No secret that I love the COIN Series. I am a big fan of the asymmetric design and also of the way that the volumes in the series have addressed many different aspects of the conflict depicted, including the focus on terror, warfare, economics, politics and of course, the people affected. In the February Monthly Update from GMT Games, a new entry to the COIN Series was announced and what an announcement it was! A smaller game, designed for 1-3 players, People Power: Insurgency in the Philippines, 1983-1985 designed by newcomer Kenneth Tee was a revelation for me. A smaller game akin to the likes of Cuba Libre with a fast play time is a welcome addition to the series that will act as a gateway game for others to experience and enjoy the series. I immediately reached out to Kenneth to see if he wanted to share with us his design and become a member of the Designer Interview family here at The Players’ Aid.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork and layout of the materials highlighted in this interview are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development, details may still change prior to publication.
Grant: Tell us a little about yourself Kenneth. What games do you prefer to play? How did you get into design? What do you do for a living?
Kenneth: Let me narrow it down to 3 things that most people know who know me best. Besides being a wargamer (ok, I have played other games too), I’m a huge history buff and also a sci-fi enthusiast. Oh, I’m a big-time baseball fan (Go Cubbies!) and no surprise, my favorite movie is Patton, which was the first movie I ever saw when my Dad took me to the theater when I was just 4 years old. From the beginning, I’ve always been into wargames at the operational level (Company to Regiment-size operations). In terms of time period, though I will play almost anything from antiquity to current times, I continue to return to the Cold War, both historical and hypothetical. I’ve always been interested in designing a game from the start, as there are so many potential areas that haven’t been explored. I currently have stuff going in my head that I hope will someday reach fruition. I’m currently between jobs but I used to be in retail electronics, mortgage banking and web design. Hopefully, I can one day realize my career calling before I retire!
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Kenneth: As much as I want to get elaborate in detail, I believe you have to keep things simple but also systematic. What I mean by the latter is that, like an engine, all parts must have a certain function and combine toward the result of a positive gaming experience. In addition to that, I also want to tell a story.
Grant: Is this your first design gig? If so, how did this opportunity arise?
Kenneth: Yes, I’ve submitted only one other game in my life, but it never got published (no regrets – it was too cumbersome). People Power is my first official design and I’m hoping it won’t be the last. I was very enamored with Andean Abyss upon its release and the COIN system I thought at that time could be grafted into other insurgencies including one that had occurred where I was living at that time: the Philippines. I envisioned that because the outcome had been very different from most situations as the transfer of power wasn’t as violent and tragic compared to most of the cases in the Third World when dictatorship was pitted against an urban and/or rural revolt. I had pitched it to Volko and as the saying goes, “the rest is history”.
Grant: Why did you choose Eric Harvey as your game’s developer? What does he bring to the table?
Kenneth: Eric and I have been friends for a good part of two decades now and I’ve always admired his work and he has involved me in some of his projects. Through that, we’ve had a good working relationship and it showed me that he could also improve on the design of others with suggestions and also ideas that add to the final product. Yet, he respects and understands that the final decision rests with the designer.
Grant: Lets get to talking about your new game. First off, what does the game People Power cover? Why did you think this situation made it a perfect candidate for a COIN Game? Also, why did you decide to focus only on the final three years of the Marcos reign?
Kenneth: It covers the final years of the personal rule of President Ferdinand Marcos who had been elected in 1965 which came to an end due to the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. after his return from exile. I believed that COIN provided the best system to tell that story; you had the Government, two insurgencies (Communist movement and Muslim separatist) and a fourth which was the anti-Government democratic opposition parties which became the eventual victor though unexpectedly. The game was originally going to be about the whole Marcos presidency and even had a working title: Iron Butterfly. It went all the way to pre-alpha testing with a map, cards and player aids but playtesting showed its flaws, so I redesigned it and focused on the last three years and People Power became the outcome. And I’m glad it did.
Grant: What do feel are your design goals with the project? What do you have to make sure to include and cover in this game?
