I am a broken record as I feel like I start each of these COIN Series interviews the same. You know 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 new directions with talented young designers, new formats such as the Irregular Conflicts Series and the Multi-Pack, but also with its first volume not based in history and with a Sci-Fi setting. In the April 2021 Monthly Update email from GMT Games, a new COIN Series game was introduced from a rising star in the game design and development world Joe Dewhurst called The Pure Land. I had been following that game for quite a while on Twitter as Joe has shared pictures as it has made progress. Aside from my feelings on the COIN Series, I also have a great interest in wargames set in Feudal Japan. I lived there for a few years and loved the culture and history, especially those of the Samurai and their Daimyo. The Pure Land: Ōnin War in Muromachi Japan, 1465-1477 is Volume XIV of the COIN Series and focuses on the 15th century civil war that began the 100 year long Sengoku Jidai. This entry in the series is not just your run of the mill game that doesn’t take a chance. This design is definitely introducing some new elements and I couldn’t be more excited. We reached out to Joe and he, as always, was very willing to answer our questions.
*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 Joe please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Joe: Currently I work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, focusing primarily on topics to do with theoretical cognitive science and computer science. There’s a loose connection with game design here as well, as I’ve come to realise that scientific models and historical simulation games actually have a lot in common, especially when it comes to figuring out what details to focus on and what can be safely abstracted away. Outside of working and playing boardgames (which is almost another kind of work for me now!), I enjoy cooking, reading, and spending time outdoors. I also used to practice martial arts, although I haven’t been able to keep up with that for the last few years.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Joe: I’ve been interested in game design for almost as long as I can remember, and I spent much of my childhood forcing my younger brother to play my half-baked creations with me, but I never really seriously considered the possibility of publishing a design. A few years ago I got interested in the COIN Series from GMT Games, and decided I would have a go at putting together my own design, initially just as a personal project for fun.
I’d say what I enjoy most about game design is the creation of a richly integrated mechanical system, where you can see how all the pieces fit together to create a coherent whole. I also enjoy the research that is necessary for creating historical games, and I currently spend a lot of my free time reading history, either for my own design projects or for games I am working on as a developer.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Joe: Volko Ruhnke has of course been a huge influence on my COIN Series design, but also more generally in terms of thinking about games as serious models of historical scenarios (analogous to scientific models, as I mentioned above). I’ve also been influenced by Cole Wehrle’s designs (especially Pax Pamir) when thinking about how to present historical topics in an accessible manner, and recently I’ve found Peer Sylvester’s use of older mechanisms in new ways to be quite inspirational. All three designers excel at limiting the complexity of their games while also doing justice to their chosen topics, and this is something I would like to try and emulate in my own designs.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Joe: For multiplayer designs, I find that it can be initially challenging to figure out how to ensure that every player has some plausible means to interact with every other player, without just collapsing the game into a repetitive tug-of-war between multiple actors (this can be especially challenging for COIN Series designs). One thing I try to do well (although I’m not sure if I actually do it well yet) is to consider unusual (or ignored) perspectives in historical conflicts and come up with new systems to model these (for example, the active role played by peasants in The Pure Land).
Grant; I know you have acted as developer on several games. What games have you developed and how has that role prepared you for this design? Who is acting as your developer and how have they assisted you?
Joe: I actually started working as a developer after completing most of the core design work for The Pure Land, but it has certainly been beneficial for me as a designer, especially when it comes to thinking critically about what is strictly necessary for a design and what can be cut or otherwise simplified in some way. I’m currently developing seven games that are live on GMT’s P500 system, and several more that should be announced soon. I won’t list them all here, but I will mention two in particular: Fred Serval’s A Gest of Robin Hood and Stephen Rangazas’s The British Way, as Fred and Stephen are actually co-developing The Pure Land for me. I’m grateful to have both of them as developers, as they each bring quite different skills to the table – Stephen is very much a systems thinker, and was able to make a few crucial suggestions that really improved my initial version of the Ikkō-ikki faction, while Fred is better at giving me a regular player’s perspective, telling me what’s fun and what isn’t fun, and more generally keeping me grounded. Together they are an excellent team, and the three of us have spent a lot of time helping with each other’s designs over the past 18 months.
Grant: What historical event does The Pure Land cover?
Joe: The Pure Land takes as its focal point a historical conflict known as the Ōnin War (named after the era in which it began), but also covers the broader social, economic, and religious upheaval that was taking place at the same time. The Ōnin War was a civil war for control of the Ashikaga Shogunate that theoretically ruled Japan in the 15th century, although by the time the war ended in 1477 their rule was extremely weak, and the country would soon descend further into the chaotic violence that characterised the 16th century Sengoku period, and continued until the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate over a century later. This lack of centralised control also offered plenty of opportunities, and the period saw a number of major peasant revolts and the growth of autonomous religious sects, both of which are featured in the game.
