Volko Ruhnke can design a game. That’s for sure. He has designed some of our favorite games, including Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, Wilderness War, and of course the COIN Series games starting with Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain, Fire in the Lake and Falling Sky to name a few. He also is a wonderful mind and is always pushing the envelope with design and has now branched out to create a totally different type of game in Hunt for Blackbeard from GMT Games. We reached out to him to get the inside scoop on the design and of course he graciously accepted.
*All pictures and graphics used in this interview are for playtest purposes only. Once the game crosses the 500 order threshold it will be placed in line for art department work on graphics and components.
Grant: You are a successful game designer who has focused on counter insurgency. Why do you change your focus at this point with a game like Hunt for Blackbeard?
Volko: Thank you! Yes, something like half of my designs have been about counterinsurgency, but the last modern counterinsurgency topic that I took on was in Fire in the Lake, half a decade ago. I would describe my focus instead as historical conflicts that boardgaming has so far not explored enough. Hunt for Blackbeard fits that pattern.
Grant: Is there a fear that this game will not live up to your previous titles such as Labyrinth, Andean Abyss and Wilderness War and their success?
Volko: Not fear, but likelihood: each of those games has gotten far more attention and longevity than I could have hoped. So I’m a very happy man, and the next thing does not need to be bigger or better for me, just new and worthwhile.
Grant: What led you to have an interest in designing a different type of game like Hunt for Blackbeard?
Volko: First, a desire to refine game mechanics that represent the endeavor of manhunting, after co-designing a training game for the USG called Kingpin— The Hunt for El Chapo. Second, my interest, going back to before Wilderness War, in American Colonial history, especially that near my own stomping grounds in Virginia and North Carolina. Finally, a challenge to myself to create as short a game as I could that remained a credible and thought-provoking simulation of history.
Grant: Do you have some books on the subject of Blackbeard that you would recommend?
Volko: Absolutely! Angus Konstam’s Blackbeard was very useful to the design, as was a Smithsonian Magazine article by Colin Woodward, “The Last Days of Blackbeard”. But the deepest, most compelling dive into the events that Hunt for Blackbeard seeks to depict is Kevin Duffus’s The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate. Duffus is a local Outer Banks historian and appears to stop at nothing to unravel what happened there that November in 1718 and why.
Grant: How much of the history of this famous pirate is fantasy and how did you discern between fact and fiction? Or did it matter for your design?
Volko: That’s a question that plagues historical work on Blackbeard and very much mattered for Hunt for Blackbeard. Because Edward Thatch (or Teach) was an archetypical pirate of the Caribbean from just a few years after his death until now, even ostensibly historical treatments can’t resist what seem in several cases to be myths.
But, for the same reason, skilled historians covering him invest a lot of effort and airtime trying to explain why they believe what they believe about the man. In the design, I have tried to synthesize the various historical judgments that most persuaded me, because my goal with the game—as with all my designs—is to transport players into situations that actually happened and then invite them to take it from there.
Happily, historical boardgames can deal quite readily with uncertainties in the record, because they can allow randomness and player choice to make the call among equally plausible premises.
For example, Blackbeard while hiding on Ocracoke Island supposedly took a “wife” from North Carolina’s mainland. National Geographic’s Blackbeard— Terror at Sea plays this episode up, making her a high-society type by the name Mary Ormond. And that show was not alone in relating this story. But it is unclear to both Konstam and Duffus that such a wife existed; and Duffus is convinced by local family records that, if she did, her name was not Mary Ormond.
So in Hunt for Blackbeard, I include a “Visit with Wife” tile that may or may not come up (I avoided the name Ormond). Drawing the tile means that it turns out that there is something to the story; the chance is 4 in 9 over the full length of a game. If the Blackbeard player then acts on that and devotes cubes to that tile, then in the narrative of that game, Blackbeard is spending time with someone he calls his wife. If none of that occurs as a particular game session plays out, then that represents there being nothing to the tale after all.
