If you follow us, you know that we really love the COIN Series from GMT Games. Asymmetric multi-faction treatments of some of the more interesting real world historical situations that you can imagine. Well, that system has influenced lots of different types of non wargames, such as Root, and now goes to the realm of science fiction to deal with the insurgency on Earth after the Zentraedi invasion in Robotech: Reconstruction from Strange Machine Games. We reached out to the designers Dr. Wictz, which is Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz, and they were more than willing to give us their thoughts on the design.
The game is currently being offered on Pre-Sale from Strange Machine Games and if you are interested you can pre-order a copy from the following link: https://strangemachinegames.com/robotech-reconstruction/
Grant: First off Aaron and Austin please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Dr Wictz: We first met in High School through Model UN. Quickly we both got hooked playing Diplomacy with our friends. There were enough Diplomacy players at our High School that we were able to form an online Diplomacy team to compete in the Redscape Diplomacy tournament. The tournament organized teams by geography. Out of around 40 teams, only 4 had enough players to organize a team based in a single city. London, New York, Los Angeles, and us in Saline, Michigan. Our competitors teased us with a mock flag saying fear the eye rinse. Little did they know, as the team finished 8th overall.
Today Aaron is a Professor of Economics at Bethany College specializing in Economic History and Political Economy. Austin is a Post Production Supervisor for a Marketing & Advertising company.
Grant: How did you decide upon combining your names to become Dr. Wictz?
Dr. Wictz: While spelled differently, the ending of our names are pronounced the same Honsowetz and Smokowicz. So we created Wictz as a combined spelling. The idea for creating Wictz first came together when we were co-writing audio dramas. We had created a series called Wes Wayward about a private plane pilot who kept solving mysteries across North America, not because he wanted to, but because he had to to keep himself out of trouble. For the series, we created a mock old time radio network called WBS, the Wictz Broadcasting System.
We kept the Wictz pseudonym when we publicly playtested our first design together at Congress of Gamers around DC. At Congress of Gamers, we met Paul Owen, and he assumed we had our Ph.D’s (to be fair, Aaron was working on his Ph.D. at the time), so he referred to us as Dr. Wictz in his post event write up. We decided that Paul was as good as anyone to award us a doctorate, so we kept the Dr.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Dr. Wictz: We were at Aaron’s bachelor’s party and wanted to play a board game. Not having any with us, we started using rocks and paper to create a racing and betting game based on naked short selling and the efficient market hypothesis. The game developed eventually into our prototype Bookies & Bettors where players bet with each other on the outcome of the horse race as the race is taking place. We have been co-designing ever since.
Austin has been designing board games since High School. One game, Model UN The Card Game, Aaron got hold of from Austin and sold it to some of his classmates during Undergrad at Michigan State University. While Aaron did not design boardgames before working with Austin, he did write a detailed rulebook to enable two touch football to have blocking and a run game. Later, we used that rulebook as inspiration for our football game prototype Overtime.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Dr. Wictz: To keep pushing forward. Designing a game is typically a Marathon. To really hone in a game you have to keep working through the steps of the process to get things right. Be it the twenty plus rewrites of the Robotech: Reconstruction rulebook to the 100+ playtests of our prototype Hoboken to make sure the game is not mechanically broken.
One of our strengths is how we document and track things in the design process. We use spreadsheets to carefully track everything we are doing, including spreadsheets of all of our spreadsheets to keep track of everything we are tracking. But we document more than just numbers, we typically start writing rulebooks very early in the design process, in part to make sure as co-designers we are on the same page with the design.
We also have a real good feel for developing games based on our philosophy of players playing players. That is true from our complex designs, like Robotech: Reconstruction to our filler designs like You Fool from Button Shy Games. Both are games where you must deal directly with other players to win the game.
We have developed a knack for creating games based on real world mechanics. Most of our designs take a mechanic from the real world and ports that mechanic to a board game. Sometimes, like in our prototype Hoboken, the origin of the real world mechanic is obvious. In the case of Hoboken, the use of stock to pool resources together to accomplish a larger goal. Other times, like in our prototype New Jersey Syndicate about becoming the new mafia don, there is no reference to the design initial inspiration, mortgaged backed securities.
Grant: What is your upcoming game Robotech: Reconstruction about?
