I have said this many times but I have really enjoyed the Lunchtime Series from GMT Games and have played it’s first volume Fort Sumter over 30 times, mostly with my lovely wife. I was very excited when another game in the series was announced in December that covered a very interesting part of French history that I knew very little about. Red Flag Over Paris: 1871, The Rise and Fall of the Paris Commune covers the two months of confrontation between the Communards and the government in Versailles during the 1871 Paris Commune. I have a lot of questions about the history as well as how the system behind the series will change to incorporate elements from this time in the game play. I reached out to the designer Fred Serval and he was more than willing to talk with us about the design.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork and layout of the component pictures used in this interview are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as this game is still in development, components and card details may still change prior to publication.
Grant: First off Fred please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Fred: I’m a 35-year-old French guy living in rural Denmark with my partner, a really patient woman that pretends that she’s ok with me hoarding kilos of cardboard in my lair. In my day job, I manage a department of data analysts in a big toy company. I’m not really allowed to talk about my employer, but if you have kids between 4 and 12, or if you’re a nerd, you can figure out which company I’m working for.
I have simple hobbies; I drink beers with the town’s baker on a regular basis, I read, play board games, and make some YouTube videos about them. Around five years ago, I decided to change some things in the way I spend my free time. I stopped two things that used to take up a massive space in my life: Facebook and video games. To fill this void, I got into board gaming and discovered a small game that you might have heard of: Twilight Struggle. It completely blew my mind. It might sound stupid to most of The Player’s Aid readers, but I had no idea that games like these existed. For me, wargames were Warhammer, a system that I used to play a lot as a kid. After this discovery, I started deep diving into war games. I wanted to try as many systems as I could: hex and counter, block games, COIN, CDG’s, etc. I had a whole new world to discover, and my appetite was immense.
Grant: How did you get motivated to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Fred: When I start to get obsessed with something, I tend to be interested in how things work; I can’t just consume “passively”. So after discovering wargames, I started reading about the cultural role of play, conflict simulation design, and general game design.
In parallel to that, when I moved to Denmark, where I met with a new wargame buddy living in my small town: Brian Asklev Hansen. We started playing regularly two years ago, and I found out that he was a wargame designer with a couple of published games at GMT including Saints in Armor and Nothing Gained but Glory. I quickly became a regular playtester for most of his projects, and he introduced me to game design. I’m nowhere near his level, but working with him gave me enough knowledge and confidence to try myself at designing. So I started by making small tactical wargames for my nieces using construction toys. They loved it, and I loved it, so I thought about getting a bit more serious about it.
The thing that I have enjoyed the most so far was meeting with people: my developer, Luke Billingsley, he is helping me immensely for the game’s design; other YouTubers like Dan Pancaldi, Bart Brunscheen, and you guys; but also other game designers like Vez Arponen that I met at Essen and who’s help for game design is invaluable, and Brian Train with whom I started a fascinating correspondence about the history of the Paris Commune. I hope that I’ll convince him to work together on a tactical game about the subject.
Grant: What is your design philosophy at this point?
Fred: I couldn’t say that I have a philosophy. I’m so new at this. But for this game, I didn’t take a “simulationist” approach. Not because I don’t see the value or enjoy historical simulation, but mostly because I wanted this game to be accessible. I started my design process by thinking about who I wanted this game to be played by: people interested in the event that don’t have a lot of experience in gaming; people who are interested by wargaming but that feel overwhelmed by our games; Grognards who want to have a nice filler game on an interesting historical topic. But, I also wanted this game to convey some decent history and tell a strong narrative about how the events of the Paris Commune unfolded. It was a hard balance to find because historical details add complexity. That’s where CDG’s shine, in my opinion, as with a quite simple core system, you can introduce a lot of historical chrome.
That tension between accessibility and a robust historical theme is at the core of how I approached this design. I took what I thought were the most critical aspects of the Paris Commune and abstracted them to create a system that could represent the actual event realistically. A few examples are the limited military capabilities of the Versailles government and the need to collaborate with Prussia, the tactical complexity of entering and getting out of Paris, the pivotal role of the Press in the political debate, and Barricades in the streets of Paris!
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Fred: Everything! And that’s why it’s so much fun. I expected game design to be hard, but it was even tougher than what I expected. I found two things to be particularly challenging:
- Ensuring a balance between factions. When you draw 12 cards in a deck of 39 available cards, you effectively have almost 4 billion different potential combinations of cards you could get in your hand during a game. So you can’t just have a statistical approach to ensure balance, introducing or modifying a card to the deck could have some significant effects.
