Grognard.com: Hey, Alan, it’s always good to hear from you. First question: Victory Point Games
has made its reputation on small-format games. Where did you get the idea that you could publish a monster wargaming series, beginning
with Thunder in the East?
Alan Emrich: This is a happy outcome from one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” things.
We had just sent our first out-of-house printed game, Dawn of the Zeds third edition, to press and I was thinking what other games
might succeed if published thus. Then at ConsimWorld Expo some time back, Frank, Lance, and I were discussing the demand to “link” and
“extend” the Campaigns in Russia series that spawned from good old Battle for Moscow (which Frank and I worked on back in 1986).
Well, one idea led to another, and before you know it, we conceived a game on the early part of the Russian Front using the Campaigns in Russia
system, and that grew to cover the entire Russian Front, which grew to Europe, and then it grew to cover economics, politics, strategic warfare...
Yep, it’s great what you can “blue sky” when you put some grog in the old grognards at Rula Bula [a popular Irish restaurant next to the
ConsimWorld Expo site]. We decided that we should undertake this ambitious project and started to make plans to publish this, our first
true “monster” wargame.
Grognard.com: Wargame publishers try to be a bit “hands on” with their games before release to
make sure they’re ready for publication, of course. How hands on are you with Frank Chadwick’s ETO?
Alan Emrich: I’m pretty hands-on for this project. I am tasked with keeping everything moving forward at a good pace.
This means that I am personally making the playtest components (counters, cards, player aids) and formatting and editing the rules.
Fortunately, Frank has largely taken charge of the map, so my tasks there are tidying up and making it ready to print in 11” x 17”
sections that mate up for the playtest kits.
As the game has been progressing, this has been a very fluid process necessitating a lot of changes as we prepare to send out
beta test kits. I confess that the “cruel taskmaster” job I seem to excel at is levying a barrage of emails to the team to
help us hammer things out. Fortunately, they have answered with alacrity and the rules are in a pretty good state right now
for the team’s Herculean playtesting efforts that remain.
The circles drawn around outstanding issues are getting smaller and smaller as we move to the beta version of Thunder in the East.
Every system in TITE is tight, if you will, so our focus now is on the details to ensure that every little thing in this game
is shipshape and Bristol fashion.
Grognard.com: You have worked together with Frank Chadwick on Battle for Moscow back in 1986, and
for Game Designer’s Workshop doing the second edition of Frank’s A House Divided. And you and Lance McMillan have produced
the Star Borders games, the Napoleonic 20 series, and the Campaigns in Russia series. Are you essentially “putting
the band back together” for Thunder in the East?
Alan Emrich: Heh, that’s pretty good! Don’t forget graphic artist Tim Allen on the keyboard (and mouse).
Yes, we’re an experienced team not only at getting games published, but on publishing games together.
Frank Chadwick, alone, has a corpus of work making board wargames that can only be described as “legendary.” I was very blessed to work
with Frank “back in the day” and I have always tried to learn lessons from him – the man is a sage. He demonstrated considerable patience
working with me back in the 80s, both on wargames and on the Game Manufacturers Association Board of Directors, and I am grateful for all
that Frank has taught me (and continues to teach me as we work on this epic project together).
Lance McMillan is a very smart, disciplined wargame developer, with a keen eye and a great sense of historical validity. Combined with
my passion for “game narrative,” we have made a mighty duo on some amazing little games – I will always have a special place in my heart
and on my game table for Star Borders, for example. In the Navy, they called Lance “The Fifty Pound Brain,” and it shows! He’s a
one-man fact-checker, making games where the audience is very particular that you have the facts right!
Tim Allen is great, and what a super-nice guy! He found us after VPG started back in ’08 showing me “his versions” of our game
components. “Dude!,” I said, as I often do (being a native Californian), “Let’s share that art!” And Tim has been on a graphic voyage
of gaming artistry ever since. I have watched as his Photoshop skills have grown from Yellow-belt to Brown-belt and one day he will
emerge from his Art Dojo a full Black-belt, I’m sure. Tim is so Canadian and low-key (powered by Tim Horton’s coffee), who makes great
suggestions and takes them equally well. Our hobby is so much more impressive looking since Tim has come in and lent his skills to such
a broad array of great game projects.
Grognard.com: Alan, people reading your various game credits and myriad article by-lines will
find your name alongside many strategic level WWII games, most noticeably perhaps are Totaler Krieg! and Dai Senso!
You seem to enjoy the grand-strategic “mini-monsters.” I guess what I’m asking is, what’s a gamer like you doing with a real
monster game like this?
