The States of Siege Series has recently been getting a facelift with the royal treatment from Worthington Publishing. It all started with the Deluxe Edition of Soviet Dawn: The Russian Civil War 1918-1921 designed by the godfather of the States of Siege Series Darin Leviloff with a Kickstarter in November 2020 and now we come to another classic SoS Deluxe Edition in Keep Up the Fire!: The Boxer Rebellion designer by John Welch. We reached out to John to get the lowdown on the update and he was more than willing to talk with some really thorough responses to our questions.
Grant: First off John please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
John: Thanks for the opportunity to answer a few questions about me and my game designs – in particular Keep Up The Fire! A bit about me – I was born, raised and reside just outside Sacramento, CA. I began my teaching career after finishing my undergraduate work at Middlesex University in London, England in 1987. I have been a high school history teacher for the last 33 years; mostly teaching Advanced Placement European History, Advanced Placement United States History and Military History. In the late 1990’s, I completed an MA degree in Military History and from 2001 to 2017 I was part of the adjunct faculty at American Military University in addition to my classroom teaching. I have a daughter that is currently working on her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and the most remarkable wife, partner and freelance writer, Anna. My hobbies include game design, writing, gaming and travel…well, that last one has been on hold for a while but I am hoping to get back to it this summer.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
John: I started gaming when I was a teenager and found myself tinkering with the game systems I enjoyed playing. The other influence was being raised by an engineer. My Father is simply amazing with his ability to fix and engineer just about anything. All that aside, the real story is one of happenstance. In 1995 I was playing a lot of Tanks on my PC and there was a local company called Novastar Games that was publishing expansion discs for the game. Being ‘thrifty’ I decided to call Novastar Games as it was only 15 minutes from my house and ask if I could pick up my order in person rather than pay the shipping and wait. The man I spoke to said, “sure” and before I knew it I was having a lengthy conversation with one of my game design heroes Dave Landry. I had played a number of his designs on my computer and it was a treat to talk to the man himself. After getting to know each other, he asked if I had ever done any computer game design work…I answered “no, but I like the idea”. With that, Dave told me about a game he was working on from SSI called Steel Panthers and they were looking for scenario designers. I spent most of my free time that Summer and Fall working on scenarios for Steel Panthers and reworking each scenario with the multiple iterations of changes to the coding of the game. It was a real treat that eventually included a tour of SSI and a part time job working for Novastar Games. The computer wargame design opportunity lasted for five years until circumstances resulted in the closing of Novastar Games in 2000. Nine years later and missing the chance to game design, I attended the Pacificon Game Convention in the Bay Area where I met Alan Emrich. Following an engaging conversation on gaming and teaching I expressed my interest in the States of Siege System created by Darin Leviloff. Alan suggested I put together a design and then show it to him at the GMT West Convention in the Fall of 2009. He liked it and that was the beginning of a five-year stint actively designing projects for Victory Point Games.
The enjoyment of game design is multifaceted for me. Firstly, I really enjoy the design challenge of visualizing how I want the gaming experience to be for a player or players and then creating systems that accomplish that. Secondly, hearing from people that have played one of my designs and enjoyed it…even if the game was hard to beat (my first three games were solitaire and the rule-of-thumb was the AI had to be tough because if someone gets the big victory on the first play, they may not be back for another one). If they mention their desire to read up on the history behind the game – BONUS! Thirdly, my few years actively designing provided the opportunity to meet some great people – other designers, playtesters (truly unsung heroes of the hobby) and players. Finally, it is just very satisfying to see a project go from idea to finished product.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
John: How much time do you have? I would say that any game or game system I spent lots of time playing influenced the designs I would ultimately create. Looking back I can see the impact of many hours spent playing Time Tripper by Jim Dunnigan back in the early 1980’s. Trying to work some history into my designs has been with me ever since. I would like to give special recognition to some of the designers I admire: Chad and Kai Jensen I first met at Kublacon Game Convention nearly 20 years ago and they were just wonderfully friendly and supportive people. Beyond that, their design work was ‘next-level’ and I treasure the times I got to hang out with them at game conventions – particularly GMT West Weekends – Chad’s work will live on but I miss him. Joe Miranda I had the opportunity to spend time with thanks to Alan Emrich. His prolific mind is admirable and his ability to create systems for so many different conflicts continues to influence me…and the pile of preliminary game designs filling my downstairs closet. Thanks to my work at Victory Point Games I got to know and work with exceptional designers like Hermann Luttmann while doing the early development of the original Dawn of the Zeds. Hermann is a great guy and another game design star. Steve Carey spent so much time helping me develop and playtest my designs that his influence is evident in every one of them. Getting to know and work with Steve was fantastic. Gene Billingsley had a tremendous influence on my efforts to create more sophisticated and complex designs. Gene has so much experience in the hobby and his knowledge of game design and systems that he generously shared with me as I attempted to design deeply rich and layered games. I am going to leave out many names I am sure, as I fear this interview will be the longest on record. I do want to be sure and acknowledge the designer that has had the most influence on my tabletop game designs – that would be Alan Emrich without whose time, patience and creative energy none of my games would ever have seen the light of day. A more passionate and brilliant developer I have never worked with.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
John: I think the most challenging aspect of the design process is definitely playtesting and editing. Designing is fun and creative but the real work is to make sure the final product is good for the player and that is editing – there’s no substitute for robust playtesting.
