John Poniske loves to do games on little gamed portions of history. Over the past 6 years, we have talked to him about an innumerable amount of games on lesser gamed topics and he really has a knack for translating these lesser known elements of history into playable games that teach you something. Recently, I had heard that one of his long enduring games called Black Eagles may be getting somewhat of a rebirth and might be on our tables before too long. I reached out to John and the following is what he shared with me on the design.
Grant: What subject does your upcoming Black Eagles design cover?
John: Black Eagles covers the successful slave rebellions that took place between 1790 and 1804 in French controlled Saint Domingue. The risings gave rise to a number of influential black leaders including Toussaint L’Ouverture and ended in the creation of the Caribbean nation of Haiti.
Grant: Who was Toussaint L’Ouverture?
John: Born into slavery, the son of an educated slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture was freed in 1776 (interesting that). As the French Revolution took root on the island, he became a general and a prominent leader of the slave revolution. L’Ouverture fought against the French, then for them, and finally against them again ultimately the rebels defeated even Napoleon’s veterans. Ultimately L’Ouverture was deceived, captured and sent back to France where he died in Fort-de-Joux Prison in 1803.
Grant: Are you a bit concerned about this game and the attention that it might bring? I know that you have had some interesting experiences in the past with games such as King Philip’s War.
John: No, I am not at all concerned. This subject is the fight to overthrow slavery in the world’s richest sugar colony. I welcome the attention brought to this large slice of influential history, one largely overlooked or swept under the rug. I create games on relatively hidden topics for the express purpose of enlightening people. I find that through “playing” a historical game that we learn things about the situation, having to deal with the same tough choices that the historical leaders had to, to see if we can replicate their success or find new and interesting solutions to their challenges. Diving into a topic, no matter how controversial, gets us to the table to discuss issues and have our minds expanded. That is what history is really about.
Grant: What would you say to your detractors who think that you shouldn’t create games on these subjects?
John: History needs to be remembered. History needs to be told. I don’t buy the adage that those who don’t understand history are due to repeat their mistakes. Sorry to say, we are stupid animals and are doomed to repeating our mistakes. History shows us that. What a study of history and games like this do is make people aware of the origins of where we are and why we act the way we do.
Grant: Why does this subject create such a compelling opportunity for a game?
John: Simply put, this chapter of history is a study in chaos. There are so very many factions fighting with each other, allying then realigning their alliances. Besides Republican France, England and Spain got in on the action as well. It was a VERY hard topic to game. It took awhile but I think we got it right and created something to share the truth about the story.
Grant: What has been the story of the design as I know you have been working on this since at least 2013? Who is interested in publishing this one?
John: Yes, that was when it first went onto Board Game Geek as a possible game. But I’d been working on it for even a couple years before that. Two good friends helped me with it early on. Bill Morgal in the early stages. Michel Boucher helped develop, polish and playtest it. He and I brought it to the attention of Clash of Arms. Sadly, Michel died and it lay fallow for several years. That is, until Nels Thompson and I had a chat at WBC. He began researching the topic and became as fascinated with the history as I. He became its new developer has given it even sharper and more cogent play. I really like how he has made card play more interactive.
Grant: What resources did you consult on the design? What one resource is a must read for anyone interested in this history?
John: As with most of my games, I read a lot and use different perspectives to get the details correct. Here is a list of some of the more entertaining and informative works on the subject:
- Avengers of the New World, Laurent Dubois, 2004
- Black Jacobins (The), C. L. R. James, 1963
- Making Of Haiti (The), Carolyn E. Fick, 1990
- Night of Fire, Martin Ros, 1994
- Plantation Machine (The), Trevor Burnard & John Garrigus, 2016
- Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804, John D. Garrigus and Laurent Dubois 2006
Avengers of the New World for the evolution of the revolution on Saint Domingue. Plantation Machine for a holistic understanding of the Sugar industry which goaded slavery to new lows which in turn led to these successful slave uprisings. Also, I understand a new book on Toussaint L’Ouverture has recently been published – Black Spartacus – by Sudhir Hazareesingh, I haven’t read it but I see it has received positive reviews.
Grant: What factions are represented in the design?
John: As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of factions involved and I had to give each their own attention to remain true to the history.
