My ancestry through my mother’s side of the family comes to the United States by way of Ireland (Baldwin/Knight) and growing up I remember all of the stories that my great grandmother Knight (she lived to be 97 years old!) would tell me of the old country. Including the various legends of St. Patrick and how he drove the snakes out of Ireland. It is true that there are no snakes anywhere on the island, but history would point to that being the fact since the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago. The game page on the GMT Games website points out this legend is most likely simply an allegory to explain St. Patrick’s successes in converting Ireland to Christianity.
Banish the Snakes: A Cooperative Game of St. Patrick in Ireland was announced on P500 during the March 2019 Monthly Update and I am just now getting around to doing an interview on the game with one of the designers Kevin McPartland. If you don’t know him or the kind of games that he designs, you can read my review of one of his best games Conquest of Paradise: Empire Building in Polynesia C. 500 A.D. from GMT Games.
*The graphics used in this interview are not yet finalized and are for playtest purposes only at this point.
Grant: First off Kevin please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Kevin: By day I’m an architect, although just part-time now: I’ve started teaching architecture at the local community college as an Adjunct Professor. I’ve taken on a new challenge instead of easing into retirement. My main hobby is, of course, gaming. I started as a teenager with issue #37 of Strategy and Tactics magazine, way back when. I’m involved with a couple of game groups, and attend a few game conventions every year.
Grant: How did you get motivated to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Kevin: As I’ve heard other game designers say, I was motivated by wanting to play a game that didn’t exist. So I set out to make it myself. And that’s the best thing about designing: you end up with a game that’s designed exactly how you want it! No, actually the best part is seeing other people enjoy playing your game, and getting feedback from players all over the world!
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Kevin: It’s surprising how similar designing games is to designing buildings! Many of the same methodologies are employed, and there are remarkable parallels in the process. But my design philosophy always begins with the historic situation. That is my inspiration: an event in history that cries out for a game. So my designs are always simulations, focused on the essentials of the history. But the end result must also be fun to play!
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Kevin: The most challenging part is streamlining the design and stripping out the things that don’t “pull their weight” in conveying the history in a fun game. You need to be willing to “throw out your babies”: discard systems that you’re particularly enamored of, but aren’t contributing enough to the simulation. I think I’m pretty good at this: ending up with simple simulation games that are easy to get into and play.
Grant: What historical period does your upcoming game Banish the Snakes explore?
Kevin: The game starts in 432 AD, when St. Patrick began his mission to Ireland. It ends over a century later; if you had to pick a date, I’d say 563 AD, when St. Columba founded his monastery at Iona, off the coast of Scotland. During this time, Ireland went from being predominantly pagan to being enthusiastically Christian, while in Great Britain and on the continent Christianity was imploding as the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
Grant: What was important to model from the period?
Kevin: The idea that you have to “break into” the entire culture of Ireland. You had the religious leadership represented by Druids; the political leadership represented by Chiefs, Kings, and the High King at Tara; and the People. They formed a complex web of relationships and influence that reinforced each other. But the method Patrick used was remarkably non-confrontational; not at all like the stereotype of a missionary from the last few centuries. Patrick and his compatriots believed that all people have an understanding of the nature of God. Patrick and his compatriots were just there to bring the good news: the “rest of the story”. So pagan holidays were not maliciously seized; they were recognized as having a divine origin, and incorporated into a uniquely Irish form of Christianity.
Grant: What challenges did the design present you with?
Kevin: Early on, we realized that this would have to be a cooperative game, so we proceeded from there. But building a simple representation of the complex Irish social structure was a challenge. Balancing the game was particularly important so that the solitaire system was not too difficult nor too easy.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the details on the period? What one source was the definitive must read for those interested?
Kevin: The most useful book for me was In Search of Ancient Ireland by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton, with about a third of the book focused on this period. Most general histories and atlases of Irish history only have a chapter or two on the period, squeezed between the Druids and the Vikings. Some are quite unique, like Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland. Texts about the Book of Kells show the flavor of the period. But I would say that the “must read” book covers the period immediately after the period when the game is set: Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.
Grant: Who is your design partner Jerry Shiles? What skills and experience does he bring to the effort?
Kevin: Jerry and I are buddies who have been gaming together since 1994; we both have a passion for history and simulation games. He is one of the most creative thinkers that I know, and always a source of inspiration. For him, the ideas just flow, along with his great sense of humor. But it’s up to me to nail things down and crank out the playtest graphics. You might say that he is Simon to my Garfunkel.
Grant: Who are your developers and how have they assisted in the process?
Kevin: Kurt Hoffman and Paul Brenner are in a game group with Jerry and I, and have been involved with the project from the start. Kurt has been very active in promoting the game and getting it past 500 pre-orders. They are both heavily involved with the “quality control” and playtesting of the game.
