This is the 2nd part of a 3 part series on designer Marc Gouyon-Rety and his efforts on Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, which is Volume VIII of the COIN Series of games by GMT Games. If you missed the 1st part, here is a link to the post: Exclusive 1st Interview with Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain Designer Marc Gouyon-Rety – Part I With that back to the interview:
Grant: Recently, the History Channel did a series called “Barbarians Rising” which is a look at the resistance to Roman authority by the barbarians in the ancient Roman Empire. Did you see this show? Did you feel that you have captured in your game the struggle of the barbarians like Boudica?
Marc: I didn’t, but I know of this show, and from my understanding, it focuses more on Barbarian resistance to Roman expansion, where Pendragon focuses on Roman (and post-Roman) resistance to Barbarian encroachments… Now, there are some stunning continuities in Britain between the pre- and post-Roman periods, especially with regard to the British (Celtic) tribes such as Boudicca’s own Iceni, which through complex mechanisms of settlement and assimilation became the Angle kingdom of East Anglia… Now, recent historians such as Peter Heather have done tremendous work in bringing to light the highly complex and interactive relationships over centuries between Romans (and Romanized populations) and various Barbarian groups which eventually led to the takeover of much of Roman Europe by more or less Romanized barbarian entities, and I’ve done my utmost, thanks to the COIN structure, to bring these aspects into the game.
Grant: What is your favorite new Command or Special Ability in the game? Why?
Marc: That is one tricky question for a designer! I love them all 😉 But if I have to pick one, I will pick ‘Raid’, the core Command for both Barbarian factions, not only because it is so essential to the game and always a lot of action and fun, but because every time it is a hard decision for the player as to the risk he is taking as he must choose how many raids to undertake, and how massive, since he spends Renown (i.e. subtracts from his victory conditions) accordingly, with no certainty as to the number of raiders that will actually answer the call (each Renown point invested allows to roll a 4-sided die rather than yielding a set number) nor whether the raid will eventually return a profit in Renown (since the raid has to overcome the naval patrols, collect plunder from the land or maybe from sacking an enemy stronghold, and then survive a possible enemy counterattack before its plunder can be returned home as new Renown)…
“That is one tricky question for a designer! I love them all! 😉 But if I have to pick one, I will pick ‘Raid’, the core Command for both Barbarian factions…”
Grant: Sounds involved and I look forward to many raids. What faction seems to be the one that is the most difficult to play well?
Marc: All four factions present unique challenges, especially if playing the full campaign, and may suit some players’ play styles better than others’. Here is a look at each of the factions:
– the Dux (the Roman/post-Roman military) has some formidable capacities but must find the right balance between aggressiveness and conservation of its ever dwindling often irreplaceable cavalry units, including whether to get involved in continental civil wars, how to maintain cooperation with the civilian authorities while retaining dominance, to what extent rely on Barbarian Foederati, and so on… They have also, through their Pivotal Event, the unique ability to precipitate Fragmentation, the end state of the Imperium Track by rejecting all pretenses of Roman unity… However, as long as they stick to the Roman ideals, they often feel like they are the only ones interested in maintaining order and prosperity against scheming self-centered civilians and marauding barbarians.
– the Civitates (the romanized Celtic tribes’ elites) hold the key to the economy and ability of the Dux to wage war (and protect them), and can often win simply by preserving the status quo, but since they effectively hold most of the land, they are strategically on the defensive without, at least initially, the means to protect themselves… Their key decision lies in whether they opt to keep bankrolling the Dux and rely on Foederati and try to maintain their wealth and land, or shed their comforts to develop their own warbands.
– the Scotti (non-romanized Celts, mainly Scotti from Ireland and Picts from what is now Scotland) must harass and plunder the rich Roman lands with fairly limited resources, and need to find the proper balance in order to avoid killing the golden goose, or exposing themselves unduly to retaliation, and also keep amassing Renown; they can also sometimes struggle as they are more peripheral to the core political struggles than their Saxon counterparts, and have to work to get some levers.
– the Saxons (Germanic barbarians) face the initially formidable Romano-British defenses of the ’Saxon Shore’ and must show some resilience to grind through these before breaking the island open; they must also balance the establishment of footholds to facilitate their implantation with not sticking their neck too far out, while they find their warbands as often fighting against them as Foederati as with them.
The Dux may be the most ‘technical’ faction to master, with a lot of complex and subtle military and political issues to manage, and going through fairly different stages as the Imperium fades; the Civitates may sometimes be misconstrued as a purely defensive faction (which they need not be), while the Saxons often appear as hopeless to new players in the early Epochs; the Scotti are probably the most straightforward to play, at least mechanically, though they have a lot of tough decisions regarding their path to victory and I have seen many players ‘overspend’ or ‘overcapabilitize’ themselves into irrelevance.
