I am going to give the credit to this interview being on The Players’ Aid to Both Sides of My Table. I first saw their review of The Coin Tribes’ Revolt and became very interested in the game. This caused me to then contact the designer Laurie Phillips to inquire about an interview and brings us to this very moment in time.
The game was a submission to the 9-Card NanoGame PnP Design Contest (2018) and is an asymmetrical design of warring factions set in the turbulent times during the early Roman occupation of Britain in 60 AD. It is inspired by the COIN series of games by Volko Ruhnke published by GMT Games, and attempts to recreate the GMT COIN Series game experience within the restrictions of the 9 card NanoGame format, which seems to me a great challenge. So, let’s find out who Laurie Phillips is and dig deeper into this mini, but mostly amazing, game design.
Grant: Tell us a little about yourself Laurie. What games do you prefer to play? What do you do for a living?
Laurie: I live with my partner and budgie in Liverpool, UK, where I work as a research scientist at the university here. I wasn’t really much of a boardgamer in my childhood, beyond the usual family fare (and a bit of Warhammer) but I was introduced to Puerto Rico by a friend maybe five years ago and haven’t looked back! I would describe myself as mainly a eurogamer, generally preferring low-luck, thinky titles. A few particular favourites of mine include Caylus, Food Chain Magnate, and Dominant Species. My closest foray into wargaming territory has been through the COIN series, playing Fire in the Lake (which probably wasn’t the best introduction to the system), Cuba Libre, and recently Liberty or Death. Cuba Libre was still in my mind when I started thinking about the 9-card game competition, and was one of the main inspirations for Coin Tribes.
I am a postdoc at the university, working in renewable energy, specifically looking into new and sustainable materials for solar cells. It’s a fascinating job, and a really exciting time to be working in photovoltaics. Renewable energy is just starting to reach the tipping point and is increasingly taking over from fossil fuels. Silicon, the incumbent technology dominates at the moment, but the thin film technologies I work on are like an insurgency; trying to disrupt the market by being cheaper and better. Our time will come in a few years, with the right events…Wait, that gives me an idea!
Photovoltaics (PV) is a term which covers the conversion of light into electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit the photovoltaic effect, a phenomenon studied in physics, photochemistry and electrochemistry.
A typical photovoltaic system employs solar panels, each comprising a number of solar cells, which generate electrical power. PV installations may be ground-mounted, rooftop mounted or wall mounted. The mount may be fixed, or use a solar tracker to follow the sun across the sky. – Wikipedia (I am so ignorant on this topic I found my info at Wikipedia; forgive me Laurie!)
Grant: Puerto Rico has snared many a non-gamer. It is such a classic game (it sits at #6 on my Top 10 Games list) with simple yet thinky mechanics that it is hard not to enjoy it. I can see that you have an ever active mind, even seeing ideas in something as mundane as your job, but how did you get into game design?
Laurie: The very first ‘game’ I made was a birthday present for a friend, when I re-skinned Spyfall based on a joke theme he’d come up with. It was a bit of nonsense really, but that was the spark that initially got me thinking about designing games. I love creating things, and when I saw just how low the barrier of entry was for game design I just couldn’t help myself. There’s so much information out there for new designers and everyone is incredibly supportive. It wasn’t long before I’d devoured hundreds of hours of podcasts, YouTube videos and countless articles.
Like most people, I’m sure, the real start to designing games came when I took out a notebook, and jotted down my first idea…then a second…then a third….. Very few of those initial ideas have ever amounted to anything, mostly because they have been superseded by something newer before getting anywhere.
Grant: What do you love about design? Conversely what keeps you up at night?
Laurie: Designing games is a wonderful sandbox to play in. The distance from “idea in my head” to “physical experience” is incredibly short, yet the scope for creativity is almost unfathomably wide. I also love problem solving and optimization. I think one of the things that has attracted me particularly to the restrictive contests is that fitting a game into the restrictions is, in itself, a wonderful puzzle. How to extract the greatest possible value from each component, while keeping it intuitive, and finding that state of “flow” that makes gaming such an engaging experience. It is also a huge thrill to see a design of mine out in the wild, and see people’s reactions to it.
