A few months ago, I was contacted by Uli Blenneman and asked if I would be interested in doing an interview with Matthias Cramer covering his upcoming Compass Games release (it has of yet not been announced for pre-order) called Weimar: The Fight for Democracy. The game is a Card Driven Game for 1-4 players about the major actors in the spectrum of the new Weimar Republic as the Social Democrats and the Conservatives are trying to defend the democracy while Communists and Nationalists are looking to overthrow the government and install their own regime. I have played a few of Matthias’s games, including Lancaster (2011 from Queen Games), Kraftwagen (2015 from ACD Blackfire) and most recently Watergate (2019 from Capstone Games), and really enjoyed them so with the topic, and the fact that it is a CDG, I thought it would be of interest to our readers here at The Players’ Aid blog.
* The pictures of components and art used in this interview are not yet finalized and are for playtest purposes only.
Grant: First off Matthias please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Matthias: I am currently working in the chemical industry as an IT compliance manager. In my free time, I like to play games (mostly wargames and historical games), but I am also joining a lot of cultural activities.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Matthias: By playing games. Game design is an evolutionary process where ideas develop from game to game. Looking at the history of card-driven games shows that very well. I am happy to be a small part of this and provide my own ideas to that meta-development.
Grant: What would you say is your design philosophy?
Matthias: For me, the perfect game explains a complex context by simplifying and abstracting the complexity. For example, the fall of the Weimar Republic was not an automatism of the world economy crisis of 1929. It was also a failure by the democratic political groups in Germany. That is a part of the (hi)story a/the game can and should tell.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about design?
Matthias: A good game needs to have a good idea and a good concept. Having a good idea is easy compared to the concept and I think this is a major point why/where (the main reason why) a lot of games are struggling. I am trying to achieve both parts even if the game is going to take many years.
Grant: What designs have you completed and what lessons have you learned about finishing a design?
Matthias: I have done a lot of euro-games like Glen More, Lancaster, Kraftwagen, Rococo and others. A game is never finished, but at a certain point it is good enough to be finished. This year, my first game got republished again after 9 years (Glen More II: Chronicles) and I learned a lot from that project. We followed the philosophy taking 33% of the original game, 33% improvement and 33% complete new elements and in the end, I was astonished how much a “completed” game can change by going through development/testing cycles again.
Grant: You have a new design upcoming from Compass Games that looks very interesting. What is Weimar: The Fight for Democracy about?
Matthias: Weimar: The Fight for Democracy covers the German history from the ceasefire of WWI in 1918 until 1933 if the republic survives that long. The four players represent the main political powers (Communists, Social Democrats, Conservatives and Nationalists) and try to fine tune and follow their agenda. It is not only a conflict between the left and right but also a struggle of the democratic powers against the radicals.
Here is a link to an announcement from Compass Games on the project (starting at 10:30 Compass Games’s John Kranz notes that the game is ‘80% political and 20% military”):
Grant: What is your goal for the design and what type of gaming experience are you trying to create?
Matthias: Although being a CDG, Weimar is a political game. Fighting in the streets, which is the only military aspect, is just 20% of the game. The main part is the political struggle. The government is trying to stabilize the country politically and economically while defending the democracy against the radicals from the left and the right, who are trying to set up their own regime. If the government succeeds, the game playing experience can change since all participants are able to alter their agenda. So – for example – the Communists can decide to march through the parliament instead of trying coups.
Grant: What other games on the subject did you draw inspiration from?
Matthias: The main inspiration came from Mark Herman’s Churchill which is on my personal Top 10 list. I wanted to create a game where the issues are at least as strong (in meaning) as they are in Churchill, but the debating process has more twists. So, I tried to combine that with the card-driven approach. In Weimar, you can debate with each card. But you can also use the card for fighting in the streets or perform the event.
Grant: What sources did you consult about the history of this time period? Which of the sources would you recommend as the best read to our readers?
Matthias: I am doing most of the research on the WWW since I am often jumping from one detail to the other. Most of my sources are in German. The books I have each cover only a small aspect of the period, but they were important since they are demonstrating how public opinion and the political system in the first German Republic were working. For example:
Wolfgang Niess: Die Revolution von 1918/19: about the first 3 months of the Republic. It tells the story about the revolution, the coalition of the Social Democrats with the old powers and the counter revolution 1919.
Rüdiger Barth, Hauke Friedrichs: Die Totengräber (= The Gravediggers): this book explains the last moths of the Republic until the Nazi seizure of power.
The German Historical Museum in Berlin also provides large sources of knowledge and images about that period. Apart from that, Wikipedia is also leading to many sources, books and articles.
Grant: Why do you believe the CDG mechanic is best suited for this subject? What advantage does it give you in telling the story of the history?
Matthias: Weimar has 170 unique cards. When designing cards, you realize very fast if that mechanic is suited to the subject. In Weimar, it was easy to find enough historical events and characteristics of the political powers for the cards. I cannot image a Weimar game without CDG mechanics. I think that would feel somehow empty. Anyway, all games I know about that era are CDG. This is no coincidence.
Grant: What parties are represented and what asymmetrical goals does each have?
Matthias: The Nationalists (which are not the Nazis) and the Communists try to overthrow the Democracy and install their own regime. If one of them controls 4 of the 11 large cities in Germany, it immediately wins the game. Both Democratic players try to stabilize the country. The game can also end abruptly with the land falling in anarchy or the Nazis seizing power or the survival of the Weimar Republic. If a radical power switches to a political strategy, a left-wing or right-wing government is also possible which sends the other half of the democrats into opposition.
