Tom Vasel
United States
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Interviews by an Optimist # 9 - Harry Rowland

Harry Rowland is the Managing Director of the Australian Design Group. He also has designed and developed several games, including the recent smash hit 7 Ages. A complete biographical listing for Harry is included at the end of this interview...

Tom: Harry, you've been designing games for a long time, yet you've designed only a few of them. Just how much work do you put into each game?

Harry: Gidday Tom,
Well it depends, but on the whole, a lot. I know some designers think two ideas are two games, which can lead to a prodigious output. But it can also lead to limited replayability too, as the game loses its appeal once the 'trick' to the game has been worked out. We try to make each element simple but like to add a few elements to each game to broaden the game's decision tree as much as possible but without (hopefully) burdening the player with too many rules in the process (not that we have always succeeded mind).

As to how long I have spent on each game, I started designing Empires in Arms (my first game) when I was 13 and published it when I was 24. 7 Ages took 7 years to design, and all the others took at least a couple of years each with World in Flames, our best ever seller, still being tinkered with 20 years after first release.

I'm not designing constantly during these periods, and one of my regrets is that the business side of my work (my company, Australian Design Group, being the publisher of my games) consumes much of the time I would prefer to devote to designing. However like most designers, I always have a couple of unpublished games on the back burner that I dabble with whenever allowed the opportunity.

Tom: Do you feel that your games are getting better as time goes by? For example, your earlier games are hailed as games of extreme complexity; while 7 Ages, your newest, is toned down and simpler.

Harry: Well, it’s up and down over the years, but 7 Ages is definitely my best design so far. I think it has the same decision making as World in Flames but with only 10% of the rules. Interestingly, World in Flames, our most complex game ever, has been our best seller; while World Cup Football, our simplest, has been our worst. Mind you, that might have more to do with our marketing than our designs.

Tom: Harry, can you tell us a little about how the ADG came into being and its history?

Harry: Australian Design Group started in 1982 after a group of gaming mates who had been mucking around with Empires in Arms for a couple of years decided that it was a good enough game to publish. So we pooled our limited student funds, formed a partnership, Australian Design Group, and got enough money together to print 1,000 copies of Empires in Arms, released at Origins 1983 in Detroit, USA.

In 1986 I formed a company to market the games in a more systemic fashion, and we have been producing games and kits ever since on a more or less annual basis (2004 being a very busy year with both 7 Ages and Days of Decision III being produced).

We have concentrated on historical and family board games and are also converting some of our board games into computer games (Empires in Arms, World in Flames and 7 Ages).

Tom: As designer of the currently popular 7 Ages, can you give us some information as to the history of this game seven years in the making?

Harry: Well, I came back from a game of hockey where the team had done well and decided to jot down a few ideas on a potential world history game on the back of a credit card statement. The basic design only took an hour, but the agonizing development of the game took 7 more years as Greg Pinder, some gaming mates and myself wrestled 7 Ages from an OK game then into something not too shabby now (well, I like playing it anyway).

7 Ages is designed to teach a bit of history, a bit of geography and a bit of culture; but most of all, it is designed for fun. If players don't enjoy it, they won't play it again.

Tom: How did you go about picking the different civilizations?

Harry: Greg Pinder came up with the initial list of potential civilizations, and then we culled them down to the 110 most important civilizations through history. Of course, all these things are subjective; and there are many others who could easily be included in an expansion kit if players think that it is worthwhile.

The civilizations give you the feel of the expansion and growth of humanity as most of the civilizations start in the middle east and Africa but quickly expand to all four corners of the globe.

There is also a normal curve in the distribution of the civilization ages with the least number of civilizations being available in ages 1 & 7 and the most available around ages 3 & 4.

Tom: So you're hinting at an expansion? What else would such a thing include?

Harry: There are 3 obvious expansions I can see: civilizations, leaders and empires. Obviously, the sky's the limit for adding additional civilizations. Initially, the game had 144 civilizations, and we could easily add many more. If there was interest we could make these packs theme based (e.g. Civilizing, Religious, Military, Economic, Era etc).

