In the March Monthly Update from GMT Games, a new series was announced as well as the first game in that series. This new game is not a COIN Series game but it shares some of the same elements. In Fall 2020, there was a game design contest held called Consim Game Jam where designers had to repurpose a COIN Series game and it’s components and make a new playable game in about 72 hours! The game that won the competition was called Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India, 1290-1398. The game is an asymmetric 1-3 player game depicting the epic, century-long rise and fall of medieval kingdoms in India over two dynastic periods. Since winning the contest, the team consisting of Saverio Spagnolie, Mathieu Johnson, Cory Graham and Aman Matthews has continued to roll up their sleeves and continue the hard work of focusing the design and developing the final playable product to be published by GMT Games. We reached out to them for an interview and they were glad to share not only the design process with but we also hosted a History Behind the Cards series with them that consisted of 6 cards with an in-depth look at the history behind these events.
You can catch up on the posts in this series by following the below links:
*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 please please introduce yourselves. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job? What type of games do you like to play?
Saverio: I’m Saverio Spagnolie, by day I’m an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a courtesy appointment in chemical and biological engineering. I like any game that presents a new idea, from contemplative historical games that introduce a new time and setting to stressful games like poker which can be used to meditate on more internal processes. (So yeah I really enjoy games like Maria and Sekigahara.) I’m also very drawn to asymmetric and mathy differential games like the “Homicidal Chauffeur problem.”
Mathieu: I’m Mathieu Johnson, I am working as a technical animator for Ubisoft Montreal on a videogame called For Honor. I play a lot of tabletop role-playing games, but nowadays I am playing more and more board games. I like multiplayer games with a lot of player interactions and a good story/immersion.
Cory: I’m Cory Graham, I work as a business analyst for a large healthcare company in the US. I like deeply thematic games that make me feel like whatever I’m supposed to be playing and anything that requires high levels of social interaction / wheeling and dealing.
Aman: I’m Aman Matthews, I work as a Commercial Finance Analyst for a large pets company in the UK. I like consim games with high player interactivity and immersive themes. Though I never say no to a game of Catan.
Grant: How did the four of you become acquainted?
Saverio: I happened upon the COIN Discord server during COVID and found myself in an eye-opening game of Cuba Libre with Aman and Joe, then caught Cory for a pass at Maria. Cory and Mathieu were set to compete in the Consim Game Jam and I nervously jumped in with them.
Mathieu: I was one of the early folk who joined the COIN Discord server and am currently a staff/moderator over there. When Fred Serval did a Consim GameJam, coming right out of a huge design spree for my COIN fanmade Bakumatsu, I decided to enroll with Cory (another staff of the COIN Discord). Saverio and Aman joined us after to complete the team!
Cory: Same as Mat, I’m a staff member for the COIN Discord server and joined during its early days back in the long ago of April 2020. My answer for consim is identical, we had planned to go into it together.
Aman: I joined the coin Discord server in the beginning when the pandemic started when I found myself with some time before starting a new job. I played my first game of Coin, Cuba Libre, with Cory and since then played with Cory, Matt and Sav over the past year.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design?
Saverio: I had been interested in doing something like this eventually, maybe in retirement! But I joined the Game Jam as a way to step out of my comfort zone and actively battle the challenges of COVID. I did not expect that this would last for more than 72 hours…! There are some intriguing parallels between game design and applied mathematics when viewed from a certain angle, so in a sense I’ve been interested in game design for about 20 years.
Mathieu: I’ve been tinkering with games for as long as I can remember and did my first design when I was a kid. I did a good amount of tabletop roleplaying game content too. I guess it’s always been a part of me? I have some amount of graphic design background and working in the videogame industry, design talks are all around me. Upon joining the COIN Discord, I started working on a COIN design which I mentioned above, then, the Consim Game Jam happened…
Cory: The Consim Game Jam seemed like a good time, I’ve done programming events that are similar and y’know: COVID-19 left me with a lot of free time. I’ve been creating video game mods/maps for years and board game development isn’t a huge jump from that.
Aman: I became a little COIN obsessed last year and had some interesting conversations with the others on the COIN server about COIN game mechanics and the design theory behind it. I started dabbling a little in designing my own games but the intense deadline of the Consim Game Jam really focused me on one project.
Grant: Tell us about the process of designing a game in 72 hours at the Consim Game Jam?
