Last year, Time of Crisis came on the scene and was a big hit for GMT Games. The game helped to further bridge the divide between Eurogamers and wargamers with a game that was extremely interesting to both camps, using deck-building to drive the engine of the game, while also using area control and influence with some fighting involving the invading barbarian hordes. With its success, GMT announced an expansion to the game in their March Monthly Update and we reached out to the designers Wray and Brad last month (sorry that this took us so long to get it together) for an interview and they both agreed. I love dual designer interviews by the way, because you get a better picture of the game and the process behind it, because you have a 360 degree view with two designers telling their side of the story.
Please keep in mind that the artwork and layout of the cards and various components shown in the interview are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development, card details and rules may still change prior to publication.
Grant: First off Wray and Brad, tell us a little about yourselves? What are your real jobs? What are your hobbies and interests? What games are you into?
Wray: I am 54 years old, live in North Carolina (for the record, BBQ is a noun and best served with vinegar-based sauce and hush puppies) and work as a computer programmer for a small company that does communication protocol work for the Department of Defense. I have been married for over 30 years with five children. My hobbies are bike riding and board games. I enjoy all types of games from old dinosaurs like Dune, to war-games such as Enemy Action: Ardennes (such a great combat system) to cooperative dungeon crawls like Gloomhaven.
Brad: Wray’s got me by a year, but I’m also in the software industry, although I walked away from my beginnings as a software engineer and turned to the dark side of management at least 20 years ago. I’m currently a program manager for Ticketmaster. I’m almost 30 years married with 3 adult sons, and I can usually talk them all into playing a game with me now and then. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to appreciate simple, elegant games that can be taught and played quickly, and I spend more and more of my time playing those. My current favorite might be Azul, but I also am enjoying the Arkham Horror Card Game and Pandemic Legacy Season 2. There are two games that are perennial favorites of mine that are the only ones I might be considered “expert” at – Dune and RoboRally. I’ve been running the Dune tournament at the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) for 18 years now. I also play RoboRally fairly competitively, and I love playing in the WBC tournament every year because it’s rare I can get my home group to play it any more. My past gaming history evolved from miniature gaming in the late 70s/early 80s, to classic SPI and Avalon Hill wargames, to roleplaying, back to board games starting in the 80s and exploding with the Euro-invasion in the 90s, and even touching on collectible card games in the 90s as well. My other hobbies are pretty much limited to reading (mostly science fiction and fantasy, especially anything involving time travel), and in recent years, escape rooms.
Grant: What other games have the two of you designed together and why is your partnership a good one? Why do you guys like the Romans so much?
Wray: Time of Crisis is our second game working together, Sword of Rome (also by GMT Games) was the first. I think we work well together because first we are good friends and second we think alike. The Roman obsession is mine, I am just fascinated by the impact they still have on us today.
Brad: I was never interested in history as a student, but as an adult, games got me interested. In particular, Avalon Hill’s The Republic of Rome was the first time I really got interested in Roman history, and that led me to reading Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series (which is really excellent.) My interest in The Republic of Rome is what led me to meeting Wray.
In the early days of general public access to the internet, I played in an aborted email game of The Republic of Rome with Wray. A number of years later, I got paired up with him in an online game of Avalon Hill’s Hannibal, and I recognized his distinctive name. After that, Wray said he had an idea to design a game based on Hannibal’s card-driven mechanics set in the pre-Republican Roman era, and would I be interested in being a sounding board, since I was the only other person he knew at the time interested in this type of game? (We still had not met face-to-face then.) That was how our partnership on what was to become Sword of Rome began. Sword of Rome started life as “The Rise of Rome”, and we had always talked about a “book-end” game on “The Fall of Rome”, which is what eventually became Time of Crisis (with a very different design than Sword of Rome.) For me, the critical reason we make good partners is because I think we both tend to be very agreeable, and we both make each other feel completely safe to express ideas, concerns, and questions to each other. We’re both focused on solving the problem of designing a working game, and I really believe neither one of us has an ego about needing things to be “my way”. Also, we keep each other going through the hard parts. (Ok, this is admittedly more Wray’s talent to keep me going, most of the time.)