Designing games is a wonderful sandbox to play in. The distance from “idea in my head” to “physical experience” is incredibly short, yet the scope for creativity is almost unfathomably wide.
Most things keep me up at night as I’m a terrible sleeper, and game design hasn’t helped at all! However, lying awake at night is where a lot of ideas come to me and where I often test them out. Of course, in my mind, every idea is perfectly formed and plays wonderfully. It’s not until the cold, hard, light of day when it’s on the table that problems appear.
Grant: What games have you previously designed? Also what contests have you entered and how have your designs performed?
Laurie: My only other ‘finished’ game out in the world is another microgame called Battlestations! It was entered in the BoardGameGeek 2017 18 card game contest and did quite well, coming top in most of the categories. While I’m proud of it as a first attempt, it lacks a certain elegance, requiring players to maneuver cards around an imaginary grid. As a first constraint-based design experience though, it was instructive in showing me how to use the constraints to guide the design, almost letting the game design itself as it bumps up against them.
Grant: What was the genesis for your most recent micro game The Coin Tribes’ Revolt – Boudica’s Rebellion Against Rome?
Laurie: Coin Tribes started as a direct response to the 9-card nanogame contest brief on BoardGameGeek. I had recently played Cuba Libre and was struck again by the incredible decision space generated by the action selection mechanism. I can’t remember precisely what triggered the thought to recreate the event card deck initiative mechanism with dice, but it has stayed almost unchanged from that first thought. My gaming group had struggled with Fire in the Lake previously and while Cuba Libre was much more of a success, I wanted to see if I could create a game that provided some of the essence of a COIN game experience without the same rules overhead. Also, fitting everything into 9 cards and 18 components seemed like such a ludicrous challenge, I couldn’t help but try it…
Grant: What other games did you use as inspiration?
Laurie: My main inspiration were several volumes of the COIN series. The aforementioned Cuba Libre was a major factor, as the most recent COIN game I had played. Falling Sky and Pendragon were significant in inspiring the theme, as ancient historical settings interest me much more than modern warfare. My most recent acquisition, Liberty or Death, has been helpful in providing ideas for increasing the interaction between factions. The changes didn’t make it into v1.0 as released for the contest, but should be updated soon. As such a direct simulation of COIN games, I didn’t look much beyond them for mechanic ideas. As for thematic inspiration, beyond the general period, I didn’t use any particular game. I settled on the Boudica rebellion fairly quickly as I recall. I wanted a smaller conflict that would fit into the more limited scope of a 9 card game. While a detailed history might appear to be useful for a game designer, I felt that trying to simulate in too much detail would be more likely to trip me up.
Grant: Speaking of detailed history, how much research did you feel the need to do? What were some sources you consulted?
Laurie: Time pressure restricted the amount of research I was able to do. My main source was the internet, through many history-based websites that laid out the sequence of events during the rebellion. This was also where I first saw the tribes of south east Britain referred to as “The coin tribes” and cemented my choice of theme because who doesn’t love a good pun!? Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of detailed history from the period, with most of it ultimately coming from two sources: Tacitus and Dio. Tacitus was reporting the experiences of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (the eponymous hero of my current favourite Hollandspiele game) who was his father-in-law and a tribune in the Roman army at this time and appears closest to the events. Even so, we don’t have a great amount of detail and the reporting is obviously biased, but it was enough to use as the rough guide I wanted.
Grant: What are the parameters for a nano card game? What difficulties does this create for the design? Conversely what opportunities does it provide?
Laurie: Each year the restrictions are slightly different, but this year the format was limited to 9 poker sized cards and 18 simple components (I won’t list all the options, but basically: D6 dice, cubes, unmarked counters, paper clips, etc..) The difficulties this creates are myriad! Primarily, in the broadest sense, so few components puts a severe restriction on how much information can be tracked over time. For example, 18 components meant that there was only a maximum of 4 pieces available per faction if they were to be split evenly. I decided to use dice for the components due to the fact that this gives me multiple ways to record information with one piece, using both its number and position, but this is still very restrictive.