- Self-confidence. It was my first game, about a topic that I’m really passionate about, so I was super worried about messing it up. I remember the first time I sent a prototype to GMT before entering the P500; I was worried sick that they would find the game terrible. It was also something I had to learn to cope with when we started playtesting, as every ounce of feedback made me reconsider my design entirely. Sometimes I would work for weeks to change everything to finally realize that a small adjustment could fix things that were minor issues in the game flow.
But there is one thing that I’m proud of, and that’s the limited footprint of the game. I like this theory about the three dimensions of a game footprint: physical space taken on the table, the time that it takes to play, and the mental effort that it takes to integrate the rules. I feel like I did pretty well at reducing the three dimensions of the footprint while providing some actual depth and historical flavor to the game. When I’m running a playtest, and I see a game turn out more or less as the event did historically, it is very satisfying.
The other thing that I like about this design is the blend of political and military decisions that each player has to take. It is not as rich as the Great Statesman Series, but in a short and low complexity game like this one, you have this distinctive feeling of having to fight in two very different fronts. The asymmetry that it brings, and the small COIN aftertaste when playing the game is a nice touch.
Grant: Why did you feel Red Flag Over Paris and the Paris Commune was the best subject for your first game?
Fred: That’s a fascinating question, as to answer it I have to talk about what I think the role of wargames is and what I like about gaming. I genuinely believe that wargaming, or historical gaming, is a powerful medium to approach history. It puts the gamer in an active position; this interaction makes learning a meaningful experience for the one playing the game. I’ve always been a history buff, history is a big part of my academic background, but I rarely experienced history as I did with wargaming. So many times, during a game, I had thoughts like “ha…that’s why invading France from Normandy made sense” or “yep, an amphibious assault in Ichon is the obvious decision,” and even “now I understand why Lenin signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty, this war needs to stop at any cost”.
History books provide context, facts, and analysis to understand events, but nothing as powerful as having the facts laid out in front of you and asking yourself, “what should I do now?”. You just can’t beat that.
So when I realized that no game existed on the Paris Commune, I got frustrated. It was an event that I always struggled to grasp fully, and I wanted to play a game about it, to be able to approach it with this powerful tool that is wargaming. I thought that if it didn’t exist, then someone had to do something about it, and rather than wait for someone else to do it, maybe I should do it myself. It would be a fun experience and also a way for me to approach history in a new way, not by reading, watching a movie, or gaming, but by designing a system to represent it.
Grant: What historical period does your upcoming game Red Flag Over Paris cover?
Fred: It covers a concise and pivotal moment of French history that had a ripple effect in the decades that followed. Unfortunately, it is also relatively unknown, particularly in France. I think there are multiple reasons for that, but explaining might be controversial. Anyway, the period covered by the game is the ten weeks of socialist insurrection in Paris that followed the signature of the peace treaty with the newly formed German Empire, putting an end to the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. This revolt was known as The Paris Commune.
The left-wing was radically patriotic at the time, and they considered the conditions of peace as treason. The negotiation with Prussia was poorly handled by Jules Favre, the minister of international relations at the time. One of the most significant consequences of this peace treaty was the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, a territory in eastern France that was massively industrialized. Paris was filled with radical republicans and socialists, and after months of siege, this treaty was the spark that ignited a revolt. The newly formed government would flee to Versailles, and the people of Paris elected its own government. At this stage, France effectively had two governments, two armies, both controlling a territory (even if the Commune was only controlling Paris and its surroundings). In legal terms, that qualifies as a Civil War.
Red Flag Over Paris places each player at the head of each government and puts them in charge to take political and military decisions. Then tension will escalate until the Bloody Week when the Versailles troops entered Paris and put a brutal end to the insurrection.
Grant: What games inspired your thoughts on the design?
Fred: I drew inspiration from a lot of games, to different degrees and for various reasons. The two obvious ones are Fort Sumter and 13 Days as I use some of the same core mechanics. When I played the game by Mark Herman, I realized how flexible the system was, and it convinced me that it would be the best system to make the game I wanted to do on the Paris Commune. Another game that I love and made me reconsider what a CDG could be was Wir Sind Das Volk. This game didn’t have a significant influence on the mechanic, but a major one on my perceptions of what a historical game can be. It is a fascinating design.
Then there is Dos de Mayo about the Madrid Insurrection against the French occupation in 1808. It is when I played this game that, for the first time, I had this idea that I wanted to play a game on The Paris Commune. The simplicity of this game and it’s strong narrative are pretty amazing.
