Introduction by Fred Schachter- Game Developer for Hitler’s Reich: A Card Conquest System Game (henceforth referred to as simply Hitler’s Reich) – Vesa “Vez” Arponen is one of those gamers who has talents of his of own, particularly when it comes to designing solitaire-playing “Bots” for GMT Games (most recently for A Distant Plain published in Nr30 of the C3i magazine and upcoming for Colonial Twilight).
Imagine Mark McLaughlin’s and my surprise and pleasure when Vez, a Finn residing in Germany as an educator, came to us to share how thrilled he was anticipating GMT’s publication of Hitler’s Reich and wondering if he and his local gaming buddies could help play test it. Not only that, he volunteered to create a “Bot” for the game. Off to Germany went what was needed for Vez to construct a play test version of the Hitler’s Reich game.
How Vez accomplished creating a “Bot” for Mark’s Card Conquest System design seems is akin to magic to Mark and myself, but did it he did, and Hitler’s Reich will uniquely join GMT’s game line-up being graced with two (2) Solitaire Versions for enjoying this quick playing and entertaining game: the original Solitaire Version previously announced within InsideGMT and now this new “Bot”-driven alternative.
The remainder of this article is Vez sharing an After Action Report (AAR) of one of his play test games of Hitler’s Reich using the “Bot”, which takes on the game’s Axis Side. Hopefully, this will enhance readers’ appreciation of the game and, if you’ve not yet done so, place a P-500 order for it? The exact rules and flowchart image are not here being provided; but what you’ll read is the effect of Vez’s clever work in getting his “Bot” to emulate the play of a live opponent.
For the past couple of months I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Designer Mark McLaughlin and Developer Fred Schachter on a solitaire play system for Mark’s Hitler’s Reich game currently on GMT’s P500 list. In this AAR I will give you insights into Hitler’s Reich by showcasing, in particular, the solitaire “Bot”-driven system I designed for the Axis side.
An Introduction to the Game
Let’s begin with a brief overview of the base game mechanics of Hitler’s Reich so the rest of this report should be easier to follow. Readers could also reference other InsideGMT material for this game to obtain additional insights and appreciation of this well-conceived design.
Hitler’s Reich, although containing 3 and 4 player versions, is in my opinion best as a 2-player card game replaying the military and some aspects of the political & economic struggles of the Second World War between Germany/Italy and their Fascist minions as the Axis Side, and the Soviet Union/US/UK etc. as the Allied Side. When there’s but a single player (you!); my solitaire system takes care of the Axis side’s actions while you, the live player, control the Allies.
The game map is an area map showing Europe and some of its immediate Asian, African as well as the Middle Eastern environs. The map, which will be mounted when published, has no pieces for units –an attack can be launched from any controlled land area to the neighboring land area or any sea zone by simply declaring it. Exceptions allowing non-adjacent area Attacks are Amphibious and Airborne Attacks. The only game pieces to Hitler’s Reich are the two sides’ wooden disk control markers as well as fortification and fleet pieces which can also occupy the map board. The latter pieces afford bonuses when attacks are resolved in areas those pieces occupy.
Each player holds a hand of Conflict Cards (equal to their current Hand Size) akin to a regular deck of cards valued from 1 to 13 with certain additional special abilities afforded to some cards. If a Conflict Action involves Soviet Territory, the Axis player must use a Soviet Conflict Card if available. The Axis Conflict Cards consist of 13 Italian and 13 German cards, while the Allied cards consist of 13 Soviet and 13 Western Allied cards.
Actions (such as attacks) and Events are contested and resolved using Conflict Cards and dice. Events include historical occurrences such as the Iraq Revolt, as well as personalities and assets such as great military commanders (Patton, Rommel) and weaponry (T-34s and Shermans). There is a menu of six actions available to each player.
