Before we get into this interview, I want to share a story about the designer of History of the Ancient Seas Karl Hausser. He originally designed the game but has since passed from this world and Uwe Walentin who is the developer on the project and lead at Sound of Drums shared the following story in one of the blog posts about the game.
While still at university I spent several evenings over many months with a professor of ancient history at his home. He loved to tell stories about the ancients, kings and queens, empires that had risen and were overthrown, generals that became tyrants. He was also interested in gaming and one day he showed me a game design of his. He had no design experience. The design was smart but at the same time cumbersome. The hand-drawn map was huge (about 66 x 44 inches) with small hexagons, hundreds of little cardboard counters, dozens of generals and leaders, 50 different trade goods, a lot of detail and a 60 page rules manuscript. It was a fantastic journey into ancient times. But unplayable. He handed it over to me and said “do something with it”. Karl Hausser will never see his original design getting published. He passed away many years ago. His design inspired me and I had it on my game shelf for many years.
Four years ago I decided to develop and publish his design. I wanted a game that is highly interactive, a game with a huge map and many playing pieces, where my ships need to explore distant shores, where I create a trading network. But also a game where I could lead a military campaign but where losing a province or an island doesn’t mean I lose the game. Building a fleet and invading distant shores. A game of which the outcome is not defined by dice or event cards but by the smart decisions of the players. I like to say that the biggest aspect of uncertainty in a game is the mind of your opponent. You never know his plans.
With that, I worked with Uwe to tell the story of the design in this interview and he has provided his experience and insight into the game as the series developer and ultimate publisher. Thank you for your time in answering this series of questions Uwe!
If you are interested in History of the Ancient Seas, you can find out more about the game from the Sound of Drums website at the following link: https://soundofdrums.org/
Grant: What motivated you to break into the world of board game publishing and design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Uwe: Since my childhood, I was a gamer and always interested in history, especially into Ancients and Napoleonics. I founded 1997 PRO LUDO as a game distribution and publishing company but never had the chance to really publish the games I wanted to. So, to combine my interest for history and game design and publishing was an obvious next step. I had the design of Karl Hausser in my possession for many years in my cupboard and 4 years ago I felt it was the right moment to pull it out, dust it off and really make something out of the game.
Grant: What designers would you say have influenced your style?
Uwe: I love the clean design approach of Mark Simonitch, but the love for detail of Richard Berg. I have used these two as my inspiration in this game as well as other projects. If I can do half as well as them, I will have accomplished something.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Uwe: The biggest challenge with this project was to create in-game suspense that can hold player’s attention and keep them on the edge of their seat until the end of the game and also for them to be able to find a way how to win the game. I really like the automatic asymmetry in the design and the extreme degree of interaction.
Grant: What historical event does the History of the Ancient Seas Series cover?
Uwe: The games in the series don’t portray a single event but more a period in which various powers tried to gain supremacy over the Mediterranean Sea. This series deals with various cultures and powers of the time and their attempt to dominate the sea, trade and colonization and expansion of their empires into the rich fertile field of the ancient Mediterranean.
Grant: What did you want the title to convey about the time period of the game?
Uwe: It is a period of the Ancients in which powers rise and fall. That finally Rome ruled over the Mediterranean Sea was the result of a thrilling chain of events, campaigns and wars. The outcome though could have seen other powers rule the Mediterranean Sea. And that is the concept of the game in providing players the opportunity to change history and lead their civilization to the lead role.
Grant: What was the inspiration for this design? What challenges did you have to overcome?
Uwe: I liked Settlers of Catan. The concept of starting out on just a small part of the map and to expand and grow my “empire”. But very quickly I totally lost interest into Settlers as it was too basic. I wanted to create a game with more depth and especially more player interaction, as well as the “king of the hill” aspect where players rise and fall to take control of the region.
Grant: What from the history of the ancient period did you want to make sure to include in the design?
