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Clash of Monarchs Designer's Notes

I loved the original S&T and Avalon Hill Frederick the Great games; I played them both a ton. The light, elegant design captured the key aspects of Seven Years War campaigns – the often chess-like maneuver, the key operational positions, the importance of fortress networks, the vulnerability of supply lines, and the difficulty of taking enemy fortresses with an opposing army in the vicinity. But the combat system, though mathematically clever, lacked color, and possessed some gamey attributes, and the generic sp meant the only difference in the armies was their counter colors. I appreciated how much Frank Davis had folded into this simple, graceful system, but was always tantalized by the idea of making it a little heavier, wider, and deeper – include more of the factors affecting the battles, the “Kleiner Krieg (hereafter, ‘KK’)” light unit impact on operations and economies, and the broader political and fiscal realities that drove the war at the strategic level.

 A few other strategic SYW games have come out since, but they’ve all had one aspect or other that seemed way off to me, and none of them gave the KK anything but lip service. I’d been doing serious reading about the SYW since 1986, and so in 2002, about a year after Prussia’s Glory was released, I decided I’d take a whack at a strategic treatment of the war, and see if I could fold in all the elements that struck me as important in the proper measure.

Some traces of old “AH” Fred can be seen in COM; the “march-enemy forced march” movement system has been echoed in the march-Withdraw/Intercept rules; fortresses are still the predominant victory objectives; and the COM siege rules are a more finely-grained elaboration of the AH version. But from there, a lot of new elements enter the picture.

 After my first experience with GMT’s For The People, I knew that the Card-Driven-Game medium would be ideal to handle SYW politics and economic facets, and that point to point movement would also serve well as the geographic basis for SYW campaigns. With this basic format chosen, I took stock of what I felt had missed the mark in other treatments, and thus, what I needed to depict differently to get a SYW game I liked.

 My first subsystem goal within the CDG format was to create a fast (single round of dice, single table in use) combat system that gave realistic results, and properly highlighted the armies’ disparate strengths and weaknesses. I’d done a lot of study of the war’s battles for the PG games, and it seemed to me that “realistic results” had to account for three things beyond sp losses and demoralization/rout. Combat had to allow a Frederick-led Prussian army to lose some battles (Fred’s SYW battle record was 8-3, with losses at Kolin, Hochkirch, and Kunersdorf); at same time, it had to generate results where the Prussians could take more losses but still win the battles ( Prague, Torgau). Further, the system had to allow similar combat results to affect armies differently under different leaders (e.g, the Austrians lost less killed/wounded at Leuthen than at Torgau, but poorly led by Prince Charles at Leuthen, they routed; skillfully led by marshal Daun at Torgau, they almost won, and made an orderly retreat;). If these three outcomes were possible in the battles, I’d have captured the critical dynamics. On the fun/game color level, given the key battlefield roles the various powers’ respective infantry, cavalry, and artillery arms played, I wanted the armies to be well-articulated, and include historic army-specific battlefield tactics that worked (or didn’t) for each.

 The CRT evolved over the first few months, its mature basis being that both players rolled to inflict enemy losses largely independent of enemy actions (with a few Tac chits providing colorful exceptions). For the morale variances, I then added D levels that were compared to Army Endurance ratings, and some key leader ratings that gave a boost to Army Endurance. This allowed both sides to inflict heavy losses, but with victory usually dependent on the D levels, and enabled those Leuthen/Torgau leadership disparities to factor as well. I seeded in the historical battle results in the appropriate columns/rows of the CRT, then adjusted leader ratings and Tac chit modifiers to ensure that what I judged as the historical performance (net die roll) by that army in that column could yield those results.

The CRT and drms worked for the severe battles, but it soon became apparent it wouldn’t work for the far less bloody battles between the French and British in Germany, or between secondary leaders. So I coined the Measured Battle CRT, a milder cousin of the original “Intense” Battle CRT, and this served well to model the loss rates in the German theater. I had Tactics in from the start, originally on cards, but when we retooled COM for multi-player gaming, these transformed to chits, which had the serendipitous benefits of improving playability (lower card hand counts), consistency (Tac chits are all Tac chits, not event cards with some Tac cards mixed in), and variability (players pick one chit at the instant of battle, and don’t know what it is until then).