Events, represented by Event Cards, enter the game from open pools specific to each side. There is also a shared pool of further Event Cards from which both sides may seek. The Events can be evoked by the players and are then contested over using the Conflict Cards and dice mechanism.
In addition, the start of each Year of play brings a several new Event Cards into the players’ hands that they may use at will without having to contest for them first. A mechanic governing the exit or preservation of Event Cards in the player’s possession allows players to gather and repeatedly bring Event Cards, into play when resolving Conflict Actions, or possibly also lose their hard-gathered Event Cards by losing a conflict to which they’re committed. Event Cards afford modifiers or rerolls of the dice used to resolve Conflict Actions.
There are a number of ways to win the game, among others, by conquering all enemy Production Center Areas on the map or a side’s capital city space(s) (Berlin for the Axis and the combination of both London and Moscow for the Allies), or bringing the enemy Conflict Card hand down to one or less cards. If interested, readers may reference other InsideGMT articles which provide additional descriptions of Hitler’s Reich game mechanics and types of victory.
The Solitaire System
My Hitler’s Reich “Bot” solitaire design challenge revolved around two principal aspects in emulating what a live Axis player would or could do.
First, how to have the Axis “Bot” opponent perform intelligent action selections from the array of options available during most rounds of play? The second challenge was how to preserve in solitaire play an absolutely central aspect of the live player base game: that the Conflict Card hands of the players are hidden and unknown to the opponent?
The first question was dealt with by designing a decision tree, in the form of a flowchart –essentially a set of questions designed to monitor selected aspects of the map board’s state– which the Axis solitaire opponent uses to arrive at reasonable courses of action given the circumstances on the board. Mark was most helpful by providing editorial assistance in keeping this flowchart’s choices aligned to his design vision for simulating Axis historical actions under certain circumstances.
The second question was addressed by abolishing the Axis hand of Conflict Cards altogether. Or better said, all Conflict Cards that have not yet been played and cast aside into the Axis Discard Pile during a particular year of play, are potentially available for Axis use.
There is a simple die roll based mechanism for selecting the value of the card that the Axis plays for a given Conflict Action. This way, the human player does not know which card the Axis will reveal in support of their action and the fog of war is preserved. At the same time, the die rolls are weighed such that the Axis tends to play good cards when necessary, and worse cards when “bluffing” or when the stakes aren’t that high… but although the live player has a sense of those probabilities, nothing is truly guaranteed. Particular attention has been paid to keeping the solitaire system simple and quick to run.
With that overview in place, let’s look at the game and its “Bot” Solitaire System in action as we play through the first few Actions of a Hitler’s Reich play test game’s Turns 1 and 2 with a bit of Turn 3. The following AAR describes the beginning of a recent playtest game between myself and my Axis solitaire opponent.
AAR of a “Bot” Driven Solitaire Game
Start Up Events. At the game start, each side gets to draw a number of random Event Cards to form a start up pool of cards. This time my Allied Side is lucky: for while the Axis draw the Allied Conflict Card hand size reducing Wolfpack Event, the Allies draw the Allied hand size increasing War Production. These cancel each other out. The Axis and Allied hand sizes therefore remain what they usually are at a Hitler’s Reich game start: 8 Axis cards to 6 Allied cards.
Turn 1, Axis. The game begins in 1941 with the Axis firmly in the driver’s seat. However, there’s a bit of a soft underbelly to the Axis European position represented by Allied controlled Yugoslavia from which immediate attack routes into the Axis heartlands of Austria and Italy exist (or an indirect Paratroop attack across the Adriatic to seize Rome and knock Italy out of the war). A live Axis player has a difficult choice to make whether to deal with that soft underbelly or to pursue a wide variety of other offensive options in their opening Hitler’s Reich move.