Grant: What would you say is your overall design philosophy? What is the process of design for the two of you?
Wray: Well, Sword of Rome was learning about game design, what worked, and what didn’t. I think from that experience our philosophy has become consistency, no exceptions. If possible, we want the players to learn a rule once and in all situations that rule is the same. A well designed game should be easy to learn so you can actually get on with playing it. Our game design process is very iterative and email intensive. There are some game designers who I admire as it seems their game designs spring forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus. Our process is more like: this is a good idea, quickly make a playable game on the idea, play it, review it, play it, review it, repeat until we are satisfied.
Brad: Yes, we burn a heck of a lot of email working through our design ideas, that’s for sure! I think we get an initial idea that we both like, and then we go through a period of “expansion”, where we both start brainstorming ideas and growing the framework of the game, adding functions and mechanics that we think are good ideas that fit. We eventually get something loosely drafted on paper that we feel is worth trying out, we build a functional prototype (neither one of us are artists, so our prototypes are definitely focused more on function than appearance!), and then begins the long process of “convergence”. Ideas that seemed good on paper get discarded if they don’t work, sometimes adjusted or replaced, but often the process of game development is one of subtraction, at least for us. I think we’re both focused on trying to have a design that “makes sense”, where the mechanics can fairly clearly be explained in terms of the theme and setting.
Ideas that seemed good on paper get discarded if they don’t work, sometimes adjusted or replaced, but often the process of game development is one of subtraction, at least for us. I think we’re both focused on trying to have a design that “makes sense”, where the mechanics can fairly clearly be explained in terms of the theme and setting.
Grant: How did you get into wargame design? What do you love most about it? What is something you struggle with?
Wray: I got into wargame design with Sword of Rome by loving Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage and being completely clueless about the amount of work required. If I had known the amount of work it would have taken me I am not sure I would have started to be honest. But once started I was determined to finish. The thing I love most about game design, the same with programming, is seeing an idea come to life. The struggle is always that last 10% of the design. The classic idiom that the last 10% of a project takes 90% of the time certainly applies to game design.
Brad: I have thought about game design from the time I was in high school and first really identified with gaming as a hobby. From my very first gaming experiences (WWII micro-armor miniature gaming), the rules we used were almost entirely home-brewed. Then when I started board gaming, I also started concocting my own ideas for game designs. I would obsess about some idea for weeks, months, or even years, but none of these ideas (most of which were really bad) ever came near seeing the light of day, because once I was tired of toying with the idea, I would just abandon it. As I said above, I really definitely need a partner like Wray who will work with me to get an idea past the “toy” stage and into the “real” stage, which is where all the hard work is. I also struggle with wanting to push games further on the “simulation” scale, seeking a lot of details that frequently end up jeopardizing the playability of the game. To be completely honest, I was quite surprised at where Time of Crisis ended up as a game compared to how we envisioned it in its early conception. This simplification and streamlining is due in large part to Wray’s guidance and clear understanding of what playtesting was telling us.
Grant: What designers have influenced your designs?
Wray: Speaking for myself, it is less about designers and more about understanding what makes me pull down a game to play when I have a choice of any game in my collection. One of the things that I realized is when given a choice of a game, I tend to gravitate towards games that once learned are easy to return to even after a six month break. Hopefully we achieved that with Time of Crisis.
Brad: I also am not particularly driven by any particular designer, although I think it’s clear that Mark Herman’s designs have had a tremendous influence on me. His landmark design for We the People really resonated with me, and the evolution seen in Mark Simonitch’s Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage definitely locked card-driven war games in my mind as the design model I was most interested in.
Grant: Were you surprised with the success of Time of Crisis? Why do you feel the game speaks to people and draws in both seasoned wargamers and those that are new?