Then I also introduced some mechanical “references” to wargames I loved, like Combat Commander with the Initiative card. I also added a bit of uncertainty when you attempt to remove cubes in military spaces by introducing a card draw to test success that is inspired by the Fog of War Series by Academy Games.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the details on the period? What one source was the definitive must read for those interested?
Fred: During the design process of Red Flag Over Paris, I read a lot of different things about the Paris Commune. Not all of it was useful for the game but valuable to get a good sense of the event in its entirety. I consulted two categories of material:
- Primary and contemporary sources: documents and books from the era or written during the event. As I’m French, it was easier for me to consult all this. The resource being the Journal Officiel for the first half of 1871. The French National Library digitized the whole period covering the Paris Commune. It was a great way to deep dive into the event and saw how it unfolded on almost a daily basis. I also really enjoyed reading the correspondence of major French intellectuals living in Paris at the time, notably Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Then there is Karl Marx’s The Civil War In France that provides a fascinating political analysis virtually in real time. Definitely, one of the must-reads. Finally, there are two really interesting books written by people that experienced the event first hand: Convulsions de Paris by Maxime du Camp, a conservative intellectual that shared his experience about the event a few years after; Histoire de la Commune de 1871 by Lissagaray, a socialist historian.
- Secondary sources: history books and other cultural objects analyzing the events of the Commune retrospectively. In this case, there is a lot more material written in English. Merriman did an interesting book on the Bloody Week, specifically called Massacre. But,
I would say that Robert Tomb’s book, The War Against Paris, is the book that had the most significant impact on my approach to the event. It is a detailed account of the role of the French army in the suppression of the Commune and all the struggles that the Versailles government had in building this counter-insurgency force to take back control of the capital. One book helped me a lot with the cards: le Dictionnaire de la Commune by Bernard Noël. Not the best resource, but handy to make a CDG.
It’s a bit less “serious” but there are 2 comic books about the Paris Commune that I quite enjoyed reading: le Cri du Peuple by Tardi, and les Damnés de la Commune by Raphaël Meyssant.
Grant: What are the major differences between Red Flag Over Paris and its predecessor game Fort Sumter?
Fred: There are a lot! I made a video and wrote two articles about it on InsideGMT. But if I had to give a quick overview that would be:
- The asymmetry between the two factions and the way cube placement works. Versailles has a smaller cube placement capability at the beginning of the game and has to collaborate with Prussia to increase their cube pool. On the other hand, the Commune has access to a lot of cubes but needs to improve their revolutionary momentum to keep them when they are removed from the board.
- The differences in cube placement and removal cube rules in Military and Political spaces. Spaces are adjacent in different ways, and this limits cube placement. To be able to place influence in an area, you must already present a dominant space adjacent to it.
- The victory conditions that are linked to the two kinds of VP you can get in the game: Political and Military. The Versailles player needs to win on the military front to win the game, and the Commune player should focus on the Political aspect of the conflict.
- The way the Final Crisis unfolds: in Red Flag Over Paris, you build your final hand during the three regular turns. Then in the last turn, you play cards only for their events. If you play a card from the opposing faction, your opponent gets to resolve the event as if they played it.
Grant: How is the board setup for the game? What are the areas represented on the board? How do players influence these various areas?
Fred: It is pretty similar to the one of Fort Sumter with 12 spaces, divided into 4 dimensions: Institutions, Public Opinion, Forts, and Paris. Those dimensions are divided into two categories: Military and Political.
Each of those categories has a specific set of rules to define which spaces are adjacent. Military spaces are linked like in any Point to Point map system, and Political spaces have a particular dynamic that gives a central role to the Press space.
Some spaces play a specific role for each faction. The Commune has an advantage in two spaces: Social Movements and Père Lachaise in Paris. Versailles has access to locked military spaces that are only controlled by him: Versailles, that gives him direct access to the Fort d’Issy and Mont Valérien, but also the east side of Paris that will be accessible when the Prussian Collaboration level reaches its maximum level.
Each faction places influence in those areas by placing cubes, either through events or by doing Political and Military operations up to the value of each card. Like in Fort Sumter, the stacking limit is four cubes, and when a player has more cubes in a space than their opponent, they control that space.
Grant: What do the cards represent and how are they used? What are some examples of cards and can you tell us how they are used?
Fred: The cards represent either a specific event or a significant figure of the event. Cards can be used in four different ways:
- For its event (only if it has your player faction’s color, or neutral) and apply the text as written.
- For its value. In this game, when you play a card for its value, you must announce whether you are using its value for military or political operations. If I go for military ops, I will only be able to use them in military spaces.
