The Tuesday Interview – COIN on Mars!

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The designer of the home-brewed COIN-on-the-Red-planet game gives us the scoop on his personal design ~

Brant Guillory, 25 July 2017

The COIN system has taken a variety of odd directions – some modern, some not – many of which we’ve covered here at GrogHeads.  One place the COIN system had not yet gone was to space.  Until now.

A home-made COIN-based game, set on Mars, has started to capture some attention, and there’s some buzz about it on teh interwebz.  With that in mind, we tracked down the creator (wasn’t too hard, he’s on BGG!) and bugged him with some questions about his design.

First, the obvious question – this wasn’t anything official from GMT, was it?  You’re not just part of a, ahem… “guerrilla” marketing campaign, are you?

Not official from GMT in any way shape or form. When I first had the idea for the game I messaged Volko and asked his permission to use the game engine. He was 100% cool with that and said if I ever wanted to publish the game, that GMT would be the place to do it.

As it stands, there is no agreement, formal or informal, with GMT to publish the game.  Ideally, there will be. Otherwise this will end up being a free PnP game.



You’ve mentioned online a few of the stories you’d leaned on for inspiration.  Which ones inspired the story you’re telling, and which ones had a greater influence on the visual and aesthetic appeal of the game?

Difficult to say, everything ends up in the blender and you hope you can shake up your sources, inspirations and life experiences to produce something unique in the end. My partner, who is an English Graduate has talked for years about doing a PhD thesis on the idea of the Martian rebellions in literature, and it’s just something we’ve talked about a lot. As soon as I saw the COIN series the idea of that + Mars was there.

Aesthetically, Android and “The Expanse” are probably the most influential sources as I feel they are excellent contemporary views of a near future with interplanetary travel. However, the recent Mars TV series by Ron Howard was what got me finally putting the ideas on paper.


Give the audience the thumbnail run-down of the four factions in this game.

In the classic COIN style you have two Counter Insurgent factions, the Mars Provisional Government and the Megacorporations, as well as two insurgent groups, Free Mars and the Reclaimer Church.

Now, Sci-fi is frequently a commentary on current social events and societal issues, and this game is no different. At its core it is a struggle between the status quo, religious fundamentalism, populism and commercialism.

Now, Sci-fi is frequently a commentary on current social events and societal issues, and this game is no different. At its core it is a struggle between the status quo, religious fundamentalism, populism and commercialism.

  • The Mars Provisional Government is a very conventional faction for a COIN game. They represent the Earth backed official government trying to hold on to power. They have to build popular support, keep the insurgents in check, and keep Earth content to back them.
  • The Corporations play a little differently than many COIN factions. They have deep pockets and do not need to pay resources for actions. They are solely concerned with building up profits by exploiting areas controlled by the COIN faction. Losing forces in combat eats into their profits, so ideally the CORP wants the Government to do all the heavy lifting against the insurgents.
  • Free Mars is another quite conventional faction for a COIN game. They represent the conventional insurgent and anti-government forces on Mars who want a Mars for Martians, free of earth rule. The conflict between the Government and Free Mars is, in many ways, your traditional nationalist/anti-colonial uprising story.
  • The Reclaimer church is another odd factions. Created from a brainstorming session where I thought about what extremists would look like in 200 years. A combination of mysticism, Frankenstein technology and atrocities, the Reclaimers believe Earth has failed and is a dying world. Making Mars an new Earth would be to repeat the same mistakes. The Reclaimers are working to adapt humanity to Mars, not the other way around. They hover around the edge of the conflict zone, digging deep and only leaving their strongholds to raid population centres for materials.


How did you develop your map, with the division of territories, and the locations of the cities, on a planet that is (as far as we know) currently populated exclusively by robots (and/or Matt Damon…) ?

I did a fair bit of looking into where planned landing sites on Mars are being proposed and found some interesting resources online. As for the seven domes, one starts as the first UN mission and that is Tenzing Dome on the slopes of Olympus Mons. It’s called Tenzing because of Tenzing Norgay, who along with Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Everest first. As naming the site of the first base on Mars would be a political hot potato, I picked it as a compromise. (Also, as a New Zealander, it’s a tip of the hat to Tenzing who is much admired here).

Then come six different domes based on national groupings, I selected Russia, USA, EU, India, China and the Arab League as the founders of the other domes. Seven is an ideal number for the domes as it’s an odd number, so the pendulum is always in motion, and it’s just enough that locking them down is really hard.

The rest of Mars is either empty or has a few small stations here and there.

This creates a “core” vs “fringe” dynamic. Where the Domes have the people, in the center of the board, and this focuses the attention of Free Mars and the Government there. But the wastelands are where the Reclaimers can build up, and if you just fight over the domes, they will eventually win.


Since every other COIN game is based on historical events (some more recent than others), there was an existing chronology of events to draw on for the card deck.  Was there an ‘internal history’ for version of Mars from which you pulled out the events for your card deck?  How did you develop the list of events, or were you making things up?

There is no timeline, and no official version of how the story begins and ends. This is by design. One of the unique possibilities in this game, compared to a historic one, is you can truly tell your own story.

If the first card drawn is “The bombing of Maglev-77” that starts a different story than if the first card is “The Miners Union”. As each card is drawn and resolved, your own conflict of Mars narrative emerges.

However, there will be some fiction that leads players to the precipice of the conflict, but the spark the sets it all off will be determined by the draw.

The cards were created by thinking “what events/people/locations” would be involved in a story about a Martian civil war. A lot of this is drawn from my own education on terrorism and irregular war from my time doing my Master Thesis in Defence Studies where I was assistant lecturer on a course called “Politics and Violence”, which dealt with these matters.

As a result, there will be no early war/late war sort of split in the cards.


What’s the current playtesting situation of the game?  How formal has your playtesting been. with tracking stats on which faction wins, and how often?

This is an area I could always use more help with. I’ve run the game solo many many times. But there have only been a few group sessions and they have been with the same group. The game needs a heck of a lot more work in this area, but New Zealand is such a small market and the number of COIN players here is pretty small, so getting people willing to give up 3+ hours has been tricky.

There are options I’m exploring, including putting a beta on Tabletop Simulator and collecting information that way.

Playtest game in progress


What are your next steps with this one?  Are you still polishing the rules?  Ready to make the formal pitch to GMT?  If GMT passes, are you going to try to recraft it away from the COIN series to seek an alternate publisher, or are you just going to throw it out there for free as a P-&-P for gamers?

GMT or bust! It’s a COIN game, a good chunk of this game belongs to Volko as his engine really does run the whole show. It wouldn’t feel right to rework it, or to try and profit off his work.

PnP will certainly happen if GMT pass on it, and it would be a free PnP.

The rulebook is 90% done. Currently, I am working more on adjusting the VP conditions and Earth-Mars interactions as those bits haven’t been working as well as I’d hoped.


Are there other designs you’re kicking around for the future, or is this ‘the one’ that you’re sticking with, regardless of how professional it gets?

I’ve also designed Radlandz, a miniature agnostic skirmish game. The idea behind that game is that you can pick any models from your collection, build a force, and go play some games with friends. That game is pretty much playable now, despite being in nothing more than a rough beta form. It’s just been side-lined while I work on this.

Honestly, while having a published game would be awesome, I made this game for me and my friends without the commercial intent ever being a focus. This is something I’ve done before with my “Talathen Sector” campaign rules, a game system I designed for running sector wide conflicts in Star Wars, so my friends could play a cross over campaign for X-Wing, Imperial Assault and Armada.


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