With the emphasis on my own feelings on the matter, I feel my historical research for the game and the ability to translate that history into gaming experiences is my strong suit.
Grant: What is your game Keep Up the Fire! about?
John: Keep Up The Fire! is a game on the Boxer Rebellion in China in the summer of 1900. Specifically, the game focuses on the siege of the foreign legations compound in Peking (Beijing) and the efforts of the Eight-Nation Army to relieve that siege. It is a solitaire game where the player takes on the role of the defending legations in Peking and the forces of the Eight-Nation Army attempting to break the siege.
Grant: What does the title mean in relation to the history and your game?
John: The title comes from the dying words of Colonel Emerson H. Liscum who led the 9th United States Infantry Regiment as part of the Eight-Nation Relief Army driving from the coast to Peking in the summer of 1900. At the Battle of Tientsin, Colonel Liscum was felled by a sniper shot and his dying words to motivate his men was “Keep Up The Fire”. This would eventually become the regimental motto. I felt the phrase captured the nature of the historical events and the intensity of the fighting that took place by all the forces involved.
Grant: Not often does a game get a 2nd Edition. What led to this opportunity with Worthington Publishing?
John: 2nd editions are rare. The number of games on the market and the volume of new games coming out every month precludes most titles from getting a second go once they are out-of-print. This amazing opportunity I owe to Grant and Mike at Worthington Publishing. Grant had contacted a few of my old VPG colleagues and then reached out to me last November. It was a wonderful surprise and I jumped at the chance to work on a second edition of Keep Up The Fire!.
Grant: What is your overall vision and goal for this new edition?
John: The vision for the new edition is a total upgrade of artwork, layout, physical components (maps, cards and counters) and boxed instead of bagged. The new edition will also feature a couple of mechanics that were omitted for space considerations in the first edition. The playing area will be divided into two playable maps instead of just one.
Grant: What rules are you hoping to change or update with this edition?
John: The new edition will feature the option to use the ‘Keep Up The Fire’ and ‘Heroic Effort’ counters. Each represents an investment on the player’s part but can be a game saver if used at the critical moment.
Grant: As do most States of Siege Series game, this one uses cards but there are different types. What is the difference between Headline Cards and Event Cards?
John: Headline cards drive the action of the game. These cards have a bit of flavor text to set the historical scene and provides the AI that controls the attacking Chinese forces (both Boxer and Qing) at the Legation Compound and those opposing the advance of the Eight-Nation Relief Army. The Headline cards also tell the player how many Actions they have to spend on orders for the Legation fighting and how many Command points a player has to spend on the relief column. The cards will have on them some indication of why the number of actions and commands is higher or lower than the previous card. Headline cards can also include special events that the player must decide how best to use. The Event Cards highlight specific historical episodes and come in two varieties – events that work against the player and must be resolved immediately (e.g. the destruction of rail and telegraph lines by Chinese blocking forces opposing the Eight-Nation Relief Army means that the relief forces have their speed of advance lowered by one) or events that can benefit the player and can be retained for use at a tactically or strategically beneficial time (e.g. the player can use a particular event card to redeploy legation forces under fire).
Grant: What is card #13 and why does it always start the 2nd Epoch deck?
John: With historical game design, I prefer players to have the option of a chronological order replay – a kind of ‘can you do better than what was done historically’. That said, I also want the option to randomly shuffle the events for a different challenge but sometimes there are events that mark a major potential change to game play and with those I will often make that particular event the start of another deck. It is a mechanic I created for my first game on the wars of the French Revolution. It is tricky because you do not want a random shuffle of event cards to result in illogical sequences e.g., in one event a general is killed and in a subsequent event that general is alive-and-well giving some kind of tactical bonus. The International Gun appears always on card #13 (first edition) and marks the second epoch of the game. The International Gun made from parts by British, Italian, and Russian guns and serviced by a United States crew and it made a dramatic effect on the defense of the Legation Compound and its arrival in the game has that potential effect as well. The reveal of this card also means that time is running out for the defenders in Peking and forces the player to take bigger risks getting the relief column to the Legations. Having two epoch decks also allows for differing victory/defeat conditions.
