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Calimala is a Euro-style game in which players are members of the guild of merchants in foreign cloth, in Florence, around the 13th century.
The game has a few twists on the classic worker placement genre. The main idea is to have nine main actions in a three-by-three grid, randomly arranged at the beginning of the game. These spaces are connected by "streets", and players take turns placing one of their workers on a street and executing both actions. Since the actions are placed randomly, the possible pairs of actions available change from game to game.
These actions allow players to collect basic materials (wood, bricks and marble); use them to build workshops, ships and trade houses; produce cloth and deliver it to various cities; contribute materials for the construction and decoration of churches; etc.
Another aspect of the game is that workers (discs) are always added and never retrieved: Players have a fixed number of workers (15 with three players, 12 with four, 10 with five), and when placed on an action space, they stack on top of each other. Whenever one disc is placed on a stack, all discs in that stack perform the two actions in order from top to bottom (so extra actions can be triggered in other players' turns).
When the fourth disc is placed on a stack, only the top three discs are activated, while the bottom disc is "promoted" into the city council, triggering a scoring. The city council has 15 seats that are filled in order when workers are promoted (i.e., when stacks grow to more than three discs). Each seat has a scoring tile (assigned randomly at the beginning of the game) that determines which category to score (e.g., most contributions to a given church, most deliveries to a given city). Majority scoring is used for all categories, awarding 3, 2 and 1 victory points to the first, second, and third player respectively.
Where to place your early workers becomes an important decision because if well placed, they will be reactivated by other players two more times.
Seats in the city council also break ties, so when choosing an action space where to place a disc, players have to be careful about which scoring can trigger it and how the balance in the city council will change.
At the beginning of the game, each player receives two scoring cards and secretly picks one that will be revealed at the end of the game and that will score for 5/3/1 points. Each player thus knows of one city or building that will score again at the end (the card they picked), and one that will not score (the card that they discarded).
The game is very tight, and players have to choose what to focus on, especially since with more players it's not really possible to participate in all categories, and these scoring cards add tension, as well as the possibility of bluffing (with people trying to guess other players' scoring cards).
What follows is the story of how I designed this game.
Calimala is my first board game design, although I've been regularly playing board games for more than fifteen years.
When I moved to the UK in 2013, I joined London on Board, a board games club with a few thousand members, with daily meet-ups in various locations around the city. There I met a few game designers and somehow I got the design bug and I started thinking about making a board game of my own.
The basic concept was some variant on the worker placement mechanism in which the available action spaces would change from game to game. The players would then have to come up with a different strategy on each new game.
This is probably the only thing that survived from that inception to the published game.
The idea was to have the action spaces on eight cards in a three-by-three grid (with a hole in the middle). Players would then place a worker between two cards and take both actions. The optimal sequence of actions to achieve the various goals would therefore change from game to game.
The first prototype was just eight handwritten cards, some workers (gray cubes), and a bunch of colored discs.
On your turn, you could either place some cubes on a space between two cards (equal to how many cubes were already there) and take the actions on the cards, or collect all the cubes between two cards. This allowed a continuous flow of play (with no need to collect your workers at the end of a round). The actions on the card would provide discs or convert discs into other discs or into victory points.
It was very boring and uninteresting, but it showed some promise, so one evening I brought it to a Playtest UK meet-up where I played it with a few other designers and where it fell apart very quickly.
After more iterations, I started thinking about a theme and, maybe not too originally, I went for medieval Florence.
The game was still card-based then, with the eight basic cards providing materials like wood and clay or allowing you to hire specialists, along with a set of advanced buildings (more cards) in construction that required those materials.
Players would take actions to contribute materials to the advanced cards, e.g., by taking the "clay" action, I would put a cube of my player color to a clay slot in the building. Once a building was complete, players who contributed to it would score points and the complete building would go into play. (There was some kind of rotation mechanism in which action cards would move in and out, and each new building would enter that rotation.)
This still had several problems, but it's the origin of the buildings in Calimala (like the Cathedral and the other churches).
At this point I took a step back and started studying a bit more in detail the historical period when these buildings were built. There are several Eurogames set in medieval Florence, but none of them really tries to be historically accurate: There were no princes in Florence, and the Medici didn't really trade in spices...
I wondered who built these great churches and why, and I found out about the guild of Calimala.
In the Middle Ages, Florence was a mercantile republic, and the various trades were organized in guilds, whose elder members would take turns ruling the city. The most powerful among these guilds was the guild of Calimala. This was the guild of traders in foreign cloth; during the late middle ages, they were buying rough woolen cloth from all over Europe (England, France, the Flandres, etc.), bringing it back to Florence where they would refine and dye it, then selling it back for a much higher price.
They were producing very high quality cloth, in colors that were not otherwise available in other places. The members of this guild quickly became extremely wealthy, and moving all that gold across Europe and back to Florence was not practical, so they ended up establishing a more permanent presence in the major trading centers where they held their business, keeping the gold there and instead using letters of change to move money, giving birth to the first banks.
Incidentally they also started lending this money to various kings, financing the wars between England and France in that period. (The first bankruptcy happened when the king of England defaulted on his debts.) At home they would then use the money to build palaces and churches and sponsor art works (which would eventually lead to the Renaissance).
The Medici were among the most influential families within the Calimala guild, and within a couple of generations they managed to take full control of the city. (Lorenzo il Magnifico was never formally a prince or a ruler, but with his influence he controlled the majority of the city council.)
Back to the Drawing Board
This research provided some new ideas for elements to add to the game. I decided to focus on the cloth production and the trade network.
I started working on a proper board, with streets connecting thirteen different action spaces, each street with three spots for workers. I didn't come up with the idea of triggering previous players when stacking discs until quite late in the game development; players didn't even need discs in different colors at the time as each street had three slots and by placing in the second or third slot, players would get a better action. More specifically, placing the second or third disc you would do some actions two or three times, while some other actions would be more cost effective.
This allowed for doing more stuff with fewer discs. As the game proceeded, actions became more powerful so that four players with just twelve rounds could be able to complete buildings and fulfill cloth demands from cities.
I had one more building material (stone) and various actions that eventually went away. Each player had an artist meeple, for example, that would move around the city, with an action to move the artist and another action to make an artwork (with a certain number of slots for artwork in each neighborhood of the city).
A "recruiter" action would let you hire an employee (i.e., a card that could be used once at any time matching one of the twelve other basic actions), while a "prestige" action would let you draw a bonus card for endgame scoring.
The scoring was different at the time: Points were awarded right away when delivering a cube to a slot, and extra points were awarded on completions or at the end of the game.