Dr. Wictz: Robotech: Reconstruction is about shaping Earth’s future after the first Robotech War. The first Robotech War pitted humans against Zentraedi aliens. Eventually, some of the Zentraedi sided with the humans and settled on Earth after humanity’s costly victory.
The game is about four competing factions in this time period with different goals on how to shape Earth’s future. The Robotech Defense Force (RDF) strives to maintain harmony between Zentraedi Civilians by working to keep enough Zentraedi Civilians content to prevent a massive revolt. Khyron, a former Zentraedie officer who hates humans, seeks to rile up Zentraedi Civilians to the point where they will join his rebellion. The Zentraedi rebellion’s goal is to impose Zentraedi control over humanity. The Robotech Expeditionary Force (REF) is what is left of the Zentraedi military who sided with humans during the first Robotech War. Breetai, their leader, anticipates future military threats to Earth, and is seeking to get Earth’s population to rally behind the RDF so they are better prepared to defend themselves. Then the Anti-Unification League (AUL) is a collection of civilians tired of being under martial law. The AUL objective is to carve out cities independent of the RDF.
Grant: When does the game occur in the Macross Saga timeline?
Dr. Wictz: The game begins in 2013, two years after the end of the First Robtotech War. Starting in Episode 28 titled Reconstruction Blues through Episode 36 titled To the Stars.
Grant: What inspired you to design a game using the Robotech story?
Dr. Wictz: Austin knows the owner of Strange Machine Games from a board game designer playtesting group in the DC – Baltimore area. While playtesting games together, he learned they had the license for Robotech. So Austin binge watched the entire series and fell in love with it.
After thinking about it, he put two initial ideas together and ran them by the owners of Strange Machine Games. When they heard about the initial idea for Robotech: Reconstruction, they told him they did not have anything yet for that time period in the show and encouraged us to fully develop the idea.
Grant: The game is COIN Series inspired. Why did you feel this was the appropriate way to tell this story?
Dr. Wictz: When looking at the events of the Reconstruction era it became clear that behind the love triangle story between Rick Hunter, Lisa Hayes, and Lin Minmei is a struggle for control of Earth’s future by four distinct factions. The RDF trying to keep the peace, civilians organizing for independence, Khyron committing acts of terror, and Breetai only concerned about Earth’s security. It’s fractional, it’s messy, and all military battles are small-scale. The RDF finds itself fighting a battle of counter insurgency. It felt natural to look towards COIN Series games for inspiration, such as Fire in the Lake.
Grant: What advantages did you see in the COIN System and how did it fit with your vision for Robotech: Reconstruction?
Dr. Wictz: The COIN System emphasizes that conflict is not always direct, but tangential. The four factions in the Reconstruction era of Robotech are not always directly opposed to each other, they just have their own interests and their own objectives. It just happens in their efforts to achieve these goals they impact other factions.
Beyond having four asymmetrical factions with different actions and goals, the use of Event Cards popular in COIN designs help tie the original narrative of Robotech to the gameplay in Robotech: Reconstruction.
Grant: What are the four different factions in the game? Using the COIN terminology what does each faction represent? Who is the Government? The insurrection?
Dr. Wictz: The RDF and REF make up the equivalent of governmental forces. While both factions are militaries, over the past two years they have also taken up the role of a governing body shaping earth after the war. The RDF’s main concern is with preventing social discord between the Zentraedi and human civilian populations. While the REF is struggling with trying to keep the vast region under RDF control in an attempt to strengthen Earth militarily.
The Zentraedi rebellion and the AUL are the insurgents. The rebellion is swaying Zentraedi civilians to join their uprising to take over the world and establish Zentraedi control over humans. The AUL is trying to break away from the RDF and reassert civilian control over local affairs after years of RDF led martial law.
Grant: Explain the concept of a half-ally, a half-enemy, and a full enemy? What does this mean for the game experience?
Dr. Wictz: Full enemy means both your victory condition and your side actions are diametrically opposed to each other. The RDF and the Zentraedi Rebellion must sway Zentraedi Civilians in opposite directions to win. On top of that, their presence in a territory counts towards control of territories for different factions. The RDF counts towards RDF territorial control and the Zentraedi Rebellion counts towards AUL territorial control. Whether the RDF or the AUL controls a territory is important because particular actions for factions, including income, are tied to whether the RDF or the AUL controls particular territories.