Grant: As you mentioned above, the game is a cooperative game. How does this work? What is the overall goal of the game?
Kevin: Cooperative games pit a group of players against the game itself. You either win or lose together as a team. Pandemic was the first game to popularize the game type. Banish the Snakes has some similarities to Pandemic, such as characters for the players that each have individual abilities; they must effectively use those special abilities to help the team towards its goal. For Banish the Snakes, that goal is converting the people of Ireland to Christianity.
Grant: What does the game board represent?
Kevin: It shows the entire island of Ireland. It includes the familiar four Provinces of Ireland, but no counties; they had not formed yet. Instead, each Province is sub-divided into areas that were in use at the time, but mostly unfamiliar to modern eyes.
Grant: I understand there is a small diagram of Great Britain on the board to keep track of the steady decline of Roman civilization. What role does this play in the game?
Kevin: Yes, the steady deterioration of the situation in Great Britain has its own track, which is moved forward by historic events as they are drawn from the card deck, such as barbarian invasions and abandonment by the Roman Empire and the Church in Rome. Each time the tracker crosses certain thresholds, additional cards are added to the deck. These added cards are all bad: attacks, invasions and slave raids. While Great Britain was controlled by the Empire, Ireland was shielded from these events, but that shield eventually disappears.
Grant: How do players work to influence the different groups, peoples and tribes in Ireland?
Kevin: Players must work together as a team, using their individual strengths to best reach their common goal. They will travel around the island, sometimes in groups, other times alone. It is best to start by debating the Druids, then try to covert the leadership, starting with the High King and working your way down through the hierarchy. Only then will you have your best shot at converting the People, which is the real goal of the players.
Here is a very helpful video put together by Kevin and Kurt that gives some great insight into how the game is played:
Grant: What do the different types of blocks represent and how do they effect the game?
Kevin: The blocks represent the People, Druids, and Leaders of Ireland. At the start of the game they are all on their pagan side; they are flipped (or, in the case of the Druids, removed) as the game progresses. Other special blocks represent different levels of churches, which can be started in each Area after the Druid there has been successfully debated and removed. Then they can be built up, all the way to a Cathedral if players are persistent.
Grant: What is the danger of having these opportunities go without success?
Kevin: The biggest danger is running out of time. Things are deteriorating quickly on the next island over, and you must attain your goal before everything there collapses completely. Failure also has a negative effect on your individual character, leading to reduced effectiveness and death. But in this game, death isn’t all that bad, if you are prepared with a follower who will take your place. Then you will also have a grave site to attract pilgrims, and even a relic that can be brought to trouble spots to encourage the faithful.
Grant: How are cards used in the design?
Kevin: There are three types of cards in the game. First are the Event cards, one of which is drawn and resolved before each player’s turn. Next are the Saint cards; each player begins the game with one of these characters on his player mat, with others shuffled in with the Event cards. Finally there are the Gifts of the Spirit cards, which are set aside at first. Various events will allow you to draw one of these cards – either randomly or picked by you, depending on the event – to help you in your endeavors.
Grant: Can you show us a few examples of cards and show us how they work?
Kevin: First is a sample Gift of the Spirit card: Book of Armagh, which helps you to convert leaders. (The leadership in Ireland greatly valued literacy, which was a great advantage in administering their lands.) Gifts of the Spirit cards are kept on your play mat, carried around with you in Ireland. They may be transferred to other players if you wish.
The Book of Armagh or Codex Ardmachanus (ar or 61), also known as the Canon of Patrick and the Liber Ar(d)machanus, is a 9th-century Irish illuminated manuscript written mainly in Latin. It is held by the Library of Trinity College Dublin (MS 52). The document is valuable for containing early texts relating to St. Patrick and some of the oldest surviving specimens of Old Irish, and for being one of the earliest manuscripts produced by an insular church to contain a near complete copy of the New Testament. – Wikipedia
Next is a Saint card: Brigid, Abbess of Kildare. If you are playing the historic version of the game, she begins the game shuffled into the deck, and when she is drawn, she will join your Saint character, ready to step up when needed. There is another version of this card (the non-historic version) that you can use to begin the game with her.
Saint Brigid of Kildare or Brigid of Ireland (Irish: Naomh Bríd; Latin: Brigida; c. 451 – 525) is one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Patrick and Columba. Irish hagiography makes her an early Irish Christian nun, abbess, and foundress of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland, which was famous and was revered. Her feast day is 1 February, which was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring. Her feast day is shared by Dar Lugdach, who tradition says was her student, close companion, and the woman who succeeded her.
