Closing the loop. We really like to bring the design process for 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 followed by an interview with Bruce Mansfield regarding his Gandhi design. Now we have an interview with VPJ Arponen discussing his unique 3-player entry into the series All Bridges Burning.
Grant: Now that All Bridges Burning is finished and at the printer, tell us what your thoughts are about the process? How differently do you feel about the game now versus when you started the design several years ago?
Vez: It’s been an absolutely fascinating journey! Looking back, it appears to me as a journey of a novice designer going in, learning a lot about game design, about the industry, and more.
From start to finish, the entire GMT Games crew from Gene Billingsley and the COIN Series creator Volko Ruhnke to several others, have been by my side ready to to help out when needed. Yet at the same time, I always enjoyed a lot of freedom (and responsibility) to pursue my project as I conceived it. I cannot find strong enough words to express how valuable that has been!
In the course of the process I’ve made lots of friends ―including the power duo here at The Player’s Aid! I look forward to continuing to contribute to this hobby with all of you for a long time to come.
It’s been a long process as well. My first notebook entries on All Bridges Burning stem from 2015! Sure, the game has changed from those early notebook entries ― for one, initially the game was supposed to be a solitaire game (funny enough, so was Gandhi). That said, when I read those early notes, I do see many familiar elements that have been there all along.
Looking back at those early notes, I don’t think the game’s core concepts and the core vision have actually changed all that much. It’s rather been a process of refinement of what I wanted to say from the very beginning.
Grant: What key lessons have you learned about the design process?
Vez: This is a fascinating question.
I follow a fair number of boardgame design podcasts and the question about the design process comes up fairly often. I’ve learned a lot from each of the dozens of designer interviews I’ve listened to over the past years, whether it’s been a wargame or consim or a “euro game” designer. One thing you learn is, everyone’s process is a little different.
Vez recommended boardgame design podcasts (in alphabetical order):
From the point of view of a novice designer such as myself, I spent a fair bit of time just getting the basics right. In my experience, a novice designer is likely to have lots of ideas about the theme and mechanics. The real challenge, however, is to be able to use those ideas to give rise to interesting dynamics and captivating game play or aesthetics as that might be called. I refer here to the MDA game design framework that analytically looks at games as interplay of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDA_framework).
So, if I learned one thing, then it is that mechanics are easy. Dynamics and aesthetics are the challenge.
One piece of advice novice designers are often given is to begin with, not with your own game from scratch, but with designing an expansion or some other tweak to an already existing game. I think this is spot on.
Working with a pre-existing game framework gives you a ready-made frame of player decisions with plenty of tried and tested dynamics. Believe it or not, but for a novice designer it can be an incredibly tough challenge to come up with a system that provides those decision points and, with that, dynamic interactions.
(In this connection I would like to apologize to my gaming buddies, playtesters, and publishers ―you know who you are― for subjecting them to several half-baked designs of mine in the past! All diamonds start rough, right?…Right?!)
I enjoyed the benefits of having a ready frame in the form of the broad COIN Series framework within which I started to design All Bridges Burning. That was really really important for the design to get off the ground in the first place. I know, because I’ve got a good number of other designs where achieving that lift-off has been so much more gradual and, frankly, painful.
This also goes to show what a great great achievement it was from Volko to come up with the COIN system. What a remarkable, original piece of design!
At the same time, with All Bridges Burning I got to work with the base system for 4-players developing it into a 3-player system. So, I feel like I was, both, in the safe haven of an established system, yet got to sail in my own rubber dinghy a little as well.
A second aspect I think I’ve learned and that I would like to highlight here concerns the aesthetics. One often given piece of advice is to think about and know how you want your game to feel like, then try to put together the mechanics that produce that feeling in game play. I believe experience playing a broad range of games pays off here.
I’ve found myself following this advice to focus on the aesthetics in my design work. This focus came in handy already as I was shaping All Bridges Burning.
To be more specific, soon after playtesting started, we realized that in the later stages of the game the Moderates faction isn’t quite producing an interesting gaming experience. I had a couple ideas from the historical literature I had been reading. As the next step, I asked myself how would it have felt like to do those things and to be subject to those pressures that I had been reading about. The feeling I was looking for one was one of being hunted while pursuing your political goals by limited, pacifist means, because that’s the situation in which the Moderates historically were. I sought to reproduce that feeling in the way the Moderates must at all times fear retribution, yet they also must be active and out-going, get information about atrocities across the fronts, build up networks, bring their leading personalities onto the map, and so forth.
Grant: What was the most difficult part in bringing the game design to a close? Did you finally just have to take your hands away and say it is good enough?
Vez: Volko (Ruhnke, the COIN Series creator) uses this old saying that games are never finished, just published. I do agree with that. In the design process there definitely were recurring moments where I had to reign in on myself as yet another thought along the lines of “what if this worked like that?!” came to my mind. That is to say, it is always possible to continue to tweak your design. That’s why it is important to be able to say “No! This is finished”. You need to resist the recurring urge to see if something could work in some other way still.
Also, there’s quite a bit of rather mundane stuff that comes at the designer at some point in the process. One example that comes to mind is the compiling of the key terms index found at the back of the rule book of every COIN game. That’s a lot of work!
Stuff like that can be quite time consuming. Yet, things like the key terms index, let alone the examples of play and the like, constitute an important interface with the gaming public. They require proper attention.
Grant: How have you approached balance for each faction throughout design and from input from playtesters?
