Interview with Stéphane Acquaviva, designer of OCS Hungarian Rhapsody

Several years ago I participated in Hungarian Rhapsody playtest. It was so inspiring and the game looked so good, that I asked the designer of the game, Stéphane Acquaviva, to answer several question about him and designing the game in the style of an interview. He kindly found the time to answer them all in detail, so I want to share it here with his permission.

Dmitry: Tell about yourself. Where did you born, what is your occupation, how did you end up in Hungary?

Stephane: I was born in Paris (France). After my graudation in La Sorbonne, I first taught History and Geography in high School.  Actually, I am at the head of a small language school in Budapest. I ended up in Hungary for several reasons: a certain taste into adventure and novelty and a need for change.

Dmitry: How did you get into wargaming, what were you first games?

Stephane: I was 16 when I first heard about wargames. I was fascinated that other than me dreamed about battles and simulations. I remember when I entered for the first time in Relais Descartes, the big wargame shop of Paris. It seemed I was in paradise. I was young and knew nothing about wargames. I choosed two of them „Panzer-Armee Afrika” from Avalon Hill and „Campaigns of Napoleon” from West End Games. I was amazed by the complexity of the rules. It forced me to improve my English as I wanted to play them. Just after, I met other players. At this time, wargames was „trendy”. I played Squad Leader, Panzerblitz, Russian Front and so much more.

Dmitry: What games do you play now, if any? What are you favourite titles/systems?

Stephane: For a long time, my favourite system was Europa from GDW. In Budapest, I was lucky enough to play face to face „Fire in The East” linked with „Scortched Earth” and „The Urals” during 18 months and that with 12 hours a week. It was an incredible experience. But today, Europa rules seem outdated to me. Now, my favorite system are GBOH, La Bataille and of course OCS. I also really appreciate Rise of Roman Republic and Carthage from GMT or Napoleon at Leipzig from Clash of Arms (but played with Stumpner rules). Lately, I found a lot of interest in the last of Dean Essig design: BCS. I still need to play more of this system but I think it has great potential. My favorite OCS titles are Case Blue, Guderian Blitzkrieg II and DAK. What wonderful simulations!

Dmitry: How did you found yourself in game design?

Stephane: I would have never see myself in game design. I had a lot of admiration for wargame designers. How could they find where were the units? How many tanks there? How to model supply or weather impact? Living in Hungary, I had the idea to check what wargames we had for the 1944-45 campaign of Hungary and what I found convinced me that it was possible to do something different. I wanted to give a view of the big picture. What really happened in Hungary from October 44 to the end of the war. All existing games only gave partial views of certain battles like Debrecen or Konrad. As I could read Hungarian language, I believed that I could find interesting sources. Immediately, OCS came to my mind. The robustness of his system and the precision of his order of battle would make a wonderful wargame. So, I simply wrote to Dean Essig and asked him if he would have been interested in a new OCS game about the end of the war in Hungary and his answer was YES! That’s how it all started. It was the 28 September 2010!

Dmitry: What inspired you to start working on HR? Is it your first creation?

Stephane: At the beginning, I had no idea of what was waiting for me. I was only inspired by curiosity and tried to regroup the maximum of sources. HR is my first creation. It was like jumping in a swimming pool without knowing how to swim.

Dmitry: Why Hungarian Rhapsody is OCS game? How did you met with OCS system? How you think, what pros and cons do has the OCS system in general?

Stephane: First of all, I am fond of this system but what made OCS the ideal system for HR was his scale. The 5 miles per hex was perfect for a 2-maps game. The Half-week turns allowed a 43 Turns campaign and the scale of units gives the best picture of the operations during this campaign. I met OCS thanks to Internet. We have a very nice French wargame forum (Strategikon.info) where I read extremely positive feedbacks about OCS and his system. It was around 2005. So, I started to buy and play all of them. The pros: I would say the supply model, the Combat table, the precise OOB and the initiative rules. The cons: it takes place and it takes a lot of time but thanks Gods, we have Vassal!

Dmitry: How the Hungarian Rhapsody was designed from the scratch? What general steps did you take as a designer from the very beginning till the end?

Stephane:

Step 1 (one year) The Sources: I tried to work on the sources. I spent hours, days, months in collecting the maximum of datas from archives through Internet or directly in books and librairies. I visited several times the Library of Military History of Budapest. I could find a military map of Hungary from 1943. It was very detailed. They gave me a digitalized version in a CD and I could send it to Hans Kishel. I had to write all the Hungarian names of all cities and rivers and send them to him with the appropriate alphabet. He helped a lot with the playtest material. He drew the first map and made the first counters. In this librairy, I could also meet with Dr Norbert Számvéber. He was very nice and helped me a lot with the Hungarian order of battle, particularly when I spent 2 hours in his office to check the rating of all the Hungarian units. I advice everybody who is interesting in this campaign to read his books. They are all excellents. I also met with Kamen Nevenkin. This Bulgarian historian is a specialist of the Red Army and his books will give you the best vision from the Soviet side. I also meet with Krisztian Ungváry, the author of a good book about „the battle of Budapest”. As he is also a wine maker, I could taste his excellent Tokaj wine.

