You know this as I have mentioned it before but I love the COIN Series. I love the system, the mechanics, its focus on history, and sometimes very tough and difficult to simulate history at that. And I love that the series is now being taken in a new direction with its first volume that is not based in history but has a Sci-Fi setting on the red planet. Red Dust Rebellion, designed by newcomer J. Carmichael, tells the story of a future in which Mars has been colonized and forms its own government called the Martian Provisional Government. The game delves into the conflict of a fictitious Martian revolt of the 2250’s and the rise of Martian nationalism. Up to 4 players will take part in this game and control of the four factions. We reached out to J. and he was very amenable to doing this interview, even though he has a newborn in his house and is not getting the sleep that he needs.
*Note: The components shown in this interview, as well as the art and any text associated with Event Cards or from the rules are still just the prototype versions which is only intended for playtesting purposes and the design and event effects and text as well as rules might still change prior to final development and publication.
Grant: First off J. please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
J.: Board games are my main hobby. With running the channel and designing games, I don’t do much else. I still watch cricket and formula one as well. But with all the time spent on design and the channel, and with a new baby in the house, I don’t do much else. If at any point in this interview I seem short tempered or blunt, put that down to a serious lack of sleep on my part 😊
In my day job, I am a communications specialist at a Government department in New Zealand. I’ve worked at 10 or so Government departments over the years and done communications support on everything from changes in the food safety act to the NZ Defence Force deployment to Afghanistan.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
J.: I’ve been making homebrew game systems for 30 years for myself and my friends. I didn’t actually seek out publishing this game at all, it just kinda happened. As for the experience, for me I find bringing worlds to life more rewarding than the mechanical aspects of game design.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
J.: I play games from so many sources that its hard to pin down influences. Someone like Kevin Wilson is probably the biggest influence, as he always talks about bringing games to life through the story. Something he ambitiously did with Android, a game and a setting that has no small influence on Red Dust Rebellion.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
J.: Testing and repeating plays is my bugbear. I’m more of a create and move on person, than I am a rigorous tester and replayer of things. Thankfully, I spelled that out clearly to GMT early on and they hooked me up with Adam Blinkisop, who is an excellent and patient developer who can handle my “mad professor” energy.
What I consider my strength is ludo narrative consistency. Stuff doesn’t happen in my game “because game”, the mechanics and the setting work together. I want all the mechanics to be logical and thematic, and therefore stick in the brain.
Grant: In addition to design you run a YouTube channel called 3 Minute Board Games. How has that experience helped you in your first design?
J.: The trick with 3MBG is that I have to deconstruct and distil a game down to its essence. This process has me stripping away the game to its skeleton and because of that I have a pretty good understanding of how games are put together mechanically now. I guess that practice and process have given me a big toolbox of mechanics and ideas to help Red Dust Rebellion and it’s design.
Grant: What is your upcoming game Red Dust Rebellion about?
J.: Superficially, its about a Martian revolt, but really it’s about the search for a new national identity among colonial people and how a colonizing group of people eventually changes into something new and unique. It’s comparable to how the people of the USA are no longer “British” and revolted to create their own distinct identity. This is something that I, as a New Zealander of European descent (Pakeha), have been struggling with my whole life.
Grant: The game is Volume XIII in the well respected COIN Series from GMT Games. What was it like to design a game using this system?
J.: Equal parts awesome and frustrating. Awesome, because you have this heritage and a framework you know works. Frustrating, because there are limits to how far you can push the system before its no longer COIN. I think we have struck a balance here by adding in stuff that reflects the unique setting, but still holding the core values of a COIN Series game.
Grant: The COIN Series has up to this point dealt with historical events. What made you believe the system would support a fictional history?
J.: I didn’t, Volko and Jason did. I was just making something for the heck of making it. As weird as it sounds, I was just playing around with the idea with zero intent on even putting it out as a PNP.
Grant: What was the pitch like to GMT and Volko Ruhnke? What approach did you take to emphasize your vision? Did you do it it 3 minutes?
J.: One of the most surprising things for your readers here is that I never pitched this game to GMT. I reached out to Volko to ask his permission to make a Mars COIN and sent him my notes. He loved the idea and encouraged me. I then sent him a mostly done game, a very rough game that the current game is quite different too, and he was really excited by the possibilities of it. We talked, and the game ended up in GMT’s development path. Turns out, Volko and GMT had been thinking about a Sci-Fi COIN for a while, and then I walked in with one half ready for development.
This was also before 3 Minute Board Games existed, the channel came later. Which is one of those funny things, I suspect a few people might think I got the game lined up because I have the channel, but the reality is that the game was on their radar first.