Needless to say, all this was very complicated and playtests revealed many issues, especially with the random placement of action tiles. It was sometimes extremely tedious to do even simple things (collect one marble, then move the artist somewhere with a free slot, finally take the artwork action, etc.). Also, having an artist meeple on the board in addition to the actual workers confused players.
I needed to streamline and simplify; I cut the number of actions down to nine (on a three-by-three grid), and various actions went in and out until I settled on the final ones.
I also simplified the scoring, using majority scoring everywhere. (When an area was completed, points were awarded to the players who contributed the most.) Even artworks were gone, although they eventually came back at a later stage; I instead kept the "recruiter" action that provided an action card to play at any time.
Majority scoring is tricky to get right. Two important design decisions are about when to trigger the scoring and how to handle ties. Some games do scoring at the end of specific turns, but that didn't really fit with the game. I wanted the scoring to happen in a more flexible way because depending on how the action tiles are set up at the beginning of play, some areas might fill up faster than others.
Another important decision is about how to handle ties (more on this later).
I also had another issue: Having fewer action spaces meant fewer slots available to place discs, so I had to revisit the idea of having at most three workers per pair of actions. Instead of having a fixed number of slots, I introduced the idea of placing workers in a stack; in order to keep the stack from growing too much, when the fourth disc was placed on a stack, the bottom disc was removed.
Initially I placed that disc as a "statue" in one of the four quarters of the board (to commemorate the career of the worker who just retired). Each quarter of the board would then trigger the scoring for one category: port cities, trade cities, buildings, and most artwork. Each category would score at most four times per game.
Another concept introduced around this time was that of triggering other players' actions when placing discs. In the initial iterations, when players placed their second or third disc on a slot, they would carry out both actions two or three times in a row. (This helped in maintaining a high number of total actions per game so that there would be enough to make progress on all fronts.) This had a drawback, though, as lots of things could change between one player's turn and their next turn (e.g., in a four-player game, the other three players towards the end of the game could take a total of 18 actions).
That's when I had the idea to invert the flow; now when a player placed a disc on a stack, each disc is activated in order from top to bottom and the owner of each disc performs the actions. The total number of actions per space doesn't change. What's more, the first player to place a disc on a spot will now benefit from three pairs of actions, spread over time. This greatly improved the flow of the game, and players were engaged on everyone's turn.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest!
Something that came up with more playtests was that players tried to place their discs so that other players could benefit less from their moves, e.g., playing a build action when the owner of the previous discs didn't have enough building materials to benefit from it.
My first attempt to compensate for that was to introduce a "Feld" track, that is, a track used to break ties in scoring; whenever a player couldn't perform an action, they would advance on that track. This maybe overcompensated as players then tried to advance on that track by setting themselves up to not be able to take actions.
With more tweaks and lots of playtesting, I fixed a few problems at once:
I removed the recruiter action; instead players would gain an action card whenever their worker was not able to perform their action. (So that the total number of actions per player didn't change, the action card would let them do another action at any other time.)
I replaced the recruiter action with the "artwork" action (and the "stone" resource with "marble") and added extra slots for artwork in the buildings.
Then I introduced the city council. Now when the fourth disc is added to a slot, the eldest worker (at the bottom of the stack) is promoted to the city council and triggers a scoring. (Scoring tiles are randomly placed during setup in the city council.) In case of a tie, the city council decides the winner (the player with most seats). All this tied together very nicely and made thematic sense.
Playtesting was extremely useful, and every week I would come back home with a new problem and a deadline to solve it before the next playtest session. Slowly but surely, a few more tweaks were introduced over time, such as the white discs which when placed perform each action twice, but are not triggered again later and the scoring cards (which add some more uncertainty, provide a longer term goal during the game, and allow a player to keep contributing to areas that already scored, which was sometime an issue in the last rounds).
By the end of mid-2015, I was quite happy with the game: It played smoothly and within 75 minutes, even with five players. (The total number of discs doesn't change much between player counts: between 45 and 50.)
The game had undergone several playtest sessions, and I was now focusing on writing the rules, including going through a few "blind playtests" (where players learn the game from the rules and play without me, while I watch in silence and take notes). After a few iterations, the rules were clear enough.
In October 2015, almost by chance, I heard about the Hippodice competition when another designer from my playtest group mentioned it in conversation.
I checked online, and I thought that it could be a good way to do some actual blind playtests: Hippodice is a board game club in Germany, and every year they organize a competition for new designers where they play some prototypes for a few months and at the end, in the summer, they provide feedback to the authors.
So I applied (that was just a couple of days before the deadline) and sent the rules, and after a few weeks they asked for a prototype.
The winner is decided by a jury made mostly by German publishers, and every year one or two games among the finalists get usually published. I didn't really think I had a chance, and I was mostly interested in the feedback from the players, so when in March 2016 I got a quick message from a German email address telling me that my game won the competition, I thought it was some kind of joke from one of my fellow designers, moreso because it said that six publishers were interested and they couldn't agree on who should take my prototype, so they asked if I had a preference.
In the following days, a few publishers contacted me directly, and only then was I assured that this was not an elaborate prank. I quickly made a couple of prototypes and mailed them.
Eventually I signed a publishing contract with ADC Blackfire; Uli Blennemann (their main developer, who is also owner of Spielworxx) was very excited about the game and eager to publish it in time for SPIEL '17. Harald Lieske worked on the art, Uli kept me in the loop during the development, and I was able to provide input and feedback.
The game was well received at SPIEL. ADC Blackfire had a large booth with several tables, and Calimala was played constantly on at least six tables at a time during the whole fair. I had the chance to play it a few times with various people, and it was a lot of fun!
R. Eric Reuss
[Editor's note: Designer R. Eric Reuss submitted this designer diary prior to Gen Con 50, but given the shortness of supply at the time, I decided to hold off on publishing it until the game would be available again. Greater Than Games' Mara Johannes-Graham tells me that "Spirit Island is slated to be back in stock late November/early December", so for those still interested in learning more about the game, here you go! —WEM]
Spirit Island is a fully cooperative game in which you play spirits of nature who are driving off the invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan — the first humans to arrive, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well — but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental powers in order to prevail. It's a complex, strategic co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play.
Turns are simultaneous: All spirits grow, extending their reach and abilities, then you play power cards that will (eventually) affect the island. Fast powers resolve, then the invaders act, then slow powers resolve. Players lose if the island is overrun with blight, if a spirit is completely destroyed, or after twelve turns. At first, winning requires obliterating every last invader — which is extremely hard — but the more you terrify them, the easier victory becomes.
Creating Spirit Island has been a long road — over five years! I'll tell the story of its conception first, with a quick sketch of the arc it went through, then drill down into some individual areas of design.
One question that crops up a fair bit is, "How did you think of the theme?"
