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Designer Diary: Suburbia 5★

Ted Alspach
United States
San Jose
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While designing/developing Suburbia Inc, the first expansion to Suburbia, I was dead set on providing a five-player version of the game as it was something that several people asked for when Suburbia was released. Suburbia Inc was initially tested with five players, and during that time one of the critical discoveries was that the Market board — the big triangle that has the tiles priced below it — needed at least one extra slot for five players.

Five players worked, but it tended to be slower than I was comfortable with. Given that, the production cost of adding wood bits to a non-boxed expansion, and Lookout (the German publisher of Suburbia) questioning the concept of five players — it seems that this isn't so much an issue in Germany; I'll have to look into the cultural reasons at some point — the five-player portion was scrapped from the expansion.

Suburbia Inc was released, people seemed pretty happy with the new borders, bonuses, and challenges, as well as the new set of tiles, but I kept hearing requests for two things: (1) the ability to add a fifth player and (2) even more tiles to keep cities more interesting and unique — and that's what Suburbia 5★ ended up delivering, in a way that combined the two features but allows them to exist separately if players want to. The five-player part was kinda done, but there was this nagging feeling that it could be better. However, I put that aside and focused on the other aspect of the expansion: new tiles.

Tourism Tiles

In this particular case, the theme of the expansion (tourism) was at the forefront. I thought it would make cities much more interesting, if, as in real life, they had a few notable destinations that were unique to each of them, actual reasons you'd want to visit those cities, and as a result, might end up settling there. With that in mind, I set out to create fifty new, unique building tiles that would keep gameplay fresh and even more fun than the base game. For reference, both the base game and Suburbia Inc have at least two copies of each tile, so having unique tiles is indeed something quite different.

I started by listing all of the interesting kinds of tourist traps and landmarks that would be fun to have in your cities. Most of them were real world locations, and a few were amalgamations of some, while others were simply made up because they sounded interesting. As I looked at the list, I realized that having real world buildings next to fake ones just wasn't working, and there's always the possibility that some government bureaucrat would see their local landmark in the game and demand a licensing fee (since we all know they are busy web surfing at work anyway). So the decision was made to rename everything to new names, some of which are puns.

When figuring out the attributes of the tiles, the first thing to do was to assign them a color. (In Suburbia, each color represents a major "kind" of building: Blue for Commercial, Green for Residential, Yellow for Industrial, and Gray for Civic.) I had to be a little bit flexible in doing this eventually as tourist destinations are likely to be commercial more than not.

After that, it was time to assign benefits to the tiles. Most tiles have two benefits: an instant benefit and a conditional benefit. (Occasionally they don't have one or the other.) Because these tiles would be replacing existing base game (or Inc) tiles, some of the standard benefits had to be available, such as adding income and reputation. However, about one-third of the tiles have new functionality, such as the Dollar Arcade's instant ability that gives the player who builds it $1 for each population they currently have. It's in the B stack, so the player's population is typically between 15 and 30 when it's initially purchased...but if they invest in it towards the end of the game, it can be worth $70, $80, even $100!

At this point I had a lot more than fifty ideas for tiles, and decided that some of them would actually work better as Borders (which were introduced in Inc). I started with an additional twelve borders (same as Inc), but by the time the game was completed, that number was whittled down to six.


I liked the idea of rating all of the tiles from 1 to 5 tourist stars, with the 5-star tiles being the best ones, and the 1 star ones being just slightly more interesting than a standard building. I arbitrarily assigned star values to each tile, just to give me a place to start from, and realized that nothing quite reached 5-star status — partially because people have different tastes, and if I were using stars as the overall attractiveness of these destinations, even the traditional 5-star resort isn't really 5 stars for everyone because some people just aren't that interested in those resorts.

Now that I had the stars on the tiles, what would they do? Initially, I thought it could just be a collection thing where there would be a new Star goal, or maybe even a permanent Star goal that was worth double which everyone was vying for. On the subject of goals, one of the nagging criticisms of Suburbia is that if you have a fewest/lowest kind of goal, it can be difficult to win if an opponent just doesn't purchase a certain tile for no other reason than they don't need any of them, resulting in you missing out on your goal because you're tied, so the second use of stars could be for breaking ties in goals. Still, neither of those sounded all that compelling, and since stars were sort of the focal point of an expansion around tourism, they had to have more meaning. That's when I came up with the Star track.

There was some internal debate on the Star track about having it be an additional row on the players' borough boards, but because the actual number of Stars you have is irrelevant compared to how many more or fewer stars you have than your opponents, a new community track was put in place. And that's when the Star Track started to fall very nicely into place, doing the following:

1) Setting the turn order based on your position on the Star Track, with stacking order breaking ties. This, combined with the tie-breaking of goals for the leader, works amazingly well. In Suburbia, going last towards the end of the game is a distinct advantage because it allows you to move on goals without anyone being able to affect you. However, since ties are broken by the most stars, it presents an interesting decision point when you're close to other players with various goals.

2) Providing an extra population for the players who are furthest along the track, and removing a population from the players who have gone the least far on the track. This simulates the popularity of a town over time as people move into the places that are more interesting and have more to do than in less interesting towns.

3) Breaking ties for goals based on your position on the Star track at the end of the game. The last few spaces on the Star track limit the number of tokens that can be placed there to encourage a bit of a race towards the end of the game.

4) A little bump in income early in the track and a +1 bump in reputation later give players mini-goals to reach.

One of the things that naturally worked out was the use of Investment markers on tiles with stars; as with other benefits, Investment Markers double the number of stars on a tile, so if you want to jump ahead on the star track and no star tiles are available, you can simply invest in one you already have.

The goals for stars remained, but they are for the number of star tiles, not your position on the Star track. Black stars are used to indicate Star tiles, while Gold Stars are used for moving on the Star Track.

Several of the new tiles have star tile interactions, such as the Starry Sidewalk, which provides $2 for every star tile in play.

Five Players

Flexible turn order with the Star track is what really makes five players work in Suburbia. It potentially reduces the downtime between turns and keeps all players engaged at the end of each round (once all five players have gone) because that's when turn order switches and when some players gain or lose population.

From previous testing with five players in Suburbia Inc, I knew we'd need an additional spot on the Market board, which meant that 5★ would have to include a new Market board. That's okay because the new Star track needed a home, and that was a perfect place for it. To accommodate the needs for five versus two/three/four players, the board is double-sided (something I stole from Castles of Mad King Ludwig).

Five players also required a new borough board and set of wood tokens, which by popular demand are green. In addition, two copies of the base tiles — Suburbs, Heavy Factories, and Community Parks — were needed. Why two? Because in addition to the fifth player needing a set, the supply of extra base tiles was increased from four to five.

Tile Tweaking

As the game was in development, benefits and prices of tiles were constantly in flux, but the longest and probably most tedious portion of the development process was getting the prices right. The stars add value to tiles, but how much? How much more is a player willing to pay for a Star tile with the exact same benefits as a non-star tile? This part is that 20% of the work that takes 80% of the time.

Then there's the testing of the tiles with all of the base game tiles and figuring out what the correct mix of tiles is. With any Suburbia expansion, there's the risk of dilution for some of the tile icons, like Airports and Schools; adding in too many new tiles results in less interaction for the remaining tiles with those icons. There are ways to get around this, but they're really cumbersome and require super long set-up times. In the end, it was decided that a simple random mix of tiles was fine, and if players want to customize their stacks to avoid dilution, they may do so.


Most purchasers of Suburbia Inc were very happy that it didn't come in a box since they would be storing the expansion in the original box anyway. I didn't know if that would be possible with the new expansion due to the wood pieces, but I was able to do it with some clever packaging.

Using the rules and the "back of the box" info sheet as the top and bottom of the expansion, I created a hole in every punchboard where the wood pieces sit. Manufacturing inserts a baggie with the wood pieces into the holes, covers the punchboards with rules, shrinkwraps it, and voilà! A boxless expansion that has wood pieces in it.

The resulting expansion adds just enough of a twist to Suburbia to be fun for all players, regardless of player count, and if you have five in your game group, you'll all be able to play!

Ted Alspach
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Wed Jul 29, 2015 1:40 pm
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Publisher Diary: Mysterium, or What's the Difference Between Mysterium and Tajemnicze Domostwo?

Libellud Team
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This article covers the differences between Mysterium and Tajemnicze Domostwo. It is aimed at inquiring readers and fans of the version published by Portal, who already know the game.

Some lucky players may have already had the opportunity to play Mysterium during conventions where Libellud or Asmodee were present, and others are already acquainted with its cousin, Tajemnicze Domostwo, which was first released in 2013 by Ukrainian publisher IGAMES, and subsequently from the Portal Games crew, where the game had already made for itself a reputation thanks to its rules, which were translated into English online.

And now, following a long wait — and lots of pressure — for the new Libellud release, Mysterium will be arriving on the shelves of your favorite hobby and specialty stores this coming October 2015 (with a pre-release at Gen Con 2015 in August). We've decided to clarify things for you by comparing Portal's Polish version, Tajemnicze Domostwo, with Mysterium, the Libellud version. Is Mysterium a translation, an adaptation, or a whole new edition?

Don't worry! Mysterium and Tajemnicze Domostwo share common DNA, notably for their game mechanisms and that they are both investigation games that use cards. Players enter a mysterious manor in which a crime took place several years earlier. In this fantastic and supernatural ambiance, players have to reveal the truth about this tragic event, identifying the culprit, the location of the murder, and with which weapon the crime took place.

Mysterium is an asymmetric game, meaning that the players won't all play the same way. The player who takes on the role of the ghost is the unofficial game master and guides the other players, the psychics, who will use their gifts to advance in their investigation ... but there is only one way to win: together! Mysterium is also a cooperative game: All of the players, no matter what their role, have the same goal — free the ghost's soul. Everyone loses or wins together, and so everyone must help each other!

The ghost cannot speak and can communicate with the psychics only through illustrated cards. The psychics have to discuss the interpretation of these images between themselves, while hoping that their intuition is spot on!

An overview of the game: Many combinations to find, but only one will be the right one! In a first phase, each psychic has to guess one combination of three elements: a character, a location, and an object. The ghost already knows all of the combinations and has to guide each psychic by giving them illustrated cards in order to put them on the right track. When all of the combinations have been found (the number will be equal to the number of psychics), then the second phase begins. From all of the combinations, the psychics must determine which combination is the right one, meaning which one points at the one and only culprit.

At this point, it should be clear that we kept the elements which made Tajemnicze Domostwo a unique game which has already successfully enticed players! Following many playtests, the Libellud team felt that parts of the game could be changed to make the Mysterium experience even more immersive. Thanks to our gifts as psychics, we had the intuition that one element had to be preserved: the crystal ball tokens! While present in the IGAMES version, you will also be able to find some in the Libellud version. But that’s not all — you'll also be able to download from the Libellud website a soundtrack that will further immerse you in the dark and supernatural ambiance...

