In my January update for the P500, I talked about a great new offering from GMT Games called Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea that is being designed by Mark McLaughlin and Christopher Vorder Bruegge. The game is an abstracted civilization building game that doesn’t require any dice and looks very interesting. As I have had experience with interviewing Mark McLaughlin previously, I knew that he would be more than willing to answer my questions about this new game.
Grant: Mark, before we get started on your new game Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, please give us a quick update on Hitler’s Reich which is also currently on P500?
Mark: P500 pre-orders topped the 630-mark on February 1st. The solitaire bot designed for us by Vez Arponen in Germany is in its 12th and probably pen-ultimate version. We are reorganizing the rulebook a little at Vez’s suggestion (not changing rules, just the order in which they are presented). The game is scheduled for the 3rd quarter of this year. [Grant edit: Here is a link if you are interested in reading our interview covering Hitler’s Reich.]
Grant: Can you tell us a little about your co-designer Christopher Vorder Bruegge? How did you meet up with him?
Mark: Chris and I met playing miniatures at Georgetown when we were students there in the early seventies. We have been very good friends ever since. He is my son’s godfather – that is how close we are. Chris and I gamed at least once and sometimes twice a week for 25 years, until I moved from the D.C. area (where he still resides), but we still see each other a few days a year. He regularly takes an almost annual gamers vacation up here in New England. Chris knows more about naval history than anyone I know. He has been a key part of every design I have ever worked on for the last 40 years. For each of my 20 published designs from Avalon Hill’s War and Peace to Turning Point Simulation’s Armada (which shipped to customers the first of February), he has either been one of or a combination of chief playtester, editor, main researcher and top advisor. He and I co-designed East Wind Rain (Pacific WW2) for 3W (and later Task Force Games) in the mid-1980s. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is his design – he did the ground work and the first drafts of the rules. Then he gave it to me to play around with, and I brought in Fred. Chris is not only in the loop for every discussion, but now that Fred is in D.C., they have gotten to know each other and game a couple of times a month and the game they play is Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea.
Chris: I have been playing wargames since early childhood. My two brothers and I bought and played Tactics II by Avalon Hill back in the 50s and were hooked. We also played with green army men and Airfix figures. I graduated to painting miniatures and still do miniature wargaming with two groups in the D.C. suburbs. I have long been fascinated by civilizations. At Georgetown University I took a course from Dr. Carroll Quigley who really taught me how to think analytically. Some of what I learned is designed into Ancient Civilizations of the Innner Sea. I have had the good fortune of knowing Mark since the early 1970s, and of meeting Fred more recently. When I did the initial design of the game, I realized I had no way to play test it and no entrée into the game publishing business. But I knew Mark and Fred did. So, here we are, collaborating on this new game.
Grant: I see you are once again teamed up with Fred Schachter as your developer. What makes your relationship so good in making games? What does Fred add to the effort?
Mark: What DOESN’T Fred add! Fred is a treasure beyond the dreams of avarice. I call him old eagle eye, because he doesn’t miss anything. He actually edits rules FOR FUN! He knows or at least sees every cheesy rules-lawyer trick in the book, and works hard to make sure that opportunities for such are minimized (he can play cut-throat if he has too, but like Chris and myself, he is a gentleman gamer, and would rather lose and have fun than win by a gamey trick). Fred is a veteran of SPI (from the legendary “skonkwerks” days) and a game-designer in his own right (Siege of Jerusalem is the jewel in his crown). He may have begun as my editor on second edition The Napoleonic Wars for GMT, but over the last 15 years, our relationship has become a true design partnership. I usually come up with the idea and prototype first, and then Fred tucks in and does his magic. There comes a time fairly early on when Fred takes over the rule writing and that lets me get on with the next design – while still keeping a hand in the previous one.
Fred: Aw shucks, Mark is making me blush! Our game designer/game developer partnership includes not only The Napoleonic Wars Second Edition, but Wellington, Kutuzov, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, and the upcoming Hitler’s Reich: A Card Conquest System Game. Those familiar with these designs and taking a look at Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea will notice how each game system gets progressively simpler in mechanics… but not in the richness and enjoyability of play. As we occasionally joke, I’m the Sherman to his Grant, or Soult to Mark’s Napoleon…well, you get the picture.
Grant: What is Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea about? Where did your inspiration for the game come from?
