Hear from one of Undaunted: Stalingrad's designers, David Thompson, all about the almost-five-year design process that took this monumental, replayable legacy campaign game from just an idea and onto your tables...
Undaunted: Stalingrad is a deep and expansive standalone game that moves the Undaunted series in a whole new direction - an immersive campaign system that plays out like a legacy game but can be replayed for very different experiences. In Undaunted: Stalingrad, you lead a German or Soviet platoon and battle over a war-torn city in one of the most consequential battles in history. During the course of the campaign, your soldiers can be awarded for their acts of valor or nobly die fighting; the city around you changes based on your actions; and your victories and defeats shape the scenarios to come.
At the beginning of Undaunted: Stalingrad, your platoon consists of a platoon sergeant, squad leaders, scouts, riflemen, and machine gunners. Over the course of the campaign you will be able to add many new troops to your platoon, and your infantry won’t be alone - to win in the streets of Stalingrad, you will need all the support you can muster from tanks and more. As you command your troops in skirmishes, they have the opportunity to be rewarded for their feats of bravery, with promotions bringing new roles and responsibilities, as well as outfitting them with new weapons and equipment. But while the Battle of Stalingrad offers your soldiers a chance to demonstrate their courage, it is also extremely dangerous and many of the troops that you begin the campaign with will not live to see the fate of the city.
Your actions and those of your opponent will reshape the city of Stalingrad as you make your way through the campaign. Buildings will be reduced to rubble by the destructive might of the German and Soviet air forces and artillery fire. You will have to use the environment to your advantage to be successful in your battles, hiding in the rubble left behind by a destroyed apartment building, navigating secret tunnels, and forcing your opponent’s tanks into your ambushes.
During the course of the campaign, you will play through up to fifteen branching scenarios, with each path driven by your successes and failures. With over 35 different scenarios in the game, every campaign experience will be different than the one before. The game includes over 150 evocative mission briefings for each side written by acclaimed author Robbie MacNiven, providing players with a story tailored to their perspective of the battle that will help immerse them in the campaign’s story. And of course the game’s rich narrative is illustrated by Roland MacDonald, with over 300 unique pieces of art.
This is the story of how Undaunted: Stalingrad came to be…
The origins for Undaunted: Stalingrad can be traced all the way back to February 2018, a year and a half before Undaunted: Normandy (the first game in the Undaunted series) was released. At the time, Trevor Benjamin (my designer partner for the Undaunted series) and I had completed the design for Normandy and were just getting started with Undaunted: North Africa. Osprey believed that Undaunted would be well received and wanted us to think about what the next game in the series could be about. In an email exchange I had with Trevor, this is what he said:
“Thematically, the game could follow the members of a single Soviet platoon, moving throughout the city. Mechanically, we could add…a sort of persistent state / pseudo-legacy thing. (The player)…saves their deck across games. Maybe?”
So even in the earliest discussions about what Stalingrad might be, we envisioned legacy or campaign style mechanisms.
Throughout the rest of 2018 and into 2019, Trevor and I were focused on Undaunted: Normandy and Undaunted: North Africa, but in March 2019 as part of an email proposal to Osprey for our idea on Stalingrad, I said:
“Trevor and I have discussed what Undaunted 3 might look like. We both really like the idea of Undaunted: Eastern Front or Undaunted: Stalingrad. It would introduce the Soviets, and concentrate on urban and close quarters combat. It would also introduce more vehicles, etc.”
The game was officially greenlit by Osprey in August 2019 (at the same time Undaunted: Normandy was releasing), when Filip Hartelius and Anthony Howgego – the lead developers at Osprey – commissioned the game. Their direction was that Undaunted: Stalingrad should be a “destructive legacy” game, along the lines of Risk Legacy or Pandemic Legacy.
Discussion with Osprey
A few months later, in October 2019, Filip, Anthony, Trevor, and I met in Essen, Germany during Spiel to discuss ideas for Stalingrad. Below is a list of initial ideas we discussed for the game. For those familiar with the Undaunted series, it’s worth noting that at the time of this meeting, Undaunted: Normandy had only been released for a few months, the design for North Africa was being finalized, and design work for Reinforcements was still underway.