 My second major subsystem goal was a fully integrated Kleiner Krieg. The KK had significant effects on battles and campaigns, and even more on the strategic level. By the end of the war, over 100,000 light troops were operating in Europe, and the monarchs went to the peace table in large part due to the economic devastation wrought by these forces. I think the KK subsystem will have the appropriately pervasive influence on perceptive players’ operational and strategic actions.

 You can get away with neglecting the KK raids in the shorter scenarios, but you can’t avoid that effort in the longer scenarios, late war, and campaign game; if you do, you’ll be fighting with one hand behind your back. You gain advantage by making the enemy play with less cards, and less troops on the map. To do so, you have to drive the enemy into Exhaustion (less cards) and rob his treasury (Devastated areas = lost Thaler) by steady KK raiding. The Powers’ Exhaustion levels are set to account for each having several of its areas devastated by mid-war, and 5-6 by the end. Barring you winning Crushing Victories on a regular basis (Ha! Good luck!), the main way to get enemy Monarchial Will drops (see below) is by devastating his areas. The original KK raid rules forced players to spend cards for all their raiding -- and playtesters neglected it (not unexpected J ). So I made it semi-automatic, with two “free” KK raid chits a year in the Fortunes of War system (more below). Thus, as long as you duly keep a respectable amount of Lt units in your Theater boxes, a lot of KK raiding gets done for you behind the scenes – just as if you’d ordered these units out on raids, and the units kept raiding until recalled to the map. But I wasn’t going to let players skate out of this responsibility entirely; these “gimmes” will get you only 60-70% of what you need to devastate those areas, so in the course of a campaign game, you will need to pay for 4-8 more KK raids with Ops cards. When? Ideal times are when you can devastate one more area and force Exhaustion before the next Card Draw, or nail one before the next Spring Thaler tally. Keep in mind that a 1 Op card you spend for a KK raid often reaps you 1 Supply Action in return, which you’d otherwise have to buy with Ops cards too; so KK raiding can pay for itself.

 Regarding Supply raids, there were only three or four successes in the war, but those that worked were critical to foiling an enemy’s campaign; when your field armies have been beat up, and the enemy’s besieging one of your fortresses at the end of a long, unguarded supply chain, these will appear remarkably attractive countermeasures J.

 The siege rules were augmented to ensure some additional pertinent facets were shown; siege artillery call up; fortress class; garrison size; determined defensive leaders. These remained in the design with very few changes from the outset. On the “CDG” side, I folded in significant operational, political, and economic events onto cards, and did a lot of solo testing.

 It took about a year to get a game that encompassed most of the aspects desired. After establishing the main movement/combat mechanics, I focused attention on victory conditions and a mechanism to make powers “give up” after they had been worn down sufficiently. FTP’s “Strategic Will” transcribed readily to a COM “Monarchial Will.” I did a Monarchial Will, Victory Point, and Thaler (economic) storyboard, but this was based on limited economic research, and MW changes were often driven by no-brainer MW event cards. At that point, the combat and siege rules were accurate as to Cause, but the politics and economics were a shaky conglomeration of Effect. The game worked, but as usual in early-mid design, it was too elaborate, with loose systems, and a sketchy economic/political backstory. Developer Mitch Land and I knew there were a lot of wrinkles left to be smoothed out, but we were having too much fun with the combat and siege parts to seriously re-evaluate all the aspects. Then Mitch got called up to the Iraq war -- and we are thankful he has returned safe and sound. Meanwhile, COM had lost its developer.

Tony Curtis did a survey of folks who might have an interest in working a CDG on this era. Enter Chris Janiec. And from there, COM upped its game in all those loose and sketchy aspects, big time.

Chris re-examined the game and soon asked for it to be recast as a multi-player; after some wriggling, I acceded that this would be a good thing, with a stipulation that the rules had to stay the same for solo, two player, and multi-player use. We started redoing the card decks, originally splitting them for a five player game, but after some testing with five, came to the consensus that the French player had a hard row to hoe, given his army’s limitations. I believe it was Chris who suggested melding the French and Russians into one role and one deck. This meld gave that player a Russian army that was potent and had relatively straightforward goals, along with the problematic French, and it happened to balance out the player decks nicely too.

