My first trip to WBC with Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection

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    Designer - Liberty or Death

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    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.

    Richard MacKenzie with an early prototype of Liberty or Death.

    Richard McKenzie with an early prototype of Liberty or Death.

    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?”

    Mike, John, Jordan, and Trevor playing at Consim Expo

    Mike, John, Jordan, and Trevor playing at Consim Expo

    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.

    Part of the GMT Demo Area at WBC. There's Jordan playing Liberty or Death, Volko with Fire in the Lake, Hermann Luttman with At Any Cost, and way in the back, Sal Vast with Unconditional Surrender.

    Part of the GMT Demo Area at WBC. There’s Jordan playing Liberty or Death, Volko with Fire in the Lake, Hermann Luttman with At Any Cost, and way in the back, Sal Vast with Unconditional Surrender.

    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 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.

    Harold and Volko discussing the game

    Harold and Volko discussing the game

    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!

    A look at the WBC version of the Liberty or Death map

    A look at the WBC version of the Liberty or Death map

    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.

    Volko and Harold taking a detailed look at the Liberty or Death cards

    Volko and Harold taking a detailed look at the Liberty or Death cards

    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!

    An oblique view of the NW portion of the Liberty or Death map

    An oblique view of the NW portion of the Liberty or Death map

    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.


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    57 thoughts on “My first trip to WBC with Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection

    1. Great article, Harold! It was a pleasure meeting you and Volko and I hope that we’ll run into each other again soon. Maybe Prezcon in Virginia?
      Best of luck with Liberty or Death.

      • Hey Hermann

        Great to meet you as well. After you and Fred walked me through the extraordinary rich combat resolution mechanisms of your two games I put in my P500 order! But I have to admit I was sold after I saw the play test maps!


        • Thanks Harold! We appreciate your support and you’ll have our orders as well when Liberty or Death goes live.
          Good luck!

    2. Great report Harold, and count me in for Liberty or Death as soon as it goes onto P500! Washington’s War is one of my favorite games, and I’m looking forward with keen anticipation to the COIN perspective on The Insurrection!

      • Hey Jan Paul

        I am a huge Washington’s War fan and it was a treat to meet Mark Herman. He stopped by once and said he would like to play the game as he knew something about the American Revolution! He has a gift for understatement! He is very busy at WBC (at one point half Lampeter Hall was playing his games in tourneys) so I never pulled him into a Campaign but I do plan to arrange it! Thanks for the comment!


    3. Harold was a poster boy for how NOT to sell a game.

      I approached his table at WBC and took a gander at his game. I must admit that seeing the American Revolution referred to as an “insurrection” put me on guard. Granted the word is a synonym for revolution but the connotation is entirely different.

      However, it was when he smiled and glibly called the patriots of the American militias and Continental Army as “the first terrorists” that I decided that this guy could go jump in a lake. Uttering such an imbecilic statement is like a giant door slamming shut on any desire I may have had to learn about his game let alone spending my hard earned money on it.

      Is it good or bad? Who knows and frankly who cares.

      • Hi Jeff.

        I’m really sorry your first exposure to the game was not a positive one. Your response surprised me, because it is the first negative I’ve heard of all the feedback I’ve received so far from WBC attendees who met Harold or learned the game. Naturally, I wish that you felt differently about both, but when I ask for feedback, I appreciate honesty even when it shows that we have room to improve some aspect of a game or its presentation. Listening and giving consideration to a negative response, even when it hurts because it is sharply expressed, is one way we get better. So thank you for taking the time to give us your honest feedback.

        • Wow, Jeff, lighten up. You can be a patriotic American (as am I) and still see that the American Revolution was in fact an insurrection (armed revolt, rebellion, etc) against an established sovereign government. ESPECIALLY from the perspective of the major counter-insurgency side of the era (and game), the British.

          Sure the British didn’t use the word terrorist, but that was mostly because the word didn’t exist then (first seen in English c. 1794 during the French Revolution). I suspect Harold was being flippant and/or using that as a short-hand to describe the Patriots’ role (trying to change the current political system in the country in question) within the game by way of drawing an analogy to the FARC, Taliban, July 26 etc in other published COIN games.