Mark: As the title suggests, it is about the ancient civilizations that rose and fell around the shores of the Mediterranean. It begins in the Bronze Age and goes on from there, with scenarios that take the game from pre-dynastic Egypt up to the fall (or not) of the Roman Empire. Chris and I are both long-time fans of the classic Civilization board game, and are both fanatics when it comes to Sid Meier’s computer game of the same name (now in its VI edition). We also both paint and play with armies of the ancient era (his army of choice right now is Minoans – I prefer Assyrians, but have cases upon cases of Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Celts, Gauls, Macedonians, etc.). Chris got the idea for designing Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea after reading 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline. We are each well-read on the ancient and classical periods (Before Christmas I finished Herodotus – all 900 pages of a new annotated version and have read Cline and two of the three key modern books he cites -and the third is on my shelf.). These texts, each in their own way, have influenced the design.
Grant: The game appears to be somewhat abstracted. How is this done in the design? Why did you make the choice to abstract?
Mark: Chris and I stopped playing hex-based, stacks of counters games a long time ago – basically after designing East Wind Rain. We both like historical war games, but also both like games where you can play without feeling like you are doing your taxes or going to work. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is the simplest, lightest, easiest and quickest to play game we have ever worked on together – and this abstract representation was a brilliant decision by Chris.
Fred: “Ditto” from me. I’ve not played a hex-based game with scores of little counters, often requiring tweezers to manipulate, in many a year. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is not only a game we hope those who’ll purchase it will enjoy… but I gotta share that Mark, Chris, myself and our play-testers are having a blast getting this one ready for publication.
Grant: What sets this game apart from other civilization building games?
Mark: LOTS of things! First of all, it has SOLITAIRE scenarios. It also has HISTORICAL scenarios (Punic Wars, Fall of Rome, Anthony and Cleopatra, to name just a few) and a multitude of “CHOOSE YOUR OWN” scenarios. It is CUSTOMIZABLE for one to six players, not only in which civilizations and part of the map they choose to use, but also even in terms of game length. Players can play on the full map or a section, and can decide on how many of the four epochs they want to play through (each epoch can have as few as one or as many as four turns), or for how long in terms of time they want to play: e.g. for two hours – and still get a good fun game with a definite winner.
Second, is that is also customizable to the players. It can be a nice, peacefully low-intensity competitive Euro-style game or a game that a rabid Conan the Barbarian would be right at home with.
Third, of course, are the Cards. This is NOT A CARD-DRIVEN GAME but a “CARD-ENHANCED GAME. It can be but does not have to be a war game and how players play their cards sets the tone. A deck of 103 cards allow players to peacefully expand their civilizations and inflict catastrophes on each other – or not. Except for a few “Must Play” cards (that bring in barbarian invasions) even the cards which inflict the most devastating floods, plagues, volcanic eruptions, civil wars, pirate raids and the like are juxtaposed by other cards used to build things.
The remaining 7 cards are “Wonders” which a player may build to obtain their bonuses for a defined number of turns: these include “The Great Lighthouse”, “Hanging Gardens”, and “Stairway to God” (which we’re considering a name change to “Stairway to Heaven”… yeah, we’re dating ourselves.)
As our German blind-playtester, Vez Arponen puts it, “You’ve got loads of possible combinations of playing all of these elements. Only your creativity is the limit. I think this is another aspect that’ll go down well with Euro-gamers.”
Of course, let me stress that this was DESIGNED by WARGAMERS, so there is plenty of opportunity for the sacking of cities, the fighting of great battles on land and sea, and the raising of monuments (“Wonders”) to the glory of kings, caesars, pharoahs and emperors
Chris: My original design concept was not so much a wargame, but the rise and fall of civilizations, which, of course, includes war. Hence, I named the phase in which tiles collide in areas “competition” not war. This represents peaceful competition, e.g. trade, or cultural success in areas over others of different origins. The color of tiles, while they embody the intent, strategy and tactics of a player, do not necessarily represent a continuous political/military entity, but the steady (or not so steady) spread of a culture, and with the constructions of cities, civilization.
Grant: I understand Inner Sea has no dice! What takes the place of the dice?
Mark: Chris and especially Fred each have enough “bad dice day” stories to fill a magazine – what gamer doesn’t? So we all agreed to make a game that removes that factor. The 103 cards more than make up for it, when and if they are drawn and how they are used, which at least is more of a choice than a mere random roll. Competition – (which represents not only martial combat but the struggle for economic, cultural, religious or political domination of an area of the map) – is a very clear cut-and-dry process where the larger stack of pieces always wins – unless players toss cards into the fray. As nobody knows what cards their opponent has or will play in a competition (the cards are placed face down then revealed) it can go either way. This more than makes up for the lack of dice in combat.