Saverio: At the outset we thought that we had lost Mathieu to a home repair disaster, which was a really bad way to start the contest since he had recently put a ton of effort into his Bakumatsu and we knew he would be a big loss. Fortunately he returned at the end of the first day! The Game Jam rules required that we use the map and parts for any one published COIN game.
The first day had us brainstorming and presenting ideas to each other, pushing on them, and settling on a topic. The next two days were a race to understand enough of the history to build a preliminary working model. The COIN system designed by Volko Ruhnke (in particular the Sequence of Play, Event cards, and adjustable region classification) is remarkably robust. So robust in fact that by the end of day 2 we had slapped together sufficiently many working parts that we were playing games and starting to correct the most glaring issues.
Although that sprint was just the beginning of a long marathon (the game has now seen many iterations) some of the design goals remained intact from the outset: we sought to develop an “epic, century-long narrative” in about 90 minutes. We sought thematic immersion with strong historicity and asymmetry, and something lighter in terms of table atmosphere; a certain kind of fun which comes from player negotiations, quick-resolving battles, and big clever plays. With these features wrapped around the game’s underexplored historical setting, we think we managed to catch lightning in a bottle, and the game never would have existed without the shock of the Game Jam to our systems!
Mathieu: I think we got lucky with the subject of the Consim Game Jam (design a COIN game…). Both Cory and Aman are experienced COIN players, and I had just completed my first fan-made COIN design so I had a good idea of how to put things together. Saverio came up with the historical subject and we rolled with it.
Cory: It was hectic. We took the factions, split them up to figure out the histories, proposed basic Operations and Special Activities (now – a billion iterations later, seriously hundreds of man hours, Mat and Sav in particular have been just beastly – these are called Commands and Decrees, much more thematically appropriate), played the world’s roughest test game, figured out what felt wrong, tuned, went in again with a new test game and about half all new Commands/Decrees and some actual cards this time. Figured out what we didn’t like and identified some early issues, corrected them, went in again.
During this we’re also figuring out what to do with the city spaces on Gandhi’s map, spiritedly debating histories, adding Mongols which have been through at least 6 major iterations, Saverio is compiling the beginnings of a playbook and the historical background for this, we’re operating on 3 rough schedules with British time, Mat’s late nights and my early mornings and Sav somehow being around for all three. Cut to Sunday, we’re doing some polishing (yes, we actually were balancing it during a game jam. I was shocked), Sav is putting together the excellent presentation video (with literal moments to spare before the deadline) and we’re filling out the rest of a rough event deck.
If anyone is looking for tips for Fred’s next game jam: Scope. Be aggressively narrow about your scope, if you find you have time it’s easier to expand than it is to cut down and you will find that no, no you do not have time. ‘Stealing’ from the best also helps, but that’s more from the coding jams I’ve been a part of.
Grant: What is your upcoming game Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India, 1290-1398 about?
Saverio: The game is about the emergence of two rebel kingdoms, the Vijayanagara Empire and the Bahmani Kingdom, out from under the shadow of a third, the Delhi Sultanate, in 14th century India. The Delhi Sultanate seeks to maintain its presence in the south of India to keep large tributary payments coming, in part to fund its defense against repeated raids from Mongol armies descending upon it from mountain passes to the northwest. Both upstart kingdoms must rely on the spread of their influence through the Deccan through military and economic means, bringing such groups as the Nayaka warrior kings, and immigrants from central Asia, under their banners.
Mathieu: The story is the most important part of the design, and has always been at the forefront of what we do. Coming from tabletop RPG’s, I prefer a slightly more directed story as opposed to a more sandbox type of design, especially when it comes to ConSims. Gameplay-wise, the goal was to be streamlined. This is a philosophy we still keep to this day. The word “Elegant” is what we internally use to describe our aspirations. Every mechanic we design needs to be straightforward while packing as much story and immersion as it can. Combining the words “streamlined” and “story-heavy” is the biggest challenge in my opinion, but that is what we want to achieve.
Cory: Agreeing with Mat, the story is all. A ConSim should either be a thesis statement about a conflict or present a relatively neutral account for you to be able to learn about and internalize the factors of the conflict better. I think we’ve gone more for the latter, but our thesis statement is “It’s hard to be the Sultan of Delhi” and I think the game excels at telling that story. Simultaneously it also tells the story of how bogus it was to be under the thumb of the Sultanate and ruled by them, and the lengths these nascent kingdoms had to go to in order to achieve their independence.