Step 2 (one year) Order of Battle and setup: Walk through all the sources in order to know which units were there, where and with how many men and equipment at all the different stages of the campaign. Define the different scenario and create the setups. In order to translate datas in OCS language, John Kisner, Roland Leblanc and Carl Fung gave me a good help. Charles Vycichl, a good friend from Switzerland came in Budapest with his luggage full of all the Sharp books and we spent the entire weekend at home to check all the Soviet units one by one in order to assess the rating and the equipment.  

Step 3 (five years) Playtest: Extensive playtest phase. Hungarian Rhapsody has 15 scenarios. It was a very long to way. I was lucky having a lot of playtesters. One of them Martin Staunton worked with me on all the scenarios. We checked carefully all the feedbacks from all playtesters (from Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary, France, England, USA, Switzerland, Russia) and playtested again face to face in order to correct everything. A big Thank You to all playtesters! 

Step 4 (2 years) Development and submission to Dean Essig / MMP: The last two years, Curtis Baer the developer and Chip Saltsman (his second) made an amazing job. First, Dean Essig worked on the special rules and gave a precise feedback. It helped to give us the directions where to go. Curtis was excellent as developer. His ideas and crativity allowed us to find the best and most elegant solutions. After, Chip helped for the implementation. It couldn’t have worked without him. Dean Essig worked on a new map and Curtis worked on the last version of the counters. Of course, during these last years, playtests continued. „HR” is my design but… with Curtis’ vision. He made this wargame as good as possible.

Dmitry: What the hardest challenges you encountered during the design?

Stephane: I faced so many challenges during these years. First, it was the setup. Not so easy to know who was where at a certain time. I needed all my patience to find all the answers. Second was when Curtis convinced me to move the map from one row. We had to redo all the setup of every scenarios. Third was how we could model the best way the Soviet supply issues. It took us time but Curtis finally came with the best rules. Fourth and maybe, the hardest one was the proofing work. It seemed to me an endless job.

Dmitry: How do you create special rules? What design decisions you are especially proud of?

Stephane: I decide to create a special rule when I see that the OCS rules can’t reproduce what happened in history.I like this particular one:  the 1st Panzer Armee was able to stop everytime the assault of the 4th Ukrainian Front. Whatever the Russians tried, they were constantly halted by clever german defense organized by Gotthard Heinrici. At one point at the end of March 1945, Ivan Petrov who was in command of the 4th Ukrainian Front was fired by Stalin who didn’t understand why this particular Front was so slow in his advance. However, when the first playtests started, the 4th Ukrainian Front could always make a breaktrhough very easely. I checked a little bit more deeply, what happened exactly there and I found that Heinrici was a specialist of defense who visited everyday the front asking all officers he met about russian activities. That allowed him to know precisely where and when the Russian whould attack and he was able to build extremely good defense lines thanks to his good contact int the rear with german engineers. I decided to give to the 1 Panzer Armee HQs the hability to build „free Hedgehogs” each turn (15 by months maximum as I calculated the number according the front lines) and it worked very well. The Soviet were stopped everytime as it happened in reality. Of course, if the Russian player wants to make a breaktrhough in HR, he still can do it but he will have to divert a lot of assets and Supply points in order to do it…and as it happened in history, he will maybe not do that because he will have other priorities…as Budapest for example.

Dmitry: Game balance? Is it necessary in historical wargame? How did you try to achieve it in HR?

Stephane: Game balance is important for the campaigns. If you spend hours in play, both players must feel some challenges. I considered the historical result as a draw and believe me, it’s not so easy to achieve. If the Soviet player wants Minor or Major Victory, he will have to do better. Concerning the scenarios, I prefer „historical balance”. Scenarios are shorter and the players must face a situation where a lot of decisions are already taken (while for Campaign scenarios, the player will take all the decisions).

Dmitry: Is there something new HR would bring to the seasoned OCS players?