Tokens from the IGAMES version

Intuition tokens in Mysterium

Enter Warwick Manor

To develop Mysterium, we've also re-worked some of the gameplay elements, but took special care with the world. Tajemnicze Domostwo already offered a mysterious ambiance, but we wanted to go further. The story surrounding the game, as well as the artwork, has been redone in order to offer a more thrilling experience.

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the haunted manor is located in France and the ghost is its former owner. Wrongfully accused and executed for a crime he didn't commit, he enters the dreams of the manor's inhabitants to reveal what really happened to them. The psychics were called by the current owner of the manor to bring peace to the house. For seven nights they receive the ghost's dreams and use them to reveal to the world who the real culprit is.

In Mysterium, we chose to move the manor to Scotland, a land known for its many haunted castles! In addition to that, Libellud is a French publisher who loves to travel into mysterious realms. The ghost is a servant from Warwick Manor who was murdered in 1894 during the birthday evening organized for the owner's daughter. The facts were troubling, but none of the guests present caught the attention of the police. Following a hurried investigation, the authorities ruled it as an accident. The Warwick family moved, and the case was quickly forgotten...

Conrad MacDowell, new owner of Warwick manor

In the 1920s, the new owner, Conrad MacDowell, a brilliant astrologer, feels a supernatural presence and invites the greatest psychics of the time to solve this mystery. They choose to gather on the night of Samhain (which is the origin of Halloween) in which the border between the world of the living and the great beyond is thinner. As they are brilliant psychics with powerful gifts, they manage to make contact with the ghost haunting the manor. Very shocked by his death, he can communicate only through the use of visions. The psychics have to resolve the mystery in seven hours, that is, before sunrise and the end of the night of Samhain for otherwise they'll have to wait a full year before attempting it again.

Tick, tock, time is running short for Conrad and the other psychics

Two Game Phases, Revisited

Tajemnicze Domostwo contains two game phases. In the first one, the psychics must attempt to reconstruct the events using the dreams projected by the ghost. Each psychic attempts to discover their combination of three elements, starting with the item, then the location, and finally the character. Once all the players are successful, they get a more precise vision of the events and will, in a second phase, get new dreams which will tell them, from among the suspects, who is the true culprit.

Mysterium also has two phases of play, but they are different. The first phase is the reconstruction of events, in which the psychics each follow a lead and begin by identifying the suspect to then retrace their evening. (Where were they? What weapon did they have at hand?) The ghost guides each psychic with visions. The first step is to interpret the visions. The psychics express their opinions and debate on the significance of the images before indicating their intuition. In a second step, the ghost manifests to identify whether these choices were good or not. These two steps are repeated until either all psychics have recovered all three elements of their combination or seven hours have passed.

Once all of the combinations are assembled, the psychics have identified all of the potential suspects, but the night is well on. The second phase then begins, so it's time to reveal the true culprit. All of the combinations discovered by the psychics are reconstructed: it's the suspect line-up. The ghost remembers the identity of his killer, and with the last of its strength, sends a final vision during the shared vision step. The psychics have only a single chance to find the solution! The novelty is that this step (called the straw poll) is silent and the vote secret: After a full night of spiritism, each psychic must use all of their concentration to receive the last message from the ghost.

A New, More Harmonious World of Art

Many artists have worked on Tajemnicze Domostwo: Igor Burlakov did the dream cards, and Mariusz Gandzel and Karolina Węcka did the character, location, and item cards. Many talented artists were involved in the creation of these illustrations that contribute to the Tajemnicze Domostwo's distinctive ambiance. We created a new story, and as such we chose to rework the game's visual world. Stéphane Gantiez, art director at Libellud, searched at length to create a coherent whole. All of the game's elements had to anchor themselves in the story we wanted to tell: that of a séance in an old Scottish manor at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In addition to being useful to the game, the screen (described later) allows us to establish a supernatural ambiance

The 84 dream cards have become vision cards, but we kept all of the artwork; only the back of the cards has been changed. All created by the same artist, they are at the heart of the game and were not changed.

The artwork of the dream cards, now vision cards, hasn't changed...

...but the backs have, with Tajemnicze Domostwo on left and Mysterium on right

Those who have played Tajemnicze Domostwo are very attached to the artwork of that version, which creates a dark and anguished atmosphere. We wanted to keep a disquieting ambiance in Mysterium, but also give it its own identity while maintaining coherence with the storytelling and the Libellud's editorial line. The art style we were looking for in Mysterium had to be more accessible for a family audience, but it remains uncanny, supernatural, and fantastic. To put in place such a specific ambiance as this, we chose Xavier Collette, with whom we had previously worked on Dixit Journey and who is also known for his work on Abyss. He's the one who gave life to the characters, to the various rooms of the manor, and to the objects you will discover in Mysterium.

First sketches of the characters by Xavier Collette

For the character, location, and object cards, we attempted to get the most coherence possible. All of the characters, locations, and objects present in Mysterium must be able to find their place in a manor; this is why adjustments were made. Some elements were discarded for being too exotic or far-fetched for a Scottish manor! But they were replaced with others which better matched the storytelling.

The lighthouse and beach cards from Tajemnicze Domostwo have been discarded...

...in favor of the garden shed and the pantry, which were added in Mysterium

The shuriken from Tajemnicze Domostwo have given way to a small chest in Mysterium

These adjustments also broached the approach and the style of some cards. Many themes on cards in Tajemnicze Domostwo were kept, but the style and the ambiance were completely changed to add mystery.

On top, the attic in its Tajemnicze Domostwo version, and below, the Mysterium version;
some elements have been added or modified, and the atmosphere has become more disturbing

On many other cards, most of the elements were kept but were slightly adjusted by Xavier Collette's creative flair, such as a different angle or another way of looking at the same object, location, or starting character.

The point of view is angled differently, but it's the greenhouse in both cases

Gloves and magic wand are present for both versions of the magician

The reworked visuals for Mysterium help create an immersive ambiance colored by the supernatural. The changes made to the game's art bring a coherence to its ambiance and its world. All of these esthetic changes go in hand with work on the contents and on the adjustment of the game mechanisms.

Reworked Gameplay and Enhanced Player Experience

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the game's difficulty could be adapted by using four different game modes ranging from "easy" to "very difficult". It's possible to change difficulty by adjusting the number of discards allowed for the ghost, but also the number of cards present on the table. In the hardest difficulty and with seven players, the psychics could have up to twelve different cards of each type: characters, locations, and weapons.

In Mysterium, it's still possible to change the difficulty level but according to three modes. Even with seven players, the number of cards of the various types is never higher than nine, which allows for an easier set-up, limits the number of red-herrings, and makes the game area easier to read — but nothing keeps players from making the game harder by adding more than nine cards if they so wish.

The number of times the ghost is allowed to discard vision cards remains unchanged. In Tajemnicze Domostwo, when discarding, the ghost has to give up all his dream cards and draw seven new cards. In Mysterium, when the ghost discards vision cards, he chooses how many cards to discard and how many to keep, drawing the appropriate number of cards to make up his hand to seven. Crow tokens have been introduced to keep track of the ghost's discards. When the ghost discards his cards, he places a crow marker on the screen (which we'll tell you about shortly). This prevents the ghost from giving in to any temptation to cheat, but it's also a way for the psychics to know if he's having trouble with his vision cards or not.

Crows perch on the game screen, providing the ghost with another means of indirectly communicating with the psychics

The game's difficulty can be adapted depending on the number of players in Mysterium

An Easier Set-up

Tajemnicze Domostwo has two sets of character, location, and object cards: one for the ghost and one for the psychics, each differentiated by their backs. During set-up, the same cards must be sorted into each set.

The cards with blue backs are for the ghost, and those with brown backs are for the psychics;
in both cases, the character, location and object cards have different back designs

In Mysterium, the two sets of cards also have different backs (and different from Tajemnicze Domostwo's), but they also can be differentiated by their size and their numbers. The ghost's cards have all identical size in order to fit more easily into the screen. The character and location cards are larger for the psychics, while their objects are smaller. The colors (brown and blue) are still the same. The back of the cards are also numbered, which allow players to match the ghost cards and the psychic cards: the cards are identified more simply and set-up is facilitated.

To facilitate game set-up, ghost and psychic cards have numbered backs, enabling pairs to be formed at a glance

The Screen

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, during set-up, the ghost determines different combination of three elements (character, location, object), which each psychic has to find. To do this, he places in front of himself the three corresponding cards face down under a token of the color of the psychic; the ghost can then deal dream cards to each psychic. The ghost cannot see the cards of the combinations and must rely on his memory or manipulate them, which can cause the game to run longer (especially with seven players).

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the ghost cards forming each psychic's combination
are placed face down under the player's marker

The addition of a screen in Mysterium is a real improvement for all players. The actions of the ghost are hidden, which adds more mystery, and he is more free with his movements. This disposition is more comfortable for the ghost, and reminds others of his position as game master.

During set-up, the ghost composes all of the combinations and sets them up in the screen. Therefore, he no longer has to remember the cards or needlessly handle them. He has a direct visual access to all the combinations the psychics must find. The ghost can focus on the dealing of adapted vision cards.

Set-up of the ghost cards in the screen in Mysterium

The combination of three elements that the purple psychic must identify is shown highlighted in purple on the play area;
the player must determine the character, the location and lastly the object, always in that order

In addition to the screen, we added ghost tokens, in the color of each psychic. When the ghost hands cards to the psychics, the ghost move the token towards the screen. When he manifests, after having validated (or refuted) a psychic's answer, he pulls it back towards him. The ghost knows at any time to whom he has dealt cards. When a psychic discovers an element of their combination, the ghost flips the matching card in the screen: He knows at all times at which point of their investigation each psychic is at.

When the ghost has given cards to a psychic, he moves the ghost token of the matching color towards the screen

Other than the ergonomic improvement it represents, the screen also allows for a considerable time savings. The games are more fluid for the ghost, even when the psychics are numerous. All manipulations are made during set-up, which allows us to reduce the average time of the games to 42 minutes for Mysterium while it was around 1h30 for Tajemnicze Domostwo. Players focus only on the investigation during the game!

Timed Rhythm

One of the central mechanisms of the game is the debate of the psychics around the interpretation of images given by the ghost. This can create endless discussions, as each psychic has their own subjectivity. In Tajemnicze Domostwo, discussion time is not limited, which can sometimes result in longer games and lulls in gameplay. This obviously depends on the type of players around the table.

We added a timer in Mysterium to give more rhythm to the discussion phases between psychics. The ghost deals vision cards to the psychics, one after the other, and as soon as they receive them they can freely debate about their interpretation. It's only when all psychics have received vision cards that the two-minute timer is started. It can seem restrictive to some, but it's when the timer is not there that it becomes vital to add dynamism and tension to the game.

Progress on the Boards

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the character, location, and objects cards of the psychics are sorted on the play by type, but don't have a clear area they must be in. For games with seven players, there can be up to 36 cards on the table (twelve per type), which is considerable, and can make the game complex visually.

Example set-up (with nine cards of each type) for Tajemnicze Domostwo (photo: BoardGameGeek)

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, each player has an individual progress board and uses a token to track the progress of his investigation.