Grant: What inspired you to design a game around medieval India?
Saverio: Do you know anything about medieval India? If so you will be the first person we’ve spoken to (not of Indian descent) to have even heard of some of these huge kingdoms, events, and personalities. I have been interested in learning more about the history of India for a long while based on the number of Indian students and postdocs that I interact with in my scientific life. We were so drawn in by the stories of this period and figured we might not be alone in our curiosity.
Mathieu: Initially nothing. We were trying to come up with subjects for the game jam and this one by Saverio got the vote! And I am so happy we ended up sticking with it. Since then I discovered an amazing history and we’ve been packing more and more of this epic story in the mechanics of the game. I really hope as much as possible comes through just by playing.
Cory: We put a round of ideas to a vote, Saverio spoke very passionately about the story of this time period and sold Mat and I on it, and we hit the ground running. It was a time and place I knew nothing about and that’s what tends to really draw me into board games. Aman joined us a little bit after we chose, but I think he would have been convinced by Saverio too. He’s mostly reasonable, as long as he’s not playing ARVN in Fire in the Lake.
Grant: What elements from the history were you sure needed to be included and modeled in the design?
Saverio: The story of the Vijayanagara Empire really cannot begin to be told without first seeing the steady decline of the Delhi Sultanate, so we wanted to include Delhi. But what was driving Delhi to either push into the south or pull back north? The threat of Mongol invasions then had to be in the game, which could have been done with a track or other mechanism, but there was something highly immersive about including them as a non-player faction to give an ominous sense of impending danger to the Sultanate. The slow collapse of Delhi then needed to be paired with well-timed rebellions in the south, and this is how the Vijayanagara Empire asserts itself and explodes into the history books in the mid-14th century. So the Rebellion mechanism was the key means of interacting with the Tributary system in the game.
Their rival to the north, the Bahmani Kingdom, emerged somewhat similarly through rebellion, but this faction is more of a breakaway state from Delhi, composed of former Governors/Commanders who have joined to claim their independence (and, naturally, the taxes for themselves). For this we needed not only rebellion as a mechanism, but also Conspire, a way for the Bahmanis to lure Delhi’s Governors to its side. We then needed to identify the asymmetric strengths of the Bahmanis and Vijayanagara. The period covered in the game saw Bahmani military advantages and burgeoning cultural growth through immigration and trade, included in the game with Decrees to Trade and Build (a Fort), as well as introducing Cavalry as a secondary resource. Vijayanagara, meanwhile, propelled itself with the economic and population growth benefits found through compelling smaller regional powers to enter its orbit and building great temples (and temple towns), incorporated in the game through Decrees to Build Temples and Compel smaller states.
Mathieu: We needed to model an overextended Empire, the Delhi Sultanate, trying to hold their tributaries down south from asserting their independence, while being constantly invaded by Mongols from the north. There is also the sense of scale, we couldn’t just have air lifts and rallying all over the place, we needed a way to contain the empires a bit more. Our “units” are actually about 10k manpower, this is very different from lets say, being a squad of marines. Then we came up with the idea of starting the Sultanate with all the victory points, and having the other two factions trying to grab from it. It modeled the collapse of the Delhi Sultanate pretty nicely. To make it streamlined, there is no victory threshold in this game, the scores are instead directly compared to each other factions’ scores, on the same scale.
We also needed something to present more in depth the story of the two emerging empires (Vijayanagara and Bahmani). The “Deccan Influence” track was a long process of iterations, but I think now we have something quite interesting, it is a bit like a tug-of-war that allows each faction to unlock bonuses such as additional Cavalry or Units. So while both factions try to rebel and assert their independence from Delhi, they also compete between each other through both violent and non-violent means to increase their influence throughout the Deccan.
Cory: To put it bluntly every faction should feel like their lot in life is THE WORST at some point. But especially the Sultanate. Heavy lies the crown. Also: Mongol invasions, some way of codifying the push/pull for influence between the Bahmani Kingdom and Vijayanagara Empire, the way that the Delhi Sultanate just couldn’t trust their governors, and (the potential for) deadly battles.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the history? What one source would you recommend as a must read?
Saverio: We worked with historian Aparna Kapadia at Williams College, associate professor and author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-century Gujarat. Aparna has provided countless observations for us at every turn, on everything from artistic choices to narrative arc. We’ve posted a partial reading list on BGG (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2648524/deccan-empires-medieval-india-history), but we especially recommend a book that pairs particularly well with the game: India in the Persianate Age by Richard M. Eaton.