Fred: It should be pointed out as with any Mark McLaughlin design, some fortune surely plays a hand and sometimes a significant one. Sure, there are no dice with Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea; but there’s still luck with which cards one draws and when, with two players tied for something, a Tile draw (by their color) decides precedence. But don’t get me wrong…this is FUN and a lot of it!
Grant: What are the event cards and how are they used? Please give a few examples of the cards and what they do?
Mark: There are 103 cards (plus 7 Wonders cards). The Wonders are, well, basically the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which are available for any civilization to choose to build. The other 103, well, they have just about anything you can imagine on them. Some give a civilization Great People – generals, philosophers, prophets and the like. Others offer bonuses in martial competition (siege weapons, composite bows, chariots, triremes). Several give civilizations more cards or the choice of cards in a draw. Most, however, either add pieces to a civilization – or remove pieces of another civilization. Bumper Crops and
Golden Age, are just two examples of the former, while Crop Failures and Civil Disorder are a pair of the latter type. At this stage, the cards are text-only. They will get the usual GMT artistic upgrade once we get to the pre-production stage.
Grant: What are the games mechanics and sequence of play?
Mark: In a turn, each civilization gets to Grow (add pieces to the map) and play Cards. Once every civilization has done so, Competition occurs. This proceeds from east to west, north to south, one area at a time where two or more civilizations clash. Civilizations can co-exist peacefully if they each only have one piece in an area, but once any Civilization adds a second piece – boom; Competition. After that, Civilizations score points for cities still standing and Wonders they have built, as well as bonuses unique to their Civilization, if any. This goes on for up to four turns per epoch. An epoch can end at the end of any turn, based on a card draw. When an epoch ends there is an “End of Epoch Table” that must be consulted. This table includes eleven events, ranging from the catastrophic to the beneficial, that can drastically change the look of the map – or not. The game goes for four epochs, or fewer if so stated in a scenario or agreed to ahead of time by the players.
Chris: In my initial design, I tried to have the epics correspond, more or less, to periods well known in Western History. Each epoch represented about 1,000 years and each turn an undefined subset of the epoch. We had a long discussion about calling the epochs by metal names (Bronze and Iron for the first two) but that left us at a loss for the third and fourth. By the way, I wanted to end the game in about 1,500 AD, at which point the Mediterranean in history began to lose significance due to sea routes to Asia that developed.
Grant: What areas of the Mediterranean does the game board cover? What are the main civilizations focused on in the game?
Mark: From the Pillars of Hercules to the Red Sea, and from the foothills of the Alps to the Sahara. There are eight Civilizations: Egypt, Mycenae, Minos, Phoenicia, Carthage, Rome, Troy and the Celt-Iberians. (The historical and solitaire scenarios add variations on these Civilizations such as the Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Hittites, Sea-Peoples, etc.)
Chris: The specified civilizations are the “origins” of the cultures that will spread. Players should not think of them necessarily as continuous military/political entities.
Grant: Do each of these civilizations have certain advantages, abilities or bonuses that set them apart? How did you decide on each civilizations abilities?
Mark: Each Civilization does have a slight advantage in one area of game play, but not enough to force it down a particular path. Troy, with its walls, and Rome, with its allies, are largely defensive (this is the Bronze Age, not the age of Imperial Rome). Minos and Phoenicia are naval powers – the former fights better at sea, the later trades better. Carthage is a mix of all of the above, getting a bonus for defending its home and in one other land and one sea area a turn. The Celt-Iberians and especially Mycenaens are warrior cultures and get a bonus in a couple of land combats a turn (which can either make them aggressive or make others wary of attacking them). Egypt gets bonus pieces for the Nile and agriculture. We thought these traits summed up the character of each of these ancient civilizations, and gave players a chance to feel that they were leading a real civilization, rather than just some generic, vanilla version of such.
Grant: How does the solitaire system work? What are the various solitaire scenarios? Which one is the most challenging?
Mark: The solitaire rules present the player with a very aggressive set of opponents which are out to destroy the player’s civilizations. The system sets up a list of priorities for how and where the non-player civilizations place their pieces and play their cards. There is also a simple mechanism for determining the choice between two or more equal priorities: draw a card for each choice from the deck, highest number card (they are numbered 1 to 103) is the road taken.