Stephane: Yes. With Hungarian Rhapsody, OCS enters in new territories of East Front late war. It means that we must take into account that several parmeters have changed. The number of Flak guns was multiplied by 4 or 5 comparing to what we had until 1943 making air barrage on airbases or behind enemy lines suicidals. It will force the players to use the air forces only in tactical support in the front lines. German Tank Busters are also something new. They first appeared during the battle of Kursk and proved to be very efficients. The German player will have to learn how to use this chirurgical instrument. The Russian Gd IL-2 can now do Hip Shoot. Something quite new. Another new feature: while the Soviet could count on tons of equipment, they started to lack of infantry and at the end of the campaign, the average number of men in Russian infantry divisions was 2500-3000 men. The Soviet players will also have to learn how to manage a late war Russian army which is very mobile and of good quality while facing a extremely strong opposition. They must focus on priorities if they want to reproduce the exploit of Marshall Malinovsky and Tobulkhin. They will soon realize that it was really not a piece of cake.

Dmitry: Could you please give us a brief historical reference? What major formations took part in the campaign? What main stages the campaign had? What was their purpose? How do you think, what impact this campaign made on the overall war progress?

Stephane:

On the Russian side, we have the 4th Ukrainian Front in Slovakia under Petrov, the 2nd Ukrainian Front in center Hungary under Malinovsky and the 3rd Ukrainian Front in south Hungary under Tobulkhin. On the Axis side, we have the 1st Panzer Armee in Slovakia under Heinrici (Panzer is just a name, they had very few tanks). Facing Malinovsky was the 8 Armee under Otto Wöhler then Hans Kreysing. Facing Tobulkhin was the 6 Armee under Maximilian Fretter-Pico, then Hermann Balck and finally came the 6 SS Panzerarmee in february 1945 under Joseph Dietrich. The main task of the 2nd and 3rd Ukr. Front was to seize Budapest in order to continue directly towards Vienna and after towards the north int he heart of the Reich. The 4th Ukr. Front had to cover this advance in Slovakia.

The three Wermacht armies must stop the Russians while the 6 SS Panzerarmee was dedicated to counterattack and retake lost positions. We can divide the Hungarian Campaign depicted in „Hungarian Rhapsody” in four stages. Stage 1: the battle in the Hungarian plains in October 1944. Stage 2: the surrounding of Budapest in November and December 1944. Stage 3: the reduction of „Fortress Budapest” while the Germans launch the Konrad operations to save the city in January and the beginning of February 1945. Stage 4: the ultimate german counter attack with the first element of the 6 SS Panzerarmee during the end of February. We considered the end of February and the fall of Budapest as the end of the Hungarian campaign. Operation Spring Awakening in March 1945 is rather linked with the Soviet „Operation Vienna” and the offensive in Austria.

Unfortunately, this campaign is not very well known in the West but most of the sources are now in English and I also hope that this wargame will play his part. It was very hard for the Soviet. They faced more than 40% of all panzer forces and a strong air opposition but the strategic objective was to attract there a maximum of german reserves in order to launch the invasion of Germany…and it worked! Several mobile divisions were sent in Hungary like the elite SS Totenkopf and the SS Wiking Panzer Divisions. It’s not sure that the advance towards Berlin would have been so successful if these strong mobile units and other Panzer Divisions like the 20th or the 8th were facing Joukov and Koniev. Hitler considered Hungary as vital because there was the last big oil plant located south of the Lake Balaton. He could not imagine continue „his war” without this oil while the Russian completely ignored the oil and focused on Budapest. Stalin wanted absolutly occupy Budapest in order to tell the news face to face to Eisenhower and Churchill at the conference of Yalta while the germans were looking for a „romantic SS story” about SS units surrounded in Budapest saved by heroic SS soldiers coming for rescue. The Russians considered that they paid the price of blood for Hungary and still today, there is a monument in the center of Budapest for all the Russian soldiers who died there and the Hungarian government promised to take care of it when the Soviet armies left the country. It’s still there and in perfect shape!

Dmitry: Were there any particular features that differ the campaign from other Eastern Front operations? How did you show them?

Stephane: The main particular feature concerns the Soviet supply issues. When they entered in Hungary, the Russian railroads heads were…behind the Dniestr. It means that they had to face terrible situation in October and november while crossing the Danube is very complicated. Curtis Baer decided to create Russian Front Markers, which will work as Supply sources and can’t move so easely (you will see). We also limited the amount of replacements, supply points, and created a Soviet Truck Capacity table and special wagon extender less flexible than the ones we know. Then in December, the supply situation is restaured and the Russian player will be able to launch a huge offensive with excellent mobile troops and an avalanche of Supply points. The last difference with other eastern front games is the terrain. When the Danube is reached in November, the terrain for manoeuver is very limited.

Dmitry: What area is depicted on the map? What are the most important terrain features on the map? How did you manage them in game terms?

