I am really impressed with the depth of the designer pool at GMT Games right now. They simply seem to have game after game coming out that has a new, or newer designer attached, that simply seem amazing. Another game that is upcoming is the third entry in the Final Crisis Series of games started with Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter that deals with a county’s decision during pre-WWII Europe in the late 1930’s about resisting invasion by a dictator and fighting back or accepting it and becoming less than they could be. This game is called The Bell of Treason and is designed by Petr Mojžíš. At the request of Joe Dewhurst, who serves as game developer on this project, we reached out to Petr and he was more than willing to share with us.
*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 Petr please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Petr: I discovered modern board games as an adult and it slowly pushed away most of my other hobbies. I enjoy playing games that allow me to engage with history. From hardcore MMP wargames to the occasional euro historical-themed games, I like it all. I also love crime-solving board games. My day job lies in the field of information and cyber security. That is very challenging these days, but can be fun too. I had an opportunity to bring my hobby-skills to my day-job when my company created a security awareness game called Clashing, which I am creating content for.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about
Petr: My motivation was the common “I want to play a game on this topic and it does not exist”. I think I will never do a Waterloo, Bulge, or an Eastern Front game. I think the game design can be very strong when the subject is very close to the designer (see for example Cole Wehrle’s designs on British Imperialism). Therefore, I am working on designs related to my country first. I think access to local language sources is a big advantage which allows a designer to tell the picture that could otherwise be easily misunderstood. However, it is also a risk because the local sources could be biased, which is definitely the case for The Bell of Treason.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Petr: First of all I must thank Lee Brimmicombe-Wood who brought me into the world of design by inspiring me to create scenarios for his great Wing Leader. In general, I am trying not to follow any specific style. I am trying to learn and find as many differentiated mechanics as possible to have the right tool in the toolbox to model pretty much anything. Therefore, I feel most inspired by the designers I consider the biggest innovators in the hobby. To give you an example, I will name three: Mark Herman, Volko Ruhnke, and Amabel Holland.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Petr: The most challenging aspect is dealing with the emotions evoked by the history. When the game is about moral struggle I want it to be emotional. I want players to feel and understand motivations and decisions. You can achieve some emotions through the use of pictures and flavor text but I am trying to get the player to get emotional through game effects, which is harder in a mostly political game. I think I have preserved the simplicity of the system so the game would be accessible to a broad audience (I am comparing it to Red Flag Over Paris).
Grant: What historical event does The Bell of Treason cover?
Petr: The Bell of Treason covers the so-called Munich Crisis of 1938. It is the time after Hitler’s annexation of Austria, culminating in the Munich Conference which resulted in the annexation of Sudetenland to the Third Reich, providing him with new armaments and a strong Czech industry. It also left Czechoslovakia defenseless strategically and morally. The Munich Conference is well known, but the path to it, not so much
Grant: What is the meaning behind the title and what should players understand from the reference?
Petr: “The Bell of Treason” is a verse from Fratišek Halas’ poem, which was written very soon after the Munich Conference. The full verse is “There tolls the bell of treason, the bell of treason. Whose hands have swung its rope? Sweet France, proud Albion. The very ones we loved.” You see it is a cry over western democracies giving up on new democracy in Central Europe and abandoning their treaties (in the case of France). I am trying to emphasize that this is a Czechoslovak point of view on the crisis with this title. The game shows that this cry of the betrayed could not be the cry at all. It was Czechoslovakia’s final decision to concede the Sudetenland under pressure, not the decision of a conference and powers putting the pressure. Czechoslovakia could instead have chosen to defend against Germany. The game is about that decision: one player is called “Concede” and the other “Defend”.
“The Bell of Treason” is a verse from Fratišek Halas’ poem, which was written very soon after the Munich Conference. The full verse is “There tolls the bell of treason, the bell of treason. Whose hands have swung its rope? Sweet France, proud Albion. The very ones we loved.”
Grant: What is the thesis argument of the Munich Crisis that you are trying to make in the design?
Petr: The Czechoslovak decision to defend was the second most probable outcome of the crisis. That is why it is in the center of the game. The other possibility was a different outcome of Neville Chamberlain’s politics in the United Kingdom and France. It is less probable, but the game even shows a little bit of this, with the possibility of Defend controlling those spaces. Overall I am trying to show the impact of the appeasement policy on an initially defense-determined small country facing pressure from an aggressor.
It is also a game about a possible coup. Edvard Beneš, the President of Czechoslovakia, was the architect of the country’s international alliances. When those alliances turned against him he was determined not to shed the blood of the people for what was probably a lost cause, and so for the Defend player to win they must eventually launch a coup against Beneš.
Grant: What do you hope that players will take away from the experience?
Petr: I hope they will see that these kinds of crises aren’t usually just about one conference, and that big decisions are not historically only taken in places such as London. My biggest wish with the game is that the players will feel the moral struggle a small country is going through, when the enemy is already spreading terror, and at the same time international powers are trying to make the country surrender to a clear aggressor.
Grant: What sources did you consult on the design? What one must read source would you recommend on the subject?
Petr: With access to Czech sources I could go deep in researching details. Apart from books studying the crisis as a whole I went through several biographies of key actors. I have read for example a book on Czechoslovak journalism to get a bigger understanding of the “Press” space on the map. I have read detailed description of Sudeten German attacks to get a clear picture about the terror. Lots of sources. But for the major questions about the crisis, I have rather focused on external sources to avoid local writers’ bias. The most approachable one is The Bell of Treason: The Czech Story of the 1938 Munich Agreement by P.E. Caquet. Knowing that this book will be connected to the game by its name, it is my first recommendation for anybody interested.
Grant: How have you modified the CDG system used in Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter to meet the history of this struggle?
Petr: The first mechanic that differs from pretty much any CDG is an “arrow” marking directional adjacency between spaces. It is Fred Serval’s invention (from Red Flag Over Paris), and I used it heavily to model pressure from various spaces on the map towards other spaces which are unidirectional. Most of the international politics are done that way and players will feel it. The second mechanic is the mixture of cubes on a crisis track inspired by the political will concept, used for example in Cataclysm and This Guilty Land. The more you escalate the more energy you give to your opponent. Third, we have an important die here. It is called Hitler’s die and in certain situations can cause an immediate game end with Hitler’s invasion (in around 10% of plays). There is an unstable aggressor ready to attack there, right? And last but not least there are special conditions for convincing or overthrowing Edvard Beneš in a coup. The Defend player must have enough cubes in spaces around the President, along with enough VP’s to win the game.
Grant: Each card play can place cubes on the board. What do these cubes represent and what is their ultimate goal?
Petr: In general cubes represent the idea of conceding Sudetenland to Germany (white) or defending the country at all cost (green). Both can have different interpretations in different spaces. For example, a white cube in the United Kingdom space means a British message to Czechoslovakia to “concede”. The more cubes, stronger the message. The same cubes in the ČSR Germans space represent the voices of Sudeten Germans who want their territory to be conceded to the Reich. The ultimate goal is to control spaces with a majority of your cubes to score points or prevent your opponent scoring. The same cubes in spaces in or adjacent to the President space also represent the strength to either convince the President or execute a coup at the end of the game.
Grant: What different type of cards are used by the players?
Petr: The common CDG way of using cards is here, with each card being used either for Operations points or an event. Players familiar with games like Twilight Struggle will understand everything very quickly. The series also uses objective cards giving players special motivation to go after some space, getting a victory point and a special effect if they control that space, and this game is no exception. A new kind of card used here are the Turn Cards, which are used instead of a Turn Track. Players reveal a new Turn Card each turn instead of advancing a track. These cards bring in events covering Chamberlain’s, Hitler’s and Stalin’s politics during the crisis. It allows the rules not to be burdened by some special cases for modeling this.
Grant: How did you balance their effects?
Petr: There is of course an initial balance in terms of card quantities and values, but nothing can substitute for playtesting here. The game is highly asymmetrical and there are some snowball effects in it, which have to be there. There were several well known powerful actors in this crisis and players should feel the impact of their actions: Chamberlain, Hitler, and Stalin. Both my local Prague playtest group and international playtest team helped me a lot in balancing the sides, at the same time sparking the ideas which opened up the decision space for both players.
Grant: Can you show us a few examples and explain how they are used?
Petr: This State Defense Guard Faces Terror Card shows the effect of the growing intensity and scale of Sudeten German terror attacks in Sudetenland. While they have a mixed impact on the State Defense Guard, which were often lone gendarmes or finance guards in a now hostile environment, they can also cause a mobilization of the general public against the terror. More and more attacks will have a larger and larger impact, as the number of green cubes placed depends on the progression of the Sudeten German (Terror) Track.
Th General Faucher Card shows one of the individual effects of the appeasement policy. You can see this card effect applies only when the Concede player controls France. If France says that they will fight the card then has no effect. But once she turns around and wants Czechoslovakia not to fight, this man steps in to support the Defend cause.
Grant: What does the board represent regarding Czechoslovakia’s efforts in 1938? What do the different colored groups of spaces represent? What are the different Dimensions?
Petr: The colored groups of spaces represent different dimensions the crisis was raging in. The yellow is the International Dimension. The other ones represent events and postures within Czechoslovakia, including Political (purple), Military (green), and Public (red) Dimensions. You can see the International Dimension is constrained by directional arrows, and all arrows from it point towards Czechoslovakia. In game mechanics this means that Czechoslovakia (apart from some events on cards) cannot influence international politics. France is under pressure from the United Kingdom and can also directly put pressure on the Czechoslovak General Staff. France and Czechoslovak military cooperation was very strong right from the end of WWI. And the Soviet Union is bound to help Czechoslovakia by a treaty very similar to the one that the country has with France. The difference is the Soviet help comes under the condition of France helping first.
