With the release of the June Monthly Update from GMT Games, the world became generally aware of the next great game coming from designer Mark Herman. Mark has perfected the use of the Card Driven Game (CDG) system and has used it extensively in many of his best designs such as We the People (1994), For the People (1998), Empire of the Sun (2005) and Washington’s War (2010). He is now using that same CDG system in a new style of quick playing, 2 player wargame called Fort Sumter The Secession Crisis 1860-61. I reached out to Mark shortly after the announcement to get some information about the design for this upcoming game.
Grant: Mark, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions about the upcoming Fort Sumter game. What has drawn you back to designing a game covering the American Civil War? What do you like about this period?
Mark: I will answer these two questions in reverse order. Despite rumors to the contrary, I did not fight in the 14th Brooklyn at Gettysburg. By the way, Volko and Gene started that rumor.
The truth is the Centennial celebration for the Civil War occurred when I was six years old, so I was born less than a century after the war, proof that I did not fight at Gettysburg. Somewhere in that period I got a hold of the famous American Heritage Civil War book with Bruce Catton’s poetic text and those amazing battle maps. I was hooked. It was my first excursion into military history and I have never looked back.
Back in my SPI days, I did a derivative design based on Richard Berg’s ground breaking Terrible Swift Sword system (Stonewall, SPI) that started a series of ACW battle games. My idea then was to take a deep design and present the system in a smaller format. Fast forward to last year, I saw a small format CDG based on Twilight Struggle called 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. [Editor’s Comment: 13 Days appeared at #6 on my Top 10 Games Released in 2016] As soon as I saw that design, I immediately wanted to do a small format CDG based on my For the People design and it just had to be Fort Sumter.
Grant: How did this idea of short wargames that can be played over a lunch hour come to you? How do you feel they will be received by the wargaming community? How will this bring in new crowds of wargamers?
Mark: The lunch hour idea was all Gene Billingsley. What I did was design a twenty minute strategy game. Gene branded the CDG phrase, I just designed a wargame with cards. Are you seeing a pattern here?
To your point on how will this will be received by the GMT wargaming crowd, so far very well. I brought the game around to GMT East and it was very well received. So, I am hopeful it will find a place on people’s tables when they want a short game that delivers a satisfying gaming experience with a thematic storyline. That said, my hope for this design is not that it will bring new crowds of wargamers as much as I hope it becomes a game that people appreciate as any main stream game despite its topic. Surprisingly my wife’s Mah Jong group is now playing Fort Sumter and these are vicious competitors and very sweet ladies.
Grant: Fort Sumter is a CDG. Why do you love the CDG form and what advantages does it provide in executing a wargame design? You have used it to great effect in many of your previous games such as We the People, Washington’s War and Empire of the Sun. Were those games always conceived as CDGs or did you look at other vehicles first? So with Fort Sumter, was it conceived as a CDG?
Mark: Again, I will answer in reverse order. Fort Sumter was always a CDG based on my For the People CDG. All of the games mentioned were always CDGs with the exception of We the People.
We the People was initiated by the late Eric Dott, President of Monarch Avalon (Avalon Hill was a division of this company) who wanted me to design an introductory level game on the American Revolution. My initial design was essentially 1776 light. It was a nice simple wargame, but then I read LtC John Simcoe’s memoir in its original edition at the rare books division of the New York 42nd Street Library, I was blown away. The American Revolution he described was a brutal war of small skirmishes and raids. The big battles (he fought at Monmouth Courthouse) were the exception, not the main story of the war that he fought in. I then dumped my first effort and along the way decided to put most of the rules on the cards (remember it was an introductory game). The rest is history, so to speak.