Grant: What does the new map look like and what changes have you made to the layout?
John: The new map features an isometric view and is much larger than the original. Spaces have been added to allow for the introduction of two additional player options that did not make it onto the first edition map. The new edition will include a separate map for the relief column as it is a game unto itself.
Grant: What is the layout of the map and what different elements are players keeping track of?
John: The legation defense map, tracks to keep the strength of attacking Chinese units against the four walls of the Legation Compound, draw pile and discard pile, the sequence of play, the combat sequence, Peitang Cathedral Defence chart, Legation Strength and Heroic Effort Track and holding boxes for the ‘Keep Up The Fire’ and ‘Heroic Effort’ counters. The Relief Column Map tracks the advance (or retreat) of the Eight-Nation Army relief force along with its Speed and Combat Power. All the charts needed to play that portion on the game are on the map. The new edition’s much larger maps means that the player can focus on tactics and strategy as the various charts and tracks keeps the bookkeeping elements of the game on the boards and not in a player’s mind.
Grant: How do players manage to command the Relief Column which is battling their way from the port of Taku, inland through hostile territory, to break the siege at Peking?
John: On each turn a player receives a number of command points they can use to perform a number of potential actions. The historical tension my design is going for is the trade off between building up strength and logistics and the ever-worsening conditions inside the Legation Compound in Peking. Historically, the Eight-Nation force set off with a small number of troops thinking it could easily drive itself through any Chinese resistance – they were tragically wrong and the initial force was soundly defeated and driven back by Boxer and Qing Chinese forces. Finding a balance that allows for this part of the game is difficult particularly as the situation in the other part of the game deteriorates. Additionally, there were terrain features that proved deadly for the Eight-Nation Army and they are represented on the game map and effect game play.
Grant: For those that don’t know how does the game play?
John: The game is designed to have relatively simple mechanics that can produce historical outcomes but do not require a lot of bookkeeping or math. Keep Up The Fire! is a game of critical choices and preparation where possible versus the desire to engage in direct combat with attacking forces. It becomes clear to the player that time is not on their side and this can lead to tense decisions about what actions to take and where. The dice will always have the potential to upend well laid plans as students of Helmuth von Moltke will know but a plan with branches can pay off. Typical play time is an hour.
Grant: What type of tactical options do players have?
John: On the Legation side of things the options are: engage in a ranged fire combat, build/repair fortifications, conduct a melee attack, activate or use the Heroic Effort action, activate or use the Keep Up The Fire action and fire the International Gun once it is available. On the Relief Column side of things the options are: improve speed, improve combat power, launch an attack on a blocking force and make an attempt to advance the column after a successful attack on Chinese blocking forces.
Grant: Overall there are a lot of things you are not going to control in this game. How does this create a perfect storm in a game that retells history?
John: My design intent is to provide the options that were available to commanders historically with the same constraints they had to deal with e.g., the advance after successful combat against a blocking force when the realities of logistics to a force of some 15,000 in 1900 meant wanting to advance and being able to were two different things. Dice rolls can always frustrate a player but an unpredictable outcome is what keeps tension and provides for a ‘new’ game each time you play. The mechanics of the game can quickly create a ‘perfect storm’ of badness as Legation strength falls and the Relief Army gets bogged down. My goal is a gaming experience that retells history but not like a ‘rail shooter’ game or one that is bound to the historical outcome. I am a believer that historical outcomes were not necessarily foreordained and gaming is one way to see how things could have worked out differently. If a game’s historical veracity is based on the same historical outcome regardless of player actions, then it is not going to be much fun as the outcome will always be the same.
Grant: What is the Peitang Cathedral Defense and why is this important to the game?
John: One of the several drivers that led to, what Western historians call, the Boxer Rebellion was a desire by the Chinese to drive out the imperialist nations and their influence. This was particularly true for hostility toward Christian churches and Christian missionaries. Persecutions and killing of Christians, both Chinese and Europeans and Americans were widely publicized and further inflamed imperialist rhetoric in the West. A large group of Christians had taken refuge in the Peitang Cathedral located very close to the Legation Compound in Peking as violence flared in May and June of 1900. A handful of Italian and French troops chose to leave the Legation Compound and go to the defense of the Cathedral. This siege-within-a-siege created some heroic moments for the defenders and their actions would further inspire the troops back at the compound. This is an example of a ‘rules weight’ trade-off as this event could easily have been omitted or simply incorporated into the Headline cards…but because it was emblematic of the whole summer I decided it was worth the ‘rules weight’. It’s now another example of a risk/reward players can engage in while playing the game.
Grant: What is the Chinese Blockading Force Attack?
