In the April Monthly Update email from GMT Games we were introduced to the newest game from the design team of Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson who have brought us such games as Time of Crisis, Time of Crisis: The Age of Iron and Rust Expansion, and Sword of Rome amongst others. The game is called The Barracks Emperors and is a fast-playing strategy card game that looks pretty interesting. The game takes place in the same historical time period as Time of Crisis, which is Rome’s Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century A.D. and is a struggle between players to take the most tricks. I wanted to reach out to get the scoop on the game as I noticed that it was struggling a bit on the P500. I reached out and Wray and Brad were more than willing to share.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork used in this interview is not yet finalized and is only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development and playtesting, details may still change prior to publication.
Grant: Why do the two of you focus on Rome so much when you design games? What is it that brings you back each time?
Wray: I am just fascinated by the impact on today’s world by an empire whose demise happened over 1,500 years ago. Like the fact our calendar is a refinement of the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C.
Brad: I was never interested in history during my school years, and I always tended to play more fantasy and sci-fi games than historical games until I found Avalon Hill’s Republic of Rome back when it first came out. I think that was really the first historical game that really spoke to me, partly because of the subject matter and partly because it was a really different kind of game. That led me to read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, an excellent dramatized version of the events of the middle and late Roman Republic that really strengthened my interest in Roman history. After playing Avalon Hill’s Hannibal with Wray, we discovered we both shared that interest, and he got me involved with his Sword of Rome project, which started our design partnership. I just think Roman history is so eminently game-able — it has all the epic politics, classic intrigue, and legendary battles you could want when you’re looking for boardgame subject matter.
Grant: Where did the idea for The Barracks Emperors come from? What games did you use as inspiration?
Brad: I’ve been playing boardgames of all types for at least 40 years now, from early wargames, all through the Euro game revolution, to today’s contemporary hybridized games. I’ve always been intrigued with how Euro game designers are constantly innovating new mechanical systems that give you really fun and interesting decisions in a game while still capturing the essence of what the game is trying to represent, without trying to be a slavish simulation. One day quite a few years ago, I was thinking about how to represent the trade-offs involved in a negotiation game using a grid of cards. The basic idea was that the issues being negotiated would be represented by cards in the grid, and then your influence over those issues would be represented by your cards played adjacent to those issues. But the trick was any card I played on one issue would also influence other adjacent issues, positively or negatively, representing how the different issues would be dependent on each other. I ended up really liking this mechanic and turned it into a standlalone game just to try it out. After a number of iterations, this turned into the interlocking trick-taking mechanic used in The Barracks Emperors. I don’t think there was any particular game that definitely inspired the core mechanic of The Barracks Emperors. I’m sure you could name quite a few that share some similarities, but I think the concept of card “ownership” being strictly represented by the relative position of the card, regardless of who played the card, is something I haven’t seen before.
Grant: You have designed heavy games on Rome (Sword of Rome) and lighter games on the subject (Time of Crisis). Why did you want to do a strategy trick taking card game?
Wray: This was a design that Brad had kicking around for years that I really liked, but felt like it needed a spark to make it special. We both felt like folding it into the Time of Crisis era gave it that spark.
Brad: Right, I inflicted this trick-taking game on Wray in its first iterations quite a while ago, and we’ve always enjoyed playing it. He was one of a handful of people who really honed the original design, which always had kind of a generic Roman theme. When Time of Crisis had a very successful first printing, Wray and I kind of both realized we could streamline the card game and also make the theme much more concrete by adapting some of the theme and mechanical choices from Time of Crisis, and that’s when The Barracks Emperors was really born. We both think this has really made the game into what we wanted it to be all along. This is a game I’m really happy with in large part because my personal taste in games lately has turned more toward lighter, family games that I can play in short durations with almost any player. I love a game that you can teach to casual players but that also has enough “meat” in it to satisfy hobby players. For me right now, The Barrackes Emperors is a game that I just enjoy playing myself.
Grant: What challenges were presented in the design? How did you overcome these challenges?