As to leaders, there has already been numerous suggestions as to what extra leaders we could have; and although some might say that the sky is definitely not the limit when you talk about great leaders, there are no doubt many more that we could add.

Finally, we could include 6 more colors so that the game could accommodate 21 empires, allowing 10 players to play the game or every player in a 7-player game having access to 3 civilizations each. This would lead to greater competition making each empire's life even more perilous during the game.

Tom: That sounds interesting, and we'll keep our eyes open for this. So what can we expect next from you? Do you have another seven-year game that's just in its infancy?

Harry: I certainly hope they don't take 7 years to finish, but I'm working on a couple of projects at the moment, a Napoleonic political game and a fantasy game with Greg Pinder, and a football game with Dennis Loughrey. ADG also has WiF Blitz and WiF Master edition coming out in the next year or so as well as the computer versions of Empires in Arms, World in Flames and, hopefully, 7 Ages. So it’s looking like being a very busy time over the next couple of years.

Tom: Can you tell us about the planned features for the 7 Ages computer game? Will it be playable solitaire?

Harry: It will allow each action to be performed simultaneously and will have AI for as many computer players as the player(s) desire. It will also allow for solitaire play. We are also keen for it to allow a lot of players as well with perhaps the number of areas in the game tied to the number of players (including computer players).

Designing of the Artificial Intelligence is far easier than World in Flames (our other massive computer project over the last several years) with no zones of control, no supply, no fronts and no stacking to worry about, to name just a few features.

The game itself is far simpler to program with far fewer rules than World in Flames to implement, and we are expecting its release in a far more timely manner than that required for a game such as WiF.

Tom: Are you programming these programs yourself?

Harry: No, Chris Marinacci who programmed World in Flames, the computer game, is in charge of the computer development of 7 Ages. Chris is a very fine programmer, and we are expecting a great computer game to come from his experienced hands. Of course, it won't just be a single person's effort, and we have graphic artists, AI specialists and sound people involved. I'll also pitch in whenever I can be of assistance.

Tom: You obviously concentrate on war games, although I'm not sure 7 Ages falls into that category. What war games, other than your own, do you enjoy the most, and why?

Harry: We've always mixed up our games producing war games and family games in a fairly random fashion. We enjoy games; and if we think a game is good, we are happy to publish it irrespective of whether it is a war game or not. 7 Ages is a hybrid, being a historischespiele rather than a kriegspiel; and that is deliberate, as we want to promote this game in schools and universities as an aid to the study of history, geography and culture. I was hopeless at history as a kid, and 7 Ages taught me more about history in one playing than I learnt from 12 years of history at school.

As to my favorite war games, I have played many great games over the years, including Brittania, Diplomacy, Drang nach osten, Fortress Europa (the JEDKO version), Highway to the Reich, Kingmaker, Napoleon at Leipzig, Napoleon's last Battles, Rise and Fall, Squad Leader, Storm over Arnhem, The Russian Campaign, Third Reich, Victory in the Pacific and Wacht am Rheim to name just a few. But if I was forced to name just one game, I think A House Divided would have to be the game.

I love grand, strategic games (something to do with the role-playing aspects of gaming I suspect), and A House Divided is an easy introductory game for new players requiring a great deal of decision making but with a remarkably sparse rules set. I have played this game hundreds of times, buying 4 copies in the process and have introduced many of my friends to the wonders of gaming via this very fine game.

Tom: What is the boardgaming scene like in Australia currently?

Harry: Fairly small. Australia only comprises about 3-4% of our market, and if anything, that probably overstates its world importance. In terms of market share it is our 5th or 6th biggest market (after the USA (60%), Germany (10%), England (6%), France (5%) and possibly Japan (also 3-4%)).

However, the influx of German style games has led to a mini-renaissance in gaming here recently with many new family game clubs springing up (the one in Canberra run by the very amenable Don Bone, already has about 60 members after just a couple of years).

Tom: How do you see the course of gaming over the next several years. In recent years, it would appear that war gaming is not quite as popular as it once was (though some would vehemently deny this). Do you think that war gaming is decreasing, and why or why not?

