Mary Russell

Agricola, Master of Britain was by my count my fifteenth wargame to be published. As is always the case, I hoped that the game would sell well, and that it would be well-received. But I had been through that process fourteen times previously, and none of those sold as well as I had hoped (a couple even lost money for their publisher). The people who actually bought and played them seemed to like them, but there wasn't any kind of buzz around them that would translate to people recommending the game to their friends, or talking them up online. The Grunwald Swords (my fourteenth wargame) came out a few weeks before Agricola did and it seemed to buck that trend somewhat, but neither was it some kind of huge hit. 

So I was completely unprepared, and understandably delighted, when Agricola proved to be the first of my designs to really get noticed. The sales were very strong initially, and people really seemed to dig it. They told their friends, who bought the game, and then they dug it and told their friends, and then they bought it: the game's reach seemed to extend organically and exponentially. Today it remains my best-selling design, and in Hollandspiele's line-up, it's only second to Cole Wehrle's juggernaut An Infamous Traffic

Given its success, it made perfect sense for me to return to that well with another solitaire design that applied some of the same mechanisms to the tricky business of governing those who do not particularly want to be governed. Three contenders jumped out at me almost immediately:

(1) A game set in the Cradle of Civilization, perhaps centered on the Neo-Assyrian Empire;
(2) A game about Napoleon's struggles in Spain;
(3) A game about the reign of Charlemagne.

I didn't feel I had enough grounding in the Napoleonic era to tackle number two. Number one was easier, but posed its own challenges, particularly the way in which troops were raised and campaigns were fought, which wouldn't lend itself particularly well to the "army-building" aspect of the Agricola design. But with Charlemagne, I had neither of those problems - I knew enough about the man and his era (at least enough to get me into trouble), and the presence of a disciplined standing army was part of what allowed him to be so effective and dominant. So, Charlemagne it was!

I brushed up on the era, including consulting such primary sources as Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni, and then went to work coming up with the parameters of the design. Generally, I don't leap into the nitty-gritty aspects of design - the map, the counters, the rules, the exceptions - until I've formed a pretty good picture in my head of what I want the game to do and to be like. This has the added bonus of letting me know when the thing is probably done: if it looks like that mental picture, then it's time to stop.

My mental picture for Charlemagne, Master of Europe was of a larger game than its predecessor. This would mean more Regions, more Boxes to put in those Regions, and more counters to put in those Boxes. I wanted a time scale that would be somewhat fungible and adaptable. In Agricola, each turn more-or-less represents a year, and a player was limited to five actions per turn (three in the first turn). Here, turns would represent a longer, but unspecified period of time, so that the entirety of Charlemagne's reign might be conveyed, in broad strokes, over the course of twelve game turns.

Agricola centered around the rule of a province by its military governor, with his will expressed through the three Legions under his command. Charlemagne by contrast would have one counter that would represent the man himself and his army, and it was through this counter that the players would take their actions. But given the vastness of his empire, Charlemagne also couldn't handle it all himself, and had to put into place a relatively sophisticated administrative structure. This is represented by Marquis pieces, which enforce Charlemagne's will within a specific Region. They would have more limited abilities than the man himself, but be able to handle a minor crisis in a pinch. 

I wanted a somewhat more sophisticated battle system that differentiated between two types of units (infantry and Scara) and put more emphasis on positioning. My original picture of the game involved forces divided four ways between two wings, a reserve, and a vanguard, with different commands issued to each division that would impact their behavior. I actually began testing this in isolation from the other elements while I was still constructing the overall mental picture, and quickly decided that this was a bit too complicated and a bit too cumbersome. I ended up just splitting the battle into a left wing and a right wing, with a reserve behind them to feed in replacements. I did keep the two types of units though, which add some subtle nuance to the combat resolution.

Agricola felt somewhat isolated, with the player ruling over that tiny island. While the pressure from Rome (in the form of the escalating VP threshold) was keenly felt, he only really had to contend with factions and discontentment within his own sphere. Charlemagne on the other hand had to deal with the demands of those from without as well as within. So the game needed some kind of system that would reflect Moorish invasions, Viking raids, Papal demands, and competition with Byzantium.

