There are a some great young designers rising in our hobby and I am particularly taken by Fred Serval whose first game Red Flag Over Paris came out at the tail end of 2021 and was a great step up in the Lunchtime Games Series from GMT Games. He has now embarked on a new project designing a game set in literature and folklore with his upcoming A Gest of Robin Hood: Insurrection in Nottingham Shire from GMT Games. We reached out to Fred to get some inside information on the design and he has provided us with some fantastic perspective on the design and game play.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork and layout of the component pictures used in this interview are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as this game is still in development, components and card details may still change prior to publication.
Grant: With Red Flag Over Paris now printed and being played by gamers, how has the design experience for that game prepared you for future designs?
Fred: I now have a better idea of how the whole design process goes. When I first reached out to GMT in 2019 for RFOP, I had no idea what I was getting into. With this first experience I realised how much game design required endurance and patience. Especially in wargaming, the time and effort that you have to put in are, at least for me, way more than I initially expected. I also realised how much playtest and development could shape a game and that most of the work was in this phase rather than the initial design effort.
But I mostly had to learn about two key things for my design process: receiving feedback and collaboration with all the people that make games possible. Regarding the first one, I can be very self-conscious and doubt myself a lot. When I got input while designing my first game, I took almost all negative feedback as proof that making this game was akin to an existential mistake and that I shouldn’t make a game in the first place. With time I learned how to get the value from that feedback and use it in my design process. For example, if a game mechanism doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that it has no value or is unsalvageable, maybe it just needs to be reworked, and a slight adjustment could introduce a new dynamic. I also had to accept that playtesters, even if they are designers, are not ALWAYS right. What matters most is the design objective and how to use feedback to identify what gameplay elements are working against the said objective.
Now that the game is out, I fully understand what Mark Herman told me once: a game is not for everyone. You’re going to read some pretty brutal reviews of your game when it’s released, and those reviews are often fair, but they are often the reflection of the expectations that a specific player had for that game, rather than an examination of the game itself.
Grant: What would you do differently with that design if you could?
Fred: It’s hard for me to answer this question. When I play Red Flag Over Paris today, I can’t help but contemplate all the decisions I had to make: what I removed, what I added, all the concessions to find this balance between accessible gameplay and historicity. Sometimes I would have liked the game to be radically different, but it would have lost its more straightforward aspects. I would like to make a more complex game about the political dimension of the Paris Commune at some point to scratch that itch…
But overall the design achieves the objectives I had for it, short, not too complex, and contains a lot of discrete mechanics that have significant historical implications. There is just one thing that I would like to have added and that’s providing a bit more agency to the players in their hand composition, but a very simple variant is coming soon for that. I recommend watching my designer duel with Mark Herman if you want a sneak peek: https://youtu.be/LJgk0ntpvEE
Grant: What is your new design A Gest of Robin Hood about?
Fred: As the title might subtly give it away, it is about Robin Hood. More seriously, the game is based on the folk tales of Robin Hood, but also covers themes such as peasant revolt, statehood in medieval times, and banditry. The original idea for the game came from an article by mediaeval historian Rodney Hilton published in 1958 about the origins of Robin Hood. In it, Hilton explores the early version of the folktale hero and draws a comparison with the guerilla warfare of his time:
“I shall suggest that what matters is that one of England’s most popular literary heroes is a man whose most endearing activities to his public were the robbery and killing of landowners […] and the maintenance of guerilla warfare against established authority”
Grant: Why did you think this literary hero would be a good subject for a wargame?
Fred: I would say that what makes Robin Hood a good subject for a wargame is that he is not just a literary hero. As a folk hero, what is interesting about Robin Hood is probably more what he says about the spirit of his time rather than what he is in the stories. I have been quite interested in the character’s evolution, from the social bandit, to the rebellious but noble-hearted yeoman, and finally, the disenfranchised noble of the later adaptation. Some aspects of each of those versions are present in the game. Still, the original Robin Hood tales reveal fascinating concerns of the time:
- The emergence of the modern state in medieval Britain
- The legitimacy of political power and the use of violence
- Early forms of class struggle
And to me, that sounds like the perfect subject for a family friendly wargame.
Grant: Why is the subject a perfect fit for the Irregular Conflicts Series from GMT?
Fred: The purpose of the Irregular Conflicts Series started as a way to expand the COIN System in new directions, and in that regard games like Vijayanagara or A Gest Of Robin Hood were a perfect fit. Since then it seems like the thinking at GMT Games is that the series could explore even further territories, such as those found in Cross Bronx Expressway.
Grant: Did you think about the theme and subject before putting together the mechanics and framework of this game?