Individual boards and tokens symbolically represent the players' progress (photo: BoardGameGeek)

Mysterium has no individual boards, but individual sleeves for the psychics, with the cards being separated by four progress boards.

The character progress board

The location progress board

The object progress board

The epilogue progress board

The purpose of the character, location and object progress boards is to define areas containing the various types of cards used during the first phase of play (i.e., the reconstruction of events, during which each psychic attempts to identify a combination of three elements). They also give players an overview of the group's overall progress. They allow to us to clearly limit the cards, but also show the advancement of players. When a player has completed a section, they place their token on the next progress board. The progress of the psychics is more visible, the play area clearer, and players have the feeling that they're really progressing in the investigation.

The play area is better delineated and easier to read

The three character, location, and object progress boards are set aside for the culprit revelation phase. The play area is totally modified to recreate the groups of suspects discovered during the reconstruction of events. Each group is identified thanks to the back of the ghost tokens (which we previously told you about). On his side, the ghost has culprit tokens (also numbered), which allow him to designate the group containing his murderer. The culprit token is placed face-down on the epilogue progress board and is flipped over only at the complete end of the game, guaranteeing suspense until the very last moment.

Reverse of the ghost tokens used to number the suspect groups

The suspect groups are formed, then numbered

The culprit token revealed at game's end shows the number of the group that the ghost has chosen as the culprit

Clairvoyancy Tokens to Balance the Roles and Phases

Mysterium, like its cousin Tajemnicze Domostwo, is an asymmetric game in which the players are either taking on the role of the ghost, or that of a psychic, and thus aren't performing the same actions. In Tajemnicze Domostwo the role of the ghost appears to us richer than that of the psychics. The latter had fewer actions to perform in the game and had to wait during the distribution of the vision cards. To rebalance it and make it more fun to play the psychics, we've put in place a system of clairvoyancy tokens.

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the players who were faster in finding their combination of three cards weren't rewarded for their efficiency. They could help, but had no real actions left to perform until the other psychics discovered their own combinations.

In Mysterium, the faster a psychic fulfills their task, the more clairvoyant they are, the more clairvoyancy points and moves on the track of the same name they get. Even after successfully discovering their three-card combination, psychics continue to play and score points. In particular, they can express their opinion on other psychics' choices by playing any remaining clairvoyance tokens.

The double-sided clairvoyance track, along which the psychics progress by scoring points;
the number of players determines which side is used

In Mysterium, each psychic has a limited number of clairvoyancy tokens which allow them to express their agreement or disagreement with another player’s intuition. A psychic has four or six tokens (depending on the number of players) to give their opinion.

A psychic has an equal number of agreement and disagreement clairvoyancy tokens

The tokens can earn points on the clairvoyancy track in both cases: agreeing with an intuition which turns out right, or disagreeing with an intuition which turns out false. Disagreeing in a cooperative game can finally earn you points! Moving up on the track allows us to measure the efficiency of a psychic, their level of clairvoyancy during the game. This progression is individual, but will help all psychics during the final phase.

Example of clairvoyancy point scoring

During the event reconstruction phase, the clairvoyancy tokens allow players to avoid one of the pitfalls of cooperative games: the leader or "alpha player" effect. Even if a player didn't express themselves orally during the debates, they can still make their opinion known using the tokens and their thoughts will have weight in the game. They also allow us to strengthen the cooperation between players. Psychics have a vested interest in the cards received by other players throughout the game, as they must express their opinion in order to score points and maximize the whole group's chances of finding the true culprit at the end of the game! The clairvoyancy tokens allow us to involve the psychics more deeply and each of them now takes an active role in the debates.

Psychic Sleeves for Smooth Transitions

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the psychics had individual boards to represent their progress in their investigation.

Each psychic has his own sleeve, in which the three cards forming the required combination will be stored

In Mysterium, the ghost cards are held behind the game screen and cannot be used for the final phase, leaving only the psychic cards arranged on the table. Each psychic has his own sleeve in which to store the psychic cards collected during the reconstruction of events. For the final phase of the game, the character, location and object progress boards are cleared to one side. The suspect groups are easier to form as the cards for each combination are held directly in each psychic's sleeve. The sleeves also serve another purpose, holding the clairvoyance tokens used for the straw poll during the final phase.

The cards collected by each psychic are arranged in groups during the suspect line-up

A New Final Phase

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the ghost cards that form the combinations are placed face down at the start of the game and are revealed as the investigation progresses. When all of these ghost cards have been revealed, they are re-used for the final phase. Psychic cards, on the other hand, are returned to the game box as they are played.

In Mysterium, once the suspect groups have been identified, the ghost will send a shared vision to the psychics. Made up of three cards — one being a reference to a character, one to the location, and the last one to the object, but be careful, the cards will have been shuffled! — the psychics will not have access to them the same way, depending on their clairvoyancy level.

The players with the fewest points on the clairvoyancy track will have access only to a single card, without knowing if it refers to the character, location, or object card. They will secretly, and without consulting each other, vote first by placing a clairvoyancy token, numbered on the back, in their personal sleeve. Then it'll be the turn of the moderately clairvoyant psychics to secretly vote while having access to two cards. Finally, the most effective psychics (who will therefore have access to all three cards) will also vote individually and in silence. Even though players vote individually, Mysterium remains a cooperative game as the culprit is designated by the majority. When revealing the culprit, the ghost's vision is formed, transmitted and voted on in total silence, adding extra tension to this special phase of the game.

The level of access to the final, shared vision may vary between players, based on their progress along the clairvoyance track

The more accurate a player's intuitions during the reconstruction of events, the more clues they see
before voting in the straw poll, potentially increasing their chances of voting for the true culprit

The clairvoyance tokens have numbered backs; psychics vote by placing the token bearing the number
that matches their chosen group of cards into their sleeve

In Tajemnicze Domostwo, the psychics had many chances to discover the culprit if they had enough rounds left. In Mysterium, the shared vision sent by the ghost is also the last, and the psychics have only a single chance to discover the true culprit. Therefore, the tension reaches its highest point for the psychics as well as the ghost. Unlike the rest of the game, he has only a single chance to get his message across and he can't afford to miss it! The occasion to check that the spiritual bond between psychics and ghost was truly clear!

Mysterium: Simple Adaptation or New Game?

The development has lasted for almost two years, with almost everything wll having been reworked, from artwork to game mechanisms, but the Portal game's identity has been kept. It's therefore not just a simple translation of Tajemnicze Domostwo or a new edition, but a whole new game. All of the changes within have been motivated by improving the ease of play and for a more intense immersion. The duration of the game has been reduced, which means less dead time and waiting, but no less action for the players. The changes in the Libellud version have been made to offer a more coherent, more balanced, and more exciting game experience to the players. Those who liked Tajemnicze Domostwo will not be bewildered by Mysterium, but they will be as surprised by this new edition as those who are discovering the game for the first time, at least, we hope they are!

For all the details, the rules for Mysterium are available on Libellud's website.

Léa Moinet

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Sat Jul 25, 2015 12:57 am
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Designer Diary: Clockwork Wars, or Intricate Gears

Hassan Lopez
United States
Saratoga Springs
New York
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I had been playing around with game design for years, but Clockwork Wars represented my first serious attempt at designing a complex strategy board game. The idea for it originally stemmed from my love/hate relationship with most traditional "dudes-on-a-map" conquest games. I love how these games feature beautiful maps, multitudes of units, and a grand theater on which to play — but I despise the long playing times, the over-emphasis on dice to determine critical outcomes, and the tedious downtime between individual player turns. If the modern board game "revolution" has taught us one thing, it's that players crave elegant, fast-moving games that still provide an epic feel.

I also have a great fondness for computer games, and I started to envision how certain elements from real-time strategy games could be infused into a cardboard design. I wanted to model fog-of-war, simultaneous movement, and the surprise (dismay!) that ensues when you discover that the enemy has unexpectedly cut off your supply lines. During this early stage of design, I hit upon a mechanism by which players would make their unit deployment decisions in secret, hidden behind a play-screen, then reveal them simultaneously prior to resolving battles. At first, I used a "mini-map" of the war theater – something akin to what you see in hidden movement games like Fury of Dracula. This eventually got replaced by a more efficient and flexible pen & paper system that allowed for maps of any shape and size.

Early prototype, circa 2009

The original design was two-player only. There was a modular map made up of hexagonal tiles, different territory types that provided resources, and a tiered technology tree that opened up as the players advanced through the game.

From the beginning, I wanted my theme to be fantasy-steampunk. At the time, I was reading China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels and coming to realize that steampunk was an infinite and largely unexplored creative space. I envisioned a world where magic and steam-era technology intertwined, where a golem could be brought to life through a combination of esoteric science and techno-sorcery. Since I needed a third "method of inquiry" to fill out my tech-tree, I introduced religion and a dogmatic subculture. It was surprisingly easy to generate discoveries in science, sorcery, and religion that both brought life to the world and created unique strategic pathways in the game. At this point in my design process, I felt I was on to something. The game felt fun and evocative and unique.

Sample science discoveries

After I crafted a solid prototype and playtested Clockwork Wars many, many times, it was ready to show to people in the business. I contacted a number of well-known publishers in early 2010, and Eagle Games expressed significant interest after reviewing the rulebook and prototype. I was absolutely thrilled, but this also began a long, slow period (around three years!) of waiting and, eventually, development.

During this time, Eagle first asked me to consider expanding the game to accommodate 2-5 players. I was hesitant since I had never envisioned it as anything other than a two-player game. But Eagle pushed, and I'm glad they did. After all, the simultaneous deployment system eradicated downtime, so why not take advantage of this by allowing more players to join?

It took major revision of some of the core systems, but a lot of great stuff happened during this phase. I built a more fully fleshed espionage system that gave players more ways to interact with each other outside of the combat arena. I created more ways to earn victory points so that there were multiple strategic pathways to winning. And maps became infinitely flexible in shape, size, and composition.

Sample espionage card

It was also during this phase that Eagle suggested I design unique "powers" for each of the player factions. In retrospect, this was a critical point in the development of Clockwork Wars. Over a period of around a week, I sketched out a world where five races were competing for supremacy: the dogmatic and exploitative human "Purebreeds", three hybrid races (à la The Island of Dr. Moreau), and a race of sentient clockwork machines that mimicked spiders and insects. I also honed in on the idea of a racial unique unit. Clockwork Wars had always featured simplistic (and non-random) combat resolution; the unique units added some much-needed flavor and variety on the battlefield.

Front and back of the Mongrels playscreen

With the theme and setting in place, we began the long process of commissioning illustrations for the game's 80+ cards and components. We ended up hiring over a dozen illustrators from around the world, and every one of them produced extraordinary work, including some truly astounding concept art for the game's plastic miniatures: the Guardian, Steamtank, and Leviathan. If you want to download a free digital artbook that shows off all the fantastic illustrations in the game, you can find it on our official website.

Sample science discoveries

Eagle launched the Kickstarter for Clockwork Wars in September 2014. Since I'm a pessimist at heart, I assumed we wouldn't raise a dime and Eagle would trash the project. Instead, we met our funding goal in under twelve hours and doubled it in two days! I was shocked. (I still am.)