Chris next turned his critical gaze on some overly-involved subsystems, and cited need for smoothing (on map Light unit rules, intercept/retreat, siege). As we retooled for multi-player, I had a revelation on how to streamline the combat and siege rules a bit, and significantly simplify the KK movement and raid rules. After we got the new decks coined, we were both happy to confirm that the same game rules did indeed work for all numbers of players (-- and a continuing Thank You God is in order for that!)

Though he knew little about the SYW at the outset, Chris caught up on his reading quickly, and was soon bringing up some incisive economic findings; he verified or found holes in my original economic data, and added significant changes in particular to the English and French financial models. This led him to a general examination of the whole MW-VP-economic story line, and we embarked on what would turn out to be a one year long, sometimes vehemently-contested rework period for the economic structure, MW events and their weights, timing, and prerequisite conditions. Somewhere in this maelstrom, Chris questioned various events on cards and the Fortunes of War chits; he soon came up with the ingenious Dis Irae and Media Vitae sub-tables for the FOW system; these allowed us to get more statistically true and random occurrence patterns for this host of major and minor occurrences. For instance – I had a severe weather FOW chit; so once it was pulled, players were guaranteed good weather for the rest of the year – not so anymore; severe weather is random. More important, it took several game-changer events off the cards that should have been rightfully out of players’ hands to begin with (ex; Death of the Czarina Elizabeth, Pitt Resigns).

The overhauling continued; Chris did a second, scrupulous re-examination of my MW and VP storyboard. This had sweeping effects on my “world front” sub-game as well, which evolved into the nuanced Colonial Conflict between France and Britain that graces the game today. We concurred that COM should have a sub-game linking events in North America, India, et al, to influence the on-map conflict (one obvious case being the Fall of Quebec in 1759, leading to the French loss in America, which allowed the British Glorious Reinforcement of 1760). But my original take on it was almost purely card-based, and almost automatic – the British played event cards which hammered the French down and led to Heavy British Advantage by mid-game. Chris invigorated that process by giving the French their early due (they did capture Minorca from the British in 1756, and had success in the colonies in 1757), and adding some plausible variability -- the French Invasion Threat perfectly models the potential the French had, but were never able to successfully bring to bear, and the Typhus event captures a historical blow that decimated the French fleet, accelerating its decline and British ascendance. Gamewise, players will normally see this conflict swing in Britain’s favor through 1759-60, but it’s no gimme anymore – the Brit player has to work for it. A crafty French player, blessed with some luck, can hold his own in the “timing is everything,” cat and mouse interplay of French Fleet vs. Royal Navy cards, and give the British player some unexpected heartburn.

In all, over our first two years of work together, fully 50% of the game’s backstory was recast, and the MW, economic, and VP changes now rest on a far sounder historical basis. But more to the game’s benefit (and Chris’s credit), the dependencies within the powers’ MW-VP-economic machinery are now correctly depicted and rigged. By mid and end game, players will be sweating their MW and finances as much as their battles and sieges – just as the real monarchs did.

On that note, the Economic and Supply systems each went through two evolutions. They are now simpler, but still probably more “in your face” than a lot of gamers are used to, and I make no apologies for that. Excepting the occasional punctuating shocks of battles, supply was the central ongoing worry of the commanders, finance for the monarchs. Players can get burned easily and often by enemy actions against their supply lines, unless they adopt historically appropriate safeguards – careful positioning of their Forward Depots, garrisoned supply lines, judicious use of light troops in key spaces, and a realistic outlook to not attempt too much in any given year.

Gamewise, we might say the Anglo-Prussians played a very good to excellent game; the Austrians and Russians pretty good, and the French, not so good. The AP were also blessed with some timely historical luck – the “Miracle of Brandenburg” and the Death of Czarina Elizabeth. They also had decisive leadership unencumbered by advisor, court, and/or mistress pressures to do this or that; Ferdinand acted virtually independently of any Hanoverian-British oversight, and Frederick answered to no one.

