I am an avid board gamer and love to think about, delve into, play and review games with my great local gaming group consisting of 5 of my friends (Alexander, Tim, Josh, Matt and Justin). We have been regularly playing together for the last few years and recently, Tim, Alexander and I got the wild idea to start up a blog! What? A blog? But I’m not a blogger or a writer! There were many questions that I had about it at that time, including what would it cost, what is the time commitment, what is our goal, how do we do it, etc. After discussing, we decided to start by simply opening a Word Press account which was free! We did this and our first post was on April 13th. Since then, we have obtained our own domain name (theplayersaid.com), created a Twitter account, Facebook page and YouTube page and this has led to an expanded reach by adding followers and continually seeing an increase in our daily and weekly views and visitors. As we started this, I tried to think about what I liked to read in blogs or reviews and have tried my hardest to include that in my writings. One of the things that has always interested me was the process of designing games. In fact, I have an idea that is only on paper at this point, for a Crusade type game called Medina which would be a hybrid worker placement/war game similar to the COIN Series. This game is nowhere near finished and is simply an idea at this point but it has me interested in the process of how these games make the journey from an idea on paper, to a fully functional and operating game that is enjoyed by thousands. So, I decided that I would reach out to some of these designers and see if they could share some insight about their games, the design and playtest process and about themselves. I have bravely (I say bravely because we are really new on the scene and unknown) reached out to 3 designers including Harold Buchanan (Liberty or Death), Brandon Rollins (War Co. Expandable Card Game) and Marc Gouyon-Rety (Pendragon) and found that they are all down to earth nice guys that are very interested in sharing their stories.
So I was able to interview Marc regarding his upcoming COIN Series game Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain that is set to release sometime in 2017 and he has offered some great insight into the game and the design process. I have enough content to comprise 3 separate posts on the subject and plan on releasing these over the next week or so. Marc also shared some information about his as yet unreleased Hubris: Twilight of the Helenistic World, so I will also include that in one of the 3 installments. With that being said, onto the questions and answers.
Grant: I wanted to thank you once again for agreeing to do this interview. I love the COIN Series of games by GMT and am definitely looking forward to playing your version as soon as it is released (my partner Alexander has it ordered on P500). I want everyone who reads this to keep in mind that this is my first interview and I am a little uncertain of what questions to ask you. First off, please tell us a little bit about your background, what you like and do with your free time, etc. I noticed you recently went to the City of Carcassone. Did you play the board game there? Carcassone in Carcassone?
Marc: I am a Frenchman, born 45 years ago just outside of Paris, proud husband and father of two, currently living in Montreal, QC (after living in France obviously, but also the UK (twice), Dubai, Switzerland and California). I have been a fan of history, particularly ancient history, since before I knew how to read, and very nearly became an archaeologist, but let myself be convinced to go for an engineering degree instead…I am currently managing a small innovative technology company in Montreal, which doesn’t leave me nearly enough time to play (and design) wargames, something I have been doing since the age of 10 (my first game having been ‘Iliad’ by International Team). I am also an avid reader of history, current affairs, fantasy and science-fiction, and like playing tennis, skiing and watching American football and hockey.
I did indeed visit this fantastic place that is Carcassonne last week, but I’m afraid we had no room in our luggage to pack games, and I’m not a big fan of the game (Carcassonne) itself anyway…I’m much more of a grognard, though I do play Euro games with my kids, until they are of age to play the real things 😉
Grant: Of all the periods of history, what was it that drew you to the conflict portrayed in Pendragon?
Marc: As I was saying, I’ve always been deeply interested in ancient history, with particular focuses on Greece and the Hellenistic world (hence Hubris) and the Celts. This proceeds in part from my family history, as I am descended on my father’s side (the Gouyon) from an old Breton family, and on my mother’s (the Rety) from Scots settled in Central France in the 15th and 16th centuries. I am also fascinated with lesser known periods, where myth and fact are sometimes hard to discern, and with those periods which have seen a key change in history (we speak of ‘hinge periods’ in French). In this regard, the end of Romano-British Britain and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon England tick all the boxes! It is also an essentially virgin period in terms of historical simulations, with only Lewis Pulsipher’s venerable ‘Britannia’ covering it (as part of a broader simulation); I have played ‘Britannia’ extensively and do love this game, but I think the historical knowledge of the key period of the end of Roman Britain has seen much progress in recent decades and deserves both a thorough update and a game of its own. I think the complex interrelationships between various Romano-British and Barbarian factions, which went way beyond the traditional ‘decadence and invasion’ paradigm of the Victorian era, are absolutely fascinating and extremely fun to play, while hopefully allowing players some insights into the roots of Arthurian legend.
Speaking of Arthurian legend, I think this subject needs be addressed here: obviously, I am a big fan of everything Arthurian; but mainly inasmuch as trying to get at the reality behind the myths; I believe firmly that legends are usually traces of an historical reality, and I own and have read a great many books digging for the ‘historical Arthur’. So the game Pendragon is firmly rooted in current historical knowledge (though that is very patchy and even the attempts at chronology and identification are hazardous), but it does allude to such legendary figures and elements as Arthur himself, Uther, Hengist, Cerdic, the isle of Avalon, even Merlin himself! The way I do this is through thus named events, which themselves present historically plausible outcomes related to the legend.
