I still remember the shock and awe that I felt when I read the February GMT Games Update and saw that not only was there a new COIN game being offered but that it was a little bit of a non-conventional one at that! The new COIN game was none other than Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India 1917-1947 and I immediately went about reaching out to it’s designer Bruce Mansfield to ask about doing an interview. He was very eager to do so and worked with me to provide some information about the game and to answer the burning question that I had, “How can a COIN game, a game based on Counter Insurgency, Terror and Warfare, incorporate into it’s system a non-violent faction?” Well, after reading the interview, I was sold and became even more excited to play this great looking game.
Grant: Bruce. First off tell us about yourself. What games do you like to play? What games have you designed and/or developed?
Bruce: I’ve been a boardgamer for roughly 30 years, since receiving Axis & Allies when I was 12. I played RPGs in junior high and wargames in high school and college. Back then I was a big fan of Avalon Hill games like Up Front, Advanced Third Reich, and Breakout: Normandy; I wrote a few articles for The General; and even attended an Avaloncon (6th place in Attack Sub!). Real life took over for a decade or so after the collapse of Avalon Hill, but I rediscovered the hobby around 10 years ago and have enjoyed exploring new wargame designs. My current favorites include the COIN series, Unconditional Surrender: Europe, Axis Empires, and the Combat Commander series. I also enjoy Phil Eklund games; High Frontier remains one of my favorites. Several years ago, I jumped into game design with an entry for Chris Hansen’s BGG Solitaire Design Contest. I submitted Raider 16, a solo game about the most successful German merchant raider of WWII. A few years later I reworked the theme into a new design, Raider 33, also for the BGG Solitaire contest.
Grant: What is your greatest challenge with board game design? What do you love about it?
Bruce: I feel that a strong game design combines elements of good storytelling with elegant mechanics that help the player understand the reasons that the history unfolded as it did. The biggest challenge for me has been balancing these goals in a way that is still interesting and fun to play. I think a good game should be a space to explore; finding out what a game can do, finding the hidden ways that pieces and mechanics interact, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hobby for me. I can remember vividly the moment playing A Distant Plain when I saw that the Coalition and Government weren’t really on the same side and maybe, as the Coalition, there might be times when I didn’t want to retake control of a province. I thought: “Wow, that’s a terrific design to build that in for me to find.” And then: “Wow, now I get Afghanistan just a little bit more.” That’s the power of a good design to open up the world just a little.
Grant: Tell us about the process of you landing a COIN game to design. There has to be a story there!
Bruce: Gandhi started as my third entry for the 2015 BGG Solitaire contest. I had been thinking about modeling nonviolence for some time and thought that a solitaire game would be a good fit. I had been playing a lot of COIN and was impressed by the way that Volko’s system modeled asymmetrical conflicts; it seemed perfect for nonviolent conflict. I started developing a modified COIN-inspired game, but by the contest entry deadline I didn’t have a finished product and pulled out. This early prototype sat untouched for almost a year. That winter, I played a lot of Liberty or Death and started rethinking Gandhi. I dove back into the design and by late summer of 2016, I had a playable prototype. I built a VASSAL module for it (basically I copied Joel Toppen’s awesome COIN modules), made a video of myself playing it, and sent the whole package to Volko in September. He contacted me shortly thereafter and suggested a live playtest, which happened a week later. He spoke to Gene at GMT and they offered to publish Gandhi. I have no doubt that without Volko’s support this wouldn’t have happened, he’s terrific.
Grant: Why did you want to design a game about Gandhi and his nonviolent struggle for the freedom of India?
Bruce: When I decided to build a game that models nonviolence, I originally started working on the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I played around with some ideas but eventually dropped it because I don’t think it works well within the COIN system. After all, King wasn’t leading an insurgency to overthrow the state, he was pushing for the state to enforce laws already on the books. Plus, who would want to play the Segregationist Faction?
India was a natural alternative. It is one of the best known and most significant modern nonviolent struggles and the narrative is fascinating. Many of the nonviolent struggles since deliberately reference Gandhi’s philosophy and the techniques of nonviolence developed in India.
Grant: What in the history led you to believe the COIN system was the best fit for this struggle?
Bruce: The Indian Independence movement was a natural fit for COIN, and the more I studied India in the first half of the 20th century, the better it fit the COIN model. It had all the necessary bits: an insurgency to overthrow the state, multiple factions with competing goals, and provided players a chance to see both violent and nonviolent resistance in the same conflict.
Grant: But…a wargame with no fighting. How can that be? What challenges were there in the design dealing with this apparent paradox?