Kenneth: As I may have mentioned before, I want to tell a story and in doing so keep the mechanics as simple as I possibly can without it becoming too artificial. By that, I mean that the game can just substitute historic factions with any other and therefore lose some of the narrative. In doing so, I also strive to make this game as the newest intro to the COIN series. Without getting too philosophical, I believe that personalities do play a role in history more than any weapon or tactic or idea and I do like games that include a “face”. There are Personality Cards included in the game and even as an option can be removed from the game for more simplicity, but they provide the players with more options all contained within the framework of the events that gave them their fame and even notoriety.
Grant: I know you have a personal connection to the topic. Briefly tell us about this connection. How has your connection assisted, and even possibly hampered you, during the design process?
Kenneth: For starters, one thing I had not mentioned previously is that I was born in the Philippines in 1966 of Chinese parentage and we migrated to America in 1985. So, technically, I was born a year after Ferdinand Marcos became President and left a year before he left office. So as far as my perspective was at the time, he was the only President I could ever imagine during my lifetime there. Before the Aquino assassination, in my naivety, I believed all the propaganda on how he and his wife, Imelda, were putting the Philippines on the map, making it an economic and popular center in Asia and that Filipinos were making a worldwide impact through entertainment, world politics and sports! So that it was important for me to embrace Filipino culture and identity as they were placing the land of my birth front and center.
During my teens, I learned to speak Tagalog, ate more Filipino cuisine, watched more Filipino movies and TV (as opposed to American and Chinese forms of entertainment though epics like Patton, Jaws and Star Wars still retained their impact) and gave up baseball for basketball, which is the national sport. That all changed as during my third year in high school, we were visiting some friends of the family and that’s when we heard that Aquino had landed and was killed on an airport tarmac. Within months of this, my world went topsy-turvy. The corruption was exposed, the economy tanked and the fear rose. Then criminal acts such as kidnapping, especially against rich, Chinese families started happening. Not saying that we were rich (though we did have 3 cars…) but out of the need for safety as well as for a better economic future for their children, my parents put the plan in motion to immigrate to the United States. I left the Philippines and later arrived in San Francisco on April 1st, 1985. (April Fools Day)
Since then, I’ve only been back once, after 10 years for my brother’s wedding, but since then I’ve picked up a bat and glove and started playing baseball again. Well, technically it’s softball…Sorry, I know that was not as brief as it should have been. So I will admit that it hasn’t hampered me as much as given me a guidepost into the bigger picture that went beyond my own experience. Since I have the advantage of time and space, it also gave me a unique perspective from the vantage point of being a student and devourer of history as how certain events that were going on at the time affected me without me knowing how at the time. Not only that but also gave me more focus as learning the facts and events from the eyes and ears of others such as an NPA guerilla in Panay (a provincial island in the Visayas) as well as the bigger picture of each faction within the confines of their specific goals.
Grant: Why should gamers care about what happened in the Philippines in the 1980’s? Is this something you fretted over as you began the design?
Kenneth: I don’t think “care” applies in that way unless it is something that they can be made aware of. I believe there is an inherent curiosity in the subject, especially as the most common anecdote that I’ve encountered is the subject of Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection. I hope People Power can provide those curious and interested the backstory into that and maybe learn that there is a lot more there in the history than just shoes. It was tough at first but gradually I’ve come to accept that. It’s the choice I made so I’ll own everything attached to the history as well as the mainstream perceptions. I am surprised though that I get comments that some concluded it was a game on the subject of the Philippine-American War or Philippine Insurrection. But I don’t want to judge people on what they don’t know a lot about. Before I got into the hobby, I didn’t know that the Russians were involved in WW2, that Napoleonic warfare was about men going to war who were better dressed than women and that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was about Julius Caesar (It’s actually about the aftermath of his assassination).
Grant: Why the choice of the title People Power?
Kenneth: That’s the name history has given the movement and the event. There are books with that as a title and it even has a Wikipedia entry. Once the decision was made to shrink the focus of the game from 21 years down to only the final 3, it was the obvious slam dunk choice due to the shift in paradigm with Volko’s blessing.
Grant: What are the three factions included in the game and what are there general motivations? How do they go about winning the game in their way?
Kenneth: The three factions are the Government, the Reformers and the Insurgents, which are separated into two blocs (Communists and Moros). The Government wins by accumulating Support and Patronage. The Reformers win by having more Bases than their opponents along with Opposition. Finally, the Insurgents win by having Population Control and Resistance as their main goal. At the time of this writing, we are experimenting with having Moro Bases added to Pop Control, which hopefully adds more interesting dynamics to game play.
