I think you guys are going to really like Harold Buchanan. I’ve only met him that one time in Tempe (see below), but I came away very impressed. Harold is clearly a very smart, very accomplished guy. But I think what’s going serve him best in this industry is that he is a humble, eager learner. In my experience, smart, accomplished people who are also humble committed learners quickly assimilate the information and tools that any new task or trade requires, then rapidly become a dominant force in their space. Time, of course, will tell, but my sense is that Harold has all the tools needed to do amazing things in this business. We’re going to do our best to give him plenty of help as he learns his craft. With Volko and Mike and all the COIN series development team to assist him, I know that Liberty or Death is going to be a gem. But my sense is you’re probably going to be seeing more than one game from Harold over time, and that this won’t be the only time you see his name and “gem” together in print.
I hope you enjoy Harold’s first article for InsideGMT! And be sure to keep an eye out for Liberty or Death, coming soon to the P500 list. – Gene
Busy with family and work, I left the hobby for 25 years. As my kids moved out to college, I jumped back in and felt like a kid in a candy store. The number and variety of games had exploded! I worked my way into a gaming group here in San Diego and Andean Abyss became a fast favorite. Coincidently, over the last three years, I had been feeding my voracious reading habit with everything I could find on the American Revolution. In the middle of a game of Andean Abyss I looked up at my buddy Richard McKenzie and said “This COIN system would be perfect for the American Revolution! The American Revolution is an Insurgency!” The term “Insurgency” wasn’t used in the eighteenth century, but it was still the same – “The American Insurrection” if you will. I put together a set of cards and a simple map (and I do mean simple) for Richard and I to play. Patriots, British, Indians, and French were the factions and fit together nicely. Indians got war parties. The Patriots got Continentals. The British got Tories. The French got the ability to mess with the British, either by funding the Patriots through a shell Spanish trading company or facilitating Patriot Letters of Marque. It was a lot of fun and intellectually stimulating as well.
I sent an early set of cards and the player’s aids to Volko Ruhnke to get his thoughts. He was very polite and said he would advise as necessary, but was busy with other projects. He gave me his blessing to run with the idea. Not knowing Volko, I was surprised (now that I know him I am not). After some more development, I sent Volko an email asking if he planned to attend ConsimWorld Expo in Tempe Arizona. Volko replied he didn’t plan to. He did send an e -mail to Gene Billingsley, Series Developer Mike Bertucelli, Designers Joel Toppen, Jeff Grossman, Brian Train and a host of other notables encouraging them to take a look at my design. Gene and others agreed to take a look. I was excited but concerned the prototype wasn’t ready. There were no pictures on the cards and Brian Train replied to me saying the map looked more like a flow chart – he was very polite and he was correct.
Mike Bertucelli spent a lot of time with me to understand the design and offered fantastic suggestions. Later in the week Gene and I sat down. He asked some tough questions about the factions as well as the development of the cards. He asked the “fun” question – half way through my overly enthusiastic response he held up his hand and said “Got it!” He hit the big issues right on the head and gave me a handful of ideas and assignments. Mike, COIN system expert Jordan Kehrer, John Leggat, and Trevor Wilcox sat down to play the game. The clumsy early prototype wasn’t balanced and the games ended early, but they liked the game and identified a number of areas for improvement. I had my work cut out for me, but I had seen the elephant and survived. Mike, Jordan and I spent a lot of time together in the coming months and the game began to mature. Volko was also a great resource answering questions and stimulating thought. Now the question was: “What would Volko think when he finally got the chance to play LorD?”
Volko would have his chance at the WBC in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had already committed myself to my first ever WBC before floating the game. Gene and Mike encouraged me to show the game in the GMT Demo area. Given that Volko planned to attend, it was also a great opportunity to show him the game and get his reaction and advice. My plan was to play games Sunday through Tuesday then set up LorD in the GMT Demo area on Wednesday – Andy Lewis was a great help in making that happen. Andy was a busy bee delivering copies of Fire in the Lake. Volko, by email, gave me some good tips about setting up in the demo area and said he would come by Wednesday and set up nearby. Andrew, his son and co-designer of Gallic War, would also come along.
Wednesday morning came. Up early, I moved to the GMT Demo area. In my enthusiasm I may have been the first gamer to the hall! It also gave me the pick of the demo area to set up. One end of the area had great traffic flow so that’s where I set up, spreading out to ensure there was plenty of room for Gallic War beside. My goal was to set up the game and start playing through a scenario. I would encourage people to sit and learn the game. As people began to file into Lampeter Hall, I was surprised at the level of interest. Most of that interest I would attribute to the popularity of the COIN series, but people immediately saw the Patriots as Insurgents and they enjoyed the complex interaction between the four factions (British, Patriot, French and Indians.) Within an hour, I had a full table and people played their roles with great enthusiasm. The feedback was also excellent with proposals to make the game more playable – many of which I will incorporate into the next version.