The original We the People used operations points to move forces and events to create the thematic narrative. Most people focus on the CDG label, but the key mechanic in the game, that usually gets overlooked, is the area control dimension of the design (PC markers). I envisioned Colonies comprised of locations that allowed the hearts and minds story of the revolution to be told plus capture the guerrilla war dimension of the conflict. Control more areas in a colony and it counts in your column for victory. From my perspective, this format has allowed myself and others to work large amounts of history and theme into well regarded strategic wargames. The major CDG developments since We the People were Hannibal (integrated Ops/Event tradeoff), Paths of Glory (time sequenced individual decks, integrated Resources), Napoleonic Wars (Home Cards), For the People (Strategic Will), Twilight Struggle (mandatory events, influence points, DefCon track), Here I Stand (ecclesiastical debate integrated with conflict), and Empire of the Sun (Offensive Operations mechanic, hexagon CDG, Air-Land-Sea coordination).
So, to finish with your first question, why do I like the CDG format? It allows me to stuff a large amount of history and narrative into a wargame without the attendant rules overhead. I also like how a CDG allows for a diverse set of historical narratives where replayability is an emergent property not a variant. I do not believe that all situations can or should be forced into the CDG format, but I do like cards. Cards are tactile, allow for bluff and hidden information, and create interesting resource management problems that are a good metaphor for what happens in real world logistics.
Grant: What is Fort Sumter about? How do players carry out the action of turns?
Mark: Fort Sumter is about the 1860 secession crisis set off by Abraham Lincoln’s election. The game is played in three rounds capped by a new Final Crisis confrontation. It is a CDG, so each round you are dealt four strategy cards and two objective cards. You secretly choose one of your two objective cards as your VP objective and return the other one to the deck for reuse.
You then, like in any CDG, alternate playing three of your four strategy cards that are used to place, move, or remove political capital tokens (wood) to combinations of the twelve map spaces. The cards are in the For the People card value/event tradeoff. The map spaces are organized into four sets of three spaces that I call crisis dimensions. A crisis dimension is a metaphor for one of the elements that drove the existential crisis that became the American Civil War. Each round, you set your fourth card aside for use in the final crisis.
After completing three rounds, you take your three card mini-deck and head to head against your opponent conduct your final maneuvers/confrontations that conclude the game.
Grant: What is the goal of the game? How do players have to plan for that Final Crisis?
Mark: The goal of the game is to have more Victory Points than your opponent, high score wins. I originally called the VPs Strategic Will, but after my wife asked me for the third time to explain Strategic Will, they became VPs. I want this game to be accessible, so I have stripped out all of the jargon making it very easy to teach to normal people (my wife’s phrase).
Your second question allows me to unveil what I call “Herman’s Paradox”. The paradox is how does a gamer make decisions that impact an endgame in a game that they have never played before? The answer is, spend twenty minutes to play one game and discover the undiscoverable. Alternatively, follow the play note in the two page rules (that’s one piece of paper, two sides with graphics, according to Mark Simonitch).
Grant: What are the four dimensions of the crisis and how do they affect gameplay? Political Capital is mentioned several times on the description of Fort Sumter on GMT’s site. Why is this important and how is it used in the game? How does its use compare to say Washington’s War?
Mark: You will note that I reordered your questions as I think it is easier to tell the Fort Sumter story. I boiled down my real world experiences in several crises down to a simple set of ideas. A situation becomes highly unstable threatening the existing order. Senior people use political capital to focus resources and attention on various dimensions of the crisis. As the sides engage in the crisis it escalates and becomes more intense as more political capital is deployed into the situation. At some point, the crisis comes to a head and either deescalates or all hell breaks loose.
To capture this in a simple and graphic manner, each player has a track containing 16 wooden tokens. The two opposing tracks enter from opposite sides of the map and overlap in the zero to 5 spaces. The track has three zones (Tension, Escalation, and Final Crisis).
Through the play of the strategy cards, tokens are removed from the track and deployed onto the map. As tokens are removed from the track, they reveal the underlying space. The first time a space in one of the three zones is uncovered, the player receives additional tokens, increasing their political capital that can be deployed onto the map.