What makes a faction a half alley or a half enemy is first, their victory condition is not diametrically opposed to your victory condition. Half allies count towards control of a territory by the same faction. The RDF and the REF both contribute to the RDF’s control of a territory. Both factions gain access to certain actions in particular territories when that territory is under RDF control. Half enemies count towards control of a territory to an opposing faction. The AUL contributes to AUL control of a space, which limits RDF actions, but the AUL is not a full enemy for the RDF because the AUL win condition is not based on trying to inspire Zentraedi Civilians to join the Zentraedi Rebellion.
Grant: How are these factions asymmetric?
Dr. Wictz: The factions share similar actions, but how they complete those actions varies from faction to faction. That allows the game to create a common label for a similar action, say influence, the shifting of the contentedness of a Zentraedi Civilian, even though each faction has different conditions to undertake the influence action.
Each faction has their own unique win condition. Even when win conditions are directly opposed to another faction, their win conditions are not quite the same. The REF is looking to establish control for the RDF in any territory. The AUL, while seeking to control territory, is only seeking to control territory containing at least one city.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Dr. Wictz: Players first have the option to trade one of their event cards with another faction’s event cards. Then they play an event card and the actions on the event card are taken by the faction indicated on the event card. After the event card is resolved, the player gets to Take Command where they will get one normal action or the ability to take any 2 normal and/or special actions. The players complete their turn by drawing a new event card.
Grant: How are cards used in the design?
Dr. Wictz: The event cards purposefully break the game with the understanding that the way one card “breaks” the game is balanced out by how other cards “break” the game. The Zentraedi Rebellion “Final Assault” special event card destroys all Units in New Macross City, but “To The Stars” then allows the RDF to Destroy all the Zentraedi Units in one space.
Second, the event cards are designed to give players an opportunity to work together. The coordination of what cards are played, what trades are made, really sets up the tension and teamwork between factions. Not only do the cards let players coordinate how they work together, they also provide players with leverage to get something in return for not doing something to another player.
Third, the event cards are designed so that in certain situations the faction’s event is good for a player and in other situations they are bad for the player. The white box on the event card is not an optional action. The faction must attempt to complete as much of the white box as possible, whether that is good or bad for their faction. Take the REF card “Search the SDF-1,” the card forces the REF to transfer 6 protoculture from the RDF to the REF. Since the only way to transfer protoculure between factions is through event cards, that card can remove enough resources from the RDF faction that it no longer has enough resources from stopping the Anti-Unification League or the Zentraedi Rebellion from winning the game.
Fourth, the event cards determine turn order in the round. The order players take a turn within the game can easily decide the winner or losers of the game. Players should be weighing the tradeoffs from the impact on turn order with the impact of the actions on the cards itself.
Fifth, the event cards serve as a support for the weakest faction. Factions are incentivized to play an event card for other factions since that increases the number of actions and the type of actions a faction can take when they Take Command. So in an effort for a faction to get full access to all of their actions in Take Command, they play the faction card of the perceived weakest player. But if every faction decides to do the same thing, the weakest faction get a big boost and is back in the game. The other way the faction cards can support a weak faction is that a faction can benefit in playing their own faction card when they lack the resources to fully utilize their normal and special actions when they Take Command.
Finally, they serve as a key opportunity to tie the actual events in the show to what is taking place in the game. “New Detroit Riots,” an AUL Event Card, does take place in the show, and, similar to the card white box action of the card, resulted with Rick Hunter leading his RDF Units out of the city in an attempt to prevent further rioting. And if you look closely at the bottom of the card, you can see direct quotes from the show putting some of these events in context.
Grant: Explain the Event timeline and how this works for players to gain actions?
Dr. Wictz: Players already get actions for their faction when they Take Command on their turn. Yet, in a round, players can gain an additional action when an event card for their faction is played, especially when the card is played by another faction. Each event card contains a white box, which must be taken as much as possible for a faction, and an optional gray box. The faction associated with the card gets to make the decisions on how the actions will be executed, not the faction who plays the card. So if the AUL plays the RDF “Skull Squadron”, the RDF gets to pick the space that benefits it the most to move all of its units, not the AUL choosing where to send all of the RDF’s units.
Grant: What happens when a player plays their own faction card?
Dr. Wictz: When a player plays their own faction card they conduct the action on the white box and only get to take one normal action when they take command.
