Grognard.com: Hello, Lance; thank you for your time. Let’s go with the first question: You’ve been the developer
for VPG’s edition of Battle for Moscow and its Winter Counteroffensive expansion kit, so it was natural for you to
continue as Frank Chadwick began expanding that system with the Campaigns in Russia series games (The Arduous Beginning,
Target: Leningrad, and Objective: Kiev). What were the essential gameplay aspects you were trying to develop/refine
with the Campaigns in Russia series games?
Lance McMillan: The key aspect of the Campaigns in Russia series that I wanted to ensure was carried over to Thunder in
the East was playability. There are dozens of other East Front games out there that will give you detailed history, but very
few of those fall into a category that I would call "playable." Instead, those games tend to control the players rather than
the other way around – that is, you spend most your time micro-managing petty details which a Theater or Army-Group commander
would never concern himself with. I wanted TITE to keep players focused on the sorts of broad-brush strategic decisions that
are appropriate to the level of command their roles represented and not worrying about whether the 143rd Independent Assault
Engineer Company was committed to this or that stack to optimize the odds in that specific attack.
I have neither the patience nor time for longer games, so for me one of the great attractions of the Campaigns in Russia games
was that you could get through a match in about 90-120 minutes. For that reason, paring Thunder in the East down to its essentials,
so that the player spent most of his game time making critical decisions rather than getting bogged down in superfluous chrome,
was an important aspect of development. I wouldn't categorize my philosophy here as "minimalist," but I'm hoping that I was able
to get close to that.
Grognard.com: I understand that there is going to be a Battle for Moscow II game. How will that be different from the
classic Battle for Moscow?
Lance McMillan: Battle for Moscow II (B4M2) is a condensed refinement of the Frank Chadwick’s ETO system. The goal is
to make it a sort of showcase for Thunder in the East, so that players who aren't sure about whether TITE is something they'd
enjoy can use B4M2 as a test platform to see whether it scratches their itch.
The biggest difference in B4M2 from its earlier fore-bearer is that it includes TITE's logistics and air system rules. Neither
of these systems is necessarily a game changer, but they both add considerable depth to the game and give players a lot of
insight into some of the whys and wherefores of the campaign that weren't previously evident. Additionally, the map has
been expanded, providing both sides with different maneuver options that the tight confines of the older map didn't allow.
I think that players will find the new B4M2 to be a considerable improvement to Battle for Moscow, while still retaining a
lot of the original's usefulness and excitement as an introductory game.
Grognard.com: You were leading the whole team in alpha testing Thunder in the East at ConsimWorld 2016 in Tempe, Arizona.
What did you learn after a week of intensive playtesting the very first version of that game?
Lance McMillan: For me, the most illuminating thing that came out in testing was how thoroughly logistics drive the
operational train. It was delightfully refreshing to see players saying, "I really want to take Kiev, but my forward spearhead
units are just beyond my supply radius... I'll just have to wait another turn to bring up supplies before launching the big
Another thing that was (to me at least) surprising was how the Axis side's chances for victory seemed to significantly improve
if they changed their strategy from a broad-front approach (which was used historically) and instead concentrated their efforts
into just one or two key sectors -- yes, this often meant that one Army Group or another fell far behind its historical rate
of advance, but the progress of the others was noticeably enhanced. Again, largely a matter of more focused logistics allowing
the player to "drive the train" faster if he felt that met his objectives.
Grognard.com: What is the strategy for developing a game the size of Thunder in the East? During beta testing, will you
be sending physical copies of the game out, or will this be a virtual (e.g., VASSAL) playtest because of its sheer size?
Lance McMillan: We will be using a combination of both hard-copy and electronic (VASSAL) versions as playtest kits.
There are advantages to both: hard-copy allows testers to keep a game set up for long periods so they can study the entire
map at leisure (rather than just screen-sized chunks), while electronic means testers can work on the game as time allows
and allows us to easily make adjustments to components (charts, counters, and maps) as the need arises.
Grognard.com: Is there a guiding development philosophy that sets the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series apart from Frank’s
earlier “monster-piece” (the Europa series) and other monster WWII games published since then? What are you doing that sets
ETO apart from the competition?
Lance McMillan: As mentioned previously, it's all about distilling the essentials of decision making down to their
core and keeping the player's attention locked in on the sorts of things that are appropriate to the role which he's
filling (theater commander), rather than dealing with extraneous chrome and factor counting. I was a huge fan of Europa
back in the day, but I've since come to realize that it is largely based on false premises: theater commanders don't (for
the most part) deal with battalions, regiments, and brigades -- in fact, they rarely dealt with divisional movements. The
appropriate focus for a player in the theater command role is with corps and armies. And with that in mind, it has been my
goal to keep trying to pare as much of that sort of chrome out of the game as possible, retaining only the chrome that's
absolutely necessary to "telling the story" of the war.