The map is divided into four sets of three spaces (Political, Public Opinion, Secession, and Armaments). Tokens are deployed into combinations of these twelve spaces. A player can deploy up to four tokens to a given space. If a player has more tokens in a space than their opponent, they control the space. If a space has an equal number of tokens or no tokens in a space neither side controls the space. If near the conclusion of a round you control the three spaces that comprise a crisis dimension you receive a victory point. If either player controls one of the two secret objective spaces, you receive a victory point.
The mechanic is the one I used in We the People (space control that aggregates into colony control) as evolved by Twilight Struggle (internal space influence that aggregates into Continent dominance levels). What makes this difference is the map spaces are not created equal. Within each set of three spaces, one of them is the pivotal space (Washington, Newspapers, Border States, Federal Arsenals). The player who controls a pivotal space prior to scoring can maneuver up two tokens or remove two tokens within that crisis dimension. If you control your objective space you activate your objective event that allows for removing tokens from the map. It is through these two simple ideas, in conjunction with the strategy card events, that create interesting and at times dramatic political maneuvers.
Grant: How do players score victory points?
Mark: From the above during rounds you score 1 VP for each crisis dimension (three space set) that you control. You gain a VP for control of either secret objective space, so correctly guessing your opponents objective space can result in a VP.
Also, at the conclusion of the Final Crisis you score 1 VP for each crisis dimension you control. You can gain 1 VP if your token pool (off map political reserve) is larger than your opponents. And last, but not least, you gain 1 VP for controlling the Fort Sumter space. At the end of the Final Crisis, high score wins and there are several tie breakers that often determine the winner.
Grant: How does breaching zones work to accelerate the crisis? There is a penalty for the player that does this first. What is the reason for the penalty? What should players take into account before breaching?
Mark: As I described earlier, you breach a zone when you first uncover a space in a zone, all of which is done physically, so its visual. When you breach a zone you gain bonus tokens to your token pool for future deployment onto the map. There are three zones, including Tension, Escalation, and Final Crisis. There is no ‘penalty” for being the first to breach the tension or escalation zones, you just gain the tokens (two and three respectively). The first player to breach the Final Crisis zone first receives 4 tokens but loses 1 VP. The second player to breach the zone receives two tokens with no VP adjustment.
It is always in your interests to accelerate the crisis to gain more tokens until you come up to the final crisis zone. This is one of those interesting situational strategy decisions. I will leave it to the players to discover why or why not be the first to breach the final crisis, but when done well, it can be a game changer.
Grant: How does the Final Crisis step work? Why did you feel this needed to be included in the design?
Mark: During each of the three rounds, you set aside one card from the four you were dealt. During the Final Crisis, the strategy card is only played for its crisis dimension color. Players order their three card deck and then you one at a time roll the top card.
If the cards show different dimensions, for example, armaments versus public opinion, players can deploy two tokens from anywhere on the map or your token pool into any combination of spaces of your card’s color (dimension).
If the cards show the same dimension, think Newspaper being attacked by a mob or the bombardment of Fort Sumter, you each remove one token from the matching dimension or remove two tokens from anywhere on the map. Remember, the player with the most tokens in their pool will gain a VP, so token management is important. After all three cards are revealed, you score (see above) and high score wins.
As to why there is a Final Crisis? As a game designer, I am always trying to tell a story. In this case, the culminating event of this crisis was the bombardment of Fort Sumter, so I wanted the players to experience a head to head confrontation that was different than just playing more strategy cards. I think it is both fun, adds tension to this very short game, and forces each player to think of the endgame from the very opening moves.
Grant: Please give us a few examples of the cards and the events printed on them. What is your favorite card for each side?
Mark: I currently do not have a favorite card, but I like the events that let you remove and then redeploy tokens on the map, such as English Textile Workers (shown in illustration).
Grant: What has been the reaction of players? What points do they like the most?