Grant: Now that we can see that the game uses 3-factions how do you work the 3 factions mechanically?
Kenneth: I give Harold Buchanan the credit for this. In a normal 4 player COIN game, the first eligible faction has a choice of an Operations Only or Operations and Special Activity or Event with the 2nd eligible faction specifically having to choose a Limited Operation if the 1st eligible faction chooses Op Only and Operations and Special Activity if the Event was first chosen and vice versa. And then there is also the Pass option, which keeps the faction eligible for the next card. Harold came up with the idea to put the Limited Operation on the same playing field as a Pass option thus keeping that faction eligible as well. He also adjusted the options by combining the Operations and Special Activity with the Event and the Op Only by itself. That means that the first eligible faction has a choice in picking between a Pass or Limited Op which keeps the faction eligible but also the Event, Ops and SA or just Ops.
The 2nd eligible faction picks whatever wasn’t picked in terms of losing eligibility but can also pick the Limited Op or Pass to keep eligibility. Which means the 3rd faction can play for the Event, Ops and SA or Op Only if the 1st or 2nd eligible faction chose to Pass or play a Lim Op. The only tweak I made to this was that instead of the Op and SA or Event as one option and the Op Only as the other, I switched it to Op Only or Event as one option with the Ops and SA as the other as I felt that if a faction wants to block an Event from being played, that faction should not be rewarded by being able to do Ops and SA and having the “blocked” faction consoled as to only choosing Op Only. I believe Harold agreed and there we have it.
Grant: The P500 text on the game page makes it sounds as if the insurgent faction has one set of actions and some Special Actions that are Moro and others that are Communist – Is that correct and how does that work?
Kenneth: To be more specific, the Insurgents share Operations (both NPA and Moro can do Rally, March, Attack and Terror) but the caveat is that you cannot activate both blocs in the same space. So a space with both NPA and Moro pieces cannot March, either only NPA Guerillas or Moro Guerillas will be able to utilize the Operation. Both do combine when it comes to determining control of a space however. In regards to the Special Activities, both the NPA and Moro have two each. During an Insurgent Ops and SA, the faction can activate the NPA Operation and then do a Moro Special Activity and vice-versa or just pair them in the usual fashion, NPA with NPA and Moro with Moro.
“The New People’s Army (NPA) (Filipino: Bagong Hukbong Bayan) is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). It was formed and founded by Bernabe Buscayno A.K.A. Commander Dante on March 29, 1969.”
Grant: How come the Communist and Moro insurgents were amalgamated into one faction?
Kenneth: It was actually something that Volko noticed during the playtest over at GMT Weekend at the Warehouse one year that the Moro faction (being more separatist than regime change oriented) did not have more “maneuver room” being limited to the island of Mindanao, compared to the other factions which could wander anywhere on the map. At first, Harold and Volko seemed consigned to the opinion on running them as a bot instead of as a player faction. It was then that I thought about combining them and it actually helped me overcome a design hurdle. It turns out that I did not have enough Special Activities that were historical for the Moro and there was one NPA Special Activity that the NPA only used once but I decided once was enough, but in amalgamating them, I could use the Special Activities they used most often and that actually helped the design and then the “only used once” SA turned into an Event card.
Grant: I really like that the insurgents share Operations but have their own unique Special Activities. Why is this the case?
Kenneth: To continue what was started from the last question, I wanted the Special Activities to reflect their historic counterparts instead of using Special Activities from other COIN games to make it fit. Let’s take Tax for instance, it may be similar to other COIN games but that is what the NPA did. Usually it came in the form of a protection racket like against, believe it or not, “cattle rustling” but eventually it was also used by the NPA for protection guarantees against the seedier elements of the Philippine military to the point where the tax became abusive in some sectors of the rural areas. The Moros did not do this and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to use this Special Activity.
Grant: Makes perfect sense. What is Resistance and what does it represent in the design?