- Gros blancs These were the “Big Whites,” or plantation owners and local officials.
- Petits Blancs These were the “Little Whites,” lower class French colonials, simple shopkeepers, artisans, laborers and prisoners who did not have the clout of their bigger compatriots.
- Revolutionary Commissioners These were government officials appointed in France, who sailed to her colonies to ensure the peaceful transfer of power from the elitist Gros blancs to the disenfranchised Petits Blancs.
- The French Revolutionary Army The revolutionary forces sent by the Directorate to maintain order. Their allegiance was divided between the Gros Blancs and the Petits Blancs.
- Mulatrés These were the half-castes, half black, half white and wholly rejected by white colonial culture. Nevertheless the Mulatrés were hard workers, fierce fighters and great dreamers. Many owned slaves themselves. They were led by the eminently capable André Rigaud.
- Marróns: The period term “Marrón” (dark brown) referred to communities of escaped slaves living in the Spanish mountains of Western Hispaniola. In the game it represents four separate slave factions led by four charismatic slave leaders Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Jean-Francois Papillon.
- The English During the unrest brought on by the French Revolution, the Gros blancs appealed to the British for protection. Not only did they fear the roving bands of armed slaves but their own libertarian citizens. Long envious of the fortunes made there, the English, took advantage of French political instability and (to their lasting regret) invaded in an attempt to annex Saint-Domingue.
- The Spanish Militarily weaker than the English and the French but substantially richer, Spain could not stand by while England took over the west end of Hispaniola. Besides she was already involved in a lucrative trade with the Marróns, buying stolen loot from the plantations and selling guns, food and other supplies to the rebel slaves.
- Imperial French The final player and by far the most ironic is Napoléon and the legion commanded by his son-in-law General Leclerc. When he invaded Saint-Domingue Napoléon had three goals in mind. First, he meant to crush the uprisings and kill or remove all black leaders with any influence. Second, he quite literally meant to reinstitute the institution of slavery on the island of Saint-Domingue. Third, he hoped to establish the island as a naval base from which to spring an American imperial campaign. Yellow fever and slave armies sent him packing.
Grant: This design mixes cubes of different colors as well as counters. What does each represent and why did you feel this was the appropriate medium to tell the story?
John: As I said earlier, it was a chaotic situation in which factions were constantly switching sides. Colored cubes show the rainbow of various coalitions and their small size allow for the representation of great armies more easily. However, historical leaders played a large part in the various wars. They had to be represented by counters which would allow the depiction of their faces (where ever possible).
Grant: How is the map used for the game laid out?
John: The map represents the great French sugar colony of Saint Domingue and a small portion of Spanish Hispaniola. Saint Domingue is divided into four large regions. Three French regions called Nord, Oest and Sud. And one Spanish Frontier region. These in turn are divided into eleven French plantation provinces and five Spanish frontier provinces.
Each of the French provinces allows for victory points based on the value of the sugar plantations therein. Spanish provinces hold no value but allow for the recruitment of slave units. The map possesses three other key segments. A Victory Point Track a Factions Track and a Turn Track. The Turn Track indicates the four key scenario segments that cover the 11 years seemingly nonstop war.
Grant: What is the significance of the numbers in the provinces and what does this represent?
John: Each French provincial number represents the relative wealth of the provinces and consequently victory points for whomever controls it, but wait, this is a revolution. Wealth is looted and plantations destroyed. As the game progresses the value of provinces often declines due to this looting and destruction. It is possible to make repairs but it is always more difficult to create than it is to tear down.
Grant: Other than looting and destruction, how can these values change throughout the game and what effect does this have on play? What is the distinction between the Active Value and the Possible Value and why does this matter?
John: Provincial values will be ever changing through the game via various card play. 9 cards or 15% of the deck will burn plantations and erode value. 5 cards or 8% of the deck will rebuild plantations and increase value. Possible provincial value refers to the ultimate undamaged plantation output. Active value of a province refers to its current state – damaged or undamaged.
Grant: The game uses cards to move the action along. What three ways can players use these cards?
