The Pendragon Chronicles — Vol. 1

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Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, Volume VIII of the COIN Series, presents a number of unique elements compared to its forebears, starting with not portraying a COunter-INsurgency at all! We are going to present the game and how it brings some exciting new stuff to the COIN family in this series of Chronicles over the coming months as we are busy polishing the game for release next year. On Gene’s suggestion, we figured we should start by telling you how Pendragon came to be…

[Marc] Though this will be my very first published design, I’ve been a fan of ancient history and historical simulation games for 35+ years, and a sucker for games on virgin or little-covered subject matters, especially if these are “hinge periods” (as we say in French), i.e. periods which saw a key change in history. In this regard, Dark Ages Britain, and its Arthurian legend connotations, have both held a particular interest to me (in part due to family origins, as I am descended from an old Breton family on my father’s side, and from Scots who settled in Central France some five centuries ago on my mother’s) and been quite a frustration with only Lewis Pulsipher’s venerable Britannia really on offer. Now, Britannia is a fantastic game that I have played extensively over the years, but I think that its historical model is quite outdated, owing more to the Victorian era’s paradigm of decadence and invasion than to the complex and nuanced views put forth by modern scholarship. I do remember a (typical) late-night conversation with fellow gamers and designers at the GMT West Spring Weekend in April 2014 where someone asked me what game/subject I would like to design next, and me answering: “Dark Ages Britain but I have not yet found the right approach to model it appropriately…”.

A few weeks later, I was reading yet another book trying to find real history behind the Arthurian legend (“Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain – A narrative history for fifth century Britain”, by Edwin Pace), a quite original and challenging take on Arthur when things suddenly clicked in my mind, as Pace described its interpretation of 5th-century Britain as riven by factionalism and competing ambitions, with his Arthur as a post-Roman warlord torn between the established Romano-British elites, jealous of their prerogatives and power, and Germanic barbarian Foederati (treaty allies/mercenaries). This in turn brought to my mind the books of Stuart Laycock (“Britannia, the Failed State – Tribal conflicts and the End of Roman Britain” and “Warlords – The struggle for power in post-Roman Britain”) and Ken Dark (in particular “Civitas to Kingdom – British political continuity 300-800”) and, in the course of one terminally congested commute back home for which California is famous, I realized the fall of Roman Britain made a terrific COIN subject. When I finally arrived home, I frantically wrote down the key concepts of the game with its four factions and their key interactions, priorities and conflicts, which have endured to this day.

Now, you are going to ask me how an historical situation with nary an insurgent, no jungle nor harsh desert, spanning more than a century and set some 1,500 years before the four then-existing COIN series’ games could possibly make a great COIN candidate!? The thing is that, though I came relatively late to the COIN series, playing my first game (A Distant Plain) at the GMT West Fall Weekend in October 2013, and having the pleasure of playtesting Fire in the Lake during the Spring 2014 edition, I quickly realized that, despite its name, the COIN system was not so much about counter-insurgency per se, as it was about multi-factional and asymmetrical conflicts (of which counter-insurgencies are obviously part). So, once I saw post-Roman Britain as a kind of failed state, riven by ancestral tribal enmities and competition between traditional elites and military strong men, all relying heavily on foreign ‘Foederati’ (allies bound by treaty in exchange typically of land and grain payments), as was the norm in the late Roman Empire, to fight against both local rivals or foreign marauders, the fit became obvious to me!

I spent some time then developing the basic concepts of what a “Late Roman Britain COIN” (which I tentatively named De Excidio Britanniae, after the famous period pamphlet by the monk Gildas) could be, revisiting a number of books I had accumulated on related subjects, but I was busy at the time developing an earlier game design (Hubris – Twilight of the Hellenistic World) and, more importantly, bringing the COIN system to the 5th century AD was such a stretch that I seriously doubted that could ever be seriously considered by GMT Games and the COIN Series crew!

However, in July of that year, I was shocked by the P500 announcement of Gallic War (now Falling Sky), a COIN instalment set even farther back in history, and proposed by no less a COIN authority than Volko Ruhnke himself and his son Andrew! I found the fit remarkable as well, and was very excited to see a subject matter close to my Frenchman’s heart being covered in that way, so I contacted this very same day Mike Bertucelli, the COIN Series developer whom I knew from my attending the GMT Weekends in Hanford, to offer my help in whatever capacity might be useful for the development of Gallic War. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned in passing that I had myself been thinking of a COIN application in the Ancient World, and Mike prodded me to tell him more about my concept. To my great surprise, I got a message from Volko himself a couple days later thanking me for offering to help with Gallic War, but also asking me for details about that Fall of Roman Britain game concept that Mike had told him about!

[Volko] Marc had first popped onto my screen via Facebook. Marc had spotted and posted a correction of an anachronism on Andrew and my Gallic War playtest map. (We had used the post-conquest name “Narbonensis” for the region of Gaul known at the time of the Gallic War as “Provincia”.) So when I heard about Marc’s start on a design of a COIN Series game set in Roman-age Britain, I could already guess that he knew some ancient history.

Clearly, I had no hesitation at that point about the Series delving into ancient history. And, with Harold Buchanan’s volume on the American Revolution (what became Liberty or Death) also underway, adding a volume to at least touch the gulf of centuries between Caesar and Washington seemed apt.

Was I concerned about a COIN Series volume that concerned something other than counterinsurgency? No. Andrew and I had already realized that there would be some controversy over calling our game on Roman times “COIN” (as we discuss in Falling Sky’s Design Notes), and I suspected that the same would occur with Liberty or Death. Gene was quite enthusiastic about seeing the COIN Series cover a greater variety of topics, and happy to evolve that name into a brand for the volumes’ characteristic package of core mechanics, the COIN Series game engine.

Brian Train already had his 2-player COIN Series design on 1950s Algeria (Colonial Twilight) well along. So I knew that the Series would not disappoint fans interested in more treatment of modern counterinsurgency. And I knew that Marc’s Roman Britain game—if it went the distance to publication—would follow no fewer than seven previous COIN Series volumes on the market. As I discuss in detail in an article in C3i magazine Nr30, escalating variety would be key to the Series success, so virgin subject matter and the application of our engine to different types of conflicts argued in favour of Marc’s concept.

[Marc] Thus began a whirlwind summer of 2014, starting with working with the Ruhnke father and son on Gallic War (GW), but also quickly turning my De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) concepts into a playable prototype, drawing from my previous experience of designing Hubris. A particularly intense period of creative flow was my 2 weeks of family vacation in France, where I typically spent my mornings reviewing the GW material that had been sent while I was asleep, asking questions and making suggestions, and the rest of the day putting together the map, the faction foldouts, the deck and sketching the rules of DEB! Not sure if my wife, kids and parents have yet pardoned me, though they did enjoy my suggestion to take the opportunity to go visit the site of Gergovia (a couple hours’ drive from my parents’ summer house), a beautiful and very interesting location, where I did not forget to collect pictorial material for GW! As for the (long!) return flight from Paris to San Francisco, it proved a perfect occasion to assemble the first full deck for DEB…

My personal target was to have a playable prototype of DEB ready for the next GMT West Fall weekend (October 17-20, 2014), with time to spare to run the game solo (or rather “faux 4‑player” as Volko says, more precisely) in order to flush out basic bugs and detect gross issues. However, Volko informed me that he was coming to San Francisco on the weekend of October 3-4 for the Table Flip game design conference at which he and Brian Train were to give a presentation on the COIN Series, and suggested this would be a good opportunity to meet. Awesome, but it cut two weeks from my already super tight schedule… However, this was nothing that a lot of late nights and more asocial family behaviour could not solve, and sure enough I was able, on the afternoon of Friday October 2nd, to enter the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco with a decent-looking prototype that worked reasonably satisfactorily all things being considered, and a lot of trepidation, to meet the father of the COIN Series!

Volko Ruhnke with the playtest map for Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain.

Volko Ruhnke with the playtest map for Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain.

You may have heard already how smart, engaging and all-around nice person Volko is, and it is all true, and then some! He greeted me with great enthusiasm, apologizing for only having a smallish coffee table in the lounge for us to sit at, and before I had time to freak out, we were busy discussing the game and its underpinnings and played a full Epoch before the afternoon was done! I was thrilled but this was not the end of my surprises as, the next morning, when we convened at the Table Flip conference (to which Volko had graciously invited me as one of his free passes), as soon as I was done being introduced to hobby greats Brian Train and Joe Miranda, Volko took me aside and told me about a few ideas he had conceived during the night for DEB, starting with using new piece shapes for the Raiders “as they are so different from anything we’ve had in the series to date”! That in turn opened the way to using very differentiated shapes for Strongholds as well, another new COIN concept.

