History’s Voice in Gaming
John Poniske, Game Designer by Bill Morgal
“I’m John Poniske.”
The words came from a lanky, crewcut man with a salt and pepper beard sitting across the gaming table from my son and I. His open outstretched hand was not the first thing I really noticed about the man. Nor was it the World Board Gaming Championship name badge hanging from his neck. Meeting new people at the WBC, it’s the name badge that my eyes usually gravitate to first. Not so this time. I didn’t notice the badge at all; it was the man’s warm smile and his welcoming face. This was not the offered hand and smile of a politician; this was a man genuinely happy to meet you.
Moments earlier my son and I had found a rare beast indeed – a WBC new game demo table devoid of people. We sat down and started sorting out the game’s pieces and figuring out how to play it. John noticed us hunched down reading the rules booklet and asked if he could join us. He was interested in learning and trying out the new game as were we. What that game was I have no idea now. It was as some would say “quite forgettable.” But still I owe the game quite a lot. I made a fast new friend that day thanks to that demo game.
After digesting the rules we gave the game a try. It was during the game that the slow gears in my head finally figured out a pestering question percolating in my noggin since John introduced himself.
“Did you design Hearts and Minds?” I asked.
He nodded. That is just like John. Some would boast and inform us that we were gaming with someone gamers might consider a ‘celebrity’. Not so, John. A nod and back to the now-forgotten game and that was it. To show what a great guy he is. I inundated him with questions about Hearts and Minds and he was more than happy to answer them. I learned he was working on a passion project covering the American Civil War. This really piqued my interest and triggered an entirely new set of questions as I devour everything I can about the Civil War. John said he was looking for play-testers. Would I be interested? Does a duck quack? We exchanged e-mails and after returning home I had a Vassal prototype for Lincoln’s War in my email.
If you are unfamiliar with Vassal, it is an open source application that allows board and card games to be simulated over the internet. Not only is it great for playing existing board games with people on-line, it’s pretty handy when it comes to testing new games. Thanks to John I took it upon myself to learn Vassal. He has been nice enough to let me craft several Vassal modules that have been used to play test his games while at the same time letting me put my artistic muse to work on play test graphics.
It didn’t take me long to see that Lincoln’s War was special. Here was a game where politics were every bit as important if not more so than tactical movement. That was certainly included, but the guts of the game came down to balancing one’s card hand between resources, intrigue, maneuver and battle. In Lincoln’s War, players take on the mantle of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis or the Union’s Abraham Lincoln. Each card portrays an important personage of the war while events associated with the cards describe actual historical situations, some well- known, some obscure. John often uses cards to display historical details in his designs. Lincoln’s War provides many multiple-use cards so that each action a player takes makes for a difficult decision. Order their army leaders? Stockpile future good will? Trigger a card action? Each game I played provided a new alternate history. Send Lee west to see if he can keep Grant from repeating history? What would it have been like if Jackson led the Army of Northern Virginia? What would have happened if the Union had not lost Lyon in the first few months of the war?
Game designers do not give up easily. Design work requires persistence and enthusiasm. When I met John, Lincoln’s War had been in development for around eight years. It would be two and a half more years before Multi-Man Publishing put it in print.
My attraction to Lincoln’s War led me to John’s other designs. And I soon learned that many of John’s designs share certain similarities.
John’s games convey rich historical detail. They magically manage to capture the essentials of the subject, be it guerrilla tactics in Vietnam, the political quagmire of the Haitian Revolt, or the sweeping and volatile nature of the Plains Indian Wars.
None of John’s games are that complex. Some historical board games are mired in rules that read more like law tomes but John has a knack for boiling a simulation down to its essentials. He finds the sweet spot between coma inducing verbiage and the kind of simplification that renders simulation into a historical joke. John’s games take you into the period and teach you the history by experiencing the nuances of the game.
Hearts and Minds published by Worthington Games is John’s take on the Vietnamese conflict. (In addition to having been a newspaper writer, John served in Vietnam as a United States Marine. He currently teaches history at an Alternative High School a demanding job to say the least.) Hearts and Minds like Lincoln’s War is remarkable in that it captures not only the warfare but the politics of the war. It’s a flexible design, allowing players to begin and end the game at any yearly point in the war.
