Scott Bogen of The Board Game Show interviews Sans Alliés designer Geoffrey Greer. This beautiful-looking game is portable, war-themed and solitaire. Sans Alliés sets out to capture the feel of a grand-strategy, area-movement war game in a solo package, and it’s playable in about an hour! Let’s begin now, shall we?
Geoffrey Greer, thanks for taking the time to talk about your new solitaire war game, Sans Alliés! Think back. What games influenced you the most as a kid? What about as an adult?
If I could narrow it down to two games that influenced me most as a kid, the first would be Monopoly. Despite its generally poor standing among “serious” gamers these days, and despite its legitimate design flaws, we had a lot of fun with this game in those days. We played many times, almost as a family tradition, and we were quite competitive. Playing Monopoly with my family taught me about being cunning in a game and trying to outwit the other players. That was intriguing to me.
The second would have to be a home-made game my dad had designed called On the Air. You won’t know it–it has only ever existed in hand-drawn, prototype form, but we loved playing it. There wasn’t a whole lot of “meat” to the game, especially compared to what we look for in the hobby today, but the fact that he had made it all undoubtedly inspired me to believe that a regular person could make a board game.
As a teenager I was exposed to Dungeons & Dragons, but also to the Avalon Hill line of games. These games revealed to me just how complex a game could be in its pursuit of realism, and I loved them to death. Unfortunately, they can take tremendous amounts of time to play, and you really can’t garner the interest of more casual gamers. This became increasingly prevalent and problematic as I “adult” life set in, with jobs, non-gamer social events, and eventually, kids. So these days I have different groups for different levels of intensity in my games, but overall I tend to most enjoy the “middle ground” in terms of complexity and time commitment.
I’m playing more and more solitaire games as time goes by, and I’m happy to see the increase in solitaire variants in multi-player games. When I was a teenager, my go-to solitaire games were the Lord of the Rings CCG, Blackbeard, and Raid on St. Nazaire. These days, LotR is out of print and St. Nazaire is one of those Avalon Hill games that is just too nightmarishly complex to hit my table very often. I’ll still do Blackbeard from time to time, especially since Richard Berg’s new release, but the games you’ll most often see me playing solo are Forbidden Island, Roll Through the Ages (both Matt Leacock games), Flash Point, Carcassonne (solitaire variant on my phone), and Castle Panic. And of course… I do play Sans Alliés. After all, the first reason I design a game is because I want to play a game like that.
Your first Kickstarter game was Parenthood and was successfully delivered to backers last year. How did your first experience using Kickstarter inform your second (Sans Alliés)?
We had no idea what we were doing with the first Kickstarter. Specifically, we had no clue what kind of “frontloading” and community building was needed to lay the groundwork before something like that should even be launched. We also knew nothing about the various options there were for printing, shipping, promotion, etc. We knew nothing. We had nothing. We managed to stumble our way to funding, and then (also due to early miscalculations and growing pains), we had to dig deep into our own pockets to pay various costs afterwards to make sure our backers were fulfilled.
So basically the whole thing was like getting thrown in the deep end, but we managed to keep our head above the water and even to swim a little bit. Every experience (and pitfall) taught me what to do and what not to do, if ever I was going to run another Kickstarter, and so I began trying to build my community and fan base way back then, long before I had even considered running a second Kickstarter for anything. Truth be told: at that time, I wasn’t sure I would ever Kickstart anything ever again. It’s no easy process, and it can be quite stressful and all-consuming. I wouldn’t recommend anybody do more than one every one to two years.
Now let’s talk about Sans Alliés! What is this game about, and what type of gamers do you think would love it?
Sans Alliés is a solitaire, war-themed card game which takes the essence and feel of a grand strategy game like Risk or Axis & Allies and compresses it into a portable, solo experience, playable in under an hour. Cosmetically, the set-up hearkens back to a traditional game of Pyramid Solitaire, and the objective is similar in that you are trying to clear cards out of the pyramid and reach the top, but Sans Alliés offers a vastly wider array of strategic and tactical choices for the player to make, and the theme shines through in the decision-making process. The game will appeal most to anyone who enjoys a solitaire experience, especially one that’s relatively easy to set-up and tear-down, good for travel and small windows of gaming time. It will also appeal to lovers of the middling-level “wargames,” which focus on area-control mechanics and simple economics. Sans Alliés is universally-themed with mid-20th century technology, but it is not historical and does not claim to simulate “WWII” or any other specific conflicts or nations. In fact, it was important to me in the design that it reflected the universality of its theme.