Grant: What does the subtitle Ōnin War in Muromachi Japan mean and what does it tell us about what to expect?
Joe: The subtitle just refers to the historical conflict described above (‘Muromachi’ is a general term for the era, referring to the district of Kyoto where the Ashikaga Shogunate ruled from). A more interesting question might be what the main title refers to – what is ‘The Pure Land’? This title is meant somewhat ironically, as the land was anything but pure at this time, but it is also a reference to the Pure Land Buddhism practiced by the Ikkō-ikki faction, religious radicals for whom the promise of rebirth into the Pure Land offered a respite from the tragic violence of their own time.
Grant: What sources did you consult to get the details of the history correct? What one source would you recommend as a must read?
Joe: It is quite challenging to find English language sources on this specific conflict, and my primary resource was initially an old book by H. Paul Varley called The Ōnin War: History of Its Origins and Background (1966). However, in a fortuitous coincidence a new volume has just been published on the Ōnin War this year, The Ōnin War 1467-77: A Turning Point in Samurai History by Stephen Turnbull. As this book is both cheaper and more accessible, it is definitely the one I would recommend for anyone who wants to pick something up to read alongside the game. For different aspects of the period beyond the war itself I consulted several other sources, of which I will mention just a few here: Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan (Dobbins, 1989), The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society (Pierre François Souyri, 2001), Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion (Donald Keene, 2003), and War and Faith: Ikkō ikki in late Muromachi Japan (Carol Richmond Tsang, 2007).
Grant: How has the experience of designing a game in an established series like the COIN Series been?
Joe: The COIN System offers a great mechanical and conceptual framework for new designers to build on, but it’s important not just to treat it as a ‘plug and play’. You need to spend some time figuring out what makes your conflict unique, how this fits with what the system already does well, and what you might need to change or add to that basic structure. My initial version of the Ikkō-ikki faction fell into the ‘plug and play’ trap, really just playing the same as any other 20th century guerrilla faction, and so I had to spend some time working out how to make them unique in a way that reflected the particular challenges faced by a militant religious order in 15th century Japan.
Grant: How long have you been pondering the design? What were the steps you took to start the design and flesh it out?
Joe: I first started working on the design in summer 2019, with my initial interest being the Ikkō-ikki as a religious insurgency, and then discovering their origins during the Ōnin War and deciding to focus on this period. I realised early on that I wanted to emphasise the increasingly active role of peasant farmers, and their economic subsystem became the real heart of the game, around which everything else revolves. After that I had to figure out how to model the inter-clan politics that drove the civil war, and then the rest of the design quickly fell into place.
Grant: What was the pitch like to GMT and Volko Ruhnke? What approach did you take to emphasize your vision?
Joe: I actually never formally pitched the game to GMT! I mentioned it informally to Volko on Twitter, and both him and Morgane Gouyon-Rety (designer of Pendragon) were extremely encouraging during the early stages of the design. After that I was planning to eventually pitch it to GMT once I was happy with the design, but before I could do so I received an email from Jason Carr (the COIN Series developer, and now head of development at GMTOne) expressing interest and asking if he could hear more about the game. I sent Jason everything I had, he liked what he saw, and the rest is history!
Grant: What are the four factions depicted in the game?
Joe: The four factions are the Yamana and Hosokawa Clans, who are competing over control of the Ashikaga Shogunate, the Ikkō-ikki Religious League, and the Jizamurai, who represent a loose coalition of minor warlords, richer peasants, and an emerging mercantile middle class.
Grant: What are their individual motivations and how do they work together or against one another which is a hallmark of the COIN Series?
Joe: The Yamana and Hosokawa Clans have a unique relationship, as they both want to preserve the status quo in terms of support for the Ashikaga Shogunate, but at the same time they must compete to control the shogunate. Historically the Hosokawa won this competition, but it turned out to be so destructive this was more of a pyrrhic victory, as there was not much left to be worth controlling. This is the main tension faced by both of the first two factions: winning the civil war without entirely destroying the country. At the same time the Ikkō-ikki are spreading their unorthodox faith and encouraging opposition to the shogunate, which they perceive as corrupt and illegitimate, while the Jizamurai mobilize peasant revolts to preserve regional autonomy and protect their towns. The Ikkō-ikki and Jizamurai are natural partners at the start of the game, while both are relatively weak, but will tend to turn on one another as they grow in strength.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters with the various factions? What are their basic strategies and victory conditions?