Kenneth: In most COIN games, you have Support for the Government and Opposition for the Insurgents. I wanted to take that and take the duality aspect of Support and make it plural within three. As Opposition was often a term given to the anti-government democratic movement, I thought I needed another active noun to describe the anti-support but also anti-opposition nature of the insurgency. In my resources, I recalled an interview with one of the high ranking NPA leaders in which regardless of the election results that they had to continue the fight, to “resist” (as with a boycott) whoever retained or received governmental power as history has shown that the struggle did continue.
Grant: Can you give us a little insight into the complexity level of this COIN game? The GMT page mentions it as a great introductory COIN and less complex than others. I would like to know how and why this is the case?
Kenneth: I have four points about this and maybe five. First off, there is no LOCs and only two terrain types on the map: Cities and Countrysides. The map also has less spaces and what’s “more” is that it is a three-player game as opposed to a four-player game, so you’ll still have the multiplayer aspect. I also took away the conditions of playing a specific Operation to tie in with a specific Special Activity. Finally, there are only two Election Rounds which are not “seeded” which means players will know when it occurs and can prepare for it rather than have it sneak up on them like a standard COIN game. I also plan some optional rules to add some complexity or even less, but I want to tailor it to the gamer’s needs and expertise as well as time commitments.
Grant: Can you summarize what is new and different in your design as compared to other COIN entries?
Kenneth: Though two of the preceding games in the COIN series have what People Power offers, namely a three-player game including a non-violent faction, this game is different in how it uses the mechanic. As will be discussed later, I removed personality driven events and gave them their own mechanic, there are new Operations and Special Activities that have never been tried in a COIN game before and as I said before, I want this to be the shortest COIN game to be played as I know most gamers have limited time on their hands but also want to play MORE games! Yet, I hope I have included enough detail and material to make it challenging and replayable.
Grant: The Sequence of Play looks simplified. Why did you go this route with the design?
Kenneth: Again, I wanted this to be the go-to game for players who want to play COIN games, so in this way the graphic should be self-explanatory and kudos to Eric for coming up with that.
Grant: I’m really interested in the design process for the event cards. First off, how many cards are there? What is the split for each faction being lead on those cards? What is the process of choosing the events like? What is really difficult about it?
Kenneth: For the standard game, there are 20 cards out of 24, split either 10-10 per Election Round or 8-12 as an option. There is an extended game in the works that starts in 1981 that adds 6 more cards which may change the Aquino Fate as well which will go 8-8-8 as two cards won’t see usage. The difficulty in design lies with pairing them with certain Operations or Special Events and in my game’s case, the Personality Cards. In the end, another struggle was which one was going to stay and which was not going to make it as some are really good (in terms of impact) but others such as hearsay or gossip driven such as CIA conspiracies or cover ups were definitely excluded as I did not want the game to drown in that and use events that did alter the political and cultural landscape at the time.
When I was singling out particular events, I picked those that had an almost dual quality to it. Some had actually two outcomes historically such as an Event which caused both Reformers and Insurgents to lose/gain pieces, but some of them also have a “what if” or alternate universe result to them.
I’ve tried to even the cards out as much as I can so that way there is an even split between three factions. So it came out as either G-R-I or G-I-R then R-I-G or R-G-I then finally I-G-R or I-R-G, so with 24 out of 6 possible combinations gives us 4 out of each possible faction order.
Grant: Can you share with us a few of the event cards and describe how they work?
Kenneth: I actually plan to spoil some of them to you similar to the way you have been covering Vesa Arponen’s COIN Series entry All Bridges Burning. Very similar to a Spoiler Alert or Sneak Peek so stay tuned!
Grant: Let’s talk about the map. It is one of the smaller maps in the COIN Series with only 6 spaces and four cities. Why did you break it up in the way it shows on the playtest map?
Kenneth: I knew Manila was going to be the focus as that was where the endgame began starting with the assassination and ending with the departure of Marcos from the scene. Northern Luzon as a space was amalgamated from the provinces of Central Luzon as well which did not just contain the home provinces of both Marcos and Aquino but also Enrile as well as the hotbed of most NPA activity. So the temptation to split spaces along those lines were great indeed but the urge for simplification won out and in this case, logic and math beat history and drama. Going to Mindanao this time, it has the most spaces with 5 (two Cities and three Countrysides), which is half of the game’s spaces. The logic here is that it was also where the insurgency pulled the Government in two directions. In that respect, the need to establish cities as the focal point to the conflicts became key.
