Brant Guillory, 8 August 2022
“Werwolf”? Huh? What the…? Post-WW2 Nazis in a COIN game? What nuttiness is this?! Turns out, it’s a rather brilliant twist on a 4-player asymmetric game that’s “COIN-inspired” but not part of the COIN series. And the backstory is rather compelling, too. So we reached out to designer Clint Warren-Davey to get the scoop on Werwolf, currently on pre-order over at Legion Wargames.
Werwolf is built on an alternate history of the ‘end’ of WW2. Can you give us the short version of that alternate history and a little of the background of how you developed it? Have you used this alternate history for other games, or did you build it specifically for Werwolf?
The basis of the game’s setting is a real guerrilla organisation dating from 1944, codenamed Operation Werwolf. This was comprised of SS “stay-behind” commando units designed to wreak havoc behind the Allied lines as they advanced into Germany, plus German civilians encouraged to take up arms and resist the invaders as guerrillas. Imagine a Nazi version of the Viet Cong and you are not far off. They did in fact have a few successes and their own symbol – which you can see on control markers in the game. American intelligence officer Frank Manuel said that the Werwolves were prepared “to strike down the isolated soldier in his jeep, the MP on patrol, the fool who goes a-courting after dark, the Yankee braggart who takes a back road.” While General Patton claimed brashly that reports of these guerrilla fighters were nonsense, a U.S. intelligence report from May 1945 asserted, “The Werewolf organization is not a myth.”
The central point of divergence in the game is that Hitler realises the war is lost in a conventional sense and deliberately focuses his efforts on preparing for an insurgency.
Luckily for the Allies, Werwolf was badly funded, poorly led and established far too late to make a difference. Hitler and other senior Nazis did not invest significant resources or quality leaders in an insurgency, and Werwolf was effectively destroyed by 1947 (see Perry Biddiscombe’s multiple books on the subject). The central point of divergence in the game is that Hitler realises the war is lost in a conventional sense and deliberately focuses his efforts on preparing for an insurgency. In the game’s timeline many things are different, but the most important thing is that Werwolf is a large, well-funded, well-trained guerrilla group with the ability to fight a prolonged insurgency in occupied Germany. The other big divergence is that anti-Nazi guerrillas – the Edelweiss Movement – have sprung up as well. While the name comes from the Edelweiss Pirates (an anti-Nazi youth movement that existed in the 1930’s and 40’s) the Edelweiss guerrillas in the game are led by Prussian aristocrats like von Stauffenberg and others involved in the “Valkyrie” plot of 20th July. So our setting has 4 factions: Allies, Soviets, Werwolf, and Edelweiss.
Gotta break in here with the obvious question: While Werwolf is certainly a cool name, why not ODESSA, since it was already ‘out there’ as post-Nazi resistance organization, and there’s documentation of it actually existing?
Well, the whole concept of the game came to me at once, including the title. I knew the game would have to be named Werwolf – when I shared the idea with my design partner Ben Fiene he immediately envisaged a box cover with the word emblazoned across the middle with some kind of cool font. It’s catchy, it has supernatural overtones and makes people immediately wonder – what’s inside that box?
Having said this, ODESSA does appear in the game as an event card and it greatly benefits the Werwolf faction by allowing them to infiltrate Allied police and replace them with underground guerrillas. Ben and I were inspired to include this card after reading the Philip Kerr novel The One From The Other about hard-nosed gumshoe detective Bernie Gunther and his encounters with former SS thugs and fugitives in 1949 Munich.
This alternate history setting was only created for the game, but if it proves successful enough I might consider making more games in the same “universe”. I have some ideas for a similar COIN-inspired game set in Japan in the same timeline, with nationalists, communists and Yakuza factions fighting the Allied occupation government. I also have vague ideas for a platoon-level Werwolf tactical game – somewhat like David Thompson’s Undaunted series. But this is far off in the future as yet – still need to get those pre-orders up and get Werwolf finished as a published game!
click images to enlarge
The game is described as “COIN-inspired”. What are some of the familiar COIN mechanics that people will recognize and pick up quickly, and what are some of the more significant divergences from the COIN playbook?