I then worked with the fantastic graphic artist Karim Chakroun to finalize our components and get everything to the printer ahead of schedule. I can't thank Karim enough for the absolutely stellar job he did refining every last detail and making the game truly "pop". Clockwork Wars started shipping to backers in June 2015 and is now available through retail outlets (including the Cool Stuff Inc. booth at Gen Con 2015).

If you like the idea of a confrontational area control game with infinite replayability, no downtime, light civilization building, and a gritty steampunk setting (no bowler hats here!), please check out Clockwork Wars. The game turned out absolutely gorgeous, with stellar production value and vibrant colors that pop off the table. I can assure you that it doesn't play like anything else out there and should appeal to a broad array of strategy game enthusiasts.

Hassan Lopez

Final production copy in all its glory!
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Thu Jul 23, 2015 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Co-Mix, or How an "Easy to Develop" Game Idea Turned Out to Be Not So Easy to Develop

Silva Lorenzo
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The original idea for what would eventually become Co-Mix came to me around three years ago, as one of the many small personal side-projects I start when I have an idea haunting my head, but I'm not sure whether it can be made into a proper game. The idea: "Can I create a storytelling game that makes you play cards not only to introduce plot elements, but to actually create the full story in a graphical way?"

Something like this. Looks easy, hunh? Well, think again.

This may not seem that different from a "normal" storytelling game, but if you think about it with more attention, it's a rather unique approach, and it was never attempted before (at least to my knowledge). The ultimate goal was to give players a tool to create comics (or storyboards, if you're more familiar with cinematic terminology), to give them a game with "panel cards" depicting not only characters, objects and settings, but also "connection images" — things like shot changes, details, and actions — to fill the gaps you would usually fill with your words and storytelling skills. It doesn't sound like a difficult thing to do, right? You just have to draw those "connection images" and a bunch of the other more regular stuff and call it a day, right? Riiiiight.

But surprisingly (?), problems are always waiting for you around each corner, and I had to turn many corners before Co-Mix could eventually be born...

Problem #1: "What If the Game Developer Can't Draw?"

Answer: The development of the game abruptly faces a sudden halt. With many other projects to follow, and with my lack of drawing skills making it difficult to create a decent prototype, the "storyboard generator" project was archived as "a nice idea to investigate when there's more time for it" and put into the metaphoric drawer (and maybe also in an actual one, I'm not sure).

In all its ugliness, I think it still actually looks kinda cute. C'mon, look at that wolf! Adorable.

It was only after I met Matteo Cremona that new life could be brought into the project. Being a professional comic artist, Matteo could surely do a better job with those illustrations, I thought, thereby helping me to finally create a working prototype, right? Right? Well, it was right this time. Matteo turned out to be really talented, which helps a lot. Add to the mix that some time after I met him, Horrible Games was born, and you can see how the timing was perfect for the development of "The Game That Will Be Known As Co-Mix" to start again with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Okay, maybe the final result is slightly better than mine, I admit it. I even put a lot of time and effort in it. Sigh...

The first prototype born out of this cooperation worked surprisingly well right from the start. (It turns out that years of study and practice of drawing techniques is more helpful than an amateurish effort and a lot of good will. Who would have thought?) After six months of hard work, the game was really starting to take shape. After a lot of tweaking, we had more than three hundred illustrations, with twenty different characters recurring in many of them, sometimes even interacting with each other.

Just a few examples of the various character design styles we tried

Each character also had a set of related stuff, like settings, peculiar objects, actions, and details, and all of this stuff also appeared in relation to the other characters. This gave each panel card a lot of versatility. Ideally it would be quite easy to use a panel with any other panel, even if the character it was created for was not being used in the player's story.

Sample detective panels

In addition to that, we also put into the mix a lot of "generic" panels that depicted specific actions or items or details without being associated with any other specific elements. They would work like a "joker" card; you could place them anywhere, and with the right idea, they could fit into any story.

It took Matteo a whole... like... ten seconds to draw this full page!!!
Okay, maybe a little bit more than that, but it's still... humiliating.

With so many different illustrations, the decision to make the panel cards double-sided was an early and easy one. I just needed to put a lot of thought into which illustrations would be on the back of which other illustrations to avoid a situation in which a player didn't have the kind of panels he would need for his story. If, for example, we made cards with a character on the front and another one on the back, with an unlucky draft you could have found yourself in the not-so-pleasant situation of having a lot of characters in your hand, but no action to make them do, stuff to interact with, or place to be in. It would not be a pleasant game experience, trust me. But after all, it was not that big of a deal.

When I think of how many times I had to cut and paste different combinations of these, I still get shivers down my spine

At this stage, as you can see above, all panel cards were still drawn in black and white. That was to save time and effort while still in the prototype stage, of course, but it leads us straight around the next corner just in time to smash our faces onto the next big problem.

Problem #2: "How to Color This Thing?"

Or even, "Do we need to color it at all?"

Some of you may need a little bit of context to make the above question not sound crazy. Traditionally, even to this day, Italian comics are mostly in black and white, just like Japanese manga and some other Asian comics. Tex Willer, Dylan Dog, Nathan Never, many of the Italian comic heroes you may have heard of — and if not, you should do some research — are published without any coloring (excluding the art on the covers and some special issues). We know and love a lot of color comics, of course, but it's not strange at all for us to read and enjoy a black-and-white comic.

Even without colors, this looks gorgeous, you have to admit it

And if you think about it, a black-and-white art style gives a lot of versatility to the illustration. An image of liquid pouring out of a bottle can depict anything; paint the contents of that same bottle red, and all you've got is wine, blood, or red orange juice. There's some variety, yes but you get the point.

After long and intense meditations, to give the game a broader international and age-independent appeal, I finally opted for colors. (Even in Italy, most children's comics are in color.) And that opened a whole colorful valley of possibilities! Should the colors be realistic? Dreamy? Artsy, like watercolor or something?

From sketch to final coloring, the evolution of our grumpy vampire girl!

The style I eventually settled for was not the one I planned for during the early stages of development — although to be honest, the game started as a noir-themed game, so my initial ideas were no longer accurate anyway — but it had the right balance. It had its own identity, it suited the game well, and it may appeal to the broadest audience possible. Max Rambaldi's contribution to the coloring process was key — that, and her patience with the many slight changes, and sometimes U-turns, in art direction that she was occasionally put through.

...and when I say "U-turns", I really mean it

While all of this was happening, it was quite clear that the storytelling mechanism in the game — which by this time, even though as a working title only, was already being referred to as "Co-Mix" — was working rather well. I was facing another problem though and a more difficult than expected one...

Problem #3: "How Do You Win This Game?"

The problem with any storytelling game is this: What if a player is no good at storytelling? Most of the time, the answer is that he won't be able to play in a satisfactory manner, and he won't have much fun. For most people, that's a given of the genre itself, and the one reason it's so polarizing: Some people love storytelling games, some people plainly hate them. There are not a lot of people living in the broad, desertic gray area between these two extremes. I wanted to find a way to make the game enjoyable even for people who lacked storytelling skills — that was one of the main goals — but I needed some sort of voting mechanism, so it was a bit of a Gordian knot.

A trip to Transylvania was luckily not necessary

When you leave judgement in the hands of players (i.e., you let players vote), you're always leaving room for people's feelings to get hurt if their efforts are systematically belittled or given a bad score — and that can happen more often than what I initially thought.

Moreover, if you happen to have at the table one of those hideous people who would give a bad score to the story that's clearly the best of the bunch just because its creator is winning — there's no hell-equivalent in any afterlife you may believe in that's harsh enough for these game-spirit-ruining fellas — and your scoring system allows those people to do that, you've got a serious problem, a problem that can totally ruin the experience of the game for a lot of people, and this is exactly what I wanted to avoid when the Co-Mix project was started.

An early version of the cover illustration — gorgeous art, but it wasn't really working

I'm not going to summarize all the different — and differently flawed — scoring systems I tried; the months of doubts, pain, and suffering; the endless debates; the group psychotherapy and anger management session; the aborted pluri-homicidal plans and the attempted pagan and/or voodoo rites aimed at the eradication of the evil breed of good-story-downvoters from the entire globe once and for all. (I'm still tinkering with this last idea, though.) Out of frustration, I was very close to giving up and releasing the game without any voting mechanism at all, releasing it as a tool to tell stories and have fun. This was a version that playtesters, both old and new, enjoyed a lot, but even I felt that something would have been missing should I have gone through with that decision. Like the legendary Gordian knot, all that was needed was thinking a little bit outside of the box.

Oh, scoring, wherefore hath thou caused me so many problems?

Suddenly, and luckily, the right idea came to me. The scoring mechanism that made the cut and went into the final game solved all of the problems I mentioned above, almost magically. It was a wonderful feeling, like seeing all the pieces of a really complicated puzzle that was going to completely ruin your life, forever and ever, finally fit together in a joyous, harmonic picture of cohesion and unity. (Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating just a tiny little bit.)

By making players say only what they liked about a story, and not how much they liked it, the problem of consistent down-voting was eliminated once and for all. It's the consensus between the players, not the players themselves, that determines the score. And by rewarding people who vote honestly — by giving bonus points to any player giving to a story the "right" vote, i.e., the one the majority of people gave — king-making was obliterated, too. With this system, it's simply not a strategy that rewards you. Yes, I'm really proud of this voting mechanism. Is it very noticeable?

The final game in all its glory...

And They Lived Happily Ever After?

I'm still recovering from the PTSD any bumpy game development causes a game developer, but I'll be fine eventually, thanks for asking.

Most of all, me and my crew sincerely hope that all of our efforts allow a lot of people to have half the fun we had creating and telling crazy comic stories. That's who we are — we just want to selflessly give joy to the whole world, so feel free to buy this little thing we created, and if you already did, share it with your friends and family! And convince them to buy it, too. It can be useful in many different ways! It's the Swiss Army knife of board games! Think of a rickety table, some annoying air flowing through your window, a very cold winter and an empty fireplace asking for something to burn in it...

Lorenzo Silva
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Wed Jul 22, 2015 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Going on My Star Trek: Five-Year Mission

David Whitcher
United States
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Warning: The following game contains 3, a lot of 6 — 35 4 in three colors, in fact. If you have a 2 allergy, you should stop reading now.

Most games take many years to develop. You start with an idea. You flesh out that idea. You prototype and test it over and over in what often seems like an endless cycle until the game is ready to show a publisher. If you're lucky, you find one right away, but more often than not you show your game to numerous publishers before it's accepted. If it's accepted, the publisher often requests changes to be made to fit their vision of how the game will best serve the audience they are trying to sell to. This is the process I have become accustomed to as a freelance game designer, and Star Trek: Five-Year Mission is no exception except for a few minor details.

From its conception, I designed "Star Trek / Cooperative Dice Game" for Mayfair Games. The game design community normally advises you to stay away from IP, especially big IP, because they are expensive and difficult to get the rights to, thereby making them a big risk. That is why so few publishers deal with them. I have been on the Mayfair Games demo crew for nearly a decade now and had the good fortune to find out that they were interested in doing another Trek game after Star Trek: Catan was released in 2012. I figured the odds of someone approaching them with such a design were a 1 in 10,000 chance, so I decided I would design one for them.