“The Dux may be the most ‘technical’ faction to master, with a lot of complex and subtle military and political issues to manage, and going through fairly different stages as the Imperium fades…”
Grant: What is new in the game that makes this version of the COIN series feel different and unique from the other 7 volumes?
Marc: Where to even begin? When I started work on what became Pendragon (the original title was ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ – About the Ruin of Britain, from the title of the monk Gildas’s famous pamphlet), I was worried the concept would be straying too far from the existing series games for acceptance (a worry the announcement of ‘Gallic War’ (now ‘Falling Sky’) and then a discussion with Volko himself quickly dismissed). The biggest and most obvious difference is that there are no insurgents to root out, so the game features no ‘counter-insurgency’! Instead, we have raiders, and counter-raiding warfare, modeled on official period Roman army doctrine. It is completely different from insurgents, since raiders are never hidden or underground, but reveal themselves as they suddenly spring from their ships or island bases to pillage and sack. Their challenge is not to stay hidden until the moment to strike has come, but to survive the defenders’ reaction in order to bring home their ill-gotten gains.
Another major innovation is the Foederati, the system where the Briton factions can hire Barbarian warbands and use them as their own units, while they retain their national characteristics. Obviously, this does not come without downsides: first, the Foederati must be paid in Renown – before victory conditions are assessed – or they rebel; second, there is a number of events, including the dreaded Saxon Pivotal Event ‘Adventus Saxonum’, that are triggered by the presence of Foederati.
Finally, since the game covers a much longer period, well over a century, the very rules and victory conditions evolve during the game, through the Imperium Track (more on that below).
“Another major innovation is the Foederati, the system where the Briton factions can hire Barbarian warbands and use them as their own units, while they retain their national characteristics.”
Grant: What was the hardest part of the design? Why? Did you get it right?
Marc: I could think of several issues, such as the Foederati mechanism, where players tend to be so shy of the obvious downsides as to make a much too limited (by historical benchmarks) use of them, which needed work on such various things as the level of battle losses and the impact of political events to get to the right balance, but the hardest part has probably been the Civitates victory conditions: in principle, they are simple: they want to keep their lands and maintain their standards of living; in game terms, it has proved quite vexing for a long time, as the various solutions I tried proved either gameable or too susceptible to game circumstances beyond the players’ control. After much trial and error, I settled on the Wealth mechanism, which is accumulated through – typically – a Feat (the game’s name for Special Activities) by diverting Resources (which can usually be tapped by the Dux too), and so comes at the expense of funding the island’s defense (i.e. represents the ability to set aside ‘extra’ resources, representing continuing opulence within the elites). Now, besides its value as a victory condition (alongside Control) for the Civitates, Wealth is a key tool for this faction as it represents a war chest that they can still use as resources, while other factions have to work hard to get at it, and is actually specifically necessary for some Feats, such as when the civilian Civitates are trying to compete prestige-wise with the military warlords or want to recruit and maintain their own warbands, at which point they may have to choose between developing their very own military capability and going for a quick victory… Did I get it right? Based on feedback from the past few months, I am quite happy with how the whole thing works in all its dimensions, so I am fairly confident I got it right…enough 🙂
“Did I get it right? Based on feedback from the past few months, I am quite happy with how the whole thing works in all its dimensions, so I am fairly confident I got it right…enough! :-)”
Grant: Talk to us a little about the Imperium Track and how it impacts the game? It looks fantastic and to me is one of the more intriguing new parts of the game.
Marc: The Imperium Track captures the evolution (usually, the decay) of the political institutions of Roman Britain as well as the tug-of-war for political dominance between the military and the civilians. The status of the Imperium can be one of three states: Roman Rule (the situation at the start of the period, representing more or less nominal authority from the Western Empire’s capital in Ravenna), Autonomy (representing a rump Romano-British empire no longer recognizing Ravenna’s authority but still operating essentially along Roman lines, or at least trying to), and Fragmentation (representing a condition where all semblance of unity and Roman-type rule has crumbled away, except possibly at a local level, leaving various proto-kingdoms, both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, vying for supremacy). Under Roman Rule and Autonomy, either the Dux or the Civitates may hold political dominance.
Changes on the Imperium Track can result either from specific events, some where factions have some degree of control (such as whether to get involved in a civil war on the continent – which costs precious cavalry units…), and some where they have none (such as the sack of Rome by Alaric), or, during Epoch rounds, from the respective levels of Total Prosperity (used as a proxy for the stability of the island) and Briton Control: if these levels fall under some thresholds, the status is immediately downgraded to Autonomy or even Fragmentation; regarding political dominance, it is determined by comparing the Dux Prestige (a measure of its military performance, mainly) to the Civitates’ Wealth (a measure of their ability to preserve their privileged position).
