GrogHeads Interviews Harold Buchanan (GMTs Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection)

frontier wars 728x90 KS

Brant Guillory, 11 February 2015

Harold Buchanan gives us the low-down on the next COIN game from GMT, and turns the tables on our interviewer!

We had a chance to chat with Harold Buchanan, Designer of GMTs Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection. This one takes the COIN system to the American Revolution. This is Harold’s first game, but he is well supported by series creator Volko Ruhnke and series developer Mike Bertucelli. Örjan Ariander is designing the ‘bots’ that control the factions not represented by a player in the game. Harold is also an expert on the period and has a degree in Finance and Game Theory from MIT. He resides in San Diego, California where he lives with his wife of 22 years and has 3 kids in college, so he needs all the help we can give him with pre-orders.




GrogHeads: Do we really need another American Revolution Game?

Harold Buchanan: Are you kidding me? Absolutely! I love 1776 and played it a lot in my youth. I love the Area Status Chart and how British pieces in a Region reduce reinforcements to the Patriots! A game ahead of its time in incorporating regional politics. Then came We the People/Washington’s War with its breakthrough card driven mechanics. I enjoyed it as an elegantly playable innovation and really enjoyed timing the game end through the use of the “War Ends” cards. Plenty of room exists for new and different approaches in it.

Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection looks at the same war as so many other games have but from a different angle: it identifies the four factions critical to the conflict and plays off how they interacted politically, economically and militarily. The game is driven by a detailed set of historical events cards on the topic. Grab three friends and give the conflict a look from a new perspective. It may change the way you think about the American War of Independence.

Given the Patriots won the Super Bowl I am considering adding another card to the mix—the Pete Carroll event card. If you are the Seahawks and you are winning the game during a Winter Quarters Round you must first roll a die: 1-5 you do something stupid and the Patriots win and 6 you actually get to win.

More playtesting.

More playtesting.

GH: What are the French Victory Conditions?

HB: One of the really interesting mechanisms in the game is the way victory is measured. I think it is Revolutionary! Sorry. (ed note: no you’re not!) Historically the COIN system measures a number of factors against static benchmarks. In Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, victory is measured as a series of competitions.

The primary victory condition poses the Royalists (British and Indians) against the Rebellion (Patriots and French) on Support versus Opposition (for the King’s government) as the Primary Victory condition. The Patriots and Indians are measured against one another in how many Forts or Villages, respectively, they establish across the map. The British and French compete on Casualties. To win the game during a Winter Quarters Round Victory Check your faction must lead in Support versus Opposition by a margin (say 10) and then you must be doing better in your Secondary Victory Condition that the other faction you side with.

So for the French to win the Patriots and French need to be winning the hearts and minds (Opposition less Support greater than 10) and they have to be (with Patriot help) bloodying the nose of the British player. The Patriot cares less about the British player’s bloody nose and more about the Indian’s Village growth across the Colonies. Of course the Patriot’s Primary Victory Condition is based on Opposition, like the French. At the end of the game the 10 point hurdle is thrown out and the simple total margin is used to determine win, place, show or worse.

Hey look, playtesting!

Hey look, playtesting!

GH: How can you design an American Revolution game from San Diego – wouldn’t it be in Spanish? How can you feel the pain of Valley Forge when its 70 degrees in SoCal in January?

HB: I spent my grad school years a mile away from the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill / Breed’s Hill and fell in love with the era. I can’t say I can feel the Patriots pain but I sure can read about it. Desertions were a huge issue throughout the war. Most of these men had families to support and farms or businesses to attend to. These additional responsibilities were always pulling at them. Couple that with the challenges the Continental Congress had in raising money and paying these soldiers and it was a recipe for disaster. Mix in brutal winter weather and poor logistics and Desertions had a significant impact on the war.

In the game, during the Winter Quarters Round (Propaganda/Coup Round for those of you who are familiar with other COIN titles) a Desertion Phase resolves these desertions. I didn’t want a lot of dice rolling but I want to maintain the lack of predictability associated with fearing which units might desert. In the end the game mechanic used is to eliminate a percentage of certain unit types (Militia, Tories eg.) and allow an opposing faction to select the first piece eliminated. The controlling faction then selects the remainder. Many Patriot players have been seen cursing the Indian player for taking that last critical Militia in New York Colony.