Similarly, there was and remains today quite some controversy over the question of Blackbeard’s relationship with the North Carolina authorities, especially Governor Eden—was local tolerance of Blackbeard corruption? Or was Eden doing the best he could holding a weak hand against a dangerous pirate, and unproven accusations of collusion were just a matter of a political rivalry with Virginia’s Governor Spotswood? A tile in Hunt for Blackbeard may have the pirate “Divvy with Eden”, or maybe not.
Grant: What is Hunt for Blackbeard about?
Volko: Hunt for Blackbeard depicts the pirate’s last days, spent in semi-hiding, semi- sanctuary among the Outer Banks and settlements of North Carolina in 1718, as Virginia and the Royal Navy gathered information on his whereabouts and then equipped and sent out a two-pronged expedition to capture or kill him, which they did.
Grant: What challenges and opportunities did you find in this design?
Volko: I had a strong basis of mechanics that would work and how to improve them from my work on Kingpin. I started out with pirate hunting as a possible setting, and as soon as I read the story of Blackbeard’s demise, I could recognize the manhunting principles that I wanted to explore, plus the connections to Virginia, so that choice was simple. Game design, testing, and development all went quickly and easily—at least for this sort of thing.
The main challenges now appear to be A) to develop materials that will make it easier for players to learn the game and play it correctly—harder for double-blind systems like that in Hunt for Blackbeard and B) to find enough interest in the project for GMT to print it!
Grant: How do you go about designing a game that relies so much on hidden information?
Volko: As I had noted, the Kingpin design had tested out mechanics to leverage hidden information for play and simulation value in a “hunt” situation and had shown me the appeal for players of such a battle of wits. The main hump in Hunt for Blackbeard was not finding another such situation in history but to convert the gameplay from refereed to two-player.
Kingpin was a classroom game with teams of students and facilitator-instructors feeding each side information. In Blackbeard, I am trying out a new system of partial sharing of information by each side on a shared main map that synthesizes both players’ data without necessarily letting on how much each one knows, without requiring a know-all referee. I think it works well and am delighted with play-tester response. But whether this new system is a broad success or not, we will have to see.
Grant: The game is a manhunt for the British and an exercise in staying out of sight for Blackbeard. How does this design work?
Volko: The Hunters—Virginia and the Royal Navy—have Informants (random tiles) who allow secret Spotting and/or open Surveillance of Blackbeard’s possible activities as recorded with face-down markers on the main Map. But they also have to spend some effort equipping their Sloops and a possible overland posse (with tiles that are selected) before sending them south into North Carolina, essentially hostile ground.
Meanwhile, Blackbeard wants to live his Pirate’s Life and/or commit Acts of Piracy (random tiles again), but also should spend some time Preparing Defenses (selected tiles) to be ready should the Hunters catch up with him.
A lot of that goes on behind a screen for each player, but sooner or later the Hunters appear on the main Map where they can Scout even more and—if they are able to encounter Blackbeard—take him on in Combat.
Grant: What traces does Blackbeard leave as he moves around the map and how does the British player capitalize on that intel?
Volko: Blackbeard mainly (though not necessarily only) moves by sailing his Sloop Adventure around the Outer Banks in pursuit of a Pirate’s Life or Acts of Piracy. Sailing leaves a “wake” of information—potential witnesses who saw him or his ship pass—represented by face-down markers on the main Map that the Hunters have a chance of Spotting (I use Blackbeard’s flag as the symbol on the marker). Whenever the Hunters spot such a marker, they get a chance to follow the trail by Spotting a single adjacent spot, until they find Blackbeard or the trail goes cold.
Grant: How are the Acts of Piracy tiles and the Pirates Life tiles used by Blackbeard?
