A few months ago, we were contacted by Stuart Tonge to see if we would be willing to take a look at his upcoming Cold War game called 2 Minutes to Midnight. Stuart designed Blue Water Navy for Compass Games in 2019 and has now started up a new board game publishing company called Plague Island Games. Their first new game is 2 Minutes to Midnight and it is coming to Kickstarter in June. We asked Stuart if he would do an interview with us and he was more than willing to talk about the design and its mechanics.
If you are interested in 2 Minutes to Midnight, you can check out the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/plagueislandgames/2-minutes-to-midnight
Grant: First off Stuart please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Stuart: Hi, I’m Stu from Rotherham in the UK. Been playing games since about 8 years old – started with Games Workshop who are located not very far away in Nottingham and moved on from there. My hobbies are…games. And my kids – that doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else really, but I used to play ice hockey, which is a niche sport in the UK, and I still watch the NHL. Day to day I work in computer security, achieving the CEH (Certified Ethical Hacker) way back in 1997 I think it was.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Stuart: Mostly because I wanted to play games that didn’t exist – my first design that ended up being printed, Blue Water Navy, came about due to my fascination with modern combat and the lack of any game of the scope and scale I wanted to play – and my focus moving forward is to make games that are a bit different. I probably will never do a World War II game – there are enough of those already. The best part of design for me is releasing a game and finding that you aren’t the only one who finds it interesting! Sometimes, working with a very small team, it can be hard to tell if others will be excited about your idea.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Stuart: The wargaming daddies – Mark Herman for his card driven style and ability to scope a game but keep it clean.
Richard Berg for his inventiveness and attention to detail, and his conversational style. Frank Chadwick for in depth research and then typing that into game mechanics in a way that uses it all.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Stuart: The ‘but is it fun?’ test is the hardest part for me. Sometimes I design something I think is good, but will other people like it? That’s the hardest thing to predict. Vice versa, some stuff I don’t personally like does really well so it’s really hard to work that out. The stuff I do well is research probably, and sticking with stuff to the end – I have a high threshold for re-work and tearing stuff up and starting again. Quite often, you just have to tear up a few weeks work and just go back to what you were trying to do with fresh eyes.
Grant: What is your upcoming game 2 Minutes to Midnight about?
Stuart: 2 Minutes to Midnight is a strategic scale game about the Cold War – it covers the whole thing start to end in ‘wargame style’ but it’s’ not really a wargame – because it’s not about war, so it’s actually kind of hard to classify. I’m going with ‘historical strategy game’.
Grant: What sources did you consult on the Cold War? What one source would you recommend as a must read?
Stuart: Far too many to mention, though I will try to do so in my designers notes. The CIA reading room and associated information is the best available source on the Cold War; I have literally hundreds of documents which were previously classified and you just can’t get better than the actual intel from the people who were doing it for real. They also produce some small books with catchy titles like ‘Soviet Navy – intelligence and analysis during the Cold War’.
Grant: What from the history did you want to make sure to include and model in the game?
Stuart: I spent a lot of time including the historical events, but with enough leeway that they might not happen.
The whole thing is an enormous flow chart – you can have a pretty close to historical Cold War, or it can go way off into alt-hist. I was also really tied to the Soviet collapse – a hard thing to model, as the full reasons for it are still not really agreed upon even to this day – the game gives you a load of frameworks to present all of this, and tried to do it in a simple way.
Grant: I understand the design uses a chit-pull system to explore the Cold War. How does the chit-pull mechanic work here?
Stuart: It’s a bit unusual because most chit pull games have a cup (or an opaque container of your choice) and maybe a dozen chits. I had 150, so that wasn’t going to work – so what we’ve ended up with is chits on cards. It’s still a chit pull system, but there aren’t any chits.
What you have is a deck of cards, built every turn, that you’ll flip over one at a time. Each one does one or more things, or allows a player to act. The sequencing is therefore random, but it has the advantage you don’t need to look up the chits either – because its all written on the cards, which was always the major issue with chit pull.
Grant: What advantage does this mechanic give the design and why did you feel it fit well?
Stuart: It’s primarily a chaos mechanic, and it prevents the issue with players knowing the history. Even if you know something is in the deck, you don’t know when it’s going to happen (or if, because they don’t all trigger) – I’m trying to drop you into the shoes of the real people who didn’t know what was going to happen either.
Grant: What is the time scale of turns? What years does the game cover?
Stuart: Turns are 5 years. The game starts in 1946 and runs to 1991, so that’s 9 turns. It’s entirely possible that the USSR will still exist at the end of 1991, but that’s where the game scores up.
Grant: How does the game deal with the military, economics, politics, and trade aspects of the Cold War?
Stuart: Military is very streamlined – you can attack a country if you like, there are a few die rolls and then you work out the result. The key metric here is your conventional capability – one side is always advantaged and that gives you a bonus. There’s also naval advantage which comes into it and can be a key defence generally for the US.
