I will give credit for finding this great game to a fellow gaming enthusiast and Twitter user @beatdarwin who mentioned to me that I should reach out to Rick Heli to ask him about his game Founding Fathers. I took his advice and reached out via a cold direct message on Twitter and Rick was kind enough to respond with enthusiasm and the rest is history. So with that being said, here is our interview with board game designer Rick Heli:
Grant: Rick, tell us a little about yourself. What is your day job? What games do you like? Favorite flavor of ice cream?
Rick: I guess I’m easily bored as I’ve done a lot of different things, mostly in software. I was a computer science and math major with a minor in history and currently am a technical writer. Maybe that tendency to get bored is why I like games. Every new one is a different world to explore.
I tend to like Experience games, i.e. ones that firmly grasp their theme and provide an in-depth view of some topic. Usually this means history or science. On the other hand I received the gift of playing card games from my parents and am quite happy doing that as well.
Mint chocolate chip – is it a telltale? 🙂
Grant: Tell us about your alter ego A Spotlight on Games.
Rick: Way too long to be a website name! Or at least that’s what people tell me. 😉 But I figured, who types these days. We just click. So I hope, for the curious, you’ll put a clickable link here: http://spotlightongames.com
This year is the 20th anniversary of the site. Like a lot of serious gamers, all my game boxes have my sheets of paper in them: analyses, variants, charts, summaries, errata, etc. When the World Wide Web came along I thought, why not put them out there for all to use and enjoy? Later, I started playing a large number of different titles and just to keep them all straight in my own mind, wrote a quick review of each, often from a design perspective. There are at least 1,700 such. Another of the earliest features were ludographies or lists of games on a topic or of a type. This is the most common type of activity on the site today, but there are also rules translations, bibliographies, historical articles, interviews, tips for game designers and so on.
Grant: What got you interested in board game design?
Rick: In the fifth grade we were allowed, once a week, to bring in games and play for half an hour. One child brought in Clue, which fascinated me with its color and flavor, though it would no doubt seem terribly drab today. The set was missing its instructions so we were playing, as it were, by hearsay. Was it allowed to move diagonally or not? Did one have to reach a room by exact count as in Candyland, or not? That night at home I fantasized about the game, attempting to hand-create a set for myself. In such simple ways began concerns about playing games as they were intended by their designers as well as creating games for myself. I’ve written about subsequent activities at http://spotlightongames.com/review/reviewer.html
Grant: What do you love most about the design process? What part do you find to be the most challenging?
Rick: The research and figuring out how to model the important game processes. Graphic design and production are the most challenging, though. I feel I am learning how to handle them better and am always enjoying them more.
Grant: What is Founding Fathers about?
Rick: Oh about two to three hours, for the first epoch, depending on the group.
Oh! That’s probably not what you meant. 😉 Well, it explores national policies and politics in America beginning with the Washington administration up to the possible start of the Civil War, including addressing all the most important issues of the era, including economics, elections and other factors.
Grant: How has the theme been created and integrated into the design? Were you true to history or did you sacrifice anything for game play?
Rick: Fundamentally, players represent politicians of the period who have various attributes. Issues – and they’re quite specific, whether historical or speculative – arise in the form of cards, and players decide how to act upon them, often by voting.
It’s a relatively large topic so some abstractions were necessary, but by and large it’s accurate. For example, in finance, the US starts out in debt at the same level it did in real life. Each war or other issue costs the same as it did in real life. The number of Statesmen deaths tries to match the rate that occurred in real life. The electoral counts for the various states match those the states had in real life (taking an average value when the numbers changed). I could go on, but there are too many things. An objection might be that politicians of opposing parties can be in the same faction; if this bothers players, the Historical Factions variant in the Offices & Statesmen expansion addresses it.
Another objection might be a certain unreality in assigning cabinet officers who gain popularity therefrom, and then somehow their entire faction votes to support the President. Admitted! But Presidents did try to appoint cabinet members so as to satisfy all parts of the country. For example, when Polk tried to appoint a New Yorker and the New Yorker turned him down, he didn’t look for the next most qualified man, he looked for the next most qualified New Yorker. This shows that faction was important to him. Similarly, politicians who entered the cabinet did achieve greater fame. Nobody had heard much about William H. Crawford of Georgia, for example, until Madison appointed him Secretary of War. From there he moved to Treasury and eventually to running for President. So even though the game can’t work exactly like real life, it’s not that far off.
Sometimes people have questioned things in the game – e.g. Hamilton’s eligibility to become President or how the election is determined if nobody has a majority in the electoral college – and I have pointed out that the rules of the game simply follow those in the US Constitution, which I like to call the original rule book. You can read more about this in several articles on the history of the period and how it relates to the game: http://upandawaygames.com/FoundingFathers/vignettes/
Sorry for the long answer!