Grant: First off let’s talk about the back history of the game. What was the foundation for your history of the colonization and development of Mars? What is a good timeline of events that got humans from Earth to the red planet?
J.: A lot of Sci-Fi really. And a bit of reading and real science. I was playing a COIN game at the same time as watching Ron Howards’ Mars series and the two ideas blended in my head. One thing about the Red Dust Rebellion setting though, is I’ve deliberately left the earth history for the last 240 years quite vague. If one were to sum up human history from 1780-2020 it would be a mess. So, in order to focus on Mars, I’ve hand waved a lot of those 240 years on another planet.
The focus in the world book will be on the current events and what led up to them.
Grant: I am very impressed with the detail of the history. Where did you get this writing ability from? What did you use for inspiration?
J.: I have several university degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in history and politics, post grad diplomas in defence studies and teaching high school history, and a masters degree in international relations. As a result I’m pretty well practiced in thinking, writing and talking about history, especially the history of armed conflict. I was even the teaching assistant for a university course called “Politics and Violence”, which was about war crimes, terrorism and irregular war.
Inspiration is from everywhere. Science fiction, the real world, games I’ve played and movies I’ve watched. The biggest fictional influences are probably Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Babylon 5, Total Recall, Red Faction and Android.
Grant: The art is fantastic and has set the theme for the game from day 1. Who is the artist? What has their art done for the theme and the play experience?
J.: Marcos Villarroel Lara is his name and he is beyond talented. GMT found him and he works with them as a freelancer, but I’ve been feeding him art briefs for every card. It’s helped bring the world to life in a way I only imagined. And the realer the world of Red Dust, the more engaged players will be with it as they play the game.
Grant: What are the four factions depicted in the game?
J.: Red Dust Movement – A worker centered movement seeking Martian independence. Here is a link to a series of articles appearing on InsideGMT regarding the various factions: Factions in Red Dust Rebellion: The Red Dust Movement
The Martian Provisional Government – The Earth appointed colonial authority, walking a tight rope between Mars and Earth needs. Factions in Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Provisional Government
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the human presence on Mars. 200 years ago, a small group of intrepid explorers from multiple of Earth’s nations set foot on our world. And starting from that first brave step, we have built all that you see around us today. A living, breathing, vibrant community, a rich diverse world of peoples from all the nations of Earth and many of us who have always called Mars home.
Today is a day when we must reflect one where we have come from. The debt we owe our forebears and the struggles and sacrifices they made to carve out a life in the barren rock of Mars. The botanists who learned to grow plants that feed us, the engineers who built the tunnels we live in, the scientists who built our water reclamation system, the miners who dug up the materials we need, and the machinists who built the places we now call home.
Today we must reflect on where we came from. But we must also look forward to the next 200 years of this greatest of human endeavors. We will terraform Mars. We will build a new world, a new home for humanity. It will be our greatest accomplishment. And for all that our forebears have done to bring us to this point, we must do more.
For our future, for our children’s future, and for the future of humanity. Let us all work together in this noblest of goals.
-Teresa Yeo, Prime Minister of the Martian Assembly, Bi-centennial day address
The Corporations – here to make money and terraform the planet. Factions in Red Dust Rebellion: The Corporations
The Reclaimers – Environmentalists who want to adapt humans to mars. Factions in Red Dust Rebellion: The Reclaimers
We look to Earth and see the climate catastrophe unfolding. The droughts and storms, fires and floods that plague that world are the result of one thing and one thing only.
The base human drive to take more than we need.
We could have solved this problem centuries ago, but it was too hard. Too hard not to eat our fill and ask for more. Too hard not to burn oil for easy power. Too hard not to package every single confection in its own brightly colored wrapping paper. Too hard not to be self-indulgent, lazy, and weak.
And now the gaze of avarice turns to Mars. A new world to exploit. A new opportunity for more misery, and suffering. A new world to be consumed.
We must fundamentally change our ways as a species. We can no longer afford to live in an adversarial relationship with the world that gave birth to us. We must find a new balance, an equilibrium where we are part of a planet’s ecosystem, not the ravagers of it.
If we are to reclaim our future as a species, we must adapt to the worlds we live on. Not bend them to our will. They are planets, not products. And we are people, not consumers.
If Mars is to become a new home for humanity, then humanity must adapt to Mars. Or we are doomed as a species to repeat the same mistakes, over and over again, until both worlds finally destroy us.
–The Ma’Adim, Reclaimer prophet
Grant: What are their individual motivations and how do they work together or against one another which is a hallmark of the COIN Series?
