Since acquiring my copy of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection Volume V in the COIN Series by GMT Games in March, I have taken a keen interest in its designer Harold Buchanan. He is a great follow on Twitter and always shares amazing pictures of history, including his travels, as well as great information and insight into the American Insurrection known as the Revolutionary War. Several months ago, I reached out to Harold and true to the response I have received from other COIN designers, he was more than interested in granting me an interview.
Grant: I notice on your Twitter feed that you like to travel around the country to historic sites. What has been your favorite site to visit? Do you draw inspiration from these visits? What is one site you still haven’t seen that you really want to see?
Harold: Gettysburg is a religious experience and every American will benefit from the trip. It is magnificent! I love to visit the sites and stand at the high-water mark of the Confederacy – the culmination of Picket’s charge and to look out over the sacred ground is awesome.
I would really like to travel Burgoyne’s journey from Montreal to Saratoga via Fort Ticonderoga and the Hudson River. I designed a game for Strategy and Tactics that will likely be published in 2018 on the tough choices in the Campaigns of 1777. I want to see it.
Grant: What was it like coming into design a game in an established system so storied and successful as GMT Games COIN series?
Harold: It was both a blessing and a curse. The system is brilliant and elegant and made it easy for me to adapt to a 4 faction American Revolution game. It was the answer to a question I had been pondering for years. On the curse side, I had to follow Fire in the Lake with Liberty or Death – designed by two legends of the hobby in Ruhnke and Herman. Are you kidding me? What was I thinking!
Grant: Well you did a fantastic job of it and I agree with you that Fire in the Lake is in a class of its own. In fact, it is my favorite COIN game, followed closely by your wonderful creation. What was it like working with Volko Ruhnke?
Harold: Volko was the real blessing. I will sing his praises to anyone that will listen. He gives back to the hobby like no one I have ever seen. He is gracious and patient and helps everyone. I came to him once a week in the design process with questions and concerns and he systematically thought through them leading me to the solution. I just can’t say enough about Volko. It is no wonder that so many designers are following in his footsteps with the COIN system designing the next generation of COIN games. We could all learn from his gracious willingness to give back.
Grant: What was the hardest part about the design for Liberty or Death?
Harold: Finishing the game! Mark Simonitch said: “The last 20% of the game takes up 80% of the time and the last 1% is a killer.” Everyone is exhausted and the play testers are burned out and ready to move on. I talked to Volko about it late in the process as I felt like I was on a deserted island. Volko said “that’s why you meet so many people with good ideas and few who have designed completed games.”
“Finishing the game! Mark Simonitch said: ‘The last 20% of the game takes up 80% of the time and the last 1% is a killer.’”
Grant: Do you feel that the American Revolution was truly a counterinsurgency? Can you give specific examples to support your opinion?
Harold: I like the following definition of an insurgency: “A non-governmental organization working to affect social and/or political change through violent means against existing power structures and in a way that deliberately challenges the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”.
While an insurgency goes though many phases, including eventually assembling an alternative government and army, the American Revolution fits nicely into the definition. It was also a civil war in many ways but that does not exclude the insurgency view.
Grant: Are you satisfied with the end product? If there was one thing you would change about the design what would that be? Why?
Harold: That’s the curse of designing games. You are never finished – at some point you just print it.
I’ve never been fully satisfied with how we document and use player aids. I believe there is another generation here that will improve our ability to teach and facilitate game use. Much of it now is in “COIN speak”. If you are familiar with the COIN documentation, you will be fine but it does a disservice to new players trying to take up the game.
When I was at MIT, each building had a name but we all referred to them as numbers. We also refer to majors by number – There are not physics majors, only Course 8. This reinforces the culture and keeps outsiders confused. We need to fight this in COIN – always looking for a better way to communicate and pull in people new to the system.
The good news is we have an outstanding user community that is offering very interesting alternatives. A gentleman named Delphine has posted an excellent iconography on how to execute the Battle command that frankly is much better than mine. Arthur Switalski posted an outstanding player aid for the game as well that is much broader. I am considering some new things for the reprint that may use some of these ideas.
Orjan Ariander (Solitaire System Developer) did advance the ball on the bots making them more variable and more responsive to the expected outcome of Events but I feel like we are still in the first generation of AI. The bots are still predictable and possess an advantage in mechanics.
I think there are opportunities for us in both form and function. We need to challenge the model of incorporating all inputs, considering all mechanisms and generating all outputs. I expect we will see someone simplify this model and thus simplify the execution. I also expect we will see someone put bots in an app or integrate them with software making them easier to use. This will be a massive step in usability.
Grant: I love being the Patriots but have also played as the British and Indians. Which faction do you prefer to play? Why?
