We’ve been getting a lot more involved with many different designers and one that has been keeping us quite busy over the past 18 months is David Thompson. We saw the announcement for his new game called Europe Divided a couple of months ago and I was immediately drawn toward the game as the theme, being a new Cold War type struggle, was very reminiscent of one our favorite games Twilight Struggle from GMT Games. I reached out to David and he was more than willing to share with us.
Grant: What got you started down the path of designing a game like Europe Divided?
David: I’m a huge fan of the post-Cold War period. I think it’s fascinating and often overlooked. I’m also a huge fan of Euro/Wargame hybrids (or Waros) so the idea of designing a Waro around the post-Cold War seemed a natural extension of my interest.
Grant: I understand that one of your first loves in wargames is Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow. What do you like about that game and how has it influenced your tastes and your designs?
David: A Few Acres of Snow was my introduction to Waros. It showed me that you could model a historical event using Eurogame design ideas. It also leveraged my favorite mechanism: deck-building. Even though Europe Divided is not a deck-builder, I used deck-manipulation (I’d call it deck-dilution in this case) to illustrate the impact of expanding political and economic influence as well as bureaucracy in general.
Grant: What is a “Waro” and what would you like to tell those who prefer more traditional hex and counter wargames about them?
David: I mentioned this a bit above, but a Waro is the synthesis of a wargame (in terms of topic) and Eurogame (in terms of mechanism). What this means is a greater focus on things like input randomness as a decision making process rather than output randomness (such as dice rolling). If you prefer hex and counter or other traditional wargames, I would just suggest giving Waros a try. While they might not be for you, you also might be surprised. Start with quick, tense games such as 13 Days to see if they appeal to you. If they don’t, you’ve only invested a half hour at the most.
Grant: What is your upcoming design Europe Divided about and what was your design goal for it?
David: Europe Divided tells the story of post-Cold War Europe (roughly from 1991 – today; though we’re also including some potential future events). In it, you will guide an expansionist Europe (EU and NATO) or a resurgent Russia (the Russia-Georgia Conflict, Annexation of Crimea, etc.). The goal was to provide players with the ability to live through an amazing time in our world’s history that often gets overlooked.
Grant: Tell us about your design partner Chris Marling. How did you meet? What expertise does he bring to the design?
David: I moved from the US to the UK in 2014. Shortly after moving there, I joined a design group in Cambridge. Chris is part of that group. Our first collaboration was a post-apocalyptic Eurogame called Armageddon (published by Queen). After that I invited Chris to work with me on Europe Divided. Chris brought a wealth of knowledge about all sorts of games to the table. He’s a much more well-rounded gamer than me, so he brings a lot of experience to a design partnership. Chris also served to ground me as we moved through the design. Oftentimes my love for the subject would result in too expansive of a design. Chris would rein me in to focus on the gameplay first and foremost.
Grant: How are each of the three powers in the game different in their play style?
David: One player takes the role of Western Europe and has the challenge of managing both the EU and NATO. This is difficult, because Europe is slow to react and must manage not only the powerful nations (the UK, Germany, France) but also weaker countries (like Greece) or those that are only part of NATO (Turkey, Norway) or the EU (Austria, Finland). In the end, this means that Europe will struggle to respond quickly, and must plan more strategically. In contrast, Russia has fewer resources, but can respond rapidly and take advantage of bureaucratic Europe. This is realized in the game through action cards that abstract the influence of European countries and Russian political, military, and economic entities.
Grant: With three powers represented was this a good candidate for a three player game? Why not?
David: That was my original vision: that a player would take the role of the EU, a different player would take the role of NATO, and they would have to work together to offset Russia’s influence. We worked through that idea for a while, but the tension I wanted to create was illustrated much better by having a single player manage a deck of action cards.
Grant: Why is the game board focused on regions over individual countries? What advantage does this give to the design?
David: In the original version of the game, each space of the board was a country. Over time we consolidated countries into regions. This provided a much more interesting, tense gameplay experience and significantly increases replayability due to the way events resolve (through headline cards). If each country was its own space, there would have been too many areas that didn’t play an important role during the course of the game.