J.: The interactions are pretty complex to be honest. Red Dust and the MPG are both competing to be a legitimate government, the Corporations want to terraform and make money, the Reclaimers don’t want any of that. There’s tension between the allied factions as well, the Corp does not want to actually do any fighting, and would gladly hide behind the MPG and exploit their good will for profit. And the Reclaimers don’t want a Red Dust Government either.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters with the various factions? What are their basic strategies and victory conditions?
J.: Adam Blinkinsop is running almost all of the testing these days and he manages all that feedback for me. Testing is a huge weak spot for me personally and my hectic schedule and weird time zone means I rarely get to sit in on the current tests. Adam however, is an extensive note taker and gives me ongoing feedback and questions to sort.
Right now, the factions that are closer to COIN standard, people play pretty well and seem to get. It’s the slightly odd ones, like the CORP and the Reclaimers that people seem to play too tentatively for me. The Reclaimers, in particular, our testers are nowhere near as aggressive with them as I would be.
Grant: How many different spaces are there on the map? What pinch points are there for players as they attempt to control these areas?
J.: 24 proper spaces, but split into 3 theatres. Mars doesn’t have pinch points like you would find in a wargame like Paths of Glory. What it has is a handful of big important spaces, and a lot of open areas. The cities are more useful to MPG and RD, as that’s where the population is. The Corp needs the deserts to make terraforming stations, and that’s where the Reclaimers live. So you have this unusual urban vs. rural dynamic.
Grant: What is the role of the Earth to Phobos boxes? What is the middle hexagon location used for?
J.: In a normal COIN game, AID and reinforcements arrive normally. In Red Dust Rebellion, a lot of those things need to come from Earth. This takes time. About 40% of cards in RDR have a flashpoint symbol on them. When a card like this is revealed, stuff moves on the cycler one space closer to Mars. If it reaches Phobos, you can use it.
Grant: What purpose does the EarthGov Confidence Track serve? How is it manipulated by players?
J.: EarthGov is a 5th faction and is controlled by one of the COIN players based on where that track is. It moves up for a lot of reasons, housing immigrants, destroying rebel units, that sort of thing. And it moves down with casualties and damage. Think of it like a “war weariness” track, the better the rebellion goes for the COIN, the more likely EarthGov is to support the Martian Government. If confidence dips a little, CORP gains control to protect infrastructure instead.
Grant: What are the smaller green and black boxes located in cities for? How are these areas manipulated?
J.: The darker boxes are the current population of that region, the green is it’s potential size. With mass-immigration, damage and refugee issues caused by conflict in a world with no oxygen outside, populations will move around a lot. Housing and keeping this population safe during the conflict is high on the priority list for the MPG and RD factions.
Grant: What are the dice symbols on certain spaces for? Randomization?
J.: Dust storms. Each flashpoint card you will roll for storms and they will appear in those regions. A region under a storm is essentially isolated until it abates. Thankfully, you do get some weather forecasting as tokens are initially placed as “coming storms” and don’t become “raging storms” until the next flashpoint card.
Grant: What is The Wilderness?
J.: The landmass of Mars is very similar to the actual landmass of earth, if you ignore the oceans. Our game is zoomed in on 3 different regions, and the wilderness represents the rest of Mars. An area bigger than the landmasses of Asia, Africa, Europe and the America’s combined. This area is an abstraction of bases and troop movements in this massive space. It is very hard for the COIN players to find bases and units here.
Grant: Is there anything unique or novel about the Eligibility Track? What options did you consider for your vision of the game?
J.: Hahahaha, yes, yes there is. Only 3 factions appear on the Eligibility on cards, the Reclaimers have a unique card driven system that allows them to buy eligibility, potentially pushing themselves ahead when they want to.
Grant: What purpose does the Rodgers Line serve in connecting Europa with Terezekova?
J.: One, it’s cool and unique to add what is essentially a new line of communication to the board. Secondly, it’s a neat story element. But finally, and most importantly, it creates something that in testing we call “the quad”. If the MPG can dominate the quad, move troops back and forth easily and totally contain the CORP and Red Dust here they are in a very strong position to win.
Grant: How do you model the harsh environment of Mars? What must players be concerned about?
J.: Each flashpoint round, unsupported troops in desert spaces suffer attrition. The COIN and RD need bases out there to maintain a presence. If a dust storm descends on a group of troops and stays there for a while, those forces can simply fade away. The reclaimers ignore all that though. So baiting the COIN into coming into the deserts to find them and then fail through attrition is a valid strategy.
Grant: What is the role of Satellite warfare and how do players use this to their advantage?
J.: Satellites are multi use tokens that can boost an operation, but they have to be set up first. This lets the COIN players have a boost, but it’s a telegraphed one that the Rebels can plan to counter. What they really do for me is add tension, because as soon as a Satellite goes into a region, the rebels think “oh, the COIN is coming for me soon”.