John: This represents the efforts by the Chinese to slow or stop the advance of the Eight-Nation Relief Army and its attempt to break the siege in Peking. Over the course of the summer, the composition of the blocking forces shifted from primarily Boxer to primarily Qing with the commensurate increase in combat capability. The chit pull system with some markers being added and some subtracted over the course of the game is designed to reflect the reality of these Chinese defenders while leaving some degree of randomness for what forces the player will actually encounter from the pool available. The AI for this blocking force can either act passively and simply respond to being attacked by the player OR it can be aggressive and attack the player on its own.
Grant: What is the process for Ranged Fire Attacks? How does the Casualty procedure work?
From the player perspective, Ranged Fire Attacks are preferable to the often-bloody nature of Melee Attacks. Wearing down the strength of the advancing Chinese units without great risk to those inside the Legation Compound firing is critical for success. There is a two-step process to conduct range fire – first you roll to hit and then you roll for casualties. There are potentially several modifiers to these rolls but they are shown on the maps and counters. Casualties inflicted also have potential modifiers to the die roll but once the final sum is arrived at, that number of strength points is removed from the advancing Chinese unit.
Grant: How do Melee Attacks work and what is the main advantage over Fire Attacks?
John: We have now arrived at the mechanic that got the most feedback in the first edition…because while it reflects the realities of close-combat inside the walls of the Legation Compound it can quickly reduce the strength of the various national contingents. The only ‘advantage’ of Melee is that it ‘can’ eliminate Chinese strength very quickly…but it can do the same to the player’s strength as well. An early game goal for the player is to try and keep the Chinese outside the walls because once they get inside not only do casualties rise but the risk of the British Legation falling means the game is over. Unlike Ranged Fire Attacks, there is no to-hit roll for Melee – it is just strength versus strength along with any modifiers and then casualties are applied based on the die roll. Allocating casualties for the player can take some time to get used to and the trade offs for how to take those casualties also becomes a critical decision-making affair.
Grant: How does the player achieve victory?
John: Victory (there are multiple levels of victory AND three ways to be defeated in the game) requires that no Chinese unit finishes the turn in the British Legation space or occupies the Street space on three tracks at the same time AND the Relief Column has entered the Peking space on its map. I have a brief alternative history narrative to go with varying levels of defeat. It is an idea I have worked into all my historical designs as a way of making the effort of game play have more of a payoff regardless of outcome.
Grant: What do you feel the design does well to retell the story of the Boxer Rebellion?
John: All wargames have a level of abstraction which is often on a continuum of simplified and quicker to play and complicated and slower to play. Where the fun factor falls on that continuum is entirely up to the player. Keep Up The Fire! is a fairly simple wargame with a focus on simple mechanics but lots of choices for the player. I would like to believe given the nature of the system and the bits of history on the cards that a player would get a solid understanding of the defense and relief of the Foreign Legation Compound in Peking (Beijing) in the summer of 1900. It is by no means an inclusive look at the roughly 50 years of active revolt against Imperialist nations and the position of the Chinese government during that period. To me the power of this event in history is the nature of the apex of pre-World War imperialism and the current relations between China and the countries that sought to impose their will on China 120 years ago. There is also the spectacle of armed forces from the United States, Russia, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Austria-Hungary, Germany and France all fighting on the same side just a decade and a half from the slaughter of World War I where these nations would find themselves on opposite sides.
Grant: I also understand the game can be enjoyed in teams working together. How does this work?
John: This is language left over from the first edition of the game when it was being used in history classrooms. The team approach was meant to put one person in charge of the Legation defense and one person in charge of the Relief Column…it can add to the tension as both have slightly different ‘victory’ conditions but outside of an educational setting, then the team approach is just several people sitting around a table discussing/arguing over how the Actions and Commands should be spent. I have observed that kind of play at game conventions with several of my designs and it is fun to watch but most will play solitaire.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
John: Like most game designers I know, there are always games to be worked on. I have done preliminary design work on more than 10 titles which include rules and playtest components. People that have been to my BGG page have seen some of the prototype work I have done on a variety of topics from the Cold War to Bismarck to the Irish War for Independence to FDR to the Battle of the Bulge and many more. I stopped actively designing about five years ago, so I am very grateful to the folks at Worthington Publishing for bringing me out-of-mothballs and back to active design work again. I hope to be working on even more designs in the months and years ahead.
Thank you so much for the interview. I hope I did not take up too much of your offer for verbosity 😊 If there’s anything that could use more information or clarity just let me know.
Thanks John for the great look inside the game, its mechanics and your design choices and process. This one looks to be a solid system in the States of Siege Series with some very interesting history that I am interested in learning more about through play of the game.
If you are interested in Keep Up the Fire!: The Boxer Rebellion Deluxe Edition you can check out the Kickstarter campaign at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1040417273/675125591?ref=d2fmug&token=5ecc08ab