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W. Eric Martin
• I've been swamped trying to keep up with announcements related to SPIEL 2016 — check out the SPIEL 2016 Preview here! — but plenty of other happenings have been going down in the game world, such as Riot Games announcing the October 13, 2016 release of Mechs vs. Minions, a cooperative campaign game for 2-4 players set in the world of League of Legends, its phenomenally successful battle arena game that I didn't know existed until I got a sneak peak at Mechs vs. Minions at Gen Con 2016.
Mechs vs. Minions uses programmed movement a là Robo Rally, and the game lasts ten missions, with each mission coming in an envelope that possibly contains new stuff, giving a Legacy-style element to the game.
Riot Games is selling the game directly through its online store for $75, and while I don't normally comment on pricing — since that's a personal issue for most people — I was dumbfounded when I found out what they were charging for the game. I expected the MSRP to be at least $100, but apparently Riot is treating this release as a fun experiment and not a money-making venture — perhaps because League of Legends already makes plenty of money for Riot on its own.
• Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games has announced that second editions of Donald X. Vaccarino's Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue will be released, um, really soon since "[t]he games have been produced and we expect to begin shipping them to distributors next week". These new editions — in the BGG database Dominion (Second Edition) and Dominion: Intrigue (Second Edition) — will each replace six kingdom cards in the original edition with new kingdom cards, while also replacing blank cards with a seventh new kingdom card. (Vaccarino details all of the changes in this BGG comment.)
For all those who own the original editions, these new cards will be sold as Dominion: Update Pack and Dominion: Intrigue Update Pack so that the most important new stuff is obtainable at a lower price than the games themselves. Vaccarino notes, though, that the revised rules and reworded existing cards will not be included, and that these update packs won't be available forever.
• I recorded my one hundredth playing of Steffen Benndorf's The Game today, and to celebrate German publisher Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag announced that SPIEL 2016 will see the release of The Game: Extreme, a standalone game co-designed by NSV developer Reinhard Staupe that features the same gameplay as the 2015 original, but now with 28 instructions on the cards themselves that must be obeyed during play. The publisher hasn't released rules or detailed examples, but in the image below you can see cards with "3!" and "STOP", and you can probably figure out for yourself what they mean.
I'm glad they widened the eye sockets on the skull to fully express how extreme this game will be.
Hello! My name is Yan, and I am the author of Gentleman's Deal, a new boardgame from GaGa Games. Here is my story...
As a boardgame designer, I am very interested in game theory. Everybody who knows game theory even a little can understand that game theory isn't about regular games most of the time. I know that, too, but game theory is full of mathematical problems and different game-like systems. More importantly, people have been working on these problems for years! That is thousands of playtests that have been already held with open access! All in my hands! So I started digging into this.
My first goal was to make a game based on the prisoner's dilemma. Game theory has told me everything about its main problems, paradoxes, and dominant strategies. I changed the dilemma so that it became more fun, more playable — more of a board game. That game was Swords and Bagpipes.
After publishing S&B, I started searching for another cool game theory problem to use, and I stumbled into the "Pirates' Gold" riddle — and that what Gentleman's Deal is all about.
Pirates' Gold Riddle
Five supersmart pirates want to divide one hundred gold coins between them. According to the Pirates' Code, they must distribute it the following way:
The oldest pirate offers a way to divide the stash, then everybody votes. If half or more of the voters accept the deal, the gold will be divided the way described. If most of the pirates are against it, they will kill the dealer and start again. What should the first pirate do?
This riddle is solvable by the method of reversed induction. (I don't really know how it is called in English, so I just translate it roughly.)
• If two pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal will get everything. He will offer one hundred coins to himself, they will have a tie vote, and the deal will be accepted.
• If three pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal can offer one coin to the youngest pirate, which is more than the nothing he would get in a deal with only two pirates, so they will seal the deal.
• If four pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal will bribe the guy who would be left out if only three pirates remain.
• And so on...
That's it! So how are you going to make the game out of it? Let's figure this out!
What's the Main Idea?
A negotiation-based party game! I wanted to make a game in which the dealer would get some resources, then offer a way of dividing it. All the players would then vote to decide whether or not they like the proposed distribution.
What Must Change to Make the Riddle a Board Game?
1) People shouldn't drop out of the game for too long.
2) The game shouldn't end after five or fewer rounds.
3) The game shouldn't be solvable.
4) People must have some "conditions" that make them more or less "appealing" for the dealer — and the overall "appealingness" shouldn't be too obvious.
Stage 1: Early Development
What did I do exactly? That was a long journey, so let's get back to 2014. My first attempt was rather straightforward. People were playing as countries during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, and the dealers would be offering each other parts of Africa. I have to admit that was the most boring setting that I've ever done in my games, and I am a big fan of Smash Up and other cool themes.
Anyway, in my game people received the cards with each new deal every time, then tried to distribute them. If the dealer loses, he doesn’t drop out of the game, but rather he — brace yourself — drops out of the game until the next acceptance of a deal.
That was a real hardcore rule, which allowed players to drop several opponents in a row out of the game in order to divide a big fat pile of resources between smaller groups. That was really complicated and not everybody got it. And as you remember, my idea was to create a party game.
Stage 2: Mafia Theme
I next returned to this prototype after almost a year. In 2015, I "kickstarted" an English version of Swords and Bagpipes and was now ready to continue my project by changing the setting and fixing the most major flaws.
First, I had noticed that the game was solvable because everyone knew everyone else's income. You could count the opponents' coins and decide exactly how many coins you could offer to each player. And I had constructed the most ridiculously overweighted counting system in the world that included a VP-tracker with several resources that combined personal goals (Container style) and the place where you got them.
That was re-e-eally complicated.
So I simplified it and simplified it and in the end I had only one resource that was hidden behind the screen. That was exactly what I needed! People can't remember the income of each player anyway. And it took almost a year of playtests.
The second big thing was the different "conditions" I talked about earlier. I realized quickly that the only punishment the dealer can get was skipping the turn. Without detailed information about money and without the ability to make a "kicking combo", every player became the same. There were not a lot of things to negotiate about. It was still possible. There were triple-vote tokens, for example, but that was not much.
And then the "Partners" kicked in...
Stage 3: Le Finale
I worked with one Russian publisher at a time. The "partners" cards really make this game. The six cards that can go from one player to another drastically enrich the gameplay as people now get things to negotiate about. They still have triple-voting, different offers, and different money behind the screen, but now they also have cool abilities:
• Do I want to negotiate with the guy who has the Senator?
• Do I want to give some to the Sheriff so he won't take me down?
• The guy with the Banker will get money anyway. Maybe I will give him a little bit extra to lure him to my side?
And this is only tip of the iceberg.
I went with this version to Essen and showed it to several publishers. GaGa Games made the best offer.
I hope that this game becomes a success as I think that it's a really cool pure-diplomacy party game, and the full rules are available on the Gentleman's Deal page here on BGG.
Thank you for reading.
Once upon a time in a kid's movie, I heard an amazing quote:
No dream is too big and no dreamer too small.
And it is so right! Never stop dreaming. But what are dreams really? And how do they affect our lives? I don't know, and in fact I am not so keen to know after all. All I know is that they are awesome and maybe even necessary. Either when sleeping or daydreaming, dreams have a meaning, that's for sure. What affects our dreams? Do they depict our inner shelf, or are they affected by our everyday experiences? So many unanswered questions, but I won't analyze it anymore. I could write about dreams all day long!
Instead I will write about my first to-be-published game: When I Dream. As you probably already understand, I like dreams a lot! There was also a time that I was even keeping a diary of my dreams — but I also like board games, too. In my free time, when I do not play, I am constantly thinking about themes that can be transferred into board games.
First, let me tell you a bit about my game. When I Dream is a party game in which each round one player becomes the Dreamer and puts on a sleeping mask for the two minutes of the round. The other players become the Dream Spirits, and in those two minutes, they draw dream cards, one at a time, and try to help the Dreamer guess the words on those cards. The fun part, though, is that some of the spirits are naughty and want to confuse the Dreamer to guess wrong! So let's take it from the beginning...