To inject variability into the Axis opening move, Mark McLaughlin devised a simple Axis Opening mechanic for the solitaire game. We roll two dice (2 x 1d6). The first die selects between the so-called Western or Eastern Strategies, while the second roll selects an option within those strategies. The options include, for example, a push to block Great Britain’s exposed shipping lanes to and from North America (for a reduction in Allied Conflict Card hand size by seizing a Sea Area Production Center such as the North Sea) as well as the historic opening of the Axis conquering Yugoslavia and then Greece. I roll some dice and in this test game, the Axis open the game with an invasion of Yugoslavia.
In this solitaire system, as the human player, I must choose my Conflict Card and any Event Card(s) I might want to play first; in the base game the Conflict Card selection is simultaneous and hidden from one’s opponent. Event Card play follows with first the attacker and then the defender playing any Event Card(s).
My Allied starting hand is average with a Soviet 11 by some distance my highest valued card, so there isn’t all that much I’m going to be able to do to withstand the Axis Balkan onslaught. I play my third best Conflict Card, a Western Allied 7. The random draw has given me an Event Card titled Counterattack, a flexible Event which allows to me look at the way the dice roll before deciding whether I actually want to use the card for a reroll, so I decide to employ it tentatively here if needed and with a reasonable chance for success.
For the Axis, we conduct a simple card selection procedure. Since the Axis are attacking an area it judges to be of particularly high value, namely an area adjacent to an Axis production center (both Austria and Romania have one each), we’re rolling 3d6 to randomly determine the value of the conflict card to be played (otherwise it would be 2d6). The roll is 2, 4, 3, therefore a card of value 9 will be played. We conduct another random roll to determine whether an Italian or a German card will be played: 1-3 and the card to be played is Italian, otherwise German. We roll a 2, so it’s an Italian card. I find the card from the stack of the Axis Conflict Cards.
As the reader may have just assumed, the Axis Conflict Card deck is organized face-up, however the live player best determines, to quickly select the Conflict Card this Solitaire System designates.
Next in the “Bot”-driven solitaire game’s procedure, we check whether an Axis Event Card or Cards will be played. Yes, since the selected Conflict Card is of a value higher than 8, the Axis “Bot” thinks it’s worth supporting the cause by playing a randomly selected suitable Event Card from the Axis pool of available Events.
There are three such Events in the current Axis pool, these are: General Manstein, Stukas, and an Event entitled Outfoxed. Another die roll selects Stukas, an Event the Axis may use to force an Allied reroll one of their dice (the highest value one) in the upcoming Conflict Action. It looks like my Axis opponent is trying a little bit of a gamble here by not playing high value Conflict Card providing re-rolls (an 11, 12, or 13 will do that) and saving their bigger shots for perhaps taking a Production Center later while still supporting the Yugoslavia invasion with an Event.
In the Conflict Action resolution procedure, both sides get 3 base dice to which Events and bonuses might add up to 2 more. Under the present circumstances, the Axis get the so-called Land Area Bonus for being the attacker and controlling more of adjacent controlled areas to the target Land Area than the Allies have adjacent (and the target Area itself is never considered), so the dice are 4 to 3 in the Axis favor.
Let’s roll them dice then! The Axis roll 4, 4, 6, and a 2, while the Allied roll 6, 3, and a 1. Summing these values up with the values of the Conflicts Cards played, we get 25 versus 17 in the Axis favor. I could use Counterattack to reroll two of my dice, but the gap to the Axis current score is inaurmountably large, so I decide to give up and preserve my Counterattack for a possible better opportunity later. Therefore, the Axis conquer Yugoslavia. After each action, I get to draw a new Conflict Card to fill my hand back up to six cards. What I draw is a much appreciated Soviet 10 Conflict Card.
In Hitler’s Reich, a successful first attack of the turn yields a further action as a Success Action Bonus. The Axis Opening mechanic determines this to be an attack against Greece to drive the Allies out of continental Europe altogether. We repeat the preceding described Conflict Card selection process and the Conflict Action resolution procedure.
