As I have worked with Victory Point Games to do a few interviews of their great stable of designers (namely my interview with Chris Kluwe covering Twilight of the Gods and an interview with Frank Chadwick covering Thunder in the East which is still in process) I asked if they could put me in touch with a few of their other designers. One that was willing to meet my demanding interview schedule was Sean Young who is working on a cool looking fast paced chariot racing game called Chariots of Rome. After doing the interview, I will have to say that Sean is a very interesting person and did a really good job in giving information about his upcoming game. Onto the interview:
Grant: Sean, first off tell us a little about yourself. What games do you like to play? What are your hobbies and interests?
Sean: Well, I’m into all kinds of stuff. My current “Real Job” is working at Knott’s Berry Farm in Entertainment. My other hobbies include voice acting, games of all kinds, including video and board games, movies, writing, and of course game design.
Grant: How did you get into board game design?
Sean: I grew up playing games (of course video games back then were still about 5-10 years off, with exceptions like Tank, Space War, Pong, etc.). As a kid, I really liked games with miniatures in them, like Dogfight, Star Fleet Battles, even Battleship. As soon as I got into playing stuff like Dungeons and Dragons and wargames, I starting thinking about what would be fun as a game. Ever since 7th grade, I have been designing board and card games, none of which I would try making today. Well… maybe a couple of them. My best designs so far have happened in the last 10-15 years.
Grant: What games do you play?
Sean: In school I played a LOT of war games, stuff like OGRE, Car Wars, Star Fleet Battles, Nuclear War, D&D, Cosmic Encounter, Battletech, and lots of others. I did like standard old school war games, especially WWI flying games, and WWII, but preferred the sci-fi or fantasy type stuff. In the most recent years, I like Euro games, and games with historic backgrounds. I find history fascinating, and many Euros I like incorporate that, like Tikal, Carcassonne, Amun Re, Tokaido, even fantasy types like Ghost Stories or Catan. I’m still a sucker for games with minis like Axis and Allies, Shogun (Ikura), X-Wing and Wings of War are particular favorites. Love them little planes and spaceships!
Grant: What is your favorite part about design?
Sean: I love trying out new things or readapting a good mechanism into something different. One of the things I find funny is that anything I’m thinking about, my brain starts to wonder ‘How could I make that a game?’ I think this came from my being a Dungeon Master, and literally almost every character from every source, I automatically think, ‘I wonder how many hit points Darth Vader would have?’, or ‘How many dice of damage would a <insert any weapon here> do?’ I really like when everything all falls into place after you’ve worked on a game for a long time, and it not only works as a game, but it’s fun too!
Grant: What is the most difficult part about design?
Sean: Making it all work in the end! Like I said before, you want a game that not only works but is fun to play. If people don’t have fun playing a game, they are not likely to play it again. There’s no easy answer on how to make something fun, but that’s part of the art of the design process. I mean, if you can get an idea like Thurn and Taxis to work and be fun, that’s fantastic. Who would think a game about mail delivery in 17th Century Europe would be fun? It sounds boring, but the game is really fun!
Grant: Where do you feel you excel in the process?
Sean: I was a film student in college, and also I like games that have a strong narrative to them. Not story driven like say an RPG, although those are great too, but games that give you memorable events. Like the time in a big battle of Mechwarrior where my pilot had to auto-eject from his mech as it was destroyed in an ammo explosion during a raging storm. It’s moments like that that people remember, and I try to make games that will have ‘remember that one time’ type moments. In Chariots of Rome, we’ve already had some great moments with people smashing into walls and each other in our playtests and I can’t wait to see what would happen with a dozen players at a convention or game club!
Grant: When designing a game do you start with theme first or build a theme around mechanics?
Sean: Ah, one of the great debates in game design! I know some designers come up with a mechanic, and then the theme is just a façade to support the mechanic. Since most of my ideas start with the theme first, I then have to figure out what mechanics will support it. I think that the theme and mechanics are very much interwoven. I have come up with a few mechanics that could be adapted to different games, (see the Action Cards concept below), but it seems really alien to me to just make a game, and then paste a theme on it. I feel that the mechanics should grow organically out of the theme. For instance, say you want to design a game about ancient Egypt. Already, I know you have to have mechanics for workers, monuments, war, the Nile river, and maybe even the gods. Those items are all very specific and need to have something that reflects on that theme, not just a number of unrelated mechanics. I think that’s where the real art of game design lies, the ability to mesh theme and mechanics into something that both makes sense with the theme, and works as a game.
