When this game was announced a few years ago in the May 2020 GMT Games Monthly Update, I was initially excited about the topic but had my concerns and a bit of hesitancy. Ed Beach usually designs games that use the CDG mechanic and that allow a lot of gamers to get in on the action. Games like Here I Stand and Virgin Queen allow up to 6 players and Border Reivers follows this pattern by allowing 4-6 players although solo, 2 and 3-player versions are also supported (where each player leads both an English and a Scottish family). But, this game is not similar to the others I mentioned. Not even close! It seems to incorporate some elements of a Euro and from the pictures I have seen it uses Meeples of sheep and cows which is a bit different for a wargame. I finally got around to reaching out to Ed and he was more than willing to share the design with our readers.

Grant: First off Ed please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

Ed: I am a runner, sports fan (Orioles, Ravens, and Capitals), and European travel enthusiast. My day job is as a Lead Designer for Firaxis Games focusing on the Civilization video game series.

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design?

Ed: I have been dabbling in game design ever since middle school. Andy Lewis (GMT Games) and I were classmates, and we did our first game design together covering the action in Homer’s Iliad. It was a pretty terrible game, with worse components, but it got both of us thinking about the interesting challenges in game design.

Grant: What designers have influenced your style?

Ed: I had the good fortune to work alongside Joe Balkoski when first getting into design work for the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War Series. And I am also lucky to call Mark Herman a friend – his work on modeling both the political and military concerns of key conflicts has certainly been an inspiration.

Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?

Ed: I have a lot of experience taking an existing game series or mechanic and adapting it to fit my current needs. However with my most recent game, Border Reivers, there was no existing game in any way like it. I found it very challenging to work on a project that was so wide open, with all game mechanics available as possible solutions.

My favorite part of game design is taking lesser-known historical topics and bringing them to light. And although I am a wargamer first, I have very much enjoyed showing how non-military concerns (religious struggles, patronage, dynastic marriages) have played an important role in shaping the struggles between nations.

Grant: What is your upcoming game Border Reivers about?

Ed: This design is definitely one of those lesser-known topics and a history that there are no other designs covering! Over the course of the 16th century, lawlessness reigned over the lands along the border between England and Scotland. The powerful families living in this region wrestled with each other for control of the region: competing for royal appointments, stealing each other’s livestock, feuding against their most heated rivals, and building a vast array of stone defensive works in the area to try and protect their holdings from their enemies.

Grant: What motivated you to design a game around the border raids on the English/Scottish border?

Ed: During our family’s 2006 tour of the historic sites of Northumberland, I stumbled upon an amazing map. The In Search of the Border Reivers Ordnance Survey Map amazed me because it showed that the entire Border region was dotted with hundreds of ruined stone tower and castle sites. I immediately began asking questions such as Why had they been built? What wars were these? Why did this map look like an amazing game that needed to be designed? How did this all happen during the Here I Stand and Virgin Queen periods and I never realized it? To answer all these questions, I bought the map and accompanying book, George MacDonald Fraser’s The Steel Bonnets. My quest to bring this unique historical period to life had begun!

Grant: In creating a game on this subject what was of the utmost importance to include in the design?

Ed: Getting the tone right was critical. On the surface this is a game about stealing cattle and sheep from your opponents, breaking your family members out of jail, and seeing if you can profit from blackmail and corruption. But on the other hand, it couldn’t be too irreverent: the Reivers are a beloved part of the heritage of the dozens of famous families that lived along the Border — including names like the Armstrongs, Nixons, Scotts, Greys, Kerrs, Forsters and Elliotts among them.

I think we achieved the balance I was looking for. The game includes a detailed historical recap of the period, a light-hearted art style, and rewards players for activities as diverse as collecting livestock, hanging interlopers, and writing historical ballads.

Grant: What does the map look like and how is it divided up?

Ed: The map (shown below) is divided by irregular, light brown borders into six regions, each one of the historical Marches that were administered by a Warden appointed by the royal authorities in London or Edinburgh. Within each March, straight white lines create four Farm Regions that each represent a fertile river valley capable of supporting livestock. Each March also contains a primary Town, a player’s family seat, and four sites where fortifications can be erected.

Grant: What is the best player count for the game and why is this the case?

Ed: It’s important that the English and Scottish presence on either side of the Border is in balance. The game thus works best with six players (all six Marches administered by a single player) or with four players (a quicker, tighter game with the English and Scottish East Marches dropping out of play). Another fun way to play is to have each player control both one English and one Scottish March and try to get them to secretly work together (very much in the underhanded spirit of the period). Setting the game up like this allows 2 and 3-player counts. Finally, there is also a Solo mode but more on this later.

Grant: How does the game work in less player count games?

Ed: As mentioned above, in the 2 and 4-player games the East Marches are removed from play. This also drops out a percentage of the cards that only pertained to the eastern side of the board. One thing I like about the 4-player game is that the exact composition of the deck is not known – there is a group of 48 cards that might be included but only 30 are actually (randomly) inserted into the deck. That uncertainty makes the 4-player game especially interesting – one reason I am strongly suggesting that 4-player Border Reivers is the best configuration for tournament play.