Grant: What is the difference between the random and predetermined Event Cards that players gain as the game progresses?
Dr. Wictz: The predetermined Event Cards are there in part to let all the players know that each faction always has a particular powerful card that comes out at particular parts of the game. Their presence puts pressure on players to play around the predetermined Event cards.
The predetermined event cards also enable tying important events to where they fit in the story of Robotech. Take the “Final Assault” card. The Zentraedi Rebellion player does not get the card into their hand until the end of the 3rd round. Meaning, the card cannot be played until the 4th round, making the timing of the “Final Assault” consistent between both the show and the game.
Grant: What are the differences between normal and special actions?
Dr. Wictz: While each faction generally has the same set of actions, they are arranged differently into normal and special actions. A faction’s normal actions come easily to them, and are available whether they play their own Event Card on their turn or not. A faction’s special actions are more directly tied to their unique victory condition or otherwise be extremely beneficial to achieving their goals. This provides another tradeoff between a player playing their own, or another faction’s Event Card.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the process of the Resolution Phase?
Dr. Wictz: In Robotech: Reconstruction the Resolution Phase happens after every faction has taken a turn in the round. It is analogous to the actions that happen after a Coup card in a COIN game. But instead of being semi-random, it occurs at fixed intervals. Players have to take into account the Resolution phase as they take their turns.
Grant: How should players of each faction plan for the Resolution Phase?
Dr. Wictz: The Resolution Phase provides players with additional actions. Players who plan ahead can use the Resolution phase to magnify the impact of their play in a Round. Players who forget about the Resolution Phase may forget to position themselves to reduce the impact of their opponent’s actions in the Resolution phase.
For the Zentraedi Rebellion, everyone, including the Zentraedi Rebellion should be aware that the Zentraedi Rebellion can inch closer to their victory condition to the point of even winning by using the influence action in the Resolution Phase.
The RDF wants to always be conscious that the Resolution Phase will potentially force it to move their units to a city it controls or to New Macross City. That movement can be both a good thing, a movement action at no cost, and also a trap used by other players to corner the RDF in an unfavorable space. Like the Zentraedi Rebellion, the RDF can also take an influence action to draw itself closer to its victory condition. However, the influence action in the Resolution Phase is after the Victory Check in the Resolution Phase, and should be used to set up a push in the following round to go for the win.
Both the AUL and the REF can face obstacles to getting enough units on the board. The opportunity to perform a Recruit action can be a key moment to put enough units out there to position them to establish areas of control in strategic locations.
Grant: What are the different victory conditions for each faction?
Dr. Wictz: The RDF is seeking to preserve harmony between humans and former Zentraedi Warriors who have become civilians in an effort to preserve the peace on earth. The RDF wins if at least 5 Zentraedi Civilians are content at the Victory Check in the Resolution Phase.
The Zentraedi Rebellion wants to lead a Zentraedi uprising that places the Zentraedi in control of Earth and the humans. The Zentraedi Rebellion wins if it can get 11 Zentraedi Civilians so discontent that they join the Zentraedi Rebellion. That is an instant win for the Zentraedi Rebellion when it happens.
The AUL is seeking to carve out a space independent of martial law run by the RDF. The AUL wins if it controls at least 5 cities at the Victory Check in the Resolution Phase.
The REF anticipates future military threats to earth and seeks to prepare Earth to fend off these threats by unifying Earth around the RDF. The REF wins if the RDF Controls at least 7 territories at the Victory Check in the Resolution phase.
Grant: How does each faction best go about obtaining their website objectives?
Dr. Wictz: The Zentraedi Rebellion needs to make sure it is steadily working towards its goal while delaying the other factions from winning. For most games, the Zentraedi Rebellion will not expect to win the game till round 3 at the earliest, so it needs to slow down the other factions.
The RDF, the REF, and the AUL are looking for opportunities where their opponents get stuck in a position that prevents them from responding to a push from them to win. The number of actions other factions can take and the timing of when actions are taken may lead to constraints where your opponents cannot block your push for the win.
That said, each of these factions has key limitations that must be overcome to take advantage of that opportunity. The RDF cannot influence Zentraedi units without access to Veritech Fighters or Rick Hunter. So development and protection of these units are key. The REF and the AUL are both dependent on acquiring enough units to hold onto control of territories, so both must keep working to make more units available for use.