Mathieu: I mostly listen to research from Saverio and Aparna and do my best to get ideas on how to plug them mechanically. I really like their perspective of the Deccan history as more of a cultural and political conflict rather than the age old religious conflict some historians have wanted us to believe. I think we really nailed an interesting approach to the conflict which seems in line with popular authors like Manu S. Pillai, writer of Rebel Sultans.
Cory: I consulted Saverio and what Saverio said to read. The man is a research MACHINE.
Grant: How did you connect with your developer Joe Dewhurst? What strengths does he bring to the table?
Saverio: I met Joe when I joined the COIN Discord Server, and nervously jumped into a game of Cuba Libre. Joe turned out to be an exceedingly friendly, helpful, and patient guide as I got to enjoy a whole new world of “COIN with other people,” right up until he stabbed me in the back and left my July 26 faction to face the full force of Batista’s troops alone in Las Villas. Joe has brought a serious and professional voice to the team, providing some needed nudges on important design decisions and keeping us motivated. He is very sharp and can see the inner workings of complex systems very clearly and very quickly, it has been a pleasure to have him on board.
Mathieu: I’ve known Joe since my early days on the COIN discord server. He has a great sense for games and brought many very interesting points that influenced a lot of the creative process for mechanics; namely, he gave a hint about needing to come up with a way to affect the Deccan Influence Track in a non-violent way and this stuck with us a lot, especially in how we intend to portray the interactions between the Bahmani Kingdom and Vijayanagara Empire.
Cory: I met Joe when I joined the COIN discord server and have since played SO MANY games with him. We typically leave whatever country/world/realm we’re in in a smoking ruin when we play. It’s great.
Aman: I’ve played loads of games with Joe when we joined the server around the same time. Joe has a fantastic understanding of game design and an almost limitless pool of patience.
Grant: This game is the first entry in the new Irregular Conflicts Series. What are the hallmarks of this new series?
Saverio: Jason Carr has written some pieces to introduce the new ICS on InsideGMT (http://www.insidegmt.com/2021/03/what-is-the-irregular-conflicts-series/) and in Issue #2 of the new Punched Magazine (https://www.cardboardemperors.co.uk/punched-2#carr), but to summarize, games in the series might use COIN’s mechanical innovations to explore new vistas. Vijayanagara, for instance, uses COIN-esque Event cards and the Sequence of Play from Kenneth Tee’s upcoming COIN volume People Power, but abandons the regional Control/Support model in favor of regional Tributary allegiance, which we desired for modeling the particular history covered in the game.
Mathieu: At the moment, not much. Vijayanagara is still a COIN game under the hood. What people have to see is the potential that exists in pushing the COIN engine in a multitude of interesting directions that are not restricted too much, or even at all, by the COIN system. If anything, Vijayanagara makes it clear that this is just the beginning for COIN-adjacent models.
Cory: I think the hallmark of this series will be that it’s not going to have a hallmark style/sequence of play/etc in the traditional sense of a series. I think the first couple volumes will be the most similar to COIN and then past that you will start seeing fairly drastic departures from the COIN formula.
Aman: I think the ICS takes many of the mechanics in a COIN game like the sequence of play and event cards and applies them to models that don’t fit the traditional counter insurgency model. In the time period our game is set, the support or opposition of the people is rather irrelevant given the power of the states of the time, so including that didn’t make much sense.
Grant: What elements in your design most closely resemble the COIN Series?
Saverio: The Sequence of Play is identical to the one used in People Power (simplified graphically but mechanically unchanged) and the Event cards identify Eligibility and are dual-use just as in games in the COIN Series. We also have two possible states for some pieces, namely: Bahmani Units (Amirs) and Vijayanagara Units (Rajas) may be in one of two states, either Obedient (embossed-side down) or Rebelling (embossed-side up). But the factions do not “sweep” to “activate” them, instead their state depends only on how they choose to act in relation to the Sultan in Delhi.
Cory: We use the same sequence of play as People Power, we use COIN style Commands/SAs (but with much cooler names), we use the idea of Control but it’s implemented somewhat differently than COIN and has two axes. Some units flip like COIN guerillas, but the meaning and outcomes of which are different, and we also have cubes representing more traditional armies.
Grant: What challenges are there in designing an asymmetric wargame?
