Always on the look out for new games, I came across a very interesting looking game on Facebook a few months back that appears to be following after a game we looked at a couple of years back in Prelude to Rebellion: Mobilization & Unrest in Lower Canada, 1834-1837 from Compass Games. This game called Prelude to Revolution: Russia’s Descent into Anarchy, 1905-1917 is a Card Driven Game that takes a look at the buildup to the Russian Revolution over the period of 1905-1917 due to the consequences of several wars, including the Russo-Japanese War and The Great War, as well as the abdication of the Tsar. The game looks very interesting and will challenge players as they must guide or fight against the revolution with only their wits and cards. We reached out to Mike Willner to see if he wanted to talk about the game, which hasn’t even been officially released on pre-order, and he was more than willing to share. I also got invited to join their Base Camp that is used as a central hub and clearing house for all playtesting and changes to the design. This has been a very eye opening experience for me and I have learned a lot about what it takes to design a game.
*The graphics used in this interview are not yet finalized and are for playtest purposes only at this point.
Grant: First off Mike please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Mike: As scary as it is to say, I’ve been wargaming for more than 50 years. It all started with Tactics II on the kitchen table with my older brother Marc and has kept going since then.
I live in Brooklyn, New York with my lovely and supportive wife, and have two grown kids. Among my many other blessings is that I live within walking distance to the Metropolitan Wargamers (www.nycwargames.com), the most amazing game club in New York City.
By day I work in financial crime prevention in a large international financial institution. And, apart from wargames, I am a serious amateur musician, love to kayak and hike, and am planning to take up bird watching this summer. But, really, mostly wargaming!
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Mike: Like most wargamers I’ve toyed with the idea of designing a game. But, it never really happened. I’ve fiddled with house rules and that’s about it.
Somehow it all clicked when I played Prelude to Rebellion (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/170472/prelude-rebellion) …I really enjoyed and appreciated the design and flow of the game and it hit me “This would make an excellent game setting for the Russian Revolution!”. The rest is history.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Mike: I’m a new designer and won’t presume to have a well defined philosophy. However, what I’ve learned so far is that the three key drivers for me thus far have been: a real passion for the topic of the game, and a clear idea of what player experience you want to deliver, and keeping an open and collaborative mind about how to meld the passion with the game.
“…the three key drivers for me thus far have been: a real passion for the topic of the game, and a clear idea of what player experience you want to deliver, and keeping an open and collaborative mind about how to meld the passion with the game.”
I want players (the Revolutionary and the Government) to experience the chaotic, competing urgency and drivers that made that period so difficult to navigate; they should feel a sense of acceleration towards calamity, and that the forces of history (the game, that is) will impose priorities on them that they would rather not deal with.
And, the most important driver of all is that the players find the game satisfying and want to play again.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about design? What do you do really well?
Mike: I’m lucky enough to be building on the existing and successful design of Prelude to Rebellion (P2Reb, as we’ve started calling it, vs. P2Rev for the current design). The most challenging aspect is to be *very* careful not to over-tinker with the design, but to be willing to innovate and add mechanics and features that I think support the design goal. It’s important to restrain the urge to add chrome and bells/whistles. What I find working really well was getting the ‘feeling’ into the game, and keeping the design and mechanics focused on sustaining that feel.
Grant: What historical period does your upcoming game Prelude to Revolution: Russia’s Descent into Anarchy cover?
Mike: The game covers roughly the years 1905 to 1917, though it is intentionally a little loose. As with many similar CDG’s (e.g. Twilight Struggle, 1989 Dawn of Freedom, Europe in Turmoil), the game is divided up into three periods or Eras.
The first Era is The Years of Turmoil are roughly 1905-1913. Russia has just suffered a disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War – the weakened Tsar is forced into creating a quasi-parliament (the Duma) and introducing reforms that forfeit his hold on autocracy. Growing revolutionary foment is combined with a furious political effort by the Duma Deputies to establish itself as an influential part of the government.