Grant: What is Chariots of Rome all about?
Sean: Well, as the title suggests it is a chariot racing game in ancient Rome. In general, each player will control one or maybe two chariots at a time, and race them around the Circus Maximus. It’s very much a game about resource management. Want to go fast, then your horses wear out faster. Stay nice and slow and steady, you’ll keep your horses in good shape, but lose ground. Should you go into a corner fast and risk wrecking your chariot and coming out in the lead, or hang back and see what the other charioteers do. It is a race, so players will have to determine when and where to take those risks to win.
Grant: What made you want to design a game based on chariot racing in Rome?
Sean: I really like the old Avalon Hill Roman games, most notably Circus Maximus, Gladiator and Republic of Rome. I also like racing games, and racing in general. There was even a crazy game I liked called Circus Imperium set in the far future, with hover chariots pulled by big alien lion things with quills for manes! Although I liked chariot racing as a theme, I always thought the other games took too long and played too slow. I wanted to make something that played faster, and really felt like a race, not a gladiator match on wheels. I also wanted to include a bit of randomness to the racing, as some games with die rolls and CRTs sometimes eliminate the chance of failure, or success, if you have enough modifiers. There’s always a chance of an unbelievable fail or outrageous, last second win in any race, and this game simulates that.
Grant: How much research did you do on the actual practice of racing?
Sean: Actually, quite a bit. The internet turned up some great information, and the books I researched seemed to support most of the internet stuff. Originally, chariot races were only held during the festival of the god Consus, the Protector of Grain. This was likely a holdover from the earlier Etruscans or Sabine. The races became so popular, that they decided to run them more and more often, until almost a third of the year was an excuse to race! Chariot races were the Formula 1 of their day. Speed was king, and everyone wanted to see them run a clean, fast race. A racing chariot was literally a wooden frame with leather straps for the floor, a single curved bar with cowhide stretched in front to deflect some of the dirt and dust. The wheels were small, and the charioteer would balance themselves on the axle. Charioteers would wear a light tunic with cords or leather straps and a small leather helmet for protection. The charioteers would wrap all four reins around their waist so as not to drop any of them, then wrap them around their left arm to steer and hold a whip in their right hand. They would also carry a small curved knife called a Falx to try to cut the reins if they got thrown off the chariot and were being dragged by the horses.
While fouls did occur, the most egregious of which often prompted boos from the crowd and a restart of the race in many cases. There were four main Ludi Circenses, or houses, Red, Blue, White and Green. During the reign of Domitian, a Purple and Gold team were also added, bet eventually the real big competitors were Green and Blue. The colors had fans, just like sports teams of today. They had star drivers, and even star horses they would come to see, and riots could break out between factions if their team didn’t win. The Circus Maximus is thought to hold from 125,000 to 150,000 people from all walks of life sitting all together, even men and women intermingled in the stands, something not common in most locales in Rome. Most of the names in the game were taken from curse tablets that people would buy and actually throw at a rival team’s drivers to attempt to make them mess up. Chariot racing was immensely popular, and some of the drivers actually made so much money from wins that they could then by their freedom (most drivers were slaves), or retire. Some of them loved racing so much that they continued to race even though they were free men. And Romans loved winners.
Grant: Have you ever seen the movie Ben Hur and did it influence the game design at all?
Sean: Yes, I’ve seen the color version with Charlton Heston, and the chariot race scene from the silent version from 1925. (It is somewhat of a misnomer that it was a ‘silent’ film, as there was a whole musical score composed for the film that would be played by a live orchestra during screenings.) As far as the chariot racing scenes go, I much prefer the 1925 version. Cinematically, I think the shots are more dynamic, and are amazing from a technical standpoint. It is interesting to me to see in that version how the chariots would kind of ‘drift’ around the corners. Wow, it’s just amazing. Here’s a link to that scene on You Tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYFI2itXed8 If that doesn’t put you in the mood for chariot racing, I don’t know what could! The chariots in the films are much more like the war chariots they used, not the stripped down, tiny chariots for the races. As far as the films’ influence on the game, I tried to make it fast paced and exciting, with lots of bumping, whipping and crashing. This may not be an entirely accurate representation of chariot racing in real life but from what I’ve researched, it got pretty physical on the track, and things like multi-chariot crashes and people being killed was a commonplace occurrence. The Romans generally liked a good bit of slaughter and mayhem, so I think the movies and my game capture that spirit.