Economics and trade are applied through a country having a ‘worth’ which is the number of factories you see on the map. At the start of the game, there’s a lot of trade markers including destruction caused by World War II. Players can take actions to remove those markers through trade and investment, which then reveals the factories hidden under the marker and makes the country more valuable.
Politics is represented through the influence mechanic – players will be wanting to place their colour cube into a country to signify the ruling class is on ‘their side’ but it’s not quite as easy as that – you really need them to have your government type as well – democracy or communism, and changing a government can cause unrest as well..
Grant: How have you made the design asymmetrical?
Stuart: The USA has a variety of different capabilities than the USSR – the US is mostly anti-aggression and pro-trade.
Each turn the president gets some special abilities, the US has national debt that can be used to pay for things in advance, less reliance on spies but more reliance on technology, an economic advantage, generally a stability advantage (though I have modelled in the civil rights movement which can be a nasty surprise for the US player).
The USSR has unpredictable leaders piloting a house of cards that really wants to reform (and as the player you will want to do that too) but reforming too quickly can generate a domino-effect of communist coups and breakaways. The 5-year plan is both a constant help and hindrance. And if only you could get your hands on some US dollars you might be able to buy some technology, or perhaps it’s better to steal it. This is a really asymmetric game.
Grant: What is the makeup of the card deck for each turn? What different types of cards are included?
Stuart: It changes each turn, but in general money and events. Money lets the specified player spend some money – around 15 billion US dollar equivalent. Which sounds like a lot but really isn’t at this scale. Events do, well all kinds of things. Or maybe nothing at all. Many of them have a die roll to take effect – but everything from Famines to Chernobyl (and it’s not a one-way street either, because three mile island..)
Grant: Can you show us a few examples of the cards and tell us how they work?
Stuart: The left hand one, Soviet Grain is a representation of overall Soviet agricultural capability – ie can you feed your people? You roll a die, add in a modifier based on historically good or bad harvest years, and see what happens.
The middle one is the US/Soviet race for tech in post-WWII Germany. Here you’re going to roll a die and someone’s taking home von Braun. Most of the time (66%) it’s going to be the historical result and he’s going to go and get NASA to the moon.
The right one, that’s the US-UK ‘special relationship’ looking not so special just after WWII. The Brits thought, having sent their best minds to the States, that they’d be recipients of the nuclear bomb technology. But that wasn’t what happened. The whole thing created quite a mess – part of it was that the US suspected Soviet penetration of UK institutions, hence the presence of a spy making it more likely to happen.
As you can see from the cards, each one packs in quite a bit of history but in a generally ‘roll a die’ format.
I’d be impressed if you play through and don’t think ‘what’s that one all about…?’ at least a few times.
Grant: What does the map look like? What are the different areas on the board?
Stuart: The map is a typical representation of the world, that’s been skewed so that Europe is huge. Poor old Africa as usual is a bit smaller than it should be. It’s an area map – the country boxes are the important bits, they contain the factories we already talked about, some have oil which can be super important, and some are just very stable places in general and have a special unrest symbol.
The colours are really important – blue boxes denote democracies, red communist governments and grey is everyone else. Red and blue are quite stable, but the grey countries are much easier for the CIA/KGB to trigger coups in.
You might also notice the Panama Canal, Suez Canal and the Dardanelles. Ownership of these is important for your naval power.
Grant: The primary resource is money. How can this money be used by players?
Stuart: Each money card, when revealed, can be used to pick one action from a menu of options. For example option #3 is ‘Place two investment’ – so you can sprinkle money into countries to remove unrest, or try to remove trade markers, or maybe to try and pry out an awkward enemy government. Option #8 – build a military unit – this lets you build a nuclear strategic weapon, like a bomber or an intercontinental missile. Or, if there is an eligible civil war you can play ride of the Valkyries and send in the troops to go and prop up your favourite despot.
Grant: How do players Influence a country to their side? What is the end goal of this influence?
Stuart: The goal is to place your influence (a cube) and your government (a disc). To do that, you take influence actions from the menu when your money comes out, you roll some dice, and you pretty much need a 6. To that roll, you add your investment – how much money have you poured in? Your spies and the US President might allow a re-roll. And lastly, and most interestingly for domino theory fans – if you have two cubes in a county you get a +1 in all adjacent countries. The US Vietnam fear can come true.
Grant: How do players recruit and utilize spies?
Stuart: Recruiting spies is an action type from money. A money comes out, you can use it to place one or more spies.
They are a limited resource – the US has only 6 for example. Similar to money, there’s a menu of ‘things’ spies can do. You pick your option, generally roll one or two dice, and then flip the spy to used – they get one chance per turn to do something.