I participated in the sixth Greek board game design contest in 2015 with two games, and I had such a great time! I met great people who I admire and they sat to play my games, so I knew that I couldn't miss the 7th design contest in 2016. I had a game already prepared, but then I came up with the idea of a dreamy party game! My closest friends aren't hardcore gamers, so I decided to create a game to play with them, and if it turned out to be good enough, I would participate in the contest with this game, too. And the ''music'' for my game would be… what else… dreams! But I needed to create the ''lyrics'' — the mechanisms — of the game.
The first idea was that one player would be sleeping, of course. A cloth mask would be great for keeping his eyes closed and it fit the theme. The other players would try to describe things that appear in his sleep and are parts of his dream, and that is the idea I started with.
"But it would be too easy to identify the dream if his teammates spoke clearly, so what about his teammates giving fewer clues? Maybe one word each, this could maybe work… Still though, it would be very easy to find what he is dreaming about… Oh, that's it! Some players will try to confuse him! Great!"
With all these things spinning into my mind, I gathered some friends to have the first playtest. To do that, I used the cards from the game Hedbanz. There were four players, and each card had a word and an image. I also picked someone to be the "bad" guy who would try to confuse the dreamer — and it actually worked quite well!
The following day I started working on the game, writing down words to make my own cards. I wrote three full pages with possible words. Oh my god, my choices were endless! I could put every single word that came to my mind, but then I thought better of it and reduced them by keeping only words that could be guessed with just two or three clues. You see, when your eyes are closed, it is not so easy to guess correctly, especially with someone trying to confuse you. Let's take for example the word "watermelon". If you hear the clue words "fruit-summer-red", you can easily guess it, but if you hear "fruit-summer-yellow", then you would probably mistake the item you're supposed to guess as a melon — and that was the point of each card/word. With some thought, the traitors would be able to confuse the dreamer.
After a lot of brainstorming, I made the first prototype consisting of two hundred cards, each with a word and an image found online, then the playtesting began. It was so easy to playtest and to find people willing to play because of the nature of the game. Fast and funny!
Each game had a lot of laughs, and everyone wanted to play again as soon as they finished. People seemed to enjoy it a lot. And through the players you can feel it, too. In the first prototype version, I used a timer app that beeped every five seconds so that no player would take too long to give a clue, an addition that I removed from the base game for later playtests because it confused many players.
After many changes, the game was now as follows: One player closes his eyes with a mask. He is the dreamer of this round. The other players assume the roles of good, bad, and trickster spirits. Every round lasts 120 seconds in which players give clues for cards that the dreamer needs to guess. Every good guess gives points to the good spirits and every bad guess gives points to the bad spirits. Trickster spirits are also a late addition in playtests and maybe the most fun role to play! At the end of the round, the dreamer can storytell his dream for extra points using the cards he guessed.
After months of playtesting, I appeared at the first pre-show of the contest with When I Dream.
Many people playtested the game that day. A designer I admire, Vangelis Bagiartakis, also playtested it and told me the design had great potential. That day Drawlab Entertainment also playtested my game, and they saw that potential in When I Dream, too!
I got a call from Drawlab the following day while I was away for a business trip, and I was ready to jump into the sea from happiness! And when I later heard that the artists of When I Dream would be Vincent Dutrait and Christophe Swal, I was thrilled! I couldn't believe it! I was living in a dream... Later I was approached by other great publishers, but we had already started working with Drawlab and the future looked bright.
The first thing to do was clean up the words according to what worked best and worst in playtesting, which reduced the number of dream words down to 120. This was easy. I also divided the cards into categories. In each playtest I kept changing cards that I found too difficult or too easy. I wanted all the words to be equally hard or easy to describe — goodbye, gravity! — and also to be a single word (goodbye, ejection button).
The final day of the contest was a blast! The convention center was full of people and When I Dream always found players eager to try it out. At the end of the day, the judges awarded When I Dream the third best game of the contest (tied with Motion Pictures, which turned out to be the other SPIEL 2016 release from Drawlab). But even more excitingly, the people showed their love and appreciation, and When I Dream won the people's choice award with an enormous difference from the second-best title! What more can I ask? People's appreciation is something unique!
After a while, the first art samples for the cards arrived. I loved them all, but they were not really what I expected. I was concerned that the piranha was too scary for children who may play the game, the chef too violent with the lobster. We discussed it with Drawlab, who understood what I meant and reassured me that the final art would not be "aggressive" or "violent". They had in mind more surreal and bizarre illustrations, and both Vincent and Christophe were in line with these. The art took a turn to look more dreamy and playful and it was amazing! Every card now is a unique piece of artwork.
Artwork was our main concern from the very beginning as in playtests we saw that players, because of the pressure of time, were giving word clues according to the images they saw in the card. A great example of that is the "boar" prototype card. As you can see, the boar in the prototype card wears a fancy yellow helmet, and this guided many players (maybe one in every two games) to say "helmet", "hat" or "yellow", which has nothing to do with the boar. And the worst part is that those players were not bad spirits. We concluded that a lot of things on each card was the way to go. After all, a dream is weird, right?
Now that the time for our trip to Essen is coming, we have the art of almost all the cards ready. Day by day, we will have more and more before the game goes to the printer. They are big (almost Dixit-sized) with amazing artwork and two different words on each! The game will come with a cloth mask and point tokens. High quality, great artwork, and a lot of fun for the players — exactly what I need for my first published game!
Hope you enjoy the game and never stop dreaming!
What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
It's a bit unusual that I can remember exactly when the first idea for a game popped into my mind, but in this case I can — or rather, for two games. But first things first.
On Thursday, June 7, 2012 I didn't have to go to work early for some reason, but could sleep in. When I slowly woke up without the help of an alarm clock, I had an idea for a game in my head. As my mind became clearer, I realized that a game like that already existed — but at that same moment, a new idea emerged, an idea about a card game in which the players have to fulfill silly tasks with useless items (in a storytelling form). Throughout the day, I pondered on this, and since I usually visit Reinhold Wittig on Friday afternoons to play and chat, I quickly noted a few tasks and items — I think there were about 15 tasks and 45 items — printed them on thin paper, and cut them out.
The next day, I went to Reinhold's place and told him I had brought something that I would like his opinion on, but before it came to that, we chatted about this and that. I wasn't expecting to play the game because it was clearly for three players and up, and at that time, we were usually the only ones at his place. Then the doorbell rang and Reinhold's friend D. showed up – a man in his late seventies, a friendly, but rather serious guy, only slightly interested in games, occasionally playing along, but usually content just watching. Hmm, I thought, maybe this is not a good day to show Reinhold my game. I was slightly disappointed, but the idea was so unrefined that I thought, well, I can give it some more thought until next week and try again. We chatted for a while, and as it got later, Reinhold reminded me I wanted to show him something. I said something like, nah, I don't want to push this on everyone, but he insisted. Then I explained the rules, which took only two or three minutes as the concept was quite simple, and suggested we could try it at the regular Tuesday designer meeting. He wouldn't hear of it, he wanted to try it, and convinced D. to play along. And then the most astonishing thing happened.
More than I had seen him laugh ever before (or since).
Even better, after we finished, we did some brainstorming for additional tasks and items, and he gave many good suggestions. That's when I knew I was really up to something.
I went home thrilled as this had been the best first impression any of my games had left. That night, I wrote to my designer friend Martijn, telling him I made a game in which you have to pick useless items to fulfill weird tasks and the other players had to guess which task you were going for just by seeing these items. I attached a first draft of the rules (just one page long). My excitement knew no bounds...for precisely eleven minutes, when I received his answer: Doesn't this sound a bit like Cat & Chocolate?