Volko: Blackbeard to win must not only stay alive and free, he must either cash in on his success (live a “Pirate’s Life”) or continue to build his reputation and earn his crew’s loyalty by taking more prizes (commit “Acts of Piracy”). If Blackbeard fills at least half of the total holding spaces for little gold cubes on either one of the two rows of tiles without getting caught, Blackbeard wins.
A key to the game is that the Blackbeard player need only do one or the other to win but must make that choice, in most cases, without knowing what tiles or what sort of challenge from the Hunters are coming up.
The Hunters in part are trying to discern what Blackbeard is up to—Pirate’s Life or Acts of Piracy—because Blackbeard is likely to be in different places on the map for each. The Hunters can even win just by thwarting Blackbeard’s tile actions, even if they never find him.
On the other hand, Blackbeard can win even without fulfilling either row of tile objectives if he defeats the Royal Navy in Combat. Blackbeard has cannon and an experienced crew, so the Hunters need to be sure they are not sailing into a trap.
Grant: How does Blackbeard take actions? What made you set that number at only 5 per turn?
Volko: Action pawns for both sides represent time and effort. Blackbeard can use them to Plan Piracy—meaning put pawns on Piracy tiles (either Pirate’s Life or Acts of Piracy) to convert the pawns into victory cubes at the end of the turn, or to Sail to locations as needed to complete the missions on the tiles, or select and Prepare Defenses such as Lookouts or a Master Gunner. In all cases, one pawn of the 5 available per turn does one action.
Giving Blackbeard 5 pawns and the Hunters 7 was a matter of trial and error; that balance of pawns quite quickly proved in playtest to keep both players’ decisions difficult and result in even win/loss record with experienced play.
A second limit for Blackbeard, by the way, is his Purse. Some victory actions cost not just time but also money. Blackbeard starts with some money, represented by gold cubes in a Purse box, that can be used to fill Piracy tiles or Prepare Defenses. If he runs out, he may have to complete an Act of Piracy to gain the Loot to refill his Purse.
Grant: How do the hunters close in on Blackbeard?
Volko: I mentioned Informants and Spotting above. Both enable the Hunters to peek under facedown markers on the main Map that may reveal Blackbeard’s Sloop, its trail, or his Camp. Hunter forces (2 Sloops and an overland expedition led by the Royal Navy’s Captain Brand) Spot their ending spaces each move automatically and can spend an added pawn to Scout an adjacent space (or, with Commandeered Asset tiles that they have purchased, more and farther off spaces).
Blackbeard moves first each turn, so must try to anticipate where the Hunters might go. The Hunters, in contrast, have the opportunity to Scout before moving, so can act on tactical intelligence and go where they have found the pirate. Also, some Piracy actions are more flashy than others: if Blackbeard fills one of those tiles completely with cubes, the Blackbeard player must flip that location’s marker on the map face up, typically revealing Blackbeard’s location at that moment.
A hitch for the Hunters, though, as that a potentially key search ability—the Informants—is strategic intelligence not tactical. That is, the information comes from a distance and may be dated. The game enacts this aspect by having Informants Spot before Blackbeard moves, so Hunter forces can’t be sure that Blackbeard’s Sloop will still be where an Informant reported it was, for example. And flipping markers as described above similarly happens only at the end of a turn, so Blackbeard will have a chance to move away before the Hunters get there.
Grant: Tell us about the map. It seems to have lots of colored boxes with connecting lines as well as a series of numbers in boxes and letters. What does this all mean for the game play?
Volko: The square spaces are the land and water across which Blackbeard may roam. Somewhere among the land spaces, he will have a Camp (historically, it was on Ocracoke) that never moves and may be important to his Piracy. The few Towns in North Carolina may be important to him, or maybe he will instead get out to Ocean spaces to take some prizes out there.
The little numbers and letters are just for reference: they show how many potential actions Blackbeard’s tiles offer in each space, and for the Blackbeard player how many potential Informants are on watch there. But players can ignore all those reference markings and typically will.
Grant: Also I noticed that there are several spots that say “No Blackbeard”. Why is this the case and what from history makes this the case?