Stephane: The maps show the west part of Romania, almost all of Hungary and the south and central part of Slovakia. The east part (map B) is divided between the Carpathian Mountains in the north and the east and the Hungarian plains (the puszta in Hungarian language) in the west. The west part (map A) is occupied by the mountains of Slovakia in the north and in the east with the river Tisza and the Danube. In the middle, you have the city of Budapest divided by the Danube. West of the Danube, you have a small open area but most of the terrain in the south are hills, and hills and forest in the north. The huge Lake Balaton is at the south-west of Budapest. For the Carpathian Mountains, what was important was to show the mountain passes and the impassable hexsides. Movements are quite limited there. For the Danube, we had to find some rules like the ones we have for the Volga or the Rhine plus some additional ones in order to show the limited pontoon capability of the Red Army during the first two months of the Campaign. Due to terrible supply situation, the Soviet could not build serious bridges across the Danube until December 1944.

Dmitry: What are main operational problems Soviet and Axis players will face?

Stephane: For the Soviet: As they start on 5 October with very poor supply lines with railhead lines behind the Dniestr, the level of Supply Points is limited, as the refit capability for the air units and they can’t roll for Replacement. Later, the situation will gradually improve but it will be a challenge for the Soviet to start an offensive in these conditions. During all the campaign, the Soviet mobile units will rely on their Internal Truck but the entire Red Army will have only 3x Truck Points and 4x Wagons Points as flexible transport points…all other assets will be use as Special Wagon Extender or as Supply Source as the new Soviet Front Marker. It will force the Soviet to be very precise in his choices when he will plan his advance. The second operationnal problem will be to find how to take Budapest. By assault? By surrounding? And how? There is several anwers to these questions and I guess that each player will find one. The third operationnal problem will be to be able to take Budapest while the 4th SS Panzer Korps will try to force his way to rescue the city. It wil require patience and good nerves.

Dmitry: What is the composition of force in the game (infantry, armor, air ratios) and how will in influence the play style?

Stephane: The ratios are not the same all along the campaign. I would say that broadly speaking, it’s a between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 for the Soviet. The Germans have enoug tanks and support units. The main problem is the lack of infantry. It often forces them to use panzers in first line instead to keep them in reserve behind the lines. As static in defense, these tanks loose all their flexibility. For The Soviet player, he must keep in mind that his infantry forces will slowly decrease in number. He will be forced to rely on tanks in order to attack or take the losses.

Dmitry: Were there any features that you wanted to add, but you or developers decided to leave behind?

Stephane: At first, I wanted a map until Vienna but I understood quickly that the situation was so unbalanced at the end of the war that I forgot it. The German would have to play with 1 or 2 SP for his entire army each turn. I didn’t see any interest. The supply chains was collapsing and the germans had to blow up almost all of their panzer because they had no fuel anymore.  

As Roland Leblanc and Tony Birkett are working on other OCS projects on the East Front late war, I realized that we would need to think about the real efficiency of SU-76 and SU-85 and also about the real mobile capability of russian independent units in terms of movements. I had first the idea to modify some values in these counters but finally, I decided to let HR as it is. We have to playtest more and ask the opinions of all designers…and only after, Curtis will be able to take a final decision. I don’t see anything else. Dean Essig and Curtis Baer found the best way to insert all the features I wanted. I can’t complain about anything.

Dmitry: Can you share any estimates when HR will hit production?

Stephane: Now, the product is in Preorder. I guess that we will have to wait a little bit.

Dmitry: Are there any other titles you work on?

Stephane: Yes! I am currently working on the East Front 1943 Summer Campaign. This OCS will have 3 maps from Rostov to the north of Bryansk and will cover the 1 June 1943 until the 29 August 1943. So, we will have the battle of Kursk, Operation Kutuzov, Operation Rumyantsev, the attacks on Izyum and across the Mius river. For me, this is the real turning point of the war. Not Stalingrad. I am convinced that all players who will play this one will agree. It’s currently in playtest and maybe it will be published in different games. One for Operation Kutuzov (one map). One for Operation Rumyantsev (one map) and one for Izyum and the Mius (one map). We will see.

Dmitry: What can you advice to a new OCS player who just began to dive into the OCS with Hungarian Rhapsody?

Stephane: This OCS has one very easy scenario. Operation Südwind. It would be perfect for beginners. Another one is the Battle of Debrecen. This one is like a small game and very well balanced. Konrad I-II or Konrad III are also very interesting and not too complex. A lot of scenarios can be played on one map. I think that beginners should not be afraid by such a game. HR has 15 scenarios and starting with the small ones will be able to introduce any beginners to OCS.

Dmitry: Thank you so much for the interesting and detailed answers!

Stephane: Thank you! The pleasure is mine!

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