Oh no. My idea had been done before, somewhat successfully. My dreams were shattered for a moment, but upon reading more about Cat & Chocolate, I gladly noticed that the games weren't all that similar, despite the similar premise. A few months later, I managed to get hold of a copy and played it, which confirmed my belief that these games are different enough. To make sure not to get too close, I decided to stay away from any voting mechanism, although it was occasionally suggested by playtesters.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to play my prototype quite a lot in the next few weeks, with different player counts and different audiences. Everyone loved it, and the list of tasks and items grew. For the fifth play, I added a small mechanism to keep everyone more engaged during all parts of the game: a risk element (the option to interrupt the player choosing items to make an early bet). That was the last major change to the game for some years.
After that, I focused on refining the cards. It turned out that players tended to use quite different items in the same way — anything that was long and stick-shaped was used as a long stick, for example, no matter whether it was a broom or a fishing rod — so I had to make sure that I had a good selection of different items and tasks. I almost didn't have time for this at all because Reinhold had already told a publisher about the game, and that publisher wanted to see a prototype. I rushed one out to them, then the unromantic part about being a game designer started: Sending out a prototype, waiting for an answer, rinse and repeat. I got very nice responses from various publishers, but none were biting.
In the meantime, I played the game many more times and got plenty of suggestions from playtesters, but in the end, the core of the game remained the same. One frequent remark was that it was a pity there was no mechanism to reward the best stories with extra points. However, I noticed that the people who cared about good stories most weren't all that interested in the points, while the point lovers were fine with any kind of story (plus, I wanted to avoid a voting system, see above). Both groups can play together perfectly well, so I only added a variant and left the standard game intact.
I got about five rejections from publishers, and one initially positive reply about which I was very happy. Alas, it wasn't to be. In Nürnberg in 2014, the publisher told me that they had run into some difficulties through no fault of their own, and they wouldn't be able to publish my game in either 2014 or 2015, so they encouraged me to try other publishers first. They also told me about this French publisher in a booth across from theirs, and the game might be just what he was looking for.
So I walked over and met Franz of Le Droit de Perdre, a small French publisher of mostly communication games. He asked me to show him the prototype later (he was expecting someone at that moment), and we agreed on a time. Now I had to find someone to help me pitch the game, because the easiest way of explaining it is to just start playing, and we needed a third person for that. I had someone in mind, but that someone had to leave unexpectedly just before the appointment, so another designer came with me spontaneously. I was so relieved and grateful that I failed to properly inform him that this wouldn't be a playtest session, but a publisher pitch. We started playing the game, and the other designer kept making suggestions for changes instead of just playing along, which wasn't exactly what I needed at that moment...but I got a rather enthusiastic response from Franz anyway. Things seemed to be moving forward fast, and eventually I promised the French language rights to the game to him. Franz was a great person to meet, and we exchanged countless emails and sometimes spent a few hours talking on Skype (and he recently even stopped by my house for dinner and gaming). However, he kept thinking about changes because he essentially wanted a game that could be played right out of the box. I wasn't entirely convinced that this could be done, but he kept coming up with interesting ideas, so we kept the idea alive. He also thought of a cool French name: Débrouille-toi. Can't translate that properly as it's an expression that doesn't have an elegant counterpart in German, and I won't even try in English. Maybe some of those French speakers around here can help out...
Meanwhile, I hadn't made any progress for any languages other than French (which I don't know too well, so I won't be able to play the French edition myself). When the Göttingen Designer Gathering came around in early June 2014, I pitched the game to a few other publishers. This included some notable talks, such as two editors from the same publishing company arguing about the right way to deal with a game like this right in front of me.
And then there was an invitation to talk to K. from Vennerød. This time, I made sure the person joining me knew the situation (and the game) well. I did what I always do during those publisher pitch talks: I explained the basic idea for a minute or so, then set up a sample turn to show the game flow (really the easiest way of showing a game like this). I drew a task, picked some items for it, then the guy I had brought along made a guess and elaborated on what he thought I'd be doing (the essential storytelling part), which was great. Now it was K.'s turn. He mumbled something like, "I think you are trying to do this and that." No story. Silence. Then: "Sorry, but I hate this kind of game."
Here are the thoughts that I processed in the following second-and-a-half: Oh great, this isn't going well at all. Does the only really negative response have to happen at this very moment? Maybe the game sucks and my 100-odd playtesters have just been polite to me?
And then he continued: "You know, I personally like meaty games that take three or four hours to play. I just can't stand party games, but I think the game is good. I will have to discuss this with my partners before making any decisions. Could we meet with them in Essen?"
Fast forward to October, SPIEL 2014. I was able to go there only briefly that year, but at least I could go together with my wife (a rare opportunity). We met K. in a cafeteria that was otherwise mostly empty, but he had brought a couple of other Norwegian fellows to have a look, so we played a round while he was watching. The usual raucous laughter ensued, and the players wanted to do another round. Afterwards he thanked me and said he would need another week to make up his mind — which he did within three days, and it was a yes. I was obviously delighted.
2015 was a less than an ideal year for me. I got severely ill and spent several months in the hospital, and I wasn't always able to think clearly, but we stayed in contact, working out a contract, and began to discuss some details. I learned soon that the game wouldn't make Essen in 2015, and in retrospect I am not unhappy about that because when Essen came around, I was still not strong enough to go (although I was recovering). On the other hand, the thought of holding the finished game in my hands seemed a good enough reason to stay alive.
Prototype box; one editor regretted that no chocolate was inside
The game still lacked a name (for the English/German version). Until then, my prototype had been called "Impossible!?", but from early on, we had agreed on finding something better. Lots of ideas were flying around, but we didn't come up with anything really fitting. In desperation, I remembered what happened when my last game had needed a name, so this time I contacted Kathleen directly. She promised to do a brainstorming session in some of her game design classes in St. Louis. Next thing I knew, I was online watching a Google Doc grow as her students threw ideas at her, which she then speed-typed into the file. There were literally hundreds of suggestions, some quirky, some good, some outright strange. While she was typing, I marked those that I liked especially and tried to explain why, so the students could get a better idea of my thinking. It was a great experience, and I had never done anything this before — the magic of the internet.
Yet when we were done, there were a suggestion from Kathleen herself still sitting at the top of the document, and that was "Mission Impractical". The more I stared at the title, the more it grew on me, and in the end, we settled on it. For those of you who haven't seen Kathleen's GeekLists about her students' designs, do check them out as they are very well worth reading.
I met with K. again in Nürnberg in early 2016, and from this time onward, the project picked up speed. He showed me some works from Gjermund Bohne, the artist he had in mind, and those looked good to me. SPIEL 2016 was set as the publishing date, and I had something to look forward to. K. also gave me some homework: I was to make some suggestions for a cover motif. I am a horrible artist myself, so this is really something I was a bit unsure about, but I regarded it as an interesting challenge and sent in three suggestions.
Another while later, planning with Franz intensified. He suggested making a cooperative game out of Débrouille-toi, which wasn't something I had ever contemplated. Ideas went back and forth, I went back to playtesting and noticed that it was very cool, too — but at this point I finally realized that my original game wouldn't just see two different editions with different artwork, but two different games with the same basic idea. In other words, when I had woken up on that morning almost exactly four years earlier, I hadn't invented one, but two games. Débrouille-toi doesn't have a BGG entry or a publication date yet, but I am very excited about it, too.
The day after I had gotten the suggestion from Franz, Gjermund sent some thumbnails from which to choose a motif. They contained my suggestions but also several more. While number 4 looked great, 2 and 10 captured the spirit of the game best. Hard to decide – but in the end, we went with number 2, partly because of the box format. We discussed some minor tweaks, and in my opinion, Gjermund did an outstanding job — so much so that I tried to copy it. What do you think?
From then on, we worked on the details: component design, rules layout and some changes here and there, box back text, and so on. I felt involved in every step, which was a very pleasant experience. Some designers might be glad to not have to worry about stuff like this, but I was used to not having much of a clue what a publisher was doing to my designs, and I much prefer the more cooperative effort.
Now Mission Impractical is at the printers, and I am keeping all my available fingers crossed that it will make it to Essen in time for the fair.
W. Eric Martin
In January 2016, I tweeted the following from the Spielwarenmesse trade fair in Nürnberg, Germany:
Many people were thrilled by this announcement, but they jumped on the short playing time as cause for concern given the nature of the original video game that inspired the design of Master of Orion: The Board Game from Ekaterina Gorn and Igor Sklyuev. Me, I had never played the video game, so I had no idea what might be missing. (I sometimes feel like I should investigate what's happening in the video game industry, but I can't even keep up with everything related to board and card games, so why would I divide my time on something else? Give me all the info!)
Thankfully, in the run-up to the game's worldwide debut at SPIEL 2016 in October, publisher Hobby World offered to send me an advance copy of the game for previewing in this space, so now those who have already mastered Orion in other venues can see how this new game compares to the original. Let's lead with a component shot, followed by an overview video based on three playings of the game:
Sat Sep 17, 2016 12:20 am
My son and co-designer Matt has described the tortuous process by which Pax Renaissance was forged as a game. Now I want to describe how philosophy has shaped this game, as well as my own life. Yes, the birth of a new kind of game is reflected in my own decades-long intellectual renaissance. This journey, lasting almost as long as the historical Renaissance, includes my schooling, arguments with friends and enemies, and my big move to Europe.
My overarching vision was to explore how the medieval world was replaced by Western society, notorious for subsequently conquering the entire globe. This globalization of Western ideas and power occurred in a brief exciting period called the Renaissance. Certain personal events influenced the game concepts of trade routes, republics, the Inquisition, the Reformation, class warfare, theocracies, and the great East/West dichotomy.
The Novels of Dorothy Dunnett
A college girlfriend shared with me a series of historical novels called "The House of Niccolò". Niccolò is a boy of humble origins, an unacknowledged son working as an apprentice in a Flanders dye shop, but he is good with figures, and with this strength goes on to found a banking empire, with its own troop of mercenaries, couriers, cryptographers, notaries, insurers, and one great galley. Everything pivots around trade with the Far East and secret deals with the Ottomans who controlled the routes to the East.
The novels described a surprisingly modern world of banks and capitalism. It shattered my vague impression that the Renaissance bankers were nobility making their fortunes with interests on royal loans. Instead vast fortunes were made with large amounts of small loans to merchants and commoners, while simultaneously avoiding the unwanted attentions of royals who could demand money backed by the force of arms. The novels describe the historical Medici oath forbidding both lending to royals (since kings had no incentive to pay back) and avoiding holding public offices to stay in the private sector. Since the bankers were commoners with no rights and vulnerable to forced "loans", they could survive only in places where the warlords held no power, i.e., the guild-run city-states of Italy and Flanders.
The series, written by a polymath named Dorothy Dunnett, are fiction, but they mesh closely with what is known about the lives of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, one of the unheralded heroes of civilization, and his son Cosimo. The stories of the banking houses of Fugger, Welser, and Cœur are similar. They would become starting player roles.
In high school, I became friends with a strange kid with a German father and Hungarian mother. We had heated discussions about politics, I defending democracies and he dictatorships. It was during these arguments that I found myself defending things that were really indefensible. For the first time, I began to distinguish democracies (rule by the majority) from republics (rule by natural law), and began to defend the latter. It became apparent that powers as diverse as Rome and the USA accomplished much while they were republics, then declined sharply thereafter. And then I had the revelation that the Renaissance originated in the only spot on the entire globe that could be called a republic. The Doges were figureheads, there was no supreme dictator, and the rule was a rule of law.
Nobody Expects This
An important relic of medievalism during the Renaissance was the Inquisition. During this period, it targeted largely Jews. I first struggled with the bizarre phenomenon of anti-Semitism when my aforementioned best buddy got married to a lovely Jewish girl and immediately became estranged from his German family. At first I was convinced this was a religious war, up to and including the Holocaust — but the problem was that Hitler did not seem like a Jesus freak. Why target Jews? And what hidden stream of resentment had he tapped into, in a Western society no less? "Jews are like crows, picking the bones of the fallen", one college friend told me. Another friend was a disciple of the Rothschild-Jewish conspiracy theory. Even some of my seemingly rational partners today still soberly tell me that bankers secretly run the world to the distress of everyone else. I came to realize that this bizarre hatred was aimed against the profession of banking. Thomas Sowell calls this irrationality the "middleman prejudice".
It was only for incidental historical and doctrinal reasons that Jews became bankers and moneylenders, both in the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Europe. These professions have always unpopular, further exacerbated by government propaganda by those who are always looking for ways to subjugate and exploit bankers. From the Renaissance kings, to the Nazi regime, to the modern politicians, bankers and other middlemen are portrayed as greedy and heartless — unless subjugated to the divine right of kings to confiscate their earnings, right down to the fillings of their teeth, as frequent Inquisitions and Holocausts demonstrate.
Banks Then And Now
During the Renaissance, there were attempts to set up public banks using tax money. The rulers hoped to become as rich as the private bankers, but all the central banks failed within months. Today's World Bank is not a bank but a political bureaucracy run by politicians and funded by tax dollars, one that has clearly outlived whatever usefulness it may have allegedly had. Someday I may do a Pax game in modern Mexico, so post-Porfiriana, showing an optimistic future under private banks rather than the World Bank.
Two of the starting bankers: Medici and Marchionni
My Jesuit Training
I was trained by Jesuits. "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man" is the Jesuit maxim. (In my case, the man produced was a fundamentalist atheist — not the desired result, however.) In any case, the salient point here is that the Jesuits were specifically established during the Renaissance as the ideological shock troops of the counter-Reformation. They were trained like Jedi knights to bring down Luther and his heresies, So I had to read a lot of material on Luther in high school, including his rampant anti-Semitism and his role against the peasants in the Great Peasant Revolt. All these features and events would appear in the game.
One of my colleagues at the rocket factory introduced me to Will Durant, whose life's work was the documenting the story of civilization. I enjoyed Durant's in-depth style, and quoted him copiously throughout the game's footnotes.
Lords of the Renaissance From Below
My readings inspired my game Lords of the Renaissance, published in 1996. As Matt has mentioned, this game used a big map with trade routes that generated the economy. The routing of the trade routes determined which nations grew rich and powerful, and which withered. Tableau cards determined which lands and which offices you held. Like the earlier game Lords of the Sierra Madre, the revolutionary part of the game was that it was "bottom up" rather than "top down". In other words, the players were neither nations or national leaders. They were instead commoners struggling to influence the royals to their advantage.
This "bottom up" perspective is one of the hardest things to describe to newcomers of the Pax games. Q: "Why don't I get the income from taxes?" A: Because you are just a banker, not a tax collector. Q: "How can he move and burn me with my own inquisitors?". A: You may have funded the creation of these zealots, but you aren't the Pope. Q: "Wait, my pirates should give the stuff they steal to me." A: You are not a pirate captain and those are not your pirates. Q: "I paid for those knights; I don't want them joining the crusade." A: Those aren't the droids you're looking for.
The Renaissance is defined by the new merchant class overthrowing the old warlord classes of knights, kings, and pawns. Therefore, class warfare had be at the core of Pax Renaissance. I hit upon the idea of assigning cards to chess pieces. The knights, bishops, pawns, and kings of the medieval world would be represented by chess icons, and the game would feature the struggles among them. A way to show a class as being suppressed or enslaved was devised. These were envisioned as seething in discontent, ready to revolt at any sign of weakness by the ruling class.
The represented classes are medieval. Most are agents of force: the kings, queens, knights, bishops, and castles. Others, represented as chess pawns in the game, are those who earn their way in the world by their products and services, what we would call today the business class. This includes not only serfs but also the new emergent class of merchants and bankers. It is suggestive that these capitalist classes emerged in entrepôts furthest from the influence of kings and nobles, such as the Italian city-states.