Uwe: This series has 3 separate and distinct player counter games included, a 2-player only game (HELLAS), 3-player only (DIES IRAE) and 5-players (MARE NOSTRUM). Each of these games includes the major heavy weights of the era fighting against one another. For example, in MARE NOSTRUM for sure the struggle between and Rome and Carthage. HELLAS portrays the period of the long fight between Sparta and Athens. These struggles amongst natural enemies was important to include.
Grant: So what are all of the playable factions?
Uwe: Rome, Persia, Carthage, The Greek City States, Egypt and Persia. As mentioned earlier, not all of the factions appear in each of the games but in the games where the best and most infamous rivalries were central to the region.
Grant: What units do each player have access to? What different capabilities do the different units offer?
Uwe: Each player will have Legions, that move and fight on land and also explore the area of the map, Ships that transport your troops and can create trading posts on distant shores, far away from your home town. You have Trading Posts that will increase your income, Fortresses that will protect your cities but also allow you to build units and ships. And you can build Monuments to show the greatness of your Empire.
Grant: Can players achieve victory through only development of their culture?
Uwe: No. Victory cannot be obtained by just sitting around and developing. The players will have a limited starting income and will have to at least expand a little bit on the map to develop their economy by collecting different types of merchandise and goods. Planning out the routes to these resource rich areas is very important and will require investment into units to get out and explore but also to protect those outposts from other players as certain resources are scarce.
Grant: Is a military strategy a viable option to win?
Uwe: As with culture, you need to find the right mix between expanding and developing, while keeping your stability on a solid level. Military is a necessary part of the game but is not a focus.
Grant: What are the pitfalls of each strategy?
Uwe: If players focus on only one strategy it will not turn out well for them. If you are expanding too much, you will have too much territory to defend and hold. If you focus on building monuments this is risky because they are easily destroyed and take up valuable resources that could be used to expand. The cultural development has phases where you have negative modifiers for combat and this can really limit your effectiveness on the battlefield so players need to keep that in mind.
Grant: What area does the map cover? What interesting pinch points are created with the layout of territories?
Uwe: In MARE NOSTRUM the whole Mediterranean Sea is covered. The big challenge was to create a map that gives you an accurate map of the Mediterranean Sea but that fulfills the needs of the gaming aspects. We needed to redraw some coastal lines and give some islands a contour that suits to the game. This will upset some pure historians but it was a compromise that we had to make to make a playable game on the subject.
The map for MARE NOSTRUM is the largest map and covers the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea from Hispania in the west to Egypt and Phoenicia in the east. This map had to contain room for 5 civilizations but the other maps in the game are smaller.
Here is a look at the map for the 2-player game HELLAS where the focus is on Greece as the battle is between Athens and Sparta.
Grant: One of the most unique aspects of the design is the Action Cycle and how players get to select actions. How does the Action Cycle work? What was the design goal with this choice?
Uwe: The Action Cycle is the engine, the heart of the game. Within a turn each player chooses an action and executes it, placing one of their action cubes on that space. The following player does the same but can’t choose the same action as the player that went immediately prior to them. The design goal was to have micro impulses with almost zero downtime. And as the number of times each action can be chosen in a single turn is limited there is a lot of tactics about when to choose which action. This creates a lot of tension between players as they always have to be looking at the choice of the player before them but also as the overall situation with the total times each action has been taken. This is a very interactive part of the design and really sets it apart from other games on the subject.
Grant: How does the limiting of how many times you can choose an action create an interesting puzzle?
Uwe: Well, the nice part is, you have to plan for each turn, and carefully decide when to execute which action. But you need to have some flexibility and a plan B, because you can’t be sure you will have the chance to execute the action you might want to at that time.
Grant: What different actions are available to players?
Uwe: There are the classic actions like movement, buying new troops and attacking enemy units. But there are also some very interesting actions like offering armistice, developing and paying for stability.
Grant: What is the concept of stability? What does it represent?
