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Interview: John Poniske

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John Poniske is a life-long gamer and has been designing his own games for almost fifteen years, with a wide variety of titles published, available on VASSAL, slated for preorder systems, or still in the works. Perhaps his most recognizable family game is Leaping Lemmings, and he also has published a children’s game, Hugs. The bulk of his production is in war gaming, with an eclectic mix of both familiar and unique subjects; from Civil War battles to Native American-Colonial conflicts to the Haitian slave revolts. As a teacher, John sees gaming as not only an engaging hobby, but as an opportunity to teach and educate. His reprint of Hearts and Minds: Vietnam 1965-1975 (Worthington Games) just successfully funded on Kickstarter. Currently his card-driven, politically minded, strategic Civil War game Lincoln’s War (Multi-Man Publishing) is on Kickstarter and is almost 70% funded with 22 days remaining. We asked John a few questions about this title, which has been long in the making, and he was gracious enough to talk with us.

John, President Lincoln was a simple man who spoke his mind and didn’t “beat around the bush.” So let’s start with the basics. Describe Lincoln’s War in one sentence.
Lincoln’s War is a unique approach to Civil War gaming, one that involves politics and personalities, as well as combat; one that unlike any other game I’ve seen, tells a story.

Okay, that only scratches the surface, I know! A game of this nature deserves more elaboration, so give our readers your “30-second pitch.”
Imagine a game where you are President of either the Union or the Confederacy and you must harness the political will of your nation to rally your people and get things done. To do this you must seek the advice of your leading people, political and civilian, as well as military. Some of them are canny strategists and some are buffoons; some are unpredictable while others are scathing opponents of your administration. At some point you must deal with them all. You must also seek Congressional approval for your plans, agree to military campaigns and goad reluctant, recalcitrant and outright rebellious generals in the field. You must deal with the war at sea, the blockade, the emancipation question, and European support for the South. You must choose a likely military chief, while annually choosing which of your generals are worthy of promotion. And above all, you must be wary of assassination plots. Lincoln’s War is firmly grounded in history, but as I said, each game tells an incredible story. You as the players author the story, and you as the storytellers come away from the table eager to retell your story!

I understand there is a loving history behind the development of Lincoln’s War. What was your original inspiration for this title and can you tell us a little about how it evolved since those early days?
Oh, my gosh! What a journey it has been. Lincoln’s War began as something of a tribute to Mark Herman and my fascination with his title, We the People, the first card-driven war game – his subject was the Revolutionary War. At first Lincoln’s War was to be nothing but cards, but just cards could not provide the greater ebb and flow of fortunes that I wanted to create, so I developed a map that initially used point to point, then hexagons, then area movement, then back to hexes. My two card decks began at 100 apiece. Since each card represents an historic Civil War personality, that meant 200 people to research – military, political and civilian – as well as two hundred historical images to find. I came to know and love these people. And in time, when I had to pare down the decks to their present 72 card size, I felt I was cutting loose family members, most of them civilians. You see from the very start, I wanted players to learn the background of the people behind the war. I wanted to include their abilities, their rank or position and, in many cases, their peccadilloes.

In the end, if just a handful of people use Lincoln’s War to learn more about this period of our history I will be most satisfied. But back to the design evolution; the easiest aspect of the game and the one that has remained unchanged is the PC – or Political Currency system. Each character card awards advice to you in the form of Political Currency. With this, you as the President may bank it, use it to purchase military assets, promote generals, erode enemy political will, restore morale after battle, support your generals in battle or goad your generals into action.

What were some challenges you faced in this ongoing process?
The biggest problems I’ve had with the game have been riverine warfare, victory conditions, cavalry abilities and the Emancipation Proclamation. The first has seen the most changes and the dust has only recently settled on inclusion of secret confederate naval assets. Victory Conditions have been fluid – decisions being made largely on what playtesters came up with. I will say that my initial inclination to have the capture of either capital as an auto-win was a BIG mistake. My wife beat me as the rebels in about 15 minutes flat. But by changing the rule, I removed the incentive to fight in the East so I came up with the Eastern Theater rule which punishes the Union politically if the Union army does not take military action in the East (basically Virginia) in any given turn.

Cavalry also drove me crazy. I wanted them to be a distinct military arm, but I didn’t want their rules to be overly complicated. Giving them an extra hex movement didn’t work in this game as the hexes are too large and they became unstoppable. Ultimately cavalry has been given the ability to harass armies and escape and also to slow enemy armies, because they possess the only zone of control in the game. Finally the Emancipation Proclamation – nobody seemed to achieve it because I had set the bar too high. Through playtesting, we eventually found the middle ground and now the EP is declared more often than not. It has been a very long and rocky journey, but it has been worth it – or will be as soon as my little cellophane-wrapped baby arrives.

After researching some 200 individuals, do you have any favorite civilians and/or generals from both North and South?
I could spend a very long time answering this question! But I’ll just stick to my favorites. For the North: Clement Vallandigham (to my knowledge no other politician was exiled from both the Union AND the Confederacy); Thaddeus Stevens (long before Lincoln, the movie, I was fascinated with the man’s drive for racial equality); and Nathanial Lyon (had he lived, he might very well have eclipsed Grant in deeds and reputation). For the South: Nathan Bedford Forrest (arguably the best cavalry commander on both sides of the war and the subject of two spin-off designs); Judah P. Benjamin (Davis’ right hand man, a brilliant and versatile politico who kept his cool despite the constant bungling going on all around him); and Belle Boyd (a capable Southern spy who was jailed three times and learned to be a pretty good publicist on her own behalf).