So it appears inevitable that with 20/20 hindsight, the Coalition can improve their performance more than the AP can. I expressed this concern to Chris through the latter stages of my solo playtest, and throughout outside playtest. Testers were having a hard time climbing the AP learning curve and keeping the seemingly overwhelming Coalition forces at bay. I understand the dilemma! J I wanted to give the Prussians in particular more compensation in the face of ahistorically better Coalition play. I suggested several adjustments which Chris analysed and weighed as clunky or ahistorical. He then suggested that we boost the Prussian card hand to seven cards instead of six (shades of Sword of Rome ;-) ). Bingo! At a swoop, we had deftly captured Frederick’s advantages in decisiveness and speed of command. It’s not a game-changer, but a bit of an edge across the board; the Prussians get more choices per draw, slightly better chances for critical Interrupt cards, and can spend an extra card on Supply Actions. This was a nice little tilt in the AP direction.

Throughout playtest, the Austrian and especially the French players were indeed fighting a lot cagier than their historical counterparts, and with more unity of command. In early development, I had the Imperial Pressure rule in the basic game; this forced the French and Austrian players to accede to court and advisor pressure, pushing their CICs to “get out there and win one,” even when the CICs felt they were in no position to do so – or, if they refused, creating a freeze in their campaigns as the exhortations and counter-arguments traveled back and forth on horseback between monarchs and generals. But it has several facets, and for simplicity, Chris and I agreed to make Imperial Pressure an Advanced rule. However, if past the learning stages, players find the Coalition seems to be dominating the AP too often (gage this by VPs, not lost battles or body counts), I highly recommend players use Imperial Pressure. This will burden the Austrian and French players with more of the hassles of their historical counterparts, and occasionally force them to offer up their armies on a plate to the AP, or forfeit two rounds of a season. It all adds up – one or two battles lost that they didn’t want to fight, another round or two of Demoralization or Rout, can reverse the end game from the French taking Kassel to the British taking Mainz, or leave the Austrians ten sp too weak to follow up on a Russian win against Frederick with an attack on their own. A lot of COM games are won by “inches,” and Imperial Pressure gives a few back to the AP player(s).

The last outgrowth of the development effort was the Diplomacy chart, compiled in late 2007 by Chris. This amalgamated several card events involving alliances and subsidies, and placed them in an all-encompassing, better rationalized framework, as to how one Power’s diplomatic course could affect others. It both sets bounds on how each Power can support or attempt to avoid involvement in the war, and serves as a great generator for replay variety. Players can agree to take the war on its historical diplomatic course each time, or see how the war would unfold with different levels of French, British, or Russian commitment, or a different Prussian opening strategy.

Every scenario in COM has its attractions, but the consequences of the interplay between the operational, political, MW, and economic facets do not fully manifest themselves until the late war. Then players will see if their long term plans to wear down the enemy’s will and drive him to Collapse bear fruit, and this multi-faceted conclusion in the MW “red zone,” where every MW and Thaler loss count, and one more Crushing Defeat or Devastated area could drive your enemy out of the war, may be your most satisfying experience with COM.

It will also be the culmination of the design/development effort to assemble and tune these linked strategic mechanisms. So to get the ultimate COM payoff, I’d urge players to try the late war scenario and the campaign game, and see if they can guide their monarchies to victory -- or at least survival -- in the Seven Years War.

On a personal note, I am deeply indebted to Chris Janiec. This game has been a poster-child for how a design can prosper under a great developer. In this case, I had the “guts” of the game right from the start, but most of the supporting elements were crude and clumsy. Chris has improved those elements with unwavering focus and creativity. More important, he has been incredibly patient, stoic, and level-headed over the years, in the face of at least two (or four? six?) heated email storms over design issues. COM has grown in the midst of a lot of Real Life in my family -- major child and parental health issues, and dozens of lesser crises. These, mixed with my type A, emotional/ impatient personality, and periodic guilt over another few hours working COM instead of being with wife/children, often spilled over as the designer’s nasty reactions to the developer’s recommendations for yet another effort to improve this or that. All I can offer Chris in consolation is that he can bear these scars proudly, J, as COM is at least twice the game it would have been without his work. Good development can save a bad game; in this case, I would submit Chris has elevated what might have been only a good game into something excellent. To refer back to our US Navy heritage, Bravo Zulu, and Shi_ Hot work, Chris.

Now, with this effort over, let’s turn to my real passion -- that Austrian Succession Strategic game I’ve been pondering [after the scream, we hear Chris’s pounding footsteps, receding fast J ]

 Bob Kalinowski

 Saint Charles, Missouri, April-May 2008