Uwe: At that time leaders of an Empire needed to keep their people happy. Bringing them salt, food, games, building monuments and especially not bringing them bad news (like losing a province or a defeat in a battle). So, in the game, the players need to pay attention to that as it can affect how effective they are in several areas. This was included because leaders always have to keep the populace happy and this requires the players to think about this as a resource the same as with merchandise.
Grant: How important is the concept of supply for the players?
Uwe: Nice question, because in the game everything is important. Here: You need to have grain and other merchandise to supply your troops on the map. The more troops you have on the map, the more of these “supply” merchandise you need to control in order to sustain them. When you cannot pay the required costs of maintenance, the player will have to choose and remove units from the board. This can sting as they are costly to build and take time to replace when removed.
Grant: How is trade developed? What role do Trading Posts play?
Uwe: One the one hand you need to build a trading net by creating Trading Posts. These will create revenue for the player and increase their income. On the other hand, you need to develop your economic skills to raise your income. For example, developing “banking” will give you a boost in income. Trading Posts are an important part of the players resources and they must be used efficiently to provide access to the needed goods at the time to advance technology and invest in new units and abilities.
Grant: How is income determined? What different types of merchandise are available?
Uwe: Income is determined by creating Trading Posts and the development of economic skills. In MARE NOSTRUM there are a total of 17 different types of merchandise. All of them are important in one way or the other.
Grant: How does combat work?
Uwe: When players want to initiate combat, they must choose the action “attack”. The playing pieces have a basic combat value, the value depends on the development level the Empire has in the military section of the Development Chart. There are a couple of possible modifiers. For each 3 CV a player may eliminate one enemy playing piece. There is an optional rule for those who prefer a dice-based combat system though.
Grant: Why did you decide against the use of dice?
Uwe: We tried to minimize the randomness factor in the game. I like the saying “the biggest uncertainty you have in a game is, that you don’t know the plans of your opponents”. We liked that aspect very much. To win the game is trying to be as efficient as possible. But as for the combat, we added optional special events and hero cards that work like instants and add more uncertainty and surprises.
Grant: How do players score victory points?
Uwe: Players score victory points by controlling provinces, building monuments and reaching the “Golden Age” status in the different sections of the Development Chart.
Grant: How is victory achieved?
Uwe: Players need to gain a certain amount of Victory Points that are scored by the above mentioned possibilities. There will be a free add-on for owners of the game with individual victory conditions that will be kept secret.
Grant: What is the difference in the 3 versions of the game? How do the rules get modified for the different player counts?
Uwe: Our goal was that each game will give a satisfying playing experience with the same set of basic rules. So, HELLAS is for 2 players only, DIES IRAE for 3 and MARE NOSTRUM for 5 players (with the possibility to play with just 4). The games portray different factions of the era and the area portrayed in each game is different. The biggest modification is the number of possible actions that are available per action cycle. We published an informative blog why we decided to publish a set three games.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Uwe: We are very happy about the high level of interaction and practically no down time for the players. You always need to be focused on what is going on. The mechanism of the Action Cycle adds a very nice tactical level for the players.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Uwe: Play testers confirmed that there are many different ways how to play the game. Feedback was that the games in the series are not all easy to win. The end game needs to be timed very carefully. The system is not heavily rules loaded, no chrome rules, everything is connected, everything is important and you always want to do more than you actually can. It is a game of permanent and tough decision making. And what gamers liked most, was the “king of the hill” aspect of the game.
Grant: When does the game come to Kickstarter?
Uwe: The plan is to launch 6th of September 2022
Grant: What other designs are you mulling over?
Uwe: Right now, we are working on 3 games, two hex and counter wargames: An operational level game about the operations of Army Group South in 1941 and a Napoleonic battle series with Eylau 1807 as the first installment. The third is a strategy game called Neither King, Nor God, a game playing in the Renaissance in Europe.
If you are interested in History of the Ancient Seas, you can find out more information about the game and how to acquire a copy from the Kickstarter campaign page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/soundofdrums/history-of-the-ancient-seas-relaunch