Wray: Once we decided to go with a Time of Crisis theme, it was mapping the events from the base game and expansion onto the board game in a way that made sense. We wanted the military events to do military type things in the game as well, but what does that mean in the context of a trick taking game? With the relatively large number of unique special abilities in the game, we might think we were done and then playtesting would show that an event was overpowered and had to be changed. Or that the game could devolve into a state not covered by the rules. This was key as we wanted the rules to be very simple and the complexity to be in the interplay of the cards on the board.
Brad: The early versions of the game had the players dealt their full hands of cards at the start of each round, similar to how you would be dealt your hand of cards in Bridge or Spades. But we found that it was kind of easy this way for players to feel like they were at the mercy of the cards they were dealt. If you just didn’t get a “good hand”, you felt like you couldn’t win. So we had the idea to introduce a simple card drafting mechanic where you are only dealt a few cards to start the hand, and then you could draft from a face-up pool to replace your card. Many games do something like this, but in The Barracks Emperors, the card you play dictates the next card you can draft — Play a high-value card, and you can only draft the lowest-value card from the pool; play a low-value card, and you can draft from the entire pool. This mechanic really added a cool layer of tactical play to the game, where timing what you play so you can draft what you need next becomes very important. Also, players who are paying attention can watch what their opponents are drafting and take that into account in their own choices.
Grant: What does the name mean in the context of the history? How have you inserted historical personalities and events into the game play?
Wray: Barracks Emperors were Emperors who seized power via the strength of their army and were especially common during the Time of Crisis. The history comes from the events on the cards which are based off the Time of Crisis base game and The Age of Iron and Rust Expansion. But to be honest, the history is not that deep — it is still a trick taking game at heart. But it is our hope that as you play the cards, the powers of the events make sense based on the title and the historical period.
Brad: All of the various Emperors and Co-Emperors, Pretenders and Usurpers, and Gallic Emperor separatists from the Roman Crisis of the Third Century are represented as the cards that you’re trying to “capture” in the game. Barracks Emperors were a sort of sub-set of military strongmen that seized power as Emperor during this time, but we just felt the name was evocative for this period of history. Each of the Emperor cards in the game has a little bit of info about when the men represented ruled, how they came to power, and how they died. That’s just for historical interest and not directly relevant to the play of the game, but it is eye-opening to see just how many men tried and died for this kind of power during this relatively short period of history.
Grant: How has the design evolved over the past few years? What was the catalyst for this evolution?
Brad: Very early versions of the game did not have a board — the grid of cards would be built up over the course of the game. We added a board with a fixed grid for cards relatively early on as a way to constrain the play and avoid strange cyclical plays that could happen. But the core mechanic of having a board of interlocking cards that are captured “trick-taking game” style has always been the heart of the game. To add some variation and extra interest to the cards being played themselves (beyond just having a “suit” and a “value”), I had added various special abilities to the cards as well, which could be used for extra effects when played. Initially, these events were rather generic, but we improved and expanded on these significantly by bringing in the same events from the Time of Crisis influence cards. At this time, we also introduced the idea of Barbarians as a kind of “disruptive force” that could move around the grid of cards, affecting all players’ plans. The number of different “suits” of cards in the game also changed from 4 to 5 and then to 3 when we aligned it with the Time of Crisis suits of Red/Military, Blue/Senate, and Yellow/Populace. This really made the game a lot more competitive in a good way, because it’s much easier for all players to have a chance to capture the cards. Finally, we added the card drafting mechanic to add a third level of decision-making to the card you might play — what card you play dictates what you can draft next.
Grant: How does the game play out? What are the placement rules for Influence cards? When is a trick won and what suit is determined as the trump suit and why?
Brad: First, you set up the board with 13 Emperor cards in alternating spaces in a 5 by 5 grid. [See the diagram below.] Then each player is dealt a starting hand of 4 cards and 4 more cards are placed face up in the draft pool (called the Forum.) Each player takes his turn by playing exactly one card into an open space on the grid, optionally taking any special action the card he played allows, then resolving any Emperor cards that are now surrounded by 4 player cards, and finally drawing a replacement card from the Forum. Each player is required to play his card into an open space that is on HIS side of an Emperor card in play (with a couple of special ability exceptions.) But note that most of the spaces are adjacent to 2 or 3 or 4 different Emperor cards. The key of the game is that when an Emperor is surrounded by 4 cards, it is resolved “trick-taking” style. The card each player uses to capture the trick is the one that is on that player’s side of the Emperor card, REGARDLESS OF WHO PLACED THE CARD THERE. So when I place a card on my side of one Emperor, it is usually on another player’s side for another Emperor, and so on. Someone else might get better advantage of the card I played if I’m not careful. When resolving an Emperor “trick”, each Emperor has a suit (Red, Blue, or Yellow) that is trump for that trick. Like most trick-taking games, the highest trump card played on it wins, or if no trump is played, the highest card of any suit wins. One other twist in The Barracks Emperors, though, is that any cards that share the same value (regardless of suit) are IGNORED. So you can in effect cancel out other players’ cards for key tricks with clever play. Finally, to draw your replacement card, note that the cards in the Forum are always ordered from lowest to highest. If you play the lowest value of card (1-2 points), you can draw from any of the 4 cards in the Forum. If you play the highest value of card (7-8 points) you can only draw the lowest-value card in the Forum. Values in between give choices of 2 or 3 of the cards. The round ends as soon as any player can not make a valid play – they show their hand and the round is over. This means that it’s possible that not all of the Emperor tricks will be won — you may be able to manipulate the end of the round to come sooner or later to your advantage. You can play a full game of 3 rounds, or you can play fewer rounds for shorter games.
Grant: Can you share with us a diagram showing the setup and how it works?
Brad: This diagram is not entirely up to date because we’ll be publishing the game with square cards, but this shows you the layout. Emperor cards go in the gray spaces, and all of the other spaces are where players can play their Influence cards. You can also see that the 12 edge spaces are where Barbarian cards can enter play. Once in play, Barbarian cards can move diagonally to block other spaces in the grid.
Grant: As you mentioned earlier, players draft their cards rather than having them dealt all at once. What new element has this introduced to the game and how has it changed the feel?
Wray: Well much like we eliminated random draws in Time of Crisis to give the players more control over their deck, we added drafting to ensure the game was won by skillful play rather than just drawing a much better hand. It also adds a layer of strategy in determining which card to play. There are times you will play a low card just to be able to draft a really good card that fits in with what you are trying to do. So it becomes a short term loss for (hopefully) a long term gain which I find interesting.
Grant: What does it mean that all 13 tricks are available for play simultaneously?
Brad: As you can see in the diagram above, you start the round with 13 Emperor cards dealt out into the grid, with spaces around them for the players to play. Each of the Emperor cards represents a “trick” to be won, so all 13 are available to play on right at the start of the round. When it’s your turn to play, you can play on YOUR side of any Emperor card still in play. I can play on one Emperor, and then you might play on a different one, and so on. But you can see that as the grid fills up and Emperor cards start being captured, your options will start dwindling. Some special abilities on the cards will give you surprising options you might be able to take advantage of, but the challenge of the game is in deciding when to play in each space. I always draw a comparison to Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line (also published by GMT Games) — In that game, you have 9 games of three-card poker going on simultaneously, designated by 9 pawns you are trying to win. You can play on any one of the 9 “hands” in any order you wish, and each “hand” is only resolved when it’s full. It’s a very similar principle in The Barracks Emperors.
Grant: Why is this important to the design and how does it drive the tension of game play?
Wray: Every game needs a hook, the answer to why would you play this game over another trick taking game. To me, the fact that all 13 tricks are in play is the hook. It makes everyone very interested in every card play as each card in the grid impacts you, no multi-player solitaire. It is not just you played a card in a space that I wanted to, but the value and suit of your card is now being used to determine if I win an Emperor.
Brad: A trick isn’t resolved until the Emperor card is surrounded by 4 cards. But you have to be careful – wait too long to play on a trick, and your position may be filled by another player; play too aggressively, and you may give another player the all-important choice of what card to play last to finish a trick.
Grant: As you showed earlier, the game is played on an interlocking grid that forces you to balance the value of every card. What does this mean and why is it important?
Wray: The balancing the value of each card is referring to the drafting mechanic. Playing a high value card helps you win tricks, but playing low value cards helps you draft good cards. Therefore you have to balance winning tricks on the board with making sure you can win tricks later in the round. If the game was always play the highest value card in your hand in the space where it did you the most good, the game would be too simplistic.
Grant: I know you covered this earlier but what do the colors used represent and are they tied to the same focus as the cards in Time of Crisis?
Wray: The colors are tied to the same focus as Time of Crisis (Red = Military, Blue = Senate, Yellow = Populace).
Brad: We kept all the same special abilities from the Influence cards in Time of Crisis and The Age of Iron and Rust Expansion, and we tried to keep all the same style of effects for each of them to retain some of the thematic flavor. For example, in Time of Crisis the “Spiculum” event lets you deal hits to the opposing army before they can roll their own hits; in The Barracks Emperors, the “Spiculum” event lets you discard a card that has already been played on the same Emperor, allowing you to get rid of a card you don’t like and probably also delaying resolution for that Emperor. There are also Barbarian cards that are gray (that is, non-suited) and have value of zero. They essentially can’t win tricks, but they have the special ability of being able to be moved around, covering and neutralizing Influence cards in play.
Grant: What are the values on the Influence cards and how are they used?
Brad: Cards are numbered 1 to 8 in each suit, plus zeros for the Barbarians.
Wray: Like any trick taking game, the highest trump suit wins the trick. If no cards are trump, the highest value of any suit wins. The color of the Emperors determines the trump suit for winning that Emperor so you know what the trump suit is for each Emperor you are trying to win. The evil twist Brad came up with is cards of the same value are ignored when determining the winner, so that prevents the “He played a Red 8 (highest value in the suit) on a Military Emperor so it is certain that he is going to win it” scenario.
Grant: What special abilities are granted on cards and how do players access these abilities?
Wray: Each card has a suit, value and an event. And like Time of Crisis, the player gets to use the suit/value and the event. No choosing between playing a card to the board or using it for the event, you get both.
Brad: The special abilities all revolve around ways to place, move, discard, or draw cards beyond what the rules normally allow. There are also a few special abilities that affect how tricks get resolved.
Grant: How do modifiers work and where do they come from?
Wray: The low value cards (1/2) in each suit allow you to place a +1/+2 modifier on cards already played on the board of the same suit. The modifier just adds to the value of the card, but this can cause (or break) ties allowing a different card to win the trick.
Grant: What are the purpose of Barbarian cards and how do they enter the game?
Wray: They are a 4th suit in the game and enter play when players play them to the board. The main purpose of barbarians is to prevent your edge of the board from being safe. Since tricks are only resolved when surrounded by four cards you could hold off playing on your board edge until you knew you could win the trick. Barbarians prevent that tactic and allow players to impact areas of the board that they couldn’t normally play in.
Brad: In early versions of the game, there were other mechanics meant to keep the edges of the grid from being “safe” for any player, but this was a great way to introduce Barbarians from Time of Crisis into the design. Also, the Barbarian cards can be used by the players to move the Barbarians that are already on the board. Putting a Barbarian onto the board is a great way to block someone or finish out a trick you might not otherwise have been able to finish, but it’s a double-edged sword — that same Barbarian could be moved to harm you in short order. Barbarians are always trouble for all the players.
Grant: I understand the game is designed for 4-players, but also includes options for 2- or 3-players, plus an easy-to-play solitaire adaptation for the solo player. At what player count does it work best?
Brad: I would always play with 4 if possible – both every-man-for-himself and partnership options are really fun, and different experiences unto themselves. But we’ve been playing more 2- and 3-player games lately and they work great. In fact, the last game I played was a 3-player game, and I honestly never missed the 4th player – it was a really fun and competitive game.
Wray: For any game I play, my answer is always the more the better. Don’t get me wrong, the 2- and 3-player games are fun, but I always like more players.
Grant: How does the solitaire mode work and what type of challenge does the AI present?
Wray: The solo game plays slightly differently than a multi-player game in that the Barbarians when drawn are placed on the board and attempt to sack Rome. The other three factions are played via a fairly simple AI which ignores all events on the cards. But to win you have to score more than the other three factions AND prevent the Barbarians from sacking Rome. The AI factions do not help with the Barbarians so each move for the solo player is a balancing act between protecting Rome and winning.
Grant: How does the AI prioritize its moves?
Wray: Just a simple set of questions. Can I win a trick, can I play on a trick where I am the highest trump card, can I play on a trick where I am the highest card, etc… So each AI turn should be 10 seconds or less. It is not the AI that provides the challenge, it is the balancing act between wanting to win tricks and ensuring Rome doesn’t fall.
Grant: What does the AI do well and what elements are you still tweaking?
Wray: The best thing the AI does is its turns are quick which I think is important in a solo game. We’re still possibly tweaking the order of the list the AI goes down, but I would say it is 95% done.
Grant: What is the role of table talk and negotiation in multi-player games? What has been players experience with these elements?
Wray: The amount of talk and negotiation varies quite a bit between groups. The role of talk and negotiation is what it has always been – to convince someone to take a sub-optimal move that benefits you.
Brad: In my experience, most players I’ve played with are mostly focused on deciding what to play in which space, and with all the little twists and dependencies in the game, that can honestly be a pretty engrossing decision to make. But there is definitely some opportunity to say to the guy next to you “Hey, that other guy is winning, what do you say I play here and then you play there, and we can both win an Emperor to catch up.” I just think that for most casual players and newer players, negotiation probably won’t be a significant factor, but it’s allowed. There’s always lots of more casual table talk like “Oh man, we need to stop that guy from getting a Yellow Emperor, because that will complete a set for him.”
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Wray: The player with the most victory points after three rounds is the winner. Each trick won is one point plus a bonus of three points for each set of Emperors you have won.
Brad: Don’t forget you can also get one point if you can use the Triumph ability to remove a Barbarian card!
Grant: What are you most pleased with in the design? What does the game do really well?
Wray: The thing I like most about the game is the various play styles it can handle. My local group tends to play more friendly and the game works. But I played at Winter Offensive with Andy Lewis and it was a brawl. Nasty, cut throat and it was a blast.
Brad: I’m a fan of what I consider to be “elegant” mechanics — ones that are simple on the surface but create “emergent complexity” to make for an interesting game. I think I’m most happy that the interlocking trick-taking mechanic is probably the most “elegant” mechanic I’ve successfully worked into a complete design.
Grant: What would you say to a grumpy wargamer that sneers at this low complexity card game to change his mind?
Brad: Well, if you only want a game that involves moving historically-accurate military units around on a board, then this game is not that. But I would say that if what you want is a way to come up with cool plays that you can use to beat your opponents, then The Barracks Emperors offers you that. There are surprisingly multi-layered ways to play cleverly to screw the other players so you can come out on top. This is NOT a friendly Euro.
Wray: Play it once with your war game buddies and see what you think. It can certainly be played as a war game….
Here are several very helpful short videos that have been put together by Wray to help in understanding how the game plays with its different modes. Here are links to three such videos.
Multi-player Game Demo:
Solo Rules Overview:
Solo Game Demo:
Thank you for your time in answering our questions on this one gentleman. Frankly I think the game looks really interesting and it appears to have that historical aspect that I love so much as I learn and better understand the history behind the theme as I play.
If you are interested in The Barracks Emperors you can pre-order a copy for $34.00 on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-757-the-barracks-emperors.aspx