Interview with David Thompson, Designer of Castle Itter
Most modern games fall pretty strictly into the categories of science fiction, fantasy, or military heroism, but there are plenty of opportunities to use games in order to tell real stories or offer new insight into worlds we otherwise wouldn’t consider. Castle Itter is absolutely one of those titles.
Designed by history buff David Thompson, Castle Itter is a solitaire strategy game about a lesser known battle of World War II. On May 5th, 1945 soldiers from the US, Austria, and France joined the Wehrmacht to defend the castle against invading SS forces. Players are tasked with controlling the defending forces in order to ensure the survival of Castle Itter and the troops inside. David talked to us about his background and what it was like to design a game based on true events.
First, a question that we always like to get to know you a little bit better. What’s your background in gaming and what lead you to pursue game design?
I grew up as an avid D&D player, not a board gamer. I stuck with D&D while I was in the Air Force and in college. But when I got married and had children in the mid-to-late 2000s, I had less and less time to spend time on a hobby. Then I started working on the idea of making a hybrid miniatures/board game. At the time, the idea was pretty unusual. Of course, these days there are two hundred of them on Kickstarter at any given point. At any rate, this game I was working on was inspired by D&D, Final Fantasy Tactics, Mage Knight (the original miniatures game created by Wizkids long before the board game), and similar concepts. During that design process, I discovered “hobby/designer” board games. I started with Ameritrash games, but quickly moved to Euros, and then wargames.
In 2014, when I moved from the US to Cambridge in the UK, I joined a designer and play-test group that included some fantastic designers. With their guidance and mentorship, I began to see my designs turn into a reality.
For the first few years, I really didn’t have a design philosophy. Sometimes I would start with a theme I liked. Other times I would work on joint designs that were based on mechanisms. However, over the last two or three years, I’ve really started narrowing down the designs that I’m passionate about: I love designing historical games that tell the story of something that is not well known. I’m not going to stop designing other games, but those will probably be fewer in number and limited to co-designs. Meanwhile, most of my solo efforts will focus on historical, political, and war games on under-served topics. These games will start with the story first, and I’ll craft the mechanisms around the story.
Of all the battles, obscure and otherwise, what stood out to you about this one moment in history that inspired Castle Itter?
I’m a military history junkie, and my favorite periods to study are the Cold War and the Cold War’s influence on our current geopolitical climate, the French and Indian War, and World War II. World War II especially stands out to me, because there are so many examples of incredible stories at the individual level. Castle Itter is one of those incredible stories. During the battle, we have Americans, German Wehrmacht, an SS officer, French prisoners who were previously generals and heads of state, and Austrian resistance fighters all working together to defend a castle. You can’t make this stuff up! The total number of defenders was around twenty five, which means that there are incredible stories of sacrifice and courage at a very personal level.
Tell us a bit about Castle Itter and the game design process. How did you decide to focus on on a solitaire experience?
Castle Itter is the name of a castle in the Brixen Valley area of Austria. It’s in the western part of the country, along Austria’s border with Germany. During WW2, the Germans used it as a prison for French VIPs — leaders of state, generals, and the like. Castle Itter tells the unlikely story of the defense of the castle from an SS attack.
I originally designed Castle Itter during the 2015/16 Board Game Geek wargame design competition. I felt like the story of the Battle of Castle Itter naturally lent itself to a solitaire game, with the player taking on the role of the castle’s defenders. When I starting delving into the world of wargame design and was looking for inspiration on how to model the Battle of Castle Itter, I looked at different games about sieges and the defense of strong points. The States of Siege system immediately came to mind. I hadn’t played any of the games (remember, I was just starting to get into gaming at the time), but Mark Johnson (of the Wargames to Go podcast) had done an episode on the States of Siege system (it was the second episode of the series). I checked out a few of the different titles, but mostly I just looked at the map layouts. I didn’t want to bias myself and my design direction by reading through the details of the rules for each of the games in the series. So when you look at the way the SS advancement tracks work in Castle Itter, they look very similar to Darin Leviloff’s States of Siege system.
