David Thompson is a rising star in the world of board gaming. Together with his design partner, Trevor Benjamin, he’s helped bring the popular Undaunted series of World War II-themed strategy games to life. Beginning with Undaunted: Normandy in 2019, the duo has cleverly merged modern board game mechanics like deck building with themes most commonly found in classic hex-based wargames. Now the pair is at it again with General Orders: World War II, an elegant game with a tiny footprint that has the potential to be another bestselling hit. Polygon caught up with Thompson prior to this year’s Gen Con, where the public will see General Orders for the first time.
“I don’t play a lot of games for pleasure,” admits Thompson, whose work in military intelligence takes up a lot of his professional time. The Air Force veteran said he’s spent time at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the past, but he remains coy about the specifics of his current role with the U.S. Department of Defense. Regardless, he’s a busy guy.
“The only time I really play games is — once a month, I’ll get together with my buddies [...] or when I play with my kids,” he continues. “That’s my gaming life. And so when I get together with somebody to play a game, my favorite type of game to play is a super tense, quick-playing, rules-light kind of game. [...] I don’t play super long games or super complex games, so I’m always going to design games that are kind of like what I want to play.”
Often, he says, that means a worker placement board game.
Worker placement powers some of the most popular board games around, including modern classics like Lords of Waterdeep, Viticulture, and Everdell. These games operate by designating certain spots on the board where workers, represented by pawns, can be stationed on a player’s turn. By placing a worker on a particular station, players can take an action that advances their own interests while simultaneously denying their opponent the ability to take that same action. But there are only ever so many workers, and so many stations, available each round.
General Orders is Thompson’s attempt to apply worker placement mechanics to a traditional wargame, and the result is something surprisingly tiny. The game box is about the size of two paperback books stacked one on top of the other. Inside you’ll find a single, double-sided game board and a collection of wooden markers: short disks representing troops, tall cylinders representing battlefield commanders, and a few more in the shape of airplanes. There are a few cardboard tokens, a short stack of cards, and that’s about it.
Commanders are placed on the board in order to accomplish various missions — mustering more troops, advancing on the enemy, or firing artillery shells over the horizon at dug-in enemy formations, to name just a few. Commanders get recalled each round, clearing the board while leaving the aftermath of a churning frontline conflict in their wake. The result is a quick, snappy little wargame that plays out in 30 minutes — often less.
“It could have been this sprawling monstrosity that supported six players and took seven hours,” Thompson says. “Instead, [we tried] to make it an elegant game, a quick-playing game, but one that has this ridiculous amount of tension from the very first play to the last move. And so that’s sort of reflected in its physicality.”
Of course, another advantage that this new game has over its sibling games in the Undaunted series is the anonymity of its playable armies. Where Undaunted: Stalingrad asked players to choose between role-playing as either Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Army, General Orders has had all its armies’ identifying serial numbers filed off. It could be any number of different nations on that tiny game board, but the evocative tactical challenges present in the game still feel distinctly like battles inspired by historical engagements in WWII.
“That was intentional,” Thompson says. “If it’s going to be a historical game, or a game based on a historical event, I’m gonna go all in [on the historical accuracy]. But if it’s going to be an abstraction of something historical, then [...] let’s file it off and make it a true abstraction. Let’s not be one foot in the pool.”
General Orders: World War II is expected to be available in limited numbers at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis. Pre-orders are available online for $35, with retail availability listed as Oct. 24.
General Orders: World War II was previewed using a pre-release copy provided by Osprey Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.