Bruce: One of my goals as a designer is to widen the conversation about conflict to include nonviolent movements. After all, nonviolence is not rare and has had a significant and lasting impact on history, particularly in the last 100 years. Recent studies have shown that there are just as many nonviolent campaigns as violent ones and, perhaps surprisingly, historical nonviolent campaigns have succeeded twice as often as violent ones.
One of the challenges is that the broad success of nonviolent movements is essentially unknown, even to conflict scholars (I recommend Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works as a good primer on nonviolence, though it does not address India specifically). There are many widely held misconceptions about nonviolence that need to be addressed: “nonviolence is passive,” “nonviolence eschews fighting,” “nonviolence is a weapon of the weak,” “nonviolence only works against a liberal or democratic opponent,” “a nonviolent campaign cannot organize the numbers of people that a violent campaign can,” etc. All of these are false.
Instead, think of nonviolence as a strategic tool that can be successfully wielded to affect change from within. A nonviolent campaign must be built much like a military one: organization, training, discipline, clearly defined goals, adequate resources, and resiliency over time are all essential. Where a nonviolent campaign differs is in its choice of tools and tactics. Whereas a violent campaign may choose terrorism or assassination to achieve its goals, a nonviolent campaign would choose non-cooperation or civil disobedience.
But what, after all, are the end goals? In none of the COIN games are terror or enemy casualties a victory condition (except for the Arverni in Falling Sky and perhaps indirectly in A Distant Plain and Fire in the Lake). Rather, terror is a tool to shift support toward opposition; casualties are a tool to gain control over a space. But violence is not the only path toward the goal of destabilizing and ultimately collapsing the state apparatus. Nonviolence works because its tools remove the support structures the state requires to maintain its power. The challenge in designing a game that includes nonviolence is to give the players the tools they need to achieve their goals, even if those goals are not substantially different than those of a violent campaign.
“Instead, think of nonviolence as a strategic tool that can be successfully wielded to affect change from within. A nonviolent campaign must be built much like a military one: organization, training, discipline, clearly defined goals, adequate resources, and resiliency over time are all essential.”
Grant: Let’s start with the basics. What four factions are represented and how do each have their own unique flavor? How do they compare to factions in other COIN offerings? Any major differences?
Bruce: The four factions are: the British Raj, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the Revolutionaries.
The British Raj are kind of a mix of the Government factions seen in the first four COIN games and the Coalition/US factions from A Distant Plain and Fire in the Lake. They have two types of forces: Sepoys and Troops. Sepoys, Indians who worked for the Raj, act much like the familiar Police of earlier COIN games but have more flexibility to move around India than Police around Colombia, Cuba, Afghanistan, or Vietnam. Raj Troops act like Coalition or US Troops: they are very powerful, several Operations involving only Troops are free, but there are fewer Troops available overall.
Congress and the Muslim League are the two nonviolent factions. They both use Activists as their core piece. In addition, Congress has a Gandhi piece and the Muslim League has Bases. (Bases in Gandhi represent strong local support for either Muslim or Hindu political dominance in post-Raj India, rather than training camps or weapons caches). These factions share Operations and Special Activities but have different victory conditions that eventually pull them apart.
The Revolutionaries faction is an amalgam of the many violent, anti-British groups that formed in India. They share many of the features familiar to players of the FARC, AUC, M-26, Taliban, and VC factions in earlier COIN games.
Grant: What are each factions available Commands and Special Activities?
Bruce: The British Raj Operations are Deploy (to place new cubes and build support), Treaty (to shift support in Princely States), Sweep (to activate guerrillas and remove protests), and Martial Law (to remove adversary forces from the map). Their Special Activities are Negotiate (to remove protests), Garrison (to move forces long distance via the LoC network), and Govern (to remove limited forces from controlled spaces).
Congress and Muslim League Operations are Rally (to place new activists and, for Congress, to build opposition), March (to move activists and place protests), Non-Cooperation (to relocated adversary forces), and Civil Disobedience (to place protests and build opposition). Their shared Special Activities are Negotiate and Persuade (to remove adversary forces). In addition, Congress has Boycott (to add resources or reduce Raj resources) and the Muslim League has Agitate (to replace a single adversary piece with a Muslim League activist).
The Revolutionaries Operations are Rally, March, Attack, and Terror. Their Special Activities are Aid (to add resources), Agitate (similar to Muslim League Agitate), and Assassination.
Grant: I’m sure most are intrigued by the Nonviolent Factions. How do these Factions coexist with the mighty and powerful Raj and the Revolutionaries? What new challenges do the NV factions present to players?
Bruce: The nonviolent factions have a number of advantages and challenges that make playing them unique. They have limited movement abilities but can also March for free. Although their pieces are always active, they are essentially immune to Raj action until in a space with a protest marker. Protest markers give them many advantages, however, so they will want to place as many of these as possible. Protest markers allow them to build opposition, make the Non-Cooperation Operation cost much less, and allow Special Activities like Negotiate, Boycott, and Persuade. Protest also makes them vulnerable to the Raj Operation Martial Law that removes NV pieces to the Jail space, effectively putting them out-of-play until released. For the NV Factions, it’s critical that they constantly put the Raj under pressure and keep that pressure on as long as possible. Of course, the Revolutionaries will take advantage of the disruptions that protests create, creating difficult choices for the Raj and NV factions alike.
Grant: How is Gandhi used as the only Leader and what benefit does he offer?
Bruce: Getting Gandhi right has been tricky. He is clearly an important part of the narrative, and the only historical figure to have his own game piece. But giving him superhuman powers would not only unbalance the game, it would inaccurately exaggerate his role. So, I give the Congress faction additional abilities, but only in the space that Gandhi occupies, and Gandhi can of course be arrested by the Raj.
Grant: What are each side’s victory conditions? How does Support and Opposition change in this new design? What were you hoping to represent with this new focus?
Bruce: By far getting the victory conditions right has been the most difficult part of the design. Although the core goals of each faction have remained stable, the specifics have been reworked a number of times. (And I won’t go into details here because those details are likely to change as the game develops). Basically, the Raj needs to build Support, Congress needs to build Opposition, the Muslim League needs to control territory in Muslim India, and the Revolutionaries want to create uncontrolled territory.
One of the issues I am struggling with is whether to use static or relative victory conditions. Most COIN games utilize static VC but I am a big fan of the relative victory conditions used in Liberty or Death. The tension created by the threat of an early end to the game, more likely with relative VC, adds to the overall experience. As a designer, however, I’m finding it difficult to find relative VC that allow for the game to end early but not too early. The game state in COIN games can fluctuate wildly at times given the play of the event deck; an early game end should reflect strong play, not good or bad luck.
Another issue is the nature of British rule itself, so unlike government rule in earlier COIN games. In those games, a weak government attempts to maintain political power in the face of a determined insurgency (all factions start off weak, but grow in strength over time, toward preset victory goals that are difficult to reach quickly). For the Government factions in earlier COIN volumes, victory means the end of the insurgency and the unchallenged dominance of the ruling state. But what did victory mean for the British in India? Did it mean continued occupation and dominance over India? But for how long? I do not know for sure, but I would guess that by the 1920s and 1930s there was growing unease in Britain with the scope and cost of the British Empire’s colonial holdings. How many seriously expected Britain to still be running India in the 1990s? India wasn’t Hong Kong, after all. If my hunch is correct, then the Raj faction in Gandhi is destined to lose in the long run. Now, games where one side is destined to lose the war are still a blast to play (I am always up to play For the People or Empire of the Sun even though I know all about Lost Causes).
In Gandhi, the colonial power was at the height of its strength during 1917, the start of the game. This means that the Raj faction starts in a dominant position that steadily grows weaker over time. A win for the Raj would mean that it managed to maintain its influence over India despite its declining power (it retains “a place of prominence at the decolonization negotiation table” or something to that effect). To win, the Raj player should have to maintain British control, not gain it, over time.
I am currently developing victory conditions that attempt to address these issues in a way that isn’t too fiddly or incentivizes ahistorical play. As I said, this has been the most difficult part of the design—more details to follow as I test new ideas.
Grant: How do Campaign Rounds work? What do they represent historically?
Bruce: Campaign Rounds play a lot like the Propaganda, Coup, and Winter Quarters rounds of earlier COIN games: factions gain resources, shift support/opposition, move some pieces, and reset the map.
Some differences include a “use it or lose it” style Raj budget that can’t carry saved unused resources from the just-finished campaign, free Rally for the Muslim League and Revolutionaries factions, the release of prisoners from Jail, and a general reduction of forces across the map. The later reflects the long time spans that occurred between campaigns historically, as most nonviolent campaigns lasted at most 2 – 3 years spread across the 30 years of the full independence movement.
Grant: Describe this new concept of Imperialism. How does it work in the game?