Grant: What components will come with the game? Sheeples?

Ed: Sheeples. Horse Meeples. 90 wooden cubes. 2 counter sheets. Nearly 200 cards. A player mat for each of the up to six major families represented. And several other cardstock reference sheets.

We were able to demonstrate the game with near final components at the World Boardgaming Championships this summer. A picture of that game in progress is shown below.

Grant: What is the turn structure and flow of the game?

Ed: Each of the three turns in a Border Reivers game mirrors the four seasons of a year in the Borders:

  • SUMMER was when farms flourished and livestock multiplied. During this phase, players simultaneously draft one card at a time to build up the strength of their holdings.
  • AUTUMN was when crops were harvested and preparations made for Winter. This phase is when players gain Cattle Income and place their defenses.
  • WINTER was raiding season, when cooped up livestock were easy to steal en masse. Here is the portion of a turn where each player makes two attacks: any combination of raids, feuds, gaolbreaks or supporting their nation at a battle.
  • SPRING was for taking stock and preparing for the upcoming year. This final phase of the turn is when scoring occurs.

Grant: What is the purpose of the card draft during Summer?

Ed: Each player starts summer with a hand of seven cards. In the first draft round, players select one card and pass the other six, very much like in the game 7 Wonders. Five more drafting rounds follow.

Three different types of cards can be drafted:

  • RECRUIT cards are placed on a player’s Family Sheet (see below) and represent a Reiver, Warden, Allied Grayne, or Office that has joined this player’s faction.
  • HELD cards are placed face down in secret; these cards are used during Winter to enhance a player’s attacks or assist in gaining VP.
  • PLAY cards provide an immediate benefit (and are then discarded), typically either new livestock or defenses to add to the map.

Grant: How do players recruit famous reivers and wardens to their cause? What abilities do these recruits bring?

Ed: The two black cards below are RECRUIT cards representing famous Reivers from our Turn 1 Summer Card Deck. Johnnie Armstrong is especially famous; his raiding was such a problem for King James V of Scotland that he was captured and hanged, one of the most notable such occurrences during the period.  Notice that each of these Reivers costs 2 Cattle to put in play.

The two purple RECRUIT cards are famous Wardens (also in the Turn 1 deck). The Earl of Angus famously fought off the English army that was ransacking the Scottish Borders during the Rough Wooing campaign; you can see his ability is tied to that historical feat. Wardens are a bit cheaper than Reivers: these two Wardens cost only 1 Cattle.

Grant: What role do powerful office holders play in the game?

Ed: Each player can gain the special power from one Office on Turn 1 and may add a second office on a later turn. These royal appointees had broad powers over the affairs of either northern England or southern Scotland, represented by the special abilities each office provides. Offices also boost the reputation of a player in one or more Marches, a score known in the game as a player’s “Notoriety” in that region. These are some of the most expensive cards to draft (the Offices shown below cost either 3 or 4 Cattle).

Grant: At the outset of Fall how do players prepare their defenses?

Ed: Each player’s March is protected by permanent, fixed defenses and mobile defenses (such as a Warden). A player’s mobile tokens (shown below as the black castle silhouettes with the word “Defense”) are placed face down in one of the six slots provided in each March.  Each token is thus protecting either the Sheep and Cattle in a Farm Region or a Town against Feud or Gaolbreak.

In the figure to below (from the middle of the Winter Phase), the green Hume player has declared a three-horse Raid against the Till Valley and the defenses have been revealed. The two dice from Norham Castle (a permanent defense) were shown all along – it is the five dice from the Caught Red-Handed defense token that are sprung as a nasty surprise against the raiding force. In total, seven pink defense dice are rolled against the attacker, with rolls of a “5” blocking attacks and rolls of a “6” indicating that an attacking reiver has been captured and will be sent to Berwick gaol. If our defenses included a Warden, we could have received a +1 die roll modifier – the only way you can get a “7” result to score 6 VP for hanging an attacking reiver.

Grant: How are the Events used to enhance a player’s abilities during this phase?

Ed: There are a total of twelve Event Cards found in the game (four are shown below). Half of them are battles between England and Scottish national armies occurring in the region such as the major battle of Flodden Field that occurred near the aforementioned Till Valley in 1513. The other events (such as Rough Wooing) reflect other historical campaigns or appearances in the Borders during the 16th Century. Players will need to pay careful attention to the opportunities that are presented by Events as they include lots of different type of benefits, either immediate or at game end with scoring. These Events include benefits such as the following:

  • major VP awards from battles,
  • combat dice rerolls from events such as Mary Queen of Scots or Rough Wooing, and
  • bonus Notoriety gains from the Ill Week or Ballad of Kinmont Willie events

and players who do pay attention to these… usually jump ahead to the top of the standings.