Wray: I was surprised that after taking about two years to make the P500 numbers it sold out in six months. Brad and I thought we had a good game on our hands, but you never really know until people start playing it. I think the game occupies a spot in between a wargame and a Euro that appeals to both groups of gamers. That was the hope, to be a historical euro/light wargame that was playable in an afternoon.
Brad: Definitely pleasantly surprised. I really just wanted my first official design credit to be something that was at least not universally panned. To be considered a success, at least in terms of sales, was really exciting. The most common word to describe Time of Crisis I’ve heard from people is “accessible”. I really believe there’s a gap in the current state of games between those that are highly-complex, all-day affairs and those that are lightweight family games, especially in the wargame arena, and I think we did hit that niche. The best part of success is it allows us to explore the game further with the expansion, and it also gives us some credibility to hopefully look forward to another design in the future.
Grant: I will say that at first I wasn’t really that interested in Time of Crisis. The main reason for that was that I was unsure how you would integrate deck-building into a game that is intended to be about a struggle to fight off barbarians and watch your back from pretenders and assassins. Once I saw people playing the game on social media, and once I understood how it was supposed to work, I immediately got my hands on a copy and have never regretted that decision once. Great game! Back to the interview. What was your goal with the proposed expansion for Time of Crisis? What did you feel was missing from the game that needed to be added?
Wray: To be honest we didn’t have any plans for an expansion, but while the reviews of Time of Crisis were positive, one common complaint was that there was only one event per color/value combination. When GMT told us that they wanted to reprint the base game we thought it would make sense to release an expansion at the same time.
Brad: Yes, no question we wanted to provide more cards for more deck-building options in the game. Originally, we did want to provide more cards in the base game, but we found out the hard way that tweaking balance between card effects without breaking various core parts of the game was really difficult, and quite frankly we just had to limit the number of different special effects we had available due to playtesting constraints. Keeping the game to a practical price point for an unproven design also meant we needed to limit the number of cards included (which are often the most expensive part of a game.) So our initial plan for the expansion was just to provide a new set of cards to double the deck-building choices. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to a particular theme, so all ideas were open. We dusted off some of the ideas that had to be cut from the base game, and also started brainstorming new ideas as well. Again, tuning the card set so it balances against the original cards, while also not disrupting the core game mechanics, all while still offering some new options, turned out to be a challenge! During this time, Wray had also been working on a set of AI Rules, because another criticism was that the 2 and 3-player games were not as rich as the full 4-player game. So we wanted to fill that gap.
Grant: Tell us the story of the naming contest and how the expansion came to be called The Age of Iron and Rust: A Time of Crisis Expansion?
Wray: Since we had not planned for an expansion we had no name for it. So we pitched it to GMT as the Time of Crisis expansion, which is a pretty generic name, and would have caused confusion if in the future there was a second expansion. We also wanted people to know that a reprint of the game was coming so thought it would be good marketing to have a contest to let people know about the expansion and reprint. The phrase is from a quote from Cassius Dio, a Roman senator from the late 2nd century, who commented “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”. It may predate the Crisis of the Third Century a bit, but we felt it captures well the degradation of the period in which the game is set.
The phrase is from a quote from Cassius Dio, a Roman senator from the late 2nd century, who commented “Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.
Brad: Yes, big thanks to the winner, John Boone, who submitted that suggestion, plus the many others who took the time to enter their ideas, including Neil Helmer who got the most upvotes. We looked for a name for this expansion that captured the tone of the game without necessarily tying to a single specific theme. If there is the opportunity for more Time of Crisis expansions in the future, Wray and I have discussed some focused themes for new content, including the idea of expanding the role of naval forces in the game.
Grant: Deck-Building is central to the game and I see where the expansion doubles the number of choices with a full new set of cards that are available for purchase alongside the existing cards. How did you have to plan new cards to work hand in hand with existing cards? How are the new cards intended to work with the existing cards? What new strategies are created and what existing themes are strengthened?