      • Hey Jeff

        I appreciate your willingness to take a look at the game and read my piece. I regret anything I might have said that was offensive to you or the Patriotic cause of the day. The one thing I have learned after years of study on the American Revolution is that these Americans made great sacrifices and accomplished extraordinary things. I wouldn’t want to demean that in any way.

        While every game (or Designer) isn’t for every gamer, if we are ever at the same Convention in the future I would appreciate the opportunity to walk you through the mechanisms. Not that your interest will change, but so you can see the respect paid to the Patriots throughout the game.

      • fwiw, I was among those who favored the use of the word “insurrection” in the title. I did not (and do not) think of it as providing any negative connotation. Nor do I see “revolution” as necessarily positive, by the way. It depends on one’s view of the government or establishment that is the target of either.

        If I recall (Harold will correct me if I misremember this detail), the Patriot faction in the game is not using “Terror” operations, as some other factions in the COIN Series do.


      • I think we can safely file this in “over-reaction.” As the saying goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist – and sometimes that shoe is mighty uncomfortable on the other foot…

        In any event, I only spoke to Harold very briefly before sitting down to push some counters for At Any Cost, but he struck me as a gracious host and ambassador for his game and hobby — very much thrilled just to be there and showing off the fruits of his own labor. I bet he would’ve gladly talked my ear off about the history or the mechanics of his design. I’m sorry you did not come away with the same, undoubtably more accurate impression.

      • Great story on how this game came to be! I cannot wait to get my hands on it! This will be my fourth COIN game and I’m eagerly looking forward to it. Funny enough, had it been me, hearing the designer call the Patriots “the first terrorists” probably would’ve had me trying to by the demo copy right then and there! Especially considering he was playing as the Indian faction. Hell every time I play Fire in the Lake as a communist faction I’m chattering about American war crimes and imperialism. Doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect our veterans in real life!

    4. This was an incredibly insightful article, very enjoyable. I’m really excited to hear you’ll be at GMT weekend teaching the game. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action (and hopefully trying it!) Can’t get enough COIN, and a game in the system set in the 18th Century is music to my ears.

    5. Harold — Thanks so much for conceiving and charging forth with this design project. And thank you for the doing the article: your words are most generous! — Best, Volko

      • Hey Volko

        Thanks for your support and leadership! Your boys are great play testers as well. Andrew was winning the first game until all turned against him!


    6. That’s my brother in the top photo!

      Hey Rich! You can’t get me away from Thirty Years War, LOL!

      Good luck and let me know if you need a New Mexico playtester.

      • Hey Pat

        Richard is awesome and has been a big part of this process. He has also been very supportive and positive in a process that is very challenging. Get your Vassal skills sharpened and we can play online. You can come to SD and play as well!


    7. Ooooo…a COIN game! (So, I better say something)

      Any chance that we will see this demoed at the October GMT Weekend? From Washington’s War to ALL the volumes of Mark Miklos’s series, GMT does the American Rev….uhhh…Insur….uhh…War of Independence (!) with great style and substance…Does series developer Mike B. have a playtest kit?

      Ken (GMT’s unofficial COIN Operator)

      • Hey Ken

        I plan to be at GMT West and hope to meet you there.

        Mark Miklos was at WBC wearing a Joseph Brandt shirt – it was great. He was happy to see Joseph Brandt in LorD.


        • Excellent news, Harold. We can play, you show me yours – I’ll show you mine! You must live in the middle of the country to be at an East Coast then West Coast gaming event. Omaha?

          Joseph Brandt is in Washington’s War too. Think he’s the GMT Am Rev games equivalent of Black Adder in English history. Mark is a cool guy and I hope he can stick around for a Cowpens game and wearing a Daniel Morgan shirt!

          Now I am wondering on Mark Herman’s take on your game…

          • That would be AmRev, Philippines, Gaul, and — with luck — Ireland COIN at one GMT Weekend (plus published volumes, naturally).

        • Hey Harold,

          Got a sneak peek at the game components and are the Event Cards final? Reason I asked is that I was somewhat surprised that (yes, I have played Oriskany and Newtown) Herkimer’s Relief Column was conspicuously absent…but I definitely saw Sullivan’s Event Card!