Joe: The Jizamurai have been particularly popular with playtesters, with a common comment being that they are more interesting and engaging than many other ‘green’ (or economic) factions in existing COIN Series games. I’m not sure I would agree that the green factions in other games are uninteresting, but I’m certainly glad that people have found the Jizamurai especially fun to play. I’ve tried to give each faction at least a couple of different broad strategic options, relating to their victory conditions – so the Jizamurai can pursue either widespread revolt or defend their wealth-generating towns, the Ikkō-ikki can either covertly spread their faith or more overtly build opposition, and the Yamana and Hosokawa can either compete for control of the capital city Kyoto or build up a powerbase of loyal clans elsewhere in the country. Of course, in practice you will probably want to choose a mixed strategy, and both objectives typically support one another to some extent, but there is some flexibility with how you choose to play your faction.
Grant: What is the innovation used in the design creating a Clan Loyalty System? What type of extra dynamic to the political geography does this create? Why was this important to your vision?
Joe: I knew from early on in the design that it would be important to capture the complex interactions of clan loyalty that were the root cause of the Ōnin War, but this is also not the only focus of the game, so I couldn’t make it so complicated that there was no time (or mental energy) left for anything else. The answer was to replace the physical geography found in most COIN Series games with a shifting ‘political geography’ that influences many of the actions available to players (especially the Hosokawa and Yamana), such as conscripting new units and confiscating local resources. The way this works is essentially as a third layer tracked on top of Control and Support/Opposition, indicating whether a province’s nobility are Loyal to either the Hosokawa or Yamana, with the twist that a single clan might rule several provinces spread across the map, and so a change to their Loyalty in one province will also change it elsewhere in other provinces that they rule. This system can seem a little daunting at first, but in practice I find that after one game players adjust to it pretty fast.
Grant: What is the basis for the economic system used in the game and how does it operate?
Joe: The peasant-based economic system is really the heart of the game. There are neutral peasant units in every province that generate resources for the Jizamurai faction (representing agricultural output) that are then stolen by the other factions, while the Jizamurai try to convert their resources into more easily concealed wealth. Peasants also provide a source of conscript soldiers to the Hosakawa and Yamana factions, and religious converts to the Ikkō-ikki faction, but using them in either of these ways will mean that fewer resources are generated overall. This means that by the end of the game the economy is frequently in collapse, with every faction competing over increasingly scarce resources (and reflecting the historical devastation caused by the Ōnin War).
Grant: How does the tax, tithing and confiscation effect this system?
Joe: Taxing takes place during the Harvest ‘interphase’, transferring the resources generated in Hosokowa or Yamana controlled provinces directly to the controller. Confiscation operates in a similar way during the campaign, but is perceived as illegitimate, and so it decreases clan loyalty (and eventually increases opposition). Finally, Tithe is a special option available only to the Ikkō-ikki in provinces where they have spread their faith, allowing them to take resources or even hidden wealth from the Jizamurai (as some merchants and even minor nobles supported them).
Grant: How does the system deal with religious insurgency and peasant revolts? Why are these aspects so important to the balance of the game?
Joe: Peasant revolts are important primarily to interrupt taxation and confiscation, and can be triggered both by the Jizamurai (anywhere) and by the Ikkō-ikki (only in faithful provinces). Peasants are essentially non-combatants until they are activated by a revolt, neither contesting control nor participating in battles, and so revolts also offer a way for the Jizamurai and Ikkō-ikki to strike back against the more militarily powerful Hosokawa and Yamana factions. The Ikkō-ikki’s religious insurgency is a little more subtle, represented by tokens indicating the spread of their faith into new provinces, which unlock additional actions and advance their victory condition. These tokens make it very hard to remove the Ikkō-ikki once they have become established in a province, and also allow them to build opposition to the shogunate through their religious teachings (although only if the province is uncontrolled, for which they might need to trigger a peasant revolt).
Grant: How do the Yamana and the Hosokawa clans fight over control of the shogunate?
Joe: Each faction has a different way of controlling the shogunate, based on their historical positions and attitudes. The Hosokawa were one of three clans who shared a rotating position of ‘kanrei’, or shogun’s deputy – essentially the power behind the throne – and as such they only need to retain this position by claiming the loyalty of a majority of the other clans represented in the game. The Yamana, on the other hand, were political outsiders who had only recently begun to expand and grow in power, and so they aim to dominate the shogunate militarily, by controlling sufficient territory that nobody can oppose them. At the same time both clans want to preserve the relevance of the shogunate by maintaining popular support for it, without which they cannot achieve victory.