Grant: How does the game use cards to drive the action? Why are you reluctant to call the design a Card Driven Game?
David: The Action Cards in the game represent regions in Western Europe or different entities in Russia. The cards are multi-use, meaning each card has a variety of actions they can be used for. Each turn, a player plays two cards, and each card can only be used for one action. They are used for things like placing political influence, moving armies (for military influence), gaining money, and raising influence. So while the cards are used to drive the action in the game, it doesn’t neatly fit into what most wargamers would call a card-driven game in the traditional sense.
Grant: What are the Headline Cards? Can you show us a few examples and talk about how they work?
David: Headline Cards are the goals of the game. They are one of the main two ways you accrue victory points (the other way is gaining dominant influence in a country). Each headline card is modeled after a critical event that shaped post-Cold War Europe.
Here are a couple of cards: Visegrad Group and the 102nd Military Base. The first thing you’ll notice is the difference in color palette. Green cards are those that score points for the Europe player, while red cards score for Russia. Each card also has a list of requirements and associated regions that must be met when the card is resolved in order to score points. Most cards are associated with a single region. The Visegrad Group is an example of a headline with multiple regions. For Europe to score the card, the EU (represented in yellow) must have more influence than Russia (red) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. If those conditions are met when the card is resolved, the Europe player will receive 4 victory points.
The 102nd Military Base is different. It represents the Russian military presence in Armenia. For the requirements to be met, Russia must have at least one army in Armenia when the card is resolved. If that condition is met, Russia will score 1 victory point.
Grant: How does influence work in the game? What is the advantage to dominating regions?
David: Each power (the EU, NATO, and Russia) can have influence in a region. In the game, influence is tracked from a range of 1 to 6, with 1 being the lowest and 6 being dominance. Only one player – EU/NATO or Russia – can have dominance in a region. There are two scoring opportunities in the game (one at the midway mark, and the other at the end) where players will gain one victory point for each region where they have dominance.
Grant: What is the difference with military influence?
David: Military influence is represented by the presence of one or more “army” in a region. NATO and Russia cannot both have military influence in the same region, so if two armies are ever present in the same region, their influence is offset (the armies are discarded).
Grant: Who came up with the idea of using dice to represent the influence? Genius by the way!
David: That was one of my core ideas at the very first stage of conceptualization for the game. I’m glad we were able to keep it through all the redesigns!
Grant: How do the Action Cards work? Can you show us an example and give us a rundown of the card’s anatomy?
David: Each turn, players get to select two of their four Action Cards to use. The more powerful the card, the higher its initiative. Once both players have chosen their cards, they announce their initiative. The player with the higher initiative (and thus, the more powerful cards), must play both cards first. The catch is that you’ll typically want to go second so that you can respond to your opponent.
Here’s an example card from the starting Russian Action Card deck: Secret Services. The card represents the influence of groups like the SVU and GRU. At the top left, you’ll see a 1 in a red box (with a 2 in a black circle). This means the card can be used to place Russian influence in a contested region. The 2 means this action costs 2 money. Just below that is a +3. This means you can raise the influence in a region that already has influence by 3 points. The gold with a 1 inside means you can use the card to gain 1 money. The pentagon means the card can be used to place a new army on the board. This action is the only one that has a spatial requirement linked to the card. The card requires you to place the newly built army in Moscow (text at the top of the card). The two arrows means the card can be used to move an army. Moving an army one space is free, and each additional space beyond the first costs 1 money per space. The 7 in the white circle at the bottom is the card’s initiative.
And finally, many cards have special actions or effects. Actions can be used instead of the core actions on the cards. In this case, the Secret Services card can be used to lower EU or NATO influence from 6 (dominance) to 5 in a region. This is an extremely powerful action, so it costs 4 money. Effects are different than actions. Effects are things that take place in addition to the action the card is used for.
Grant: I understand that once you have dominance in a region you add those region’s cards to your own deck and they typically are weaker. What was your goal with this design element?
