As is usual for me, I was perusing the internet a few weeks ago and came across an announcement from Turning Point Simulations regarding their new line of games crafted after the famous book titled Twenty Decisive Battles of the World. I noticed that one of those games, The Invincible Armada, was designed by Mark McLaughlin who I have worked with on interviews for Hitler’s Reich and Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, both by GMT Games and currently on their P500 system. So, I reached out to Mark and he was gracious enough to agree to do another interview with me. [Note: I have done 3 interviews with Mark McLaughlin and 3 interviews with the great Brian Train so they have been my work horses and I want to thank both of them first for the great games they design and second for their willingness to work with me as neither have said no to me yet – although last time for my interview covering The Little War and Ukrainian Crisis from Hollandspiele, I had to engage in a battle of the minds with Brian Train but that is a story for another time!]
So if you don’t know anything about the Spanish Armada, it was a Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Tudor establishment of Protestantism in England, with the expectation that this would put a stop to English interference in the Spanish Netherlands and to the harm caused to Spanish interests by English and Dutch privateering.
The Armada’s mission was to travel up the English Channel to meet up with the army to transport them across the ocean to allow them to invade England. After several events, including a run in with the infamous Francis Drake, the Armada finally dropped anchor off Calais. While awaiting communications from the Duke of Parma’s army the Armada was scattered by an English fireship attack. In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines the Spanish fleet was damaged and forced to abandon its rendezvous with Parma’s army, who were blockaded in harbour by Dutch flyboats. The Armada managed to regroup and, driven by southwest winds, withdrew north, with the English fleet harrying it up the east coast of England. The commander ordered a return to Spain, but the Armada was disrupted during severe storms in the North Atlantic and a large number of the vessels were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the initial 130 ships over a third failed to return. As explained by several historians, “Philip II attempted to invade England, but his plans miscarried, partly because of his own mismanagement, and partly because the defensive efforts of the English and their Dutch allies prevailed.” So with that little history lesson, here is our interview with Mark:
Grant: Grant: You seem to really like games that involve the sea (Rebel Raiders on the High Seas & Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea to name a few). What is it about the sea for you?
Mark: I like grand strategy, and grand strategy without navies is like peanut butter without jelly (and I do eat peanut butter straight out of the jar). I put navies in my first big design, War and Peace; I put river boats and the USN in No Trumpets No Drums; I put navies in Army of the Potomac/Army of the Tennessee because I could not find a Civil War strategy game that had them, except as an abstract. In the ’80s, I designed Viceroys and Columbus, which were all about the naval explorations of the 15th century. East Wind Rain, which Chris Vorder Bruegge and I did was the Pacific in WWII, and even in Hitler’s Reich which is an abstract strategy game, I made sure there were fleets and cards that reflect naval assets and strategy (wolfpacks, convoys, fleet carrier, the Bismarck, Higgins boats, etc.)
Even though my miniatures collection is 90 percent armies, I have a couple of cases of ships….and in my quadruple sized mounted map for Napoleonic Wars, there are ships from the old Broadsides game for the fleets (and 15mm painted soldiers for the army strength points). And that is why I did Rebel Raiders, as there was no other Civil War game I found that focused on the naval war, which was vital to the Confederacy and to bringing it down. Blame Mahan and Thucydides…and C.S. Forester!
“I like grand strategy, and grand strategy without navies is like peanut butter without jelly (and I do eat peanut butter straight out of the jar).”
Grant: You also used Christopher Vorder Bruegge, who has worked with you on at least one game, as a naval historical consultant. What were his duties? Did you meet him prior to this game design and what drove you to work with him on Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea?
Mark: Chris and I met at Georgetown in 1971. We met pushing lead soldiers across the floor in the common room of my dorm. We have been fast friends and gaming pals ever since…heck, he is godfather to my son! If you took a piece of paper and put an inkspot on it, the spot would be what I know about navies and the paper would be what he knows. Heck, he even married a sailor (well, a Navy nurse, but one who did spend time at sea). Chris is not a navy man but did go to the Naval War College, and for every navy book or novel I have read, and I have read a lot, he has read five. Inner Sea is his game. He came up with the idea. He showed it to me and I really liked it, and then he told me to “take it and work with it.” I had to set it aside for two years due to moving twice and because of other game commitments (Hitler’s Reich, Holy Roman Empire, the two expansions to that – Battles of the Thirty Years War and Battles of the English Civil War —No Trumpets No Drums and, of course, Armada.) Once those were out of the way, (Hitler’s Reich is way beyond the design process and now into the fiddly bit phase where my developer truly shines) I was able to get back to Inner Sea. It has become a passion (and one only made more so by the release of Civilization VI…Chris and I are both huge fans of the Sid Meier computer game series, and have been playing it since the very first edition – we even sit side by side and play cooperative as the same civ sometimes, and have done so for almost 30 years). Chris, by the way, was a huge help in getting me going on Armada…he loaned me a classic book he had had since high school, and which was the basis for a school paper he had done long, long, long ago…
Grant: What is The Invincible Armada about?