My first ideas were nonstarters: basic card games, board games with star maps to explore, etc. — nothing that hadn't been done with this license. It was several months after Origins 2012 when the idea came to me. I was sitting in a waiting room and quickly scrounged up paper and pencil to make notes for later. This would be a cooperative dice game in which you play the crew of the Enterprise completing dilemmas to score points. A cooperative game lends itself well to the crew of a ship, especially in the Star Trek universe, and since there are many main characters I could design it to be played with a large group.

Unlike most games I have designed, it was a long time between concept and first prototype. The original prototype had three decks of 24 cards each, with each card needing a unique set of requirements in order to complete it. I first had to create the 72 dice sets and a rubric to determine the difficulty of each card. This was not just a matter of calculating the odds of rolling the numbers needed to complete the dice set. There are other factors involved, such as urgent events that must be completed in three minutes. I also had to take into account card effects that hamper play, such as crew injuries and ship damage. Once that was finally done, I made my first prototype and did solo testing. As usual there were changes to be made before moving to testing with the public.

In the game's third iteration, I was ready to take it to one of my local game groups to get feedback. I set up the "H.M.S. Victory" prototype and found a group of four willing to give it a try. "H.M.S. Victory" is a cooperative dice game for 3-7 players in which you play the crew of a ship working together to complete events drawn from decks of varying difficulty. I tested the game in public gaming groups using this alternate theme so that fandom would not play a factor in the feedback I received.

I kept the real theme a secret until I showed it to the Mayfair Games Minister of Product Acquisitions, Alex Yeager, in June 2014. His advice allowed me to finalize the design over the next few months with the help of numerous testers, including dozens of game designers at the 2014 Protospiel held in Chelsea, Michigan, all of whom played it with the "H.M.S. Victory" theme. After several delays, which gave me more time to refine the cards further, the game was pitched to Mayfair by Alex since I was unable to travel to where they were the board was meeting.

Captains old (above) and new (below)

The game was accepted, and since then I've been working with the Mayfair team to get it ready for market. To my surprise, they chose to make Star Trek: Five-Year Mission so that you could play as either the original series crew or the TNG crew. This required another seven player abilities be devised. We also needed new titles and scenes for the additional TNG cards.

Using a later prototype with proposed graphics, we previewed the game at the 2015 Origins Game Fair, which was our last major testing opportunity. With only seven weeks to go and a promise to deliver at Gen Con 2015 — not to mention holding a charity event with actress Marina Sirtis, we had much to do. As of writing this diary, we are on schedule and expect to have plenty of copies of Star Trek: Five-Year Mission on hand for Trek fans to get Marina and me to sign on Saturday, August 1 at Gen Con 2015. Hope to see you there!

David Whitcher

Editor's note: For an overview of the gameplay in Star Trek: Five-Year Mission, head to my ST:5YM preview, which is based on a demo game that I played at Origins 2015. —WEM
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Tue Jul 21, 2015 6:46 pm
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Designer Diary: New York 1901, or How Our Family Stumbled Upon the Board Game Revival and Went on to Make Our Own Game

Chenier La Salle
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I left for Japan in 1994 as a 26-year-old bachelor with degrees in law and Eastern Asian studies. I came back to Canada ten years later in 2004 with a Japanese wife, two kids in tow (I clearly chose the "total immersion" package), and one more diploma, a master's degree on the Japanese political economy.

Beyond the Japanese skills and the scholarly pursuits, my ten years in Japan had allowed me to live an extended youth and to pick up a few hands-on skills: I became reasonably adept at assembling my own computers. The ability to do my own upgrades (new CPU, new video card, new mobo) allowed me to maintain machines that were powerful enough to run the latest and most demanding first person shooters. I played them all in Japan: Quake, Quake II, Quake III, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life (and its many "mods"), Battlefield 1942. I also played the addictive "just one more turn" games like Sid Meier's Civilization – which goes to show there are designer games in the computer world, too. This last game had a great influence on some of the board games that helped spearhead the board game revival of the late 1990s.

Eventually my growing family and the demands (time, financial) that came along with it forced me to put aside what was mainly a solo hobby to focus instead on my wife and kids. Whatever hobby I would find next needed to be a bit more inclusive...

My gaming set-up in Japan, c. 2000

Cold Canadian Nights

I returned to Alberta, Canada in 2004 with two young kids ages 5 and 2. I would put my Japanese experience to good use as a provincial civil servant in charge of developing export markets in Asia for Canadian agricultural products. Dad (me) adapted to his new job and the family slowly adapted to its new life in dad's home country, Canada.

Now, winters in Canada are generally long, but they're even longer in Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton has the distinction of being the northernmost city in North America with a population of over one million people. Cool distinction, cold city. As the kids were getting older, the family soon settled into traditional weekend activities such as game night, which is a very fitting indoor activity when the thermometer is in negative territory, often double digit negative.

My wife and I both had a history of playing card games, so we taught the kids a few of our favorite games. When my wife taught us all how to play "Babanuki", it certainly felt familiar. In fact Babanuki is the Japanese name for the card game Old Maid. Goes to show that some classics travel well.

Once the thrill of card games was starting to wane, my wife and I started looking for something new, something that could provide the family with entertainment while helping our kids build their social and analytical skills. My wife would find it at Winners (the Canadian equivalent of Marshalls) in Calgary, c. 2006. While stopping at Winners for a quick fix of bargain hunting, my wife stumbled upon an intriguing board game in the toy section. That game was That's Life! (the English title for Ravensburger's Verflixxt). Different people have different games they can point to as "the game" that got them started on board gaming. Ticket to Ride and Catan often come up among gamers. For me it was That's Life!

Well, that's not exactly true. That's Life! didn't get me started on board gaming, but it did bring me back to board gaming after a hiatus of over fifteen years. Not long after that, I discovered the BoardGameGeek website, which led me to a string of purchases that would severely lighten my wallet: Ticket to Ride (the family calls it "the train game"), Thurn und Taxis ("the Germany game"), Finca ("the fruit game"). Within a year or two, I'd bought about 25 games. I'd buy close to one hundred more after we moved to the U.S. in 2011 where games are much cheaper...

Jean and Sakura in Edmonton, c. 2006; in Edmonton you get to
wear spiffy warm clothes as early as September! (Accentuate the positive goes the song...)

Flashback to the 1980s — Before Japan

As an adolescent in the 1980s in Montreal, I played a lot of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. I enjoyed playing the packaged adventures that publishers would put out – I remember they were called "modules". It was great fun, but even then I remember wanting to be more than just an actor in a story someone else had created; I wanted to become the storyteller. I remember trying my hand at designing modules and I started to create a few, but I would never finish them. I simply didn't have the discipline. In hindsight, it's probably better that way. There's a time for playing and a time for creating. Years of passively playing (and reading, and watching movies, and watching TV) aren't all bad; in fact they're necessary because they allow you to fill up on hundreds of mechanic and thematic references. You need to fill up on references before you can make anything yourself.

Role-playing wasn't my only gaming pursuit in junior high and high school. Those years also saw me play many classic board games. I remember playing Cosmic Encounter. Anyone remember the name of the alien that can silence other players? It was just a hoot trying the different aliens. Eric had Cosmic Encounter. I also played Squad Leader. Nicolas had Squad Leader plus a few of the expansions. (His parents spoiled him a little.) I think I remember that some of the tanks even had turrets that you could direct. And the game had many different scenarios, too. It was a pleasure simply to go to Nicolas' place and open his boxes of Squad Leader and just hold the pieces in your hands and look at them. The tactile "hands on" part of playing games is something I really enjoyed. I was taking notes subconsciously...

I remember we played Diplomacy. (Mark had that one.) I remember that on more than one occasion I ended up in a solid alliance with my friend Philippe. In a cutthroat game like Diplomacy, even a single solid alliance can often get you pretty far in the game. (There might be an analogy to be made about the strength of a good marriage...) We also played The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a complex simulation of the Second World War. Third Reich fascinated me so much that I saved up my money to buy the game. Again, I felt a strong pleasure just in laying out the armies on the board — which is often the only thing we could do since playing a full game required ten hours and there was no table available at my home that I could monopolize for that long. You needed a basement game room for that one, which is something I didn't have as an adolescent.

So cool that I just had to save up enough to buy myself a copy

I was still gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was in college pursuing a law degree. There weren't many gamer types in law school, so I was the guy who would come up with board games for the others to play. It had to be light and easy to jump into. I bought Nuclear War and a few expansions at my FLGS and brought it to the table. It was a hit, and we must have played it forty times over my four years of law school; remember that these are non-gamers, so forty sessions made it a bona fide "crossover hit". Nuclear War is a grisly game when you think about it, but it's so absurd that it always got a laugh. I last played it over 25 years ago, but I still clearly remember your odds were significantly better when you had a few of the bigger population cards. (The biggest ones were what, 25 million people?) Predictable but still fun.

I even got the non-gamers to play relatively more complex games like Junta, a hilarious banana republic simulation that centers mostly on negotiations over the country's budget. The game also allowed disgruntled players to start a revolution to settle scores. One of the few games in which disgruntled players are part of the core mechanisms. A riot! I think I got the group to play this two or three times.

And thus, sometime in the early 1990s after graduating from law school, the first phase of my gaming career ended unceremoniously. After articling and being called to the bar, I soon left my budding legal profession behind, deciding to go back to college to study about Asia. It would be at least fifteen more years before I played another board game...

Fast Forward to 2010

I'd end up living six years in Alberta, from 2004 to 2010. The first three years I worked for the government of Alberta and the next three as vice-president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, peddling Canadian beef around the world. That last job was one of those "pinch me" moments in life. As a young French Canadian growing up in Montreal, not in your wildest dreams do you foresee ending up on the leadership team of an Alberta-based trade association promoting beef. Life just sends you on wild tangents sometimes, but I loved the job.

Towering Canadian selling beef in Macau, c. 2008

After three years with the Canadian Beef Export Federation, I got an opportunity to join the Canadian Foreign Service, something I'd always wanted to do. I headed to Ottawa in 2010 and after a single (and painfully bureaucratic) year at headquarters, I learned that I would soon leave on a four-year posting to Houston, Texas. Yeehaw! (Utterances of the word "Texas" in eastern Canada are very often accompanied by a lively cowboy interjection like "Yeehaw!" Then again the word "Alberta", where our family had lived for six years, generally gets a similar reaction in Ontario and Quebec, so we'd be in familiar territory and I was sure we'd love it there.)

Diplomat/Game Designer

The whole family arrived in Texas in the summer of 2011. On the way from the airport to our rental house, we observed the city that would be our home for the next four years. Houston was definitely the quintessential urban sprawl metropolis, a city of freeways, long avenues, and lots and lots of strip malls — a shopper's paradise.