Once I had a clear idea of the scope of the thing, I could start drawing lines from one thing to another. Eventually this coalesced into a reasonably clear picture of the game's mechanisms and how they would interact with one another. From there, it was a matter of transcribing it into a ruleset. The process of doing this in turn suggested possibilities that were overlooked or ambiguous, which I had to think through and iron out. Now left with what, in theory, was a working set of rules, I made the map and the counters, and started pushing the latter around on the former.

Of course it didn't work the first time - it seldom does - but it almost did. Which was a good sign and also to be expected, as many of the fundamentals (the cup adjustment mechanism, the structure of a turn, the basics of battle) were problems I had already solved the first time around. So I made some adjustments and tried it again. There were aspects that needed to be simplified, and loopholes that needed to be closed. So we kept testing and kept making adjustments until we had a thing that was stable, and then we kept testing it some more.

After some extensive testing in-house, we opened it up to outside volunteers. We had done this with other games, and usually what happens is we'll get a handful of volunteers, many of whom never actually play the game. Those that do generally play it a handful of times - sometimes only once. So finding consistent, repeat playtesters that give you useful feedback is extraordinarily rare. And to clarify something before we move on, I should say that pretty much everyone who volunteers does so in good faith. But life often gets in the way, and we don't fault anyone who doesn't quite manage to get around to getting the game on the table.

At any rate, we put out a call for playtesters for Charlemagne, and we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who offered to throw their hats into the ring. And of that number, a higher-than-usual percentage did get the game on the table, and did get back to us with some very useful feedback. We chalked this up largely to the positive reception surrounding the first game, though we had some playtesters who had never played the first game, and to whom many of the concepts were strange and alien. That helped me realize how different the game is from other solitaire games, and how unusual it might seem to hex-and-counter gamers. We added an illustrated example of play to help guide them through a few sample actions, as well as one battle. 

A couple of changes to the game system were made based on playtester feedback. Originally, there was a mechanism by which Marquis pieces ere removed from the game when they were overwhelmed by rebellious units. But this brought up a lot of unseemly edge cases and was generally more trouble than it was worth, especially given that the Marquis would only be removed when you were playing poorly. So we removed that mechanism altogether.

The other was concerning the army-building element. In Agricola, you have an end goal in mind - the climactic battle of Mons Graupius. It's a "boss fight", testing how well you've built up your forces over the course of the game. Charlemagne didn't have this. As a result, players could largely ignore the military element, which threw the balance of the game out of whack and (at least for some) made the game significantly easier. I added the end-of-turn Minimum Army Strength requirement to push things back into place. Failing to meet this requirement wouldn't lose you the game, but it would cost you VP (after the end-of-turn VP check), making it harder to progress.  The threshold is fairly easy to meet in the early going. It's actually pretty easy during the rest of the game, too, unless you suffer major casualties - which I seem to do every other battle.

Around the time testing was wrapping up, a hole opened up in Ania Ziolkowska's art schedule, and she proceeded to work her wonderful magic on the game. Once we had that map, and the final counters (using art from period sources, supplemented by artist Nadir Elfarra), the whole thing looked and felt rather handsome indeed; it had a certain heft to it, a fullness that Agricola in some ways lacked. Don't get me wrong - I love my first big hit. But it had a certain smallness, a certain constraint that was held over from my days of designing games for magazines. Charlemagne isn't really all that much bigger - it's one sheet of counters and a 22" x 17" map, with a twenty-page rulebook, so still very much a small footprint game - but it feels bigger. Almost like Agricola was a promising, scrappy little short film, while Charlemagne is the blockbuster spectacular.

As we near its release, I'm once again on pins and needles, hoping you'll all enjoy it as much as I have. Regardless of its ultimate reception, I have you all, and your support of Agricola and of Hollandspiele, to thank for the fact that the game exists at all. And so, sincerely: thanks.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get to work on something called Aurelian, Restorer of the World.

1 comment

  • I’m looking forward to this one with great anticipation. I just discovered Agricola a few weeks ago and have been obsessing on it ever since. I still haven’t managed to win a game yet, but I’ve already got my money’s worth (and more!) out of this little gem of a game.

    Anyway, a bigger, more complex game on a seldom-covered subject like Charlemagne will be very welcome indeed.

    As for the Aurelian game, are you looking for playtesters? My wargaming buddies and I have playtested about 6-7 titles now and are getting pretty good at it.

    Ed Pundyk

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