Essen 2019 discussion: What should an Undaunted legacy game have?
- Same core gameplay as other Undaunted titles
- Unlock new capabilities
- Soldiers get better (upgrades)
- Perma-board state changes
- Normandy (rather than North Africa) scale
- Suppressed units don't block control
- Can't change combat rolls (needs to be the same basic dice rolling system)
- Can't change deck-building (though we discussed that same scenarios could use constructed decks)
- Core concept is supply manipulation over time
- Secret objectives
- Secret supply
- Obfuscate end of campaign scoring
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While some of these initial concepts didn’t exactly make it into the final game, it provided us with a starting point.
Between our meeting with Osprey in October 2019 and early 2020, Trevor and I were focused on completing the design work for Undaunted: Reinforcements. It was in April 2020, when we had our first substantive design discussion for Stalingrad, which revolved around the composition of the German and Soviet units, where they would be similar and where they would be different. We knew from player feedback for Undaunted: Normandy that asymmetry was an important, perhaps the most important, element of the game. The two sides needed to feel unique. And in addition to the general differences between the two sides, we also needed to develop a system of upgrades.
Here are the initial notes Trevor and I made regarding soldier overviews:
- Soldier cards are double-sided. The front shows the soldier as a “recruit”— basic abilities and stats—and the reverse shows them as a “veteran”—extra abilities, improved stats, etc. The extra abilities vary both across units (Scouts have different options than Rifleman) and within units (one Rifleman within Squad A may have a sub-machine gun, while the other gets anti-tank gun).
- Between scenarios, you get to “promote” some of the soldiers in your deck, flipping them from their recruit to their veteran side.
- This will likely be done at a fixed rate (e.g. 3 cards per player per scenario), but it could be tweaked based on what happened in the scenario (e.g. hidden objectives, who won, etc.).
- For now at least, we think this is done randomly from the cards in your deck when the game ends (I.e. those which have taken part in this fight) (cf. Casualties, which is also random)
- Command cards are double sided and can be flipped too, but this only happens through scenario/narrative.
With the exception of flipping cards for upgrades (which would have required sleeves), most of this initial sketch of an idea lived through to the final version of Stalingrad.
By July 2020, Trevor and I were well underway with conceptualizing the “injury” system (which would later turn into Reserve soldiers, Upgrades, scenario designs, etc). Here is a screenshot of our notes and responsibilities document from 28 July 2020:
By August of 2020 we had worked through the first few scenarios and drafted an initial ruleset. While none of the rules changes in Stalingrad are drastic, we did take the opportunity to make what we felt were improvements to the core Undaunted system.
We changed the way units spawned. Instead of requiring extra tokens on the board during setup to designate spawn locations, we simplified things by ruling that units spawned at Riflemen locations, which also had the added benefit of adding some interesting in-game tactical choices. In addition, we added a new end condition for routed Riflemen. This meant that we could remove the “Beyond All Hope” rule in the game, which was undoubtedly the most confusing and least satisfying rule in Undaunted: Normandy and Undaunted: North Africa.
We also had a good sense of how the overarching campaign would work. It would be set around 9 January Square in the southern part of Stalingrad, an area that was relatively cut-off from the rest of the battle. That made for a perfect location to set a prolonged conflict between the two sides. Because the tiles in Undaunted: Stalingrad map to actual locations (rather than the modular nature of the tiles in Normandy and North Africa), we were able to use a full-sized map of the tiles for our testing. This screen capture shows the earliest version of the campaign board, from July 2020. At the time we were using cards from Undaunted: Normandy to proxy the units.
Between August and December 2020, Trevor and I focused all of our attention on Undaunted: Stalingrad. Usually we juggle multiple projects (other collaborations we’re working on, and projects with other designers), but during this time, almost all of our design time was spent on Stalingrad. We met at least three times a week, usually for three or four hours per session. And between these design sessions we each had our own responsibilities – Trevor focusing on the rules and unit upgrades, and me focusing on the scenario designs and overall campaign structure.