Volko: Those spaces represent Virginia—where Blackbeard was far less welcome than in North Carolina—or the wild interior. The purpose of these spaces is merely to serve as ground or water which the Virginians must cross before they can come to grips with the pirate in his North Carolina haven.
Grant: I know that tiles are at the heart of the game. Why did you feel this was the best way to play the game with tiles rather than say cards?
Volko: I am used to playing cards for this sort of purpose: either random or “supermarket” selectable capabilities, personalities, or events. But much of the time, these items are played behind each player’s screen. I wanted the screens and therefore the player mats that they are hiding to be as small as possible, because big screens are awkward and pose a barrier to player interaction.
Had I used playing cards, the player mats holding them would have had to be much bigger. The tiles in Hunt for Blackbeard are just 1.5 inch by 1 inch and contain all the information needed to play—and even illustrations for most of them. The Rules booklet gives more detailed explanation of how to use each tile—as many boardgames do—while the Background playbook will give information of merely historical interest.
The tiles, like cards, enable some aspects to be random draw—what are the opportunities, predilections, or challenges that come up to face the pirate (Piracy tiles) and what sorts of Informants become available for the Hunters to Interview. They similarly enable supermarket-style purchase of various capabilities (Prepared Defense and Commandeered Asset tiles) in the style of engine-building games such as Struggle of Empires, for example.
Grant: Can you share with us some specific rules of each type of tile and how they work?
Volko: Here’s an example from “Using the Tiles” section of the rules—the Pirate’s Life tile “Banyan for Vane” (“banyan” here means a pirate beach party). “Any Anchorage” tells you where Blackbeard has to be to put cubes on this tile. “From Purse” means the cubes have to come from his Purse—available money—not just the general cube supply; the party costs money. “Flip, Take:…” is what happens if all three cube spots on the tile are ever filled: word of the long and raucous party gets out (flip a main Map location used face up so the Hunters will see it) and take a Loot marker, which pays back one to three cubes into purse. Below is a picture of the tile to show you the text:
Acts of Piracy tiles are similar. There are nine of each Piracy type in the game.
Informant tiles (nine total) allow the Hunters to use up to a certain number of pawns to secret check markers in certain types of Map spaces. Here are three. The blue squares show how many spaces max the Informant can Spot, for one pawn each. In addition, for free, the Hunters may Surveil one of the spaces Spotted—that will leave that Map marker face up during Blackbeard’s turn (you can guess why that would be great for the Hunters), but also let’s Blackbeard know that that is where the Hunters are looking….
Selected rather than random tiles are Prepared Defenses (nine again) for Blackbeard and Commandeered Assets (12 total) for the Hunters. They include a wide range of effects, improving the Hunters’ ability to find Blackbeard, Blackbeard’s ability to move around, or either side’s chances to win a fight, mostly by adding the number of dice rolled. Here’s an example:
Grant: What is the basic Sequence of Play?
Volko: Both sides draw tiles for the Round onto their hidden mats.
Hunters secretly (while the Blackbeard player looks away) Spots map markers as allowed by Informants Interviewed, perhaps Surveilling one space openly.
Blackbeard conducts actions, committing to Piracy tiles but not yet placing cubes onto them, then Sets the main Map with facedown markers reflecting a smaller replica chart behind Blackbeard’s screen.
The Hunters then use their action pawns, including Spotting, Sailing, and Marching with their forces pieces on the main Map.
If any Hunter and Blackbeard end up in the same space, Combat ensues.
If not, Blackbeard carries out any Piracy for which he is in the right location (placing cubes onto tiles toward victory).
Grant: What are defenses, what do they represent and how are they used?