Bruce: Imperialism is the Raj’s Civic Action, Pacification, or Reward Loyalty. The key difference in Gandhi from those earlier actions is that the cost of Imperialism is equal to British Rule, and so will change throughout the game in response to events on the map.
Grant: How does the British Rule Track work and why must players plan for its effect?
Bruce: The British Rule track shows the current latitude and imperial resources afforded British colonial rule in India as 1 of 5 levels. When British Rule is low, unrest in the colony has convinced the Indian Office in London to grant additional resources toward putting down insurrection and to turn a blind eye to the use of force as necessary. When British Rule is high, however, either colonial matters elsewhere in the empire have distracted London or global opinion has become critical of the Raj government’s handling of unrest, putting pressure on London to restrain the colonial government in favor of diplomacy and concessions to Indian leaders.
British Rule affects a number of game mechanics. Each faction has one Operation that costs British Rule to use (though all factions also have a less expensive option in certain circumstances). It is also the cost for the Raj to use Imperialism to shift support. Lastly, the number of protest markers is linked to the British Rule: the lower the value, the more markers are available.
British Rule will shift during play, perhaps several times during each campaign. Each time the Raj arrests Activists using Martial Law, there’s a chance that British Rule could increase; the more activists in Jail, the more likely it will go up. Also, Terror attacks can cause it to decrease; the more terror and protest markers on the map, the more likely it is to drop. British Rule resets at the end of each Campaign Round to a lower number each time, so it will slowly drop over the course of the game.
Grant: What are Protest Markers and how are they used? How can they be removed? How does each NV faction use the Protest Markers?
Bruce: Protest markers are a bit like Terror markers: they are placed via Operations and Events, they block Imperialism, and there is a cost to remove them. They have additional effects, however. For one, the NV Operations Rally and Non-Cooperation are free in protest spaces. Also, the Special Activities Negotiate, Boycott, and Persuade are limited to protest spaces. Raj can also use Martial Law in protest (and terror) spaces to arrest NV activists.
Both the NV March and Civil Disobedience Operations place protest markers. Raj can remove them from spaces without activists, either via the Raj Sweep Operation or during Campaign Rounds during the Support Phase.
Grant: What role does Unity play? What does it measure and how is it tracked on the Muslim-Hindu Unity Track?
Bruce: The Unity Track shows the current level of animosity among the various religious and ethnic groups that comprise India, particularly the level of tension or cooperation between Hindu and Muslim Indians. A high level shows these groups uniting against a common foe and adopting a nationalist, rather than an ethnic or religious, Indian identity. A low level shows sectarian divisions splitting factions, and a shift towards communalism and the eventual partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan. Generally, a high Unity level benefits Congress, while a low level benefits the Muslim League and Revolutionaries.
The Muslim League doesn’t have its own resources, instead it spends Congress resources. Unity is the maximum resources that it may spend during Operation and is also the number of resources that Congress gets whenever either of the NV factions pass. Unity is also the number of pieces required for both the Muslim League and Revolutionaries to build a Base. It is reset at the end of each Campaign Round like British Rule, so it too will slowly drop over the course of the game.
Grant: Please tell us about the out-of-play jail space that holds nonviolent forces arrested during martial law. How long can pieces be kept in jail? How is this done?
Bruce: The Jail space holds activists arrested during the Martial Law Operation or sent there via an Event. Pieces in Jail are not available to be placed by Rally. They are effectively out of the game for the time being. Pieces remain in Jail until released via the Negotiate Special Activity (available to the Raj and NV factions) or during Campaign Rounds during the Redeploy Phase. Pieces in Jail can cause British Rule to increase, reflecting the political pressure faced by the Raj following mass arrests. This is called a Test of British Resolve: a die roll plus current British Rule less than the total number of activists in Jail will raise British Rule +1. Usually this is checked at the end of Martial Law Operations and the Congress Special Activity Boycott, but Events can call for a Test of British Resolve as well.
Grant: What are the British Viceroys? How and when do they change? What unique effects do they have on each faction?
Bruce: In the 30 years covered by Gandhi, there were seven British Viceroys, the highest political office of the British Raj. Many of them served five year terms. In Gandhi, Viceroys serve the same role as Propaganda or Coup cards in earlier COIN games, they signal the end of the campaign. I am testing a feature that gives two factions a special capability for that campaign only, determined by the viceroy card, but at the moment I am not sure this adds much to the game, so in the end the viceroys may just serve to initiate a Campaign Round.
Grant: What are the Independent Princely States and what role do they play?