Another thing we noticed on the way from the airport was that the parks and green spaces were all empty. This offered a strong contrast to Canada where green spaces are full of life during the summer. Canadians are very conscious of how fleeting that gorgeous season is. Now where did Texans go during the summer? The answer was that they stayed indoors because it was simply too hot to go outside. I have to admit that we were greeted by a scorcher of a summer in 2011 with temperatures above 100º for thirty days in a row, possibly a record. If it's too hot in the evening for a BBQ, I guess we'll just have to stay inside and play games — and play games we did. Beyond the too-hot-to-play-outside weather, the sudden Canadian-U.S. dollar parity coupled with the much lower price of board games (and pretty much everything else) in the United States saw dad literally go nuts. Our collection of games probably doubled over our first year in Houston and would double yet again soon.

Now playing new games is loads of fun, but pretty soon we'd played all the "gateways" dad's petro dollars could buy. Thus, it wasn't too long before dad would be bitten by the creative bug again, and this time — with the family's help (and some early PR support from a friend in Vietnam) — he'd have the discipline to see it through.

December 2011

I'd be lying if I told you the family "collectively" decided to create a game. My kids were 12, 9 and 2 when we set out on our creative adventure, so it was more a case of dad enlisting the family – a.k.a., conscription. By the time Blue Orange signed the game in the middle of 2014, my family had played over two hundred recorded and annotated sessions of what would become New York 1901. Although the game would eventually benefit from the input of over ten playtesting groups both in Houston and across the world, and from a creative hands-on product manager at Blue Orange, Stéphane Maurel, in terms of number of games played, my family was clearly the core playtesting group.

Knowing Too Much

Now here is where I could microanalyze every little decision made during the development of the game — and there were literally hundreds of such decisions made for both mechanisms and theme. (The theme would (happily) remain untouched after the acquisition by Blue Orange.) I could write a long list and cover each of these decisions and tell what the concerns were and how they were solved — but how much do people want to know?

I always wondered how much should be revealed about the process behind the development of a game — or a movie or video game for that matter. I personally love to know about the creative process, and when I pick up a gaming magazine, the only articles I systematically read are the interviews with creators because I just love a good story. However, I'm not sure I want to find out too much about the "guts" of a movie, book or game. I always thought that knowing too much about something might somehow make it a bit less magical. Does anybody agree? I guess that's my excuse to streamline the last few pages of this diary. I won't expound on all the decisions and the stories behind all of them — there are just too many — but I'll identify a few core ones and share some insights into how I saw them and how they evolved.

Because It's New York

"Theme or mechanisms — which comes first?" the question is often asked. Sometimes it's asked just to determine a designer's preferred approach. Sometimes it's asked to try to determine a best practice - which is rather pointless. But the various responses are still entertaining and it's just fun to find out how different creators approach their craft. The answer is, of course, "to each his own". But one thing is for certain, New York 1901 the game and its mechanisms evolved and flowed from New York the city. The theme informed mechanisms.

There are many reasons why I chose to make New York the theme. The first one is simply because New York is a special city. Very few cities in the world have so rich an imagery that they leave almost no one indifferent. Paris and London are such cities, and New York is another — but New York has a modern and dynamic "new world" ring to it, a ring it keeps to this day. New York is the New World's Paris or London. And even today, many still call it the world's greatest metropolis. If board games are little playgrounds — little sandboxes if you will — and if you're choosing your playground, what better playground than New York.

I've always liked games that have a historical backdrop. I'm not referring to historic simulations, which tend to be heavy, but rather to the aesthetics, to the immersive "stage" that history provides. As a historical stage for a board game, New York had been done many times before. More often than not, the chosen period is the late 1920s and early 1930s with its beautiful art deco imagery filled with the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Although clearly a beautiful period to explore, I wanted to do something different. Through my research, I discovered the first wave of New York skyscrapers at the turn of the last century and chose that period for my game. The game would first be called "New York 1899" since starting in the 1800s made the setting feel that much older. It would eventually change to New York 1901 to ease in the use of a turn counter that would start in 1901. Turn 1 in 1901, turn 2 in 1902, easy no? The turn counter would be dropped later in development but the name would stick.

An early prototype (Sep 2012) when the game was still called New York 1899;
the game included an action point system (bottom right) that would later be dropped

When I like something, I tend to do it a lot, maybe too much. Turn-of-the-century New York became a bit of an obsession. The turn-of-the-century period has been elevated to special status in many countries around the world. In France it's literally called "the Beautiful Period" (la Belle Époque) and I think the French name is used "as is" in the German language. In England, the turn-of-the-century period straddles the Victorian and Edwardian eras, both very evocative eras. The period also saw the United States grow at tremendous speed during its "Gilded Age". It was a period of great technological and artistic achievement around the world. That era's early days even inspired the Steampunk movement, which goes to show how deep and seductive its imagery is. The "Beautiful Period" ended with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 by the end of which the World greeted a new world power, the United States.

I devoured book after book on the subject, and since it was imagery that I was after, it was fine to be intellectually lazy and prefer books with lots of pictures. Of course my efforts focused on New York City of the period. I discovered hundreds of beautiful skyscrapers with elaborate facades. I got so enamored with the period that I started collecting vintage New York City postcards. The turn-of-the-century was the heyday of postcard collecting, so cards are very easy to find on eBay. It's also a relatively cheap hobby, and a few dollars will buy you a nice 100+ year old postcard. No half measure for me, so my collection continued to grow and eventually reached well over two thousand cards. I got so enamored with the period that I created a Facebook page devoted to vintage New York City postcards and to this day, I still update it daily.

I find lots of pleasure in knowing that the aesthetics in New York 1901 are based on authentic imagery, and I'm happy my publisher bought into this obsession wholesale. However, and you might find this strange, on more than one occasion I've refrained from telling people too much about the research behind the visuals when I introduce the game. The reason being that New York 1901 was always meant to be a family game and in my mind — tell me if I'm mistaken — I fear that if I mention all the historical sources behind the imagery, namely that every single skyscraper tile in New York 1901 was inspired by an actual building from that period, the game might come across as one of those heavy historical simulations which it simply isn't. Maybe I think too much.

Now the vast majority of the skyscrapers from the first wave were built in Lower Manhattan, in New York City's financial district. I'll admit that a game like Ticket to Ride and its familiar geographic theme (a map of North America with its biggest cities highlighted) showed that geographic familiarity would truly help ease players into a board game. It was definitely one of the creative process' Eureka moments to identify the financial district, and its familiar streets like Broadway and Wall Street as the ideal setting to use as backdrop for New York 1901.

The almost final game board (above) and a vintage 1916 map of Lower Manhattan (below) with the game's play area outlined

Now if you're going to build skyscrapers, you need to acquire the land to build them on. Here again, a bit of research would be the inspiration for some of the core mechanisms. Lower Manhattan was the oldest part of the city, and the size of the lots was determined when New York was just a small city in a young British colony; therefore, the lots were very small. Turn-of-the-century real estate developers had to acquire many small contiguous lots of land before they could finally build a "big" footprint building.

Moreover, it wasn't uncommon for pesky real estate holdouts to ruin a developer's grand plans. When confronted with a holdout, the developers often built around them. This gave us quite a few skyscrapers with very peculiar footprints. The fact that such Tetris-y structures actually existed gave me the freedom to use these shapes in the game. I didn't start with Tetris-y shapes in mind; in fact, the skyscrapers in my first prototypes were square or rectangular. If these Tetris-y buildings hadn't actually existed, I wouldn't have used these shapes since they would have felt somewhat "forced" onto the game. History dictated the shape of the tiles, or rather, it allowed me to "go Tetris" on them.

The City Investing Building of 1908; a real estate holdout (lower left)
forced the developers to change their plans and build around the holdout

City Investing tile in New York 1901

Some more historical tidbits: Turn-of-the-century construction technology was advancing rapidly, making structures obsolete very quickly. These advances were making it possible to build better and higher skyscrapers. It wasn't rare for buildings that were just ten or fifteen years old to be demolished to make way for better ones. This is also one of the concepts that I used in the game. Many of the game's concepts were "revealed" (sounds quasi-religious) by New York City history. I was just there to push it along and make it fit into a nice, efficient and, hopefully, fun format. I borrowed so much from New York that I feel that I owe the city. Then again, I am feeding the New York City myth by creating a game around it, right? So I guess I'm even with New York!

Study using only two-square lots; in the final version, I opted for a mix of two- and three-square lots
which makes the evolving landscape more unpredictable

Some of the prototype boards; I must have made thirty variants throughout development,
and it's actually relaxing to make a prototype on a Sunday afternoon

My bathtub serving as archive. Can you spot the old (and moldy) copy of Machiavelli in there? A leftover from my teenage years

Final Thoughts

I'm off to Gen Con this year for the first time! I'm just thrilled to be able to attend the Mecca of North American gaming, and I'm pinching myself that all of this is happening to me. My family will be there, too, on the convention floor on the first day. It's not dad's game; it's the family's game. I went to Japan and immersed myself in the culture and brought back a Japanese wife for the "full experience". When our family (re)discovered board gaming, our passion culminated in the production of our own game. No half-measures at our house.

Chénier La Salle

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Mon Jul 20, 2015 6:00 am
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Artist Diary: Bringing Discoveries to Life

Vincent Dutrait
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Let's start with a little anecdote: On an evening in summer 2014, I was playing Lewis & Clark with my family. At the end of the game, we ended up talking about the details of the expedition that I was beginning to know quite well since I had illustrated it several times in games or books.

At that time, I realized that in Lewis & Clark, I mostly represented the characters in the context of an epic trek — but we didn't develop the discovery and exploration sides of the expedition.

I was keeping this thought in the back of my mind to talk about it with the Ludonaute team. The next morning, I received a message from them, telling me that Cédrick Chaboussit had just designed a whole new game dedicated to the journals brought back by the explorers, journals describing the tribes, the cartography, and the studies of the animals and plants! That game would become Discoveries.

Dances with Lewis & Clark

It is not that simple to work on a theme and a story several times. Moreover, Lewis & Clark and Discoveries are two very different games but with a similar theme and approach: The players have to manage the expedition members to achieve their goal.

I must admit that the idea of working on it again scared me a little bit at first. The design had been thought out in-depth for Lewis & Clark, and it was necessary to obtain the same result — but in a new light — in order to avoid comments like "It's Lewis & Clark 2", "Lewis & Clark: The Expansion" or "Lewis & Clark: They Are Back".

The Designer, the Publisher, and the Artist

After some very interesting discussions, we decided to focus on the representation of the journals written by the explorers. The next step was to research documents and references to be able to do realistic and credible illustrations. My main researches were on the different tribes, their environment, their lifestyle, the hunters, fishermen, the encountered natural species...

Then I set up a framework for the cards considering some distinctive features. First, the cards are played horizontally, which is an important detail because, physically and visually, it gives a different sensation from Lewis & Clark.

I have thought up two different treatments for the cards. For the Tribes, I have chosen to use ochers and browns to create warmness and to be reminiscent of the colors of the Rocky Mountains, the leather, the wood — everything that is lively.

On the contrary, the Discoveries sides bear a pale and cold background to enhance the visibility of the tracks and the illustrations of the encountered species.