In the early stages, we had multiple, sometimes competing, design goals: creating and testing new scenarios, creating and testing new units (with upgrades), settling on which new units we’d need to add to the campaign (and when they would be added), determining what impact each scenario would have on the overall campaign, etc. By September we had locked down the core rules changes, but were still working through exactly how injuries would work. This is something that was challenging for us. The injuries (which would later become the Reserve unit replacements) needed to simultaneously feel impactful, while also not feeling “un-fun.” In the end, we’re happy where we landed, but it was one of the most difficult parts of the design experience for us.
By December we were closing in on completing the design work for the game. We had settled on all the rules, finalized which units would be in the game, settled on a system for Reserve and Upgraded units, designed the system for damaging structures, etc. It was also at this point that we had completed the structure for the overarching campaign. In the end we had to create over 35 different scenarios to support all the different permutations for the campaign. And there were many, many different endings, depending on the result of each scenario.
Here is a visual of the scenario pathing across the entirety of the campaign:
In January 2021, Trevor and I met with Osprey to brief them on our progress. We were close to completing the initial design work and ready to turn everything over to Osprey for playtesting and the beginning of development.
Development and Playtesting
Within the next few months, development was well underway at Osprey, with Anthony and Filip putting the game through its paces. And at the same time, Osprey was running a large organized playtest effort. We needed lots of information from the testers: were there degenerate strategies we hadn’t foreseen during the design phase, what was the overall response to the persistent effects, etc.
By mid-2021, the playtest was largely complete, and Trevor and I were meeting frequently with Anthony and Filip to make minor adjustments to units, scenario design, and the way specific actions worked.
I can’t stress enough how critical this period of playtesting and development was for the game. It’s what really gave it that deep look, ensuring that we – as a complete team – did everything possible to make sure the gameplay was the best it could possibly be.
The Change from Legacy to Resettable Campaign
From the very beginning of discussions about Undaunted: Stalingrad, Trevor and I were in lock-step with Osprey about everything except one VERY important issue: the topic of destructive legacy versus a campaign system. Trevor and I preferred a campaign system, while Osprey were in favor of a destructive legacy game.
As early as May 2020, even before Trevor and I had completed the initial draft of the rules, we had developed a proposal for a resettable campaign system and sent it to Filip and Anthony for review. Trevor wrote:
A core (if not the core) change is that effects can persist throughout the campaign. If soldiers are killed, they are permanently removed from your supply. If soldiers are promoted/upgraded, they permanently gain new abilities. If a building is destroyed, it permanently drops in defence value and blocks vehicle movement. That sort of thing.
In Essen we discussed using custom stickers and/or pens to handle this persistence. So Stalingrad would be a proper one-shot Legacy game. We wonder, though, if this is necessary. We’ve come up with a model which, we believe, allows us to maintain the persistence but avoid the permanence, making the game perfectly re-playable. See attached. We feel this is a much more attractive proposition for players. They can have their cake and eat it too--or rather, eat it again and again!
Filip and Anthony pushed back against this proposal, feeling that destructive legacy was the right way to go for a variety of reasons. So that’s the way Trevor and I moved forward.
In the end, it was not until after Trevor and I had delivered the design for Undaunted: Stalingrad that the decision was made to transition from destructive legacy to a resettable campaign. There were two major reasons that Osprey made the decision to make this change. First, the game would have actually cost more to produce as a destructive legacy product rather than a resettable game. We couldn’t ask players to pay more for a destructive game than a resettable game. Second, playtesters strongly preferred a replayable game. This was especially important for Undaunted, where you often want to experience playing on both sides of an asymmetric scenario.
Filip was the strongest proponent for the destructive legacy approach. This is what he had to say about making the transition to a resettable campaign:
I argued the most vehemently for legacy, and I think it was largely based on making sure that everything felt weighty and full of consequence. We really wanted losing soldiers to have an emotional dimension.
