It has been well over a year since we ran a series of interviews with the designer of Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain designer Marc Gouyon-Rety. At that time, our blog was relatively new and I am still amazed that Marc agreed to work with us. Those interviews (appearing in a series of three interviews Part I, Part II and Part III) were amazing trips into the game and the background for the design. I learned a lot from Marc through that process and have changed my interview formats several times since then but still look back at that first try with him with great joy. In this follow-up interview with Marc, my goal was to get better insight into the experience of designing the game over the past 3+ years and how the game changed from its inception, through the playtest process and finally to the final finished product that we all will be playing in a little more than two months (as of the last GMT update, the game is set to ship in October). With that, I appreciate Marc’s time again, and am pleased to bring to you the following interview:
Grant: What’s your predominant feeling now that the game is at the printers?
Marc: Well, obviously, there is a mixture of feelings in me right now, but I guess relief and impatience are predominating now: relief at having completed everything on time, and suddenly rediscovering the luxury of free time to play some of the games that piled up on my shelves during the past few years, and impatience at seeing the incredible final product that the artists made, and that we proofed, finally on the table, my own and, more importantly, that of all the backers of the game around the world!
Grant: Now that Pendragon has been delivered to the printers, what are your feelings about the game itself and the work you accomplished?
Marc: Very pleased. Very very pleased! I know I shouldn’t be the one praising my own work, but truly I’m so happy and so proud of what has been accomplished. For obvious reasons, this has become the one game I have played the most ever (I’ve got records of no less than 50 plays involving me, and some plays were not recorded…), and, just as obviously, the game is no longer on my gaming table now, but still I am very impatient to play it again… but this time with the final version of the components! What really pleases me is that I believe the game has remained true to my original concept, but at the same time, has been improved tremendously from all the testing, optimizations, contributions from Volko and the playtesters, so that it fits my mind’s vision better than ever, while being a much better game.
Grant: What was the most difficult part in bringing the game to a close?
Marc: I guess the most difficult part was probably to accept that it was ok to let go, to stop pushing for the umpteenth marginal improvement of mechanisms, events or art, and recognize that this was more than fine enough already. Volko kept repeating to me, from very early on, that “a game is never finished, it only gets released”… I suppose I pushed back a bit on this maxim because there was no way I would be ready to settle for a less-than-perfect product to be released, but the truth is that 1. Volko is right (as most often he is) and 2. one has to recognize when the returns to changes are diminishing below the point where they are no longer worth the time or the effort.
By the way, it should be noted that Volko never pushed to short-circuit the development process: there was at least one time, when we were essentially done with rules development, but there was one thing I was still a bit uncomfortable with, and I came up with a fairly significant change to address it because incremental changes were simply not cutting it, that he told me, once I had explained the proposed change with the cautionary provision that this would mean significant rewriting and re-testing, that he told me: “Yes this is going to cost us a couple months, but now that you have told me about this, there is no way this is not included in the final release”…
“I guess the most difficult part was probably to accept that it was ok to let go, to stop pushing for the umpteenth marginal improvement of mechanisms, events or art, and recognize that this was more than fine enough already. Volko kept repeating to me, from very early on, that “a game is never finished, it only gets released”…”
Grant: I must say Marc, I understand this point. In my writing, although it is only for a blog, I have struggled with my desire to make each post the best it can be. Just ask my partner Alexander. There are sometimes it takes me a month or more to accept that what I have written as a review is good enough to push publish! This is hard though. Did you ever doubt you would make the deadline for publication?
Marc: Not really. This is where my professional background in project management has helped I guess: once we knew what deadline we had to make, the raw material available to GMT’s artists, I always kept that in mind and knew what remained to be done, and defined some milestones to be met. I’m sure Volko must have resented my prodding at times, especially around the time he was out enjoying his trek on Hadrian’s Wall, but it worked. One of the most time-intensive tasks that remained at the time was producing the Tips and Background for all 83 events in the game, so I simply knew how many events I had to write about on a weekly basis, and I stuck to that (actually, beat that goal).
