Looking for a marquee name to help PG-HQ launch in style, I approached Dave Murray and groveled for an interview. Thankfully, Cassino '44's creator was happy to help us break new ground...
PG-HQ: When did you first get into wargaming?
Dave: I remember when I was ten years old my older brother, who used to play role-playing games, came home with a board game under his arm. I had played Risk but had never seen anything like it before. The game was The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. I was immediately hooked; everything about the game fascinated me, the board, the counters, the rules. My brother had brought home the game to learn the rules and enlisted me as a willing opponent to test his strategies. My ten year old self could not match my older brother’s strategy and I lost at it consistently, but I was always willing to try one more time. We spent a lot of that winter playing the game before it was returned. I nagged my brother to borrow it again, or another game like it. My brother saved up for another game and a couple of months later he took a trip up to London and returned with Flat Top. I still have that copy of the game and contained within it are still the notes from some of our earliest games. Again we played the game extensively (although I could still not match my brother’s strategy – I can only recall beating him once).
In my teens I discovered role-playing games and spent several happy years exploring dungeons, strange planets, the Wild West and everything in-between. In my gaming group at the time there was not a lot of enthusiasm for war-games although one of the players could be persuaded to play the occasional Science fiction themed game, Azanti High Lightning being a favourite.
My family moved to a different town when I was 15 and I started gaming with a new group. The group introduced me to Star Fleet Battles – wow that game blew me away! I became totally obsessed with it and we would play every week (more in the school holidays). The members of the group had very diverse interests and soon we were playing everything from Advanced Squad Leader to Godsfire!
Like many others when I started working I drifted away from gaming, periodically returning every few years to learn and play a new game.
In the last ten years I have had resurgence in gaming, having several willing opponents. Advanced Squad leader has been the front runner but we have played everything from World in Flames to micro-armour and Eurogames.
PG-HQ: Could you talk a bit about how you got started with Panzer Grenadier?
Dave: My journey into PG actually started strangely enough with the battle of Cassino. I have had a long time fascination with the battle and had been looking for to game to refight it. Squad level tactical games only allowed a small proportion of the battle to be created and the jump to operational level reduced the battlefield to just a couple of hexes. With this in mind I began looking at platoon level games, I have very much enjoyed the Tactical Combat Series by the Gamers but it takes a long time to play to completion and the thought of refighting the entire Cassino campaign was a little daunting. Back in the day I did play some PanzerBlitz and so thought I would check out Panzer Grenadier as I had read somewhere it was its direct successor. Being able to download the sample game and jump into the system in its third edition made the transition to the game system pretty straightforward. I picked up Airborne and East Front Deluxe and jumped straight in.
I initially had some difficulty in getting my regular opponents to take up PG, there are so many other games to play! After some persuasion everyone took to it and we played a lot of PG for six months as I got to grips with the system. All the time I was thinking about making a PG Cassino game.
PG-HQ: At what point did you say to yourself - I want to design a game, and I want it to be a Panzer Grenadier iteration?
Dave: I am a constant tinkerer with any system I play, changing rules and designing new scenarios and situations. As I said above the Battle of Cassino was always in my mind when I started playing PG.
When I posted a few samples of the draft map for a PG Cassino game on CSW I got an immediate positive response. Quite a few people suggested that I submit the game to Avalanche Press. I really had not considered submitting the game, it was just a variant for my group to play around with. Anyway I did submit a draft to AP and got an immediate positive response. Mike Bennihoff and I corresponded about the battle, Mike stated he had drafted up a test map many years ago but the project had not really got very far.
Key to designing the module was the idea of refighting the whole campaign with previous decisions effecting the options on the following days. The campaign system was one of the first concepts developed for the game and for me is the heart of the module. The original submission included a greatly expanded American campaign game that allowed players to create several alternative battle plans for the first battle, in the development phase the campaign game was pared down to the shorter introductory campaign that appeared in the final product. I am pleased with the two campaigns that appear in game, these reflect what I wanted to achieve when I started designing the game.
My original submission for the game included many special rules that did not make the final cut, these were pared down somewhat during development by Doug McNair in order to keep the integrity of the core PG game intact. That said due to the terrain Cassino it still has by far the largest number of special rules in any published PG game. There are a few special rules I wished had made the cut, one being the tactical assault variant, although this was published as Daily Content on the AP website. This variant helps create a necessary dynamic in the assault system to help reflect the fighting that took place in the battle. I strongly recommend that you try this variant, at least when playing the Cassino battles.
PG-HQ: Cassino is a very different game from more traditional PG titles like Eastern Front Deluxe or Battle of the Bulge. And from what you're telling me, the Cassino '44 you had in mind was even more revolutionary before Doug McNair reined the project in a bit! Is there enough significant content left over to do a Cassino-specific module, or perhaps a bookend game like Elsenborn Ridge was with respect to Battle of the Bulge?
Dave: I don’t think there is enough for a separate product – but they could form a series of Daily Content or I just might post them online somewhere. There is a selection of special rules; force cohesion, friendly fire on the massif, Cassino Town and random events that were cut from the final product. I would like to see the expanded first campaign available somewhere too. There is potential for the second battle to be represented as a campaign although the options for this battle are somewhat limited. Some of the scenarios were simplified in development and I still sort of like the originals, although on the whole Doug did a good job. The counter mix in Cassino could be used for other battles such as Anzio, I have thought about that but have not really got any further than a few notes.