- To buy a previously discarded event by discarding a card of equal or higher value.
- Finally, you can burn a card to increase your player momentum. Usually, it is best to use a card with your opponent’s event because you get to discard the card at the bottom of the discard pile.
Here is an example: Elihu Washburne, the US Ambassador in Paris at the time. If you look at the card, you can see three essential pieces of information:
- The card has a value of 3 cubes
- Those cubes are red and blue, indicating that it is a neutral event
- The event: in this case, the player can only trigger it if he currently has the initiative. This is usually a condition for powerful events.
If you use this card for its value, you first commit to Political or Military dimensions. Then you may attempt to remove cubes up to the value of the cards, and if you still have available points, you can use them to place cubes in spaces where you are present or adjacent to spaces you control. You could also “burn” it to increase your player momentum, but using a card of a high value for that would be an expensive move that I wouldn’t recommend. Finally, you could also use it to activate the event at the top of the discard pile if it is one of your faction. A value of three being the highest in the deck, this card could activate any event.
Grant: How did you go about the design of the various Strategy cards to keep balance?
Fred: That’s one of the trickiest parts of the design. First, I started by creating a deck that has a strictly symmetric distribution of values between the two factions. But obviously, it is not that simple for the events.
The way I approached it is to create a table with all cards, listing factions, values, and effects on the board (dimensions, player momentums, etc.). As I said before, the number of potential combinations of cards in a game is quite big. So to help me with the balancing, I used the skills that I had: computational statistics.
I created an R script that draws a few thousand potential combinations of 12 cards and calculates probabilities: card values distribution, impact on different tracks and dimension by faction, etc. I got the idea from an interview of Mark Herman by Harold Buchanan, where he talked about how he used a Monte Carlo model to analyze the deck balance of Empire of the Sun. Of course, some fringe cases will not be detected with such an approach, but the combination of this, thorough playtest, and common sense is a reliable way to tackle it.
Grant: What are the objective cards and can you show us some examples?
Fred: Each turn, players get to pick an objective from 2 cards that they draw. An objective is a space on the board that a player commits to control at the end of a turn. If he does control that space, he will get a VP of the type corresponding to the space. He will also have the opportunity to trigger the event associated with it.
For example: the Socialist International.
This objective requires the player to control the Social Movements space in the Public Opinion dimension. If at the end of turn, the player controls that space, he will gain a Political VP and then will be able to use 2 points for Political Operations, as if he had played a strategy card that has a value of 2. Then he can increase or decrease the Revolutionary Momentum of the Commune player. If Versailles fulfills such an objective, it could be a significant blow to the Commune!
Grant: What role does the concept of momentum play and how does a player have to manage this?
Fred: Player Momentum plays a central role in Red Flag Over Paris and are one of the major differences with Fort Sumter. Each faction has it’s own player momentum:
- Prussian Collaboration for Versailles: each step provides more influence, in the form of cubes added to the cube pool. This track represents the collaborative efforts of the Versailles government with the Prussian invader. Those diplomatic efforts give this faction access to prisoners of war that were captured the year before, ahead of the final peace treaty signed in Frankfurt in May 1871.
- Revolutionary Momentum for the Commune: this faction does not have a cube pool at the beginning of the game. The Commune needs to increase its Revolutionary Momentum to increase operational capability. This track enables the Commune player to store cubes when they are removed from the map. This mechanic is an abstraction of the Commune’s need to maintain motivation within its ranks when they suffered an offensive from the counter-insurgent Government.
Player Momentum also have bonuses linked to them. If they are at their maximum level by the end of the game, they provide a bonus VP, Military for Versailles, and Political for the Commune. But while they increase, they also cause side effects. The French Population did not well perceive Prussian Collaboration, and in the game, this enables the Commune Player to place a cube in the Public Opinion spaces. The increased radicalism of the Paris Commune got political institutions worried, therefore increasing Revolutionary Momentum allows the Versailles player to place influence in Institutional spaces.
Grant: What were the challenges in designing asymmetric victory conditions? What are tiebreakers in the event of a tie at the end of the Final Crisis?
Fred: The main challenge was that it often happens that the player leading in Victory Points didn’t fulfill his victory condition. For example, The Versailles player would end the game with +3 Political VP’s and -1 Military VP. The player effectively has more VP than its opponent but not of the “right” kind. What was tricky was to make a tie-breaker system that made sense and felt fair for the players.
The first tie-breaker is the number of objectives fulfilled during a game by each player. So resuming our previous example, in that case, if the Versailles player had met more objectives than the Commune player, they would win the game. This is a good tie-breaker as the player with the highest number of fulfilled objectives is usually the one with the most VP, and it seldom happens that that player has less.