In 2004, I met Nicole, a medical student (and boardgamer) from Karlsruhe, Germany. We were both on vacation in New Zealand at the time. We began a long distance relationship, while struggling to learn each other's language. Inevitably, we searched for a way to shorten the ocean between us. Initially I thought she could move to Arizona and become a doctor. The alternative, me moving to Germany, was lightyears out of my comfort zone. I would be in a village with no English speakers other than Nicole, but on the bright side I might become more cosmopolitan, more multicultural. My tiny business Sierra Madre Games would become one of those multinationals so maligned by anticapitalists. Germany was undoubtedly the global center of non-computer games, always good for business, and Europe was the epicenter for the start of the Western society, a topic of continued fascination for me. After many vacillations, in 2013 I took early retirement from the rocket factory and boarded a one-way 747 to Frankfurt, Germany.
I now live in a village overlooking the Rhine two hundred kilometers west of Augsburg, the Renaissance center of the Welser and Fugger bankers. This was at the birth of privately earned wealth, and Jakob Fugger was judged in a recent study to be the richest man in history. I have a documentary on his life called "Kauf dir einen Kaiser" (Buy yourself a Caesar). But ask yourself, who really holds the power, the man with the purse or the man with the sword? I learned that the vast Fugger fortune would come to be simply seized by the emperor.
Market shown at set-up, with the East market in the upper row and the West in the lower row
Once in Germany, my experience of various cultures expanded greatly. My best friends here in Germany are a refugee couple from Iran. I was able to obtain firsthand information about theocracies, those governments where church and state are intertwined. Theocracies were to be at the heart of the game's holy victories, and the means by which to implement the Reformations, crusades, and jihads of their time. I needed to know, for instance, how militaristic and aggressive theocracies are compared to dictatorships.
The status and treatment of women is a telltale difference between The East and The West. Much of the hatred of Eastern regimes is directed toward the Western idea that women are independent agents not forced to submit to societal needs. Before her escape from Iran, a friend of mine was imprisoned for the crime of working at a secular kindergarten. Both she and her boyfriend have since renounced Islam and become atheists. If forced to return to Iran, a possibility given her visa status, she could be stoned. She tells me it is illegal to be happy in Iran, referring to an incident in which teenagers innocently dancing to the western music called "Happy" were whipped and imprisoned. By the way, she is an artist and painted a small element on the game box.
East and West
So why am I so fascinated with Western society? So much of today's world is taken for granted. Supermarkets, bank accounts, private auto and jet travel, cheap housing with electricity and flush toilets, the industrial revolution, the current food glut from the green revolution — all these are gifts bequeathed by industrialists trained in Western-style logic and reason. The Western basis of thinking originated with Aristotle in Athens and was preserved by thinkers in Rome and Alexandria. Lost in Europe's dark ages, the scholarly tradition continued in Constantinople and Baghdad. As the Islamic world entered its own dark ages just before the Renaissance, it migrated west once again. This westward migration of Aristotle's ideas heralded the Italian Renaissance, as exemplified in the largely secular University of Padua, which counts Copernicus and Galileo among its alumni.
Just Where Are the East and the West?
The decision to make separate East and West decks solved a serious game conundrum: how to reasonably restrict a card's influence. Restricting a range of operations to just one empire out of ten failed the playability test. Making a card range over the entire map failed the realism test. Letting a card influence just the East or just the West was in the goldilocks zone — but the next question that arises: What do we mean by "The East" or "The West"? Is the difference geographical, religious, or philosophical?
Although for the range of operations the game describes the East and West in geographical terms, it fundamentally defines the two as opposing philosophic and cultural dispositions. For this reason, Western cards can be located in the East and vice versa. More on this in my closing paragraphs.
Pax Pamir To The Rescue
By 2014, Pax Renaissance was in deep trouble. Matthew and I had attempted eight major iterations of the game, some baselined on his ideas and some on mine. Each attempt foundered on the rocks of too much ambition. The ten-empire map scale was so huge that players had little hope of obtaining even two cards in the same empire. This made almost all the operations enabled by a tableau card useless. Now even the most diehard playtesters were losing interest. Without playtesters, the project was dying.
I made an executive decision and shelved the game, concentrating instead on Cole Wehrle's new project, Pax Pamir. Cole was tackling the same problems I was, with more success. In particular, Cole was able to integrate all three game arenas: the Market, the Tableaus, and the Map. However, late in the process and with little time left until the publication deadline, Pax Pamir failed in Matthew's playtest. His players were unable to figure out whether campaigns or other operations would succeed or fail unless they examined each card of their opponent's tableaus, which brought the game to a standstill. Previous playtesters, including me, had noted a problem, but were unable to identify its source. Matthew did.
Afraid the project would fail, I made an emergency Skype call to Cole in Texas. I was full of trepidation because I recall working with another game designer who refused to alter a design, and thus it never got published. To my utter relief, Cole was unflustered by a major late redesign. In fact, he quickly grasped the problem and took the redesign lead. His game proved immensely popular, in fact the fastest-selling Sierra Madre game.
The next step in my secret plan was to scrap the rules and cards of Pax Renaissance and start with Pax Pamir rules and cards as a new baseline — basically plagiarize Cole's ideas of Market/Tableau/Map integration wholesale and steal his mechanisms of a closed economy and operations icons, then backfill this with the core ideas of Pax Renaissance, ideas like trade routes, imperial military strength coupled with custom fees from those trade routes, theocracies and republics indicated by special cards, class warfare, etc. I pleaded with burned-out playtesters, finally getting together a fresh team in Italy.
On Location Pax Renaissance
I owe a lot to Stefano and his Italian team of playtesters. Living where it all began, they made sure I got the details right. The one from Genoa was fit to throttle me when I made Columbus and Doria into pirates. Decisions on what to name the empires were filled with landmines. My indecision regarding what to call the Iberian peninsula was brought directly under fusillades from both Castilians and Portuguese. Ditto between Hungarians and Polish-Lithuanians.
Pax Renaissance trade map: theocracy
What Are the Differences Between the East and the West?
By "Western thought", I mean an epistemology that upholds reason (i.e., observation and logic) as man's means of knowledge. By "Eastern thought", I mean a reliance on mystical sources of knowledge. As a consequence, Western cultures tend to uphold the value of the individual, particularly independence and free thought, while Eastern cultures suborn individuals to group and collectivist thinking. Three examples common in the East but vanquished by Western efforts are arranged marriages, the caste system, and slavery. Western philosophy since John Locke views leaders as just one of many, subject to the same rules as everyone else, while the leader assumes supreme status in the East. Western discourse is marked by candor, frankness, and honesty, while discussing something as basic and important as child birth or sex is still a taboo in the East. Western decisions are concerned with this world, while Eastern ones are concerned with the next. Economic freedoms, especially capitalism, are enjoyed in the West (even if largely unappreciated), while they are reviled in the East. Western medicine relies on analytical approaches, while that of the East relies on holistic approaches.
To repeat, these generalities are derived from the reason versus mysticism premises of individuals and are not associated with any location or place of origin. To say it another way, any style of thinking that suborns the individual to society, instead of the other way around, is what I am characterizing as "Eastern".
Eastern Versus Western Medicine
My wife is a doctor, and the fight to exclude pseudoscience from medicine is a daily one for us. I define "pseudoscience" as any attempt to substitute anything other than observation and logic as a source of knowledge. I am not saying that alternative medicine and Eastern holism is worthless, but that it must satisfy the same Aristotelian standards as anything else to qualify as knowledge. In particular, it must specify a causal chain to actually qualify as a scientific treatment.
Physical causality is conspicuously missing in claims for acupuncture, aural fields, bloodletting, voodoo doll treatments, etc. This debate is as active today as it was in the Renaissance.