As an example, players of the game may notice that it doesn’t use resources in any way. The first iteration of the game did in fact have resources, but including bases meant that the dice had to record 3 pieces of information: number on die (for number of units), x-position (number of resources), and y-position (if the faction had a base in the region). This required a large 2D grid of spaces on each region card had a huge impact on the visual appeal of the game, but critically meant that resources were localized to the regions. Localized resources did produce some interesting decisions, but ultimately created some very clunky gameplay when, for instance, all the units of a faction were eliminated. I don’t have player elimination and a faction can continue to rally, but this then required tracking resources off the map and just served to complicate and slow the game down.
Another difficulty is that you run out of room very quickly. A small number of components and low values for the various properties being altered means that the altering some parameters can produce a huge step change rather than just fine tuning. With the current rule set, for example, I find a huge difference between the Romans achieving 15 and 16 points, so balancing can be difficult (and on-going…).
A particular problem for creating a COIN game at this scale is the difficulty in creating asymmetry. The limited component count gave very little room to differentiate between the factions and make them distinctive. Instead, this has had to come mostly from the rules.
Fortunately, there are also many opportunities provided by such a restrictive design space. Many decisions are made for you simply because there is no other way to do it. This naturally encourages simplicity, and doesn’t leave room for much that doesn’t contribute to the core essence of a design. It is also much easier to iterate with a game of this scale, and it is easier to hold the entire game in your head when there are fewer moving parts. The interactions are less complicated, and therefore the effects of rule changes easier to test. Another benefit is the ease and cost of producing the game. I’ve been sending quite a few copies out to people for playtesting that I’ve produced myself, something that would be prohibitively difficult and expensive with a larger design. Finally, the portability of such a tiny design is great, I can keep a copy on me, and play virtually anywhere with such a small footprint.
Grant: What different factions are represented and how do they differ? What are there differing victory conditions?
Laurie: The four factions in Coin Tribes are the Romans, and three British tribes: the Iceni, Trinovantes, and Catuvellauni. The Iceni and Romans were very obvious choices. Boudica was the queen of the Iceni tribe and the instigator of the revolt. They are the main insurgency faction. The Romans are clearly the counter-insurgency at this time, having occupied Britain and are attempting to quell the population through both force and use of ‘client king’ arrangements with the locals. These were the easiest factions to create and probably provide the most thematic play as a result. The Trinovantes were the next most obvious choice. Their capital of Camulodunum was the de-facto Roman capitol, being taken over by the Romans and used to subjugate the Trinovantes tribe. When Boudica looked for allies, she found them readily in the Trinovantes and they aided her in the siege and destruction of the temple at Camulodunum. While I expect there were many more tribes represented in the revolt, I couldn’t find much evidence of this and regardless they are likely the next largest representatives. The final tribe, the Catuvellauni, are the biggest stretch of all the factions. During the previous invasion by Caesar in ca. 50 BC, the Catuvellauni king had led the Britons in repelling the Romans. However, a decade later, it appeared from my research that they had become one of the more Romanized tribes, accepting a “client king” arrangement whereby they retained semi autonomy from Rome in exchange for tribute.
In truth, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of the Catuvellauni fighting alongside the Romans against their fellow Britons, but I decided to use them for three reasons: firstly, they are the closest tribe, bordering both the Iceni and Trinovantes. Secondly, they appeared to be the tribe in greatest opposition to the Trinovantes having ruled over them in the recent past before the arrival of the Romans thus setting up an obvious conflict axis orthogonal to the Romans and Iceni. Finally, the initial design also included resources and they are described as a very rich tribe so they seemed most suited to this role, providing asymmetry via trading with the Romans. Ultimately, resources were removed, but the Catuvellauni remain.
- The Romans win by protecting the cities and increasing sympathy in all the regions.
- The Iceni’s main objective is the destruction of the cities, and increasing opposition to the Romans.
- The Catuvellauni need to grow their numbers and take control of regions to win.
- The Trinovantes win if they can re-establish themselves by building bases, and by taking control of regions
Grant: What is used to create the map for the game?
Laurie: With such a restrictive component count, I could only manage to have 4 regions. I decided to use 4 cards to make up the map as a poker sized card has space for various regions to use dice as markers to record military presence (and initially resources) on the cards. I drew the map myself using pen and ink, tracing over a map of Britain. I converted the scanned image to a vector using inkscape, which I also used to add the cities and other markers. I used a scan of an old map in a layer very lightly over the top to provide a bit of texture and used a block of grey to mark the sea. The map cards are double sided, identical apart from the cities which are marked intact with a circle on one side and razed with a cross on the other. Finally, there is a number in each region to denote the population. The map is fairly stark, but I like the simplicity of it; mostly greyscale apart from the flashes of red to highlight the cities and population.
Grant: How is influence and control tracked in the game? I know you had component limitation concerns, but why did the use of dice make the most sense in this instance?
Laurie: In the actual COIN series, influence and control are normally tracked via a token on the multi-use number tracker found around the perimeter on most game maps. After each move, the trackers are updated to provide, at a glance, the current state of the board. It became clear early on that I just didn’t have the components to track the influence/control separately from everything else. Fortunately, with only 4 regions, I decided that it wasn’t too arduous to make players re-calculate each time. I used dice rather than the usual cubes/cylinders/etc. to mark units on the map again purely because of component restrictions. Using 1 die instead of 6 cubes is of obvious benefit. In fact, it was a double win, because I use an area on the card to signify that the faction has fortified the region with a base. Moving one component in and out of the area is much easier than moving many. With players having to recalculate often, I decided to make it very simple; control of each region goes to the faction with the most influence. Units add one influence each, having a base adds an extra two.
Grant: How is sympathy and opposition determined at the start of the game? What factors can effect these numbers?
Laurie: The sympathy and opposition at the start of the game is set up to reflect the general state of affairs as I expected them during the time of the rebellion, tweaked slightly to create the initial gamestate I wanted. Another hold-over from Cuba Libre was the idea of the counter-insurgency faction starting strong and most likely to win early, with a gradual build up of rebel actions grinding them down (if left unchecked) to leave the insurgency more likely to win when the game goes the distance. Therefore, the initial sympathy was set to put the Romans on a nearly, but not quite, winning condition. Over the course of the game, many actions affect the local will on the population. I tried to keep an eye on theme while choosing which actions cause a change, while at the same time tried to balance it out to give both sides a similar ability to influence the local will.
Grant: How did you incorporate events into the game and how can they effect gameplay?
Laurie: For a significant chunk of the development, there were no events in Coin Tribes. As a replacement, I had one special overpowered action for each tribe. This could be executed through selecting the same space as “event” currently, but only if the faction had a high enough initiative to prevent over use. It wasn’t until the local will tracking cards were reduced from 4 to 2 that I was able to free up the cards for events. I came up with a list of different actions I thought would be useful to the aims and win conditions of each faction. There are some events that confer a temporary but ongoing bonus, some that offer an enhanced version of typical actions, and others that offer ways for the allied factions to help each other. The events are taken, as with most COIN games, as two options on the action selection matrix. One as second eligible, to make the first eligible faction think twice about taking the powerful two actions + bonus slot. The other option is a first eligible slot thus making sure that the player with the highest initiative has the option of taking the event, but in doing so, allows the second eligible to take two actions + bonus. Unlike a regular COIN game, I was unable to link the eligibility order to the events and therefore they are simply shuffled and made available in a random order, frequently being reshuffled to hopefully cycle through them and create interesting interactions between events and board-state.
Grant: How many events are there? Where did you get the idea to have events on both the front and back?
Laurie: There are 8 events currently in Coin Tribes, each having two parts to provide an action that likely favours both the insurgency and counterinsurgency factions. Each event occupies half of one side of a card. Two halves x two sides x two cards = 8 events. This does require the player to engage in possibly the clunkiest aspect of the game: shuffling these cards. It is possible to require the players to shuffle a single card to randomize the 4 possible outcomes on each card. Not particularly elegant, but it does provide the most variety possible in such a restricted format and therefore, I believe, worth the price.
Grant: Can you share a few events with us and tell us how they effect the game and factions?