Alan Emrich: Well, like a lot of us, I have played many a Europa game (my favorite being Narvik),
but I found the gameplay in SPI’s War in Europe much more companionable. In fact, when I was looking for a house nigh 20 years ago,
my wife and I each staked out one thing that it had to have: for her, it was a back yard large enough to really garden in (which is a tall
order in Southern California): for me, it was a game room large enough to set up and play War in Europe.
The idea of a “big player’s wargame” has always appealed to me. However, most monster games I’ve experienced have camped out in the weeds
of chrome and minutia, which is not where I want to be for all the time it takes to learn and play them well. With Thunder in the East,
you are playing a move-fight-move system that is as comfortable as your old sneakers. Instead of walls of counters opposing each other in
too-damned-small hexes requiring me to level up my skills using plucking tweezers, in TITE there is usually one, or occasionally
two, pieces in a good-size hex and, just as graphic designers love “white space” when laying out rules, you will encounter empty hexes
here and there along the front line in Russia because your units’ Zones of Control simply need to get the job done covering it.
Frank Chadwick explained his evolving design philosophy using this analogy. Early on, Frank was an English gardener, filling in that
patch of soil with more and more plants and decorations until it was so full you couldn’t add anymore – and at that point the garden was
complete. Today, Frank is a Japanese gardener, removing plants and decorations from that patch of soil so it has less and less until,
if you removed anymore, you couldn’t even call it a garden – and at that point, the garden was finished. That’s a good way to describe
the design and development for the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series – we’re always looking for things that we can cut and simplify so
that the player feels really in control of the game (instead of the other way around); we are constantly admonished by His Frankness
with the mantra of “we’re at the point now of cutting things, not adding them.” Words to live by in great game design philosophy – “a
game is not finished when the last feature is added; a game is finished when the last feature is removed.
And in Frank’s world, all design-for-effect mechanics must not be abstract (i.e., merely a mechanic designed to achieve the desired result) –
they must also illustrate the causes of how that result was achieved (assisting the game’s narrative telling the story of what is happening
on the map and why). In a Frank Chadwick game, “getting there” (to the desired effect) is half the fun.
Look, I’m not sure how many monster games we have left in us to design, develop, publish, play, and master, but I will say this: I will
be very proud if this project turns out to be my magnum opus, because this wargame is fun! That’s really important to me because life
is too short for wargames that are work; I want to play a strong, rich, historical simulation and really enjoy the heck out of it while
doing so. For me, that is what the ETO series is all about and why I’m committed to it. Let’s push those panzers, manage those economies,
and let the good dice roll!
Grognard.com: VPG has long been known as a print-on-demand company, but a game the size of Thunder in the East
really doesn’t lend itself to that publishing model, which I understand you will be discontinuing in 2017. How will you be releasing games
in the Franck Chadwick’s ETO series?
Alan Emrich: Well, we’re still making the playtest kits in house, so they look pretty nice. However,
you’re right, when the game itself is published it will be printed out-of-house as other wargame publishers do – you know, the
“telescoping” box, die-cut counters, etc..
I understand that our plan is to Kickstart this project in hopes of raising enough money to print a good number of copies
(2,000 to 5,000) and keep Thunder in the East in stock for a while. It is not only the cornerstone of the series, but
a great East Front game in its own right and we expect people to be having a great time with this game for years to come.
Grognard.com: Is there any sort of “grand schedule” for the production of Thunder in the East?
And after that, the remaining games in the ETO series?
Alan Emrich: Well, we have the four core games (East, South, West, and North), and the fifth product
will be the “linking” Campaign Game kit that ties everything together and adds strategic naval warfare. If we can pull off one of
those every 18 months or so, I would be a happy guy. FYI, Thunder in the East should be entering beta (i.e., out-of-house)
playtesting around the time this interview goes live. There will be some dedicated months testing its myriad scenarios, but hopefully
Tim Allen will be working on the graphics in parallel (everything is pretty tightly laid out for him already, which really helps
speed things along – artists like some direction and not just hand waving with cajoling “make it amazing” words of instructions).
If ETO remains an in-demand success, we’ve discussed a module with map extensions to the Urals, Middle East, Iceland (I kid
you not, Frank’s already prototyped it!), and more. All of these maps are already designed, by the way – Frank Chadwick just rolled
them all out and we playtested with them at ConsimWorld 2015. I think there might be a module for the "Reign in Spain" scenarios,
and almost certainly a “prequel” module (entitled Dark Beginnings) that puts you through the ringer of crisis after crisis in the
1930s, any of which would give you a new starting point for ETO as well as interesting scenarios in their own right (we’ve
played module quite a bit and really like it).