There was a moment during a colonization action (of which game I can no longer recall: Goa? Navegador? Endeavor?) where my focus on the game elements cracked and fell away, replaced by the thought, "I wonder how ticked off the locals are about this new colony of foreigners. Well, we'll never know because this game has entirely abstracted away the people who already lived there. That's rude." Maybe I shared the thought, maybe people laughed, and we got back to the game.
It stuck with me, though, because so many Eurogames have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game that portrayed the opposite point of view — that of being the subject of colonialism and trying to fight it off — could be interesting, and perhaps...highlight? lampoon?...the prevalence of Eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.
In retrospect, I could have taken an entirely different route: Find a specific colonial vs. anti-colonial struggle to try to model, going down a path that has led to, e.g., King of Siam and Volko Ruhnke's COIN series. Instead, my brain flew off down the path of a conflict that never was, but which could stand in for struggles against different colonial powers throughout history. Like many of my early ideas, this proved trickier than I first anticipated, but worthwhile in the long run.
By the time I'd fleshed out the initial idea, I had four primary goals branching off from the core goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that:
• ...was as thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror,
• ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay,
• ...and a playtime of roughly two hours,
• ...that wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking.
I'll revisit these goals later on.
Initial Design, a.k.a. Before Parenthood
Initial non-modular board concept
I knew I wanted the spirits to feel extremely different from each other, but without needing a huge set of customized rules for each one, so my core mechanical underpinnings had to support a wide variety of thematic elements, strategies, and styles-of-play. Daunting! But the enthusiasm of Ted Vessenes, a friend and fellow game designer, got me rolling. (Ted has been an incredible help with development throughout.) I brainstormed pages worth of "how could a spirit of nature, myth or legend act against humans it didn't want hanging around?", and where I saw frequently-repeated commonalities, I grouped them as areas under which to build pillars of mechanical support. The most-repeated concept was some variation of "hit them in the face", thus damage came to be.
I blasted through early versions which nobody else ever saw and put together a prototype to bring to a local con. Its reception was much, much better than I'd expected, given how rough the game was, and that it omitted several bits that I didn't want to introduce until the core-systems bedrock they'd be built upoon had settled down. There weren't even individual spirits yet; starting uniqueness was simulated by giving each player two random cards from the minor power deck.
I iterated rapidly through June and brought my prototype to Origins 2012. Christopher Badell of Greater Than Games happened to wander through the UnPub area where I'd set up and was super-enthusiastic about Spirit Island's potential; he said he hoped I found a good publisher for it, whether that proved to be >G or some other company. I took that as a good sign and came home feeling great!
But at that point, Spirit Island had to wait as my wife and I had our first child.
The Slow Years
Being a parent is awesome, but takes a lot of time and energy, particularly at first. We're fortunate enough to have family nearby, which got us back to having occasional free time + energy more quickly than some of our friends with kids, but even so, my pace of development slowed way down. While this was occasionally frustrating, in hindsight I think the metaphorical slow-cooker was good for the game: It made time for gradual revelations about core structures that might not have developed if I'd been blitzing along at speed.
I brought Spirit Island to pitch at Origins 2013 and did indeed end up signing with Greater Than Games. We began weekly development calls the following January, and in October 2014 unleashed a horde of >G's playtesters on it...because my wife and I were expecting our second child in January 2015! Those three months were intense and produced many worthwhile changes, and I handed off a set of notionally-final files to >G shortly after the New Year. (It was unclear when they'd Kickstart the game, and whether I'd be able to be involved.)
Then I took another hiatus to welcome another tiny human into the world.
Version 3 of the game board
By July 2015, I again had a bit of time and energy, and I slowly started to address the feedback that had built up over the prior six months. Greater Than Games ran a Kickstarter in September, which went well. Most stretch goals were already developed and simply needed economies of scale to include, but one — a third adversary for the core game — was genuinely new. October through December 2015 again turned into rapid-iteration testing, both designing the new adversary and handling a bunch of updates to spirits and power cards based on a more thorough understanding of the game.
I handed off actual-final files at the end of 2015, and aside from an insane frenzy of proofing in Aug.-Nov. 2016 and some eProofing look-overs in March 2017, that was it for me.
Those Design Goals...
How did they pan out?
...as thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror
Making a game involves constant tradeoffs. Any time you add, change, or drop something, you ask yourself: "Does this serve elegance?", "Does this serve balance?", "Does this serve excitement?", "Does this serve theme?", etc. When the answers differ, you prioritize, and what you're willing to trade for what-else influences the feel of the game you end up designing.
Historically, my natural tendency has been towards a Euro-ish aesthetic, but this theme cried out to be strongly served, and I wanted to stretch myself as a designer, so I made it an explicit goal to give thematic considerations a more prominent voice in my decision-making — and (once I got to the point of pitching) to make sure I felt that whoever published it was going to do justice to the game's theme in art and components.
How strongly theme comes through in any game is at least somewhat subjective, so whether I succeeded at this goal is something each player will have to judge for themselves. Personally, I'm very happy with where it ended up.
...with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay
Because of the tensions discussed above, high priority on "thematic" can sometimes lead to games that aren't especially high on meaningful choice. Play may offer an awesome ride, or result in a very intricate series of thematic things happening, but I like thought in my games: I want my tactics to matter, my strategy to be useful (or, perhaps, flawed), and to have the control to enact meaningful tactical and strategic choices.
Also, there are a lot of lighter cooperative games out there. Many are great on meaningful choice, but are fundamentally scoped to be smaller, shorter, more casual games, and I found myself wanting more of a "gamer's-game" co-op.
On this count, I'm confident I succeeded. There are core tactics and strategies to master, as well as variations and divergences for individual spirits or against particular adversaries. There's a huge amount of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.
...a playtime of roughly two hours
My target was "long enough to feel really significant, but short enough to fit into a game evening / not need a whole afternoon blocked off".
The playing time of a game is something that's notoriously difficult to specify accurately. Length varies with player experience and often with player count, and some playgroups are just way faster/slower than others. The industry standard seems to be "assume the players know the game", i.e., first plays will tend to run longer than listed. During playtesting, I polled a bunch of groups, and found a (very!) rough clustering near an average:
• 1p: 45 minutes
• 2p: 75 minutes
• 3p: 105 minutes
• 4p: 135 minutes
I was pretty surprised that game length scaled up roughly linearly with player count since all players act simultaneously! But once I started paying attention, I realized the difference wasn't in the mechanical play — it was in the discussion. With more players, the "discuss plans" portion of the game became both more engaging (more people to talk with) and longer (more options). Any player is allowed to call a halt to the planning and start resolution, so discussion didn't tend to go uselessly long; even longer games had the feel of "it took a while, but we were engaged the whole time".
(A few convention games did end up with a split between very fast-paced and very slow-paced players, and the fast-paced players didn't feel okay invoking the "done deciding now" rule with strangers at the table, but those were, happily, the rare exception rather than the rule.)
Given those numbers, what to put on the box? Having "45-135 minutes" isn't an especially useful time-range for someone browsing games in a store; it implies a lot of chaos that isn't there. But 105 minutes — the average of 2/3/4-player games — is the mean of "90-120 minutes", and "90-120 minutes" also accurately signals the rough weight/complexity-level of the game, so that's what we went with.
I judge this one a reasonable success. On average, the game comes in slightly faster than I'd originally aimed at, but the game still has a great arc and feels awesome, so I'm satisfied.
...wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking
A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the alpha player, that is, the one player (who is more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) who tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a difficulty with the player (or playgroup), a game's rules can absolutely make the tendency more or less prevalent, and more or less of a problem when it crops up.
The first iterations of Spirit Island had a rule which limited communication. The players were spirits of wildly diverse elements, after all, so they weren't allowed to discuss plans in any language shared at the start of play. They could use evocative noises and gestures/pantomime, and language was fine for things like rules questions, resolution of mechanisms, and "Hey, could you grab me a drink?" — just not what you were going to do on your turn.
This rule destroyed the alpha effect. Players could readily communicate simple concepts like "I'm going to hurt this land bad" or "I'm scared by this cluster of invaders over here", but the type of specific directive involved in alpha-ing just couldn't be gotten across. Perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule for how it felt thematic and encouraged roleplaying — but the other playtesters all hated it. For many people playing co-ops, much of the fun is puzzling through a problem together with friends, and excising the alpha-player problem had taken that out along with it.
I took a fallback position: Players could discuss whatever they liked, but couldn't show each other the power cards they were going to play, and they played these cards face down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage the emergence of alphas because you wouldn't have the information to be able to plan someone else's turn for them. This worked well, but playing power cards face down meant people had to constantly look at what they'd played, trying to remember details of their powers to ensure they hadn't made a mistake. It became clear that this was a bad idea, so I warily changed the rule to "you can show people your cards" and "play them face up"...
...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way toward discouraging alpha behavior, both because each player has enough to do with their own position that they don't meddle out of boredom, and because — especially in larger games — there's simply enough going on that keeping track of every detail of what every player is doing is too much for one human brain to easily hold. By mid-game, for example, each spirit might be playing three power cards (from a selection of 5-7) and perhaps triggering an innate power or two. Holding the choices in your head for your 3-4 powers isn't hard, but holding the choices in your head for the 8-16 powers being used by everyone at the table is really hard, and in practice discourages strong alpha behavior. (This also makes solo testing something of a bear. I can run two-spirit games by myself pretty comfortably, but I slow way down as soon as I start simulating three players.)
I've seen weak alpha-ing crop up from time to time, but rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn", it comes only in the form of specific requests, e.g., an experienced player asks a less experienced player to please use a particular power this turn, or an experienced player suggests a different target for a power the less experienced player has chosen. It's barely over the border from "good, healthy cooperation".
So I didn't manage the complete immunity I was shooting for but did manage some resistance, albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!
Now to cover some individual areas of design, with these sections being taken or condensed from individual entries in my "Musings and Retrospectives" blog on BGG. You'll find many more such areas covered there.
Powers (original post)
Powers are what the spirits use to act within the game. There are power cards (cards in your hand) and innate powers (printed on your spirit's panel). Power cards cost energy to play, and you're limited in how many you can use each turn. Innate powers don't have either of those restrictions, but they're triggered only on turns that you've played certain combinations of elements on your power cards (those things running down the left-hand side).
A prototype minor power card
Each spirit starts with four unique power cards. More can be gained as the game goes on, from the minor power and major power decks. Major powers are very potent, but have high energy costs, and to gain one you have to "forget" ( that is, lose forever) a power you already know.
The core concept of power cards has existed from the beginning of the design. Innate powers — and the elements themselves — were conceived of alongside them, but absent from the initial prototypes to make sure the underlying systems of the game worked before layering other pieces atop them.
The major areas of mechanical evolution have been:
The first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like eight phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to six, which went something like:
1. Buffs to other spirits
2. Defense powers
3. First invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty thing to invaders
5. Do another sort of nasty thing to invaders
6. Second invader action
By the time I got the design in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was relevant only in the second half of the game. (The invader deck had two cards of each terrain. The first time through, the invaders acted once per turn at #3. After you reshuffled, they acted at #3 *and* #6.)
It didn't take many playtests to find the split between #1 and #2 terribly awkward, so I condensed powers down to "fast" (before invaders) and "slow" (after invaders). Phase #6 was eliminated, replaced by the two-terrain Stage III invader cards.
A year or so ago, I looked into dropping the fast/slow distinction entirely, making everything fast. On a mechanical level, this would have worked; it would even have streamlined the game some, and satisfied those testers who disliked having their plans messed with by events — but it would have been a huge hit on theme. The spirits are supposed to by-and-large be slower than the invaders, scrambling to anticipate and react in time. Making everything fast removed that. It also lowered power diversity, gutted one very popular spirit concept, and removed a particular type of planning that I (and many of the game's fans) especially liked about it.
(Making everything slow would have eliminated entire categories of defense cards, or required awkward carry-over-to-the-next-turn effects. It was a non-starter.)
So I decided that the slow/fast split ought to stay, but worked on developing "blitz": a simple scenario that lets players play with entirely-fast spirits, either to explore the difference in feel, or if they just prefer that mode of play.
(This possibility was another reason to go the way I did as making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)
A prototype major power card
Power cards used to be able to have more than one of an element: two fire and one plant, for instance. This turned out to be a bad idea.
First, counting seems to be much easier on the brain than adding, even when the addition is "one plus one plus two plus one". Playtesters had a substantially harder time adding up their elements than counting them up.
And with no more than one of an element on each card, "number of card plays per turn" is a general ceiling on how many elements of any type a spirit can have. This allows for much easier calibration of innate powers: If an innate triggers off of four water, I know it can't be hit without playing four cards. (Modulo any elements on the spirit's presence track and a few co-op effects.)
What sorts of powers are there?
Early versions of the game included many effects that are no longer present. There were a whole mess of additional effect-tokens that could be put onto the board. There were divination effects, which let you peek at what the invaders were going to do next. There were multi-turn powers that ramped up for each turn you kept them in play.
All of these ended up being dropped or deferred for one reason or another, usually complexity, though a few just never ended up working well, and learning what the invaders will do ahead of time turns out to be too much information, making things un-fun.
Energy values used to be about 3x what they currently are, with costs running up into the high 20s. There was a long energy track on the spirit mats to accommodate this, with "+50" and "+100" spots.