Next comes The Great War, roughly 1914-1916. In this Era, the Tsar sees a rapid upsurge in popularity and influence that is just as quickly dashed by military disasters in the field and gross mismanagement of the home front. In this Era we are introduced to Grigori Rasputin and his baleful influence on the Imperial Family. The Duma remains the political focus of the period, but as WW1 wears on, revolutionary momentum grows – often encouraged and supported by enemy nations.
Finally, comes The Collapse. This Era is three turns long with each turn aligned to a key month in that fateful year: February 1917 which saw the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II and the formation of the weak and doomed Provisional Government, July 1917 during which the Bolsheviks launched a premature and abortive attempt to take over the government, and finally October 1917 which saw the final successful coup by the Bolshevik extremists and the establishment of what would become the Soviet Union.
Grant: What was important to model from the period?
Mike: Central to the game is the contention between the Moderate and Extremist parties within each faction. The Moderates on both sides (Socialists for the Revolutionary, Liberals for the Government) are seeking to find political solutions to the problems of the day. This is modeled by the gradual accumulation of victory points through building control of the Duma, organizing the party and the population, etc. The Extremists (Bolsheviks and Monarchists), on the other hand, want radical solutions that will either result in full scale overthrow of the existing order or, worse, the re-imposition of autocracy.
Events of the day distracted and derailed the agendas of everyone involved…famine, war, impending uprisings and the sudden collapse of the Tsar’s will to govern…and these major events are modeled as Key Events, Key Personalities and several ‘ticking time bombs’ in the form of tracks (the Bolshevik Coup track and the Tsar’s Prestige track) that will drive nastier and nastier events in the game until they bring the game to a sudden and chaotic halt.
Grant: What challenges did the design present you with?
Mike: Adding the new political component…the Duma…was one major challenge. A lot of thought went into how it would be structured, how it could score, what it would influence in the game, etc. That was hard enough, but then I had to figure how to keep it in proportion to the rest of the game sub-systems. Marco Poutre…designer of P2Reb… warned me against letting the Duma take over the game to become the sole focus of players.
Another challenge was introducing specialized areas on the board. While P2Reb had the districts on the board ‘leaning’ towards one side or the other, P2Rev required more specificity. The first step was to introduce Worker and Military specialized areas (inspired by 1989 Dawn of Freedom and Europe in Turmoil), with their own special Organizations (Worker and Solider Soviets, Unions, and Military Discipline). This allowed event cards to key off these areas. Finally, I linked the creation of these special Organizations with the level of organization in the Duma of sponsoring political parties. So, now you have to build a strong Liberal party in the Duma, for example, before you can create Unions in Worker Districts. This mechanic really works well and adds flavor and variety.
Grant: Please tell us what games inspired your thoughts on the design and how?
Mike: First, I have to pay homage to the epic Triumph of Chaos (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/190462/triumph-chaos-v2-deluxe-edition). This game really delivers on the ‘feel’ of chaos and anarchy driving the Russian Civil War. The players attempt to hold on by their fingernails as the game erupts in unpredictable directions. Next, 1989 Dawn of Freedom introduced the idea of giving generic areas (a la Twilight Struggle) characteristics like worker, intellectuals, elite, etc. Then, the most recent Europe in Turmoil which fully developed the ideas around areas with characteristics with nuanced card play.
Then, of course, Prelude to Rebellion provided the fundamental design and framework which is the direct basis for Prelude to Revolution. The mechanics and subsystems are solid and work so well that it was possible to take the ideas and enhancements in P2Rev and base them on a solid foundation.
Grant: What has been added or changed in the design to make this game different from Prelude to Rebellion?
Mike: Some of the key additions and changes (some of which were mentioned previously) are:
– Addition of the Duma as a central political battleground
– Introducing a ‘Growing Extremism’ mechanic that radicalizes the Duma over time
– Inclusion of specialized areas and organizations
– Addition of the Tsar’s Prestige track to measure the popularity and influence of the Tsar
– Key Personalities, a variant on Key Events
– Enhancing the final scoring round (Red October) to be more unpredictable
Grant: How closely did you collaborate with Marco Poutré?