[Volko] It may not be generally known, but I receive ideas at least monthly if not weekly for topics for COIN Series games. These proposals range from a brief desire that I or someone else design a game on topic X, through the beginnings of a fan design, all the way to that rare creature—a playable prototype. I am happy to receive, consider, and comment on all these ideas, and am very proud that the Series that began with Andean Abyss has ended up spawning so much collective creativity. But, like GMT or any game publisher, there is really no way for me to know what I have a hold of with a game proposal until I can look at a prototype.

Once I sit down, look over, and play even just a little of a prototype, I can find out almost at once the quality of the design. Is it fresh or slavish? Does it cohere? Does it transport me? Most of all, is it fun?

So it didn’t take even the full Epoch of De Excidio in that hotel lobby for me to know that Marc’s design was a thing of beauty: rich, original, carefully constructed and passionately expressed. I had in that short session already learned a lot about Roman Britain as a politico-military system and was hungry to tour more and more of 5th-Century Britannia via the game! (In a later InsideGMT Pendragon Chronicle, I’ll let you in on the heart of what makes this volume in the COIN Series so precious and unique—and it’s not the question of whether it’s counterinsurgency.)

[Marc] Volko told me where I could procure the wooden pieces from Germany, and I lost no time ordering them to have a hope of having them for the big unveiling of the game in Hanford two short weeks later. Luckily, I received the pieces just 2 days before the GMT event, leaving me just enough time to spray paint in black the Saxon raiders! I had also ordered castle-like pieces for the strongholds but was a bit put back by their bulkiness upon reception. Just in case, I packed them along if only to show this was not such a great idea after all, but Volko and the other players as well as GMT loved them and they have been a staple of the game ever since, though we may make them shorter in the released product.

Pendragon playtest map.

Early version of the Pendragon playtest map.

On October 17th, I drove to Hanford to join Volko, Harold Buchanan, Mike Bertucelli, Ken Tee and many others in the “COIN corner”, a specially designated section of the warehouse-turned-gaming-center where no less than 4 COIN prototypes, in various degrees of advancement, were demonstrated and played that weekend alongside the 4 already released COIN games: Harold’s Liberty or Death, Andrew and Volko Runhke’s Gallic War (now Falling Sky), Ken’s Iron Butterfly and my own De Excidio Britanniae. Talk of awesomeness! DEB was played twice that day, including a late-night session with an impromptu short scenario on Volko’s urging, and I was truly delighted by the very positive reception the game got from all around.

[Volko] I knew even before those Hanford sessions that De Excidio was something great. What I didn’t yet realize was how fully the design would get under my skin. Eventually, I would take a greater involvement in its evolution than I have taken on for anyone else’s game design in over a decade—I would want to take charge of its development.

[Marc] DEB was pretty much on the rails from that day on, even though we all agreed during that weekend that it needed some other, easier on the tongue, name—a name, which, after much consultation and soul-searching, finally settled, months later on Pendragon


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7 thoughts on “The Pendragon Chronicles — Vol. 1

  1. Inspiring account. Building a first prototype in such circumstances must have been intense. A supportive family undoubtedly helps to find the time, but it’s hard work, knowledge and passion that get the results!
    I’m getting S. Laycock’s two tomes; they’ll help alleviate the wait and prepare the ground for this design.

    • Thank you Paul. In my experience, creativity comes in frantic outbursts, after months if not years of building knowledge, understanding and concepts. Laycock is an interesting read. If you can find Pace’s book too, it is really original and quite compelling! Enjoy 🙂

    • The game has been in development for a couple years now, but obviously this has taken a back seat to Pendragon now. For more details about the game, you may check the game’s thread on CSW, and also the 3rd part of the interview I gave on theplayersaid.com blog.
      If you have specific questions, let me know 🙂

  2. Greetings Volko and the team from the King of the Dead,

    So excited about COIN and the upcoming PENDRAGON. already have FALLING SKY, A DISTANT PLAIN and LIBERTY OR DEATH. Superb game system and glad subject matter is reaching back into the depths of history. best regards.