Fred: While making the game, I would say that I always had both theme and mechanics in mind, thinking about it in parallel, and integrating one with the other organically. Making Robin Hood fit in the COIN framework mostly felt natural really.
The game was originally conceived as a “classic” COIN Series game.
From the start, it was an odd type of COIN as I always thought of it as a two-player game, removing the complex multi-faction interactions. It started as a compact Colonial Twilight, then as I changed the system to streamline it and fit the theme it started to become its own thing. It was also heavily inspired by The British Way as Stephen Rangazas and I worked on our games at the same time, and discussed them with each other frequently. The game just needed to take some liberties with the original series, but in my opinion, it doesn’t change the core principles of Volko’s engine. Here are a few examples to illustrate:
- Travellers Deck: adds a bit of randomness and story-telling to the core economic action of Robin Hood. But I see this as a nice potential addition to COIN, and maybe this mechanic will inspire some other designers who might integrate it into more classic COIN Series games (hint hint…)
- Carriages: classic COIN players might find those odd in a COIN game, especially if they dislike hidden information, but at its core, you can see them as mobile lines of communications or economic zones that you find in other COIN Series games.
- Special actions only available for specific pieces: Robin Hood is a piece in the game with special actions of its own, but this was already present in a not-so-different form in the faction leader units in Falling Sky.
So, in a way, many of those innovations and oddities specific to this game are direct references to the history of the COIN Series.
Grant: Why do you believe this is an “ideal entry point to the COIN System and the ICS Series”?
Fred: My main game design objective for A Gest of Robin Hood was to reduce the footprint of a COIN game in its three dimensions: spatial, temporal and cognitive. The result is a pretty compact game that plays in less than an hour, and I think it is one of the easiest COIN-like games to learn because of its shorter ruleset and simpler faction interactions. But I also wanted the theme to be more friendly to a broader audience, and I believe that picking a popular figure like Robin Hood does that.
Grant: I understand the design incorporates a new hidden movement mechanic. How does this function and why was it important to include?
Fred: The game includes a tiny hidden movement mechanic, if we can call it that way. As I said, Robin Hood is present on the board in the shape of a Merrymen piece. What distinguishes it is a different symbol on its revealed side, so as long as the pieces are hidden, it is impossible to know where Robin Hood is. This creates a fun little hide-and-seek mechanic because Robin Hood can do some powerful special activities, but if arrested grants victory points to the Sheriff. Also, this piece interacts with many events and is an essential part of the narrative on the board.
Grant: How are the foldout screens used in this movement?
Fred: The foldout screens are only used to shuffle pieces around secretly when needed. But these components also allow us to add more theme and rules reminders to make the experience more immersive, which we quite enjoy.
Grant: What is the Travelers Deck? What type of cards and encounters are included in the deck?
Fred: This one is separated from the event deck, and only the Robin Hood player interacts with it. Each card represents an encounter the Merry Men might have in Nottinghamshire when they decide to attempt a robbery. Some travelers are generic, like monks or merchants; some are based on the legend, like Richard at the Lea. Some cards can be added or removed from the base deck by triggering events, like Guy of Gisborne that the Sheriff can hire to track the Merry Men.
Grant: Why was this deck important to tell the story of Robin Hood?
Fred: Since the earliest ones, all the folk tales revolve around Robin Hood’s encounters with potential victims or future friends (they can be both at once). It felt crucial to have a mechanic representing the idea of the encounter at the centre of the narration of Robin Hood stories.
Grant: What is the focus of the Event Deck?
Fred: In all COIN games, the Event Deck is essential to add some historical flavour and structure to the game. But in the case of Robin Hood, as it’s a folktale, I felt like events and deck structure were even more critical. This was important as the mediaeval form of telling those stories was primarily oral, in the form of chanson de geste, and having a very structured tempo seemed at the same time very thematic and gave players a better sense of the action economy of the game. This is why, contrary to many COIN games, a lot of the time taking the event is a good move in this game.
Most of the events are direct references to Robin Hood stories or characters. I also took the opportunity to integrate some more socio-political elements about the emergence of statehood in the middle-ages.
Grant: Can you give us a few examples of these Travelers Deck Cards and explain how they work?
Fred: The Travelers Deck consists of 12 cards, 10 in the base deck and 2 that can be added via event. When the player playing Robin Hood decides to do a “Rob” action, they can usually either target a carriage, if one is present in the space, or a traveler. In the latter case they will reveal the card at the top of the Travelers Deck and that will be the target. Two options are available to the Merrymen: a nice one, and another one, not that nice…then the Merrymen roll for success. If the dice roll plus the number of revealed Merry Men is higher than the strength of the traveler plus the number of Henchmen present, then the Rob succeeds. Note that there are two different dice depending on if the Rob occurs in a favourable space (forest, revolting parishes) or not (in submissive parishes or Nottingham).