Grant: In your opinion what is it that makes the COIN series so successful?
Marc: Well, I could think of many reasons, but mostly I think the success of the series is due to its tremendous fun factor, playability, level of interaction between players, portability from one game to another (thanks to the simple, common engine) while each game has its unique identity and character, and offers specific challenges and experiences. Just like Mark Herman’s CDG system for non-total war, Volko Ruhnke has brought to the gaming world a fantastic engine to simulate asymmetrical conflicts (including, but not exclusively, counter-insurgency warfare), thus opening a whole new scope of topics to designers and, ultimately, gamers. Of course, he has also managed to do so in a format that is less cumbersome and more accessible to Euro gamers, thus bringing a whole new crowd into the fascinating world of serious gaming simulations!
Grant: With a lesser focus on ‘counter-insurgency’ how do you think the COIN system best highlights the unique aspects of the fall of Roman Britain?
Marc: I realized in 2014, sometime after play testing ‘Fire in the Lake’ during a GMT Spring Weekend at the Warehouse (I was still living in California back then), that, despite its name, the COIN system was not so much about counterinsurgency as it was about multi-factional and asymmetrical conflicts. I had been looking for a way to tackle Dark Ages Britain for some time, and the light came on after reading a couple books portraying post-Roman Britain as a ‘failed state’, and offering a startling re-interpretation of Arthur as a post-Roman leader caught between scheming Romano-British elites and his Saxon mercenaries (Foederati). The basis for Pendragon was laid in one frantic hour of laying the basic factions and their conflicting interests and objectives in June 2014, and these basic principles have held true ever since. Late and post-Roman Britain was by no means a united polity, riven by ancestral tribal identities and accompanying enmities, competition between established elites based on traditional tribes and cities, and military strong men, often coming from humbler, or even Barbarian, stock. All relied heavily on foreign ‘Foederati’ (allies bound by treaty in exchange typically for land and grain payments), as was the norm in the late Roman Empire, to fight against both local rivals or foreign marauders (often the very kin of the aforementioned Foederati). All great COIN material 🙂
COIN Dual Events are also great for portraying some of the fundamental gray areas of the period; where different historians may hold entirely conflicting opinions: just like earlier games would offer both the positive and negative impacts of some elements through dual events (such as drone strikes in Afghanistan), many Pendragon events show both sides of the equation, like settling barbarians providing either much needed muscle or the risk of cultural assimilation.
Grant: For those interested in the process behind play testing; how much has the game changed since its infancy due to player feedback? Do you have any concrete examples?
Marc: I would say a lot as far as specific mechanisms are concerned, and not that much regarding core principles. Player feedback is invaluable in prompting clarifications and streamlining, either through direct comments or suggestions, but also from observation of various games leading me to adjust some elements to emphasize or correct some game behaviors. I am incredibly lucky in having Volko himself as developer, and he has a knack at asking me, based on test feedback, if I’m happy with this or that trend, behavior or mechanism and then letting me go back to my vision of the game to come up with (hopefully) better solutions. For example, one of the earliest player feedback was that the raiding sub-system was both extremely fun but also time-consuming, so we spent a lot of effort trying to streamline it without bastardizing it. The way I deal with design is typically to mull over issues for some time until something emerges, and then committing it to paper, and then to an email for discussion with Volko; this time I realized the fundamental identity between such various variables as a region’s prosperity, revenue and plunder potential, and came up with the ‘golden cubes on the map’ idea (the idea of small cubes for plunder had come before from Volko) which I thought too radical but that Volko loved and which seems to have been embraced by players. Similarly, more recently, with the game essentially stable, I still had a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with the way the political rivalry between civilians and military men worked, and with the flow down the Imperium Track; it took me 4-5 weeks of mulling this over before coming up with a reorganized Imperium Track which explicitly captures the struggle for political dominance between the Briton factions, while allowing me to provide better incentives to each, and also to reintroduce the alternative victory condition for the Saxons (through Renown) that I had had to ditch previously as it was prompting ahistorical behaviors. Obviously, in such a multi-dimensional and heavily interrelated system as the COIN system, one has to be careful when touching one element, and the key is to find how to effect the smallest change to effect the desired effects as subtly as possible.
Another concrete way player’s input has found its way into the game is through some Events suggestions. There is currently a couple Events in the game that stem more or less directly from suggestions from our great group of beta testers, including one never-before-seen effect in the COIN series allowing a faction to ‘store’ the effect for later use (‘Omens’).
I don’t know about you, but that was a meaty and information filled interview, and there is more to come. I have enough for at least 2 more posts and will be posting Part II this week on Tuesday or Wednesday and finish it up on Saturday or Sunday. In Part II, you can look forward to a discussion of the new Commands and Special Abilities, a look at the different factions as well as a look at the new Imperium Track. If you have any comments or questions for Marc, please leave them in the comments. Until next time, keep up your counterinsurgencies!