Mark: It is a game about the Spanish Armada – and done short, simple and quick to play as a strategic game with a tactical flavor…but at the squadron not ship level.
Grant: I understand it is #10 of 21 planned volumes on the Greatest Battles in World History. How were you chosen for the design? Will you be doing any of the future volumes?
Mark: The others were all assigned or in process when I was invited to take on Armada. Two other designers had started the design, and each gave up, saying it could not be done either as a game, or at least as a game within the very tight physical parameters set by the publisher.When the publisher off-handedly asked me while I was standing at his booth at a convention if I would like to take a shot at it, I leapt at the chance. First off, because of the topic, which has always interested me, and second because I still have the 1965 paperback edition of the book Twenty Decisive Battles of the World, which the series is based on…and which I read while I was in grammar school!
Grant: What can you tell us about Turning Point Simulations? How did you become acquainted with them?
Mark: We go way back. Ed Wimble of Clash of Arms and I have known each other for over 30 years — and he was going to publish a Roman game of mine (elements of which I brought over to incorporate into Inner Sea) but it fell through due to financial constraints at the time. Steve and I worked very closely together even back then – that is our “meet cute” as they say.
Grant: Now onto a look at Armada. I understand the game board has a Tactical and Strategic map. How is this design used in the game? How did you come up with the idea? What does it add to the experience?
Mark: As I told the publisher the day he asked me if I could and would do a game on this subject, the Armada is basically a WW1/WW2 convoy trying to get from point A to point C, with a stop in between at B to load up. Only this time, it is not the British trying to push through a convoy, but the Spanish — and the Brits being the U-boats, raiders, and surface fleet out to stop them. The strategic map is simple and straightforward – as there was only one route the Armada could take. The English, however, had strategic choices – like when to attack the Armada, when to pull back to regroup, and when to hit again and how. To keep it purely strategic, however, would not address the other big issues involved in the affair – like how the Armada defended itself and tried to stay true to its mission or how to represent the slow but steady erosion of the Armada, let alone the climax of the fire ships in Calais. So, I decided to use a tactical map to allow the players to move their squadrons about to reflect all of those elements.
Grant: This game appears to have only a few counters. How do you decide a game of this scale with such low counter density? Was it always contemplated as low counter density in the design?
Mark: The number of counters, first of all, was one of the key design parameters given to me by the publisher. I could only have as many as would fit in their model. That meant there was no way I could represent every or even the biggest ships (nor would I want to, as that would be a totally different kind of game)…but I could do the squadrons (after all, we are talking about 300 ships of varying size between the two fleets). So one set of counters represents the squadrons. Nice, reasonably bigger counters. Then there are the event chits, also a goodly size that you can pull from a cup and still read. Then there are the information counters, which show the hits on the squadrons, their ammunition level, etc. We got the maximum number of counters we could fit in the template, and in a way that made sense — actually, if I had had more counter sheets to work with I would not have added any more counters – only made those for the squadrons and events even bigger.
Grant: What counters are represented?
Mark: There are only 15 playing pieces on the Tactical Map including 10 Spanish and 5 English Squadrons. The Strategic Map has even fewer – the 5 English Squadrons and a single piece for the Armada. Everything else is made up of Event Chits and Information Counters.
Grant: How are the Tactical matrix markers used? How are the squadron markers used?
Mark: The English Squadrons maneuver on the strategic map. Once they are in the same space with the Armada, they appear on the Tactical Map. When two Squadrons fight, each has a choice of three tactics. Each player secretly chooses one and when you cross reference them, you see which if any gets an advantage…or if one side gets to fire first (like when the other side is trying to board) or if it is simultaneous.
Grant: What events are included in the game and how do they affect game play?
Mark: There are 48 Event Chits with each player drawing two a turn. These can make squadrons move faster, shoot better (or worse), fight better in boarding actions, cause damage, fix damage, help rally broken morale, etc. There are quite literally Soldiers, Priests, Gunners, Heros, Collision, Leaking Casks, Seasickness…and even The Hand of God. All of these actually occurred in the campaign (and even the intervention of diety, as the English medal that was struck commemorating the victory – God Blew and They Were Scattered – which was also the original subtitle of the game.).
Grant: Are there any DRMs that are used in the game?
Mark: The Event Chits are pluses and minuses to shooting and boarding actions, and the cross-reference of the Tactics adds another set of DRMs. There are also modifiers for the status of the squadron in terms of its morale, losses and ammunition level. The English also tend to shoot a bit better and the Spanish board – or repel boarders – better, as these were their styles and strengths….except for Francis Drake, of course, who wanted to go full Errol Flynn, swinging across on the lines, a sword clenched in his teeth and an Eric Korngold score swelling in the background.