Bruce: India is one of the most diverse places on earth, home to a variety of peoples, languages, ethnicities, religions, cultures, and polities. Political unity in India is a vague term. For every Maurya, Gupta, or Mughal Empire there were alongside many independent states and regions, each with varying levels of sovereignty across a wide spectrum. The Raj was no different, there were hundreds of independent, sovereign states that coexisted with the Raj. Many of the states were tiny, the size of towns. Some, like Hyderabad, were large states with a ruling bureaucracy and its own military forces. For the most part, the States allied themselves with the Raj, agreeing to support (or tolerate) the British in exchange for recognized independence.
In Gandhi, the States are another type of space alongside the Cities, Provinces, and LoCs that will be familiar to COIN players. They do not have a control state (and thus do not qualify as being either Controlled or Uncontrolled) and Raj Troops may never enter. One Raj Operation, Treaty, allows them to shift support in States and also activate guerrillas in states at support.
Grant: Can you please share with us a few examples of cards for the game and explain their effect and how they are used?
Bruce: The Chauri Chaura Massacre event was an important one in the early days of the movement. In 1922, police opened fire on protesters participating in a march in support of the ongoing non-cooperation campaign. In retaliation, the angry protesters stormed a police station, lit it on fire, and killed all 22 policemen inside. Unwilling to continue the campaign after such violence, Gandhi called off non-cooperation. The unshaded side of this card shows the historical event and results in the removal of protesters, places a terror marker in the space, and may may lower British Rule via the test of British Restraint. The shaded side takes the alternate route, voiced by some at the time, that the British only got what they deserved for their unlawful actions.
Bhagat Singh was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (card 44), a revolutionary group that was active in the United Provinces in the 1920s and 30s. In 1928, Singh and another man murdered a British policeman they thought responsible for the death of a protester a few weeks earlier; it later turned out that they had assassinated the wrong target. Then, in 1929, he set off two bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly building (card 19) and allowed himself to be arrested. He later went on hunger strike to protest conditions in the British jails (a fellow prisoner died of starvation) and was ultimately hanged in 1931. Singh exemplifies the divide in India between those who supported Gandhi’s nonviolence and those who supported a violent end to British rule. Whether he was a terrorist or martyr is still a controversial question to this day. The unshaded Event follows the historical path; the shaded Event allows players to profit from Singh’s martyrdom.
Grant: What have playtesters said about the game? What has changed through the playtest process? Please give specific examples.
Bruce: Playtesters have been terrific and have offered a lot of good questions and suggestions. There has been an active group of players who not only provide feedback, they have also been discussing the game on BGG and sharing photos of their playtest copies. I think they enjoy figuring out the puzzle of a new COIN game and have taken to the new nonviolent factions. We are still early in the process, too, so I know there is still a lot of development to go.
One of the areas we are working on now is balancing the early game. In several games, the Raj came out very strong and were able to win an early victory. I modified some of the starting set up and restricted some of the Raj Operations to address this. I released the first update about a week ago. I am working on the next update now that will add LoCs and perhaps the victory conditions. It has been very interesting working with a group of playtesters for a change. When designing Gandhi, I mostly worked on my own and would make (sometimes drastic) changes on the fly. Now that there are others involved I need to slow down quite a bit, which actually helps me see the impact of changes more clearly. There is certainly truth to the adage that a game is never done, just published.
Grant: What is it like working with Mike Bertucelli as your developer?
Bruce: Mike has been great, very professional and knowledgeable. I am new to the whole design-playtest-publish world and he walked me through every step of the process, especially when the game was announced in February. That was quite a ride. He also has connections with COIN veterans who have been very helpful and supportive as we dig into the game and hunt for weak spots. He has organized a couple of live playtests using the VASSAL mod where we just observe four people playing the game. That has been very helpful to see how the game actually works, not just what I think it should do.
Grant: What are you most proud about with the design of Gandhi? How do you expect the game will be received by COIN fans?
Bruce: I am most proud of the way that I have brought a new type of faction to the COIN series. Really, I am continually impressed by how innovative Volko’s COIN design really is. Its versatility can be seen in the wide range of COIN topics, both published and announced. It is the perfect tool to study the impact of nonviolent struggle within an established framework. I hope the fans will look at Gandhi with open eyes and see that it is still a game, one that offers a new challenge to explore.
Thanks for the great insight into the game Bruce. I believe I speak for every COIN Series enthusiast, but you look like you have a winner here with Gandhi and I eagerly await its release next year to play! If you are interested in the game, please visit the game page on GMT Games at the following link: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-630-gandhi-the-decolonization-of-british-india-19171947.aspx