Someone at a local testing meet-up suggested lowering the granularity on all energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant as the fine granularity meant I could base a power's effects entirely off of its theme, then cost it very precisely, but the advantages were so huge that I eventually took the advice, and oi, I'm glad I did. Slashing costs by a factor of three (then lowering them all by one energy to make each play more intrinsically powerful and permit very-low-energy, lots-of-small-power strategies) dropped the range to 0-9, which is great for card layout, eases the need for addition (especially since most numbers are 0 or 1), and permits using "coins" for energy instead of a space-eating, too-easy-to-bump track.
The first versions of major powers didn't grant elements, and flatly required certain elements to play at all. Both these things proved un-fun and were replaced by "if you have certain elements, the power does more", which worked about a hundred times better.
The cost for gaining a major power shifted many times. At one point or another, you had to:
• Pay energy
• Destroy one of your sacred sites (back when sacred sites were a separate piece)
• Destroy your presence
• And other things I can no longer remember
The solution of forgetting cards you already had came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something that permanently removed power cards from circulation, partly because every once in a while, someone got a minor power draw in which all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances), and partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of powers in the late game, especially if they didn't have many card-plays. Forgetting another power to get a major power addressed both issues, and also worked well thematically; gaining a major power is a big step up for most spirits, and it made sense they'd have to lose a little bit of who they were in order to become a being incorporating this new, massive thing.
(One of the side themes of the game is "How will you change in the face of adversity?")
A prototype spirit panel with innate power at lower right
For a long time, spirits had three unique powers and three standard starting powers. Two of the standard powers added presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a sacred site) in different ways, and one let you send dreams to the Dahan telling them to move.
At PAX East 2014, I played a number of nicely thematic-feeling games, and somewhere in there I looked at Spirit Island and said, "These standard powers are diluting the unique feel of each spirit." I'd previously considered giving each spirit unique presence-adding powers, but felt that was asking for trouble; not every spirit wants really distinctive ways of getting presence on the board, and designing the game such that I had to come up with two interesting and thematic presence-adding power cards for every spirit seemed like asking for trouble.
But after wracking my brain for a while, I came up with a different plan: Give each spirit a unique power for their relationship with the Dahan, and don't add presence with powers at all. Instead, roll that and the things covered by "seeking" (an old mechanism for reclaiming used power cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called "growth", i.e., the organic processes which didn't involve a spirit using special powers, just...growing, living, changing. Each spirit could have different growth choices, and while the atomic pieces of those options could be very simple ("Add a presence at range 1"), the way they were grouped could, I thought, let different spirits feel appropriately different and offer strategic choice in how they progress. (And indeed, it does.)
It took roughly six months for the major side-effects of this change to shake out, and over a year for me to get as good a handle on growth as I'd had on the previous system — but the benefits have been fantastic: spirits' starting powers are entirely unique. Spirits need fewer card plays (since they used to need an average of one/turn for presence placement), which makes early game decisions more manageable for new players, as does having fewer powers overall (which also benefits later-game hand size). It's removed certain presence-spamming openings, which makes it easier to predict/design around a spirit's rough power-level at any point in the game. It allows growth design to influence how a spirit spreads and feels while spreading. And...
How power cards are gained
...in the old seeking model, spirits gained a new power card only when they reclaimed all of their spent power cards (which cost some energy at end-of-turn). The shift to growth decoupled "reclaim powers" from "gain a power card", which permitted a much greater diversity of tempo among spirits. Many still kept one growth option with the two of them together, and it's a good dynamic, especially for beginning players (since if you dig yourself into the hole of "I'm playing so many power cards that I have to reclaim every turn", it automatically self-corrects by giving you more power cards). But spirits could now have other options for gaining power cards, and some spirits separated doing so from reclaiming entirely.
Adversaries (original post)
An adversary is a specific invader nation to fight against. Each one changes the game in different ways, and offers multiple levels of difficulty, starting at "a step up from the learning game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have maybe a 50-50 shot of winning". Making an adversary tends to involve the following:
1. Research on the country's historical colonization efforts and society-at-large, with a particular eye towards "How were they distinct from other colonizers/countries of that time period?" If it's a country that didn't have much colonial activity in real history, "why not?" and "how is the alternate history different?" are important to know, too. I may do this research myself (which is fun, but time-consuming) or get a precis/have a discussion with someone who has a deeper body of knowledge than my own.
2. Brainstorm possibilities for representing the distinctive items from #1 in game terms.
3. Find a core gameplay element (or pair of elements) to modify/subvert, changing up the game in interesting ways. Ideally, this is based off of the possibilities in #2 so that the core element reflects historical/alt-historical reality.
4. Experiment with different progressions to see which make for a good difficulty ramp. Make sure the core element from #3 appears early on in the progression. (Level 1 or Level 2.)
English everywhere (image: Erkki Lepre)
Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (U.S., Australia) tended to have much greater immigration and population than most other nations' colonies, and some of the reasons behind/consequences of that fact. Also, that Britain gave its colonies greater (though still limited) autonomy in self-governance: Decisions could be made locally which in other countries' colonies might have required taking six months to consult the homeland.
Brainstorm: How to represent "more population"? How to represent the land grants given to indentured laborers? How to represent local self-governance? There were multiple possibilities for each; I listed a number out.
Core element: One idea looked particularly promising for shaking up play with a historically-inspired feel. Normally, invaders build only in lands which already have other invaders in them (at least an explorer). But "indentured laborers gaining land" could be represented by ignoring that restriction; lands bordering multiple towns/cities could build even if unexplored, representing local laborers earning their plots (without much choice about where those plots are). Repelling explorers to prevent building is a core tactic of the game; this rule foils that tactic in areas of invader strength.
I then chose several of England's other effects to help support this core element: representing "more immigration" with an extra build action means the indentured-laborers rule crops up more. Starting each board with two extra buildings makes the coastal regions vulnerable to it from the get-go. And so forth. Multiple adversary designs might subvert the rule "invaders build only in lands where they already are", but they'll do so in different ways, and part of that difference is what other effects support the core modification.
...and from there, it's been experimentation to figure out good orderings and testing to figure out if it all works.
But it doesn't always happen in that order.
This adversary arose from a playtester request for an adversary that made the game harder, but changed the basic dynamics of play as little as possible. I was initially a bit resistant; the whole point of adversaries was to present a unique opponent requiring different strategies! After some conversation, though, it became clear that testers usually reached "desire for increased difficulty" before reaching "desire for increased variety in strategy-space", so they won me over.