Saverio: Balance can be hard to achieve, as so many systems are interconnected but distinct. So it’s not easy to predict how a tweak to one faction’s ability will trickle down and affect everything else. A small adjustment to one Faction can change how the other two Factions interact! Numerical simulations can help to predict some effects, but that has only been possible when thinking about the non-player faction (the Mongol armies) where negotiation is basically absent. It has been a very fun puzzle on its own, designing this game has been our favorite ‘game’ of the year by far.
Mathieu: I find the challenge for us was the initial setup of pieces. We wanted defined borders, we didn’t want the possibility to rally all over the place, or to move too fast. We needed to represent a slower, empire building gameplay. This comes with its set of challenges for the original COIN system. We came up with some interesting creative solutions like adjacent attacks, ways to shift the Deccan Influence Track by migrating etc. But yes, limiting the empires to a slower expansion was at first a real challenge for that system!
Cory: Diverging a bit from the crunch of balance and set up that Sav and Mat are talking about, the feeling has to be right too. A game that’s mechanically balanced but doesn’t feel right is a bad game. You want the Sultan to feel powerful but also hugely embattled and as if the Sword of Damocles is perpetually hanging over them. You want the Bahmani Kingdom to feel like they’re trapped between two hostile forces and they’re playing the waiting game to rebel against the Sultanate and lose what protection they were getting at just the right time. You want the Vijayanagara Empire to be this aggressively expanding force because that land is yours, of course it’s yours, you’re the rightful ruler of this land. Balancing those “feels” with game balance and making it all fun and engaging is… a tremendous challenge.
Aman: Balance, you want the players to never feel like they can’t win, even if they start off in different situations or with different actions.
Grant: What are the different factions that players can play as? What are their motivations and goals?
Saverio: We have tackled parts of this in one of our answers above but in brief: the Delhi Sultanate wants to keep control of its Tributaries and resist the (non-player) Mongol invasion, while the Bahmani Kingdom and Vijayanagara Empire both want to rebel against the Sultan, but have different ways of achieving this.
Grant: How does each faction achieve victory?
Saverio: The Delhi Sultanate is trying to maintain its grip over the south of India, so its victory points are given by the total (economic) Value of its Tributary Provinces, along with an end-game condition involving it’s defense against the Mongol Army.
The Bahmani Kingdom (BK) and Vijayanagara Empire (VN) are both seeking to take their own independent control over the Provinces of India, solidify their positions with the construction of Forts (Bahmanis) or Temples (Vijayanagara), and to ensure the propagation of their Influence throughout the land. Their victory points are thus given by the total Value of Bahmani-/Vijayanagara- Independent Provinces plus the number of Forts/Temples on the map, plus any Deccan Influence Points earned throughout the game.
Grant: What tools and actions does each faction have at their disposal?
Saverio: I will point you to a recent InsideGMT article that describes these in detail: http://www.insidegmt.com/2021/04/commands-and-decrees-of-the-deccan-empires-aims-means-and-victory-conditions/
Grant: Can you show us a player aid that lists all of the actions?
Saverio: Here is the Delhi Sultanate’s player aid, with the proviso that this is still a prototype component that might change.
Grant: What is the fourth non-player Faction operated by the Bahmani and Vijayanagara players? What is the basis for this decision in the history?
Saverio: The game includes a fourth Faction, the Mongol Invaders, which is operated at different times by the Bahmani and Vijayanagara players. The Mongol armies present an ever-present, hovering threat to the Delhi Sultanate, forcing it to defend itself with troops in the northwest. The need to fund this defense drives the Sultanate to reach south beyond the Vindhya range into the Deccan. This in turn drives the rebellions in the south, and brings all the game’s factions into a subcontinent-wide conflict. In this way, the fourth Faction is what sets the game in motion and provides a constant source of external energy, fueling the internal combustion.
Could we have included the Mongol threat as a track? Yes, and we tested out a few possibilities along these lines. But we were drawn to the visceral, immersive sense provided by the dark red cubes on the map itself, amassing in the Mountain Passes and advancing ever closer to Delhi. Playtesters will tell you that sitting behind the wheel of the Delhi Sultanate can be particularly frightening… just the emotional content we hoped to convey. As we like to say, “It’s Not Easy to Be the Sultan.”
Aman: The issue as well was that the Mongol player would spend most of his time in the north of India and we weren’t sure that would be a very interesting experience for that player to be so geographically contained.
Grant: What is the new battle-resolution system? And what is the concept of strength-dependent risk mitigation?