John: Players earn cards based on their faction, what their faction controls, card text, army size, and on deals made. A card has three basic uses. A player can: execute the event text on the card; discard any card to move or ; discard any card to recruit cubes. – I’ll give you 13 specific uses described in the card text. Cards can be used, 1) as previously stated, traded in negociation, 2) To recruit new units, 3) To burn plantations, 4) To rebuild plantations, 5) To force-march, 6) To ambush a moving player, 7) To prevent movement, 8) To conduct naval movement, 9) To bribe an opponent’s troops, 10) To prevent or alter combat in a variety of ways, 11) To inflict fever on European troops, 12) To gain additional cards, 13) To deploy European Troops.
Grant: What are Interrupt Cards and how are they used?
John: Interrupt cards work as expected. A player may interrupt another player’s action as he is taking it in the card’s designated phase. Interrupt cards may be used to affect, movement, combat, force size, increase or decrease casualties, increase or decrease victory points, and to decrease card draw. Just as the historical conflict was chaotic, so is game play. Players have little downtime as they nearly always have an opportunity to affect an opponent’s play, Cards fly and players can never be entirely sure any of their plans will come to fruition. One certainly can’t depend on allies sticking around.
Grant: Can you show us some examples of interrupt Cards as well as Event Cards and explain how they function in the game?
John: We have no finished art as yet but I can show you one of my early cards. Interrupt use is quite simple. Each player will have a wide variety of cards in their hands Those in better tactical positions will hold more. Since 60% of the deck are Interrupt cards, each player will undoubtedly hold one or more. Each indicates a game phase so that the card may only be used in that particular phase. The card to the right would be played as an opponent is about to count his victory points. A reduction counter would be placed on a provincial plantation value that player controls, so that the player would earn less than previously expected (Note that this is old playtest art and the reference to fever is now handled in a different way).
Grant: How many cards are included in the game and how did you determine the appropriate number?
John: Sixty cards are in the deck. The deck has been both bigger and smaller. We used lots of trial and error but ultimately it was all about what effects we wanted to mirror and how many of each were needed – that is, what percentage of the deck each effect needed to be.
Grant: What is Bois Caïman and how does this event effect the game?
John: It is Haitian creole for “Alligator Forrest.” It was the site of the first major preparatory meeting of enslaved blacks that launched the slave insurrection on Saint Domingue. It was Nels’ idea to commence the game with Bois Caïman and it is fitting that we do so.
Grant: What are the different factions in the game and how do they differ in play style and actions?
John: I’ll give you the broad strokes. There are three European factions and five black rebel factions. It was always my intention for the European factions to be the puppets in the game, as the rebel factions tended to play them off against each other. It was also my intention for players to represent a rebel faction fighting against the institution of slavery. Four of these are named after their black rebel leader, the fifth, the Mulatrés, were the half castes who were accepted by neither the rebels nor their white overlords. The French, British and Spanish factions also have their own individual advantages, the three biggest are Increased combat ability, naval movement and increased hand size. At the same time, they have a big weakness. They are far more susceptible to fever than the natives. Each rebel faction has a slight advantage, be it in cards dealt, combat effects, political relations or recruitment. Each player retains control of their faction throughout the game. All other nonplayer rebel and European factions swap sides with alarming ease.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
John: The Sequence of Play is pretty standard.
1) Choose Allies – every turn allies are likely to change.
2) Player order is determined based on the allies chosen.
A. Card play
Interrupts may occur whenever the text allows.
A. Award VP’s
B. Discard (1VP per card discarded)
C. Shuffle deck (Deal base hand of six to each player)
D. Deal Bonus cards
E. Place eliminated leaders in Spanish provinces
F. Advance Turn Marker
G. If last turn determine winner
Grant: At its heart, the game is an area control game. What is the goal of the players?
John: To control the most Plantation wealth points both active and potential. No one should expect to hold a particular province forever – things change too rapidly.
Grant: How does combat work? What is a combat opportunity and how can this be created?
John: Combat begins after all players are done playing action and reaction cards during the movement portion of the phasing player’s Operations Phase. One by one the phasing player refers to each of the provinces he occupies. The phasing player followed by the other players (in player order) elect whether or not to initiate combat in the named province. Players may negotiate before deciding to initiate combat.
The phasing player need not have activated anything in a province to engage in combat. To engage in combat, a player need only have friendly cubes in a province occupied by enemy cubes and the desire to “cross swords” with them. Only provinces with the phasing player’s cubes are eligible for combat.