I'll give you an example: in a lot of East Front games, the designers have felt compelled to include the Spanish 250th Division
and/or the Slovakian Mobile Group as separate and distinct units. Even if the smallest German unit in the game is a corps, those
divisional and brigade level units, which were typically attached to some larger German corps, are given their own counters. While
I appreciate that a lot of gamers like that sort of detail, the fact is that it gives the player far more operational flexibility
(and those particular units far more importance) than his counterpart did in actual in historical terms. Thus the "false" lesson
learned by making those units distinct is that they were somehow semi-elite formations that were critical to Axis fortunes, when
in reality they were low quality units that were rather more of a liability than an asset. By amalgamating those type units into
the larger context of the Axis force structure, the player gets a much clearer and more accurate sense of how things really
were (albeit at the expense of some chrome-y flavor).
Grognard.com: A game developer is often in the middle of a tug-of-war between the designer’s vision and the publisher’s
demands. I can imagine that situation might range from cordial to conflicting. How is it working with designer Frank Chadwick
and publisher Alan Emrich? You’ve all worked together before and published some games, so that should help, but the scope of
this project is enormous; is that straining things or all you “pulling together” through it? Is there a system you guys use
to coordinate this project?
Lance McMillan: Frank, Alan and I get along extremely well. That's not to say that we don’t have our own ideas and
agree on everything, and I'll admit to some (very small) degree of frustration when my preferences have had to take a back seat,
but overall it has been an absolute delight working with the two of them.
We all agree on the guiding principles and philosophy of what we’re trying to achieve, so our basic approach in solving
these types of conflicts is simply to talk things out and find a good common ground on which we can all agree. Occasionally
one of us will draw a "line in the sand" over some point that they feel strongly about, and the others will acquiesce and
help refine and develop that vision, but for the most part we tend to see eye-to-eye on things.
Grognard.com: Most developers have a contribution to make when gamer’s sit down and play the game, yet those players
will never know what hand the developer had in actually bringing that new idea or clever change about. Is there anything in
Thunder in the East that you feel you’ve really put your stamp on? Anything you look at and say, “Yeah, I chipped in something
really cool right there”? Developers never get to toot their horn, so please share a toot if you have one!
Lance McMillan: Two particular items come to mind: logistics and airborne operations. While they've undergone considerable
evolution since the early prototype concept was first put together, the basic concept for the game's supply rules were mine. One
of my primary specialty areas during my military career was operational logistics, and I wanted to try to capture the essential
elements of what I'd learned and experienced into a very simple set of rules for this game. My underlying idea was that supply
needed to be the structure on which everything in the game ran -- it didn't matter how many troops (units) you had in a sector of
the front, if you didn't have the logistical infrastructure to support them effectively, you simply weren't going to be able to
accomplish much. At the same time, I also didn't want players to be forcibly demoted to acting as the supply sergeants for their
side -- they needed to focus on broad-brush strategy, of which logistics were simply the critical enabler to allow them to do
what they wanted to do. What we now have in place (again, modified from my original idea) achieves exactly that.
Airborne operations were a sort of pet peeve of mine (remember what I said before about a “line in the sand” issue; this one
was mine). So many operational and strategic level games get them totally wrong (with paratroops primarily being used to block
enemy retreat routes, which is something they were never used for historically), rather than as elements used to seize and
open routes of advance for follow-on forces. I wanted to show these storied units in their correct capacity, rather than as
providing some gamey mechanism that gives players completely misleading impression of their actual function. I think we have
Airborne operations just right now.
Grognard.com: There’s a philosophy about games: if you don’t have fun making it, people won’t have fun playing it. Game
development is a lot of work, but are you having fun bringing Thunder in the East and Battle for Moscow II to life? In what
aspects of play will the gamers notice the love in your labor when they play?
Lance McMillan: It's a lot of work and I am having a lot fun, but the scope/scale of Thunder in the East and ETO (as
opposed to Battle for Moscow II) really isn't a perfect match for my gaming preferences. As I mentioned earlier, the optimal
game for me falls in a fairly narrow 90-120 minute timeframe, and the sheer size of TITE means that its playing time falls
outside that window. However, because it's such a streamlined system, I'm still able to enjoy playing it. I'll be honest, I've
created a couple of my own "small map" test scenarios from TITE which I have a great time with and that fit neatly within
my comfort zone (e.g., when I test the Operation Uranus scenario, I only use a section of the map, one reaching from Rostov
to Stalingrad, rather than the whole area from Warsaw to Baku). This, in turn, allowed me to dial in my development attention
on the main "crisis" area of that operation, rather than looking at the entire Eastern Front.