Grant: What differing abilities does each charioteer have?
Sean: Stretch Goals permitting, there will be 17 charioteers in Chariots of Rome. Each driver has a unique ability, and you will not have every driver in every race. Many of the drivers’ abilities allow you to attack or corner better, mostly by drawing less cards or redrawing a result you don’t like. A few have some unusual abilities that let you bend the rules in your favor. Gordianus has an ability called Horse Trainer, which reads “During your Speed step, you may freely go from Speed Level I to III.” which means you can skip having to accelerate to Speed Level II first. Very useful for corners! Vitellius, the Brilliant Tactician gives you a 50% chance to recover the first Tactics Point you spend that round. The stretch goal guys will have some really neat skills, like Mercatius, the Champion Breeder, who can not only see the Initiative order, but also move one of the cards to a different position in the Initiative stack.
Grant: What role do Fate Cards play in the game?
Sean: Fate Cards put a little extra spice into the game. Each round, the first player rolls a special Fate die. Three of the sides give all players one resource back, the other three force a Fate card to be drawn. The Fate cards are <mostly> positive, giving you extra speed or attack better or corner more easily. The fate cards are meant to throw a bit more chance and uncertainty into the game, but they do not determine the outcome of the race.
Grant: How are Action Cards used?
Sean: The Action Cards are the main randomizer used in Chariots of Rome. Each card has a heading for Whip Attacks, Ram Attacks, Cornering, and Danger. Under each heading, it will show an icon as to what resource is lost for that result. For example, a whip attack forces the target to draw three Action Cards. The target would then look at the Action Cards under the Whip section and lose the resources listed. The game uses this system to resolve all conflicts.
Grant: Does each player use them on their enemies or themselves?
Sean: It depends on the situation. Whip and Ram attacks both deal three cards of damage to the target, and in the case of a Ram the attacker takes one card as well. Cornering cards are taken when you exceed the maximum safe speed for a lane in the corner, more on that below. Danger cards are drawn when you crash into a wall or another chariot, or run over debris on the track. The mix of cards are designed so that Whip attacks do fair damage, Ram attacks do a bit more, and have a higher chance to make your opponent swerve away from you, Cornering cards are set to either strain your horses, or make you swerve out, and the Danger cards, although you only draw one per Danger encountered, have a higher chance of doing two or sometimes three resources of damage.
Grant: What is the sequence of play?
Sean: There’s two phases in the game, Initiative and Charioteers. In the Initiative phase, you shuffle all of the Initiative cards and draw the first one, who takes his Charioteer phase. The first player also rolls the Fate of the Gods die to determine what resource everyone gains, or if a Fate card is drawn. The first Charioteer takes his turn which consists of three Steps, Speed, Adjustment, and Driving. Once the first Charioteer completes his turn, the next Initiative card is drawn, and the next Charioteer takes his turn, until all chariots have moved, starting a new round.
Grant: How is starting position determined? Does starting position truly matter in the game?
Sean: Starting position is done by simply shuffling the Initiative Cards, and having them place their chariot on one of the unselected start spaces of their choice. The actual position doesn’t make much of a difference, not like a Pole Position in auto racing. At the Circus Maximus, they actually had a row of twelve starting gates, called the Carceres. The gates were spring loaded, and all opened simultaneously with the pull of a single lever. The carceres was curved slightly, so that the run up to the right side of the track was equidistant for all drivers, who were expected to stay in their lanes until entering the track proper.
Grant: What information is tracked on the Chariot Mat?
Sean: Pretty much everything! You’ll have your Charioteer card with you, and the mat, which has a Status Track with 1 through 12 spaces, or I through XII for all you Roman types. This is used to place your resource counters on, as well as a Lap counter below it. You record your Speed Level to the right.
Grant: What Resource Markers are used in the game? How are they gained? Lost?