Wars of Politics, Wars of Philosophy
Besides class warfare (conspiracies and peasant revolts), Pax Renaissance also represents political and philosophical wars. The former — wars chiefly fought to enhance the power and vainglory of the kings and rulers — are represented by "campaigns". This game mechanism was copy-pasted from Pax Pamir. The philosophical wars, on the other hand, are represented by crusades, reformations, and jihads.
During the Renaissance, most of the Ottoman Wars against the West were campaigns, concerned over territory, not ideology, but some of them employed jihad, against, for instance, shi'a muslims.
The Allied invasion of occupied Europe in WWII is an example of a modern philosophical war. My evidence comes from an informal poll made of my neighbors and relatives here in Germany. All of them, including even those who actually fought in the war, consider D-Day to be an honorable action. Where else in the world can you find such overwhelming support for invading foreigners? The reason is that the invasion is regarded as ideological, not a grab for power or territory.
D-Day was fought between Western powers, yet I would argue that the National Socialists in control of Germany followed Eastern ideals of individuals as pawns of society. Our family copy of Mein Kampf, issued to us during the war, is full of phrases stating that there is no higher good than to die for the Fatherland. "Du bist nichts, Dein Volk ist alles" (You are nothing, your race is everything).
The Eastern idea of individuals sacrificing themselves for their society has persisted from the Janissary and Mamluk slave-soldiers to more modern Kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. The latter are used in today's Muslim ideological war targeting Western values. I write this in the wake of terrorist attacks in Nice, France, about 840 km south of here, and in Munich, about 300 km to the east. The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks — three days of terror in Paris — demonstrated that I personally can be killed for what I have stated and depicted on several Pax Renaissance cards.
This war is between anyone in the West and those who are trained to hate the West, everything from miniskirts to individual liberties. Trained by regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to express their hatred with bombs. As a religion, Islam is not so different from Christianity. Indeed, they are treated identically in the game. However, most Christians have since been tempered in their fundamentalism by the Western Enlightenment. The Muslims who I am speaking of have not been so enlightened.
Frankly, I am scared. Frightened enough not to publish the names of friends of mine in my article. Those in the USA who snigger at my fear should remember that the death tolls are hundreds of times higher here than in the states, and that two of my closest friends are victims in this war. In order to fight, those who believe in Western values must acknowledge that we are at war. If you forget everything else I have written, remember that.
W. Eric Martin
Non-existent, and no, that's not a game titled "Non-existent" but the actual lack of a game.
Each year since 2004 brothers Gordon and Fraser Lamont have released one title through their Fragor Games brand, each title seemingly larger and odder than the last. A Game of Gnomes from 2015, for example, included the self-described "most ludicrous piece in boardgaming history", and I think you'd be hard-pressed to come up with other contenders. People speculated that given the Lamontian desire to raise eyebrows ever further, you might need a hand trolley or perhaps even a miniature forklift for the Fragor 2016 release, but now everyone can claim to own it while requiring absolutely no luggage space to bring it home.
That said, the Lamonts do have something in the works, and I'll let Gordon take it from here:
We got the opportunity in 2010 of working with a particular license. For reasons unrelated to us, it did not go further at that time. Now, with the advent of Kickstarting, the opportunity of using the license became possible again around last Essen. This makes a change for 2016 in how we will finance/sell the game. It means that our 2016 game will be Kickstarted rather than sold at Essen...
In the near future, we will make a major announcement regarding a license. We are absolutely thrilled to be involved with it.
Just to be clear, what we are planning for 2016 is a "true Kickstarter" project. Basically, it would not have happened but for the development of Kickstarting. This was demonstrated in 2010!
More news regarding the license follows soon. It's exciting. It fits. But the game will not be a traditional Essen release. Let the uninformed speculation begin…!
W. Eric Martin
Uwe Rosenberg's Patchwork debuted in 2014 to thunderous approval, with most players enjoying the challenge of managing their money and fitting together polyomino tiles to create an aesthetic (and high-scoring) cardboard quilt while denying their opponent the chance to do the same. (Here's my overview of Patchwork if you're not familiar with this excellent two-player game.)
When new German publisher Edition Spielwiese announced that it would debut at SPIEL 2016 with Rosenberg's Cottage Garden, at first glance — as shown in the "work in progress" image below — the game appeared like it would be the second coming of Patchwork, but now playable by up to four people.
Artwork in progress
While Cottage Garden indeed features polyomino tiles, the game otherwise has little in common with Patchwork. In the game, each player tries to complete flowerbeds in order to score points. Each flowerbed is a 5x5 grid with some arrangement of flower pots and plant covers (domes placed over plants to protect them from weather), and each player starts with two flowerbeds.
One of eighteen flowerbed designs
The game includes 36 flower tiles, with each tile having 1-6 squares in area; sixteen of these tiles, chosen at random, are placed on the 4x4 nursery board (with one side being for four players and the other for 1-3 players), while the remaining twenty are placed in a queue. A gardener die is placed next to the nursery. On a turn, a player selects either a flower tile from the row in front of the gardener (as shown in the image below) or a flower pot (with these being piled in a supply near the nursery), then adds the tile or pot to their flowerbed, then advances the gardener. (Shades of Kupferkessel Co. or Maori for those who recall those Günter Burkhardt designs.) If the row in front of the gardener is empty or nearly so at the start of your turn, you first add tiles to that row from the queue so that you'll have more choices.
Select a tile from this row or take a flower pot
Each player starts the game with two cat tokens (each only one square in area), and you can place a cat in a flowerbed at any time. (And no, you're not planting cats to raise pussy willows! You're merely encouraging them to sleep on the warm earth.) If after you place a tile, pot or cat your flowerbed has no visible dirt spaces, you then score that flowerbed; for each visible flowerpot, you advance one of your three orange scoring cubes one space on your flowerpot scoring path, and for each visible plant cover, you advance one of your three blue scoring cubes one space on your plant cover scoring path. Each space you advance on the flowerpot path is worth one point — except for the final space, which jumps from 15 to 20 points. Similarly, each plant cover is worth two points, except for the final one that moves you from 14 to 20 points.
Each time you score, you can move any cube of the appropriate color, but all movement must be applied to the same cube. If you cross the mouse line on a scoring path, i.e., have more than six points in either color, then you receive a free cat token.
After scoring your flowerbed, you discard it, lay the flower tiles used in it at the end of the queue, and start anew on another one so that you always have two flowerbeds in progress.
When the sixth round begins (or the fifth round with 1-2 players), you're nearing the end of the season, so you need to complete your remaining flowerbeds as quickly as possible. As long as you hold an unfilled flowerbed, you lose two points at the start of your turn — which could bump you off the 20-point endspace on the scoring track if you haven't moved other cubes along to give yourself a cushion as winter approaches. When everyone has completed their flowerbeds or the season has ended, everyone scores points based on the location of their scoring cubes and whoever has the highest score wins.
In Patchwork, you're trying to be as efficient as possible, leaving no holes behind as you lay down the cloth; in Cottage Garden, on the other hand, you want those holes because that's almost the only way you'll score points! You need to decide — over and over again as you stare at the nursery and look ahead to see which tiles might still be available for you on future turns — how quickly you want to fill those flowerbeds. Grab a huge tile now that covers a pot or plant cover, or take something small and hope to fill the gap later? Maybe you instead adopt the Colorado model and rely on a pot-centric approach that fills a flowerbed one square at a time until something perfect comes available in the nursery. Groovy, man!
Pax Porfiriana was an experimental revamp of The Lords of the Sierra Madre. The goal was to take my father's game — in all its sprawling, turbulent, cutthroat, and ethically-dubious glory — and refine and distill it until it was palatable to modern gaming tastes. This distillation was a success beyond any expectation and allowed us to explore some of the more political and social goals of the major players in the time period rather than merely the economic ones. That success also paved the way for a proposed "Pax" series of games, each with similar basic mechanisms, but each attempting to capture a slice of history and culture with unique rules and cards.