Then I organized the cards so that the mechanism and the indications fit the best amongst the other elements in order to avoid a patchwork effect. Actually, I have drawn the symbols, numbers and pictograms by hand so that we can find the same graphic aspect as in the illustrations. My goal was to create coherent and harmonious cards that remain easily readable.

Wild Wild West

I tried to give the players the feeling that they are really about to do the work of an anthropologist and to study different cultures.

For the Tribes cards, I figured out pretty soon that it wouldn't be that easy to represent the fifty or so tribes who live in the areas explored while giving personality to each card. Some tribes have similar environments (tepees, wooden houses or huts), lifestyles or clothes. For some other tribes, I had a hard time finding descriptions or representations.

To create variety, I have chosen to represent the environment only if I had documentation, to depict a character if I didn't have references, and to include a specific element inly if I had an accurate picture of it.

This work allowed me to create landscapes, characters more or less closely represented, costumes, objects, everyday life scenes, links between nature and men, animals...

For the Discoveries cards, it was easier. What was more important was the mechanism and the tracks that needed to be clear and perfectly readable once the card would lay on the table. In Discoveries, none of the cards are kept in hand, which influences the treatment of the illustrations that are to be seen from a distance.

On the lefthand side are the rivers and the mountains, painted as two small icons so they fit perfectly in the card, and on the righthand side, the illustrations of plants and animals.

For the two kinds of cards, I have tried to give the sensation of a travel diary with illustrations like colored sketches as if they had been taken on the spot, like lively memories. Finally, I have added some writing marks, ink traces and stains to give the ideas of journals that are carried around in a backpack, whenever it is raining or snowing.

On the Board Again

In the very first versions of the game, there wasn't any central board. It was during a test at the 2014 Spiel fair that Sébastien Pauchon (from Gameworks and Space Cowboys) suggested adding a main board in the center of the table instead of just designating a zone to stock the dice.

I liked the idea right off, as did the Ludonaute team, because at this stage the game lacked immersion, a frame, a decor to get really involved in the adventure.

The illustration of the central board shows a panoramic view of the expedition during a break, some men meeting the Native Americans, the others buzzing around the crafts and the horses.

I have rigorously composed the illustration to give it balance and strength. The strong lines all converge to the center of the image to create deepness, and the mountain is like a pyramid on the top of the scene. I aim to enhance the feeling of being a small man at the feet of nature.

The central board facilitates the organization and the structure of the game zone with the cards on each side. I personally think that Discoveries (as with Augustus, which I also illustrated) is a game with a "Wow" effect. There aren't many elements and we start the game with not so much on the table — and then, step by step, the table gets full; we develop the game by spreading the cards. At the end, we get a feeling of achievement, visually reinforced.

The individual boards tend to be not so fun because they're full of indications about the mechanisms of the game. Here, I have tried to use this space to layer various textures and colors and enhance the immersion of the player with paper pieces, a notebook, a little portrait, a colored stone...

Once Upon a Time

The cover illustration has been designed with the same spirit as Lewis & Clark. The idea was to present what the players are about to do in the game, to put into pictures the actions of it.

In the picture, we can see the head of the expedition, the proximity with the Native Americans, the work on the journals and Sacagawea indicating the path. Actually, she is pointing at the part of the decor that we find on the board inside the game. The goal is still to tell a story, with the mountains looking like those from Lewis & Clark and the eagle watching the expedition.

On Lewis & Clark's cover, I put the stress on the explorers, with a cold decor, closed by the steep walls of a defile, to enhance by opposition the warm colors of the characters on the crafts as they go into the unknown.

Here, I have done the opposite, being willing to show the wide spaces and use nature's colors to create a warm atmosphere. I also wanted to change the atmosphere, enhancing the blues and the greens for more softness and the pinks and creams for the peaceful feeling. Thanks to my graphic treatment, the players will be able to make a link between the two game boxes, but we wanted them different nonetheless because Discoveries is a whole new game.

As always, I made the illustrations the traditional way with my pencils and brushes on paper. Sometimes, I did it on separate parts in order to recompose the pictures on the computer.

This Was Just the Beginning

Being able to rework a game thematic is not usual in a career, and I have been really happy over this wonderful opportunity offered by the Ludonaute team. I do thank them for this.

At the same time, it has been a complex challenge. I have just received the first sample of the game (which is particularly well made with an accurate printing) and I was really happy about it.

I have appreciated the opportunity to work again on this universe and develop new ideas that I couldn't do on the first game, I have appreciated working again with Ludonaute and Cédrick Chaboussit, and I appreciate the chance to share my path a little longer with the players in this universe. Enjoy!

Vincent Dutrait

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Sat Jul 18, 2015 10:36 pm
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Designer Diary: Artifacts, Inc., or Rose-Tinted Visions in a One-Star Casino Hotel

Ryan Laukat
United States
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Music is a big deal in my family. My parents both play saxophone and graduated college with music degrees. My mom and dad had us learning piano, singing in choirs, and playing various wind instruments before we knew our times tables, so it wasn't a big surprise when they started their own musical instrument manufacturing company.

I'm the "trumpet guy" at the company. I playtest all the trumpets before they're sold to retail stores, everywhere from Hong Kong to Paris. This means I get sent to music conventions to answer questions and hype the product, struggling against my own introverted self in an effort to seem charismatic and sociable. I was at one such convention near Philadelphia, early in the summer at a dumpy casino-hotel, when I designed Artifacts, Inc. I was all by myself, and there were hours in that freezing showroom with nothing to do, so I did what I always do when I'm bored — scratch game ideas on paper.

Before I had left on the trip, I'd painted this cottage deep in a forest, surrounded by massive trees. I liked it and thought it might deserve a game.

I scribbled a title, a total killer: "Forest Village". It was going to be one of those quick and dirty civilization-building card games — one of my favorite kind of games — and it was going to have dice-placement and drafting (pretty much every game I design has drafting).

But it wasn't really working out. I went through a whole sticky-note pad. The guy in the next booth, a thin, bearded man with a grey ponytail, asked what I kept writing.

"Game ideas", I told him sheepishly.

"Oh yeah? Like, video games?"

"No, like cardboard games."

"Do people still play those?" he asked.

"Yeah. Ever heard of Kickstarter?"

As we talked, something popped into my head. Weeks earlier, I'd been listening to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, specifically an episode about Roy Chapman Andrews. I'd never heard of him before, but I was riveted. Andrews was an adventurer and naturalist from the early 1900s. He led expeditions to Asia in the 1920s searching for remains of early man, and those expeditions were the first in the world to discover dinosaur eggs. They traveled in a caravan of dodge cars through vast deserts, finding all sorts of fossils and having all sorts of adventures.

The game mechanisms I'd been working on suddenly seemed to fit so well. What if players weren't trying to start up a little village in the forest, but organizing expeditions to faraway lands, searching for artifacts and fossils?

I immediately set to work on the prototype when I got home, printing out the second round of cards just in time for our road trip. I glued the cards together as my wife drove our car from Salt Lake City down to Bryce Canyon National Park, an amazing place I'd never seen before, whose red rock formations made it into the game.

We enjoyed playing the game, but I got caught up in other projects and sort of forgot about it. Months later, I found it on the shelf and we decided to set it up for a game night. I was worried I'd forgotten the rules — I hadn't written them down, which is a fairly common occurrence, unfortunately — but I figured it out after some tinkering.

"This is a good one", said my friend. "You should publish it."

And so I did.

I admit the game's theme is more loosely-inspired by Andrews and other early adventurers than it is a close simulation of their expeditions. It came to be through the rose-tinted view of someone who grew up watching adventure movies and playing adventure games, who'd always wanted to illustrate a game set in the 1920s or 1930s.

It took about a month to finish the art. I found an empty room in the basement and set to work, bundling up in the cold and painting on my Wacom tablet. I illustrated three or four cards per day, a blistering pace for me, especially in this style.

How does the game work? Each player owns an artifact-hunting company, and the goal is to become the most famous group of adventurers in the world. Dice represent adventurers in the company, and cards represent company assets, such as headquarters, vehicles, camps and supplies. Players take turns rolling dice and placing them on cards they own to find artifacts in distant lands, and on museums so that they can sell those artifacts. Players buy more asset cards to increase their fame. They can also become more famous by selling the most artifacts to each museum. When someone reaches 20 fame, the game ends, and final fame is counted up. The player with the most fame wins.

One of my favorite parts of the design is the ability to upgrade any asset card you buy. Each card has a level 1 side and a level 2 side. Some cards give bonuses for being adjacent to other cards, and figuring out the best organization of level 1 and level 2 cards is key to winning.

Good luck in your adventures as you search the world for the rare and astounding!

Ryan Laukat
Red Raven Games

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Sat Jul 11, 2015 5:45 pm
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Publisher Diary: The Journal of Discoveries

Anne-Cécile Lefebvre
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Everything started with a call from Cédrick Chaboussit in June 2014 just to have a little chat. (Since our common work on Lewis & Clark, which he designed and we as Ludonaute published, he has become a friend.) During the conversation, he explained that he had the idea of placing the stickered goodies from Lewis & Clark on some dice so that they could then be used to activate the actions of characters. He had already run a few tests and it seemed to work well, with the flow of the dice between players being quite interesting. There was still a lot to do, but he hoped to be able to show us a prototype during the upcoming Gen Con.

Cédrick Chaboussit and Vincent Dutrait at Spiel 2014

A few weeks later in Indianapolis, we tried the prototype together — and as it happened for Lewis & Clark, we fell in love quickly with the game. We think that the way of managing the dice is awesome and never seen before. Sure, the card effects are not yet balanced and there is a lot of work to do, but we're really into the game. It's decided — we're going to publish it.

The moment we decided to publish the game — Gen Con 2014

At this stage, Cédrick's idea for the game is to recount the return of Lewis and Clark's expedition. At first, we wondered whether another theme wouldn't be better because for us this game was a lot more that just a dice version of Lewis & Clark. All things considered, we decided to keep the exploration theme because we are fond of this aspect of scientist discoveries, which is not present in the earlier game.

Prototype dice make me crazy

In September 2014, that choice is confirmed: The game would be based on the Lewis and Clark Expedition from a point of view not too close to the action. It would deal not only with the return of that Expedition, but with the entire adventure, with your goal being to rewrite the Expedition's journals.

The prototype in September 2014

It took up a lot of space

In the meantime, we're working on the mechanisms of the game. We improve the flow during the stage when players retake dice, and we set up three ways to score (through the cartography, the discovery of species, and the knowledge of Indian tribes). Also, we're working on the design of the cards and the personal board. Finally, the Indian tribes' powers and the paths are still not balanced, but I'm not worried because knowing Cédrick, he would set up a little algorithm to balance everything and a few tests would do it.

This work takes more than a month. In the meantime, we create two kinds of tribes and alternative paths in order to create a more flexible game. We're happy because this is still coherent with our setting.