Mark: Once I had decided to do Fort Sumter, I sat down and I finished the initial playable prototype in 2 hours. By happenstance, a good friend of mine, who is also a designer, was on a business trip from Europe and came over. I asked him if he wanted to play and after the first game he insisted on playing it over and over. We finished three games, went out for dinner, then came back and played another. His reaction convinced me that something good had happened and so I continued to develop the game quietly with the Fun City Gaming group I belong to.
I think people are reacting very positively to the amount of game Fort Sumter packs into a twenty minute play time. I also think that my artist friend Francisco Colmenares has done a fabulous job of capturing the feel that I was looking for in the prototype art that you can see online.
Grant: What changes have come about through play testing? Please give a few specific examples.
Mark: The version of Fort Sumter on the P500 is actually the fifth version of the game. Earlier versions were more complicated and played in about an hour. My best friend and wife who likes games has always told me that my designs, Churchill and Pericles aside, are too complicated for normal people. Thus inferring that I am not a normal person; a wife’s prerogative.
In any case, I kept redesigning the game until she said it was easy to understand and fun to play. So, the major changes have been scrapping various crisis track mechanics until I developed the one that captured my original design goals in a straightforward format. Carole has been the driving force in my stripping this design down to its essence. I am lucky to have a personal muse.
Grant: How much playesting is left to do? How could people get involved with playesting?
Mark: I have been playtesting the game for over six months now and I would say that there would be another month or so before we go into final production. I am thinking about doing what I did with Washington’s War and holding an online tournament to stress test the rules, but I do not yet have a module or a method to do that.
Grant: At this point, what is your best guess for the timeline for the release of Fort Sumter?
Mark: That is up to the tribe. I just looked and as of 7/12 at 7:24am there are 470 orders. There is no timeline until it reaches 500 preorders, so hard to say. Maybe never…
Grant: What other games are coming up in this series? Which are you looking forward to the most?
Mark: The next game in the series is the Berlin Airlift that covers the early Cold War. The second game is likely to be the Assassination of Julius Caesar that will cover the Roman Civil War period. I love all of my designs or I do not publish them, so I am excited about all of them. We’ll see how others feel.
Grant: What other projects are you working on?
Mark: I am working on lots of stuff, so watch my periodic videos where you see what is around my design space at the time. Certainly, near the top of the queue is the Fall of Saigon that is an expansion for Fire in the Lake.
Grant: I am awaiting the announcement on that game as we love FitL! When will you ever be in Indianapolis, Indiana so I can take you up on your offer to play Pericles with my group?
Mark: Sadly, I used to be in charge of my firms Indianapolis office around a decade ago. It’s a great city and it looks like a wonderful place to live, but I have no plans or thoughts on when I will be in that neck of the woods again. Hopefully, you guys will end up in NYC on vacation and we can play on my giant Pericles map. I am sure that my wife will be happy to help your families spend money in the big apple while we play.
Grant: That would be a dream come true for me and I will definitely have to take you up on that offer. Mark, do you have any questions for me?
Mark: The only thing that occurs to me is how do you guys find the time to work, raise kids (I note that from your Pericles review), and play so many games? I am impressed and in awe of your time management skills.
Grant: First off, we have very supportive wives who understand our passion for games and our commitment to the blog. We also are very attentive and involved fathers though and have to plan meticulously when we can get together to play. We don’t play nearly enough, but seem to find time weekly to fit in at least 1 or 2 gaming sessions. In fact, a few Saturdays ago, we took advantage of a family gathering to try out an Eastern Front wargame from Turning Point Simulations called The Battle of Stalingrad that took us nearly 6 hours to digest and understand rules and play for 14 full turns to completion. We have to play late into the night and early morning hours when our kids and wives are asleep. I also have discovered the secret to time travel and can go back to play a game again with a different plan. Wouldn’t that be cool?
I know that I am very interested in Fort Sumter and have already added it to my growing P500 list and I am sure it will make the cut sooner rather than later. Thanks for your time Mark and I appreciate your thoroughness in answering our questions.