We knew that the second Pax game would be the most important. It would define which parts of Pax Porfiriana would become pervasive and pass down to its heirs, and which would be ephemeral, utilized only in the context of turn-of-the-century Mexico.
The Next Pax
I wanted Pax Renaissance to be that second Pax game for many reasons. First, it would follow the proven evolution of Lords-game-into-Pax-game formula as Phil had published Lords of the Renaissance long ago (1996). Second, it seemed like a lush topic on which a Pax game could explore fundamentally new themes above and beyond the dark entrepreneurship and skullduggery captured in Porfiriana, themes like commerce versus monarchy, religion versus empiricism, and religion versus… well… religion. And last, while an astonishing number of games about the European Renaissance had been published, not a single one seemed to include the Eastern cultures/empires/influences, let alone explore the fascinating interactions both within the Eastern empires and between the Eastern and Western world. At the same time that the kings of the west were trying to preserve their nations from bellicose neighbors, rebellious constituents, and eccentric Popes, so too were the sultans, viziers, and shahs of the east trying to navigate dangerous waters fraught with tax revolts, religious schisms, western crusades, and the Golden Horde. As Cole Wehrle reminds me in a comment he appended to a draft of this piece, it is important not to get bogged down in the East versus West paradigm, and completely ignoring the contributions, as well as the trials and tribulations, of the East is really just falling into that trap.
The Ottoman Empire was particularly conspicuous in its absence. The single most important and powerful political entity during perhaps the single most important time in Western history is an almost complete no-show in the game-o-sphere. Pure madness… madness that had to be addressed. Making sure there was going to be an "East Deck" that concentrated on all of the interesting events and characters in Turkey, Egypt, and the dying Byzantine Empire was of critical importance to me from the get-go.
Other basic but historical ideas captured in Lords of the Renaissance would remain goals for Pax Renaissance, and often proved elusive. The actual geography of trade moving from East to West had to be simulated. Constantinople was the most important city on the continent for centuries due to its geographical location: the crossroads of Black Sea and Mediterranean trade. Simultaneously, trade needed to be linked to military power. Empires taxed trade in order to fuel their military development. This went hand in hand with the rise of paid and professional armies, as well as mercenary armies and fleets that could lend their services far and wide. Individual cities needed to be able to change religions so that reformations, conversions, and schisms could be tracked. Pirates needed to be a force of commercial annoyance and political instability, yet be resilient to destruction by traditional military attack. We would later compromise on a rule allowing local military or mercenaries to destroy pirates (via Siege) but prevent empires from doing so (via Campaign). Perhaps most importantly, in order to fit the Pax mold, new means of victory above and beyond economic, needed to be forged.
Pax Renaissance was conceived before Pax Porfiriana was sent to the presses. The phrase "Pax Renaissance" was first used in an email from me to Phil and Jim Gutt (co-designer of PaxP) in August 2012, bemoaning the continuing small tweaks to Porfiriana and wondering when we could turn our attentions elsewhere.
I had Phil email me an Excel card roster for Lords of the Renaissance in October and began development. The actual digital files for the card layouts were in a format long forgotten by modern computing, but the card list was an excellent starting point for high points in the history of the era. I had a preliminary prototype together pretty quickly, but it was an awkward expansive mess that wasn't a substantial departure from Lords of the Renaissance in terms of playability. It had a big map, it had cards for individual cities and buildings, it distinguished galleys and roundships and caravans, it had complex interwoven trade routes, it had an empire track which stored the relative military capabilities of each empire, it had cards for individual documents and marriages and loans. The status of the reformation, the shi'ia split, and the orthodox schism were all tracked statuses within the game. Every major city, including as many of the awesome little Italian city-states as I could fit, were represented. At 280 cards covering all bases of the era I could think of, it was simply too unwieldy to survive.
Broadening the Time Period, but Narrowing the Scope
Lords of the Renaissance covered Europe from 1460-1499; in my early versions of Pax Ren the date range expanded from 1452 (conquest of Constantinople) to 1499 (Vasco de Gama returns from India) or so. Phil wanted to push the top end of that back even further to include the high points of the reformation (95 Theses 1517, and the Diet of Worms 1521) and even out to the start of the Counter-Reformation (founding of the Jesuits, 1540). This created an ambitious swath of time, territory, and culture. Choosing only the most distinct and important characters and events (even if individually obscure) was an ongoing challenge throughout all iterations of the game. Important topics like art, architecture, invention, and warfare technology had to be set aside entirely to make room in the gamespace for four even more important developments: exploration, reformation, principled law, and meaningful class warfare.
In a later discussion Phil proclaimed, "Look, this is not a game about art!" It would become something of a recurring motto and/or battle cry when things got tough.
Phil and I have a... unique, design process. Our game designs usually sit around as vague ideas with trappings of labor as different projects float in and out of focus. At some point, one of these ideas reaches a threshold of cleverness and becomes compelling enough that we take a real shot at it. Usually one of us is the designer and the other is the primary playtester or developer. In other words, one of us is the creator and the other is the gantlet through which it must pass. My role is usually that of meat grinder. I break Phil's creations. I refocus them. I translate them. I try to cull the fiddly detailed bits so that the game might appeal to more than just Ph.D. candidates — pretty much basic playtester stuff, only meaner and more direct. Sometimes destructive criticism is the name of the game.
Sometimes our roles are reversed. Phil has a slightly different process of development. Instead of breaking my games down, he breaks them up. He'll often passively suggest some totally exotic mechanism that addresses the very core of what I had intended my game to be about (or what the game "should" have been about)… which totally rewrites the paradigm of the game, often fatally.
Once upon a time in the late 1990s, I spent two years in college making a role-playing game about primitive man. It was something of a dungeon crawler clone, but with historically accurate creatures and tools, and the primary goal of the game was family survival. I spent endless hours testing, retesting, and playing this game. My group loved it. I laid it all out, with cards and flavor text and character sheets and everything. I played with Phil one time... one friggin' time... and he comes up with this idea of a "Brain Map" wherein there would be hex tiles that would represent the development of individual words and concepts, and interact with each other.
It was at the same time the best idea I had ever heard and a hopeless destruction of my creation. I could never publish or even play "100,000 BC" again. There was no reason that a realistic role-playing game about cavemen shouldn't have a brain map in it, indeed no reason the brain map shouldn't be the primary focus. The project was scrapped (but Phil's contribution wasn't… it would sprout its wings a decade later in Origins and another decade after that in Neanderthal). The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate that co-designing games, or even having Phil in any way part of your process, is dangerous. I am confident that Neal Sofge, Dr. John Douglas, Jim Gutt, Cole Wehrle, and any of the many others who have developed games with Phil would agree; your ideas and perceptions going into the process might not be the same coming out the other side of the rabbit hole.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a project in which both of us want to be the creators, and we each have a vision for what the end product will be — and that's when it gets ugly. In order to keep things sane and civil we each individually work on the project one at a time. We pass the design back and forth between each other depending on who is tapped out or who has the time and gumption to actually put the work in. We call it "the boulder". Whoever has it has an imperative to be making active progress with the game; whoever doesn't have it gets to be as active as they want to be, either the devil's advocate criticizing and critiquing every step, or the passive playtester, or somewhere in the middle.
The boulder passed from me to Phil sometime in early 2013, and in August of 2013 Phil emailed me the first cards from the second draft of Pax Renaissance.
"This design looks thrilling" are the exact words I sent to him. "I can't wait to play it."
Unfortunately game-wise it was a bit of a dullard. The game revolved around very simple collect and destroy mechanisms, with not a lot of player control or clever, tactical, or sneaky plays to be found. You won by collecting all of the chess pieces. We were both disappointed by the playtests, the boulder passed to me while I attempted revisions, then back to Phil a month later, and so forth and so on.
My wife and I had a second baby. Phil started serious development of Pax Pamir with Cole, as well as Greenland and other projects. Pax Renaissance floundered.