Then why a Central as well, instead of just West and East? Because the Moro had already established a semi-autonomous arrangement at that time (the Tripoli Agreement) and the radical elements had chosen to go westward and not eastward as that lay to one of the biggest offensives by the NPA that Davao City was compared to Beirut and this was the mid-80s! With Mindanao configured in that way, it became easier to sort out the rest mostly due to activity.
The Visayas Region is affixed by no major island unlike the other two so I had to make Cebu City its centerpiece, in doing so I saw no other points of separation so the whole Visayas became its own space. Back to Luzon, the only remaining space to figure out was what became Southern Luzon and it just seemed that logical again to keep it as one so I can have the even 10 spaces, I knew that one of the provinces belonged to the VP-elect but other than that, I found no other indication that it became a focal point to the struggle and was actually pleased that I did not. So, symmetrically (or asymmetrically – depends on how you look at it), it all came together.
Grant: What is the new Key Personality mini hand and how is it used in the design? What do the cards look like and who is featured?
Kenneth: Essentially, each faction has a mini-deck of 8-9 Personality Cards and at the start of a scenario and also during an Election or Aquino Fate Round, each blindly draws 3 cards from this mini-deck. The faction player then returns a card back to the mini-deck, keeps 2 cards and has one face-up and the other face-down (usually behind the face-up card). The Personality Cards can augment an Operation and/or Special Activity, add more Resources then normal or even affect the faction’s Victory Conditions and that of the other factions as well and can be used during the game or at game’s end. Each card shows a Personality who had a role in each faction and the game as well except President Marcos has one card for each faction as he is the crux of the game and each faction’s version of him is how he is perceived by each faction. There are also Non-Entity cards for each faction as they serve as dummy cards for use to bluff the other factions.
Grant: What is the purpose of the Aquino Fate/Elections space? Does this only occur in Manila? Why?
Kenneth: The purpose of the Aquino Fate/Elections space is merely as a placeholder for those cards to remind the corresponding faction of the Momentum ability held herein. The Elections Cards are mostly self-explanatory, but the Aquino Fate card is included as in the extended game (1981 start), as it includes a “what if” situation where instead of the historic assassination, Aquino can also remain in exile or be jailed upon return depending on who is ahead in victory conditions. The Aquino Fate/Elections space is there for the whole map board and not just Manila. Reason for that is that, though Manila was the nucleus of most political activity, the Elections and Aquino Fate affects certain factions and other spaces.
Grant: What are you most pleased with in the design? What might still need some work?
Kenneth: If there is something I am most pleased is the balance among all three factions. The majority of the games playtested so far have been very close with some won by the faction who was losing for most of the game. There is always going to be some tweaking and even tinkering but at this stage of design and development, the process of getting the extended scenario as well as the solitaire system up to snuff is next on the list.
Grant: What has been the experience of players thus far?
Kenneth: Very positive even to the point that the players are more interested in winning the game with the tools provided instead of just focusing on the historical period. I guess that can be looked on as a negative, but I also see it as proof to the merit of the COIN system, which currently endures in whatever time period in history or geographic location in the world.
Grant: What does the future hold for you Kenneth?
Kenneth: Well life doesn’t have any guarantees, but I am ready for anything at this point. Design-wise, I still have a lot of ideas that I have been sharing with my peers. Some more COIN games, some not, but I freely admit that my creative juices always get flowing the more involved I am with this hobby. Best part is that with today’s communication technology, our fellow hobbyists and designers can always assist me in which direction or design output I can direct my energies too.
Thanks for the great insight into the game Kenneth. I have really enjoyed our interactions and appreciate your passion for the subject and for the process of designing a game in the vaunted COIN Series. I eagerly await the finalization of People Power so it can grace my table and sit in its rightful place amongst the other volumes in the series on my shelf. As Kenneth mentioned, we are going to be working with him on doing a series of Event Card Spoiler posts over the next few months, very similar to what we have done with All Bridges Burning. I am very excited to see these cards to get a better feel for the history of the conflict as well as the mechanics of the game.