Friday, August 2, 2013

10 Questions with game designer Mark McLaughlin

Recently, with the release of Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, I reached out to game designer Mark McLaughlin and asked him 10 fun questions. I wanted to get a wide range of questions out there that covered the gamut of his design thoughts and his process on getting his latest game completed.

Mark got back to me and the answers are below. My goal was to make the questions fun and give Mark a little to think about when he answered them.

Mark has been at game design quite a while. Rebel Raiders is his 16th game published and he has an extensive 30 year background as a ghost-writer and columnist.

His latest book, the sci fi novel Princess Ryan's Star Marines, is available on Amazon and is based off the board game of the same name.

Now on to the questions:

1) Of all the hoops you had to jump through to get Rebel Raiders on the High Seas to market which event would you say you were the LEAST unprepared for?

The only hoop was time – GMT loved the concept and design and put it up on the P500 right away – but it took three years to amass enough pre-orders to justify getting a spot on the production schedule!  Watching the ticker literally go up by one order every day or every other day….that was painful.

2) If you could do Princess Ryan's Star Marines all over again what is the one game mechanic you would change?

I would make it easier for players to acquire the little cards that they can use to zap one another or modify the outcome of a skirmish.   

3) For Rebel Raiders what was the main thing that touched off your drive to get a game on that subject matter created

Boats.  I wanted to see boats!   In 1980 when I designed Army of  the Potomac/Army of the Tennessee (The Mr. Lincoln’s War series) I put in ironclads, gunboats, raiders and blockade runners – because NO other strategic civil war game had them….and in 2008 when I decided to do Rebel Raiders there were still NO boats in other civil war strategy games (sure, maybe a card or special counter here or there, but usually navies were handled by some dice on a chart on the side or other abstract mechanism).

James McPherson (an award winning author and professor at Princeton whom I have twice met and conversed with  and long admired) concludes his new book War Upon the Waters with this telling statement:  “To say that the Union navy won the Civil War would state the case much too strongly.  But it is accurate to say that the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy.”

                I wanted to show that in a game…..

                ..and boats are cool ….especially ships of that bizarre period of experimentation!

4) When you started creating and designing games did you have any designs that were flat out rejected by a company?

I have been exceedingly fortunate.  I  have never had a design out and out rejected.    I designed an Axis and Allies type NATO game that  3W was going to do but my timing was awful….we were playtesting it when the Berlin Wall came down (we mutually agreed to pull it from the schedule).  I had a great big roman game that Task Force Games was going to do….but it got caught up in a change of management and in their new direction it got sent back to me.  I showed it to Greenwood at AH who told me if I had given it to him three years ago (this was the mid 90s) they would have loved it, but the market had changed and it was “too much game” with too many components  (and he was right).    That, however, got us talking and he and Ben Knight took me to lunch to ask if I could design a We the People meets War and Peace (my 1979 AH game), oh, and make it multiplayer and design it so it could be played in one sitting with rules so short you could read them during a typical visit to the john.

That became Napoleonic Wars … which was optioned by Hasbro when they bought AH, and nearly got published by them (even had a developer assigned to me)…but again, management changes knocked it out…but Mike Gray at Hasbro called GMT on my behalf, telling them there was this great game they would like….

5) How many hours a day would you say you devoted to Rebel Raiders while you worked to get it finished?

That is impossible to estimate.  I am a free lance writer.   There are times I could arrange to get my work out of the way to clear the decks for a two or three day arc to work on the game;  there were other times when I could not get to it for weeks …except to make some minor changes due to a book or other research I was doing or when some idea would pop into my head.    Game design is not a job;  it is a hobby that happens to make some money (and not a lot).   I love to work on my designs, but can only do so when time permits.

6) Of all the changes and the corrections that you have gone through on Rebel Raiders what was the one mechanic that you removed that did not make it into the game?

A lot of the optional rules began as rules in the body of the game – Fred Schachter (my developer/editor) and I agreed early on to move a lot of them out of the main game and into the playbook --- to create a multi-tiered game, much like the old AH did with basic, advanced and tournament rules.    

The basic game is hardly bare bones, and there are plenty of bells and whistles,  but the French horns, jingling johnnies, bassoons and string section were moved to the playbook, so players could customize their games by adding in what they wanted for flavor or play balance.

7) Who did you get in touch with for the artwork on the counters and the box or was that assigned by GMT?
GMT is great about this.  Mark Simonitch has done the maps for all of my GMT games.  He has done most of the card and counter work and rules layout, or in this case oversaw it with Charlie Kibler, who did a great job (and who loves the period perhaps even more than I).   Rodger MacGowan has been doing box covers for my games for 30 years….and he and Mark are among the key players in the company as well, as they deserve to be – they do such fabulous work.

8) What is next for you on the horizon as far as game design goes?

For the last eight months I have been working on and playtesting what I hope will be a series of quick play strategic games I am calling the “Card Conquest” series….imagine a half-size game map, a handful of counters, and combats and political contests resolved by playing the card game War! But to which you add some dice and events.   The one Fred is working on now with me is Hitler’s Reich, a WW2 ETO strategy game that takes from 20 minutes to two hours to play;  we have six playtest groups around the country, and I am talking it up with GMT at WBC in August.    My work on that is 99 percent done (Fred has the lead on it now)  and I am already at work on the next game in the series, Hannibal’s War…

9) From start to finish was the total amount of time you spent getting Rebel Raiders to the public in its final form?

That is impossible to estimate.  I started the design in 2008.  The game shipped in 2013.   Most of my time went into the front end of that ….about a year’s work to get a good, solid and playable design.  Fred got involved in it during that first year as well, which was a big help (I always work with editors, not just in my games but in my writing).   We were pretty much satisfied with it by the time it went up on the P500….but of course used the intervening years to keep playing, testing, tweaking here and there….and to keep taking things out of the main game and putting them into the playbook.

10) If you could meet one great military commander from history who would it be?

One?  I only get to meet one?  I guess since I have done so much on Napoleon  (War and Peace, Napoleonic Wars – two editions – Kutuzov, Wellington)  it should be him.  Although part of me would like to warn him not to go into Spain or Russia, well, just think of how many great books, novels, movies, tv series (Sharpe, Hornblower, Patrick O’Brien, Brigadier Gerard) not to mention miniatures and board games would never have come about if he took that advice!

                Anyway, Vive L’Empereur!


  1. great stuff. Hope this becomes a regular. I'm going to link to it!

  2. It's about time somebody gave the great designers in our hobby a platform like this!