Back to the Drawing Board
By 2014 I was back at it, using my original design as the base and trying to incorporate the better parts of Phil's design with little success. I trimmed the game way down, implemented a class system for the cards the way Phil had with chess pieces, and pushed the game back towards economic competition. In February 2014, I took the resulting hybrid to the Tucson-based Gamesmiths meeting where you present and play your game with local game designers.
It "passed", but only just.
There were plentiful problems and political mechanisms that didn't work. However, the continuing competition for concessions on valuable trade routes while trying to influence neighboring empires and use them to strongarm your competitors worked. Also, the game introduced a procedural conspiracy system wherein conspiracies would appear in the market and develop and "fall" towards their execution, with players able to provide support to either or both sides, or to flip sides at the last second. The game's empire track, combined with a casus belli system in the market, tracked which empires were at war and allowed players to use influence to get other empires to join the battle on either side. It was simple. It worked. It allowed long term and interesting strategies and mischief. Hooray!
Unfortunately I couldn't shake that Phil was right and that the center of my design, indeed its very core, was rooted in wrong questions and ignored the most important echoes of the era.
Much later, the mechanisms above would be replaced with the expansion of the "one-shots" idea to include civil wars, conspiracies, and revolts. With the vital Pax Pamir solutions in place, the game became much more "Pax-like"; long-term tableau and resource development was replaced with a flurry of shorter-ranged events and opportunities. The game's footprint shrunk considerably, the pace accelerated, and it became more tactical. More on this in the next section.
[Note from Phil Eklund: It was really only obvious in retrospect: If you want to have all these game elements in one game, from Reformation to shifting trade routes, the game would have to move at breakneck speed, without time for niceties such as meticulously planned conspiracies and noting who is at war with whom.]
By this time some minor art had been commissioned and paid for, but ultimately I sensed that my efforts weren't going to be fruitful, and back went the boulder in May 2014.
The Third Through Eighth Attempts, and Pax Pamir Saves the Day
The game ping-ponged for the next year or so. Phil's many talented playtesters and comrades sounded off on various iterations. The game continued to evolve with my voice just one of many in the background while Phil labored away. Philosophical discussions about the preconditions for a renaissance and the nature of force and war lit up the Pax Renaissance listserv.
Meanwhile Pax Pamir was released and turned the Pax line of games idea on its head. Cole and Phil had independently solved some of the very issues that plagued Pax Ren. Can a Pax game have a map and bits? How can you handle military and political and religious forces that are not player controlled? How can you incorporate geography, which was so important in Renaissance Europe, into a card game?
But Pamir's successes breathed new hope into the dying Pax Ren project. The creative well on this topic was thoroughly poisoned, with both me and Phil coming to loggerheads on numerous issues, but Pamir stretched the gamespace by introducing an interactive market and ops-based tableau, as well as a simple but evocative bits-and-spaces map. Hope!
At some point in late 2015, Stefano Tiné came aboard as a local resource and a set of eyes not biased by our past failures. We had a productive conversation in January 2016, and it was decided between the three of us that we would give Pax Ren a final push.
Lucky Number Nine
Phil flew across the Atlantic to visit in late February 2016. He was here for two weeks. He brought design number eight, which was quickly dispatched. I asked him whether he was ready to start over. He was ready. I was ready. More importantly we had Chris Peters on the case. Chris is a playtester extraordinaire and has been an important part of every Sierra Madre publication since like American Megafauna or so.
We started scrawling ideas on the blank back pages of the rulebook. It quickly became apparent that many of the physical mechanisms in design number eight were good (like color denoting religion, shape denoting type, and location denoting empire), but they interacted poorly. This meant we could do a full rewrite of the rules but leave the cards mostly intact.
Every night at 9 p.m. or so, after my kids went to sleep, Chris would come over and the three of us would "play" a game of Pax Ren. Night after night we'd make changes, sometimes dramatic ones. At every turn we had to try to remember the focus of the game, that the political and religious systems that dominated the continent for so long were finally vulnerable to attack from below, and that a small slice of independence from those powers could spark enlightenments, reformations, and revolutions.
Sometimes we had to let the gameplay guide the rules. We gave control back to the players. Instead of being liliputians in a land of Imperial giants, the players could gain temporary influence over empires through marriage or regime change and use that power to affect the gamestate. This power is not entirely historical as the bankers were important agents of the Renaissance but less so of the wars therein, but we wanted players to guide history rather than be mere victims of it.
By the time Phil left in March, we had a game. The newest version was sent out to burnt-out playtesters and new groups alike. Stefano helped guide the final touches. Certain issues continued to haunt us (how the hell do we handle pirates!?), but Pax Ren was finally ready for the home stretch of publication.
I have no idea how Pax Ren will be received by the gaming public. It is… unfamiliar. It's a tableau-building game with a market and many interlocking parts and mechanisms, but like both Porfiriana and Pamir, the numerous options that you have to embetter your position are not immediately obvious by just looking at the available cards. Choices have to be made. Opportunities seized. Ambushes sprung.
Do average gamers have the moxy to dive into this fascinating mayhem and try to shape the game to their advantage? It seems unlikely. If the game remains a niche experience like other SMG products, great. But if Pax Ren fails outright, it will not be due to lack of development or effort… or ambition.
I would like to apologize to the following for being left out of either the game, or the above discussion:
• Phil's individual playtesting heroes (you know who you are), and anyone whose contribution to this project I have undersold.
• The following legit empires left out of the game (as empires): Iran, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, Castile, and several Khanates. (Castile and Poland-Lithuania are included on the "other side" of the Empire cards as republics).
• Every amazing church/mosque/monastery/library or other architectural achievement that I charted individually… and every other of the 150 cards cut from my first draft.
• And all the cities and city-states that didn't make the cut. Sorry yo. Once we tied the cities to levies (military pieces), it became important to strictly limit them.
• The Eastern Orthodox Church. Man, we really tried to get you in as an independent religion and not just an offshoot of reformist catholic apostasy. Sorry about that.
• Shi'ah Islam. Basically ditto.
• Empiricism as an alternative to religion. This idea was fundamental to my early designs, that humanity was not necessary fated into a future of religion as the base system of ethics. My perhaps overly-optimistic belief that the age of enlightenment of the 17th century could have come early and overtaken religion sooner was eventually eclipsed by the fact that the class confrontations of Phil's design were more realistic, more compelling, and more meaningful to the average person of that time — certainly more meaningful than the esoteric science versus religion confrontations that wouldn't kick off for another two hundred years.
W. Eric Martin
Publishers send me a fair number of review copies, and while I understand the reason why — the possibility of publicity! — sometimes I appreciate receiving the game simply so that I can play it and write a better description than what was previously included on the BGG game page, as was the case with What's Up, a quick-playing game from Dennis Kirps, Jean-Claude Pellin, and Strawberry Studio that will be available at SPIEL 2016, if not earlier.
What's Up is another example of the minimalist game design style that has been flooding the market since the success of Love Letter, but the gameplay relates more to ye olde Memory game, with players needing to reveal things in order to collect stuff. Here's the revised, far more useful description, followed by a video overview in case you want to see the game in action:
What's Up is a card-flipping game in which you race to collect sets of birds first.
To set up, shuffle the thirty double-sided cards, then lay them out on the table in a grid. Each card features 1-3 birds in one of four colors — red, green, yellow, purple — with the reverse of the card having either the same number of birds in a different color or the same color of birds in a different number. Thus, each number+color combination appears five times in the deck.
On a turn, choose a card in the grid, then flip it over. If you can add it to your collection, do so; if not, return the bird to the grid with the newly revealed side face up. Your goal is to collect sets of birds in a single color, with you needing to take the single bird first, then the pair, then the triplet. The first player to collect 2-4 sets wins, with the number being dependent on the number of players. Watch what others do, remember what was flipped where, and play the odds when deciding to flip the birds!
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