Laurie: The event names and events themselves are only loosely related. With limited historical information, it was difficult to use the few snippets of history I had to create events that worked for all of the factions. One of the best examples is probably “Londinium Abandoned”. Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, upon returning from his campaign in Wales and seeing the swath of destruction wrought by Boudica’s army, decided that rather than defend Londinium, they would remove all their troops from the town. Londinium was to become London, of course, but at the time the settlement had only recently been founded and was still fairly small and without much in the way of defenses. Leaving Londinium undefended was actually probably a shrewd move that preserved a relatively small number of legionaries that could ultimately form a larger force and finally overcome the less well organized Britons at the Battle of Watling St. To reflect this, the event options allow a faction to have a temporary retreat option when facing future battles and thus preserve their forces. The flip side to this is that a tribal faction may force Romans to vacate a region and lose any base in that region.
Another example is an event inspired by the aforementioned “Battle of Watling St”. The shaded event allows a faction to split damage amongst multiple tribes, representing the decisive nature of that battle, allowing the Romans to crush all the tribes in a region.
Grant: What is the turn structure for the game? How did you create the action selection card? What was your goal with it?
Laurie: The turn structure “borrows” liberally from the common COIN action selection system. There are three rows, each row having two spaces for the first and second eligible factions to choose from. The choice of the first eligible player limiting the second to the same row. The main difference is that the initiative order that decides the eligibility is driven not by a card deck but by dice rolls. At the start of the game, all factions roll to set their initiative. The highest roll becomes first eligible, with ties broken by rolling a spare die. When factions have taken an action, they then re-roll their dice and move them to ineligible. This simulates the event deck of a regular COIN game showing not only the current event, but also the next one. This is important because the other choice players have is to pass. Passing adds 2 to your current initiative, and keeps you eligible, which allows a passing player to become 1st eligible next turn, if the ineligible factions have rolled relatively low.
Grant: What are the available actions? Why did you make it so that certain actions adjust the local sympathy or control?
Laurie: I wanted to keep the rules overhead fairly low, so many of the actions are similar for the different factions. The main actions are all the same:
- Rally (add units to the map)
- March (move units around)
- Battle (remove opponent’s units)
These were all crucial actions, but within them I added variations to keep the asymmetry. For example, the Catuvellauni can add two units with a Rally under certain circumstances, and the Romans are much stronger at Battling than the tribal factions. I wanted to keep the Iceni as a more mobile tribe and therefore they can March anywhere whereas the other factions can only March to adjacent regions
As for the bonus actions, these were more distinctive. Everyone except the Iceni has a Build action which allows them to fortify a region with a base. Each faction has a different cost associated with the Build action, paid with units, although the Trinovantes can perform this for free. These three also have a Sack action which removes an opposing base when they outnumber the other faction, but this is modified in the case of the Romans to be Suppress, which allows them to also move a tribal unit to an adjacent region. The Iceni have two unique actions: Inspire, which allows them to convert another tribal unit to their own and Raze, which is their most important action allowing them to destroy a city.
I only made the bonus actions alter sympathy and opposition to limit the amount of change that could happen and prevent it becoming chaotic. Both the Romans and Iceni needed a way to change the local will as it is part of their win condition, but I also wanted the other factions to have some control over this so had the Sack action make the region more neutral (i.e. less opposed or sympathetic).
Grant: What mechanic did you use to force a reckoning or scoring phase and why did this make sense?
Laurie: The game is split up into 5 periods, each having 4 turns. I wanted there to be a scoring phase during each period (which I’ve called a reckoning), in much the same way as the propaganda cards being seeded in Cuba Libre. Unfortunately, not having an event deck to drive initiative also meant not having one in which to seed propaganda cards. I wanted there to be an even chance of the reckoning happening on each turn during the period and therefore spent some time with an excel spreadsheet working through probabilities. Ultimately I came up with this idea, whereby the die I use to mark the turn number starts on the first turn showing a 6, then is reduced by 1 each turn. The spare die is rolled each turn and has to roll equal or greater than the number showing on the turn die to trigger a reckoning. If the period reaches the last turn without a reckoning being triggered, it automatically happens on the last turn. This doesn’t result in a perfectly linear probability, but is about as elegant a solution as I could find.