I call John, ‘History’s Voice in Gaming,’ because John’s designs ferret out historical obscurities. In an industry where the focus seems to be on a handful of major battles or campaigns (BoardGameGeek.com lists over 60 games on the battle of Gettysburg alone), John chooses his designs from the hidden side of history. His designs are often the only designs covering a particular subject. Take King Philip’s War for instance. When I discovered it, I was totally ignorant of this early American conflict with the Native Americans of New England. I knew there was friction between the colonists and the natives but I had no idea a bloody war had been fought between them in the 1670’s, nor of the far reaching implications of that war.
Likewise, as a play tester for John’s Black Eagles game (currently under development with Clash of Arms Publishing), I found myself introduced to the Haitian revolution in the 1790’s. I knew nothing of Toussaint L’Ouverture and had no idea that the Haitian slave revolt was the only slave rising that resulted in the creation of a new nation. I was also surprised to find that the revolt ended any hope Napoleon had for military adventure in the Americas. Playing Black Eagles inspired me to do what John hopes all players of his games will do – find books on his chosen subjects and learn more.
There are many examples of John’s diverse interests. His design that I am perhaps most excited to try is Berlin Airlift soon to be published by Legion Wargames. No other game designer has touched the subject that marked the dawn of the Cold War. Legion is also scheduled to publish Maori Wars which covers the British colonization of New Zealand. This past June, Battles Magazine published Amigos and Insurrectos. (Amigos covers the little-known struggle facing U.S. in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.) Decision Games is getting ready to publish one of his gems called Banana Wars. It resembles the popular Twilight Struggle somewhat and covers American trade and intervention in Central and South America in the first few decades of the 20th century. GMT publishers have a game in development that John designed called Plains Indian Wars, which involves the Plains Indians, settlers, the U.S. Army, bandits, and the construction of the westward railroad.
Columbia Games will soon be publishing a design John co-authored with Daniel Mings called Mountain Men. It’s about early trappers in the Rockies and then whooping it up when it comes time to sell their pelts. Mountain Men is more of a fun family game in the same vein as Leaping Lemmings, another design published by GMT that John coauthored with Rick Young.
Oh, another thing John’s games have in common: they’re fun.
John’s design, Wolfe Tone’s Rising, concerns the Irish Rebellion of the 1790’s. This game features a frequent mechanic of John’s covering the uncertainty of troop quality and morale in the field. The quality of counters is only revealed when battle is joined. Wolfe Tone will always have a warm spot in my heart because it is the first Vassal module I ever made and I was able to use my artwork. Wolfe Tone is currently in Compass Games’ publishing queue.
John has two American Civil War games using a similar system he developed: Battle of Ball’s Bluff published by Legion Wargames and the Battle of Belmont which will be published by Compass Games. Far as I know, no other designer has shown any interest in either of these battles, yet they are both so interesting. The former is the only battle where a sitting U.S. senator fought and died on the field of battle. The latter happened to be Grant’s baptism of fire as a commanding officer in the struggle. Both games feature the chit pull mechanic introduced in Victory Games’ Across Five Aprils. Both are company level games, a rarity for Civil War designs. In addition both involve twists concerning confused orders and a unique fire and movement sequence unlike other games based on this time period.
Speaking of which, two years ago after returning from a trip to Boston, John told me he was going to create a game based on Paul Revere’s ride in combination with the battles of Lexington and Concord. He must have heard the disappointment in my voice and asked me what was wrong. In fact, I had been toying with the idea myself. See, I had taken a page from John’s book and decided to try my own hand at designing something no one else had attempted. It figured that he would think to do the same thing. Still, he suggested we throw in together. This resulted in a fun ride where I learned quite a bit about designing and developing. And the story has a happy ending when our design, Revolution Road (Covering Boston to Concord and Bunker Hill), was accepted by Compass Games and I was commissioned to do the art as well.
As you can tell, John is prolific. I am currently helping him with another of his projects, Blood on the Ohio, a kind of sequel to King Philip’s War. This design covers what was known as Washington’s Indian War or the Northwest Indian War which followed hot on the heels of the American Revolutionary War. It involved the U.S. struggle with a Native American coalition who sought to stop settlement in the Ohio territory. Compass also agreed to publish this and I will be doing the art for this one as well.
Right now John is a working on a two player Civil War deck building card game that pits historical Civil War companies against each other. He seems to be using the actual names of the officers and men of the companies on the cards and it sounds fascinating.
To sum up the kind of game designer John is, I would have to say that he is a professor of historical gaming. He seeks to shed light on the far corners of history that have been overlooked or purposely downplayed. His games allow players to bring history to life. I am deeply in debt to him and so very thankful that I can call him friend.