Interview with Developer Fred Manzo

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    One of the highlights of my trip to WBC this year was meeting Fred Manzo.  Fred introduced himself to me on my first day in the GMT demo area.  He was sitting with the maps and promotional material for the two games he is developing (both designed by Hermann Luttmann), Hammerin’ Sickles– Longstreet Attacks at Gettysburg and At Any Cost: Metz 1870 from the Franco-Prussian War.

    Hermann, himself, came by a day later.  In the meantime Fred was a great neighbor, stepping into a play-test when we needed a fourth for GMT’s upcoming Liberty or Death COIN game and grabbing me a bottle of water when I was busy teaching the game.  He told me about how he met Hermann Luttmann and the two began their working relationship.

    It seems a few years ago Fred was at ConsimWorld Expo in Tempe Arizona when his friend, Dr. Harvey Mossman, introduced him to Hermann saying “Hermann is from long Island too!”  It turns out they live only 30 minutes apart. Fred and Harvey then invite Hermann to their Wednesday Night gaming group and the rest is history.

    Fred Manzo

    Fred Manzo

    So Fred, tell me a little bit about yourself?

    “I grew up in Valley Stream on Long Island and now live in St James.  My entire family lives here as well.  I joined the Air Force after I graduated from Hofstra University and taught English as a Second Language in Vietnam during the war.  After returning to the United States I was the NCOIC of Combat Intelligence for a SAC squadron. The Air Force sent me to Texas, Colorado and finally to Griffiss AFB in upstate New York.“

    “After the Air Force, I returned home to Long Island and the Social Security Administration where I worked for 25 years. I had a number of positions there, including Benefit Authorizer Instructor and Claims Representative, which all involved translating complex regulations into plain English for public consumption. That experience has helped me a great deal when it came to developing clear and comprehensive rules for games such as Hammerin’ Sickles and At Any Costs. I’ve found that if you can explain Social Security plainly you can explain anything. I retired from the federal service a few years ago and have spent much of my time since then designing, play-testing and developing various games, along with setting up my own web magazine, The Boardgaming Way (http://TheBoardgamingWay.com).”

    When did you get started playing games?

    “My first game was probably chess in third grade but as the game industry developed I went on to play every war game I could get my hands on.  Russian Campaign was an early favorite of mine, as was Panzergruppe Guderain and Axis and Allies. For one stretch of time I even played Russian Campaign just about every Friday night for over 5 years in a row. This was during the first Golden Age of War Gaming (in my opinion we are now in our second).  Back then everything was new and different but there were so many fewer games you didn’t feel guilty digging deep into them and playing the same thing any number of times.  The publication rate, back then, was just much slower than it is today – maybe a new game every two or three months or so, which averaged out – when we were lucky – at a couple of good games a year.  As time went on I also played a lot of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, which turned into my favorite Card Driven Game. Dr Gary Andrews and I have continued to play it to this day. Gary, by the way, has been nationally ranked, so most of the time he wins. But that just makes my rare victories that much more enjoyable and my frequent losses easier to consider a learning experience.”

    “Of course, right now, I am so busy working on the two P500 designs for GMT, I don’t have much time for other games.”

    DR. Gary Andrews and Roger Cooper at the Wednesday Night  Gaming Group

    Dr. Gary Andrews and Roger Cooper at the Wednesday Night Gaming Group

    And you and Herman play together now?

    “Yes – we play together at our gaming group in Bethpage on Long island every Wednesday night. Our group plays mostly wargames but we’ll play anything once. There usually are four or five games going on at one time with anywhere from 10 to 14 people involved. We also put on our own annual convention, which is open to the public. It’s called FATDOG (for the Friday After Thanksgiving Day OGaming). But you’ll just have to guess at its date. The convention, itself, is about 25 years old, although we have recently expanded it by renting a number of conference rooms at a local hotel. Last year its attendance even hit 90 people.”

    Dr. Harvey Mossman and the gang at the Wednesday Night Gaming Group

    Dr. Harvey Mossman and the gang at the Wednesday Night Gaming Group

    If I am in town I wouldn’t miss it!

    “Everyone is welcomed. By the way, Hermann also has a number of other games in the works and our Long Island group has become a treasure trove of early play-testers for him.  When I agreed to work with him on these two new games our early play testing sessions were all with this group.  It really was a great coincidence that we live so close to each other and have such common interests.”

    Gettysburg has been well covered.  What makes Hammerin’ Sickles interesting with so much competition?

    Hammerin’ Sickles is a moderate complexity regiment level game with 150 yard hexes and 20 minute turns.  As far as I know, it is the first game to concentrate solely on the southern half of the battlefield on second day of Gettysburg – just Longstreet versus Sickles. Plus we are aiming to keep the system as streamlined as possible. We utilize a chit pull system that greatly simplifies the rules – if a chit hasn’t been pulled that rule simply isn’t involved.“

    “At this time, we are looking to include at least five scenarios in the game. As of now, there will be a learning scenario (possible on the Devil’s Den), one on the Wheatfield, 2 moderate length “what if” situations and a Campaign game. The game’s length will really depend on the scenario you pick, with the shorter ones running from 2 to 3 hours and the campaign game taking something like 8 hours. The game’s length will just depend on the scenario you pick and how much free time you have.”