The saint shares her name with an important Celtic goddess and there are many legends and folk customs associated with her. – Wikipedia
Finally is a sample Event card: Notable Harvest, which has a range of outcomes. They are all related to the harvest that year, ranging from Famine to a Bumper Crop. How the card is resolved depends on the previous card.
Grant: As you must mentioned, I understand that the event deck builds off itself and already played cards. How is this accomplished?
Kevin: When a newly drawn Event card is resolved, it is placed to the right of the previous Event card that was drawn. That card will have a colored arrow on its right edge, pointing to one of the colored bars on the left edge of the newly drawn card. As you can see with the sample card, the first listed red events tend to be worse than the later listed blue events. There are up to five related events on each event card, but most cards group some of their events into fewer options. In the case of Notable Harvest, the first outcome (Famine) will occur if the previous card had a red or orange arrow; the next outcome (Poor Crop) occurs if the previous card had a yellow arrow, etc. Later, the card that is drawn after the Notable Harvest card will be resolved at the blue level – so players can look forward to a reasonably good outcome with the next event!
Grant: How do Conversion Attempts work? What modifies those attempts?
Kevin: Players may spend an Action to roll a die, to make one attempt at Converting a Druid, Leader, or People. If your attempt succeeds, you remove the Druid or flip the Leader or People. If you fail, you not only don’t flip the block, you also loose one Zeal. If your die roll ties your target, nothing happens (although you have wasted an Action). Before you roll, you may spend as many Actions as you wish to Prepare: each action giving you a +1 modifier. Saints, Gifts, Churches and Relics can also give you modifiers. Druids have an unknown value until you begin the debate, but they are not influenced by anyone else. Leaders are influenced by the Druid in their Area, plus the Leader above them: Chiefs by their King, and Kings by the High King. People are influenced by the Druid in their Area and by their Chief. The Chief’s influence will be negative if he is still Pagan, but positive if he has been converted. How strong he is in his new faith will not be known until after he is converted.
Grant: Who are the different Saints players can play as? Do they each have different abilities?
Kevin: There are a total of twelve Saint cards to choose from: six who historically began the game, and six more who historically began in the deck. Each of the twelve have two versions, so you can be a-historic and mix and match the Saint cards. I wrote a series of articles describing each of the Saints that was posted at the InsideGMT Blog web page: everyone from Patrick to Columba. You can go there to read a short biography of all twelve of them!
There are at least 8 more such posts on the InsideGMT blog that you can read through to get more information.
Grant: What information is contained on the player mats?
Kevin: There is a place to put your active Saint card, that will show the Saint’s special abilities. There is a track to show your level of Zeal, which eventually ticks down to your Saint’s death. There is a track to show your Action Points, so you can keep track of them as they are spent. And there is a Convert Attempt Slider, with which you can track all of the modifiers that apply to your attempt, and see what die roll you need to succeed.
Grant: What does the design do well?
Kevin: I think it creates a very tense situation for the players. You never know when a card will come out that advances paganism in Great Britain, adding more bad cards to the deck and eventually ending the game. At first things go rather easily, and new players tend to relax and spend a lot of actions preparing, ensuring good outcomes from their conversion attempts. But experienced players will know that you must have a sense of urgency and take chances right from the start. Every Action must be wisely used if you are to accomplish your goal!
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the end product?
Kevin: I think the game is a good simulation of an era in history that is not well understood, and it’s lots of fun, too. When we’ve taken our playtest copy to conventions, people have a great time playing it.
Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?
Kevin: I have two games under contract with Compass Games. Maori: Warriors of the Long White Cloud is a simulation of the competitions between the various tribes in New Zealand before Western contact. It is a lot of fun engaging in conflict with nothing more than stone-age technology! The game is available for pre-order right now at their web site.
The second game is The Great Hunger, a game about the Irish Potato Famine. Players represent clans of subsistence farmers scratching out a living, but then doing rather well and expanding greatly after the wonder crop – the potato – is introduced. But then came the blight. The game switches gears; the player with the most people who have escaped to America or survived in Ireland wins the game.
Other than those two, nothing is in the works. Jerry and Kurt both have ideas that we are considering moving forward on. Also, we might dust off one of the many games that we started on the design process – or in some cases, pretty much finished – but decided that they weren’t enough fun. Sometimes a fresh look will do wonders. We shall see.
Thank you for your time in answering our questions Kevin. The game looks very interesting and definitely is an opportunity to learn something about history while also having a good time with friends. Also congratulations are in order as the game has crossed over the 500 pre-orders needed to Make the Cut! on the P500.
I also look forward to meeting you this year at the World Boardgaming Championships in Pennsylvania and would love to get a chance to play this one, as well as some prototypes for your other upcoming designs.
If you are interested in Banish the Snakes: A Cooperative Game of St. Patrick in Ireland you can pre-order a copy for $41.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-752-banish-the-snakes.aspx