Yes, the game is strongly COIN-inspired. Players who are familiar with Fire in the Lake or Andean Abyss will pick up many of the core concepts quickly. This would include things like population loyalty, underground and active guerrillas and shared event cards. Of course, you will need to read the rulebook closely as there are differences even with these common mechanics. My rules are a bit more conversational and contextual than Volko Ruhnke’s – some people will like this and others won’t, but I prefer a personal tone rather than a technical one.
The divergences from the rest of the COIN series are numerous and really give the game its own feel. First – the rivalry between the Allies and the Soviets is a core part of the game in both theme and mechanics. Population loyalties are pulled in 3 directions: Allied loyalty, Soviet loyalty and resistance (basically pro-insurgent). These are mutually exclusive, so you will see Allies using reconstruction to remove communist sympathies and Soviets indoctrinating or even deporting civilians to remove Western sympathies. The Cold War tensions track records the current level of suspicion and hostility between the two nascent superpowers and can severely limit their options. This plays out in a wide variety of ways on the map.
The German road network is absolutely crucial to both factions, especially the Soviets, but very quickly tensions will rise so that troops or police from the other faction will block movement. This can easily clog up the roads as American and Russian troops anxiously confront each other at checkpoints and roadblocks. Similarly, Berlin (divided into East and West) forms the centre of the Cold War and can become “frozen” with no movement allowed if tensions reach level 4.
In a standard scenario, the final space on the track – Imminent War – will end the game. In the “Cold War gone hot” scenarios, reaching this space means the Allies and Soviets are now officially at war – while still trying to fight the insurgents! This leads to some crazy situations as Soviet artillery and Allied air power are used to pummel each other rather than German guerrillas. This result is usually a disaster for the Allies, who lose points based on casualties. Red Army offensives can do a lot of damage!
The other divergence comes in the form of various tokens on the map. Research tokens represent the remnants of Hitler’s various scientific projects and top scientists – individuals like Werner von Braun or hardware like the German nuclear program. These can be captured, bought, sold or shipped off to Washington or Moscow to fuel the Cold War arms race (look up Operation Paperclip). They can also be used by the Werwolf faction for wunder-waffen strikes – a risky, expensive but potentially devastating action.
Then there are Heavy Equipment (HE) tokens representing tanks, artillery and other support weapons. All factions can use these for a large boost in battle and the insurgents have ways of capturing them. Because they can be freely transferred to other pieces in the same space, factions kight even gift them to each other to fight a common enemy. Finally, there are tokens representing special buildings or installations like the West German Bundestag or the Radio Werwolf station. These have large effects on various actions and can sometimes be destroyed. They pop up based on card play.
Tell us about something that changed significantly throughout playtesting. How did it start, and where did it end up as a result of playtest feedback?
The big issues here were set up and victory conditions. The map has various choke points and highly valuable cities while the four factions start off in very asymmetric and sometimes “intermingled” positions. This huge decision space creates all kinds of possibilities that needed to be thoroughly play-tested. For example, Edelweiss seem like the “weakest” faction in the set up due to their low unit footprint and position in devastated, Soviet-occupied East Germany. However, in early playtesting they were winning way too much due to their ability to recruit widely and evade enemy assaults. Their victory condition had to be made harder and their initial funds and number of units had to be cut. Now they can still win about as often as the other factions, but this requires a greater variety of strategies and a little more cunning.
Another aspect that had to be changed significantly since the first version of the rules was the various actions and special actions for each faction. Werwolf wunder-waffen strikes were initially very powerful as you didn’t have to spend a research token, just control it. In some of our playtest games, the Werwolves would grab research, park themselves in countryside north of Berlin and launch a continuous series of strikes into the city, slaughtering huge numbers of Allied troops with V2 rockets and other similar weapons. This was over-powered and didn’t fit the theme of resource-starved guerrillas, so now they have to remove the research token to carry out the strike. This is a huge difference, as the tokens are hard to come by and potentially worth a lot for resources if you can sell them.