Sean: There are only 6 markers used in the game, plus your Chariot counter. The main marker is your Endurance, how much the horses can run before they give out. It can have a maximum of 12 points, which is where all horses start the race. Tactics points are also recorded here, which can be used in a number of ways; you start with one per chariot in the race. Tactics are used to attack other chariots, take less Action cards as a defense to attacks or going too fast in a corner, and they can also be used instead of Endurance. You can only have a maximum of 8. Most players will try to save at least one or two Tactics points to counter any unforeseen attacks or Danger Cards they may need to draw. Rattled points are also recorded on the Status box. You start with no Rattled counters, but acquire them during attacks and various other hazards. If you ever get to 6 Rattled points, you fall off your chariot, and lose the race.
Grant: How does the Charioteers phase work? What are the benefits and risks of choosing different speed levels?
Sean: The phase proceeds as follows: Speed Step: First, you choose which of the three speeds for this turn. This will make you move either 4, 7, or 10 spaces respectively. Speed 1 also lets you recover two Rattled counters, and gain an Endurance and Tactics point. Speed 2 moves faster, and you still get to lose one Rattled counter, but don’t get the other benefits. Speed 3 is all-out speed; you recover nothing, and you lose an Endurance point.
Adjustment Step: Some of the charioteers have special abilities which take place during this step, which generally resolve first. The charioteer can also decide to chivvy his horses, cracking the whip, snapping their reigns, and shouting commands to urge them to go faster. If you decide to do this, you spend an Endurance point and roll a d3, adding the roll to your chosen Speed for the turn.
Driving Step: The charioteer now moves his chariot along the map a number of spaces equal to his speed. You can move forward, or to an adjacent lane per move. Cornering is handled a little differently, see below. You can also make one attack per turn as well.
Grant: How does a driver’s skill play out in the game?
Sean: It depends on the driver. Some can attack or corner better, or have other effects during the race. However, each driver has his own unique skill that allows them to bend the rules in a way that benefits them in some manner.
Grant: What are Cornering stack cards? What type of effects do they cause?
Sean: When you enter a turn, the first space has a “Safe Speed” number listed on it. You add your Rattled counters to your speed for the turn to get your adjusted entry speed. If you are going slower than this speed, you are fine. If your adjusted speed is higher, than the Safe Speed, you draw one card for each point you are over. e.g. Red Chariot enters the “VI” lane at speed 13, so he would have to draw 7 Action cards for his Cornering Stack. Then each time you move into the next space, you flip the top of your stack, and resolve its effect under Cornering. The effects are losing Endurance or Tactics, Swerving, or more Rattled counters, as well as the rare No Effect. This keeps turns uncertain and a gamble if you go over more than just a few spaces. Your Cornering Stack may also exceed your turn or the corner itself, so the extra cards may play out on your next turn, or carry over onto the next straight as you try to get control of your chariot.
Grant: What is an overtake maneuver and when is it used?
Sean: Overtaking is used when you must move through another chariot, as there is no free space you could move into. It’s assumed the chariots do no take up the whole space, so this is kinda squeezing past as carefully as you can, usually a risky maneuver. You must have enough spaces of movement to both move through the chariot’s space, as well as into the new space, otherwise you just stay behind the chariot you wanted to pass, and lose one Endurance for stopping short. After you do the Overtake, you must take a Danger Action card.
Grant: How do drivers attack the other Chariots? What are the types of attacks and what do they do?
Sean: Players can attack other chariots by spending a Tactics point. Both Whip and Ram attacks do three Action Cards of damage to the target, and a ramming chariot also takes one due to the inherent dangerous nature of slamming into another chariot. Whip attacks have more No Effect results than a ram, and will generally do more Endurance, Rattled, and Tactics point damage. Rams also have an increased chance to make the chariot swerve away from the rammer, very dangerous if you are against a wall!
Grant: How are Defense tactics used? What happens when a charioteer is wounded?
Sean: Tactics points can be played on a one for one basis to negate the number of cards you need to take for any attack, cornering or danger. You need to decide this before any are drawn. The Wound result is a rare one that only appears in the Danger section. The first wound makes you flip over your charioteer card, and his ability no longer works for the rest of the game. A second wound will force you to crash and put you out of the race. There are only four Wound results in the Action deck of 64 cards, so chances are wounds will be rare occurances.
Grant: How do you win a game of Chariots of Rome? It is not necessarily about crossing the finish line first. Why?
Sean: You win by crossing the finish line for the third time, or longer or shorter, determined at the beginning of the game. If only one chariot crosses the finish line in a round, that chariot wins. If two or more chariots finish in the same round, the one who crossed the line by the farthest wins. I couldn’t find if Romans had like win, Place, or Show type results; I have a feeling they just said “Hey, Fastdudeicus won!” and didn’t give a care about second or third place, etc.