Here is an example Travelers Deck Card:
Grant: How many cards are included in the Event Deck? How did you settle on this number?
Fred: The game contains 44 cards and the split is:
- 12 Travelers Cards – used only when Robbing
- 3 Royal Inspections – equivalent to Propaganda Cards
- 24 Event Cards – normal events
- 5 Fortune Event Cards – mandatory events
The game is structured in 3 ballads, each containing 6 events, a fortune event and the royal inspection. This number of cards ensures that even experienced players won’t know what will come up in each game.
Grant: Can you give us a few examples of these Event Cards and explain how they work?
Fred: Event Cards function the same way as in any COIN game. Each card has two events, one more favourable to the Sheriff and one more favourable to Robin Hood. The player triggering the event resolves it as they wish. There is one twist: once per ballad (a sequence of 7 Event Cards), a mandatory event will get resolved without the players taking action on the sequence of play.
Here is an example of a regular Event Card: Maid Marian
This is a powerful event for Robin Hood. As we’ll discuss later, some particular actions for this faction are only available in a location containing the Robin Hood piece. Maid Marian enables any Merry Man to take such a powerful action, opening many exciting possibilities.
Here is an example of a Mandatory Event Card: Queen Eleanor
As you can see, there is only a single option; as soon as this card is revealed, the event will be triggered. In this case, a check on how many travelers Robin Hood brutalised since the beginning of the game. If the number is too high, it will impact his prestige.
Grant: The game has a unique Sequence of Play. What did you use as inspiration?
Fred: Well, the Sequence of Play is not unique; it is the one designed by Stephen for The British Way. The first time I tried his SoP, I realised that it was exactly what I needed for my game. At first, I used Brian Train’s approach from Colonial Twilight, which didn’t fit this design. The advantage of Stephen’s mechanism was that it was more straightforward and gave more weight to the events. And for a game that is about a folk tale, it seemed appropriate. I just added a slight twist: the SoP works slightly differently for the Sheriff; when the player passes, they can take more Resources by selecting a lower initiative space.
Grant: How does this version of that 2-player Sequence of Play work? Can you please give us a look at the Sequence of Play?
Each round starts with a card draw from the Ballad Deck. Both players will get an opportunity to act on each Event Card, in eligibility order. The First Eligible player’s choice of actions limits the options available to the Second Eligible player, and the choice made by each player determines the order of eligibility for the next card. There are three primary options available, as shown on the Initiative Track printed on the board:
- Single Plot: Perform one Plot (normal action) in a single map space.
- Event: Execute either the unshaded or shaded effect on the current Event Card.
- Plots & Deed: Perform one Plot type in up to three spaces, paying for each space selected, and then they may perform one Deed (special action).
The First Eligible player chooses one of these options, places their eligibility cylinder in the indicated space on the Initiative track, and then performs the listed action(s). The Second Eligible player then chooses from either of the remaining options, places their eligibility cylinder in the indicated space on the Initiative Track, and then performs the listed action(s).
Alternatively, either player may place their eligibility cylinder in any available space on the Initiative Track and pass instead of performing the listed action(s), in which case they take 1 Shilling if Robin Hood, or between 1 and 3 Shillings (as indicated on the track spaces) if the Sheriff.
After both players have acted or passed, place the leftmost cylinder in the First Eligible box and the other cylinder in the Second Eligible box, then draw the next card and continue play.
This system is directly “borrowed”, in the Robin Hood sense when talking about some noble’s jewelry, from the Sequence of Play created by Stephen Rangazas for The British Way.
Grant: What are the factions included in the game? How do they differ mechanically? What actions are available to each faction?
Fred: There are two factions in the game:
- Robin Hood and the Merry Men: a typical insurgent faction focused on sneaking across the shire, robbing travelers, attacking carriages, and redistributing wealth to the peasants to encourage revolt against the Sheriff. This faction wants to generate Justice Points by placing camps, having revolting parishes, and preventing the Sheriff from confiscating property (represented by the wealth carriages)
- The Sheriff and his Henchmen: a typical counter-insurgent faction, whose objective is to maintain Order. This is done by hiring henchmen, patrolling and arresting Merry Men. But the Sheriff also wants to extract as much wealth as possible from the peasants, so one of his key actions is to confiscate, generating carriages on the board that will travel back to Nottingham.
Grant: What are the different units available to the factions?
Fred: Robin Hood is the most complex faction as it has three types of units: normal Merry Men, acting as classic guerilla piece like in any COIN game, a special Merry Man whose position is only known to the Robin Hood player, representing Robin himself, and last but not least the camps that represent the Merry Men organisation on the ground. For the Sheriff it’s a lot easier, this faction only has access to one type of unit: Henchmen represented by blue cubes.