We used Lewis & Clark's pictures in the prototype

At the beginning of December 2014, the game is finished. (We are still discussing some little details, but mostly we're done.) It's time to call Vincent Dutrait, the illustrator whom we have already worked with on Shitenno and Lewis & Clark. We are on the same wavelength, so everything is working well. Vincent seems to be enthusiastic and creates awesome and detailed illustrations. He will tell you more about his work soon.

The prototype before Vincent started working on the game

During this time, we write, proofread, rewrite, and translate the rules so that everything will be perfect.

One of the main questions regarding the contents of the game involved the dice: wood or plastic? Both have their pros and cons, and in the end we went with wooden dice to fit with the game's spirit: exploration and the great outdoors. As dice recognition is crucial for game play, we chose colors easy to distinguish: white, red, yellow, blue and grey, pushing green to the side.

The final dice

By the end of April 2015, we had finally created a wonderful game ready to be produced. (On our website, we wrote about our trip to Ludo Fact to watch Discoveries being produced.)

Punched boards at Ludo Fact

Let's hope that you'll get as much fun playing this game as we got making it!

Anne-Cécile Lefebvre


Editor's note: For an overview of the gameplay in Discoveries, here's a video that I recorded with Lefebvre at Spielwarenmesse in February 2015:

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Mon Jun 29, 2015 6:00 am
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Developer Diary: The Making of Elysium

Mr Poulpe
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For Space Cowboys, Elysium is peculiar in many ways. While unanimously appreciated and even loved among the team, the game has gone through many changes during its gestation. (This diary covers the point of view of Elysium's publisher. Check the author's diary here!)

The story of Elysium began (for us) at the Spiel International Fair in Essen in 2013, and in the beginning, there were cards, Romans, and dice. Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan showed the Space Cowboys a card game for "experienced" gamers titled "Aurum et Gloriam" ("Gold and Glory" for those who don't speak Latin). Their curiosity piqued, Croc asked for a prototype copy, and once back at the office, we played a few games.

"A few" — this is not quite right. The way we work, every member of the team is strongly encouraged to give his opinion as frankly as possible. The meetings are pretty animated, each game having its supporters and detractors. Concerning Elysium, though the opinions were unanimous; the games kept going, and that was a lot of fun.

Originally, as Brett and Matt wrote, the game they showed us was about politicians who were attempting to seize power in the Roman Republic. Represented by cards, they were recruited by the players (who were playing as political parties) using four colored dice which each bore four different symbols. Each card required a specific combination of symbols (one or two) or a specific color to be hired by a player.

Seems classical, sure, but there were twists — and good ones.

The first interesting twist: Once a card has been claimed, the player discards any one of their four dice. "Any" is the key word here. If a card needs two symbols, you can remove the die you want, not necessarily one of the dice shown on the card. Thus, the cards have no price, but they have conditions. With four dice, that means four "recruitments", and as dice are discarded and cards are claimed, choices are narrowing and the game speeds up. This simple game mechanism creates pressure and limits "analysis paralysis" and the game duration.

The players also seek to gain the favor of a senator, a special card which determines the order of the next turn, grants a bit of Gold, and determines the promotions. (I'm coming to these!) Finally, each turn, they take (using their dice) three cards and a senator. To those who know Elysium, this should remind you of something, right?

The "Aurum et Gloriam" cards were divided into eight families: Augur, Tribune, Benefactor, Gladiator, Decurion, Optimas, Flamen, and Consul. Each had different powers (13 per family!) and affected various game elements: victory points, prestige, Gold, the other players' cards, etc. The card powers may be used during the recruitment phase. Since you already know Elysium (whaddaya mean, no?), let's just say that they haven't much changed since this point, other than to adjust the balance between some cards.

In "Aurum et Gloriam", scoring is based upon promotions. To win victory points, players have to create families at the Senate. This means putting cards and assembling them above your game board. Yes, above...

The next twist happens here: When a card is promoted, it loses its powers, so you can't use them anymore. This small trick is interesting in more than one way. Creating combinations of powers with cards is classic, but "breaking" these combos to score points is intriguing. Not to mention that in five turns, you need to make difficult choices! And in our mind, play is all about making choices.

Another advantage of this twist: The game doesn't necessarily become more complicated as turns go on. You create nice combinations to earn you some Gold, help recruit more cards, or ease promotions, but sooner or later, you'll have to reduce your number of active cards (and so destroy your combinations) to score points. It's also quite difficult to gauge the position of each player: One could have a ton of victory points thanks to their cards, but little gold and thus few potential promotions. Therefore, uncertainty is maintained until the end, and there are often many surprises and big moves on the last turns. Kingmaking is nonexistent, which is a big plus in our book.

After our very first game, we displayed the whole package Matt and Brett had sent us and realized that we had played with five card families out of the eight contained in the game. This isn't a mistake, but a really clever way to keep the game fresh. The powers are so different that changing families upsets strategies and gameplay. Some sets of families promote interactivity, others cause a fierce competition for a resource which has become scarce due to the absence of a family. In short, 55 different "sets" are possible, which allows for a lot of plays before getting back to the same combination of cards!

In short, the mechanisms were pleasant, the length was right (between 45 minutes and an hour-and-a-quarter), the rules were fluid, and the card powers were varied. Our enthusiasm was so obvious that it became embarrassing, and in no time at all, we started seriously working on the game after signing the agreement with Brett and Matt. This is generally when the real, big discussions among us start — and we did it again.

The first major blocking issue was the theme. We love Rome and antiquity, but politics + senators are not so exciting. We started looking for an alternative and after a few unsuccessful attempts, we picked a fantastical Rome, with magical powers for some families.

We first dipped into mythology, researching the Senatorial Republic, and the rites and sorcery of Roman society. After this preparatory work, eight families were found, a kind of crossing between the families of the prototype and a few new ones.

Unfortunately, we found out that the theme didn't hit hard enough, and we had to start over from scratch. A lot of ideas were submitted, with some going from odd to zany. Let's see the list: A conspiracy-manic America in the 1950s, with lobbies, aliens, and corrupt politicians; a galactic Senate with alien races; alchemical schools; wizards; Louis XIV's court; etc. Again, nothing stood up to our critical eye.

During this work on the theme, we were also working on mechanisms. We needed to make sure that everything ran smoothly for two, three, and four players; that all card sets were interesting; and that combinations didn't create impossible situations or loops. This led us to many, many plays, but still "Aurum et Gloriam" kept being really fun to us, even after this gaming orgy. There was always a new combination to try out!

Everything was going well — until we had a test session where the die rolls, due to bad results, broke an otherwise well thought-out strategy. Getting the symbols you wanted could actually become impossible if you had a run of bad luck. This was pure frustration, and we didn't want that. Also, we wanted to simplify the acquisition of cards so that they were all available right away, and make them easier to understand at the same time.

The dice Brett and Matt loved so much became collateral victims of this simplification drive as we kept the colors but removed the symbols. Among the studio staff, this decision wasn't unanimous at first. We tried a series of successive tests with and without dice, and we consulted the authors about this blasphemous idea. Removing the dice was an important transformation, so their agreement was needed. At the end of the day (well, it took more than a day!) everyone agreed, and the dice were replaced with the columns of the final version.

The evolution of a card; visuals are ripped from the wonderful Augustus (Hurrican),
with the gracious agreement of Vincent Dutrait and Yves Menu. Thank you, guys!

A short time later, another idea (ergonomic this time) happened to indirectly unlock our theme problem. For practical reasons, when cards are promoted, it's preferable to place them UNDER the game board. After all, it's more logical for other players to be able to see the active cards more easily than those you won't use anymore until the end of the game — but it sounds like a promotion...down!

We had another thematic issue with that point: Politicians of "Aurum et Gloriam" get promoted and...lose power. Well, this doesn't sound very plausible!

Finally, these two problems ended up giving us the solution. Instead of being promoted, the cards now move on to posterity and "die". The words "Greek Mythology" having been spoken in one of our many meetings, it suddenly clicked: The Greek heroes descend to Hell and lose their "powers" but contribute to the legend of the players (in the form of victory points).

Going down to see Hades and crew

Matt and Brett were enthused by the idea of Greek mythology, and they dove with true pleasure into a theme they both appreciate. By the way, this would be an excellent point at which to thank them both for their faultless goodwill. They went far beyond what we expected of them, and it was a true pleasure to work with them.

The domino effect continued: We'd been asking ourselves questions about the nature of the families and their quick identification by the players. You might know the answer already: The gods imposed themselves on the game! They have various "domains" matching the abilities of the game's families, at least with a bit of imagination.

Everything followed quickly: For the game's title, we needed a simple name, relatively short, that would describe one of the more important aspects of the game. As for some reason we wouldn't call our game "Column", we become interested in the Elysian fields of the ancient Greeks, the resting place of deserving heroes...and a play area in the game's rules. The Roman pronunciation gained the upper hand over several alternatives (the more "Greek" Elysion, Thrylos, etc.) based on rather subjective criteria, we must admit: "Elysium" sounds good, whether in English or in French. The name of the cards was the subject of a lengthy research session into ancient Greek myths — our job is pretty cool, come to think of it — and we realized that we had an embarrassment of choice more than trouble finding ideas for cards.

At this point, a "light" issue remained. We needed to find an artist who would be willing (and able) to make 108 cards in two months. This is just impossible, even if we came upon a super-powered mutant. The only solution, given the production delays, was to select many artists — but how to divide our 108 cards between them, and how then to manage that common work, which is not their usual way of doing things? By working out briefs — that is, descriptions of what we wanted for each card from the artist — we choose to follow the path of simplicity. Each artist would be in charge of one family in order to maintain a coherent feel.

After many phone calls, the eight artists give their agreement, and the team started working. Some "shared" cards (such as temples, gatherings, and initiations) are common to all families, but don't always have the same power, for example. We needed to keep an overall coherence, but with a completely different interpretation for each god. In the end, the necessity to coordinate the work of our illustrators created an unexpected good-natured competition, and they seem to have appreciated this "team" experimentation.

You think it's over?

Nope! We need to choose between cards with text, cards with iconography, or both. In the end, the "iconography PLUS text" concept won out after animated debates — but we still needed to create said iconography!

After this somewhat complex work, we finalized the rules, in full cooperation with the authors, as we were making the English version of Elysium at the same time as the French version. Have I already told you that Matt and Brett are awesome? A few crash tests with volunteers who had never played the game and to whom we handed the rules without any extra explanations caused us to clarify a few points in order to complete the rulebook.

There was still the card guide to write, an addition which had been planned for some time to strengthen the game's theme and clarify a few specific situations, which are inevitable in a combination-driven game containing 108 powers. And let's not forget an original plastic box insert designed by Sébastien Pauchon, whose sturdiness (the insert's – not Séb's) was proven through a series of crash tests immortalized on video.

When the first boxes arrived in our offices at the end of January 2015, there was a feeling as if Odysseus had just returned from his travels...finally. Now the game is out, so choose your five gods and send all those cards to the Elysium!

François Doucet

(Final note: This article is adapted and translated from an original piece published in the gaming magazine Plato. If you read French, check out the magazine as it offers a wealth of articles on many games, and the latest issue is full of good Elysium stuff!)
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Tue May 26, 2015 6:00 am
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