Mike: As soon as decided I was actually going to give designing P2Rev a shot I contacted Marco. He was immediately responsive, and once he heard my idea facilitated the contacts with the crew at Compass (Ken and Bill). He very quickly became quite enthusiastic about the project, and offered to work with me as Developer of the game. How much more could I ask? Since then Marco has been available for questions, provided critical design guidance, and has been a real supporter. Now that we’re actively playtesting a relatively stable design he’s there to respond to questions and give direction.
Grant: What factions are represented in the game and what are their goals and motivations?
Mike: There are two Factions represented, the Revolutionary and the Government. Each Faction has a Moderate Party (Liberals for the Government, Socialists for the Revolutionary) and an Extremist Party (Monarchists and Bolsheviks, respectively).
Actually, there were several more significant political entities in play. But I got some great advice from Dave Docktor (designer of Triumph of Chaos) that most people will simply not follow or grasp the sometimes subtle distinctions.
The Revolutionary goal is to build strong support among workers and soldiers, as well as the urban population of St. Petersburg. This generally translates into focus on the scoring of the Urban Districts, and being prepared to take advantage of the powerful events confer points and advantages for the existence of Worker and Soldiers Soviets (specialized organizations).
The Government generally seeks to control the Duma, take advantage of votes, elections, resolutions, etc. Also, they will leverage the impactful events that confer points and advantage to the dominant Faction in the Duma. Also, they will seek to minimize the Revolutionary advantage in the Urban Districts with the many events that represent Tsarist and government repression.
However…both Factions have an Extremist Party that will tend to increasingly drive the agenda as the game progresses: The Bolshevik Party will generally work towards a full scale overthrow of the Tsar and Government, with the Bolshevik Coup track being the ‘ticking time bomb’. The Monarchist Party within the Government will drive an increasingly reactionary agenda in the Duma that will cost the Government points and votes. But, as they do, the Tsar’s Prestige may rise and result in a game-ending re-imposition of autocracy (a draw). Players will need to decide how to balance the Moderate and Extremist wings of their own Factions while keeping their Opponent in check.
Grant: Why do you think the CDG is the best mechanic for this game? What advantages do you see it offering?
Mike: Card strategy keeps the game variable and fresh, with high replay value. Also, knowing the combos and the opportunities that your decks will offer tends to reward smarter play. Players get a chance to develop a variety of strategies…which is fun…and get to watch them blow up as the built-in chaos of the game upsets the apple cart.
Grant: What are the three Era Decks and the Generic Deck? What role does each play?
Mike: There are four decks in the game, one for each Era (Years of Turmoil, The Great War, and The Collapse) and a larger Generic deck. Cards belong to one of the Factions, or may be Neutral.
Each Era deck has events and personalities that did or could have happened in the time period in question. As this is *not* a simulation it’s entirely possible that ahistorical events can occur, or historical events will not take place in the game (e.g. there is a “WAR!” Key Event that may or may not get played). The Generic deck is used throughout the game, with some dealt to the players and put into the Opportunity Pool each Turn.
Each Era deck tries to build a certain context or ‘feel’:
The Years of Turmoil deck focuses on growing unrest and revolutionary activity, balanced by actual beneficial reforms that benefited the Government. Several Duma sessions, a vote on Land Reform, and the gradual increase in the Duma’s influence and effectiveness.
The Great War abruptly changes the game environment, with potential for Russia to enter WW1. Events and cards focus on impact of external events as well as internal instability buffeting the Tsar’s credibility and ability to rule. It is very possible that the Tsar will abdicate due to the many card effects that steadily drive the Tsar’s Prestige track downwards.
The Collapse deck accelerates the players to a dramatic conclusion with events that drive the Bolshevik Coup track upwards toward the unpredictable Red October scoring sequence. Balanced against Government-focused events that bolster a new government (the Provisional Government) and maybe even allows for the election of a representative legislature. But, all the ‘ticking time bombs’ in the game are sped up by the various cards in this deck.
About 75% of each Era deck will come into play, the rest are not dealt…this way there’s always a variable around what cards will come up.