What gamer type(s) do you think Lincoln’s War will appeal to and have you made any deliberate efforts to serve a particular segment of the hobby?
In designing Lincoln’s War, I have not catered to a particular type of gamer. On the contrary, I let the design evolve on its own and many, many different types of gamers – young and old, male and female, Euro geeks and war game geeks – have had a hand in it. It is a true crossover between a Euro and a war game.

Your ludography is an interesting and eclectic mix of genres, styles, themes, and mechanics. Do you have any insight or experiences on how that diversity may have helped or hindered your work on Lincoln’s War?
I was raised as a gamer and spent most of my spare time growing up playing board games. I got away from it when I discovered girls, but in my final year in the Marine Corps, my good friend and fellow designer, Rick Young, reintroduced me to the hobby. Since then I eat, sleep and breathe board games. I can’t see a situation or incident in the news or in nature without seeing a game angle. Far from hindering me, this diverse way of thinking has allowed me to try things that others keep saying won’t work. Of course many of them don’t – but some do, and Lincoln’s War is better for the experimentation.

Have any life experiences, say in your military service or teaching career, influenced the development of Lincoln’s War, whether it be in general concept or specific mechanics?
I almost said, “No,” but I’ll have to instead say, “Yes.” In both the military and in teaching, the most detailed orders and the very best laid plans often go awry. Any number of things can and do go wrong. This is the element of chance that makes a good board game better. When everything cannot be accounted for, it makes players hesitate and wonder. I will admit that my initial intention was to create a new approach to combat that removed a chance die roll from the equation, which it does. And yet, how does one deal with volcanic personalities or fits of depression suffered by the leadership on both sides of the war? How do you account for unforeseen defenses and tactics, and what about favored generals whose governments saw that they had the most and the best? Out of this was born erratic generals, combat resources and Congressional Support, all of which have tempered my essentially diceless combat system, allowing for an acceptable portion of chance.

Many in the war gaming community vigorously debate what the proper balance is between an authentic “simulation,” which may restrict game play in favor of historical accuracy, versus a flavorful “recreation,” which may eschew many details in favor of more open play. As one who has designed several historical games, and on unique subjects at that, do you have any thoughts on the topic?
I’ve debated it myself, on both sides. But I think ultimately I have to come down on the side of Richard Berg whom I once saw write that the games we play are not true simulations and its silly to think that they are. We design maps to historic proportion. We research historic orders of battle. We assign weather conditions and morale and supply rules and even leadership abilities. But in the end we cannot simulate; we cannot replicate what happened or for that matter what will happen. There are too many unknown factors. Honestly, if we could simulate historic conditions, who then would want to play our games? They would all have historical outcomes. That being the case, when I begin designing a game, I opt for a good, broad historic grounding, medium to simple level of play, a time limit of 2-4 hours and play balance that allows even the most forlorn historic loser a chance at victory. I’m currently working on Yorktown 1781. Tell me it isn’t hard to give the British a chance there!

Obviously, gamer types span a vast spectrum. So for our readers who may not think Lincoln’s War is their cup of tea, here’s your chance to plug another title from your past designs. Any recommendations?
My obvious answer is Hearts and Minds, which just recently reached its Kickstarter goal. If you missed the campaign, don’t worry, I’m sure Worthington will have copies on hand. But if colonial warfare is your cup of tea, you might try out King Philip’s War, if for no other reason than to find out what all the brouhaha was about. That game was so controversial that the game was actually picketed and stories about it went worldwide. You’ll have to find out the rest for yourself.

So, when not designing your own projects, what types of games do you typically play?
I prefer pre-modern warfare and I’m attracted to anything up to and including WWI. Having said that, my gaming group has spent an awful lot of time playing the Axis and Allies War at Sea miniatures game. At the same time, I love many Euros such as Settlers, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne. But do you want to know my all-time favorite party game? Family Business. It has all the right elements – fast, simple, unpredictable and you get to act like a gangster!

You mentioned that you’re working on Yorktown 1781 and of course just finished a Kickstarter campaign for Hearts and Minds. Anything else in the works that we can look forward to that you’re willing and able to share?
I have Amigos and Insurrectos (Filipino Insurrection 1899-1902) due out with Battles Magazine this year and a collaborative effort, Mountainmen, due out with Columbia Games (no date on that though). I have also finished a couple of fun, “beer and pretzel” games: Bubba’s Gone Giggin’ (a redneck romp in the swamp huntin’ fer frogs) and Roach Motel (a game about roach stompin’ with an innovative movement system). I’m also continuing work on LZ Albany: Ia Drang Valley (a devastating NVA ambush of the Army Air Cav in Vietnam), and Company Clash (a Civil War deck-building game on the company level).

 

Thanks, John, for taking the time to discuss Lincoln’s War with iSlaytheDragon! Personally, I’m interested in this project.  The Civil War was my entry point to a fascination with history that led me through college and on to my first career.  Plus I currently live in “The Land of Lincoln” (did you know there are 32 businesses and organizations in Springfield, IL, named for the 16th president? There’s no escaping the man!). And spinning the sticky, complex political and social webs of the Civil War with the strategic side should prove a unique experience!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Great interview with a great guy about a great game!

    MMP is very much looking forward to publishing Lincoln’s War as part of our collaboration with John.

    And while Lincoln may have spoken his mind and not beaten “around the bush” I have to disagree with your assessment of Lincoln as a “simple man.”

    • Okay, perhaps “down to earth” would be better for the sentiment in context I was trying to convey. 🙂 Certainly he was not simple politically or intellectually.

      Thanks!

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