store now with its different tact.

Morten: Now that we’re talking about your plans for the future, do you have any other games with solitaire playability coming up, that you could tell us about?

Hermann: Absolutely! I have a deluxe version of my old A Spoiled Victory game (which is no longer in print) coming out from Legion Wargames. It’s called Miracle at Dunkerque and will have a number of additional layers to the game play. You’ll be able to move actual ship counters around, picking up the evacuees from the Dunkerque beaches and moles and dropping them off in Dover (hopefully safely). The game will be a lot more interesting and also be improved immeasurably with the wonderful Legion production quality.

I also have a brand new game published by Mark Walker. The game is a solo game that I “threatened” to do the last couple of years based on total chaos! I mentioned it in a couple of podcast interviews I did but have never really had the opportunity to do anything about the idea. When Mark mentioned doing a game for him, I told him my concept and he loved it. So sometime in July Invaders from Dimension X! will be published and it was an absolute blast to design. The player controls the Galactic Marines as they fight the Kay’otz, an alien race from an entirely different dimension. Their laws of physics and logic are so different from ours that their actions seem totally chaotic and illogical to humans. You, the solitaire player, must figure out how to defeat them. It is fun to play and I hope it succeeds because I have two expansions already in mind.

There will also perhaps be a new Death or Glory series game in the future. In Magnificent Style has been the only game released so far, but VPG has two more ready to go from other designers (Hans von Stockhausen’s A Near Run Thing and Duncan Rice’s Magnificent Valour). Once those finally get out the door, I plan on contributing the next one, which will either be on Omaha Beach or a science fiction/fantasy design. We’ll see what happens.

Board Game: A Spoiled Victory: Dunkirk 1940

A Spoiled Victory (if I remember correctly the setup in this photo includes an error I made during setup).

Morten: On the topic of other games, you have other published games under your belt and I know that I enjoyed playing In Magnificent Style. Could you tell us a bit about your other solo games and which you like best?

Hermann: Well, I don’t have an outright favorite in particular, though I must admit that Dawn of the Zeds (the first two editions and the expansion) were overall the most fun to test. I just never got tired of playing the games as it was a whole new design world opening up before me. My friend Paul Fish and I had A Spoiled Victory: Dunkirk 1940 published a while ago and that was a joy to play as well. As I mentioned above, the fact that it’s being upgraded to a newer, shinier version is very exciting. In Magnificent Style was also interesting to test, as it was a brand new system that I had been pondering over for many, many years. To see it finally come to fruition was very rewarding.

But as far as pure laugh-out-loud fun, Invaders from Dimension X! is the winner. Fred Manzo and I played that game an entire weekend and never got tired of it. It is just uncontrolled craziness and entertainingly different every time. That’s what pure chaos will do for you!

Morten: If we look beyond your own game, do you then have a game to recommend for the readers that’s thematic and suitable for spare time challenged people?

Hermann: Honestly, I haven’t had the time to play any other solo games in the past few years. Actually, wait – I did get a chance to play The Hunters and that was quite a lot of fun. Other than that one, it’s only been some multi-player and two-player games.

On the Eurogame front, my favorites are Robo Rally and Galaxy Trucker, both chaotic masterpieces as far as I’m concerned. I laugh myself sick every time we play those. More recently, the guys introduced me to Quartermaster General and I’ve really appreciated the elegance of that design.

As far as small, clever and thematic wargames, I’ve been very impressed with Ludifolie’s recent line of games. We played Dauphin and the Sword a couple of times and that was colorful, quick-playing, had clever mechanics and “felt” right for the period. I just bought their No Man’s Land game too and that looks great, along with Montmirail and Vauchamps 1814. So I’m very much into this French company now.

Otherwise, Revolution Games’ Celles and Gazala games are tremendous simulations with relatively small footprints. Again, clever mechanics and the right amount of immersion. I personally think Gazala is the best WWII North African battle game I’ve ever played.

Europa Simulzioni’s two recent games, Caricat and Obbedisco, are both very playable, unique games that cover ignored military campaigns. They’re attractive and extremely interesting - check them out as well.

As you can tell, I’m a huge supporter of the smaller game companies out there. They are generally willing to take more chances with obscure subject matters and unusual game mechanics and presentations. That’s something I really appreciate and very much mirrors my own design philosophy.
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