The player electing combat is the attacker for the purpose of tiebreakers and card definitions. Other factions may join the attacker or the defender. Neutral defenders participate only if targeted by the attackers. The phasing player may attack one or more other factions in combat. The other players may only attack the phasing player and any faction siding with the phasing player during combat. A player does not have to include all friendly factions in combat, nor all of the cubes within a faction, but a player cannot have factions on both the attacking and defending sides.
Grant: How can Interrupt Cards effect the outcome of combat? What type of experience does this create between different factions and negotiation?
John: Players may play any number of interrupts out of turn but only one card is played at a time and play begins with the player initiating combat, continuing clockwise. Players who do not wish to play a card state that they “Pass.” Interrupts used in combat may allow retreat before combat or even end combat. They can add troops to the attacker or defender. They may detract troops from the attacker or the defender. They can increase or decrease casualties. They can even cancel a card play.
Grant: How does Fever effect the game? What did this represent from the history?
John: By the end of the 18th century, Yellow Fever was an “emerging disease spread widely across the Caribbean and particularly lethal in Saint-Domingue. From 1793 to 1798, fatality rates among British troops in the West Indies, particularly Saint-Domingue, could be as much as 70%. Imperial French armed forces had it worse in 1802. Of the 30,000 troops sent to Saint Domingue only a small fraction survived. Neither country understood the disease resulting in absolutely no preventive measures. In Black Eagles Fever affect units in three ways.
First – When European cubes (red, blue, and yellow) first enter the map directly as reinforcements or from the Turn Record Track, roll a die for each cube. On a 1 or 2, eliminate red and blue cubes. Eliminate yellow cubes only on a 1.
Second – In the Fever phase of each turn, roll a die for each European cube on the map in the same manner.
Third – Fever cards work similarly but can impact other cubes, not just the Europeans.
Grant: How are Victory Points awarded?
John: Victory Points are largely determined by the four separate historical scenario segments on the turn track. Each segment calls for different VP requirements. Up until 1801 A player earns 1VP for every European cube he causes to be lost. At the end of each of the first three segments Players allied with a European faction controlling the most possible plantation points in a region earns 2VP, the second most earns 1VP. At the end of each segment VPs are awarded for control of the Nord, Oest and Sud Regions. Control of all provinces in a region awards 3VPs, the most – 2VPs, second most – 1VP. At the end of the Rights of Man segment VPs are awarded for controlling the most Black and brown cubes in each region. At the end of Imperial Designs players earn VPs for controlling the most possible Plantation points in each region. At the end of War of Knives players earn VPs for controlling the most active Plantation points in each region. At the end of Napoleon Responds the player allied with the French earns VPs simply for French presence in each province.
Grant: How is overall victory determined?
John: VP’s are recorded on the victory point track. The player with the most VPs at the end of the Napoleon Responds segment is the winner. Ties are determined by the Tie Breaker order located on the map. The tie breaker order is as follows.
First – Control of Le Cap
Second – Control of Port-au-Prince
Third – Total controlled cubes
Fourth – Total controlled actual plantation value
Fifth – Total controlled possible plantation value
Grant: What scenarios are included in the game? How do these scenarios differ from the main game in Victory Points?
John: The four scenario segments are:
Turns 1 & 2 The Rights of Man
Turns 3 & 4 Imperial Designs
Turn 5 The War of Knives
Turn 6 Napoleon Responds
I explained the VP differences earlier.
Grant: What do you feel works really well in the design? What has been the experience of your playtesters?
John: Personally, I think the chaos created by changing alliances and frequently used interrupt cards makes this a gem of a design. My play testers and play testers at WBC were quite taken with this uniquely intense approach. Nels who has been conducting his own intense playtesting agrees, saying that he most appreciates the fact that players represent the black rebel leaders and not the European factions. He also says that the players appreciate how alliances change every turn, and they like the way cards fly to interrupt or influence other players actions.
Grant: What is the schedule for the release of this game?
John: That’s a good question, one only Clash of Arms can answer. We’ve been waiting a long time for Black Eagles to take flight. We hope it will be soon.
Thanks for the information on this one and I know that we don’t know exactly when it will be produced and ready for purchase but please let us know when you find out more information.