Grant: No problem, we love meaty answers! I understand the game uses The Republic of Rome at least for partial inspiration. What parts did your design borrow from this classic game and why?
Rick: I borrowed the following from The Republic of Rome:
- Players control factions that consist of variously-abled Statesmen who compete for the top jobs.
- Players are in competition, but also need to work together to solve issues that come out of a deck lest the entire enterprise fail.
- Statesmen have votes in a legislature that they use to approve or vote down proposals.
Like so many, I found The Republic of Rome a great game, but in terms of game technology, somewhat antiquated. So I wanted to enjoy that sort of game, but in a more modern, easier-to-drive chassis. And since our founders very much looked to Rome in the design of the government, it was a natural fit.
Grant: What experience do you hope players get from Founding Fathers?
Rick: I like to think that there are multiple perspectives on what’s fun about the game. I hear players mention a pretty wide variety of aspects: :
- re-living the historical narrative of our nation, including possibly learning more about it
- the fun of changing the way history went, alternate Presidents, etc.
- the fun of negotiating and seeing if you can successfully hammer out deals to your advantage
- playing it almost as a role-playing game using expressions like “Would the esteemed gentleman from North Carolina…”, etc.
- getting a feel for what it’s like to be President, have what are often difficult issues land in your inbox and see what kind of solutions you can come up with
- using clever and sneaky card plays to achieve your goals and annoy the competition
- the way you must both compete and cooperate with the other players
- that you can play over fifty of our early Statesmen such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Jackson, and so on, up to Lincoln, even including folks like Aaron Burr
- the deeper planning aspects
- and there may be more that I don’t know about.
“Excellent, excellent game. Had an absolute blast. We were totally invested. You have created a sandbox that allows me to be a politician. Some played like Frank Underwood, others like LBJ.” ~ Hans van der Drift
Grant: Please describe the unique game board and explain how it drives the theme.
Rick: Doesn’t the game board look great? Luca Cammisa, our artist, really did a wonderful job with it. He is a game designer too, by the way. Everyone should check out his Democracy Under Siege, the game of geopolitics in the 1930s. The board is really just there to track various quantities, but the map of the US states, so important for elections, is another board of sorts, a modular one, consisting of state cards. It changes constantly as the players admit new states to the Union. Winning an election is a matter of claiming states that radiate out from the home state – elections were very sectional in those days. Whoever can do that best, to gather the most electoral votes, becomes President.
Grant: What are the mechanics of the game? How do players go about trying to become President and form the new nation?
Rick: To become President it’s a good idea to become very popular. Having the most, or with the latest expansion, sometimes the second most, popularity (a countable quantity in the game) gets your party’s nomination. You gain popularity by being appointed to positions, solving issues the way the people want and by making speeches. Getting elected is mostly a matter of your party having the most public support at election time – you can influence this via newspapers (an investment track), speeches (a die roll) and policy choices (voted on by players) – and picking a Vice Presidential candidate who balances your ticket, as was common practice in those days. If you do all those things well, you will probably garner the most electoral votes and become President. Once President, the real work begins. You have to ensure the economic vitality of the nation. You have to deal with possibly ruinous wars. And of course you’ll want to get re-elected. With that we’ve come full circle.
Grant: How does the President choose his cabinet and what role does it play in the game?
Rick: I’ve seen various approaches to cabinet appointments. As one player – Hans van der Drift, from Australia – once said, “some play like Frank Underwood, others like Lyndon B Johnson.” What I think he means in game terms is that because cabinet appointments confer either popularity or influence, some Presidents mainly appoint members of their own faction and care little about solving the issues they’re facing. Others try to solve issues and offer cabinet positions to their fellow players in exchange for their support in Congress. There are also combined approaches, sometimes depending on exactly which issues happen to arise. I should mention as well that on a more mundane level there are some restrictions. At most, one member of the other party can take a partisan cabinet position. And certain positions, such as Secretary of the Navy, require that the appointee have military ability.
Grant: What special abilities do the Action cards offer?
Rick: The Action cards reflect all of the more irregular things the characters in the game did. The most talked about card is probably the Duel, whereby you can have one of your military-minded Statesman challenge another, who must then either risk his life or lose popularity. But there are a lot of other important Action cards, including spying, sabotage, election fixing in particular states, exposing scandals, building Congressional coalitions, increasing sectional tension, founding independent Texas, and many more.
Grant: How do players vote for bills? What happens if a bill is not approved? What becomes of it?