All factions also have to worry about having a steady stream of Protoculture to conduct their actions. Players cannot give other players Protoculture. The only way to transfer Protoculture between players is through a select few event cards, and even then those cards are limited. That said, the challenge is balancing the actions it takes to acquire Protoculture with the actions required to make progress towards winning the game.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design? What do you feel it does really well?
Dr. Wictz: Players pressured to work together or counter each other. You especially see that when players talk about which event cards to play or trade. That really becomes the planning stage for coordination not just in card play, but on what actions a faction will undertake when the Take Command.
We also enjoy seeing how well the game draws people into the theme and the game itself no matter a player’s exposure to Robotech. For players unfamiliar with Robotech, there is enough flavor text in the game that they can be drawn into the story just from playing the board game. For experienced fans, they will appreciate all the specific references to the series and that those references are incorporated into how things playout within the game.
Grant: What specific mechanics changed throughout the design and playtest process?
Dr. Wictz: While the broad strokes of the games, as inspired from the show, have remained consistent throughout the development process, it’s in many of the details that that have shifted. The Zentraedi Rebellion’s victory condition and the Zentraedi placement of civilians on the board shifted through development. The exact number and placement of Factions forces also changed many times to ensure balance between factions.
The most notable mechanical change was with the Event Deck. Originally the Event Cards were all put together and shuffled. We found that resulted in cards becoming available that were too powerful relative to where players were at early in the game. To fix that, we split the Event Cards into two groups and stacked one group onto the other so they came out at different stages of the game.
The first group is mostly dealt out to players at the beginning of the game. These initial event cards range from being helpful in particular situations to being generally helpful for factions. The second group is acquired slowly as players draw new cards at the end of their turn. The second group of cards are more powerful. The added benefit is the slow release of more powerful cards creates escalating tension as players contend with these cards as the game progresses.
Grant: When does the game go on pre-sale? Also what does pre-sale mean?
Dr. Wictz: Pre-sale means committing to buying a copy of the game before printing. The last time I checked with our publisher, the game needs at least 200 pre-sales before sending the game to the manufacturer. The pre-sale also helps gauge what should be the overall size of the first print run. Robotech: Reconstruction is the first COIN Series inspired Robotech board game released by Strange Machine Games, so there is some uncertainty over how much demand exists for the game. Physical copies should be shipped either 4th quarter 2021 or 1st quarter 2022.
Grant: What other games are the two of you working on?
Dr. Wictz: We have a series of board game prototypes inspired by real world market mechanics (Hoboken, New Jersey Syndicate, and Bookies & Bettors) looking for publishers. Hoboken is a game where everyone starts with building permits and some money, but not enough money where they can build hotels by themselves. So players have to form partnerships to open up their hotels. New Jersey Syndicate is a deduction game where players are trying to take over the New Jersey Syndicate. Bookies & Bettors is a betting market game where players make bets with each other on a horse as the horse race is happening.
There are additionally four other prototype games in various playtesting stages. Train Dispatcher, a two player co-op inspired by the American system for dispatching trains. Railway Express is a route building and negotiating game inspired by the route building and deal making between railroads during the 19th century US railroad expansion and consolidation. J. P. Bank is a quick trading game where you are trying to unload worthless assets, inspired by the Panic of 1907. And Cattle Car, a game focused on ranchers competing to get their cattle loaded on the limited train space to get their Cattle to market.
We also have been working on children’s games. Cookie Bandit, signed by Yanaguana Games, is a family social deduction game about who stole a cookie from the cookie jar. Dr. Wictz’s “Train Game” is a short Prototype for 3 to 5 year old’s that Aaron originally designed for his oldest son when he asked for a Train Game.
Finally, we should mention that we are in the early testing stages of developing bots for the other factions in the game. If there is enough perceived player demand and we are happy with how the bots work, then maybe, just maybe in the distant future there could be a solo expansion to Robotech: Reconstruction.
Thank you for your time in answering our questions and we really are looking forward to the final product.
The game is currently being offered on Pre-Sale from Strange Machine Games and if you are interested you can pre-order a copy from the following link: https://strangemachinegames.com/robotech-reconstruction/
We posted an unboxing video of the prototype copy that we received of the game and you can watch it to get a feel for the various components and how they look:
We also played the game and shot a video preview with our initial thoughts: