Oh the glorious games that come out of Hollandspiele! It almost numbs the mind and makes me giddy all at the same time. They just make great games. Recently I came across pictures of their new game designed by Amabel Holland called Siege of Mantua and it had blocks. Amabel had designed a block wargame and I was immediately drawn in. So I reached out and she agreed to do this interview to share the interesting story behind the game and why she wanted to make it, or rather was compelled to due to a lack of space.
Grant: What have you been up to over the past year? How is Hollandspiele doing?
Amabel: Like the planet, I’ve spent the last year getting hotter and more unstable. Which is to say that I’ve mostly taken a little break from my Big Serious Depressing Games so I can make a second attempt at this whole puberty thing, see if I can get it right this time.
So I’ve mostly been working on light weird games like Eyelet (a roll-and-move game played with shoelaces on a board with several dozen holes in it), Dinosaur Gauge (a co-design with Mary Holland, about dino-industrialists attempting to win big on the stomp market), and Watch Out! That’s a Dracula (this year’s holiday freebie game). The only wargame designs I’ve had on the docket are an expansion to The Grass Crown – it’s called II Grass II Crown – and Siege of Mantua. And really most of the design work on Mantua wrapped up last year.
Grant: What historical event does your upcoming Siege of Mantua cover?
Amabel: The game specifically covers the third Austrian attempt to relieve the Siege. It’s a fifteen day campaign that culminates in their defeat at Arcole. I thought of the four attempts, this was the one that was the most interesting situation for both players.
Grant: What from the history of this siege did you make sure to include in the design?
Amabel: The game isn’t necessarily full of chrome or little rules that will recreate This Event or That One. Instead I’m focusing on capturing the factors that were important to the campaign – bluff and deception, the seeking of a decisive battle, the risk inherent in doing so, the advantage provided by moving along interior lines.
Grant: This being your first Napoleonic game, how did you approach the man Bonaparte and his leadership style?
Amabel: The game is both about the art of operational maneuver, and the art of the set-piece battle; Bonaparte excelled at both. Players must do the same if they hope to win the game. Eisenhower famously said that “Every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.” Bonaparte was laser-focused on that goal. Surround the enemy. Defeat them in detail. The game’s victory conditions and mechanisms are built to encourage this approach.
And the brittleness of the two sides – you don’t have a lot of strength points to go around, and every battle carries with it the risk of annihilation – discourages entering battle on equal or unfavorable terms. You’re not going to attrition your way to victory here. You have to be smarter than that, and the game demands that of both players.
Grant: The game is a block wargame. Why did you feel that was the best medium to tell this story?
Amabel: So much of what happened in the campaign was the result of secret troop movements, distractions, misinformation. That kind of thing lends itself very well to this format.
Though in all honesty, this wasn’t a case where I said “Oh, I want to do a game about the Arcole campaign, now I gotta figure out what kind of game it will be.” It was rather the other way around!
Some years ago, we published a game by Mark Herman called Ribbit. And I don’t think Mark will be too put out if I mention that it didn’t exactly sell the same number of copies for us that Empire of the Sun sold for GMT. It’s a children’s game, an abstract game, and those are both markets where we had trouble getting traction. But that game has these big chunky blocks.
And the thing about games with wood bits is that they’re an exception to our print-on-demand methodology. We order the bits in bulk from an overseas supplier, and we do all the sorting and bagging ourselves here at home. And that entire inventory of bits, it lives in my room. There are tubs of cubes, discs, pawns, sticks, piled up near to the ceiling in several stacks. It leaves very little walking space between me and my bed.
And these big chunky blocks take up a lot more room, and are very heavy. And I just wanted them out of my space. So I decided, okay, I’m going to have to design a block game so I can use these up. And I’ve been saying that for a couple years, but never quite had a subject that grabbed me.
Because I didn’t want to just vomit out Just Another Block Game. I didn’t want to take the same old same old “roll dice equal to the block’s strength, ‘A’ fires before ‘B’ fires before ‘C’ et cetera” formula that we’ve seen dozens of times. So I wanted to do something special, and something that really benefited from the format.
So, over the course of 2020 and 2021, we spent a lot of time and effort on Sean Chick’s Horse & Musket Series, both in terms of upgrading all the previous volumes of the series – new rulebooks, new counters, new boxes, new everything – and in terms of producing the fourth game, which features a handful of battles from various attempts to relieve the Siege. Now, I’m not the developer for that series – that’s Doug Miller, who does a phenomenal job – but one of the things I do is a style pass on the background material. Sean writes a synopsis of each battle, but they’re often pitched at a more specialist audience. I do a rewrite – sometimes it’s very light, sometimes a little more goes into it – that’s aimed at folks who are less well-versed in the subject matter, and I check for accuracy, things like that. And while I was doing that, I thought, hey, some of this would be a great fit for that block game I keep threatening to do every time I stub my toe on one of those boxes of blocks.
So I did this game, and that got those big chunky blocks out of my bedroom. And I was aware at the time that there would likely be substantial interest in the game – which has proven to be true – and that therefore we would need to order more blocks – which we have. Those were supposed to arrive in April but likely won’t be here until the end of the summer, which means that once we run out of the supply that we have on hand, we’ll have to stop taking orders until we get our restock. Which, of course, will take up even more space in my bedroom.
When I move out of Mary’s house sometime in the next year, I am definitely going to designate a room just for wood bit storage. I have learned my lesson.
Grant: I understand that the blocks are unique. What makes them different from other such games?
Amabel: Well, they’re a lot bigger than most block game blocks, for one thing. Most use 20mm or 24mm blocks, but these are 40mm. Secondly, there are no stickers! Everything is printed on the label.
Grant: What would you tell those like me who enjoy block stickering about this change?
Amabel: I am right there with you! Stickering blocks is one of my absolute favorite things. I find it very soothing and an excellent way to pass the time. And I definitely wanted stickers.
Our printer Blue Panther looked at various options for printing and cutting stickers for this particular size of block, and none of them were as cost-effective as printing directly on the blocks. So that is what we went with!
Really, every aspect of the production is in some way tied to Steve Jones at Blue Panther, and his constant push for improvement and innovation. Last year, we introduced a double-depth box for games like Horse & Musket and Grass Crown. That’s just what we need for a block game like Mantua. He’s been printing on canvas for years; that’s what we needed for the battle display. The main map is large and printed on heavy paper, something that wouldn’t have been possible way back when (long-time fans might recall when all our game maps came in 11″ x 17″ segments!). And now, printing on the blocks!
Grant: What is the anatomy of the blocks? What information is shown on the side facing the player?
Amabel: Most blocks represent units, and have a strength ranging from “2” to “5”. Each side has a leader or two, represented by their portrait. The French have some dummy blocks, which look like units but don’t have a strength. It’s very simple and stripped down. I really wanted something that looked and felt “elegant”.
Grant: What differences are there in the French and Austrian units?
Amabel: The Austrians have more strength points overall, but otherwise, the units from the two sides function the same. The difference arises in the board position, which begins highly asymmetric. Over the course of the game, this will shift, as will the morale of the troops.
Grant: How does the Battle Display work?
Amabel: The game has a bifurcated structure that alternates the maneuver stuff with set-piece battles. Those battles are fought on the Battle Display with counters, and the result of that battle will determine whose blocks take losses, and how many.
Grant: What are the counters that are used in battle? What is their anatomy?
Amabel: These are rectangular counters drawn from a pool. You draw and deploy a number of counters equal to the strength of your blocks. Each counter in the pool has a morale value – 7, 8, or 9. This is the number the enemy wants to exceed on a modified 2d6 roll to eliminate the counter. These are drawn randomly so you don’t know quite what the effectiveness of your troops are going to be on any given day.
Both players start with identical pools, but this will shift at the end of the battle. For every counter you lose, you’re going to knock them down a level – so, a unit with a morale of 8 becomes a unit with a morale of 7, and then goes back into your pool. If you win the battle, then you get to improve the morale of one unit for each block you have. So the pools for the two players are always shifting. Success improves morale, casualties demoralize your troops, making it harder to win in the future.
Grant: How key is maneuver and movement to the design?
Amabel: Maneuver is the design. It is in a way the whole game. Because of that, it needed to be robust enough to be evocative of the period, but simple enough to be compelling to a wider audience.
The very first thing to understand is that on your go, you can move all your blocks within a connected network. That is, if you can trace an imaginary, uninterrupted line between different groups of blocks, all those blocks can move.
Now, at the start of the game, the Austrian Player has one group of blocks bearing in from the east, one group marching from the north, and one block stuck in Mantua. And these groups are all isolated from each other. On your turn, you’re either going to move their group in the east or their group in the north.
The French, on the other hand, occupy a more central position. All their blocks are connected in a single network, and that’s what’s isolating the various Austrian groups from each other. So on their turn, the French are able to move every block if they want to.
And there’s a couple wrinkles to this. Within your network, instead of moving two blocks, you can switch them – switching blocks anywhere in your network. Or, you can take a strength point from one and give it to another, shifting it around that way.
Both players can do this, but because of the board situation at the start of the game, the French are more likely to do so. And it’s kind of imperative on the French Player to keep the Austrian armies isolated from each other, to prevent them from effectively coordinating. Which is certainly something Bonaparte was keen to do historically. And conversely the Austrians very much want to link up, because that will allow them to better use these tools, and to hit the French with overwhelming numerical strength.
Grant: Escape seems to be pretty important to the cat-and-mouse dance. How do you feel this inclusion adds to the game’s drama?
Amabel: Operational maneuver is about coming to grips with the enemy – about forcing them to fight at the time and place of your choosing, and to avoid fighting when the odds aren’t in your favor. So any game that’s about this also needs to have some kind of escape or “refuse battle” mechanism. In some of my games, like the Supply Lines Series, this is a thing that automatically succeeds. If you want to refuse battle, you refuse battle.
Here it’s modeled with a die roll, and that roll is a function of the enemy’s apparent strength. You want to roll equal to or less than the number of blocks coming at you in order to escape. So, if it’s a big group of blocks, a big ponderous column kicking up a lot of dust and being very visible, it’s pretty easy to slip away. If it’s a smaller group, it’s a lot harder.
And where this really shines is that if multiple groups are converging on a location, you’ll need to make a successful escape roll against all of them. If you fumble even one roll, then you don’t get away, and you have to fight the battle against all these columns.
So, if you attack with one group of 5 blocks, I have to roll a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to get away, and probably I will. But if you attack with three groups of, say, 2, 2, and 1, I have to make each of those rolls.
Of course, before you can launch all of those attacks, you have to get into position, which gives me an opportunity to attack one of those groups, to try and defeat you in detail. Which is why you want to strike a balance, and why you want to choose your targets carefully – better to converge those five blocks on one or two of mine than to try it against a larger, more concentrated force.
Grant: How does combat work in the game?
Amabel: Once you’re on the Battle Display, your counters are going to be arrayed in Wings, with each Wing having a depth of one to three counters. The players are going to alternate battle turns. During these turns, you’re going to be spending Commands to activate your Wings. It costs one Command to activate any Wing for movement. Making an attack costs one, two, or three Commands – that depends on the depth of the Wing.
You usually have three Commands, but if you have a Leader present, you have five. Once you move into contact with the enemy and order an attack, you’re going to roll 2d6 and add the number of counters in the attacking Wing. Then, you’re going to compare this to the morale value of the first counter in the enemy Wing (revealing it). If you break its morale, you remove it and then compare that same result about the morale value of the next counter in the Wing. You continue to do this until either you route the whole enemy Wing, or until your attack isn’t stronger than their morale.
Now, there’s a wrinkle here. If you roll doubles – snake eyes, box cars, et cetera – your attack is repulsed, and you lose the front unit in your Wing. Some of the higher morale units are immune to this, which is another reason why you’re eager to improve your units.
So combat in its natural state is pretty swingy. There’s a significant risk involved. And before you attack the enemy, you have to move next to them, which gives them a chance to strike first. If you just rush forward and cross your fingers, there’s a good chance you’ll be creamed. And, you know what? You’ll deserve that. Armies are really quite fragile things, and a fair fight is for chumps.
What you really want to do is turn the flank. A flank attack only costs a single Command – regardless of how many units are involved. It compares the roll to the entire enemy Wing at once, so even if a stronger unit survives, the weaker ones will be shunted to the dead pile. You ignore the deleterious effects of rolling doubles. And so long as you have another Wing locking them in place, they can’t turn around to attack you.
If there’s one thing I’d want players to take away from this interview – other than, wow, that designer is really smart and good at her job and probably also very funny and charming – it’s that you can’t just “try an attack” and see what happens. The game isn’t built to reward that, or to protect you from it. Nothing you do is “safe”. But the game does give you the tools you need to mitigate that risk, and expects you to be clever enough to use them.
Grant: Time is also an important part of combat. What are you trying to capture with this addition?
Amabel: The battle’s either going to end with all your counters wiped out – which in turns wipes out all of your participating blocks – or with one side running away, in which case they’ll suffer a single step reduction to a single block. And the time track is important for the running away part.
At the start of the battle, the attacking player rolls two dice and uses that result to determine the minimum number of rounds before either player can retreat. This is the minimum amount of time it’s going to take for one side to disentangle themselves from the enemy.
Because remember, you only really want to attack when the odds are clearly in your favor. And if you’ve done that right, your enemy really doesn’t want to be there so you can annihilate them. They want to run away as soon as possible, with as much of their force intact as possible. Of course if you failed to do that, or if your opponent managed to outflank you, or smash through your line, well, you’re the one that wants to get away.
If a battle’s going badly for you, you’re gonna retreat as soon as the time track runs out. But if you’re reasonably intact, you might keep fighting on. You might even try to intensify the proceedings by doubling the stakes.
Grant: What purpose does the Doubling Cube serve in combat? What does this represent?
Amabel: The doubling cube, aka “the funny dice from backgammon”, functions much as it does in backgammon. A player offers it to their opponent, and if that opponent accepts it, the stakes are doubled. In tournament backgammon, that means the game is worth more points to the winner. In Siege of Mantua, it means double the number of block step reductions for the loser.
And as in backgammon, if you refuse the cube, you forfeit immediately. So the offering of the doubling cube is where you’re getting your line ready for another big push. Maybe you’re bringing up reserves (which is treated abstractly here, rather than represented by physical troops), maybe you’re telling your men “no prisoners”, etc. It’s that moment of preparation. And the enemy commander is either going to cut his losses before this big attack, or they’re going to say, you know what? We can take them.
As in backgammon, knowing when to use the doubling cube is a tricky thing. Obviously you want to do it when you’re ahead. One bit of advice I heard about doubling in backgammon, which might also apply here, is that when you offer the cube, you should know both (1) if your opponent will accept it, and (2) if you want your opponent to accept it. Am I using the cube to force them to retreat, or am I using it to try to cause extra damage to their blocks? Because the timing is going to be quite different for each of those.
Grant: What does the map look like? What strategic quandaries are created by the various roads and it’s locations?
Amabel: It’s a point-to-point map. It’s a pretty small number of points, too. There are eighteen cities on the map, and generally your movement is from one city to the next. There are a handful of halfway points – nine of them – between some of the cities. How those function is that, if enemy blocks occupy the city on the other side of the road, you’ll stop at the halfway point this turn, then complete the move on the next turn. At these points, you’re more vulnerable and are unable to escape if attacked. So, holding a position will threaten the enemy and slow their progress.
Most of the cities are connected to three or more other cities. There are a few with only two connections, however, which obviously makes escaping harder. Near Mantua, there’s a road connecting an entire cluster of cities, all sharing the same midpoint, and that poses unique challenges, especially if the Austrians start to squeeze the French.
Grant: Why is the Mantua city space different than the others?
Amabel: Because it’s under siege! There’s an Austrian garrison inside the fortress, and the French have to leave one or two blocks outside it to keep them bottled up.
The Austrians can rescue the garrison if they make it to Mantua. This is what they were trying to do historically, but not something they were able to pull off. Doing this will give them a second leader, and will add some strength points to some blocks – but that’s not going to win you the game.
The game is going to end when one side has lost five blocks – and, surprise-surprise, that means the other side wins. That’s it. No victory points, no fancy exceptions: kill five blocks, you win. And I think this is important because it highlights a fundamental difference between the French and the Austrians in this campaign. Because while both sides were seeking that battle of annihilation, Bonaparte was the one that kept the victory conditions in mind, so to speak. That is, if the Austrians had managed to relieve the siege without first dealing with Bonaparte’s Army of Italy, they still risked destruction.
So while relief of the siege is something the Austrians can pursue, it’s only helpful to a point, and is not the ultimate goal.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Amabel: I think both the maneuver model and the combat system are smooth. And the game is very attractive on the table, with the beautiful map and the handsome blocks. And it might seem weird to say that, because one tends to think of the art and the presentation as something done to a design after the fact, in order to make it presentable and palatable. But this game was very much conceived from the outset to have certain aesthetic qualities that would be of a piece with its ludic ones. And I feel like we pulled that off.
Grant: Now that you’ve made a block wargame do you think there might be others in the future?
Amabel: It’s always a possibility, though I don’t have anything in mind along those lines right now. Partially that’s because I’m going to wait and see how this one is received, how I might improve on it in a future design, et cetera.
There’s actually a non-block game I have in the hamper, one that predates this one – a supply-focused game on campaigns of Frederick the Great. That’s a game that I envisioned having this sort of bifurcated structure – the grand sweeping maneuvers turning into set-piece battles. But because of the scale of the topic, I couldn’t quite come to grips with it. Siege of Mantua gave me the opportunity to test this structure with a smaller and less ambitious topic, gave me the space to work out the kinks. In a way it sort of functions as a proof of concept. Which means that I can give these ideas a fuller and more nuanced expression in my Frederick game.
That’ll have to wait until I’m the right headspace, though. Like I said, I’m not doing anything super-ambitious or heavy right now. I’m giving myself a bit of an off-year while I adjust to life on estrogen.
As always Amabel, we appreciate your lengthy responses and great way of explaining concepts. Also, I have always loved your sense of humor. As dry as it might be. That is one of the things that I love about your games is the funny quips you include in the rules. This one simply looks amazing and I can’t wait to give it a try.
If you are interested in Siege of Mantua you can order a copy for $50.00 from the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/siege-of-mantua