The solitaire rules were written for the Fall of Rome scenario, and those are modified for the subsequent scenarios. So far there are three solo scenarios: Fall of Rome, God-Kings of Egypt and Greeks vs. Persians. (Each of which, by the way, can also be played by two or more players).
In Fall of Rome, the player is the east or west or all of the Roman Empire, and must survive an onslaught of barbarian invasions.
Greeks vs. Persians spans the era from Marathon to Alexander’s conquests of the western portion of the Persian Empire. The player has to survive the two big Persian invasions of Greece, and if they do, has to head east to try to accomplish what Alexander did in his early campaigns.
In God-Kings of Egypt, the player is Egypt and faces the Sea-Peoples (who play a prominent role in the book which inspired Chris to design this game) and Hittites.
In the first and third scenarios, the player is on the defense against overwhelming forces – surviving let alone winning is difficult. In the Greeks vs. Persians scenario, the player begins on the defensive, and if they survive gets to go on the offensive. That presents two very different challenges.
Grant: What are “Tiles” and how do players use them to build their civilization?
Mark: The round wooden disks or “Tiles” as we call them (as tiles sounds appropriate for the era, what with all of the mosaics and all that) are abstract representations of people, navies, armies and the physical, cultural, economic and martial power that go along with them. Each turn a civilization gets at least three and usually more Tiles for “Growth.” Tiles are also granted through card play. These are placed in or adjacent to areas they are already present – and can chain off from each other as they are placed. A civilization can thus grow intensively where it is already present, or extensively by invading areas where others are present or setting off on voyages and marches to the beyond. This can be very dynamic, and gives civilizations a long reach, which makes for a LOT of player interaction.
Grant: How do players get new “Tiles”? How do they score Victory points?
Mark: Civilizations gain tiles from cards and from their presence on land and sea, and from their civilization bonuses.
Chris: The number of tiles in a land area denotes a level of culture: one tile represents a subsistence level of culture that provides, by itself, no growth or expansion, but does denote control if only one civilization has a tile in the area. Two tiles represent a thriving expanding culture, a settlement, but lacking in the sophistication of city life. Three tiles represents a city, a jewel in the crown of civilization. However, a three tile land area does not produce any tile growth, only victory points and additional card draws. Tiles in sea areas just denote cultural influence in that area. There are no floating cities, as this game does not reach the current age of tourist cruise ships!
Fred: … and therein lies “the rub”, a crucial turn-by-turn player decision of whether to have settlements or sea presence which generates Tiles or focus on building cities, which generate victory points? Throw in the vagaries of cards (and opponents who seek to foil you at almost every opportunity) and one finds a fascinating fun and ever-changing puzzle in every game of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea. Be warned that this is not a game for those faint of heart (nor those who hold grudges when an opponent plays a particularly nasty Event on their prized Civilization or the Gods descent, in form of a random Event, to wreak havoc). All players have an inherent “come back” ability and are, with good play, always in contention. At the end of the Competition Phase, each Civilization scores a point for each “city” it has on the map. A “city” is a stack of three tiles. Points are also awarded for Wonders built, and in the case of Phoenicia and Minos, for sea areas in which they are present (the former) or control (the latter).
Grant: You have already talked about how when civilizations come in contact it creates conflict? Is their a battle mechanic in the game? How does it work?
Mark: As I noted above, at the start of the Competition Phase in every area where two or more Civilizations (or Barbarians) are in the same area, and at least one of those has two or more Tiles, they fight. The combat is one of attrition, where the stack(s) with the least lose a tile, then the stack with the most loses a tile. This goes on until only one Civilization (or Barbarian) is left in the area or until none have more than a single tile. This situation, however, is not cut and dry. Civilizations can use their bonuses and cards to add their own or remove enemy tiles, or both. They can also discard cards and Talents (money) instead of losing tiles and that can dramatically change the odds, where the smallest stack might eventually become the larger, as its player is willing to expend cards and Talents instead of Tiles, while the player with the larger stack either does not or can not, as they might lack the resources or cards.
Fred: Mark points out another player conundrum: “Talents” (money/portable wealth). A Talent is earned by certain cards and for “looting” an enemy city. Do you use accumulated Talents to trade for Cards, to forgo Tile losses in competition, or at the end of an Epoch trade three of them in for a Victory Point each? Decisions, decisions, eh?