    “The game, itself, is at the regimental level with plenty of Fog of War, which is generated by Hermann’s Blind Sword chit pull system. (By the way, the phrase “Blind Swords” comes from the poem John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet). In this system once a unit is activated it doesn’t mean it will never be activated again. In fact, units can be activated anywhere from zero to three times a turn depending on the chits pulled and the order they appear, so you never really know what’s going to happen, until it happens. Random events are, therefore, built in to the system and create a rich and complex set of outcomes, with enough re-playability for anyone.”

    On the other hand “At Any Cost” is one of the few games available on the Franco-Prussia War.

    “Yes – it is and I think that is one of the main reasons the game is doing so well on GMT’s P500 list. It enjoys the unplowed field of the Franco-Prussian War. It also shares some of the same design features found in Hermann’s other games: Hammerin’ Sickles, Stonewall’s Sword and Duel of Eagles.  We hope to get both HS and AAC to blind play-testers soon – we already have 5 or 6 groups showing an interest in helping out and more are always welcomed.”

    I saw the maps at WBC and they looked great.

    “Yes they do – they are Rick Barber’s work – he let us use them for our WBC presentations. They are indeed beautiful. But so are many GMT maps and which way we go concerning the map situation and who the artist will be for them hasn’t been decided.”

    What is it like working with Hermann?

    “Hermann is great and we work well together, in my opinion. He sets out a problem for me and I give him a possible solution. He works on improving my idea and we then test it together. We keep bouncing the problem back and forth until we are both satisfied. Then we go one to the next problem. Now I’ve play-tested many published games, but I have to say I wouldn’t be doing this much work for just anybody or for just any company. Hermann is a fantastic guy. And I think GMT is a great company. GMT understands the importance of testing and they have given us enough time to produce a superior product. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

    Hermann Luttmann at the Wednesday Night Gaming Group  Playtesting Hemmerin' Sickles

    Hermann Luttmann at the Wednesday Night Gaming Group Playtesting Hammerin’ Sickles

    Do you have any design ideas of your own?

    “I did a game on the first Punic War that Hermann playtested, but I never got around to publishing it. I also published a 4 player variant for Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage at my site Theboardgamingway.com. It’s free and everyone is welcomed to download it. In addition, I designed a tongue-in-cheek Zombie game that was very popular at various conventions. Now, I’m sure you know that normally most people are kind and say they like your game no matter how bad it is, but when strangers offer to buy your only prototype out from under you, you know you are onto something….  But now all these projects are sidelined as I’m developing two games at once and we are simply beyond busy.”

    What advice do you have for some of us that might be new to developing and designing?

    “The more play-testing a game goes through the better and be sure to work with a company, like GMT, that gives you plenty of time to do things right. Now, the mistake too many people make is that they consider all play-testing to be of equal value and that’s just not true. The best play-testing is blind play-testing that only occurs after you’ve made the last changes to your rules.”

    I know that you also spend some of your waking hours on theboardgamingway.com.  What was your vision when you started it?

    “I wanted to create a place where gamers could come to find information on a variety of games and, at the same time, showcase wargames to as wide an audience as possible. TheBoardgamingWay.com is only 3 months old and we’ve had our best month ever in August. I’d encourage everyone to stop by and look around. “

    Tell me what you enjoy reading, watching, and listening to?

    “I really enjoy reading science fiction from the golden age (1950s and 1960s) and just about any type of history. In particular, the American Civil War, both World Wars and Ancient history. Of course, I also love The War of the Rings and The Hobbit – both the books and the movies. But my favorite old movie has to be Casablanca!”

    What’s your favorite line from Casablanca?!

    “It has to be “Round up the usual suspects!” Although, “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on here” has to be a close second.”

    What is next for you and Hermann?

    “Well, both of Hammerin’ Sickles and At Any Cost would fit nicely into a series.  But, of course, it all depends on how well they are received by the gaming public. For example, an obvious direction for us to go would be to cover the northern half of the Gettysburg battlefield on the second day. What with Culp’s Hill being another aspect of the battle that has not been well covered. Now, there is a very good reason Culp’s Hill has never been the subject of its own game (as far as I know) as it does provide some awful difficult challenges to designers. What with the Union’s coming and going throughout the entire day and players normally having perfect intelligence over the battlefield, how can the game possibly be balanced? But Hermann and I have some ideas, so there is hope.

    Of course, first things first, we need to get Hammerin’ Sickles to the play-testers and then see it and At Any Cost published. And there are any number of other projects floating around, including some rather unusual ones. For example, Hermann did “Dawn of the Zeds” for Victory Point Games and I think we both have another Zombie game in us – this time with a military twist!”

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    2 thoughts on “Interview with Developer Fred Manzo

    1. Wow! Great interview, Harold. Fred is a wonderful guy, a good friend and a fantastic developer. The neat thing is that he will play Devil’s Advocate when he needs to and offers support when things are looking down. He has a special insight into how gamers will interpret (or actually, misinterpret) a rule. Importantly, his main goal is always the game’s continued development. As he said, we exchange ideas openly and I think we inevitably come down to a solution that ultimately benefits the design – not a mediocre solution that is a sell out to stroke either of our egos. That’s the sign of a good developer and I hope he can do the same for other designers as well.

      This interview feature is a great addition to the blog, Harold, and I look forward to others in the series. Great job and thanks for posting it!
      Hermann