The Axis plays a German 8 and no Event Card, while I play a Soviet 8 and tentatively again consider whether to use the Counterattack Event. The Axis get the Land Area Bonus thus rolling four dice against the Allied three. The initial score is 21 to 16: again in the Axis favor. I’m tempted to use Counterattack to reroll two of my dice (a 1 and a 2), but the odds don’t look too good that I’d actually improve my score by 6 points; so I give up Greece and keep my Counterattack option for a later occasion. A black Axis Control Marker is placed upon Greece.
This concludes Axis Turn 1.
Turn 1, Allied. It’s the Allied turn to respond. I decide I’m going to try to win an event to be better able to withstand any future Axis storms soon blowing my way as I’ve a feeling the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece was just a prelude to much more severe threats to come.
I choose an Event Card entitled Artillery & Partisans that’ll help me both in attacks and defense in land Conflict Actions. It is also an Event that may be employed to defend both Western Allied as well as Soviet Land Areas, which is not the case with all the Events nor with all Conflict Cards. For this Event Action, as my Conflict Card, I play a Soviet 10.
The Axis play a German 12. I roll the dice, and *sigh*, the Axis beats me 22 to 19 with no reroll or other opportunities available to me to try altering that score. That ends the Allied turn almost as soon as it began. At least the Axis have one valuable Conflict Card less in their roster.
Turn 2, Axis. For the next Axis Action we follow the flowchart. There are exposed Allied Production Centers on the map that the Axis could attack, so the Axis sets their eyes upon them. At this juncture in the chart, there is also a decision made with regard to launching an early “Operation Barbarossa” the invasion of the Soviet Union: on a roll of 5 or 6, the attack is launched, but I roll a 2 so the Nazi-Soviet Pact is preserved for now.
Eventually, we arrive at a later decision point that directs the Axis to contest for one offensive Axis Event Card chosen at randomly from the following list of those available: Rommel, Waffen SS, Manstein, or Tiger Tanks. The random selection chooses Rommel. I throw in an Allied 8 while the Axis pursue this event with an Italian 12. I roll the dice and the Axis win straight off, 24 to 22, without needing the rerolls to which the Italian 12 would have entitled them.
Having won the Event Action, the Axis are awarded a Bonus Action. Again we consult the flowchart to see what this will be. This time, the aforementioned die roll to check whether the invasion of Soviet Union will be launched yields a 6 (a one out of six chance!), that is, the Axis will break the Pact of German-Soviet non-aggression and launch an historically early Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union!
The base game rules specify that launching Barbarossa involves conducting four back to back attacks (regardless of success or failure) against four pre-determined Soviet areas. On the latest playtest map, these areas are named Baltics, Minsk, Bessarabia and Crimea. That is to say, the Axis launch a massive broad front invasion towards Moscow reaching from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South!
We’ve got a bunch of attacks to resolve then. In the solitaire system, the order of the Barbarossa attacks is selected semi-randomly. The first two attacks will target Minsk and Bessarabia, in a random order, while the remaining two attacks will target the remaining two spaces, again in a random order. Otherwise we’ll use the standard Axis attack procedures described above. There is also the possibility of an Axis deep penetration Blitzkreig attack to seize a Soviet Production Center: for example, from a just taken Minsk into the Kharkov Production Center.
I’ve been saving up some higher value Soviet Conflict Cards just for the eventuality that the Axis launch Barbarossa. As the Allied, my challenge is to try to withstand these attacks, keep my hand size as healthy as I can, and bide my time until the tide slowly begins to turn against the Axis… I hope!
With that I conclude this extended example of the solitaire system in action. What you’ve seen is a fairly high level account of a system that is being developed further as you read this article. In future installments we hope to showcase the “Bot” Solitaire System in more detail still. Thank you for your interest in GMT’s Hitler’s Reich: A Card Conquest System Game!
P.S. As bonus material to this article, here are images from another recent “Bot” Solitaire System test games of Hitler’s Reich.