Grant: What role do “Wonders” play in the game? How are they built?
Mark: There are seven Wonders, which correspond to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Each is represented by a card and wooden block. These are available to every civilization. On its turn, a civilization can elect to build one – and only one – Wonder, by removing Tiles from the map and placing them on the card. Then they take the corresponding block and place it on the map where they wish to build it. Each turn, so long as they have at least one tile of theirs in that area, they can activate the Wonder. Each Wonder does something different, and each time it is used a tile is removed from the Wonder card and returned to the supply. (Each Civilization has only 48 tiles, which becomes a resource management operation). When the Wonder is out of tiles, it no longer provides its benefits (although there is an End of Epoch event to revive Wonders). Wonders also give a victory point per turn to the Civilization which BUILT the most.
Grant: Seems like a silly question, but how does a player win a game of The Inner Sea?
Mark: The simple answer is that whoever garners the most victory points wins. That means building cities and Wonders, ruling the seas (for which points are given at the end of each epoch) and doing so better than their opponents.
Grant: What do the Civilization displays look like and what information do they contain?
Mark: Each at this stage is only a half-size sheet (8.5 x 5.5) with the Civilization’s name, bonus, place for tiles in supply and a track to keep count of their cities. That last part might go, however, as we have found that the number of cities changes so frequently during the course of play. Right now it is just text, but eventually it will get prettied up.
Grant: Who are you working with on the map?
Mark: GMT will decide that. Probably either the legendary Mark Simonitch or the fabulous Charlie Kibler, who is working on Hitler’s Reich. That decision is up to GMT.
Grant: What is the planned schedule for the game? What areas need more playtesting?
Mark: It just went up on the P500 January 26th and passed the 220 order mark in the first week. As you know, GMT does not put it on the production schedule until it tops 500 (or more). So the sooner we hit that goal, the sooner it will get into the production lineup. The basic game is pretty much set right now, although we tweak it slightly after every playing by us or our playtesters. The solo scenarios are also working very well, but the more of our group who play it, and the more often, the better the end product will be. Same goes for the historical scenarios.
Grant: What has changed through the playtesting process? Please give specific examples.
Mark: The basic sequence of play has not changed much from the initial design. We did expand the deck and expand upon the text on the cards, and added Wonders and gave Civilizations more unique characteristics. Then of course we added the various ways to set up the game, including using only parts of the map and some of the civilizations, and then added on historical and solo scenarios.
Chris: My original design was more free-wheeling in that I allowed any player to play any card at any time. In actual play, that turned out to be too chaotic. In the current set of rules, players play their cards either in their turn or during the competition phase. Any player, however, may play certain cards that negate or cancel or reverse cards played by another player. There are also now some cards that may only be played during competition. Finally, we added in the concept that a player may discard ANY card in lieu of losing a tile in competition. Another major change was the sudden end to an epoch. Originally each epoch had four turns. This led to certain game play that took advantage of the looming end of epoch. Now, an epoch can end after any turn, thus reducing that trend, and shortening most games.
Grant: What do you hope players will say about the game after playing?
Mark: That they had fun! And also, that in the Bronze Age, as one playtester, Max, told his son before his first play, it was “A cruel, cruel world.” [Here is a link to this statement made in an InsideGMT post: http://www.insidegmt.com/?p=16242%5D
Chris: I would add that subsequent ages that this game spans were not much less cruel.
Grant: What are you most proud about in the design?
Mark: So many things. The short rules (which are not much longer than this interview), the ease and speed of play, the almost endless varieties of ways to set up let alone play the game, and, of course, that it offers an insight into and hopefully will spark players to read more about the era….but most of all, that it is so much fun to play!
Chris: Agree with the above, but I am most proud of the Aeneas rule, to keep a player in the game, rather than an early exit, especially in a social multi-player game.
Fred: Chris is right about the Aeneas rule… it means no one is ever completely out of contention to be the game winner. Our buddy Oliver, who play-tests with Chris and I in the D.C. area, holds the record of exiting play and returning as a new Civilization from one of the map edges twice in one game! (He had to be in last place Victory Point-wise in order to invoke the rule).
Thanks for the great comments and insight into the game Mark, Fred and Chris. I am truly excited about this game and look forward to playing it…soon! If you are interested in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea and want to pre-order it through the P500, here is the link: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-624-ancient-civilizations-of-the-inner-sea.aspx