Grant: Tell us how are the Galleass, Urcas and Hulks used?
Mark: Of the seven battle squadrons, one was made up of four massive galleasses – these floating fortresses could move by sail or by oar – and that meant they did not have to worry as much about the winds, which in any game involving sailing ships is a big part of it. So, they can dart around and actually move INTO the wind — which nobody else can do.
Three of the ten Spanish squadrons are supply ships…the Hulks and Urcas which carried many of the soldiers as well as their supplies, horses, heavy guns and the like. These are nigh on worthless in combat, and only defend if attacked. They do, however, resupply the battle squadrons when they run low on ammo but only once per each of the three supply squadrons. The loss of these, moreover, makes it much harder for the Spanish to win — as getting these through was the main job of the battle squadrons.
Grant: How did you design the game to replicate 16th century naval combat? Why is shot and reloading included in the game? How does weather affect things?
Mark: I think the tactical system gives a flavor of the fighting in the era. Long range gun duels did very little damage, but they did have a wearing effect on morale and supplies, hence the low ammo rule. There are Event Chits that modify all of that as well. Weather has a tremendous impact on the movement of the Armada, both strategically and tactically and the wind most of the time blows only one way in the channel in the summer, but it can and did shift a couple of times, leaving one side or the other (especially the Spanish) at a disadvantage – or even preventing any combat or forward movement from happening. The weather table reflects that. Also, tactically, a sailing ship cannot sail directly into the wind…and that plays a big role on how the English attempt to try to close to attack.
Grant: What is the Turn Sequence?
Mark: English Tactical Move – Spanish Tactical Move – Reorganize/Reinforce – Weather/Strategic Move – Draw Event Chits….Rinse and repeat. Combat occurs only during the tactical move phase, as does repair, rally and resupply. A squadron gets to either fight or do one of the three Rs…but not both.
Grant: How is Tactical movement handled? Which side’s ships are more easily moved in the game? How important is wind direction and how is it determined?
Mark: As I noted above, a sailing ship cannot sail directly into the wind – but the one Spanish galleasse squadron can. The English ships do move faster and are more agile, and they can dart about the squares on the tactical board more easily…but only to a point.
Grant: How does combat work? What is the best strategy to use for the Spanish? The English?
Mark: Each of the squadrons on both sides has something they do best. Howard wants to stand off at long range. Frobisher has the heavy ships that can withstand Spanish fire as he closes. Hawkins can resupply ammo better – and Drake, well, he is the Errol Flynn of the game (or Clive Owen in the Elizabeth the Golden Age movie). The English can also disengage from a fight – run away to fight another day – provided they pass their morale to do so (and have an open space they can get to, wind direction and other squadrons not being in their way permitting). On the Spanish side, they generally fight better at close action – but the downside is that close action is bloodier than shooting, and the Spanish job, as their commander chided his captains, was not to kill the English but to get through to pick up and then land the army. The Spanish usually can not do both – as if they take a lot of damage from battle, even if victorious, they might not be in a condition to complete their mission. On the other hand, if they can bash the Brits without taking too much damage, it can be clear sailing ahead…
Grant: How are combat hits resolved?
Mark: You roll the dice, modify with the various DRMs and see if you miss, hit, or hit big. In some tactical match ups one side gets to fire first and the other then has to take morale checks – and if it fails will either not shoot back or will do so poorly. Errol Flynn (Drake) for example might not close to board, try as hard as he might (although he has a morale die roll modifier to make it easier to do just that).
Grant: How does the repair, rally and resupply actions take place?
Mark: Instead of fighting, you instead spend your action to try to do one of the above – with a die roll, and maybe a DRM from the squadron commander or an Event Chit.
Grant: How does disengage and reorganize work? Why was this aspect included in the design?
Mark: This is how the English fought and therefore was used to make the game historically accurate to each side’s strategy and fighting style. They hit, they pulled back, they hit again, pulled back to get more shot, were joined by more ships, reorganized and hit again. They were rarely caught wrong-footed, and could almost always get out of harms way if they wanted to…
Grant: How is disengage and reorganize different when the Spanish are in the Calais Roads box? Why was this included in the design?
Mark: Calais Roads is a port at which the Spanish are at anchor. When the fireships came, most of the captains panicked, cut their anchor cables and scattered — to his great credit the Duke of Medina Sidonia, although having never ever been at sea let alone in command of a ship or fleet, managed to get most of them back together…then the English came and, as the Queen’s medal commemorates, God Blew and They Were Scattered.