Grant: When Winter arrives, how do players launch attacks? What are Target Cards and how do they effect this phase? What are the outcome of these combats?

Ed: A player’s goal in the game is to become the most famous Border Reiver of all time, and to do that you will need to be well-rounded: terrifying when raiding other Marches, fiercely loyal to your family, swift to mete out justice when your holdings are under attack, and even loyal to your nation on occasion. Players are steered in this direction by their initial hand of six Target Cards (shown below).

Each family will make two attacks each turn. Each such combat must correspond to one of the options listed on the Target Card they have secretly selected for that attack. This selection hides a player’s exact intention until the final target of their attack is declared. Once chosen, the Target Card is expended and is out of the game, forcing the player to use each family in the diverse ways spread across these six cards.

As an example, let’s look at the attack we reviewed before:

The Hume player sits in the Scottish East March, across the border from the Till Valley. The “Target Opposite March” Card (which allows Hume to go to the English East March for a Raid or Battle) is thus just the ticket to initiate this raid.

The attacking Hume player gets to roll 8 dice total:

  • 3 dice, one for each Horse sent on the raid (representing the number of riders)
  • 2 dice, one for each of the unprotected Sheep in the target Farm Region
  • 3 dice, one for each point of Thomas Carleton’s RAID rating (Carleton is a Reiver in the Turn 2 deck who was famous historically for his extended raid into the Scottish West March).

Each type of combat yields some combination of livestock, Notoriety in the March where the combat occurs, and VP. In this example we have a Raid attack, where the attacker steals a Sheep from the Farm Region and gains 2 VP for each roll of a 5 or 6; rolls of 3 or 4 are also hits – these steal one Cattle and earn 1 VP each. But remember from before that our defender was also rolling 7 dice, making it very likely at least one of the attacker’s hits will be blocked and one attacking reiver sent to gaol.

Grant: How do players score points during the Spring?

Ed: Spring is when each player’s standing in the Notoriety race within each March is evaluated. These awards start small (3 VP for first place in a March on Turn 1) but escalate up to 9 VP per March by the end of the game.

Grant: What are Border Ballad Cards and how do they score extra VP?

Ed: The Ballad Cards are in the Turn 3 deck and are drafted like any Held card that summer. The VP received from these cards are based on a count of a single type of item the player has been collecting throughout the game (such as Defense Tokens and Horses, as shown below). I usually insist that a player who wants to receive these VP must recite the ballad poetry listed on the card!

Grant: Did you consider making this game a CDG or did that not work?

Ed: I actually did. That was one of the three versions I had to throw out (pretty much in its entirety) before I got this final version assembled. It was discouraging at times to see how roughly some of these early prototypes worked out – all part of designing a game with no preconceived mechanics, the big challenge I mentioned before.

Grant: What has been the overall experience of your playtesters?

Ed: Playtesting has taken two forms, both face-to-face games I have administered and online games I organized with a few dozen testers. The response has been terrific. There was one group of online testers who played repeatedly, forcing me to work rapidly to get the next revision ready because they were so anxious to get another game under way. A few players in this group mastered play enough they won quite frequently; I made sure to use their feedback extensively to get all the cards balanced as precisely as possible.

Grant: What have been some of the more difficult design challenges and how did you overcome them?

Ed: When I first submitted the game to GMT, I indicated that there was not going to be a Solo version of the game. But Gene Billingsley asked me to consider it; such a mode is proving to be quite popular among their fans. About six weeks later I had cracked this problem. There are now counters, playaids and cards (see below) included just for Solo play, as well as a full parallel rulebook. It’s proven to be quite a fun way to play the game; the drafting choices are particularly difficult in this mode. What makes it tough is that you are shown three cards at a time and the two that you don’t choose go straight to your opponents to strengthen them. You end up having to draft to deny cards to your opponents, just as our strongest players do in the multiplayer version.

Grant: What are you most pleased with about the game?

Ed: I love that the game only takes about 35 minutes per player. A huge reason we were able to achieve that is the simultaneous Summer Card drafting that minimizes any player down time. It’s been a lot of fun to work on a multiplayer game that isn’t quite as tricky to playtest as Here I Stand was!

Grant: What other subjects are you eying for designs?

Ed: Well Tanto Monta: The Rise of Ferdinand and Isabella, the prequel to Here I Stand, has also been keeping me busy. That’s my first project as a developer, helping the designer (Carlos Diaz Narvaez) create a game that plugs into our series. It has reached a similar point within the GMT art department as Border Reivers, so both should be coming out about the same time.

Thanks Ed for your time in answering these questions for this interview. I know that you have been very busy but I do appreciate your detail in these responses and the care with which you tried to help our readers understand what is behind this design. I am very excited about this one! We tried to get together at WBC with Ed to play but alas we were there just after he left for the week after the conclusion of the tournament. I cannot wait for this to be complete and on my table.

If you are interested in Border Reivers: Anglo-Scottish Border Raids, 1513-1603 you can pre-order a copy for $59.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-866-border-reivers.aspx