Another change to the action menu was for the Allies. Some of their previous special actions were just not that effective. We eventually came up with my personal favorite Allied move – the commando raid. This is thematic for a counter-insurgency effort (think green berets in Vietnam) and allows the Allies to kill underground guerrillas without exposing their own troops. It can also be a way of taking research tokens, which the Allies desperately need for their arms race with the Soviets.
Finally, one of Ben’s best ideas late in the playtest process was giving Edelweiss the ability to raise Cold War tensions with their “false flag” attack. This allows an apparently weak insurgent faction to totally destabilise and slow down the two superpower factions, especially when played close to a crisis round. The play-test after action report that I have posted on BGG shows how this can be used to win the game!
The game is advertised as 1-4 players. Obviously, the 4-player game is going to be the preferred style, as COIN games are more interactive (and cutthroat!) with a full table. How does Werwolf break down below 4 players? What’s the experience like when you can’t wrestle a full table of friends into a game with you?
This is a great question! I agree that the game is absolutely best at 4 players. Every faction has a reason to co-operate or compete with the other 3 at various times. Every faction has ways to strike at the others and directly hurt their chances at victory. The negotiations, threats, backstabbing and strange alliances that form as a result are great fun, especially with a table full of people willing to trash talk each other and really get into the spirit of a 4-way struggle for supremacy! Of course, not everyone can arrange this, so there are many other plays to play Werwolf.
First, you can use the non-player “bots” to run the factions that are not controlled by a human player. In this way, you could have 1, 2 or 3 human players with a faction each, and have the remaining factions as bots. This is ideal for playing solo – the bots are a real challenge to beat. I love playing solo as Edelweiss – the “smallest” faction – and trying to duck and weave between three much bigger enemies who will smack you down if you pop your head up too much! The other situation where bots are great is if you have 2 or 3 players and no one feels comfortable playing as Werwolf. This has been a real issue for many people I have spoken to – they like COIN-style games but just can’t stomach leading Nazi fanatics. Perfectly understandable, and this is why non-player rules were included in the first place.
The other way to play is to have each player controlling multiple factions and leave out the bots entirely. In a 2-player game, one player is the Allies and Soviets and the other is Werwolf and Edelweiss. In a 3-player game, one player is Werwolf and Edelweiss while the Allies and Soviets are each controlled by a player. The victory conditions are slightly changed for these games and Cold War tensions still remain, so the combinations of factions still balance out. I have played Werwolf at every possible player count and every scenario multiple times each, and can assure you that the experience is still incredibly fun even without a full table.
How did the artwork come together? What are some of your favorite parts of the art design in Werwolf and why?
The art design in Werwolf has been done almost entirely by my design partner Ben Fiene, who has done a fantastic job. He made the tokens, the cards, the map and many of the images you will find in the rulebook. My personal favorite creation of his is the map:
Ben used historical photos for the circular city spaces which he found in a “Life” magazine from 1945. The provinces of the map are also based on the historical divisions of Germany under the Allied and Soviet occupation governments. I love the background images for each of the faction’s “available forces” boxes too – they are subtle but really give that classic WW2 feel. Note that this version of the map may go through some slight changes before final production to bring it into line with another key image. Which brings me to the next interesting part about the artwork.
We were able to get Nils Johansson (a wargame artist with a very distinctive and eye-catching style) to design us a box cover, which is now the default image used for the game on BGG. Ben had already designed a box cover which I also like, but I asked our growing number of Werwolf fans on Twitter which one they preferred and most chose Nils’ design. Here they are for Armchair Dragoons readers to compare – Ben’s is on the left, Nils on the right:
OK, Dragoons, which cover do you like better? Sound off below, or in our forums!
And a big thanks to Clint for taking the time to give us some inside intel on Werwolf. Go get your orders in!
Don’t forget, there are bonus questions from all of our interviews that we set aside for our Patreon supporters, and Clint gave us some very thorough and well-thought-out answers!
(PS, there’s some preview card artwork there, too!)
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