Grant: How does each side achieve victory. Who has the harder time of meeting their goals?
Fred; The Victory Point Track is a tug of war, but points are scored differently by factions:
- The Sheriff focuses on extracting as much wealth as possible for the peasantry while keeping control of the peasants
- Robin Hood is more concerned by hearts and minds as well as wealth redistribution
I would say that the hardest faction to play is Robin Hood’s, even if it is in my opinion the strongest. The Merry Men are weak, start with a very limited board presence and the Sheriff’s strength can seem overwhelming. But with careful planning and by taking cunning actions, it is possible to give the Sheriff a really hard time keeping the Shire under control.
Grant: What does the map look like and what is the geographic area covered?
Fred: The map covers all of Nottinghamshire and is split between parishes and forest spaces. Across the shire run the river Trent that makes movement a bit trickier. Roads are used by the carriages to travel across the land toward Nottingham, the only castle on the map and centre of the Sheriff’s administrative power.
Grant: How many spaces are included and how did you make the decision about placement and size?
Fred: There are 10 spaces, and they are of 3 types:
- Nottingham Castle: that works a lot like a city in a COIN game
- Parishes: depicting villages and cultivated lands surrounding them, this is where most of the population in Nottinghamshire live
- Forests: spaces composed of dense wood, that are supposed to be protected areas for raising deer and other game to hunt, but in fact serve as a refuge for outlaws
Size and placement is based on the maps I found from the late mediaeval era. It’s a couple of centuries after the supposed “real” Robin Hood, but from the time when the myth of Robin Hood became an extremely popular folktale.
Grant: What do you feel the game models well?
Fred: A sense of adventure, with each campaign (or “ballad”) feeling like a chapter in a greater Robin Hood narrative. There is a strong narrative that comes out from the series of events and actions that the players take, and maybe some players will enjoy writing out the story that they played.
It also is very good at delivering an entry level COIN experience, with some basic insurgency and counterinsurgency factions actions and an approachable, family-friendly theme.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Fred: The playtesters’ feedback has been fantastic and helpful in adjusting balance and keeping the system exciting. We initially started with a mini-tournament right before the addition to P500 that worked well; that was a brilliant idea by Stephen Rangazas. Most of the participants stayed active to play the new versions, and many players that pre-ordered the game joined the ranks of testers. The overall feedback is that the game is entertaining and fast; most games are played in 45 minutes but still offers quite some depth. Its two-player nature can feel a bit chess-like, and this is where the event helps a lot by breaking the tempo and offering unique opportunities. They also really enjoy how the theme is integrated into the gameplay, which was important for me.
Grant: What other designs are you contemplating or already working on?
Fred; I currently have three prototypes that I am working on; the titles are temporary:
- Napoleon III 1870, which I am co-designing with my friend Brian Asklev Hansen. The game takes the Napoleon system from Shakos Games and adapts it to the early days of the Franco-Prussian war. Nothing is signed yet, but I hope that Denis Sauvage and his team will be interested in the design.
- Palestine 1917, a game that I started designing to fit in the same series as 300: Earth & Sea from Nuts! Publishing. I was so in love with this game that I wanted to make one in the same format; the challenge I gave myself is to develop a VERY streamlined version of the Paths of Glory System to fit in a small game. As for the previous one, nothing is signed, so once it’s done I hope that Florent Coupeau will show interest.
- Medieval Monster Hunter – Snail Edition, not at all a wargame! The topic came to me while working on Gest, I found a lot of depictions of snails in mediaeval texts and I had this idea of making a small adventure deck building game about fighting (really) big snails. It’s inspired by games like Slay the Spire, Flesh and Blood, and Regicide and is just a lot of fun to design, not sure that any publisher might be interested in that one though.
But my biggest wish is to make a third game with GMT Games, a bigger one. I just haven’t decided what it should be yet. I have a few ideas, but I’m currently chatting with the big brains at GMT to decide which one to focus on.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Fred. It is always a pleasure to interact with you and we appreciate your hard work on not only your games but your podcast Homo Ludens as well.
If you are interested in A Gest of Robin Hood: Insurrection in Nottingham Shire you can pre-order a copy from the P500 game page on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-934-a-gest-of-robin-hood.aspx
Great interview, as usual. I’ve been watching this game for a long time and this deep dive really fleshed things out and I’m even more interested now. Thanks Grant and Fred!
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Thanks for the interview Grant! Fred Serval is a designer to watch, for sure. It’s great to see where and how he draws his inspirations and uses them to make something really new. (And he’s a nice and intelligent man, too.)
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Very promising! …as is the idea of Fred doing a big game with GMT!
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