Grant: What role does the Mobilization Box represent? How do players interact with it?
Petr: This is a holding box for the mobilization card, which holds the Partial and General Mobilization events. These are crucial events with strong effects which also bring new cubes to the game. Players can interact with the timing of the two mobilizations via several events. On some turns these are more favorable to the Defend player, as major powers seemed not to have any agreement with Hitler, and therefore may react with their own partial mobilizations.
Grant: What are the three circles on the bottom left of the board? How do these affect the game and what do they introduce from history?
Petr: The three circles and boxes around them represent escalation from both the German military and sympathetic Sudeten Germans. During the crisis there were lots of terror attacks by Sudeten Germans, later escalating into the establishment of the Sudetendeutsche Freikorps, a paramilitary unit trained, equipped, and commanded by Germany. These boxes are in the game to tell this bloody story of guerilla warfare, which raged all over the border during the crisis. Gamewise this track enables players to influence when mobilizations happens by playing certain cards, and also bolsters the Concede position among the German population in Czechoslovakia.
Grant: What role does British appeasement play in the design? How is this modeled?
Petr: Players of Fort Sumter and Red Flag Over Paris will already know the mechanics of Pivotal Spaces. Simply said, one space in each dimension has some degree of influence over the others. In the International Dimension this space is the United Kingdom. This, and the arrows between the spaces, models the impact of the appeasement policy very well without any rules overhead. The only space that requires special attention is the Soviet Union, as Stalin played a double game during the crisis which is addressed by the effects of some events and turn cards.
Grant: How do the Czechoslovak armed forces come into the game? How are they represented?
Petr: Czechoslovak armed forces are represented only in terms of their political impact on the ongoing discussion. Those impacts were of course huge, as one can imagine given an army preparing for a conflict with Germany for nearly two decades. Apart from the General Staff in Prague there is an important State Defense Guard space that I have already mentioned, and there is also a space for the army headquarters in Moravia. This is significant at the moment of general mobilization, when the General Staff physically moved there to avoid being surrounded in Prague in the event of a German invasion. Gamewise this is represented by a lowering of the General Staff’s political influence as some cubes are moved from Prague to Moravia.
Grant: How does the game come to an end? How is victory achieved?
Petr: The game lasts for three regular turns, followed by the special Final Decision turn which represents the hours immediately after the Munich Conference. The Final Decision is fast but tense to resolve, as players are using their last three cards simultaneously. These cards can have a limited effect only in spaces in Prague, and only some of the events are playable during this turn. But players can to some degree prepare for it by setting aside the right cards during their previous turns. In rare cases the game can end prematurely with Hitler’s die roll representing the start of the German invasion, and players need to be aware of this. In 1938 no one knew for sure if and when the German attack would come. Otherwise the game ends after the Final Decision turn, with victory going to the Defend player only if they are ahead on victory points and have sufficient cubes adjacent to the President space to launch a coup – otherwise the Concede player wins.
Grant: What do you feel the game models well?
Petr: I am happy that the game doesn’t feel static at all. External international actors do their job during the game and both players have to deal with it. Playtests show the game produces tense results no matter the strategies chosen by both players.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Petr: I am a new designer but I can already see that playtesters are gold for any game design project. I am glad to see even international playtesters who had little previous knowledge of the subject are sometimes getting emotional about the events. The other aspect that surprised me, and I am glad for, is that playtesters are happy to play again and again nearly the same game with only small changes. That is a good indication of the replayability of such a small design.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Petr: For me the game tells the story I wanted to tell at a pace I wanted. Very early iterations had three cards out of a hand of four played each turn, which is the same as in the previous titles of the Final Crisis Series, but it felt like the story was not compelling enough and players were not living it enough. With a very small change to playing four cards out of a hand of five the game feels right now.
Grant: What other designs are you contemplating or already working on?
Petr: I am working on the game for Volko Ruhnke’s Levy & Campaign Series: Žižka, Reformation and Crusade in Hussite Bohemia, 1420-1421. I see a great potential in this medieval series. Nevsky (the first game in the series) sometimes left an impression that the series is all about medieval war logistics. But I have seen (and playtested) other L&C Series games in the queue, and so far each is different, with a great deal of medieval politics, warfare and even economy. My take will hopefully also bring religion and devilish war wagons to the table.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Petr. It is really refreshing to see and hear about your take on design as a relative newcomer. I am impressed at your approach and feel that it will lend itself well in leading to a compelling and tense struggle in this game. I also look forward to your other designs, particularly the Levy & Campaign Series entry.
If you are interested in The Bell of Treason: 1938 Munich Crisis in Czechoslovakia, you can pre-order a copy for $32.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-949-the-bell-of-treason-1938-munich-crisis-in-czechoslovakia.aspx