David: This is mostly correct. You actually add a card to your deck when your influence reaches 5 (you don’t gain dominance until you reach 6). This is an important distinction from some other games, where only one player can have the card for a region. In Europe Divided, both players can have a 5 in a region, and thus both can actually add cards for the region to their deck. It’s worth noting that the cards are not symmetric. An Azerbiajan card that goes into Europe’s deck will have different attributes from the Azerbaijan card that goes into Russia’s deck. This is based on a variety of factors, but mostly reflects the political alignments and history of regions at the end of the Cold War. The cards are generally weaker than the starting action cards because the nations of Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Caucasus are weaker than Russia and Western Europe (in terms of political influence, military might, and economic power).
Grant: Why is it better to go second in your opinion?
David: To expand on the reason you’d want to go second: on even numbered turns of the game you’ll be resolving two Headlines cards. It’s almost always best to go second, so that you’ll know whether you can complete a headline that favors you, deny your opponent a headline, or move on to the next objective.
Grant: What do the Advantage Cards do and how are they used?
David: Action Cards represent different inherent aspects of countries, regions, and entities. Headlines are key historical events. But we needed a way to model special aspects of the game that fell outside of those two elements. Think of things like the impact of US Presidential influence in NATO basing decisions, or the impact Maskirovka had on the invasion of eastern Ukraine – that’s what the Advantage Cards allow us to do.
Grant: Who is the artist for the map? How do you feel their efforts have added to the play experience of the game?
The board was a co-creation of Grzegorz Ryszko, who did the projection, Bartek Jędrzejewski, who did the coloring, and Jaro Andruszkiewicz (the game’s developer), who designed the projection. The art team has done an amazing job giving the game a “TV headline news” style, which is what we were going for. I didn’t have that idea in mind when PHALANX signed the game. That was their art direction, and I love it. As for what it’s done to the play experience? Truthfully, I haven’t had the chance to play on anything but my prototypes with placeholder art — I can’t wait to get a copy with the final art!
Grant: How many rounds does the game last and what is the scale of time? How did you decide the 20 rounds limit?
David: The game lasts for 20 rounds, and roughly models 1991 – today, so it’s not quite 1 year = 1 turn. But honestly we were not trying to model turns to years. We roughly wanted to divide the game into what I feel are the two most distinct periods of Europe’s history since the end of the Cold War: the initial expansionism of the EU and NATO, followed by the resurgence of Russia (starting, in my opinion, with its conflict with Georgia in 2008). I should note that we are also considering adding a future headlines option where we extend the game for a few rounds so you can play through things like the potential of Russia invading the Baltics or the union of Moldova and Romania.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
David: Players gain victory points by completing the requirements of Headlines Cards (usually through a combination of influence or military presence in one or more regions) and having dominance in regions. The player with the most victory points wins. Scores are usually around the 10 – 20 point mark, so it’s a relatively low scoring affair.
Grant: I know that you covered the evolution of the game in your designer diary on BGG but what have been the major changes to the design over time?
David: Some elements that are critical to the way the game plays were the addition of the initiative system (originally it was envisioned as an U-Go-I-Go turn structure); resolving two Headlines Cards every two rounds, rather than one per round; the streamlining of countries into regions; the addition of special effects and actions on Action Cards; the addition of Advantage Cards; and the addition of the future headline cards.
Grant: What was the most difficult point to change and why?
David: I initially resisted consolidating countries into regions. I felt it was important to represent each country uniquely. But the gameplay improved so dramatically with the streamlining that I had to reluctantly accept it.
Grant: What type of play experience do you hope players will have with the game?
David: Tense, tough decision making. My favorite games are clean, elegant designs with tense decisions throughout: 13 Days and The King is Dead. Now Europe Divided is much more complex than those super-streamlined games, but I still hope to evoke their tense gameplay.
Grant: When is the Kickstarter campaign supposed to start?
David: June 10th (subject to change of course!)
Grant: What element are you most proud of in the design?
David: Bringing this seldom-covered element of modern history to life has really been a joy – moreso than the design itself, being able to design a game around this subject matter has been a great experience.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions David. We have received a prototype copy of the game and are going to be doing a preview video for the Kickstarter campaign. We appreciate the opportunity to share your game with the hobby.
If you are interested in more in-depth information about the design you can read the designer diary on Board Game Geek at the following link: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2197232/design-diary