Grant: How many different spaces are there on the map? What pinch points are there for players as they attempt to control these areas?
Joe: There are 26 spaces on the map, including the capital city Kyoto and two initially out-of-play provinces (that can potentially enter play via events). The main pinch points are the high population provinces around Kyoto (especially Yamashiro and Omi), which are not only valuable in their own right but also serve as a gateway to the capital. These provinces also saw major peasant unrest during the period, not least because the local inhabitants grew tired of the damage caused by the constant flow of armies in and out of Kyoto. The provinces on the western side of the board are often quieter, but can provide a strong powerbase for the Yamana, or else a refuge for the Jizamurai if left unprotected.
Grant: What role does Kyoto play and why is its space so large?
Joe: The majority of open warfare during the Ōnin War took place in Kyoto, eventually reducing the mostly wooden city to “an empty moor”, although there were also major battles elsewhere in the country. This is because it was home to the shogun and the seat of the Ashikaga government that the Hosokawa and Yamana were fighting to control – by seizing Kyoto they could legitimate their rule. To reflect this historical importance the Kyoto space has the largest population value in the game, confers additional advantages to the controlling faction at the end of each campaign, and also serves as a tie-breaker between the Hosokawa and Yamana factions. The space is large not only to draw attention to it but also for practicality, as it typically has to hold a lot of units fighting for control of the city! However, fighting in Kyoto also pushes it towards opposition, reflecting the devastation caused by open warfare among tightly packed wooden buildings. This presents the Hosokawa and Yamana with an often difficult choice about whether or not to fight in the city, and forces the players to consider the consequences of their actions.
Grant: What is the force structure of the various units? What purpose do things like Towns and Temples serve?
Joe: The Hosokawa and Yamana forces are symmetrical, consisting of powerful and mobile Bushi (noble warriors) alongside slow and expendable Ashigaru (peasant conscripts). The Jizamurai also possess a small number of Bushi, but primarily rely on Peasants, which fight with equivalent strength to Ashigaru once they have revolted. The Ikkō-ikki possess only relatively weak Monks, but can also make use of revolting Peasants when attacking the Hosokawa or Yamana. Each faction also has access to a specific kind of building: Castles for Hosokawa and Yamana (used to recruit Bushi), Towns for Jizamurai (used to convert Resources into Wealth), and Temples for Ikkō-ikki (used to generate passive income and rally additional Monks).
Grant: Let’s talk about the Events. How many cards are there and what special rules govern how many are in each era?
Joe: There are 72 Event cards, with 12 selected at random for each campaign stack, as is now typical for four-player COIN Series games. I have also included an optional ‘period events’ rule, which marks a few cards (but not many) as only being added to specific campaign stacks, depending on the chosen scenario. This ensures that certain key historical events only occur (approximately) when they are meant to, and also weights early campaigns towards Hosokawa and Yamana, and late campaigns towards Jizamurai and Ikkō-ikki.
Grant: What is the name of the interlude period at the end of an era? What is unique about this phase?
Joe: The ‘interphase’ (as Jason Carr likes to call it) between campaigns is called the ‘Harvest’ in this game, and as the name suggests it revolves primarily around the generation and distribution of resources. Two-thirds of the Harvest cards also allow the faction controlling Kyoto (or Jizamurai if none) to shift the Loyalty of two clans, reflecting the ability to influence political affairs by controlling the shogun’s court and family. The other one-third are ‘poor harvests’, which remove Peasants and Ashigaru from all over the board, making life a little more difficult for everyone. Each faction also receives some reinforcements during the Harvest, and is able to build Support or Opposition (to the shogunate) in spaces they control.
Grant: Can you share a few cards and explain their text and function in the game?
Joe: I am writing a series of card spoilers that will feature some of the most notable events, but I’ll show you a couple here that won’t appear in that series. The geographic focus of the game is just on the central and southern regions of Honshu (the largest Japanese island), also including northern Kyushu and the smaller island of Shikoku. These were the regions that the Ashikaga Shogunate was able to claim any degree of control over, and where the Ōnin War primarily took place. However, the off-map regions were also relevant to the conflict, and these two events allow them to come into play, reflecting either the intervention of the Kantō Kubō (a side-branch of the Ashikaga family who ruled in northern Honshu) or the Otomo and Shoni clans (who were dominant in southern Kyushu and opposed the Ashikaga). The alternative shaded options on each event instead represent raiding parties or invasions from these regions. Along the top of each card you can see the faction eligibility orders (from left to right on Kantō Warlords: Hosokawa, Jizamurai, Ikkō-ikki, Yamana).