Grant: Tell us about the Fire Ships? What happened historically in this event?
Mark: The Spanish picket boats actually caught two of the fireships, and while the rest did not inflict a great deal of damage, their morale impact was enormous. As I noted above, many Spanish captains cut their anchor cables – which would make things much harder for them later – and the fleet became disorganized.
Grant: How does the Armada Rendezvous procedure work and what is its purpose?
Mark: The mission of the Armada was to rendezvous with the army and take them across the English Channel to invade England. Unfortunately, when they got to the port the army wasn’t there – it was still on its way. This left the Armada sitting quite vulnerable. Had the army been there, been ready to go, had the barges ready for loading, things might have turned out quite differently. As it was, there was no invasion force to load, and thus no invasion of England.
Grant: What weather changes the ability to rendezvous?
Mark: The Event Chits take care of that.
Grant: What are the victory conditions for each side? What is each side’s strategy to reach those conditions?
Mark: The Armada has to get to Calais, pass morale, survive the fireships, load the army, get to England and then land. If the fleet is battered, it will be harder for it to pass the morale tests for each stage, and then if they do load and deliver the invasion force, it is still a die roll based on the condition of the Armada. A strong, cohesive Armada will unload and support a strong invasion force; a weak, disorganized one will either not be able to perform its mission, or will do so in such a way that the invasion might be repulsed by the English.
Grant: What are the What If? Variants? How do they change the normal gameplay and what challenges do each present?
Mark: There are 48 random events in the game, PLUS the weather table and morale rolls….and then there are seven major What If? variants that help the Spanish – and five that help the English. Players can mix and match as many of these (or as few, or none) as they want. Every game is different, more so if the What Ifs are added. These are all historical possibilities. Drake’s Raid on Cadiz could have failed – which means the Spanish fleet would have been better supplied. The original commander of the Armada died before it set sail – and he was a true admiral, whose presence could have made a big impact. The Duke of Parma could and should have had the army ready to rendezvous – but for so many reasons, most of them not his fault, he did not. The Spanish gunners were poorly trained – but they could have been much better. Many were land artillerymen, and many of their guns were mounted on field carriages – not naval carriages – which made it difficult and at times impossible to reload their guns. The pro-Spanish What Ifs address that. Hawkins had to lobby long and hard to make the reforms in ship building and handling, let alone tactics – had these not gone through the English would not have been as strong or as flexible as they were. Not all of the What Ifs, however, help the Spanish. There are five that help the English – which could have made the defeat of the Armada even more likely, and which if mixed with the pro-Spanish options can make for a wild game.
Grant: What aspects from the historical event did you want to make sure and model in the game design? Did you succeed?
Mark: I saw this as a WWI/II naval convoy battle, but with sailing ships. I think I represented that, and what happened (or could have happened) quite well – and in a game that you can play quickly, can mod with various What Ifs, and get a different result every time.
Grant: With around 8 fights in a typical game how often do the Spanish actually make it to their end goal?
Mark: In playtesting, they usually reached England about four times out of ten…and if they got that far, then usually would win three out of those four…..which is about right. After all, the Spanish did NOT win, but COULD have – although as every historian (and many of King Phillip’s advisers at the time) noted, the odds were heavily stacked against them.
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process? Please be specific.
Mark: Honestly, not a lot. My initial ideas and concepts worked out quite well from the start. Mostly, it was just a matter of adjusting the DRMs, changing up the Events and What Ifs, and making sure the rules on tactical movement and combat got across correctly….and for that I have the editors, Jim Werbaneth and Lembit Tohver to thank….as well as Mark Mahaffey, who did such a good, clean, clear job on the counters.
Grant: What experience do you hope players have with the game?
Mark: Most importantly, I hope they have fun, get some kind of a feel for what each side did and tried to do, and that it sparks them to watch a movie, do an online search or read a book on the subject. Most of all, of course, is that they have fun — whether playing with a friend or solitaire.
Grant: How long do games typically last? How is replayability? What potentially changes with each play?
Mark: No game ever went over two hours in playtest – and many ended after only 90 minutes. That means you can play, take a break, switch sides and play again, or take the same sides but just fold in some of the What Ifs. The game is always different, even if you don’t use any of the What ifs….and if you do, well, with seven Spanish and five English What Ifs to mix and match, that makes for dozens of possibilities. You can make the Spanish do some things or everything better; you can make the English do some things or everything worse. Or a combination of those…some What Ifs are minor, others major, especially if combined with others. In sum, you get a lot of game in a little box.
Thanks again for your time Mark. I always learn a lot about design when I talk to you about your games. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Invincible Armada from Turning Point Simulations, please visit this link: https://www.turningpointsimulations.com/Details.cfm?ProdID=26&category=0
Also check out our unboxing video as well to get a closer look at the board and components.