In this case, I started with step #3 — find a core gameplay element — because I had a particular mechanical purpose in mind. The boost that least changes the core strategies of the game is speed, so the invaders would simply come faster, more accelerated. ("Start the board with more invaders" changes dynamics even less, but doesn't work well as a core element; I'll talk more about this below.) As the design evolved, simplicity also became a core consideration: Brandenburg has no additional rules to remember; all of its changes are performed during set-up. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play since there's a big flag icon on some invader cards that tells you, "Go do that thing.")
From the core gameplay element, I went back to #1 and looked for a nation of the era which had a reputation (either past or contemporary) for speed/ruthless efficiency/a certain driven focus. Prussia seemed to fit the bill, so I read up on it a bit and found that one King of Brandenburg (a partial predecessor) had had colonial ambitions, but had been blocked from pursuing them by a number of fundamental factors: lack of navy/coast access, low population due to war, etc. In some cases I came up with plausible alternate-history changes to mitigate these factors, while in others I handwaved. (This was before Paul created a unified alternate history of Europe.)
Ranges of Threat
One requirement of an adversary is that it make the game harder. On the face of it, this looks trivial. The game has many levers to pull, so just make some invader action/stat/behavior nastier, and you're done.
But it's not quite that simple. For starters, it's pretty easy to flat-out make the game too hard. As well, there are several important ranges to consider:
Range of player skill: Some things that add difficulty for beginning players won't make the game appreciably harder for more experienced players because the experienced players are already avoiding the circumstances you've made nastier. For instance, the single effect of "Cities have +3 health and do +3 damage" might be problematic for newer players, but more experienced players will simply never allow a new city to be built and will gain overall board control swiftly enough to dig for major powers and handle the starting cities before that rule has overmuch impact. You can get around this with synergies between adversary abilities; if some other effect were "whenever there are two explorers in a land, they turn into a city", then cities will threaten much more often! It's fine if an adversary's Level 1 effect doesn't impact really good players much, so long as later effects make it relevant when they're playing at an appropriate difficulty level.
Range of time over the game: Both invaders and spirits increase in effectiveness over the course of the game, the spirits a bit every turn, and the invaders in larger steps as they hit new stages in the invader deck. You can envision it as a pair of upwards-sloping curves, each competing to rise higher than each other. Different changes alter the invaders' power-curve at different points. For a simple example, consider "add more invader buildings during set-up". This makes the opening game much harder, but doesn't provide much ongoing bonus to threats: the invaders aren't adding any greater quantity of units over time, nor are their units more problematic to the spirits. By turn 5-8, those extra buildings will either have caused an early spirit loss or have mostly faded to the status of "juicy targets". On the other end of the spectrum, consider "When exploring, Stage III invader cards add a town in addition to the normal explorer." This is brutal in late-game, but has no impact whatsoever until the middle of Turn 7.
(Digression: Adversary tempo interacts interestingly with spirit development speed. Some spirits by nature are very fast out of the gate, others crest in midgame, still others are weak early yet phenomenal in endgame, but growth choices affect development speed: players choose whether (and how) to push long-term growth vs. short-term board control. It's obvious that different adversary abilities make certain powers more/less desirable, but subtler is that different adversary abilities make certain tempo choices more/less desirable.)
Range of spirits facing the adversary: Some spirits will be stronger and some weaker against a given adversary; there's no getting around that. But it's still important to keep in mind that a variety of different play-styles and power combinations will be going up against an adversary, and try to keep any of them from being flatly useless. For instance, England's indentured-laborers rule would have been simpler if it said "Invaders build even in lands without invaders" — none of this checking-adjacent-buildings stuff. But in addition to being less thematic, this would have been bad design since explorer-control powers would become irrelevant to the game. Instead, they're relegated from "central strategy" to "niche effect" — very useful if you manage to mostly-clear an area... but you have to work for it.
Types of colonization (or why you probably won't see Spain anytime soon)
Very roughly speaking, there were three broad categories of European colonies:
1. Colonization-and-immigration: Lots of people sent over to live in a new land — perhaps for its resources, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps as a societal pressure-valve. One iconic example is Britain colonizing North America.
2. Conquest-and-subjugation: Some immigration, but not nearly as much as #1. Instead, the colonials subjugated the local inhabitants to demand tribute / enslave them / require work from them. One iconic example is Spain's conquistadors, and the encomienda/repartimiento systems in Latin America.
3. Factory-and-trade: Relatively low immigration, usually to a single coastal city intended to act as point-of-presence for the nation's trade in the region. This required good relations with the local leader, perhaps through gifts or diplomacy, perhaps by backing one leader/tribe/faction (to the detriment of others) or by simply outright installing a local ruler. One iconic example is the Portuguese trade colonies chaining out to the East Indies.
The core mechanisms of Spirit Island represent #1: colonization-and-immigration-type colonies. But not all exploring countries performed that type of colonization, so there are some historical powers that you won't see, at least for now. (I'm confident the game could be extended to conquest adversaries. Trade adversaries are trickier, but I have some ideas.)
This limitation is actually one of the motivations for the alternate-history of Europe: to have more potential colonizing powers (especially type #1) than we actually saw historically. I'd originally planned on not going into too much detail, for fear of having just enough knowledge to metaphorically hang myself with, but Paul at Greater Than Games loves history and has come up with a great split off our own past that serves the game really well and makes for an interesting contemplation of how just a few things shaking out differently might have changed the course of Europe! (And he even made it compatible with the alternate Brandenburg-Prussia...)
The Dahan (original post)
The Dahan are the first human inhabitants of Spirit Island, who have resided there long enough to develop their own language and culture — particularly since travel to other islands was made more difficult by a particularly hungry ocean spirit a few centuries ago.
At the game's start, the Dahan are just recovering from the foreign diseases which swept across the island in the wake of the first major invader settlements. They will work with the spirits if requested and fight back against the invaders if attacked, but otherwise tend to their own affairs.
Creating Dahan culture: research and art
Most of the lore of Spirit Island has been put together in piecemeal bits here and there, but the Dahan are a notable exception. I wanted to make the Dahan culture a plausible one, reflecting the realities of living on an island with early tech and limited trade, while also wanting to ensure that it wasn't a caricature of "island primitives" or "noble savages". On the third hand, I wanted them to be their own people, avoiding appropriation of elements specific to other individual cultures.
I hit the library, the internet, and some JSTOR articles a historian friend was kind enough to pull up for me. No single book had the sort of overview-of-island-culture-similarities I was seeking, so I ended up drilling down on individual topics, e.g., a survey of tattooing practices across Oceania, and on particular cultures or types-of-cultures.
The end result of this research was a 25-30 page overview of Dahan culture (and a bit of history). I'm simultaneously proud of it and keenly aware of how limited it is since entire books are insufficient to describe real-world cultures. But while it's incomplete (some sections are blank, or placeholders), it's still enough, I think, to make the Dahan their own people, not a copy-paste-tweak of another culture.
