We really like to bring these COIN Series games full circle. Once they are announced on P500 in a Monthly Update post from GMT Games, we spring into action and try to reach out to the designer to see if they are interested in doing an initial designer interview. Once this interview is posted, we love to then host a series of Event Card Spoiler posts on the game that help us to see examples of how the game plays and also provides a look inside the history of the game. As it nears completion, we have tried to reach back out to the designers to give them a chance to answer some final questions about the process, including lessons learned, major changes and challenges of the design and their thoughts after working on the same game for 3-4 years. Our first such post was with Morgane Gouyon-Rety and the design process for Pendragon. In this edition, we have an interview with Bruce Mansfield regarding his Gandhi design.
Grant: Now that Gandhi is finished and ready to ship tell us what your thoughts are about the process?
Bruce: Designing and publishing my first game was quite a ride, and far more work than I ever imagined. Experienced designers told me that the final 5% would be the hardest part of the project, but I didn’t fully understand just how much work it takes to get a game over the finish line until I was in the middle of it. I feel very lucky to have a terrific team that did this work. Scott, Jason, and I worked together on finishing the project; it would never have happened without their tireless efforts.
Grant: How differently do you feel about the game now versus when you started the design 4 years ago?
Bruce: I feel like the final version of the game is very close to the game I envisioned when I started this process. Now, I don’t mean that the game details have remained the same; there have been many edits to game mechanics and systems too numerous to count. But the feel of the game, the narrative flow of the final years of the Raj in India, remain. I am proud of the product we created and still enjoy setting it up and playing.
Grant: What was the most difficult part in bringing the game design to a close?
Bruce: In many ways, the most difficult part of the design was finalizing the victory conditions. We tried a wide range of victory conditions, including ones that shifted over time (inspired by the Imperium track in Morgane Gouyon-Rety’s Pendragon), ones that depended on play of a once-per-game special card, and other ideas that merely added unnecessary procedural complexity. In the end, we chose clarity over complexity with the victory conditions. We worked hard to get victory conditions that allowed the narrative of each faction to shine through, would be quick and easy to calculate, and gave every faction a chance to win over the course of a full game.
By far the most difficult victory conditions to get right were the ones for the nonviolent factions. We knew that each faction’s victory conditions would serve as the most concise summary of that faction’s story. The Raj seeks to maintain its empire through the support of the people or through military occupation. The Revolutionaries want to spread unrest and build bases of support for Hindu nationalism. But what did the nonviolent factions want?
It took us a long time to find victory conditions that worked for the 30 years covered in the game. I was pushing for each faction to have two methods of gaining victory points to maintain symmetry among all factions. We knew that opposition should be a goal for both Congress and the Muslim League, which gave us a neat way to tell the story of the growing tension between these two factions. But what should each faction’s second victory condition be? We tried all sorts of ideas for Congress, including victory points for Unity, an abstract measure of independence called ‘swaraj’ (which was a lot like patronage in A Distant Plain and Fire in the Lake), even Hindu States at one point! In the end, the story was better served by focusing entirely on opposition.
Jason came up with the brilliant idea of Muslim States for the Muslim League. In the early campaigns, Congress saw the Muslim League as an ally, with aligned interests. In the game, whenever the Muslim League builds Opposition, Congress also gains victory points. This will be increasingly frustrating for the Muslim League player until they have built up their position to the point where they can shift their alliance to the Raj and exchange Opposition for Muslim States.
Grant: Did you finally just have to take your hands away and say it is good enough?
Bruce: Ha! This was by far the most difficult part of the design. I am a tinkerer at heart and had a hard time leaving well enough alone. I was constantly pushing on the design and offering fixes to problems I found. I know I made playtesting more difficult. There were times when playtesters would identify an issue and Jason would ask me to work on it and I replied “hey, I fixed that four weeks ago.” He was understandably not happy with that. Eventually, Jason and Scott told me I was no longer allowed to work on it, so I did some later design work in secret–including the early drafts of the card-based Bot system that later became Arjuna.
Grant: What key lessons have you learned about the design process?
Bruce: There is a huge difference between having a neat idea for a game or mechanic, and building a working game that’s accessible and fun to play. I didn’t fully appreciate that it would take over a thousand hours of effort to see the project to conclusion. People have asked me what design I’m working on now, and honestly I don’t yet have an idea that’s worth that amount of time (yet!).
Grant: If you could go back to the beginning, what things would you change about how you approached the design process?
Bruce: I was a total novice when I started this project. I had no idea how games got made, how playtesting happened, marketing, final production, the works. Were I to restart this project, I would spend more time at the start showing game ideas and mechanics to more people, getting a better sense of the evolving game narrative before launching into P500, playtesting, and the rest.
Grant: How has series creator Volko Ruhnke supported you in the process? How did he push you?
Bruce: Volko’s support was seen mostly at the start of the project. He was the first person besides Scott who saw the design, and along with Mike Bertuceilli and Jordan Kehrer, he played a test game that convinced him it was a worthwhile project. He was supportive and open to new ideas that would expand the COIN universe. He was insistent that I shouldn’t feel compelled to include any mechanics or other details simply to make it similar to past COIN designs—but that I shouldn’t change anything for the sake of change, either. His trust in me as a novice game designer means a lot to me, for he gave me the freedom to play with new ideas.
Grant: What was the greatest thing you took away from working with him?