Based on the current Imperium status, some rules or parameters may vary, and victory conditions for some factions also: for instance, the replacement level (proportion of cavalry casualties going back to Available rather than to Out Of Play during Epoch rounds) is determined by this; under Roman Rule, Ravenna exacts heavy taxes from Britain (especially under military dominance) but roads are automatically maintained; under Autonomy, there are no more taxes to be paid to Ravenna, but the roads must be maintained by the Britons from their own purse; under Roman Rule and Autonomy with military dominance; the Dux benefits from Army Preemption, meaning they can draw from Briton (Civitates) Resources at will; that requires explicit agreement from the Civitates under Autonomy with civilian dominance; under Roman Rule and Autonomy, the two Briton factions cooperate by default, which means that they determine (Briton) Control together, and fight together against barbarians (though they can always fight each other if desired); under Fragmentation, they determine control separately and never fight alongside… Finally, a key economic aspect, Recovery, is impacted by the Imperium Track: this represents the (often partial) recovery during Epoch rounds of prosperity in regions ravaged by raids or war: once Roman Rule is discarded, this is capped to half of the starting levels, representing the intrinsic disruption of the economy with the decay of Roman administration and the severing of trade links.
Finally, Briton factions get Prestige (for the Dux) and victory boosts (for the Civitates) from being in a favorable step during Epoch rounds, while their victory thresholds depend on the Imperium status. For instance, Civitates victory is easier under Autonomy, and even more if they hold political dominance. The Imperium Track also impacts Saxon victory, as they enjoy an alternative victory condition under Roman Rule and Autonomy by reaching a Renown threshold (representing the success of their leaders at exacting tribute and plunder from the island and positioning themselves as a dominant player, some kind of power behind the throne, in Roman politics).
Grant: Also, tell us why you felt the need to include such a mundane activity as the roads maintenance concept in the game design? I’m a Municipal Manager by trade and we even get bored with road maintenance.
Marc: Roman roads were famous for providing the Roman administration, couriers and also military units, with the ability to move very fast within the empire. This capability in the game is critical to Briton units (not Militia) Marching and Intercepting (a unique Dux Command allowing to move and fight in one action), as long as it takes place along controlled Roads. Just as the decay of the Roman structures led to economic decline, this fast movement capability eventually disappeared as the Roman infrastructure fell into neglect. In the game, Roads are only available under Autonomy if their maintenance has been paid for, and are never available under Fragmentation. This makes the condition of Roads a key target for the barbarian factions as their prospects of successfully operating are greatly enhanced in the absence of roads… Note that the maintenance of Roads does not only include the physical condition of the pavement and foundations, but also of the relays and various facilities and personnel servicing the road network.
“Roman roads were famous for providing the Roman administration, couriers and also military units, with the ability to move very fast within the empire. This capability in the game is critical to Briton units (not Militia) Marching and Intercepting…”
Grant: Is the game on schedule for an early 2017 release? Also, are you going to keep a copy of the game for yourself?
Marc: It’s hard to say as this is my first ever published game, but from my conversations with Volko, I believe it is fair to say that early 2017 has always been a rather ambitious stretch target… At this point, the game mechanics have been fairly stable for some months and beta testing results with the four scenarios have been good, though my recent modification of the Imperium Track is going to prompt an additional month or two of testing if only to get the victory thresholds and balance right. When that is done, work on the bots will start in earnest, and I gather this will take some effort, especially as Pendragon is particularly open as far as faction interactions are concerned, and nothing like the evolution of rules and victory conditions as the game progresses exists in other games. In parallel, we will develop the playbook and finalize the rulebook. Art-wise, work on the event cards’ art is ongoing (unlike previous games, there is nearly no freely available and historically plausible existing material so we have to essentially develop it from scratch), but my modest prototype map will have to be redone by a real artist. Then, after proofreading, the material will be off to production, which I understand is easily 3-4 months. All in all, I’m thinking a 2nd Quarter release is most likely.
As for me keeping a copy of the game for myself, I’m most definitely planning to give a place of pride to the game in my personal collection and hopefully keep playing it often, even though I have never played any game as much as my games that are in design. Even after play testing and design, I still have great pleasure playing them!
Wow! Thanks for the great insight into the game, its factions and various mechanisims Marc. That was even better and more in depth than Part I! In the final Part III of our interview, we will discuss some of Marc’s other game designs including the as yet unreleased Hubris: Twilight of the Hellenistic World, how Marc got into game design and what games are his favorites to play. Look for Part III on Saturday. If you have any questions for Marc, please leave them in the comments. Until next time, read up on your ancient history so you can follow along!