Grant: I understand that the National Socialist Workers Party are not a player faction, however – their rise is tracked within the game system. How is this done? Why did you make this design decision?
Matthias: We all know that there are a lot of wargames where you can play the Germans during WWII. I don’t have issues with that. But playing the NSDAP would mean that you are playing the ideology behind it. It might be that a lot of players wouldn’t have a problem with that also, but I – maybe since I am German – definitely have.
The other reason for not taking the NSDAP as a player faction is pretty simple: the NSDAP had no influence on the political system until 1929/30. Taking them into the game from 1918/19 on would be completely unhistorical. Beside the Nazis, there are another three relevant parties. These are not player factions, but they are part of the game. The NSDAP works in another way. There are a lot of decisions in the last third of the game that can be very beneficial to a single player but strengthen the Nazis. If that is used too extensively, Hitler might come to power.
Grant: How does the Sequence of play proceed?
Matthias: In general, it follows the classical CDG sequence. The draw phase is quite special since players can select their agenda which influences the issues that are active during the round and the players card pool. As soon players have their hand, all cards are played clockwise. After all actions, the turn is concluded by the Political Phase: You get a special action for the issues you’ve won, receive the benefits from your supporters and the government declaration might bring a lot of impact into the parliament or the political balance of power.
Grant: How do players influence public opinion and what is the benefit of doing this?
Matthias: Every card has two values: A big number and a small one. You can either play the event, take actions (only the big number) or you debate with both values. Debating means that you can move issues to your side. For the issues that are on your side at the end of the turn, you can select special actions. There are a lot of decisions between doing something for the country or your party.
Grant: What happens if a player does this stage poorly?
Matthias: If you win no issues, your political power in the parliament might decrease. This applies often to the radical parties at the beginning of the game since they put most of their effort into street actions. But they are able to switch to a political strategy at any time in the game. The Democrats normally focus more on issues, but they should not leave the streets to the Communists and Nationalists completely. If things are running well for a democratic government, there can be a huge fight in public opinion between them.
Grant: There is an area control aspect to the game. What does this element represent?
Matthias: There are 11 cities in the game that represent the German Empire. There are military and para-military forces that are present in the cities, but this is still far away from a classical wargame or COIN. There were just a few real combats during the period, all of them in the first three years. By the way: the open fight between the Communists and the Reichswehr in the Ruhr-Area would be a very interesting topic for its own wargame.
Grant: How do players place their followers in the streets?
Matthias: Players can achieve followers by performing demonstrations. Conservatives are not demonstrating, but they have the possibility to have a beer tent party. Yeah, this is an important part of the political culture in Germany.
Grant: What cards are included in each players decks? Can you please show us examples of a few cards and tell us how they work?
Matthias: Each player has their own deck of 12 cards. These cards include typical actions for the player faction, so the card sets are very asymmetrical. Each player also has two 5-card-expansions that he can unlock by playing the corresponding agenda. These expansions are shifting your deck into a certain strategic direction. For example, the Communist has an expansion called “Revolution” for additional forces and making coups easier for him. The Conservatives have an “Economy” set, that will bring the economy forward. It also includes possibilities to score for a strong economy, so it is typically played in the Golden Twenties.
Grant: How do players score victory points and win the game?
Matthias: Players mainly score for the parliament and the followers in the street. The government can get some points if they are performing well while the radical parties get points for local regimes. Victory points are heavily dependant on how the game will end.
Grant: What does the game board look like? What are the major areas used for?
Matthias: The game board shows the 11 most important cities that are holding followers, units and problems. These cities include Hamburg, Rostock, Essen, Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt among others. Besides that, there is the parliament with the political balance of powers and a big section for the public opinion, where the issues are discussed. Another big section is the society and the government. This section will lead completely through the whole political phase, so that the Players Aid just has to have card size.
Grant: What has changed during the play testing for the game? Please give a few specific examples. What do you feel the design does well?
Matthias: Some elements – like the Public Opinion and the semi-military fights in the streets – were there from the beginning. That was the original concept of the game and a result of the historical events. One of the first big challenges were the different government options. The Communists never were a part of the Government. So, is it realistic for the game? A coalition with the Social Democrats was not possible after the Spartacus Uprising in the winter of 1918/19. A few years later there were federal SPD/KPD governments which were overthrown by military forces from the central government (also SPD !!!). So, I was struggling a lot with the complexity to simulate a country that was at the edge of falling apart. In the end, I decided to focus on the playability. The Communists don’t have to do the Spartacus Uprising, the Social Democrats don’t have to defeat the revolt with the army and right-wing paramilitary forces, so that history can follow another path.
During spring this year, I went through a major redesign in order to add more variability to the game. So, I completely renewed all card pools and went for a setup, that allows the players more strategic decisions. The concept of the player-deck expansions was renewed, and the Agenda cards got clearer options. The foreign affairs cards got their own deck. Progressing through that deck is important for the government but also has a high cost in popularity for these parties.
I also spent a lot of iterations with the single issues. There are 15 permanent issues and around the same number of issues coming into the game only once. It was very important for me to have a relevance for the game of these issues no matter if it is the famous “Stab-in-the-back legend”, Poverty or the America Airship. I wanted the players to burn for certain issues instead of just scoring some points for winning them.
Grant: What is the schedule for the release of the game?
Matthias: Weimar is planned for release in 2020 and we are currently targeting GenCon.
Thank you for your insight into the game and its design Matthias. I am definitely looking forward to this design as we love CDG’s here and are always on a the lookout for a game on interesting topics. Hopefully we will see the game at GenCon and can get a play in.