The final tie-breaker is the initiative card. Once again, going back to our example, if the Versailles player didn’t have more fulfilled objectives than their opponent, they would win if they had the initiative card on their side at the end of the game. This was a way to add even more weight to the Initiative mechanic and make the card a crucial aspect of the game end. It also adds some tactical decision making for the Final Crisis during the Initiative phase.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Fred: For now the number of playtesters was limited as some game mechanics were still in development. But we’ve reached a point where the design is stable and we are looking forward to expanding the tester base. By the way, if some readers are interested, feel free to reach out to Luke or me.
We recently started using a Vassal Module and Table Top Simulator and that helped a lot reaching a wider audience as the number of physical copies were limited and had to be edited. I could run some playtests during conventions and I have some gaming buddies that I “use” regularly to try some variations of the game.
The game has a bit of a learning curve, so only repeated playtests would really have value as you need a couple of games to really use the interactions of the different mechanics to it’s fullest, especially using the powerful Final Crisis strategy card that can be used in regular turns to try and push a significant advantage during the game.
Grant: What are some concepts that have changed through the playtest process?
Fred: There wasn’t a lot of radical changes coming out of the playtests as the core mechanics are Fort Sumter and are solid. But as Red Flag Over Paris introduced a few significant changes, the playtests helped tweaking those to make the game more balanced and exciting.
Rules in cube placement changed quite a lot and went from being too open to too static, then we found a good balance to keep the game open but still providing a very distinctive feeling when you play operations in Military and Political dimensions. On that aspect, playtesting had a major role in the re-introduction of a mechanic that was removed in the earliest prototype: Political Dynamics. This introduces a different approach to define adjacency between spaces in Public Opinion and Institutions. It works a bit like a Social Network, as to get influence in a space you must already dominate another one that opens a connection. It adds some tactical depth when you play in the Political area.
A few other mechanics were also tweaked: the cube economy that tightened and gave a more critical role to player momentum; more flexibility in card play, especially to boost momentum; a lot of events were amended as well for balance and making the game more dynamic.
Grant: Have you considered other designs for the future?
Fred: Yes, a lot of them. Working on Red Flag Over Paris made me want to dedicate myself even more to game design. But I would like to work in a duo; I think I would enjoy the process more. Three potential wargame designs are on the back of my brain right now:
- A diplomatic CDG for four players about the Ribbentrop-Molotov accord of 1939. The concept is a lighter variation of the Great Statesman Series that covers the two years leading to the second world war and the agreements that were negotiated then: Munich Agreement of 38; the Pact of Steel, failed negotiations between the UK and USSR and Ribbentrop-Molotov in 39. Each player would control one of the following factions: the Allies (France and UK), Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the USSR. Each of them fighting for influence or control of minor countries like Finland, Baltic States, Poland, etc.
- A CDG block game on the fall of France in 1940, probably using a lot of the Fog of War System mechanics, even if I’m not sure that Academy Games is interested in investing a lot in the system.
- A tactical area impulse game about the urban fights at the end of the Paris Commune: the Bloody Week. Talking with Brian Train made me want to explore this a bit further, maybe I could convince him to work with me on this one. As I’ve already done most of the research, that might be the easiest one to tackle now.
And there is one that I started working in parallel to the development of Red Flag Over Paris:
- A board game inspired by Machiavel’s book, The Prince. There have been a couple of euro board games on the topic already, but none have this war & politics flavor. This one is an original design, heavily influenced by Pax Pamir, Dune & modern worker placement games. So, not a wargame.
Thanks for your time in answering my questions Fred. I appreciate the depth of your answers as well as the detailed examples. I am really looking forward to this design and have very high hopes for the end product.
If you are interested in Red Flag Over Paris: 1871, The Rise and Fall of the Paris Commune, you can pre-order a copy for the special P500 price of $28.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-849-red-flag-over-paris.aspx
I’ve been waiting a long time for a game on the Paris Commune, even before I wrote a long historical article on it for S&T magazine back in 1998, over 20 years ago. (Usually I follow up an article with a game on the topic to make the research do double duty, but that did not happen this time.) I generally don’t work before 1900, and I don’t often do tactical, but as one of the few examples of sustained urban irregular combat this one is worth working on.
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He has some really good content on his Youtube-channel. I mostly appreciate how he evaluates how well a game portraits history, or if made compromises benefits a better gaming experience. I recommend anyone interested in so called war games to check out his channel.
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