Harry: Well, the European family gaming industry is very active, and I don't see it declining much if at all over the next few years. As to war gaming it is true that it is not as popular as in its heyday of the 1970's & 80's, but I don't believe any decline is necessarily terminal.

There have been lots of reasons put forward for wargaming's decline (introduction of the PC, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, console games, etc.), but the most damning statistic I ever read was that 70-80% of wargamers play solitaire. How can you grow a solitaire industry?

The internet has been a great help in this regard, as players can link up with other players throughout the world via the many gaming sites springing up on the web, but we can still all do our bit for the industry by leaving one of our favorite games set up halfway through a move and see which of our (up to now) non-gaming friends finish the move. We may not necessarily choose our most complex game as bait, but it doesn't have to be a dumb game either.

The other task for those of us interested in historical games is to try to tempt some of the very large family game industry to try something a little more challenging in their next gaming session, and the synergy of ideas between the family and historical gamers can only be good for both genres.

Tom: So you think a reason for the stagnant growth is the fact that people just don't evangelize war games enough?

Harry: I'm not sure evangelize is the word I would use, but it might be helpful if a few more wargamers came out of the closet at least.

Some of my friends never tell other people that they are gamers, because they are afraid of the reaction they might get. I always wonder how often two potential friends never realize their common interest and play a game against each other, because neither is willing to admit to the other that they are gamers.

Tom: What recommendations would you make for people? Is the internet the best way to meet other gamers?

Harry: Definitely. At the very least, it helps you find like-minded people in your area that you might be interested in meeting and playing. And with the help of computer player aids like Cyberboard, you can now play board games anywhere, anytime with anyone on the planet; a far cry from the days of my youth where you felt you were the only board gamer around.

Tom: Harry, I really appreciate all the time you took to do this interview (at least it didn't take 7 years!), and really enjoy your latest offering, 7 Ages. Are there any final words you want to tell our readers?

Harry: No worries, Tom. I guess I should just close with a few words on my design philosophy, which is win on the roundabout, lose on the swing. Everything should be a tough decision in the game with a minimum of luck. The holy grail of gaming is to produce the ultimate fun replayable game with only one line of rules. The closest games to this are Chess and Poker, but there are many more recent games that are also approaching this standard.

Regardless of the theme, the ideal game has a rich decision tree, where the optimal strategies change over time, making decision making difficult and allowing for a lot of replayability of the game. Do that in a page of rules, and you are onto a winner.

Name: Harry Grant Rowland (christened Henry Grant Rowland)
Born: 5 October 1958, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
Primary Schools: Townsville State Primary School, Townsville, Qld (1964)
Church of England Boys school, Toowoomba, Qld (1965-1970)
Secondary Schools: Toowoomba Grammar School, Toowoomba, Qld (1971-73)
Mt. Lofty High School, Toowoomba, Qld (1974-75)
School without walls, Canberra, ACT (1975-76)
University: Australian National University, Canberra, ACT (1979-83)
Degree: Bachelor of Science (majoring in computer science, mathematics and

Work: BP Service station, Toowoomba, Qld (1974-75)
Australia Post, Brisbane, Queensland (1978)
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, ACT (1978-81)
Federal Department of Aviation (later Transport), ACT (1981-86)
Australian Taxation Office, ACT (1986-91)
Department of Immigration, ACT (1991)
Partner, Australian Design Group, ACT (1982-today)
Managing Director, Desktop Computer Systems trading as Australian
Design Group, ACT (1986-today)

Interests: board and computer gaming, hockey (as player and coach), football
(Soccer), science, history and world affairs

Games designed (with ADG publication date):

Empires in Arms (1983)
World in Flames (1986)
Days of Decision (1989)
America in Flames (1997)
Patton in Flames (2000)
7 Ages (2004)

Games developed (with ADG publication dates):

Rub Out (1989)
Fatal Alliances (1991)
World Cup Football (1993)

Marital Status: Married to Susan Sheppard with two kids, Peter James (3 1/2) and Anna Jean Rowland (11 months)

- Tom Vasel
February, 2005
"Real men play board games.”

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