Given that this game is a solitaire title, I would think it’s important to give players some important decisions to make, a sense of ownership in the outcome. What are the big decision points in this game, and are there multiple paths or strategies to victory?
Ultimately your objective is always the same: capture the enemy capital card at the top of the pyramid before the enemy completes development on a super-weapon. It is a race against time, in a sense, but the strategy and tactics come into play as you look for the most efficient choices. You must consider which regions to attack, and what season of the year would offer the best timing. You must consider what regions you must capture now in order to gain access to other regions later, and sometimes you need to consider whether it is worthwhile to stray from a direct route to the capital in favor of liberating some remote prison camp or finding an alternate, safer route to your objective points. You have to manage your available units, deciding which types of units you’re willing to risk losing in a given invasion, and whether you need to hold units in reserve in order to conduct bombing raids or espionage attacks against the enemy to slow their progress. You may even be faced with the decision to destroy a resource center (scorched earth) and deny yourself the benefit of controlling it, simply to deny the enemy that same benefit. There are many angles to consider.
The game involves card play and some dice rolling. What percentage of the game would you say is luck, and how much of it is strategy?
It has been very important to me that the game includes chance but is not dictated by chance, and that the player has the ability to “find the solution” even in the face of a little bit of bad luck. Sans Alliés is essentially a game of attrition. Win or lose, you are going to get at least 30 minutes of solid play out of one round, possibly 45-60 if you do a lot of thinking. I have worked hard to make it “close” almost every single time. As for losing through no fault of your own, that is also something I have worked really hard to eliminate. Admittedly, there is a factor of chance, and I have seen the occasional “bad beat,” but these have been very few and far between. I’m confident that 95% of the time, you can see a loss coming from way off, and there are a number of strategies/tactics you can employ to try and “fight back” against bad luck and turn the odds back in your favor again.
I’m always interested in the evolution of a game’s design. What did Sans Alliés look like in the early stages versus your final product? What inspired some of the changes you made along the way?
The core of the game hasn’t changed much since inception. The very first iteration had the pyramid-based arrangement with the multiple unit types. The most dramatic changes in alpha-testing surrounded the defensive levels at each row of the pyramid and the manner in which invasions/battles would be resolved. Similarly, the rate at which the enemy nation made progress, which is essentially a timing mechanism, had to be tweaked over and over again. Basically, these are the most mathematical building blocks of how the game operates, and it takes a whole lot of testing and adjusting to find that numerical balance that is challenging but not impossible to beat or disheartening to play. I must have tried a hundred different approaches before I even finished a whole game. There was always the idea of “upgrades,” but what those upgrades were has changed in response to other changing rules and to try and keep the upgrades “useful” instead of just “neat.”
In later, operational test phases, and also in response to some of the feedback from our blind playtesters before and during the Kickstarter campaign, a number of small but important additions were made to enrich the theme and to add to the variety of player choices. These include the commander cards and espionage attacks, prison camps, and the weather/seasons rondel. Now we’re beginning to play around with alternative and non-random set-up ideas, including “scenario”-based layouts and possibly even breaking the pyramid into “islands” or multiple pyramids. There’s also great potential to invent new and different region types to be integrated into the deck. Just recently, one of our allies compared the game to a set of Legos. I really like that. You essentially get a bunch of building blocks and a set of instructions for one suggested way to assemble them, but at the same time, the game is highly conducive to house rules, variants, add-ons, expansions, and so on, and this is important to me. I feel that gamers should be encouraged to mold games into whatever they want them to be and to personalize them.
Your Kickstarter ends VERY SOON! Anyone interested should back Sans Alliés soon, shouldn’t they?
Yes, please! We had a really strong first day and first week, but we have struggled with the notorious mid-campaign slump. We’ve got less than one week left, and we still have a little ways to go yet. The funding goal ended up being a little higher than I would have liked it to be, which has added to our challenge, but I wanted to make sure we paid for top-quality artwork and that we did not get bogged down by the fulfillment problems we ran into with our first campaign. So PLEASE back right away if you are at all interested in the project. We do not have the infrastructure at this time to distribute the game to your friendly local game store, so it won’t help to wait for “release date.” There’s no time like the present!
Finally, and this is very important, if you were stuck on an island with a group of friends for one year, and you could only have one game, which would it be?
I suppose we have to eliminate Survive, Forbidden Island, and Catan right off the bat. Nobody wants to be reminded of the miserable predicament we’re in, stuck on an island and all. We would definitely need that one precious game for wish fulfillment. I’m pretty sure it would have to be an RPG. Something that encourages cooperation, is flexible enough to allow for all manner of fantasizing, and ultimately requires very few pieces. A game of almost pure imagination.