Grant: What did you find most challenging about creating balanced events?
Joe: Deciding the faction eligibility order on each event was probably the most challenging part of the design. It’s important that at least the first and second eligible faction on each card have some stake in the event text, but I also didn’t want just taking the event to ever be an obvious or inevitable decision. At one point I completely overhauled this in a way that didn’t end up working, and then I had to revert to something much closer to how I originally had it. I hope the eligibility order is now pretty good, and will give every player something to think about when their turn comes around.
Grant: What are some of the most powerful events?
Joe: I will detail some of the most powerful events in the card spoiler series, but here is one that I will not feature there. This event reflects the devastating effects of the war on Kyoto and its inhabitants, either wiping out all Hosokawa and Yamana units there as they destroy one another, or setting the space directly to Opposition as the inhabitants turn against the Ashikaga Shogunate.
Grant: Are there shaded and unshaded text as in the other games?
Joe: Yes, typically with the unshaded option favouring either Hosokawa or Yamana, and the shaded option favouring either Jizamurai or Ikkō-ikki, although this is not always the case (so you should read each option carefully when first playing).
Grant: What about capabilities? Can you share a few of these with us and explain their usefulness?
Joe: The game only features permanent capabilities for the Jizamurai and Ikkō-ikki factions, reflecting the fact that these were both emerging social movements at a time when the Hosokawa and Yamana Clans were in decline. This will mean that the former two can evolve over the course of the game, while the latter two will remain static. Each capability has two possible effects, one negative and one positive for the indicated faction. So, the first capability on the left indicates either the negative impact of conscription on rural life as soldiers turn to banditry, or the positive impact as they return home with weapons and training to defend the towns. The second capability on the right foreshadows the development of huge fortified temples in the next century (the Ikkō-ikki temple-fortress at Ishiyama held out for 10 years against Oda Nobunaga from 1570 to 1580) – in game terms these might either invite attack as they come to resemble legitimate military targets, or prove strong enough to withstand assault.
Grant: How is the solitaire mode being designed? Will it use cards as in the more recent games in the series?
Joe: I am going to design the solitaire mode myself, and it will use the new card-based system pioneered by Bruce Mansfield in Gandhi, which apparently most players seem to prefer.
Grant: What scenarios are included in the design?
Joe: There are four scenarios offering a range of different play experiences. The standard Foxes and Wolves scenario covers the first and most active stage of the war from 1467-1472, and gives the full narrative arc of the game over three campaigns (playable in an evening). The longer Ōnin-Bunmei War scenario uses the same setup but continues for two more campaigns, up until the ‘official’ end of the war in 1477. The medium length Flowery Capital scenario starts two years earlier, in 1465, covering the initial build-up to the war and then continuing through until 1472 (although it could easily be extended to 1477 by using all of the event cards for a total of six campaigns). Finally, the short scenario An Empty Moor begins in 1473 while the war is in full swing and both sides are nearly exhausted, and continues for only two campaigns until 1477. These four scenarios give a range of options, both in terms of duration and starting setup, but I expect the three campaign Foxes and Wolves scenario to be the most played, and would recommend starting there.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Joe: I’m particularly pleased with the central role that peasants play for all factions, and that players have been able to pick up on this and reflect on the impact that this war (and all others) had on ordinary people. The Jizamurai player probably feels this the most, being pushed around by all the other players while also wielding enough influence to undermine any of them should they choose to do so.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Joe: Feedback from playtesters has been very positive, with the Jizamurai faction being especially popular and everything agreeing that the various new systems being something fresh to the COIN Series.
Grant: What other designs are you mulling over?
Joe: I have several designs in progress, three of which I will hint at here: a short two-player game set at the end of the Russian revolution, a potential expansion for an existing COIN Series game, and a game using a different existing system to explore the final years of the Ikkō-ikki a century after the Ōnin War. I’ve also been doing some research into strikes and industrial actions, with the aim of designing a general system for modelling these kinds of non-military ‘conflicts’, which have been of huge importance all over the world for at least the last 150 years.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Joe and also for the great work you have already contributed to wargames through your design and development work at GMT Games. I really appreciate your detail in this interview and for the work that you have put into the design as it simply looks to be amazing. I cannot wait to play it in 2023, maybe? Who knows?
If you are interested in The Pure Land: Ōnin War in Muromachi Japan, 1465-1477, you can pre-order a copy for $64.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-923-the-pure-land-nin-war-in-muromachi-japan-1465-1477.aspx