Wray: The main design goal of the expansion was to introduce new abilities that didn’t already exist in the game. We didn’t want the new cards to be derivative of the existing cards. The other design goal was the current level 2 events are all defensive in nature, so we wanted the new level 2 events to be offensive in nature to give players a clear choice from their first card purchase. In addition, we wanted to beef up the offensive nature of the Populace events allowing for players to explore an aggressive Yellow deck if they wanted.
Brad: Another thing we had in mind is that we felt level 4 cards definitely needed to either provide a new source of legacy points, or a path to get them. We also had to make sure that the cards at each level were roughly equally desirable. If one level 2 card was just clearly better than all other level 2 cards for all play styles, then it would affect game balance in an undesirable way. So it was largely a matter of playtesting ideas we had until we arrived at a set that fit all the criteria.
Grant: Can you show us a few examples of new cards and tell us how they work?
Wray: Here are two of the new Level 2 cards showing off the offensive nature of the events. Do you give up a Castra to allow you to win ties in battles or perhaps forego the Tribute event to grant you more card purchasing power?
Grant: What is your favorite new card (I hope you don’t see through my design to simply get more cards out there)? Good, you answered.
Wray: I really like the new Blue 3 event (Frumentarii) as it introduces a new ability not present in the base game. It allows me to hold off on the decision on being aggressive or defensive in my card selections until I know what exactly the board position is.
Brad: I think my personal favorite is the new Yellow 2 event (Ambitus), because it offers early help for unseating the Emperor (or other Governors). I tend to favor a Blue/Yellow deck myself, so this is great synergy for me. Also, I just like anything that leads to more dynamic change-over of rulership in the game, which is what representing this time period is all about to me.
Grant: During the Third Century, Emperors didn’t only sit on the throne in Rome but ruled from the provinces and commanded armies in the field. How is this element added in the expansion with changes to the Emperor rules?
Brad: What struck me when reading about the Crisis of the Third Century is how so many of the Emperors during this period died while personally leading their army. (They either were killed in battle, or even more often were assassinated by their own troops.) In Time of Crisis, we had just designed it so the Governor of Italia represented the reigning Emperor, and I just felt like this element of the history was missed.
Wray: This was Brad’s idea so he gets all the credit for what I think is a cool mechanic. We are introducing Emperor tokens to mark where on the map your Emperor is located. Immediately upon becoming Emperor, you must place your marker in Italia (which we refer to as a Senate Emperor), or in another province you govern (a Populace Emperor) or with an army you command (a Military Emperor).
Grant: What advantages are there to using your Emperor in the field? What are the risks?
Wray: You can generate a lot more bonus legacy provided the Emperor is victorious in battle, but at the risk of dying in battle.
Brad: Specifically, all of the legacy the army your Emperor is leading is doubled, but you have to roll a die for every hit the army takes to see if your Emperor is killed in battle (or killed by his own men, whichever story you want to tell.) We’ve done the math, and a Military Emperor should get more legacy per turn than a Senate Emperor or a Populace Emperor, but it takes the right cards and determination to do it, and your certainty of staying alive to be Emperor more than a turn or two is quite a bit lower. So again, we feel the new Emperor rules give options to support different play styles.
Grant: Are there any rules being added to cover assassinations?
Wray: Nothing outright, but it is implied in certain events such as Praetorian Guard.
Brad: Over time, we have drafted and/or playtested different versions of cards that explicitly represented assassinations (and were even titled Assassination), but for one reason or another, none of them ever made the cut.
Grant: Onto the solo rules. What was your inspiration for your solo variant? What was the most difficult part about creating the AI?
Wray: The main inspiration was realizing how many people were playing a multi-player game solitaire. By far the most work on the AI was trying to walk that line between an AI that provides a challenge, but is easy enough to run that you will actually use it.
Brad: We both saw the need for providing “bots” to round out the player count after hearing a number of players reporting that they wished 2-player games could be more like the “standard” 4-player game. Also, “bots” have really become a trademark of GMT wargames in recent years – so many of their games are offering this as a standard feature now. Wray was the champion and the primary designer of the AI rules from the beginning, and hats off to him for doing the majority of the work on this part. He spent many hours playtesting solo games himself, and that is not easy work.