Saverio: We approached the design of combat looking for something which is simultaneously clean and streamlined (no tables or looking back into the rulebook) but is capable of modeling an important feature in any engagement of force: strength-dependent risk mitigation. Simply speaking, the fact that the risks involved tend to diminish with greater commitment of force (leaving modern conflicts and more complicated political considerations to the side).
Another design goal was to promote a fast and fun gameplay. It can be frustrating to play a game which is too random, but it may not be very realistic or satisfying (for some) if combat is too deterministic. A cumbersome combat system has the possibility of disrupting player interactions and detracting from the narrative emerging around the table.
Our solution is as follows. The attacker rolls four dice and hits on rolls less than or equal to the number of attacking Units, while the defender rolls two dice and hits on rolls less than or equal to the number of defending Units. Rolls can be modified by Cavalry tokens that are acquired throughout the game and are committed before battle. Then after modification, a roll of 6 does not hit, and units are removed according to hits.
Some Events can modify the above slightly, and a faction attacking a Bahmani Fort only rolls three dice. Finally, Units can be brought in to support the battle from adjacent Provinces if they are coming from one of the attacking Faction’s bases (Sultanate Qasbahs, Bahmani Forts, or Vijayanagara Temples). That’s it!
Among the features that we like about this combat system is the relative simplicity of calculating (approximately) the odds, and the very quick execution and cleanup of each such engagement. The simple description above turned out to be surprisingly effective at producing just the right level of strategic consideration for each battle.
Mathieu: It needed to be fast, it needed to be clean, but it also needed not to be too random. We were very interested in making sure the odds of success increases to the point of almost certainty if you decided to commit enough. Leaving the gambles to situations that requires less commitment. It always feel better to “miss” when you didn’t commit a lot rather than “missing” when you decided to make the action one of your most important moment in the game. We want to assure that if a player decide to go all in, that they get rewarded for it.
Cory: This is not the highly swingy, random system I had initially suggested and the game is about 1,000% better for it.
Grant: Why was this your chosen method to model direct conflict?
Saverio: The scope of the game was to view a century of interactions which included, but was not dominated by, military conflict. We felt that making the combat system too detailed or complex would draw away from the desired immersion in the game’s narrative arc, but we also valued a degree of randomness in the outcomes.
The inclusion of cavalry, however, was a more pointed need, since this resource was of particular importance during this century. Horses were hard to come by due to the nature of the land, and had to be imported from central Asia. Cavalry can be accessed in the game by the Bahmanis via trade, and by the Delhi Sultanate when they demand tribute from their tributary regions in the south. The Vijayanagara Empire, which upon its founding was inferior to its northern neighbors in terms of military capabilities, will find it harder to come by cavalry, though they can always be traded in negotiations for resources or other favors in the game.
Grant: We know that the game is focused on the Event Cards. How closely do they model the COIN Series event cards?
Mathieu: They are very similar to the events in People Power, from which we adapted the 3 player Sequence of Play and added our own flavour to. Two thirds of the events in our game allow you to stay eligible, which makes the gameplay much more punchy.
Grant: Can you show us a few examples of the different events and explain how they work?
Saverio: Funny you should ask, we have a number of these examples posted in a great series called “History Behind the Cards” on theplayersaid.com! https://theplayersaid.com/category/history-behind-the-cards/
Grant: How did you decide on the number of event cards?
Saverio: With a small number of Event Cards the game can become too predictable – you might build a strategy which depends too heavily on Malik Kafur coming to the Sultanate’s aid. But too large a deck can result in a problem of unfair Eligibility advantage for one (or two) factions, so we did not want to have too many Events go unused. To get to about 90 minutes with just a handful of unused cards took us to 30 Event Cards (24 are used in any one game), each representing the passage of about 5 years.
Grant: What forces are available to the players? What unique units does each faction have?
Saverio: The Delhi Sultanate’s forces are Troops which can attack Rebelling units; powerful Governor pieces which can remove Obedient units and which are required to force Provinces back to Tributary status; and structures called Qasbahs, which improve the conscription of troops and allow two units to support an attack on a neighboring Province.