Bruce: He has an amazing ability to focus on what matters, and he clearly sees games as a whole package. For example, after seeing the game for the first time, he was already suggesting ways to maximize playing space on the map, color schemes for the various factions, and language tweaks to the Operations and Special Activities. These elements were not just afterthoughts for him, they were an important part of the overall design and narrative. His attention to detail was a reminder to Scott, Jason, and me to be intentional about every aspect of the game and the ways that players would interact with it.
Grant: Was there something that those in charge, either on your team or your developer, wanted changed that you didn’t agree with and how did you handle that situation? In the end did it change?
Bruce: See above! There were moments when I knew I had an idea that would make the game better, but didn’t yet have a working model to share with Jason or Scott. Usually, these were ideas that would swing the game in a new direction, or deviated from the COIN model. I remember when I had the idea for the nonviolent factions not using resources. That was a pretty dramatic change from usual COIN. Jason wasn’t sure about the idea at first, but later came up with the idea of linking Muslim League Operations to Unity and Congress Operations to Restraint, a brilliant move.
Grant: How have you approached balance for each faction throughout design and from input from playtesters?
Bruce: In part, we addressed this from some design rules that we established at the start of the project. One of these was to build balance into the design of each faction’s operations and special activities. For each faction, every action that helps them also helps another faction. Actions that hurt one faction may well help another faction. We built in webs of connection between factions that we hope helps the game self-balance by limiting the effect that any action can have on a single faction.
Getting the victory levels right for each faction was a central concern of playtesting throughout, made all the more difficult because we didn’t settle on the final victory conditions until the last year of the project. We collected victory level data on every faction from playtesters. Scott, Jason, and I played nearly one hundred test games to push the system and fine tune the victory conditions. But I know that our testing is just one perspective, and we may well need to fine tune the game once it’s been played by more people.
Grant: Which faction has changed the most since your design’s inception? Give some specific examples.
Bruce: The nonviolent factions changed the most. We not only didn’t have existing COIN models for nonviolent resistance, we had almost no gaming models at all! We knew early on that we wanted both Congress and the Muslim League to play differently than the goverment and insurgeny factions that players will be familar with. Of the two, the Muslim League changed the most. Although we designed both nonviolent factions to share the same Operations and two of their three Special Activities, we focused on building in distinct goals that would lead players to use these Ops and SAs differently. In early versions of the game, these two factions shared resources. We thought this would force them to cooperate, but of course what happened instead was a race between them to use up the resources before the other did!
Grant: Which faction ended up changing the least?
Bruce: The Revolutionaries have changed the least, I think. They are very much like existing insurgent factions like FARC, Taliban, VC, and others. There were points in the design when they deviated from these factions; at one point they could build Hindu States like the Muslim League builds Muslim States. But we found that a simpler Revolutionaries faction, focused on the goal of spreading unrest across India, worked better from both a player and narrative perspective.
Grant: Do you feel your design is true to the history of this struggle? Why or why not?
Bruce: Yes, I feel that we have created an accurate model of the independence struggle in India, especially those years that saw major nonviolent campaigns, as in 1919, 1921, 1930, and 1943. A significant amount of research in nonviolence theory has been incorporated into the design, including recent studies that trace the development of nonviolent or civil resistance during the 20th century. However, there are elements of the history that I was not able to find ways to fit into the COIN structure. For example, the important contribution of the Sikh community is covered only in a number of event cards.
Grant: Was there anything that you found in research after you started the game that changed a direction or take you had on the history?
Bruce: It was important to us that the game accurately reflected both this era of India history but also nonviolence theory and practice. My own understanding of the conflict has deepened as a result of designing the game; ironically I now see that Gandhi himself was but a part of a much larger conflict. The parts of the game design that changed the most were the ways that we modeled nonviolent resistance, in order to reflect better the nonviolence theory that I was studying while designing. This is a new field, and findings like the greater numbers that nonviolent struggles achieved compared to violent struggles were incorporated into the design; this was one justification for having the nonviolent factions not use resources, for example. Or learning that nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent ones helped us develop nonviolent factions that are active participants with the power to make change.
Grant: What do you hope players will say about Gandhi?
Bruce: I hope that players become interested in nonviolent struggle and see that nonviolent resistance has a history as long and as significant as violent resistance. I am also very proud of the new solo Bot system we have created, called Arjuna. I hope this leads to further development of Bot systems, both for COIN and other games.
Grant: What do you see as the future of the COIN Series? What new directions would you like to see it take?
Bruce: I am excited to see published version of All Bridges Burning and People Power as I have been following the development of these games. I am excited to see the innovations that new COIN designs will bring to the series, and am looking forward to learning more about topics that I do not know much about.
Grant: What is next for Bruce Mansfield?
Bruce: Right now it’s May and school will be out in another month. This summer I am looking forward to playing some games with my brother, travelling with my family, and searching for that perfect trout stream.
Oh, and I may have a few design ideas brewing as well.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Bruce and it is really a very interesting thing to look back in the mind of a designer on their design after they have carried it for the last 3-4 years throughout the design process. I know that I am very keenly interested in this game and to see how it takes the COIN Series in new directions. I will be eagerly awaiting my copy and cant wait to get it on the table.
If you are so inclined you can read our initial interview with Bruce which was published in May of 2017.
If you are interested in Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947, you can still get a copy on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-630-gandhi-the-decolonization-of-british-india-19171947.aspx