PG-HQ: The Cassino maps when fully assembled, take up a stunning 170x108cm table space. How did you ever convince AP to allow you so much real estate?
Dave: Well there is quite a story there. As the original maps were not designed for publication they did not follow any standard printing size, although I was thinking along the lines of two maps the size of the desert maps from AK or DR, this was a little tight but just about allowed the map coverage I needed. Mike Bennighof wrote extensively in his ‘The Making of Cassino’ Daily content piece of May 2009 on the development of the game and particularly the map. It appears that although I had stated the dimensions of the map in my submission the art department at AP had not passed on the information and it was late in the day they realised it would not fit on the planned area, this was after most of the development work had been completed. AP, to their credit, did the map justice and expanded it to four 32”x22” maps. I am pleased with how the maps turned out – they were my first foray into computer art and I had to learn several art packages from scratch!
PG-HQ: As you said yourself, Cassino has a record amount of special rules. From a game designer's perspective - especially knowing that you essentially ushered in the campaign-era for PG - what aspects of the 3rd Edition rules did you find most difficult to work with?
Dave: Well as I stated above I was lucky enough to jump into PG with the 3rd edition rules already available and this made the transition from other similar games easier. During the design process I always referred back to what actually happened in the battle, if a rule enabled me to get an historical appropriate result I went with that. That said I did not have any major issues with the 3rd Ed. Rules, although the existing terrain rules are somewhat brief and generic, and at times a little ambiguous as judged by the discussions on hills and limiting terrain recently on CSW. I attempted to taper my design around existing concepts; this is especially noticeable with the extensive use of ‘dug-in’ to represent key defensive tactical features on the map. Sometime these feel a little clunky, such as in game terms the barracks and mountain summits share the characteristic of troops being considered dug-in. In play these rules passed the, ‘do they give historical plausible results’ test and so were adopted and in reality saved a whole raft of separate special rules that could have fogged up the game. Doug and Mike gave a lot of advice on Initiative ratings and leader ratios for the battles and provided help on some of the ‘hidden’ scenario design criteria used by AP.
PG-HQ: From time to time PG gets a bad rap for untested scenarios. Could you describe the Cassino testing process for us?
Dave: Designing a game is a sure fire way to alienate your gaming friends as you are always badgering them to play yet another scenario. To enable enough playtesting you have to bribe, coerce and bully your friends into playing again. When designing a scenario I first made notes on the OOB from whatever sources I had available, these often contradicted each other so there is some ‘best fit’ process used. I then re read many battle accounts of each situation and determined location and scenario objectives. Next I turned this information into a draft scenario and pushed a few counters around solo. Each scenario was played against an opponent a couple of times while the victory conditions were adjusted and then a couple of times as a finished scenario. I had three regular opponents that tested the scenarios with me. This testing was not for the faint-hearted it was at times tedious, frustrating and a down-right pain in the backside as some scenarios had to go right back to the drawing board after a couple of plays. At several points I nearly packed the whole thing in. The campaigns were even more challenging and each was played a minimum of three times. Doug McNair and the AP crew then took over playtesting and adjusted the final scenarios accordingly. The experience of playtesting the game was exhausting and it is the single reason that I am reluctant to start another project, playtesting after a while is just no fun.
PG-HQ: It's been my experience on CSW & BGG that most ASL players have a very low opinion of Panzer Grenadier. Now that you're a published PG designer, do your friends still talk to you?
Dave: Being described as a published game designer always make me smile, as my friends would probably just call me ‘a tinkerer,’ as I am always changing things and playing about with different ideas – much to their frustration at times.
I love ASL, It is a fantastic game system that has given me many, many hours of enjoyment. If you don’t mind the complexity (which I do not) you have a game system which allows you to simulate almost any WW2 situation at a squad level. Some of the players I have played ASL with over the years play no other game, and I for substantial periods of time have also played ASL to the exclusion of other games. ASL is all about the minutiae of tactical gaming, dashing across streets, gun duels, cellars, bow, hull and coaxial machine guns etc. It gives you a street level feel to combat and is very immediate and represents the very hottest parts of battle. PG is a completely different game, not only in scale but in implementation. When I first started to look at PG I read a few comments online about how boring it was to play and nothing much happened, it was exactly these comments that roused my interest. I believe much combat represented in small scale games is very compressed, things happen very quickly. If you compare this to many written accounts of actual battles then you realise that in combat things take far longer to occur than many tactical games would lead you to believe. This is the aspect that PG gets right – a PG game requires patience, planning and adaptability, few scenarios give you the opportunity to completely change your tactical plan once the game has commenced and the scope of the game allows for large engagements to be fought in a sensible amount of time.
PG-HQ: Any other PG ideas tumbling around inside your head, or are you going to be the Harper Lee of Panzer Grenadier? ;-)
Dave: Well I don’t really consider myself a game designer (to be honest the actual process of testing designs is just not that much fun – I would rather be playing), I have written the two Campaigns and Commanders books and have a game in development over at Compass Games (I was approached by them over one of my games and I had had no intention of trying to get it published). I am a constant tinkerer with any game I play and would rather spend the time playing about with ideas and playing a game then produce things to the required standard needed for publication. That said if the bug strikes again who knows – so I guess I am more Harper Lee than Barbara Cartland!