Grant: I see that there are spaceports connecting all the spaces on Mars. How does this effect the game and how must players plan for the use of and defense against this movement?
J.: One can only use spaceport to spaceport movement if you control both sides. So it allows for rapid redeployment within your own boundaries. Maintaining control is a key defensive strategy. Getting a toe hold in one though, allows you to rapidly push units around, dramatically reshaping the board at times.
Grant: Let’s talk about the Events. How many cards are there and what special rules govern how many are in each era?
J.: 48. No eras. As RDR is a made-up history, the event order of the deck each time is the true and accurate history of the war each time. There is no real canon order to the cards.
Grant: What is the name of the interlude period at the end of an era? What is unique about this phase?
J.: It is the Dust Storm phase, and it represents periods where the storms on Mars just make travel a pain for everyone involved. It also interacts with the cycler and the issues with overcrowding in the cities.
Grant: What did you find most challenging about creating balanced events?
J.: So, personally I think many of the events in previous COIN Series games aren’t quite strong enough, or are very situational, personally, I was less concerned with balance here than I was with making the players go “damn, I want that, but I need to do an OP, dammit, um”.
Grant: What are some of the most powerful events?
J.: I know some of our testers both love and dread “Long Range Patrols”. That event allows you to move units through a lot of desert spaces and attack afterwards. It can lead to attacks coming from very unexpected quarters.
Grant: Are there shaded and unshaded text as in the other games?
J.: Absolutely. Although reclaimer events from their own deck do not do this. Oh yeah, the Reclaimers can jump the activation line and substitute their own events at times. How fun is that?
Grant: What about capabilities? Can you share a few of these with us and explain their usefulness?
J.: There are no capabilities in the normal sense. The Reclaimers do have a similar system called “rogue technologies”, that they can put into play from their own card deck. These include bio-engineering and hacking abilities. There is a big opportunity cost for them to burn cards to put one into play though.
Grant: How is the solitaire mode being designed? Will it use cards as in the more recent games in the series?
J.: Adam is leading this and is basing the “Curiosity bot” on the Jacquard System” which was used in the Arjuna cards from Ghandi.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
J.: That it doesn’t feel like “A Distant Martian Plain”. It’s a COIN Series game for sure, but it’s as much a Mars game.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
J.: Adam handles most of that. I originally tested it locally with friends, but NZ has such a small COIN player base that the only way to get good any full testing was to take it online and let someone else run it. My crew are my old and dear gaming friends who I’ve been playing games with for 20+ years.
I will say though, some of the sessions I’ve sat in and watched on Tabletop simulator have been fascinating. Just sitting, and watching people play your game is a trip.
Grant: How has your developer Jason Carr helped and influenced your design?
J.: Jason is excellent to work with, and he’s been really good at letting me be me. There was a point earlier in the development, where GMT wanted the game to be closer to COIN normal, Jason changed that approach and really encouraged me to lean hard into what makes RDR a unique setting and game.
Grant: What other games are you mulling over or working on?
J.: I always have several homebrew or random ideas on the boil. I have already signed a second title with a different publisher, and its not a wargame. But I’m under NDA on that so cannot say much asides from it’s a game.
As for a game for GMT, I really want to make a game inspired by the 1980’s tv show V. A game about an alien invasion by stealth and subterfuge. I think this kind of game could have super fun world building and fun mechanics to explore.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions J. and even with having a newborn baby in your house. I know how exhausting that can be and really appreciate your attention to this interview and for the work that you have put into the design as it simply looks to be a revelation and takes the COIN Series in a new direction.
If you are interested in Red Dust Rebellion, you can pre-order a copy for $66.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-893-red-dust-rebellion.aspx
Hey Grant… great interview! H,,,,…. another COIN game. YES, I DO own three COIN games… Twilight Struggle, Labrynth, and (Afghanistan)… I applaud the style, hard work, and production quality of these games, BUT…. (again), I’m a solo player (not by choice) and sometimes the BOT confounds me a little. Can’t tell you how much fun it would be to play any of the COIN games WITH a group. The game looks great… especially now that it goes into outer space… hope it succeeds by a long mile.
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Excellent review Grant with superb questions.
As a fan of the COIN series, for me this is by far the most anticipated game in the COIN series for years. RDR is clearly a passion project, and Jarrod’s experience/opinions on 3MBG demonstrates he knows what makes a game “great” vs “good”. The quote about events making the players go “damn, I want that, but I need to do an OP, dammit, um” shows Jarrod is on the right path.
The greatest games I’ve played have always at their core had tough, meaningful decisions.
Can’t wait for the game to arrive! Come on GMT. 🙂
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Thanks for reading Carter. I too am very excited for this one!