Vez: One point often made is that, beyond a certain point, balance is more a matter of perception than fact. Also, in some ways, a perfectly balanced game can be a little uninteresting. You find designers talk about this all the time. I recommend you listen to the podcast interview with the designer Mike Fitzgerald at Five Games For Doomsday (https://fivegamesfordoomsday.com/2019/07/14/mike-fitzgerald/). Gabe Barrett talks about balance often, for example, here with the Dead of Winter designer, Isaac Vega (https://www.boardgamedesignlab.com/balancing-a-game-with-isaac-vega/).
From my perspective, COIN games are an interesting case study in balance because they are asymmetric games. Asymmetry means, the faction goals and/or the actions are all at least partly different for each faction. In a COIN game, balance is always at least in part, not only a feature of the game system and mechanics, but in fact a task of the players to maintain. In an asymmetric game with high player interaction, a part of playing an asymmetric well is to know how to keep the other players in check.
It is up to the players to actually decide to use the mechanics in particular ways at a particular time ―who should be bashing the leader instead of pursuing their own goals, and when? In that sense, balance is a matter of perception and in a COIN game in fact gives rise to an essential metagame level of wrangling over responsibility to bash, including preemptively bash, the leader. The COIN games often feature these fragile alliances with plenty of tensions over the question of which of the partners does the heavy lifting and how much free riding on the hard won gains is okay.
Regarding the point about balanced games perhaps being uninteresting, what’s meant by this is that the designer’s pursuit of balance might lead to the powers afforded to the players all ending up to be fairly low grade, the event effects small, and so on. This in turn means that there won’t be those moments of “big splashes” which, however, arguably make for a dramatic, captivating gaming experience. I feel like saying, there is a sense to balance in which it is about achieving a balance between mechanical balance and the possibility of big moves, if that makes sense.
Those rather abstract design debates aside, I received some very valuable feedback from playtesters as well as from Örjan Ariander, the developer. These often led to quite specific changes to the game. One example of this would be the so-called “rush to war” strategy developed by one particularly perceptive playtester ― hey Gordon, gimme five!
This strategy involved the Senate as quickly as possible bringing about the auto-play condition for triggering the second war phase of the game and then just rolling over everybody. I realized that while the strategy probably wasn’t a sure fire way of winning, it did seem to make the game less fun to play, so we nerfed it by a certain rules tweak.
Good playtesters are essential. For whatever else, a good playtester is one that takes the game system to its limits by trying out different out-of-the-ordinary combinations of what the game enables. Örjan Ariander is wonderfully skilled in doing just that. Örjan gets the credit, among others, for discovering the so-called “into the woods” strategy. I better let players discover that one for themselves.
Grant: What do you hope players will say about All Bridges Burning?
Vez: I think the game has the qualities to be one of the fastest playing COIN Series games, so I hope and think the game will be appreciated for that. Also, the game play is divided in two quite distinctly different phases, which I again hope and think will be appreciated by gamers for the change of pace that the division introduces to the game.
On a more philosophical note, I’ve always admired Volko’s COIN Series for introducing a distinct “hearts and minds” aspect to wargaming. Victory is never a matter of a military defeat of the enemy alone. Volko approached victory from the nation-building perspective, something that continues to form a central aspect of modern, real-life, counterinsurgency efforts for example in places like Afghanistan. Those efforts distinguish between the kinetic, military efforts from the nation and community building, infrastructural and economic, and other non-kinetic aspects.
For me, there’s a certain humanist or humanitarian perspective to this that says that a war can only ever really be won if you manage to lay down the conditions for people of the warzone to return to something approaching normal life after the conflict. Winning is about setting the conditions for a post-game life. As far as I can see, this is a unique perspective not typically seen in wargames.
I like to think of All Bridges Burning as carrying that torch in the context of an early 20th century civil war. A key aspect of victory in this game is the concept of national polarization. The rule is, if Polarization remains at a too high level at the game end, this prevents anyone from winning. That’s intended to bring home the point that civil war torn places like Finland in 1918 face the challenge of somehow finding national reconciliation. Otherwise, the state will fail altogether and there are no victors.
I think Mark Herman’s Churchill explores a parallel theme. This comes out in the way the victory conditions are laid out. A part of winning a game of Churchill resides in preventing the Western alliance from falling apart. There is a trade-off between the alliance and the sides egotistically just pursuing their own goals.
Grant: What is next for Vez?
Vez: More design work, please!
I’ve been working on a number of designs while finishing All Bridges Burning. I hope and believe that one or the other of those designs will see the light of day sooner rather than later. If you wish to know what’s cooking, you can follow me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/vpjarponen?lang=en) for occasional glimpses of what’s being playtested.
Alongside my own design work, I playtest and otherwise support a number of GMT Games projects. It’s great fun! It is also interesting and instructive to see how other designers work on their projects, how those games developed and come to be what they in the end become.
Thank you to Vez for his willingness to talk with us about his game. We have been following this game since it was announced in December 2017 and have watched as Vez has grown into quite a thoughtful designer. We have appreciated his time in working with us on not only these interviews, but also on Event Card spoiler posts and a series of Guest Blog Posts on his work on the various COIN Series games including A Distant Plain and Colonial Twilight as well as the solo bot for Hitler’s Reich from GMT Games. We wish him luck in all his future design endeavors and look forward to getting All Bridges Burning to our table sometime in early 2020.
If you are interested in our initial interview with Vez on the design, you can read that here: https://theplayersaid.com/2018/02/08/interview-with-vpj-arponen-designer-of-coin-series-volume-x-all-bridges-burning-red-revolt-and-white-guard-in-finland-1917-1918-from-gmt-games/
Here is a list of all of the Event Card Spoiler posts that he put together for us over the past 2 years:
Thanks again Vez and we hope that one day we can meet and play a game!