And by the way, Southern California would not drive you to desert from the defense of the colonies but it certainly would be a motivating destination!

You guessed it - they're playtesting

You guessed it – they’re playtesting

GH: Thus far, the overwhelming majority of the events / people in the COIN series of games have been those events that actually happened, and people that were actually there, with virtually no appearances by people that could have been there, but weren’t, or events that could have happened, but didn’t. It’s almost like they’re just reshuffling the existing timeline to see if the sequence of known events makes a difference. Are we going to see any ahistorical (but still legitimately plausible) events in Liberty or Death? If so, can you give us an example?

HB: Let me address that purely from the perspective of Liberty or Death. The game includes 96 event cards most of which have dual use events. This generally results in one option that is in alignment with history and another that can be quite different. A fork in the road of history if you will. Let me give you a couple of examples:

The sinking of the HMS Russian Merchant (a 243 ton British Merchant) off the coast of South Carolina lost thousands of muskets that were intended to arm Tories. As you can see from the card prototype below you will have the option of reliving that loss, using the muskets to arm thousands of Tory troops or ignoring the event all together.

During the Saratoga campaign a Loyalist settler, Jane McCrea, was killed in an Indian raid. General Burgoyne blamed the Indians and Canadian allies for the murder and increasing Patriot opposition that resulted. After the Battle of Bennington many of the Indians and Canadians left Burgoyne’s army in frustration leaving Burgoyne with inadequate scouting support. The card below shows that the Indians can either tough it out with Burgoyne (unlike history), they can leave and cause problems across the Indian Reserve or you can ignore the event all together.

In the end they are historical events but by including an inverse option we are providing a very different path than history. As always, the third option is to do something other than trigger the event.

LDInt-1 LDInt-2


GH: Any cool new playing pieces in the latest edition of the COIN system?

HB: We have a lot of cool new pieces. Leaders give us the chance to add leader counters and some stand up pieces that will be new to the COIN system. Blockades will be large Counters telegraphing the negative impact of Blockading a City. Wood pieces will be similar to prior cubes, cylinders and discs but we are looking for something interesting with a bit of a period feel for Forts – stay tuned!

What?  More playtesting?  Youbetcha!

What? More playtesting? Youbetcha!


GH: I hear Ben Franklin liked the ladies and the ladies liked him. How is that incorporated in to the game?

HB: Gentle Ben is memorialized in the game through the cards but we passed on any controversial behavior. We like to think of him as a diplomat and thought leader! The relationship between the French and the Patriots is one of the great subsystems in the game. I know some people will raise an eyebrow and wonder how someone can play the French in 1775 but I think I’ve come up with an interesting perspective by allowing the French the freedom to take events and finance the Patriots while also picking at the British and plotting their eventual entry into the war.

In the 1778 scenario the French start on the map and play just like any other faction. In the earlier scenarios the French start off the map and play the role of diplomat while they prepare for war, pick at the British, support the Patriots and ponder the most important decision in the game: when, where and how to enter the war. The effect of that decision is always a significant change in momentum feared in anticipation by the British. It also opens up sea movement to the Patriots and Blockades through the French Naval Intervention table.

Whether in the war or not, the French can always make the British player’s life miserable.

Immer noch mehr playtesting

Immer noch mehr playtesting

GH: Who would have won in a fight between George Washington and Dragging Canoe?

HB: It is an interesting question. A little known fact: G-Dubs studied martial arts and could bench press 300 pounds. On the other hand Dragging Canoe got his nickname for his tenacity. As a young boy his father told him he could join the Warriors on a War Party if he could carry the canoe – he couldn’t lift it but did drag it to the water. I’m going to say it would end in a bloody draw!

The leaders in the game have a powerful impact on play. Each leader has a unique capability that allows him to influence outcomes. George Washington has one of the most impactful. A mechanic in the game called “Win the Day” – the winner of a Battle shifts alignment in the space (and potentially surrounding spaces) in that side’s favor. The more damage done, the greater the shift. If George Washington was in the Battle that benefit is doubled! British General Howe can influence the French Naval Intervention (his brother Richard was the Naval Commander in the theater at the time.) Dragging Canoe allows a Raid to take place one space further than normal.