However, the reasons we changed was (a) enough people, including playtesters, were asking for a replayable option, and we came up with the option of swapping out tiles and cards, and that was literally cheaper to produce than legacy, also (b) the richest legacy aspects of Stalingrad aren’t the big, dramatic changes of, say, Pandemic: Legacy, where there’s one big rule change or dramatic betrayal, but lots of small, incremental changes. Stickering a card is fun – stickering half a deck is a chore; ripping up a card is dramatic – ripping up tens of cards feels wasteful.
In the end, this transition from destructive legacy to a resettable campaign after the design was complete was a huge benefit to the overall design, in my opinion. It meant that Trevor and I were designing the game with these high stakes scenarios, crafting a complex web of scenario progression through the campaign. And then at the end, we were able to take that design approach and turn it into a game that could be played again and again, with very, very different outcomes.
TOP: The evolution of a building from fully intact, to damaged, to destroyed.
BOTTOM: A rifleman with its Reserve and Upgrade.
Undaunted: Stalingrad is set in what was known as the northern portion of the city center of Stalingrad. This section of the battle of Stalingrad, centered around 9 January Square, was relatively cut off from the larger portion of the battle, which was situated farther to the north. The action in the game starts in late September 1942, just after the Germans had captured much of the area around 9 January Square. The game represents the actions of platoon-sized units (bolstered by supporting elements) over the course of two months (culminating around the time of Operation Uranus, when the Soviets launched a major encirclement of the German forces around Stalingrad). This location and time period is the perfect setting for Undaunted: Stalingrad, as it represents a relatively isolated portion of the battle, where the two forces fought for months over just a small neighborhood-sized area of the city.
I had researched this same area of Stalingrad for a different game I designed (Pavlov’s House), and so I was intimately familiar with the activity in the area during this time. I also just so happened to have quite a few books to draw on for additional research.
A discussion of the art for Undaunted: Stalingrad should really come from Roland MacDonald – the artist of the Undaunted series. Much of Undaunted’s success is owed to Roland, who has developed a fantastic look for the series that somehow manages to appeal to a broad audience, while also evoking the game’s war theme. He recently did a fantastic interview with Diagonal Move discussing his artistic process.
When Trevor and I were designing the game, we used placeholder cards from Undaunted: Normandy for the first couple sessions, but then used artless cards for the vast majority of the design work, generated using a script that drew from a spreadsheet.
When it was time for Roland to start working on the cards, we didn’t provide detailed art descriptions for the units. We just provided a very brief concept and Roland drew from his experience with prior Undaunted titles and his own historic research to develop the art.
Similarly for the tiles, Trevor and I first provided an overview of the battlefield area where Stalingrad takes place to Roland, who transformed our poor quality concept into the beautiful tiles in the final version of the game. Here are our early versions of each:
And here’s a look at the variety of artworks Ronald produced for the Soviet riflemen from Squad A, showing Starting soldiers (top), Upgrades (middle), and Reserves (bottom):
For the first time for an Undaunted title, Osprey hired an acclaimed author (Robbie MacNiven) to provide a narrative for the game. Rather than just provide a quick background passage for each scenario, as had been done in prior titles, Undaunted: Stalingrad follows the action with a narrative tailored for each side in the battle, focusing the story on the commanders (the platoon sergeants and squad leaders). Over the course of the campaign, successes and failures are reflected in the narrative, and the personalities of the leaders for each side will emerge.
The decision to include the evocative story is one of the many reasons that I love collaborating with Osprey. They chose to go the extra step in hiring an acclaimed author to breathe life into the game that – when combined with Roland’s art – really helps set the game over others in the genre, in my opinion.
You can have a peek inside the German scenario book on BGG.
When Undaunted: Stalingrad is released in November (UK/RoW) / December of 2022 (US), it will mark the end of an almost five year process to make the game a reality. From the very first email where Trevor and I discussed the idea of persistence to the published version of the game that combines Robbie’s rich narratives and Roland’s evocative art, the creative process for Undaunted: Stalingrad has been the most engrossing and rewarding game design experience for me. I think I can safely speak for Trevor, Roland, Robbie, Filip, Anthony, and everyone else at Osprey when I say that we truly hope that folks enjoy playing Undaunted: Stalingrad as much as we enjoyed making it.