The Bahmani Kingdom’s forces are units called Amirs (commanders / kings) which were once Governors in the Delhi Sultanate, and structures called Forts, which provide large offensive and defensive benefits. The Amirs can either be Obedient or Rebelling (embossed side face down or face up), representing their relationship with the Delhi Sultanate. Amirs are needed to enhance the Bahmani economy through Trade, and they can Conspire with Delhi’s Governors to bring them into the Bahmani fold. Attacking or conspiring with Delhi’s forces, or carrying out a rebellion and ceasing to send tribute, however, is a sure way to flip from Obedient to Rebelling, and incurring the Sultan’s wrath!
The Vijayanagara Empire’s forces are units called Rajas (regional rulers), and structures called Temples, which provide benefits in rallying other rulers to the Vijayanagara flag, and enhancing the economic output of the region. Like the Amirs, Rajas can either be Obedient or Rebelling depending on their relationship with the Delhi Sultanate.
Grant: How many playable spaces are on the map? What interesting strategic decisions come with the layout of these areas?
Saverio: There are 16 playable spaces in the game, most of them Provinces which initially begin as Tributaries to Delhi. Most of these Tributary Provinces have an economic value of 1. But five Tributaries have an increased value of 2 based on the commercial activity granted by lush, fertile land or burgeoning ports there, making them more important for each faction to control. The Bahmani Kingdom and Vijayanagara Empire each also have a ‘home’ Province, Maharashtra and Karnataka respectively, which they can always Rally into and have an easier time defending.
Grant: What do the numbers under each city space represent? How does this affect the game? Can these values be increased or decreased?
Saverio: The numbers on each Province on the map represent an abstracted economic value to be had there, as a coarse measure of population and commercial output. The values are printed on the map and fixed in the game. A number of important cities lie on the map’s vertices; they are not spaces in the game, but many Events relevant to those cities have Factions acting in the Province adjacent to them. There is one capital city in the game, Delhi, which only the Delhi Sultanate has access to (though the Mongol army can … gain access as well).
Grant: What role does the Mongol Invaders Box play? What is the purpose of the designated a Mountain Passes space?
Saverio: The Mongol Invaders Box is where the available Mongol Invader Units are held while they are not in play. During the course of the game they can enter play by Amassing into the Mountain Passes and then advancing towards Delhi.
Mathieu: The Mongol invasions historically happened through the same path. We simplified it to two regions (Mountain Passes and Punjab) and built our system around it. The game is not a tactical game about warfare between the Sultan and the Mongols. The mechanic is meant to represent an approximation of the continued invasions, which took a heavy toll on Delhi and forced it to extract increasingly large amounts of tribute from southern India.
Grant: What is the Foundational Myths Track and how do players manipulate it? What benefits or detriments does it offer?
Saverio: What was in a previous iteration called the Foundational Myths track is now called the Deccan Influence track, and it measures the capacity of regional populations to be swayed towards allegiance and service. Influence can be changed actively, through economic and military means, and passively, through Events representing the flourishing of empire origin stories and foundational myths throughout the subcontinent.
Each of the two rebel Factions measures its Influence on a track which confers increasingly appealing benefits with each step. When the Bahmani Kingdom and Vijayanagara Empire are engaged with each other in a battle, the result of the battle can affect their Influence in the Deccan Plateau. A battle might result in a shift in either direction – even if a Faction is entirely cleared out of a Province, an unexpectedly strong defense in defeat can still result in Influence swinging the way of the vanquished defenders. Influence can also be attained by more peaceful means: when Bahmani and Vijayanagara Units Migrate from Province to Province, if Units of the other rebel Faction are present in that new space, they have the option to spend economic resources to increase their Influence.
A Bahmani Kingdom with great Influence has improved Trade benefits for resource generation, including options to acquire all-important Cavalry tokens, as well as an enhanced ability to Conspire with other potential allies throughout the Deccan, such as the Nayaka warrior kings, and from afar – the Bahmanis attracted great numbers of immigrants from across the sea in central Asia. A Vijayanagara Empire with great Influence has access to a huge population / number of Units (those very same Nayakas, perhaps now more convinced that this southern Empire is a safer bet), and an enhanced ability to Compel other such regional powers into joining their empire.
Grant: The Sequence of Play area is simplified over those of the COIN Series. How does this work?
Saverio: The Sequence of Play is adapted from that developed for the forthcoming People Power, which is designed for three factions and allows every player to act on each event card.
Grant: What are the challenges and opportunities it offers to players?