I wonder, maybe this is more playtesting?  Hmmm....

I wonder, maybe this is more playtesting? Hmmm….

GH: What’s the toughest thing about following in the footsteps of the existing COIN games?

HB: Let me recap what I am following to be sure we are on the same page!

  1. The COIN Series is the brainchild of Volko Ruhnke who is labeled a hero by the Washington Post! I will add that he is one of the greatest critical thinkers I have ever had the pleasure to associate with.
  2. The COIN series is coming off its greatest success with Fire in the Lake where Volko and Mark Hermann (Wargame design rock star and thought leader) cover the topic we all wanted covered – Vietnam – to great accolade.
  3. Gene Billingsly (GMT Co-Founder), Mike Bertucelli (Series Developer), and GMT were willing to put their resources behind me after seeing and playing my prototype assembled using crayons and bubble gum.
  4. I’ve never done this before.

Now I am going to create a game on a period over 200 years ago that (unlike Andean Abyss) every American gamer studies starting in fifth grade. And, I will have to take the greatest of American heroes (George Washington) and talk about him and the great people of the Colonies in the context of an insurgency?

I think that sums it up! Everything is tough! But I am thankful to all of these great people and their support and feel lucky to have the opportunity to make this happen – and I will not screw it up.

Abstract map playtesting, in color!

Abstract map playtesting, in color!

Now that I have answered your questions, I have a few questions for you……

HB: Does “Grogheads” refer to your condition after a Saturday night celebration or something else?

GH: While that might be an entirely reasonable assumption once you get to know the denizens of our forums, it’s actually just because we’ve got games on the brain.

Harold: If you could throw a parade through the GrogHeads world headquarters, what type of parade would it be?

GH: New Orleans Second Line, no contest. There isn’t even a distant second.

Harold: If you could sing one song on American Idol, what would it be?

GH: Well, with our cast of hundreds, we’d either have to do an all-star tune like “We Are the World” or “Stars” or something from the Polyphonic Spree. But personally, I’d be totally cool belting out “Stone in Love” from Journey because it’s tailor-made for a solo-singer performance like that..

HB: Have you ever enjoyed Hasty Pudding or Spotted Dick?

GH: I’m not sure I’d call it “enjoyed” but I had the misfortune of trying Spotted Dick on at trip to England.

GH: What should we have asked you if we’d known what to ask you?

HB: What’s different about this game!

In the process of designing Liberty or Death I made a few changes to the system that have been very well received. Some of the changes are driven by the requirements of the period while others are to make the system play the way I would like it to play. Let me give you a couple of examples:

First, when the Winter Quarters (Propaganda/Coup) card is flipped up it is executed immediately. The card that was up next is swapped with the Winter Quarters card and will be the first card of the next campaign. COIN players will see the impact and it has been very well received in playtesting.

Second, The Winter Quarters card is seeded in the last five cards of each campaign so it is a little more predictable.

Third, leaders are on the map and each leader has a capability that influences play. This has also eliminated the need for permanent capabilities and momentum events – its all on the game table.

Fourth, there are no LOCs in the game. Given that the Atlantic Ocean is the highway of the sea the British (and later the French) have the ability to move through port cities across the water and back to the map. This sea transportation dramatically increases the planes of movement and the flexibility of the imperial powers.

And that is the just beginning – playtesting continues and we are looking forward to getting the game into circulation. In my mind it will be a wonderful 4 player treatment of the American Revolution incorporating economics, politics, irregular warfare and inter faction tension through the mechanism of event cards containing a deep slice of history. I can’t wait to get out and play it with the gaming community!

GH: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us about the game. We’re looking forward to giving it a whirl as soon as it’s ready!

Discuss this interview in our comments below, or in our forums >>


2 Responses to GrogHeads Interviews Harold Buchanan (GMTs Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection)

  1. […] game, and I’ve got a graphic design background, so I know how hard these things can be.  We interviewed Harold Buchanan a while ago, and have tracked this one though its p500 timeline, so it’s been on the radar […]

  2. […] his passion for the period to work on the tabletop. Interviews at The Tattered Board podcast and Grogheads reveal Buchanan’s story of a lifelong gamer (with a degree from MIT in Finance and Game […]

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