Grant: How does the AI work in relation to the rules? How are its actions chosen?
Brad: Each AI has a chart that indicates how many and what type of influence points it has to spend each turn. The starting idea for this abstraction of the AI’s deck into a simple chart was probably my main contribution to the AI design. I just thought it would be too fiddly to try to keep track of each AI’s exact deck and hand of cards. After that, Wray hammered out a very detailed list of actions the AI would try to take, in priority order. Each AI tries to spend its influence points on these actions in the order given.
Wray: The latest playtest version of the AI rules and player mats can be found at this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/1hFLW0hfGMuXpbtTC5T2_ceqEwtXBf08r. Everyone is free to try these out if they like, but these are not necessarily final. We are currently expecting these rules to be edited into the rulebook for the expansion.
Grant: Is this a true solo versus multiple AI opponents or is it more intended to be used in a 2 or 3-player game to bring the total players to four?
Wray: Both. There are three AIs, each with a different primary focus (Populace, Military, or Senate). You could use all 3 AIs to play a solo 4-player game, or any combination you like up to a max of 4 players in a game. I play tested the AI running a solo game against all three AIs, but others have used it to bring their two or three player game up to a full table of four factions.
Grant: What has been the feedback from players on the AI? What have been some of the changes implemented through playtesting?
Wray: So far the feedback has been really good. Players appreciate that the AI’s deck is abstracted out so running the AI is not very time-intensive. The main changes from playtesting have been tweaking the AI’s priority list to ensure that players can’t game the system too much.
Grant: How has the AI chart evolved over time?
Wray: The first version of the AI was ten pages of very detailed priorities and actions that was nearly flawless in its execution, but also impossible to run. Even though I had come up with the list I was never sure if I was doing the steps correctly as it was easy to get lost.
Brad: As mentioned before, the focus of development was on simplification! It’s still a pretty comprehensive list of specific actions, but it’s probably about as minimal as it can get and still provide a decently challenging opposition.
Grant: Overall what is your goal for the solo variant? Are you pleased with the near final result?
Wray: My goal was just to allow everyone to be able to play a four faction version of the game. People are playing with it and enjoying it so that makes all the work worthwhile.
Grant: What elements still need work through playtesting?
Wray: The last round of play testing is making sure all the three Emperor choices are interesting, balanced in the sense of risk vs. reward, and that there is a logical reason for a player to choose any of the three. The events are just down to tweaking the text to ensure the intent is clear.
Brad: Right! We really want to avoid obvious ambiguities in how the events affect the rules. We worked really hard on trying to make sure all possible questions were answered in the base game rules and card wording, but it’s definitely surprising how many little things you can still miss, no matter how careful you are.
Grant: Who is your developer on the project and how have they impacted the design?
Wray: GMT thought that Time of Crisis was simple enough rules-wise that with two designers we didn’t need a separate developer.
Brad: In a way, having two designers whom you trust to be sufficiently critical of each other can be essentially equivalent to having an independent developer. I think Wray is used to me commenting objectively on his ideas from our relationship on Sword of Rome.
Grant: What is in the future for Wray and Brad? Any other joint upcoming projects?
Brad: As soon as Time of Crisis was finished and went to the printers, Wray and I started work on a design idea I had for a game about the U.S. labor movement. After the fast success of Time of Crisis, we pivoted to work on the expansion, and unfortunately the new game has been on the back-burner since then.
Wray: We really need to get back to this!
Thank you to both Wray and Brad for their time in doing this interview. We appreciate your efforts and I want to say that I really enjoyed Time of Crisis and am very much looking forward to The Age of Iron and Rust expansion.
If you are interested in The Age of Iron and Rust: A Time of Crisis Expansion, you can preorder a copy from the GMT Games website for the reasonable P500 price of $17.00 at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-698-the-age-of-iron-and-rust-a-time-of-crisis-expansion.aspx