Grant: Nice. I like the Roman sounding names you have chosen for your examples. Well done! What are some of the Optional Rules? How does their inclusion change the game?
Sean: More or less laps are the easiest option. (They ran seven laps in ancient Rome, which scholars estimate made for 8-10 minute long races.) There is another option for Drafting your drivers. Instead of dealing out your charioteer randomly you place face up on the track a number of Charioteer cards equal to the number of chariots in the race plus two. Shuffle the Initiative cards and, in their order, each player chooses a driver from among those remaining on display. After all chariots have drivers, place each chariot on a Start space in reverse Initiative order.
Grant: What has been the reaction of playtesters to the game? What appears to be their favorite aspect of the game?
Sean: Early versions seemed mixed, but most of them in the past year or two have been overwhelmingly positive. Different players have enjoyed various aspects, some like the racing, some the combat, some both. I like that there is some diversity on what different players like. Whatever the reason, most of the players seem to like that it is a chariot race, and it’s a fun game.
Grant: What has changed through the playtest process? Please give specific examples.
Sean: When I started, I designed the Circus Maximus to have Hexes, instead of rectangular spaces. I really wish that I could have made that work, but the game plays much easier and faster now. Hexes seem very alien to casual or non-gamers and I could not come up with a turning system that was simple enough. Drivers all had a Driving Skill, which helped in the turns, but this was eliminated and the Safe Speeds just raised by one to average it all out. The abilities were out of whack, and those have been made more uniform. There were also Horse cards, with the name of your Star horse, which also had different Endurance, Speed and recovery chance. (maybe the horses will be making a return in a later expansion?) Plus certain combos of drivers and horses really skewed the game into some very broken proportions. The action cards were a fairly recent addition, replacing the seemly clunky and out-dated d6 based tables from the original versions.
Grant: What elements still need work?
Sean: It’s undergoing all the proofreading and the rulebook is being designed, but the artwork assets are all done. Gamewise, the playtesting has worked out the bugs, and it’s ready to roll!
Grant: What is the schedule for release?
Sean: The KickStarter is scheduled for early April 2017.
Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?
Sean: I did a weekly audio drama called Blood of Socorro County. A little lightbulb went on a while ago that with all the characters and story worked out, it would make a cool three player game with asymmetric victory conditions set in the Old West. The three factions would be the Sheriff, who just wants to keep people safe, the Barrett Clan who win if the patriarch Asa can bring his wife back from the dead, and the mad scientist Dr. Gerhardt, who wins if he can raise a new werewolf army. (He’s a werewolf, and healed Asa’s son Clay from having tuberculosis by turning him into a werewolf and is helping bring Asa’s wife back.) Also working on an older cardgame, now reimagined as a dice game called Necrodice, where you look for bodies and skeletons, and later infuse them with reagents to make them into more powerful undead. It was a two player game, but the new version is likely to be solitaire. Also, dusting off an older concept for a mech and combined forces game called M.A.R.S., which will use a highly modified Action card system since it works so well in Chariots. I also want to do a starship voyage game, and a goofy one called Get to da Choppa! which will use every cliché you can imagine for a jungle/military op gone wrong scenario, in fact ANYTHING you could imagine finding in a jungle setting, so like Jurassic Park, Predator, and Rambo and throw them all in a blender. Game designers usually have many irons in the fire.
Grant: Why did you choose to have your game published with Victory Point Games?
Sean: I have a long history with Victory Point Games. I knew Alan Emrich from the Strategicon conventions that he started back in the 80’s. I saw an add for one of their games on BGG, I think, and pitched them the idea for a couple of games. I became the first official employee, assembling games in peoples’ attics and workrooms. I published my first game with VPG called PARSEC and two expansions, as well as a new version that used all of the expansions and larger hex tiles, released as PARSEC Deluxe. Since I left VPG a few years ago, I have retained a close working relationship with them and wish to have them publish more of my games in the future.
Thanks for the great interview Sean. I really have appreciated your in-depth and well thought out answers to my questions. If you are interested in learning more about Chariots of Rome, please visit the game page on the Victory Point Games website at the following link: https://www.victorypointgames.com/news/chariots-of-rome/