Harold: I like to play the French. French entry well timed is the most striking event in the game – I like to control the when and how of that event! Plus if the Patriot player is not trying to achieve their victory conditions they will hand me an easy win……Play to win Patriots! Know your victory conditions – play what they are – not what you think they should be!
Grant: Which faction has the hardest go of meeting their victory conditions?
Harold: It can be miserable being the British – it is a long hard war and it is rare if not impossible that the British win during an early victory check.
The Patriots are a challenge also because some players ignore the victory conditions and want to Battle! The game is much more subtle than that. The penalty for playing Washington’s war on the Liberty or Death map is that you will lose. Remember, there was a frontier war going on for the Patriots. Also, despite what wargamers want, this game does not reward a Washington that wants to Battle continually. It just wasn’t the history.
Grant: I agree with you as I have tried several strategies with the Patriots and have had my most success when they avoid battle, focus on getting the French in the fight and use propaganda. Why did you choose green as the color for the Tories? Is it because you like Christmas?
Harold: The dress adopted by the British Government for all Loyalist or Provincial commands in 1776 was green and white. It stuck.
Grant: Tell us a little about this new Southern campaign scenario for Liberty or Death you are developing for C3i Magazine? How has it changed the dynamic of the game? What can we expect from it?
Harold: It is great fun and plays in just over an hour. Two players, half the map and a new sequence of play. There are also 4 new leaders added. Brian Train was nice enough to allow me to use his 2 player initiative system from Colonial Twilight as an option rule. I think people will love it.
Grant: What has changed in the focus of the competing factions for this new scenario?
Harold: The Victory Conditions are simply Support versus Opposition. It changes things a lot!
Grant: Onto your new games. Tell us about Campaigns of 1777 which is currently in design and playtesting. What campaigns is the game focused on? Or are there scenarios for all the major battles in 1777?
Harold: As I said earlier I love the British Campaigns of 1777. I don’t believe the big event was Saratoga – sure it was the culmination but it wasn’t the cause of the British surrender. I wanted to model that and it took me to the broader decision set for the British including the decision made by Howe. When you watch the game unfold you can see the mistakes made by Howe to shed Albany for Philadelphia, assume the capture of Philadelphia would impact all the colonies, and Burgoyne’s inability to be happy with Ticonderoga and press his army past its ability to supply itself.
Grant: How is it different from Liberty or Death? What is similar?
Harold: Very different. Chit activation, two players and lots of dice rolling. Lots of unpredictable outcomes.
Grant: What is the timeline for the release of this game?
Harold: It’s a long line over there at Strategy and Tactics but it is a bucket list thing for me. Doc told me we were looking at mid to late 2018 but it is in the que!
Grant: I can’t wait and will make sure to pre-order it on day one! You also really like tanks. Tell us about your tank based WW2 combat game that is in design with GMT Games tentatively called “Tank Duel”? Why did you want to make this game?
Harold: I love tank to tank combat in WW2 and the Avalon Hill games Tobruk and Up Front. I merged them together and started work on Tank Duel. The Developer of Liberty or Death, Mike Bertucelli joined me on the project and is very passionate about it. I don’t have the time to finish it in the near term so Mike is running with it. It is going to be very cool and should play in less than a half hour. Play test feedback has been outstanding. It may hit P500 soon!
Grant: I love World War II games and definitely will look forward to this game’s release on P500. If you didn’t know, I have a little bit of a problem with 17 games currently on the P500. How did you get into game design?
Harold: I sort of fell into it. I made a game or two for friends. One of those I shared with Volko (an early Liberty or Death prototype). He introduced me to GMT and a few years later I was published! Not my goal but it has been great fun.
Grant: Has your wife ever hidden or held one of your games hostage for ransom, such as completing a “honey do” list?
Harold: Not sure if you are married but wives have a lot of things they can hold for ransom….
Grant: Oh, I’m married (20 years now to the same amazing woman) and I know exactly what you are talking about! I also would love to know anything about your new Gangs of New York game that is currently in play testing. What can you share with us about this great game? I assume that it is also a COIN game.
Harold: Still very early – I have discussed it with Volko and played it with Gene. I think it will be very different – and simpler. Whether that is better will be up to the players.
In closing, if you will forgive the shameless self promotion, we have a great wargame convention in San Diego November 11, 12, 13. Mark Herman et al will be there. It will be 70 degrees and a great environment to game. More info at www.sdhist.com
I really appreciate your interest. Thanks for letting me tell my story!
Thanks for that amazing look into Liberty or Death as well as your other new projects. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule Harold and definitely want to take you up on the offer to play Liberty or Death with you. Someday! If you don’t yet own a copy of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, you can pre-order a 2nd printing copy from GMT Games on P500 at the following link: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-582-liberty-or-death-the-american-insurrection-reprint-ed.aspx .