Grant: Can you show us some examples of a few cards and layout their anatomy for us?
Mike: This is the anatomy of a basic event card. Apologies that I’m not a great graphic artist, these are just my prototypes.
A Revolutionary Event Card from the Great War Era:
Example of a Key Event:
Grant: What is the basic Sequence of Play?
Mike: The sequence of play is pretty simple. Each of the seven turns is divided into eight Action Rounds. There are some start-of-turn activities such as drawing up hands, refreshing Opportunity Points, etc.
Then, the Round consists of each Player playing a card for Action Points to take actions on the board (i.e. mobilize influence in districts, build organizations, etc.), or trigger a card event. Much like other CDG’s, cards belonging to the Opponent can be played for Action Points but afford the Opponent access to the Event.
The end of a Round may have some special events such as a Duma Resolution (which may yield extra influence in the Urban Districts), special card effects, etc. Also, players check if victory conditions have been met.
After the last Round in a Turn there are other special events that may trigger. And, if this is the last Turn in the Era, all cards are discarded so the next Era starts with an new Deck and a clean slate.
Grant: How do the Key Personalities effect the game?
Mike: In each Era there is at least one Key Personality that are available to the players and may come into play such as Peter Stolypin, Grigori Rasputin, and yes Vladimr Lenin are all represented. If placed into play they remain in play, act as pre-requisites for other event cards, and often have on-going effects of their own. For example, Rasputin will likely steadily drive down the Tsar’s Prestige track.
Grant: What are the Scoring Dice? How are they used?
Mike: Scoring dice are a very clever sub-system designed by Marco into the Prelude system. There are four scoring dice, one for each of the four scoring tracks: Urban Districts, Organizations, World Affairs, and The Duma. Each die (d6) has three faces showing the scoring track it is aligned with, and the other’s show one of three remaining scoring tracks. So, the UD (Urban District) die has UD on three faces, O (Organizations) on one, WA (World Affairs) on one, and D (Duma) on the last.
Each card has one of the four dice indicated. After you play the card you roll that die and advance the scoring marker on the track that comes up. After four advances, the track scores and whoever has the advantage (more Urban Districts controlled, more Organizations built, etc.) will gather victory points. 20 VP’s win the game.
What’s interesting about this system is that you can play cards to advance the scoring marker on tracks where you’re in the lead. But, there’s only a 50% chance that you’ll actually advance the scoring marker on the track you want. You could very well end up playing a card that would roll the UD die but WA comes up and helps your Opponent. Nothing is a sure thing.
Grant: How are the Posture Tracks manipulated and what is the benefit for control of each of the four tracks?
Mike: The tracks confer victory points, and getting 20 VP’s wins the game. The tracks indicate, based on the state of play, how many VP’s will be won when and by whom when the track scores. So, players will take actions and trigger events that move the VP marker on the track in their favor. They try to roll Scoring Dice that will move the scoring marker along to trigger a scoring event. A lot of the game strategy is deciding where you want to focus your energy and maximize the scoring tracks to get the most VP’s.
Grant: What causes Red October! and how does it effect each player?
Mike: Red October! is a game-ending unpredictable scoring sequence that is triggered when the Bolshevik Coup track reaches 15 (the maximum value…it starts on 1). If a player is prepared for it (or if they know their Opponent is *not* well prepared!) they can force the track upwards with card play, engaging in Propaganda and Repression, and special Key Personality events. Once it is triggers, the game is over and players work through the Red October! procedure:
– Forces of Reaction: the Government gets to quash Worker and Soldiers Soviet
– All Power to the Soviets: a modified Urban District scoring sequence
– Deploy the Revolutionary Vanguard: Soldiers Soviets and troops retaining Military Discipline clash as Red Guards and Loyal Troops, yielding VP’s.
– Rally the Workers and Peasants: Workers Soviets get a chance to score some VP’s
– Call for World Revolution: The World Affairs and Organizations Tracks score, too.
The players with the most points at the end of all this is declared the winner.
Grant: What is the Opportunity Pool and what role does it play?