Rick: Each Statesman has a printed number of Congressional votes. In addition, a faction may have extra votes due to Coalition Building cards. Finally, factions and Statesman can get extra votes by spending influence points. Each player adds up all of these quantities to determine the number of votes cast. If the players does not approve the President’s proposal, the fate of the issue varies. Some, such as state admissions, return to the deck for reconsideration, while others, such as Ending Slavery, go away permanently.
Grant: How do bluffing and subterfuge come into play?
Rick: This can be a pretty freewheeling game so there is considerable scope for it, if you have the imagination. The way that is most similar to other games is to play Action cards that have some special effect, especially if they undo what you have said you will support. But in general, there is the ability to act as if you want things to go one way and then at the last second change your mind and have them go another. This obviously applies to resolving issues, which affects the whole nation, but also to collaborative party politics in terms of newspapers and speeches, and also applies to resolving the election. More than once a candidate who was supposed to be just the Vice President has instead been elected President, a possibility that almost occurred in 1800.
Grant: How do players score victory points?
Rick: Statesmen gain popularity points by resolving issues, taking offices, making speeches and via some Action cards. When a Statesman retires or dies, or when the game ends, the player converts popularity points into victory points.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Rick: The game can end in more than one way. If players reach the last issue card, the one having the most points wins. If it ended because the nation collapses or tensions got so high that Civil War broke out, then it’s the most points, but players must each subtract from their scores their influence points and votes in Congress. In this way, the players having the most control at the moment pay the highest price for things having gone wrong.
Grant: What are examples of some of the issues that players will have to overcome?
Rick: Issues represent decision points in the nation’s history. Some are threats of war like the British Attacks on Shipping, others propose to embark on a project like creating a national bank, admitting a state or changing the law, like the Bill of Rights. Some Issues depend on earlier ones. The most far reaching of these is End Slavery though, which when resolved causes a whole host of later issues not to arise.
Grant: I understand the game is designed for 3-6 players. At which number does it work best? At what number is it not the same?
Rick: Actually, the Founding Fathers: Offices & Statesmen expansion offers rules for 1-2 players as well. But it’s difficult to give a definitive answer because, as I mentioned above, people enjoy it for different reasons. At 1-3 players, you probably have quicker games, but less or no room for negotiation, the opposite being true when you get to 5-6 players. The Historical Factions variant requires exactly 4. It really depends on the type of experience you’re after.
Grant: What does the new expansion Ladies & Orators add to the game? How does it change or make the game different?
Rick: The following elements are included in the Ladies & Orators expansion:
- Eight Statesman have oratorical abilities added that enhance their ability to gain popularity by making speeches.
- Three Statesmen now have extra ability when they serve as General.
- If you grant women the vote, three female politicians enter play.
- New rules mean that Presidential candidates who lose twice must bow out.
- If you pass the Sedition Act you can put your fellow politicians on trial.
In summary, some Statesmen have become more interesting, enfranchising women has more game effects, ineffectual party leaders cannot indefinitely prevent the candidacies of others and there is more opportunity for intrigue.
Grant: What new components are included in the expansion? Can you show us some examples of the new cards and explain how they are used?
Rick: It’s a small one, just 18 cards and 5 black plastic rings. For example, borrowing an idea from the as-yet-unpublished sequel to Founding Fathers, now Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor have extra ability when acting as general. Others now have an orator ability that lets them make speeches without paying influence points and with a greater chance of success.
Grant: What are the black rings used for?
Rick: They are placed on candidates who lose the election. Anyone who gets two of these cannot run for President anymore. The rules on this aspect are actually more involved than this, but this is the nutshell version.
Grant: How do you put other politicians on trial?
Rick: There is a Tried for Sedition card that players can use on politicians in the opposition party if the Sedition Act has been passed.
Grant: What are the in-game advantages to granting women’s suffrage? How does it change the game? Who are the different female politicians included in the Ladies and Orators expansion?
Rick: The short-term advantage is to the conservative party because, following the prevailing wisdom of the time, the game supposes most woman voters of the period would favor conservative policies. The other effect, however, is to add three lady politicians to the game as playable personalities – Abigail Smith, Dolley Todd and Jessie Benton — and only one of them is conservative.
Grant: What is the MSRP for the expansion and where can we find it?
Rick: No MSRP, but sold exclusively at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/founding-fathers:-ladies-orators
Thanks so much for this interview! It was a lot of fun.
Anyone who wants to learn more is invited to visit http://upandawaygames.com
We thank you for your time Rick and appreciate the thorough description you gave us of your game Founding Fathers. As a lover of history, I am intrigued by this game and will definitely be adding it to my collection.