Frankly I was pleasantly surprised because I didn’t know what to expect. This is a topic we have all been educated on starting in fifth grade. And gamers are noted for their frankness. All that coupled with the near religious following of the COIN system made me worry a bit about response. As people looked over the game I would do my best to greet and engage them. People also enjoyed it when I handed out Continental Congress 20 dollar bills I had purchased. I warned them not to use them, but one player tried to buy a hotdog with no success. They were sticking out of badge holders throughout the hotel! (This currency was interesting historically as they were copies of the first bill issued by the Continental Congress. The British began to counterfeit them shortly thereafter and the value crashed, dramatically impacting the Patriot economy.)
That afternoon I was sitting with three other players. Coaching the British player on the impact of the Blockade the French player just slapped on him, I notice two men standing at the head of the table. “Hello guys” was my normal greeting and then I turned my attention back to the British player. It hit me that it was Volko and his son Andrew. He greeted me with enthusiasm, Andrew introduced himself, they set up the map to Gallic War and left for a late lunch, promising to return and dig into Liberty or Death.
With the return of the Ruhnkes the table was abuzz. Within 30 minutes Volko introduced me to Mark Herman (who dropped off Volko’s limited edition Fire in the Lake T shirt), Mark Miklos, David Dokter, Gilbert Collins, Rick Young and a host of other industry VIPs as they came to say hello to Volko. Andrew sat with me and we reset the game. Fred Manzo of TheBoardgamingWay.com and Developer for At Any Cost and Hammerin’ Sickles agreed to join us. I was careful to line father up against son, giving Andrew the British and Volko the Patriots. Andrew won the WBC COIN tourney last year so it was a great matchup. Fred played the French and I the Indians. After Volko said hello to the first tsunami of interested parties he sat down. I walked the players through the Commands (Operations) and Special Activities followed by the critical Winter Quarters (Propaganda) Sequence of Play to understand Resource adds, Rewarding Loyalty (Civic Actions), and Redeployment. We discussed Victory Conditions and commenced play.
We played the scenario “1776: The British Return to New York”. The British have a concentration of forces in New York City and are poised to exert their influence and military might. A weaker Patriot army operates in New York and New Jersey and is spread across the Colonies. French have yet to put boots on American soil but are actively picking at the British. The Indian player has forces spread across the Frontier and must work to build on that position. They work closely with the British to expand their influence preparing to raid the Colonies, neutralize Opposition and keep the Patriots away from Indian villages. Andrew immediately started moving British Troops into the Colonies and exposing Rebel Militia. Fred opened French ports to Patriot privateers and successfully interdicted British commerce while funneling resources to the Patriots. Patriots rallied to build the forces necessary to respond to the British threat. As play progressed the Patriots decided to use their General Washington “Brilliant Stroke” card to trump the next card in play only to be outmaneuvered by the British and General Howe. Howe yanked away (pardon the pun) the initiative and attacked the Patriot army to “Win the Day” and win Support for the King!
I was too busy teaching to ask many questions of Volko but he had assumed the role of Patriot Commander in Chief and was fully engaged. In the end we played through nearly 3 Campaigns before calling the game. Fred, Andrew, and Volko all expressed enjoyment and Volko and I discussed the largest couple of issues with the game as structured. Volko’s answers were always thoughtful and thought provoking. I will say that many of the people I have spoken to about the game have given me the advice that I must stay closely within the constraints of the COIN system as it has been played. Volko had a very different perspective. He said the history must define the structure – not the last game. But if all things are equal, give players the familiarity that makes them comfortable. That was liberating and gave us a larger playing field to play on.
When Volko came in the next morning, he immediately came to our space at the GMT demo table and confessed to thinking about Liberty or Death until 3:00 AM last night. Later that day, he sat down with Jordan and I and dropped some big ideas on us. You will see them in the final game, but suffice it to say they are brilliant. He also communicated what he liked and what he would like to see more of. Every suggestion was just that – a suggestion. He was careful not to step on my toes. My perspective is that I intend to make the best game possible and don’t care who owns the ideas. We had a great series of discussions and I had the chance to ask about a few of the curiosities I had developed. In the end we had a great exchange and the game will be better for it. Volko also said he will continue to be a resource and assist us in talking through the issues. He closed with excitement and interest in the game as it stood. We agreed to try to meet at the GMT Weekend at the Warehouse (in October) over the next generation game. I hope to be there and will teach all comers!
After meeting Volko and playing Liberty or Death with him, I came away with one lasting impression. He clearly has a big brain and is a big thinker. He clearly is an innovator and is unconstrained by current paradigms. But the one thing I observed about Volko that no one told me about was his kindness. He greeted everyone with a twinkle in his eye and a warm smile. The legions of admirers that came to see him all got a handshake and a few humble words of appreciation. Anyone that came by to see or learn Gallic War got his full attention and as long a lecture as their COIN sophistication required. As a new designer, I learned a lot from my meeting with Volko – about the game, but more importantly about how to conduct yourself when you are lucky enough to design games enjoyed by an appreciative hobby.