US spies are super useful for influence re-rolls, coups, and securing both US technology and US trade items – famously the Soviets managed to buy restricted equipment to mill propellors, for example – something which probably accelerated their submarine program by a decade. Soviet spies will be going shopping for those technologies, and being Soviet will be very interested in keeping the people in line – one tick to Siberia for you comrade!
Grant: What different technology can be researched? How are these used in the game?
Stuart: The tech tree is split into several categories – nukes, space, air/land, navy, etc. Each one has a mostly linear progression but it covers just about every technology that was relevant in the time period and even some that didn’t happen – want a moon base? Yeah, got you covered. Doomsday device sir? Gosh I wish we had one of those (and joking aside, both sides developed them in the form of the US SAC airborne response and the still-secret Soviet Perimeter) Slightly less excitably there is industrial tech like mainframe computers and farming technology.
Grant: What does the technology tree look like?
Stuart: The chart is a set of tracks really, at the top is the ‘cost’ of each tech, that’s how many cubes you need from research actions to research that technology. Most technologies unlock a unit or give a bonus. There are some (such as Human Space Flight) that only gives a bonus to the first player to achieve it – so the race is on! Lastly you’ll note some die symbols – If you would complete a project with a die symbol, you roll the die and hope you don’t roll the indicated numbers, if you do then there’s been an unscheduled explosive deconstruction, and you lose one success on that project.
Grant: How do players strengthen their strategic forces? What are these represented by?
Stuart: Both sides have a variety of strategic weapons, unlocked by research. When one is built as a money action, it is placed into the strategic weapons box and the nuclear balance is altered – this is a track which shows who has the strategic advantage and can cause unrest in the enemy homeland. All the major weapons are represented including nuclear bombers and Mobile Missiles.
Grant: What is the intelligence track and how do players manipulate the track?
Stuart: Fundamentally this track gives the advantaged player rerolls to use whenever they like – a pretty powerful bonus. Don’t like that invasion roll or that event roll? – throw in your intel re-roll and try again. To earn these you’ll need to research the technologies that give intel plusses, like strategic recon on the land/air track – which represents the U2 and SR71. There’s also codebreaking which is an early industrial tech. It’s a fun one because it lapses and is removed at the end of every turn, and also it has a high failure chance.
Grant: I see there is a solo mode. How does this work?
Stuart: There’s a solo deck, made of a variety of different card types. When the Bot’s money card comes out of the regular deck, you turn over a solo card and it tells you what happens – what the bot’s going to do basically. You can have a pretty wide variety of opponents by altering the cards in the solo deck – and I provide a number of pre-built bots like the US ‘Money Train’ and Soviet ‘Angry Bear’ bots – the former is all-out focused on investment and regime change. The latter wants to invade and build weapons.
Grant: What kind of experience does the solo mode provide?
Stuart: It seems to mimic a human relatively well, or at least come close enough for the average solo player who’s likely already adept at fudging a little bit to get a decent experience. The game is way too complex for the bot to do it all – It’s not a computer game type experience, but the cards give quite a bit of unpredictability and try to simulate the fog of war you get with a real opponent.
Grant: What are the victory conditions for each player?
Stuart: Have the most Stars or Hammer and Sickle markers. At the end of the turn you count them up – if you have three more than your opponent, you win. Otherwise you continue. If nobody wins an instant victory, whoever has the most at the end of the game or chosen scenario wins. To get these you need factories and you can also claim them via technology, US national debt and Soviet reforms.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Stuart: I think it does a pretty good job of simulating the Cold War, which was the objective all along. You can get pretty close to the actual results and if you kind of walk the design through and force the rolls you can get the actual result, so it passes the test of being able to recreate history, which I think makes it unique in this category. Also, it’s not so long. I would probably have preferred it to be an hour shorter and I may even give out guidelines if people want that – there is a way ;0 in fact that might be a designer note.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Stuart: Generally they really like it, bear in mind it’s gone through probably two full redesigns and a lot of minor revisions to get to this point – I mean, if you were getting poor feedback you’d be nuts to print it! I think you can tell when playtesters are liking it when two things start to happen – one, they play over time or outside of the test brief because they want to keep going and two – they stop suggesting changes.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
Stuart: Well, quite a few though of course it depends how this goes – I really hope the gaming community picks this up and supports it so I can be confident about getting new games out there! One is about pre-Roman history which is a big scope and scale game, one about modern geo-politics – China, USA, Russia – from kind of where 2 Minutes to Midnight in the 90s’ to the future. Another that I can’t talk about due to licensing but that I’m very excited about. It’s something to do with playing at being a dictator.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Stuart and I also appreciate you sending us a prototype copy to play and review. Frankly, the box is very packed and the game is very meaty and I love it. We will have a video preview up prior to the Kickstarter campaign kickoff on June 15th.
If you are interested in 2 Minutes to Midnight, you can check out the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/plagueislandgames/2-minutes-to-midnight