Mike: Another very clever mechanic thanks to Marco! In addition to cards in their hand, each Turn some cards from the Era deck and the Generic deck are placed face up in the Pool. Players have the option to ‘buy’ these events from the Pool with Opportunity Points they get each Turn. Additionally, all Key Events and Key Personalities start by being placed in the Pool.
This leads to the interesting situation where you see exactly what cards *could* be played by you and your opponent (limited by availability of Opportunity Points, which are pretty scarce). Players may fashion strategies to deprive the other player the chance to play a card, may work to deplete the Opponent’s Opportunity Points in other ways, or may simply grab up great events and play them.
Grant: What Special Actions are available to each player on their boards and why would they utilize these actions?
Mike: As if there was not enough anarchy going on, each play has a set of six Special Actions they can purchase through card play and play. Players can buy one of these a turn, so with six Actions and seven Turns you usually see about one of these trigger each turn.
Some examples are Special Actions that allow you to exchange your hand with cards in the Opportunity Pool, play an Opponent’s card for Action Points without triggering the Opponent’s event, even deliberately driving up the Bolshevik Coup track at high speed.
Grant: How do players win the game?
Mike: The game is won on Victory Points. If either player has 20 VP at the end of their round the game ends and they win. Or, if the game reaches the end of the seventh turn (October 1917) then the player with the most VP’s wins. Or, if the Bolshevik Coup track reaches 15 then Red October! is triggered and the player with the most VP’s after the scoring rounds wins.
One more twist: The Tsar’s Prestige track measures the Tsar’s popularity and ability to influence affairs. It is driven up and down by card events and other game mechanics. If the Tsar’s Prestige track goes to 15 (the top) then autocracy is restored and….the game ends in a draw! This leads to some very interesting game situations where a player who is way behind on VP’s could play to drive up the Tsar’s Prestige and force a draw. Or, if both players think they have good prospects they may have to…gasp…work together to drive it back down!
Grant: How long generally do games last?
Mike: Games run about as long as similar CDG’s such as Twilight Struggle, etc. I generally figure two to four hours.
Grant: What are you most proud of with the design?
Mike: I’m very happy with the Duma mechanic. It acts as a political center of gravity for the players, drives a reasonable amount of scoring, governs the creation of specialized organizations, and triggers off a lot of interesting events. Also, there is a “Growing Extremism” mechanism that relentlessly pushes influence from the Moderate to the Extremist Parties of each Faction. This can be helpful in the short term, but will cost VP’s and trigger nasty events in the long run, depriving players of control of their agendas.
Grant: What does the design do well?
Mike: Players are faced with a tense and nuanced game situation that requires handling competing priorities, unpleasant choices, and handling unexpected and unpredictable events. It gives them the *feel* of descent into anarchy.
Grant: What has changed through the playtest process? Please give a few examples.
Mike: The Duma has gone through a number of iterations, including how it drives scoring, how many tracks and what kinds. The most recent addition was to link sponsorship of parties in the Duma with the creation of specialized organizations (Unions, Soldiers’ Soviets, etc.). It’s taken a while to get a balance that doesn’t overpower the game.
Grant: What future games in this series are being considered?
Mike: Compass and Marco always planned to base a series of games on the Prelude system. They were thinking about the American Revolution as a sequel before I came along with my pitch for the Russian Revolution. So, I would fully expect that “Prelude to Liberty: From Colony to Nation 1754 – 1776” (*my* title, not an official name) to be the next in the wonderful “Prelude” system.
Grant: When will Prelude to Revolution be officially announced by Compass Games for pre-order?
Mike: I expect the pre-order to go up on the Compass site within the next month or so and, if everything goes well, I hope the game will be in the hands of Revolutionaries and Government officials everywhere by the end of 2020!
Thanks Mike for your time in answering our questions and for the opportunity that you have given me to follow the playtesting and design refinement process through online resources. It has been very eye opening and given me a great insight into the process and what is required. I look forward to this one as we love CDG’s and the back and forth tug of war that ensues from this fantastic form.