Of course, the largest area of visibility most players have into the Dahan comes through the artwork. I distilled my page-long art guidelines for the Dahan to a list of more essential bullet-points with some image-links for reference, but I was two degrees removed from the art creation (and never in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly two hundred pieces of art, not everything came through consistently. However, the #1-most-important request was honored in nearly every case: The Dahan are people. They're lanky, chunky, graceful, clumsy, angry, laughing women and men, not fetishized super-athletes or freaky cannibals out of a dime-store novel.
(Some power cards depict them as affected by the spirits — veiled in darkness, or with wings — but hopefully, it's obvious that any supernatural elements are the effects of what the spirit is doing. The Dahan have no magic themselves, though they do occasionally assist spirits' rituals via dance, song, offerings, the making of patterns, etc.)
Where did the name "Dahan" come from?
For most of development, they were simply "the islanders", though I knew I wanted to name them eventually: the words "islander" and "invader" look too similar on a quick glance, and besides, to feel like a real people they needed a name!
After finishing my research on their culture, I set about brainstorming a name. How hard could it be? My only constraints were:
1. It shouldn't be too long or imposing to pronounce, or else people won't use it, and it'll take up too much space when referenced on cards. This was before I knew that card effects would use iconography for physical pieces.
2. It should use the sounds of their language. A linguist friend had been kind enough to help me develop a plausible list of phonemes that wouldn't localize to any single part of the world that I could use when specifying names used by the islanders.
3. It shouldn't be confusing when read out loud as part of game effects. For instance, the name "Atu" looks fine until you say "Push one Atu to a jungle", whereupon the sound-similarity to "two"/"to" makes it confusing.
4. It shouldn't sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
5. It shouldn't be the name of an existing or recently-existing peoples/ethnic group. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a long-ago one either.
6. It shouldn't be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a prominent regional location.
7. It shouldn't be a curse/dirty word in some other language. Ideally, it wouldn't be a word with a strong negative connotation, either.
It turned out that #1 and #2 (concise; world-common phonemes) made the last three criteria much more difficult because short names made from phonemes used worldwide tend to have been used already! It took a lot of brainstorming, Googling, and use of websites which answer "What does [X] mean in other languages?" At one point I had a shortlist of about eight candidates — all of which turned out to not work!
Eventually I found a few names that worked, and "Dahan" met the criteria best. It does mean "slow" in Tagalog, but a friend's family from the Philippines said it wasn't in a negative-connotation way, more one of "deliberate/not-hasty", so Dahan it was!
Since Spirit Island came out, a few people have pointed out that "Dahan" rhymes with "Catan" (depending how you pronounce the latter) and asked whether this was intentional. I'm afraid it's entirely coincidence — or possibly a result of both Klaus Teuber and I following a similar set of constraints. (I don't know how he came up with the name "Catan".)
Since we're talking about it, how do you pronounce "Dahan", anyhow?
Both "a" sounds are an "ah" like in "father". (Or very close to that. Apparently English does this sound slightly differently than much of the world?) Light emphasis on the second syllable.
Why both spirits and Dahan?
On occasion, someone asks why there are both spirits and Dahan. Wouldn't it suffice to have just one of them resisting the invaders? It's true that just one or the other would have been simpler, but either such game had problems that I felt outweighed the simplicity.
"Just spirits, no Dahan"
• Thematically, it loses the human vs. human aspect of colonization, shifting the theme of the game away from "anti-colonial" towards "environmental". While I'm all for respecting the environment, it was the colonial nature of so many Eurogames I was looking to reverse.
• Socially, to the extent the game remains anti-colonial, the spirits then end up standing in for the (absent) indigenous peoples. This portrays the indigenous peoples as inhuman, magical, Other — which is not something I want to be doing.
• Mechanically, the Dahan are a strong part of the positional challenge of the game. Some spirit powers require assistance from from the Dahan: the Dahan fight (for good or ill) in ravaging terrains; fear effects may cause the invaders to flee from lands with Dahan; and more. Dropping them would result in a blander experience.
• Finally, the players of the game are human, and so empathize with the Dahan in a way they don't with the spirits. On an abstract mechanical level, a Dahan village being destroyed merely costs a resource useful in throwing back the invaders — but many players viscerally want to save the Dahan, independent of any mechanical value or utility. That's important.
"Just Dahan, no spirits"
• Thematically, this would be a completely different game, not Spirit Island!
• Socially, a game with just the Dahan shouldn't involve magic. They're a different culture, sure, but human just like us, and that's part of the point; shifting spirit-like powers onto them (as "tribal magics" or the like) makes them just as much of a magical-other as having the spirits stand in for them.
• Many of the mechanisms spirits use don't work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: presence, energy, elements, powers, growth, and more.
• Mechanisms for invader interaction with the Dahan would also need to change, e.g., historically, colonizers often played local tribes off against each other. In Spirit Island, there are shades of this — attacking one group of Dahan doesn't incite Dahan elsewhere to counterattack — but the existence of the spirits means these techniques don't work as well as they did historically (partly because "the will of the spirits is against the invaders" is clearer, partly because many centuries of "us vs. the spirits" gave rise to a measure of common cultural identity among the Dahan, despite clan differences). Likewise for cultural assimilation, which would likely have needed to take on a more prominent role.
• The above mechanical-thematic changes would have removed many of the things testers had said they particularly enjoyed about the game: the fantasy of the setting, the evocative nature of the spirits, the slow build-up from limited minor abilities to earth-shattering levels of power.
In short, "Dahan Island" would have been an entirely different game on nearly every level.
Despite all that, I did — twice — take a hard look at reworking the game as Dahan-only because in a co-op, only player-run positions have true agency, and I don't like that the Dahan lack that. I'm hoping that Spirit Island will prove successful enough to support expansions as I have some notions for making the Dahan a playable position, which I think would be awesome; playing them alongside the spirits gets around many of the difficulties above and could result in an interestingly different type of play.
Ancestry vs. culture
When two peoples meet and mingle, there will be some level of cultural transmission — and perhaps assimilation. Spirit Island has this in both directions: the Kingdom of Sweden can convert Dahan to their cause (via policies that favor and protect locals who voluntarily join their rule), and the power card "Call of the Dahan Ways" can call invaders to a way of life like the Dahan's.
I knew from the start that I needed to include some amount of assimilation (Spirit Island slightly downplays it vs. historically, as mentioned above), and the simple, straightforward way to represent it was simply to replace a Dahan piece with a town or vice versa. But for a while, I felt weird about that solution, and I continued with it only because I couldn't come up with a good replacement. I eventually realized I was subconsciously assuming that pieces represented both race and culture — and replacing one type of piece with another means rather different things in those two different contexts!