          • Hey Ken

            I agree – it is a great event and the ensuing battle is great because it involved every faction in the game except the French and British Regulars: British Loyalists, Indians, and Patriot. No one had to cross an ocean to fight there.

            The cards are a work in progress and I am always juggling events trying to make the best of the 96 event cards. I just added the Gordon Riots as an event after noting a discussion of its impact in letters between Adams and Jefferson. Herkimer’s Reinforcement and ambush must be considered in the next iteration.

            Thanks again for looking at the cards in detail. There is such rich history in the era and in the cards (and I have spent a tremendous amount of time on those cards.) I appreciate it when someone enjoys the detail and debates the contents.


    8. This. This article and comments are what the community and hobby is all about. I only discovered the COIN series this year but I am fast becoming an major fan. I don’t normally travel to cons (unfortunately) but I want to attend this warehouse weekend very badly. And if I’m honest it is more to meet the people then see and play the games. Well done, GMT. Well done.

      • Hey Eric

        Thanks for the kind words. GMT is a class organization and I have really enjoyed working with them. I hope we get a chance to play a game at the warehouse or otherwise.


      • Hey Pete

        Thanks but lets wait until we see the game in a box! Maybe we try to put together a playtest at the Camp Pendleton Wargaming Club the next Saturday meeting!


    9. That sounds great to me.
      This gives to COIN serie a new dimension in time.
      May I suggest you a future issue Hundred Years War with 4 factions.
      French King, English, Burgundy & Armagnac

    10. Glad you had a great time Harold. It was nice to meet you. Sorry I wasn’t able to spend more time with you but I knew you were in good hands with Mark H and Volko plus your area always seemed to be overrun when you were there.

      • Thanks Andy

        I appreciate all your support – the response was great. Hope to run in to you again soon.


    11. Cheers, Harold! Great article. I must say I dredged the whole p500 list after seeing a wink about this on Instagram (of which I am also grateful to Gene and others for really stepping it up with!) and the topic is very exciting for a COIN game. I have my fourth of the COIN series on the way from CA to NY as I write this and am always excited to hear about more in the queue.

      Your article added quite a lot of insight into what a new designer struggles with, including all the insecurities of working with a system’s creator and well as its many passionate fans. I acknowledge there must be considerable pressure felt there.

      Your thoughts on the design and your article have left me exhilarated! Good luck in the coming months and I can’t wait to hit order on p500 when it’s all set to go into final development.

      • Hey Tom

        I appreciate your enthusiasm! It has been a fun and challenging process. The stress has been tempered with the knowledge that the system and the subject fit together so well.


    12. This was a terrific article. I am a tried-and-true eurogamer at heart until I encountered the COIN series. I own all of them, play them all the time and want to see more like this one!

      They have also spurred me read more about the history explored in the games.

      I applaud you for making Liberty or Death, applaud Volko for being accessible to new ideas and applaud Gene for taking on new projects like this.

      Can’t wait to run another COIN day at the local game store in Lebanon, NH.

      • Hey Justin

        Thanks for the kind words and interest. Without getting into the debate over what is a wargame and what is not, these games appeal to a broad group of gamers who enjoy the playability, the history, and the multi factional/multi player construct.

        The history is robust and close to home for Liberty or Death. So much has been written but until recently topics like the Patriots as British citizens and the role of the Tories has been brushed over. Why would Paul Revere (or Dawes or Prescott) have called out “The British are Coming” when in fact they thought of themselves as British – it is more likely they exclaimed “The Regulars are coming!”

        Live Free or Die!


    13. Great article and looks like a great game. I recently returned to the world of board games after an absence of 20 years. My first war game was 1776, nearly 40 years ago (a little frustrating on the fun side for a then 13yr old). I just placed an order for ‘Liberty or Death’ and I’m looking forward to returning to the Revolution!

      • Great news David and thanks for the support! I loved 1776 as well and played it in the 80s. I remember enjoying the Area Status Chart and how British pieces in a Region reduce reinforcements. Not unlike Liberty or Death and how the Patriots can’t Rally Militia if the British have the population at Active Support!

        Liberty or Death will play with 1 to 4 players. The other American Revolution game I would recommend for 2 is Mark Herman’s Washington’s War. One of my favorites.

        Hope to see you at WBC this Summer!