Mathieu: This new three-player sequence of play is much more furious than the classic four-player sequence of play. It allows you to execute a Limited Command and stay eligible, which is huge in COIN-like games as it allows you to, at the right moment, have a chance to make a double turn; an action in one space followed immediately by a full turn. To double up on that, we made 66% of our Events as “stay eligible”, so I think a challenge for the players will be in knowing how and when to set up combos.
Grant: How is the solitaire mode being designed? Will it use cards as in the more recent games in the series?
Cory: It’ll be using the same card based system as Gandhi and the recently released Tr’ung pack for Fire in the Lake. Not much more to say on that, but if you liked those, then you’ll like what we are working on for Vijayanagara.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Saverio: I love that we seem to be giving players the immersive narrative experience that we were shooting for. The Sultanate player feels the pressure of Mongol raids and the need to reach south to pay for its defense and the extreme annoyance when those regions start rebelling. The Bahmani player feels the danger of being geographically close to Delhi, wants to carefully convert Delhi’s Governors to its side, and knows it has a military and early economic advantage over the Vijayanagara Empire. The Vijayanagara player feels those same disadvantages relative to its northern rivals, and the huge payoff in investment in building large temples and compelling the Nayaka warrior kings to join its ever-growing population. By the end of the game the Vijayanagara Empire can feel huge.
Mathieu: It’s fast, it is edgy, it’s got a great storyline. And when you think you understood it all, it throws you a curveball. If the earlier classic COIN volumes are four hours long back and forth experiences comparable to an endurance exercise, I think Vijayanagara would be high-intensity interval training. You might sweat at the end of it, then take a step back, and jump back in.
Cory: It’s fast, it’s explosive, it’s fun. I am just shocked at how much I love it.
Aman: It’s quick, easy to learn and tense all the way to the end.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Saverio: From what we can tell our playtesters have really been enjoying the game so far, which has been tremendously gratifying. There’s nothing better in gaming than quietly watching over a playtest and hearing people laugh and curse and try out new clever strategies and plays.
Mathieu: We are in the process of playtesting now, and some of them have been really, really great at either making us realize things, or pulling the balance toward one side of an idea we couldn’t agree on internally. Playtesters are invaluable.
Cory: I think the game is nailing the feelings we’re aiming for. Hearing someone imperiously threaten the other players as the Sultan when they have precisely zero ability to back up their threat is priceless.
Aman: The response has been very positive so far! One playtester in particular, played our game first and then tried COIN games after, he said he found learning COIN games a lot easier after trying our game, which was fantastic.
Grant: What are some challenges you are trying to overcome?
Saverio: We’re still looking at a few rough edges and we have some bigger ideas we want to try out, but overall the game is feeling like it is in a very good place. The biggest challenge is now to reach as many interested parties as we can find. We have hopes that the game will reach the shores of the Deccan someday – we did have as a design goal to make a game that people living in the region would enjoy. So far we’ve only had one Deccani playtester, but she did enjoy herself! She also attacked our history consultant in Andhra, which resulted only in weakening both of their factions.
Cory: We have some rough edges and some ideas for the final Mongol invasion, but in general I think we’ve overcome most of our challenges.
Grant: What other games are you considering?
Saverio: Most games that I am thinking about involve lots of fluid mechanics, soft matter, and biology; life is playing games constantly on all scales and writes exceptional rulebooks. For the table, my six-year-old daughter and I are working on a tactical asymmetric game called Lost about three ducks named Marvin, Richie and Chuck who have to find a way off of Mars before they are ensnared by Jason Carr to do proofreading.
Mathieu: My favorite games are probably Dune (classic), any COIN, and Root. Exploring asymmetric conflict simulation games is what I feel drawn to. I designed Bakumatsu (a COIN fan-made) before jumping on Vijayanagara and I would like to come back to it. But also, and I think this is the most engaging for me right now: I’d like to design a new consim core system that can handle similar conflicts to COIN’s (larger scale strategy, political and military asymmetric). There are two keywords that keep coming back to my mind; modular and simultaneous.
Cory: I love games that can teach you something and are fun, to that end I’m toying with an economic conflict simulation about U.S. gangs and their complex interactions. And maybe one about the “seething mass” that is the COIN Discord’s community created section.
Aman: I have a zombie COIN game I’m in the very early stages of working on and also challenged myself to make a COIN game that fits on an A4 page with either a fantasy or sci-fi theme.
If you are interested in Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India, 1290-1398, you can pre-order a copy for the special P500 price of $54.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-918-vijayanagara-the-deccan-empires-of-medieval-india-1290-1398.aspx