That was the easier part. Once the material was in the hands of GMT’s artists, I lost direct control over progress, so that got stressful at times, especially when I realized just how much work – and proofing – the tens of mapboard illustration inserts in the playbook needed! But Charlie Kibler, Mark Simonitch, Chechu Nieto and Rodger MacGowan are just great pros and tremendous guys to work with, and, all things considered, we made good time I think, and the end results are quite awesome!
Grant: How was it to work with new people (particularly artists) to get the game in its final production form?
Marc: On the whole, it is just an incredible feeling to see one’s mind child be turned by these awesome guys into a beautiful, professional product that is worthy of joining the ranks of such a famous brand as GMT Games. In the case of Pendragon, I consistently received praise for the graphic quality of the prototype, from the map to the deck and play materials, but I kept reminding people that it was still a far cry from the GMT standards. And how have I been proven right when I saw the final proofs emerge from the hands of Charlie, Chechu or Mark!
Similarly, earlier into the process, working with Kurt Miller for the cover and deck art was very elating too: I recognized very early that there was simply nowhere near the quantity of quality copyright-free art available out there, especially as I wanted nothing of the medevial-ish Arthurian Romance stuff. Consequently, I convinced Volko, and then we convinced the GMT principals, that we needed either to license existing art (Osprey being really the only realistic option too, plus I am an absolute fan of the work of the late Angus McBride, who did a lot of art on this period), or commission an artist. Osprey turned us down very quickly, alleging that our game competed with their Arthurian design (The King is Dead), so we looked for an artist.
Eventually, GMT picked Kurt Miller, who has been doing a lot of work for them and so has a lot of familiarity with that kind of project, while being a big fan of ancient warriors. Working with Kurt over the months it took to do all the art was very interesting, with a lot of back-and-forth. At the same time, there were a couple bittersweet moments when an artist’s vision differed from mine. Visual elements are very important to me, not only regarding games, and I definitely had a fairly defined vision of how Pendragon should look. Volko and Mark told me a couple times how unusual it was for GMT to have a designer being so heavily involved in the art, which I gathered was both welcome and something of a bother, especially when I kept asking for changes. Now, I was very aware of the wealth of experience and talent that these guys brought to the table, so I was trying to walk a fine line between ensuring that my overarching vision endured, and tapping to the maximum into that wealth! On the whole, I feel very happy with the end product: sure, there are always a couple details I would have liked a bit different, but I am satisfied that it is visually stunning and true to my original vision, while I trust it is more than worthy of the usual high GMT standards! But ultimately, players will be the judges…Grant: What lessons have you learned about the design process?
Marc: I am not sure my experience on Pendragon was that representative because I was able to lean so heavily on the established standards existing for the COIN Series, with Volko himself providing guidance. Most of the “raw” material we provided to the artists (rulebook, player aids, and to some extent the deck and the map) were already using existing templates. On top of that, Volko and I were able to deliver fairly polished material, so it appeared to me that the process of converting our raw material into final proofs was quite straightforward, allowing the artists to focus on making stuff look good rather than chasing content.
My main concern during the later stages was proofreading. Like most players, I abhor mistakes in the games I buy, and I really wanted to do everything I could to limit these to a minimum. I want it to be known that I am under no illusion that completely mistake-free perfection is ever attainable…so I tried to leverage my professional experience in project management for the game. This started with using version numbers and a configuration list from the very beginning of the design process – something that drove Volko wild at times – and extensive cross-proofing even before we released the material to the artists, both from me and Volko (one systematically rereading whatever material was written by the other), but also from super-sharp contributors such as VPJ Arponen and Oerjan Ariander, and some of our playtesters. This allowed us to catch the vast majority of typos, spelling or grammatical mistakes, wording ambiguities – especially critical with myself not being a native English speaker – early on, though we did find a few more in the final proofing stages.
Then, once the material was in the hands of the artists, I made sure to make a lot of time available to proofread every version they sent us, and Volko did a few passes on these too, both on a word-by-word and illustration-by-illustration basis – comparing with our versions – and rereading everything for flow and meaning, which allowed us to catch a couple more less-than-optimal things. We spent a lot of time with Charlie to make sure the various illustrations were all correct (which is much more difficult than it sounds). So, I am feeling quite good about that part, but of course I’m sure we missed some things, because some stuff always slips through, which will make my boasts look empty when the game is released…
Grant: If you could go back to the beginning, what things would you change about how you approached the design process?
Marc: Knowing what I know now, I would skip some design loops, especially regarding victory conditions where I did on one instance remove a Saxon VC, only to reinstate it later, or go straight for the final mechanism for political Dominance, and it being a necessary condition for victory for the Briton factions, something I envisioned initially but was hesitated to implement, only to finally do so – and simplify things quite a bit – a couple months later… But this is not really about the design process, which indeed does involve trying things out, testing it thoroughly, and adjusting, including sometimes going back, if appropriate. I was sometimes worried, as I tended to introduce design changes by bunches, rather than by increments, because I tend to have a top-down approach rather than bottom-up, as this could make it difficult to analyze the respective impacts of individual changes, but I don’t think it proved to be a problem, at least for this game.
No, the only thing I would like to do differently is my initial working relationship with Ralph Shelton: Ralph is a very experimented developer, and we got together around Hubris, which he loves, and when I shifted priorities to Pendragon, he offered to be my developer, which I readily accepted because we got along great. However, the relationship proved rapidly difficult as we had very different expectations regarding the respective roles of designer and developer: while I always envisioned myself remaining deeply involved in, and leading, the process, Ralph is used to work with the likes of Richard Berg, who tends to think up a game concept and then dump it into the hands of a capable developer such as Alan Ray or Ralph to turn it into a playable game. After a couple months of growing frustration on both sides, made all the more painful because we truly like each other, we had a frank discussion and decided to split ways. Ralph still was very helpful in this early stage to help identify the issues we had with the Civitates faction, and built the first Vassal module (which later was updated and completed by Art Bennett). Meanwhile, I kept developing the game on my own with some regular guidance from Volko until Falling Sky was complete and he was able to take on the role of developer in full for Pendragon.
Grant: How has series creator Volko Ruhnke supported you in the process? How did he push you?
Marc: I explained in the Pendragon Chronicles on the InsideGMT blog how Volko got involved very early on and played a decisive role in getting the game on the rails toward P500. As I explained above, Ralph Shelton initially was to be the developer, but even then, Volko remained closely involved, providing feedback on our concerns and ideas. Later, after Ralph left the project, Volko told me right away that he was interested in being the developer, but could not really spend time on it until Falling Sky was finished, which eventually meant November of 2015. However, he still made himself available to review and provide feedback even before that, or present the game at various events such as PrezCon, or playtest it with his local group of gamers.
Once he took on the developer’s duties in earnest, the first thing he did was rewrite the rulebook, player aids and events’ text to make them tighter, more in line with earlier COIN terminology and presentation, and generally better American English (though we’ve had recurring discussions about language, especially stylistically, as we discovered just how wide the gap is between French and American writing cultures…). For most of 2016, he retained “ownership” of all game material text, with me providing inputs for him to write in. Only later in the process, when the material was essentially stable, did I take it back as he wanted to spend more time on other projects, such as Ariovistus.
Volko also undertook a number of playtests, and we would then confront our respective feedback and discuss potential “improvement opportunities”. Most of our exchanges would take place by emails and exchange of files on Dropbox, but whenever we felt a need for an in-depth discussion, we would have a Skype conversation, typically an hour or two every month or so.
What is perhaps the most remarkable during all the time I worked with him is that, despite his immense authority as an established star designer – and me a rookie – and being the creator of the COIN Series, I don’t think he ever pushed a change on me directly. Instead, he’s a master of maieutics, the Socratic art of “helping to birth ideas”. Rather than tell me “this doesn’t work” or “you should do this”, he would ask me questions, typically revolving around whether a particular aspect of gameplay satisfied my vision. This would be helped by the basic game principles that I had established at the very beginning of the design process. He would then push me into doing a deep dive on that aspect, and either convince him (and myself) that the aspect was fine indeed, or else identify the shortcomings or inappropriateness. Then, he would prod me (not that I needed much prodding at this stage…) into coming up with adjustments, which we would then discuss together. I’ve found this approach both incredibly empowering and very efficient. And it does make a lot of sense since I typically was the one with the deep knowledge of the subject, where he has more the experience of designing a game.
“What is perhaps the most remarkable during all the time I worked with him is that, despite his immense authority as an established star designer – and me a rookie – and being the creator of the COIN Series, I don’t think he ever pushed a change on me directly. Instead, he’s a master of maieutics, the Socratic art of “helping to birth ideas”. Rather than tell me “this doesn’t work” or “you should do this”, he would ask me questions, typically revolving around whether a particular aspect of gameplay satisfied my vision.”
Grant: What was the greatest thing you took away from working with him?
Marc: He always tells me that we should trust our instincts and go with what we feel is right for the game, that playtesting is important but, ultimately, it is the designer’s vision that makes the game, or doesn’t. So he always encouraged me to go with it and always try to bring my vision to the cardboard to the fullest. Let’s hope the players will like the result!
Grant: What did you think of Volko’s trip to Hadrian’s Wall earlier this year?
Marc: Well, I found quite amazing that he would be so deeply into the matter of Roman Britain that he would be tempted to undertake such an extraordinary trip, and convince his wife Jill to come along! I did visit the Wall myself in 1992, but I was still living in France at the time, and the visit was part of a big trip that took me and two friends from York all the way around Scotland, and then back South. But undertaking that trip when you live in Virginia is quite another level of commitment. Especially walking the length of the Wall! Now, Volko is keeping himself in top condition, definitely better than I am myself, and they were quite lucky with the weather for a northern British spring, but still…
On another note, that trip provided us with another fantastic marketing opportunity for the game, not that we needed it too much at that time though considering our P500 numbers…
Grant: Was there something that those in charge wanted changed that you didn’t agree with and how did you handle that situation? In the end did it change?
Marc: Not really. The guys at GMT Games are really great to work with, and what they really want is the game to be a success, so as long as you are able to make a good case for what you want, they find a way to get it done. And of course, having Volko on board is a tremendous asset when dealing with Andy Lewis and company!
Grant: How have you approached balance for each faction throughout design and from input from playtesters?
Marc: My approach has always been first and foremost to provide interesting and diversified gameplay to each individual faction, to make all four factions fun and challenging. Play balance itself is fairly easy to achieve with the COIN system simply by tweaking the victory thresholds’ values. So the key is finding the right victory criteria, ones that drive and reward historical behaviors, while simultaneously providing multi-factional interactions, and then it becomes just a matter of fine tuning the thresholds.
Quite astonishingly, many of the final thresholds are remarkably similar to the original ones, often exactly identical. I guess this is both a product of the stability of my basic game principles, and that some values remained constant by providing the anchor while I adjusted the other values relative to these.
Grant: Which faction has changed the most since your design’s inception? Give some specific examples.
Marc: Without a doubt the most changes came about with the Civitates faction. Initially, there was an issue with the measure of its success: essentially, I surmised they wanted to maximize their wealth (Resources) and that they would be at odds with the Dux who would be using these same Resources to power their military machine, so I made Briton Resources one of their victory criteria (the other being obviously Total Briton Control from the start). The problem was that it was way too dependent on the duration of the various Epochs (shorter Epochs meant less opportunities for the Barbarians to Raid and the Dux to spend money), making that factor, itself wholly beyond the control of the players, a key driver for Civitates victory.
To remedy to this, I introduced another quantity that would have to be built up: Wealth, which became a Civitates Victory Condition instead of Resources. I had to introduce new actions for the faction to purposely set aside Resources as Wealth. Initially, similarly to other COIN games, I tried to have only one single Victory Condition by making it Control + Wealth. But very quickly, we found that this prompted wholly ahistorical behaviors where the Civitates would ignore anything to do with the defense of the island and their own lands to just focus on accumulating Resources and turning it into Wealth. After trying several mitigations, including providing means for the other factions to go after Wealth, I finally decided to decouple again the two values, but it was still too tempting to drive up Wealth in order to improve one’s victory margin, so eventually I made Wealth not a Victory Condition per se, but simply a necessary condition, i.e. meeting a certain threshold of Wealth being necessary to win but never contributing to the victory margin. That finally calmed down the absurd drives for Wealth.
But the Civitates were still, in my opinion, a flawed faction in terms of gameplay. Actually, I caught myself telling myself I needed to play it to see if it could be fun, and/or let new players have fun with the other three factions, so I realized something needed to be done. The problem was that the faction, by construction, was very passive, holding most of the value of the island but relying near exclusively on the Dux or on Foederati to defend itself, which meant that the gameplay was mostly optimizing revenues and Wealth while building up fortresses to slow down the inevitable erosion of the Briton Controlled lands. Not the stuff of epic stories, and definitely not my cup of tea.
So I went back to the fundamentals, and realized that there was one implicit feature of the faction that was not truly represented in the game: the period to a large extent, was a dilemma for the existing British tribes and their aristocracy, between trying to preserve the cushy way of life they had enjoyed under the Romans, and embracing the violent new way of the Barbarians and the military. So I introduced a new set of military units for the Civitates, the Comitates, which are essentially Briton Warbands. None of these powerful units is Available at start, and they only enter play through Events. Also, they cost Wealth to be placed on the map, and Wealth to be maintained, which means that typically the Civitates must choose between a Wealth accumulation strategy, and a military strategy based on Comitates: he usually can’t pursue both. Here is their dilemma, nicely spelled out: either the Comitates try for an early victory under some degree of Roman Rule or Autonomy, and that means prioritizing Wealth and hoping that the Dux will stem the Barbarian tide suitably (or rely on masses of fickle Foederati troops), or they can forsake the Roman way of life, turn themselves into a mean military outfit, and go for a late win by staking their claim under Fragmentation…
That made the Civitates faction instantly a lot of fun to play, and it still probably is my favorite pick today. But I was still not entirely satisfied by the interplay and rivalry between the two Briton factions. Even though I built bones of contention between them from the very beginning, I was still largely missing the political tug-of-war between Dux and Civitates, independently from the war against the Barbarians. This led to the radical realignment of the Imperium Track, including the explicit dimension of the Political Dominance, which granted various benefits to the faction holding it, and was driven by a comparison between Dux Prestige and Civitates Wealth. This change allowed again, through more playtesting, to streamline other mechanisms, from a number of complex Events to the very concept of Wealth as a necessary condition for winning: as Wealth had acquired, over the development of the game, such a variety of uses, including driving the key concept of Dominance, I found that it had become redundant to include it as a condition for winning!
Grant: Which faction changed the least?
Marc: Probably the Saxons. The Scotti proved also quite stable, unlike the Dux which shared with the Civitates many of the complex issues around the concepts of Roman Rule, Autonomy, Briton Cooperation and Dominance. I guess the Barbarian factions are more straightforward, and I actually often recommend them for new players, as the subtleties of the relationship between the Britons take some time to fully grasp.
One might think that the Scotti who, unlike the Saxons, have a single focus on raiding and accumulating Renown, would be simpler and hence easier to get right, but actually it took a lot of work to make sure they are an interesting and subtle side to play. They were no major revolution, but nearly every one of their Commands and Feats got tweaked a number of times, as well as many of their Capability Events – a very important dimension for the Scotti faction – resulting in a gameplay that is both markedly different from the Saxon way of raiding, presents a variety of approaches, and is fraught with pitfalls for the unwary.
The Saxons saw some significant adjustments, mainly to their Feats, but on the whole I think they changed the least, again possibly because they kind of provided the stable benchmark around which we adjusted other factions.
Grant: What were the challenges/opportunities of simulating a period with such sparse historical source material?
Marc: I have a special interest for periods of history of which our current knowledge is incomplete. Maybe some kind of “Terra Incognita” attraction… Obviously, the “Dark Ages” of Britain are not named that way for no reason. Still, there has been a considerable amount of academic work on the period in recent decades, to the extent that, while there still remain huge gaps in our knowledge, one might say that we suffer from an excessive diversity of interpretations, rather than from a dearth. That, I believe, happens to make for tremendous COIN material, thanks to the Events subsystem, especially Dual Events: in many cases, I’ve included into the game conflicting interpretations either as shaded/unshaded texts on the same card, or as different cards, which allows players to explore these various takes on the history of the period as they play, just like earlier games in the series allowed you to explore contrasting takes on, say, the effectiveness of Coalition actions in Afghanistan, or the reality of Caesarian propaganda in his Gallic War records.
Now, beyond the game mechanics that allow to tackle these issues, I am aware that there are a number of people out there who question some of the fundamental assumptions of the game, from my choice to use elements of the Arthurian legend – as and when consistent with the hypothesis that the legend has a basis in real 5th century events and people – to the portraying of conflict between Saxons and Celts, or the very use of the term “Dark Ages”. Obviously, I am under no illusion that, by tackling such a loaded subject, I can please everyone, and I have no intention of watering down my project to try to be politically correct and acceptable to everyone. There is, in my opinion, sufficient circumstantial evidence both for Britain and Roman Europe that the period starting at the end of the 4th century saw major military and cultural clashes, resulting in major losses of life, migrations, declines in material and intellectual culture and extensive reshaping of polities, to ignore all the politically correct BS that tries to deny that there was any actual warring or decline. As for my extensive inclusion of Arthurian elements, I have already explained that I believe that every legend is grounded in some historical reality, so that if these names and events somehow endured so strongly for centuries, especially when relevant to a culture – Celtic Britain’s for example – that found itself on the losing side of history, they must refer to some actual and significant people and actions which are at least as good, and probably better than anything else we have considering the general paucity of names we have for this period.
Now, I accept that some people may disagree with my characterization of the two Briton factions, which is mainly derived from the works of Ken Dark and Edwin Pace. But even should one disagree on some of the specifics, I strongly believe there can be no doubt that the end of the Roman Empire, whether in Britain or elsewhere, saw tensions, and eventually conflicts, between two legitimacies: one based on the central imperial center, and one based on local elites, and ultimately this is what the fundamental dichotomy between Dux and Civitates is all about.
Grant: Was there anything that you found in research after you started the game that changed a direction or take you had on the history?
Marc: Not really. I have been fascinated by this period of history for many decades, reading pretty much everything I could find on it, and it was the reading of Edwin Pace’s Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain – A narrative history for fifth century Britain that finally made me fully realize the essentially multi-factional character of this period, and how the COIN engine would suit it perfectly. So the fundamental event took place at the inception of the game. Naturally, I read a couple new books during the development period, that only resulted in marginal adjustments, such as the increased importance of climate change (captured in the Epoch Event Tears of Epona) resulted from them.
Grant: If you were to be able to design a future expansion for Pendragon what would you focus on adding to the game? Was this something that had to originally be cut out?
Marc: The whole period of Dark Ages Britain, from the Barbarian Conspiracy to the unification of England under the West Saxon kings has always been of great interest to me. However, this period is so diverse that there is no way to simulate its whole in a playable format, or else you remain at a high level as in Lewis Pulsipher’s Britannia, which is a very fine game indeed. This is where identifying the century or so after the Conspiracy as a coherent subject matter for a COIN game was such a breakthrough for me. So there is nothing really I had to cut out from Pendragon.
However, I would still love at some point to tackle further episodes of that period, especially the struggle between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that followed the period covered by Pendragon. But I do not believe that the COIN engine would be appropriate for that subject. I’ve got a couple of still largely unformed ideas in my head, but this is definitely not mature today. Some day!
That being said, an obvious extension, or maybe rather companion volume, to Pendragon using the COIN system would be the period of the Viking attacks and invasions, from 793 to 1016 or so. Many of the base mechanisms of Pendragon could be reused, though obviously there would be lot of differences too. It could be fun doing that game, but I wouldn’t mind someone else tackling this, as I’ve got other game ideas I want to do first.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Marc. I want to let you know how much I personally have appreciated our interactions and relationship over the past 1 1/2 years. I really hope that one day we can find ourselves in the same room, playing Pendragon. I look forward to your great design future as well and am expecting many great titles coming from you. I also am looking forward to an opportunity in the near future to talk with you about Hubris as well. Good luck Marc and thank you for this great gem you have designed for us the players!