The objective of Castle Itter is to survive an assault from the SS as they drive an assault against you. What kinds of tools will the SS be utilizing and what can players expect to have at their disposal to defend themselves?
The SS is represented in the game by a deck of cards that abstracts the action that occurred throughout the day of the battle. I modeled it so that it includes all the resources available to the SS. This includes artillery, snipers, paunzerfaust (a single shot anti-tank weapon), and much, much more. The sequence of the attack follows, in general, the actual assault of the SS. This means that the early part of the game will feature probing attacks, while the late part of the game will feature a final effort by the SS to capture the castle.
The player defending the castle has a wide variety of tools at his/her disposal. If it existed during the historical battle, players will have it. In addition to the command prowess of US, Wehrmacht, and SS officers, the defenders also enjoy the benefits of the inspiration of defending key French VIP prisoners. The weapons that defenders have in the game are based on their actual weapons during the battle. Most interestingly, the defenders had a Sherman tank named Besotten Jenny that was part of the defense. In the game, Besotten Jenny plays an important role in keeping the attackers at bay.
How does Castle Itter differ from other games in the Valiant Defense series?
The Valiant Defense series is a family of games that allows you to play amazing stories of courage, with small forces holding the line against unimaginable odds. Games in the series focus on the individual defenders and are deeply rooted in history, while providing a quick play experience with a light complexity ruleset.
Castle Itter was the first game designed in the series, but the second one that got published (following Pavlov’s House). Castle Itter models an attack that lasted about half a day, and the defenders basically had no outside assistance. The action in Pavlov’s House takes place over a two-month period, with assistance from all sorts of operational elements. From a gameplay perspective, I’ve expanded on the tactical elements in Castle Itter, and the advancement of the SS attackers are more pronounced from the start. It is a quicker game, and more streamlined. Pavlov’s House includes a lot of resource management outside of the combat elements of the game.
Next up in the series, there will be a game called Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. This game is about the attack of the Polish Post Office in Danzig on the first day of World War II. A force of about 50 postmen held out for most of the day against SS, SA, and Danzig city police. I’m working on the game with Michal Kochman, who was the one who suggested the idea. It has been a fantastic effort so far, which included us meeting in Gdansk to research the battle. I have a design diary about the development of the game on BGG.
After that, the sky’s the limit.
What resources did you use to design the map on the board and how did you decide what to include and omit? Did you have the opportunity to visit the site for yourself beforehand?
The game board is a representation of the castle and its immediate environs. It essentially represents the extent of the battle, with the exception of some “off camera” artillery. I used a combination of line drawings and satellite imagery to create the game board. I began with precise mensuration to make sure everything was to scale, and used what is called “viewshed analysis” to determine line of sight. In the end, I tweaked a few things for gameplay purposes, but the board gives a very accurate representation of the battlefield.
Unfortunately the castle is closed to visitors. In fact, a movie about the battle is currently in pre-production and it unfortunately won’t be filmed at the castle (which would have been perfect!), because the current owners aren’t interested in the attention.
What stretch goals or add-ons are you most excited to share with backers?
This is an easy one to answer! I’m very excited about the companion book that I authored in conjunction with designing the game. The Castle Itter Companion is a thirty plus page book that details all the history about the battle, placing it in context for the player to really get the most out of the game. I provide maps, orders of battle, and the like. I also include designer notes that tie the history and design choices directly together. The companion book hasn’t been unlocked yet, but I’m hopeful we’re able to get there!
I have always been impressed by the level of work that goes into designing board games, but the research David went through in order to recreate this battle have raised the bar tremendously. Castle Itter is going to be a worthy addition to anyone’s shelves. It’s currently active on Kickstarter and has exceeded its funding goal. Backers can get a copy of Castle Itter by pledging $50 and for $100 can get the game with a copy of Pavlov’s House, the previous Valiant Defense game. With a week left, there’s just enough time to get no board and ensure your copy for a June 2019 delivery.