Volko: See the GRENADOES example above. Hunters’ “Assets” are their counterpart to Blackbeard’s “Defenses”. The sides use pawns to purchase whatever of these tiles they want. Blackbeard has the disadvantage that he also has to pay Purse cubes. The Hunters don’t (because they are funded by wealthy Virginia planters who don’t want pirates living in next-door Carolina), but they can only obtain most of their Assets while still back in Virginia, not once they have set out into less friendly North Carolina.
Players can go the GMT Games P500 page and download the Rulebook and the excellent Vassal module by Francisco Colmenares to see all the tiles and even try them out in live play!
Grant: Some of these defenses have a gold cube shown on the tiles. What does this mean?
Volko: It means that this Defense costs Blackbeard not just time but also money: he can only get it with both a pawn and a Purse cube.
Grant: When the hunters find Blackbeard Combat occurs. How does this process work? How is this combat modified?
Volko: The typical situation is that one or both Hunter Sloops (Jane and Ranger) have tracked down Blackbeard in his Sloop, Adventure. Both sides will be rolling dice, with Adventure rolling a base of two dice and the Hunter Sloops one each (because they are just small commandeered cargo vessels, while Adventure is a pirate ship). The number of dice and other aspects are modified by the tiles each side has brought to the fight.
First there is a Fire roll by each side, which may affect subsequent Escape and Boarding rolls (see question below). Then an Escape dice-off determines which side gets to decide whether to Sail away (typically, but not always, only Blackbeard wants to Escape). If there is no Escape, a Boarding dice-off then decides victory in the battle and therefore also in the game.
The players’ decisions up to this point set up the dice rolls that can determine the outcome of the game. But for those players who want less chance in the final battle, an optional rule instead decides everything but Fire on the basis of how many dice are to be rolled, without rolling those dice at all.
Grant: What are the results and effects of hits in combat?
Volko: Fire dice may miss or may result in Rigging or Crew Hits. A Rigging Hit reduces subsequent Escape dice of the victim by one die. A Crew Hit reduces Boarding dice by one. In the historical Battle of Ocracoke, November 22, 1718, both rigging hits and crew losses played key roles in the course and outcome of the battle—even though the Hunters had no cannon, only small arms!
Grant: Captain Brand moves across the land and can attempt to arrest Blackbeard if he is in the same space. How does an arrest attempt work? How is this attempt roll modified?
Volko: Arrest works the same as a Boarding Action—highest single roll wins and the number of dice is determined by the forces pieces plus relevant Defense/Asset tiles. If the Hunters Arrest Blackbeard, they win. If not, he Escapes in the same manner as after a Sloop Battle. That is, Blackbeard ashore is never strong enough to defeat Captain Brand; he is just trying to get back to his Sloop and get away.
Grant: After combat each side can attempt an escape. How is this carried out? Also how can this be modified?
Volko: Unless using the no-dice option noted above, Arrest, Escape, and Boarding are all decided by who rolls the highest single die. Let’s say, because of the tiles used, Blackbeard is rolling two dice and the Hunters three. Each side will look at its highest single 1-6 roll and compare that, higher roll wins.
Until an actual Escape happens (meaning there was Combat but not an Arrest or Boarding battle), Hunters win ties: they have strategic surprise, as Blackbeard appears not to have been entirely alert to the fact that the Virginians were hunting him in the Outer Banks. After any Escape, that jig is up, and the wily pirate wins ties.
If Blackbeard (or the Hunters) Escape, that Sloop (or Sloops) simply Sail to an adjacent space.
Grant: Lets cover the various victory conditions again please.
Volko: Blackbeard wins by filling at least half the total cube spaces on either row of Piracy tiles without Arrest or losing a Boarding battle, or by winning a Boarding battle. Otherwise the Hunters win (having ended or at least disrupted his pirate career).
Grant: Why is the game set at only 4 rounds? Has this number changed over the course of the design?
Volko: Four was the least number of actions/reactions across which I thought both the Hunters could develop an intelligence picture and act on it and Blackbeard could choose and meet later challenges to fulfilling one of the two types of Piracy. The question in testing was, could we calibrate the rest of the game (such as the number of action pawns) to make four rounds work. I think we did.
Grant: How long does the game typically last?
Volko: Between players who have learned the rules of the game, 30-45 minutes is the bulk of the bell curve. Most games end on Round 3 or 4. A Round-2 or even Round-1 Combat can occur and end the game in as little as 10 minutes, but that will be rare. Hard thinking by one or both players in tough situations can stretch a 4-Round game beyond 45 minutes, but that too is infrequent.
Grant: What has been the reaction of your test players? What do they like most about the game?
Volko: The decision-making is tough for both sides, a careful weighing of options is called for, and players seem to enjoy that. They also seem to love the overall setting and thematic details. But in both cases, that is players who have chosen to be testers, so a self-selected sample that may not tell us much about the merits of the game. If you like deduction games and are interested in pirates, well…
The two reactions from play-testers that have meant the most to me are the following:
I tend to get reports in two-game batches. That is, typically testers have gotten together and played Hunt for Blackbeard twice in an evening. So A) they wanted to play it a second time right away and B) it was quick enough and not so taxing that they could complete more than once in a meet.
I have seen how this is the sort of that, immediately upon finishing, both players want to share their stories. The screens come down and each player is explaining the dilemmas they faced, what they knew or didn’t know, and why they acted on the main Map the way that they did. That tells me that the storytelling aspect of the game is there and will be mutually lived in the after-action, even with the screens in the way during the game itself.
Grant: What was the greatest challenge to overcome and how did you fix it?
Volko: The greatest challenge will be to provide the best possible instructional material in the box, because the players need to be following the rules correctly for the game to work, and one player can’t readily police that because many actions happen hidden behind screens. I have ideas of how the game materials will teach players and equip them to teach their opponents. But I typically do not write up such supporting materials until a game is in art, because even the smallest changes to any rules or other materials will introduce errors into tutorials and the like.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Volko: The amount of both history and strategy delivered in 30-45 minutes.
Grant: Do you think this system can be used in other historical cat and mouse type happenings? If so what specifically?
Volko: Absolutely, since Hunt for Blackbeard is (as I mentioned) already the second such game that I have done. Any criminal or other fugitive-hunting situations are tailor made, if the fugitive is well protected and has defensive options. Guerrilla warfare contexts, in which the government has a lot of firepower while a key insurgent has the information advantage would work well. Even military-operational search situations could work.
A few of several ideas mentioned without any digging at all into them:
Hunt for Swamp Fox
Hunt for Geronimo
Hunt for Pancho Villa
Hunt for Bonnie and Clyde
Hunt for Graf Spee
Hunt for [fill in your favorite terrorist].
But we will have to see what the public reaction is to Hunt for Blackbeard (if any) before we know what or whether to pursue along those lines.
Grant: What is next for you Volko?
Volko: Playtest and development on Hunt for Blackbeard are done. It needs to accumulate more preorders before going into art, at which point—should that occur!—I’ll turn to the supporting materials such as historical background and tutorial(s).
Currently, I have been wrapped up in seeing Nevsky to the finish line by proofing the final art. And I am deep into design of Volume II to follow that (the Levy & Campaign Series about medieval operational warfare), but that project is not yet far enough along for me to talk about yet.
Thanks Gents! Volko
As always, a big thank you to Volko for his time in sharing information about the game. I will be honest, as I wrote the questions for the interview, I was really struggling with what to ask and how to frame up the questions to allow for a good feel about the game. Volko did a fantastic job in sharing enough information to get me more interested in the game and I am now fully looking forward to it.
There is a great video put out by Stuka Joe previewing the game and here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HozwOdKrj8o
If you are interested in Hunt for Blackbeard, you can pre-order a copy on the P500 game page on the GMT Games website for $42.00 at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-739-hunt-for-blackbeard.aspx
At the the time of this interview being posted on June 5th, the game has 403 orders of the necessary 500.