I am rethinking this approach though, and may take a leaf out of Liberty or Death’s book by only allowing a reckoning on the final two turns to prevent reckonings happening on simultaneous turns which over-powers the Romans.
Grant: The game is designed for up to four players. At which count does it work best? How does it play solo? Does it have a “Bot” system or is that in development?
Laurie: I have played it mainly solo, a few times with 2, and only once 4-handed. To be honest, I think I prefer it at 2 players; playing the allied factions together.
Currently it is only soloable by using the asymmetry to play all sides simultaneously to the best of your ability. Bots are in development, and I’m using the Liberty or Death flow-charts as a basis, but I’m not very experienced in this area so it’s taking a while. What has been quite fun is during testing I’ll take a move, forgetting that this was the Bot’s faction, and have to take it back, only to discover that the Bot would take the same move. There is still lots of work to do before these are finished, but keep an eye on the BGG page if you’d like to know when they are released.
Grant: Who is the artist and how did their style effect the theme?
Laurie: The artist/graphic designer for the cards is me, and my style is “limited ability”. I tried to keep it as simple as possible, partly because it fits the game but mostly because I don’t have the ability to do more. The cover artwork was done by my wonderful partner Karin (@karinaelacos) who is an artist usually working in fine liner pens and watercolour (as this was). The cover was the last thing to be completed for the game, before submission to the contest, so the theme was firmly established before she came on board. However, she has a bold, graphical style that may have subconsciously influenced me when drawing the maps.
Grant: What has been the reactions of those that have played the game?
Laurie: The main reactions to the game in general is delight in how it looks, which I think has been the primary driver of people’s interest. The reactions to playing the game have been really positive, with most people being really impressed with the workings of the game and how it manages to achieve everything it does with so little. Most pleasing for me is how many people have commented that it really does feel like a COIN game. I still think I have plenty of development to balance the factions out, and maybe add a bit more interaction and depth, but the amount of positive reactions so far makes me think that the core is solid.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design? What do you feel works well and what might need a reimagining?
Laurie: I think I am most proud of the action selection system, this was the spark of the whole design and has largely stayed the same throughout. While the restrictions of the 9 card nano contest are artificial, and I think many aspects of the game could be improved with more components, I don’t think I would change this part. I also think the local will tracker cards work really well and while I thought the number of regions would be too small, but I’ve become used to it now, and I enjoy the knife-fight-in-a-phone-booth feel. The part I’m least happy with is the events. Beyond the 9 card contest, I think these are the most likely to change, at least to take them onto more cards for easier shuffling. I also think I need to make them stronger, or at least more relevant, as at the moment, I’m finding the first eligible player is taking the two action + bonus slot much more often than I’d like.
Grant: Where can players find a copy of the game?
Laurie: The Coin Tribes’ Revolt can be found on BGG here. It is freely available to print and play, and as it’s only 9 cards, not too difficult either. I have also been sending out copies I have made on a pay-what-you-want basis to anyone that requests them, although my supplies are running low again.
Grant: What are your plans for future designs?
Laurie: I’m not quite done with this one yet, so that will be taking up some of my design time. Beyond that, I have several big eurogame ideas that I really should get back to, but I notice there are more contests coming up so they are likely to stay shelved for a bit. I’m becoming more interested in designing solo games, partly because of the ease of playtesting, partly because I’ve been playing them more myself. There are solo contests currently running on The Gamecrafter and one about to kick off on BGG, so I’m planning on entering something to at least one of them. I have been interested in WWI flying since a childhood reading Biggles, and I have a vague outline for a solo game based around a RFC squadron at the front. Still very early in the idea phase, but I’ve begun researching and ideas are popping up so hopefully something will come of it. I think it’s about time I tried designing without quite so many restrictions!
If you are interested, here is a link to a video created by Laurie (Iyidin_Kyeimo) on Board Game Geek that shows how to play the game: https://boardgamegeek.com/video/176161
Thanks Laurie for your time in answering our questions. I for one am very interested in the game and have downloaded a copy. I just need to buy some colored dice to be able to fully play as designed. We look forward to your future efforts and wish you luck in all of your endeavors.