At that point, I formalized that whether a set of humans is represented by a Dahan or invader piece represents culture — or, a little more precisely, how that set of humans interacts with the land, the spirits, and each other.
This later helped me to figure out ways to handle more complex situations, e.g., plantation slaves who have successfully rebelled when playing vs. the French plantation colony. Assuming they avoid the invaders' mistakes and try to go live off the land, should that factor into the gameplay? How? My eventual answer: When Dahan assistance proves critical to a local uprising, it creates enough of a bridge of trust for the two to work together: the former slaves are helped by the Dahan to survive in the wilds — becoming more culturally Dahan in the process — and lend aid to the Dahan. Without that trust, the former slaves strike off on their own, and the hostile environment keeps them too small in number and preoccupied with survival to play a further part in the conflict.
How have the Dahan evolved mechanically?
The Dahan are mechanically very similar to their initial incarnation. There were originally more of them per board (8), but they did only one damage each when counterattacking. Making their health and damage symmetrical (2/2) was easier to remember, clearly placed them as analogues of the invaders' towns, and — once I'd fleshed out their culture — was more thematically appropriate.
Not precisely a Dahan mechanism but strongly related is how the invaders apply ravage damage, which shifted around many times. At first they damaged three things in sequence: one of (presence or Dahan), then the other of those, then the land. When presence stopped taking damage (instead being destroyed by blight), the Dahan would either take damage before or after the land, depending on the game's iteration (or player choice, in some iterations). For a little while, there was a notion of Dahan morale, where they were either bold (took damage before the land) or cautious (took damage afterwards), but that complexity brought little benefit and was quickly dropped.
It became clear that making ravage damage mostly deterministic (i.e., not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go as it kept ravage streamlined and was a bit more thematic. But "land first" made Dahan counterattacks too easy, and "Dahan first" turned the Dahan into a blight buffer, which both made the board position seem more under control than was true and introduced a "constantly sacrificing the Dahan" dynamic that I really didn't like.
Eventually, I tried having the invaders damage both the Dahan and the land simultaneously and equally, and it worked much better than anything prior; it's a slightly more complex rule, but is deterministic (keeping ravage streamlined), and makes the invaders an equal-and-simultaneous threat to both spirits and Dahan, which fits the mood of the game best and is more thematically true: expansion of farmed territory went hand-in-hand with increased conflicts vs. the local populace.
The only other change to the Dahan I can think of comes from event cards in the Branch & Claw expansion. Each of those has a Dahan event; perhaps they ready defenses against the invaders, perhaps they seek better lands to live in, perhaps enough time has passed for a new generation to come of age. It's not full agency, but it gives them a sense of life and autonomy and helps them feel a little less like obedient minions and more like allies with lives of their own.
Thieves entered the dark while unaware city guards were waiting impatiently for the end of their duty, not knowing how many things would change for the Empire by the time this night was done.
Hello, my name is Sławek Stępień, and I am the designer of Age of Thieves, an adventure and strategy board game released by Galakta in 2016. Following the game's success, 2017 will see the first expansion called Masters of Disguise along with base games published in German, French, and Spanish. However, you can learn a lot about such things from the official materials; in this short article, I wish to focus on my work on the expansion itself.
The expansion was being developed even before the base game was ready. A very thankful subject, flexible mechanisms, and many possibilities to create interesting solutions resulted in new ideas flooding my head every time I playtested Age of Thieves. More often than not, the question was not how to enrich the gameplay or how to expand a given element of the game, but rather what to choose from the things we already had so that the game would not be overburdened, but more exciting. Everyone who knew the base game well was tempted to add lots of elements to it, so the fact that some people were able to say "Stop!" and keep things in balance turned out to be a true blessing. Certain ideas returned to the drawer to wait for their time, while others were chosen to be highlighted.
The actual work on the first expansion started in January 2017, about two months after the game's premiere. The game's warm welcome and very positive reviews motivated me and the Galakta development team to get to work immediately. The first thing to be decided was the main theme of the expansion. We exchanged tons of ideas, but finally settled with one: If the game is about thieves, stealing, burglaries and such, we should focus even more and expand upon this. A few weeks later, the basics of the Masters of Disguise expansion were set. This way we could return to the streets of Hadria to prove once again that no doors are locked and no treasure safe.
We also wished players to experience even more deeply the vibrant, yet somewhat dark setting of Age of Thieves. Hadria is so much more than the magnificent Emperors' Jewel and the city guard patrolling the streets. Hadria is full of people from various walks of life: law enforcers, women both pious and base, wealthy nobles and stinking poor, artisans and merchants, but most of all, masters of thievery with their unique personalities and motivations.
Therefore, Masters of Disguise introduces two new characters: Julien, Disturbed Actor, who is able to adjust his strategy to every situation, and Delilah, Humble Scavenger, a woman who can make a strange contraption even from rubbish. These characters could not be more different; the actor feels right at home improvising on the stage, while for the scavenger, garbage dumps and gutters offer a plethora of opportunities. When Julien basks in glory of his talent, Delilah is shunned and avoided, left to her cursed traps and mechanisms. Both hale from completely different worlds, yet they are connected to the city where everyone can find their place as long as they are capable and resourceful.
Another new concept we focused on was the burglary. You can enrich the game by using two new game modes: Palace and City Burglaries. With two specialized decks and dedicated burglary mechanisms, every session will be even more strategic and engaging. Additionally, all cards are full of flavor text, making your Hadria adventure both epic and fun.
A third thing worth mentioning here is the Sewers Deck. No longer will you easily "teleport" yourself around the city every time you enter the sewers. From now on, you must be willing to take certain risks as the Undercity is dangerous even for the most cunning of thieves.
Finally, we chose to expand upon the main idea of the game, to change the goal and the gameplay itself, thus enabling players to experience Age of Thieves on a completely new level. In order to do this, we created the first scenario, an alternative game mode giving players a chance to focus on different kinds of tasks — tasks perhaps not as spectacular as stealing the Emperors' Jewel, but no less rewarding and exciting. I am sure that after the Night of Broken Shutters scenario featured in Masters of Disguise that utilizes completely new game components, such as Burglary Markers, many other scenarios will follow, so that every thief will get a chance to use their abilities in many creative ways. Experienced players in particular should think of scenarios as new fields on which to test their wits and knowledge of the game.
To sum up, I just can't wait to lay my hands on the final box of Masters of Disguise. I hope that those past months full of brainstorms and testing will result in a product that will appease your rogue appetites as much as it does mine.
[Editor's note: My apologies to Sławek for not publishing this designer diary prior to SPIEL '17; I ran out of time before I ran out of things to do. —WEM]
Asger Harding Granerud
Early Flamme Rouge prototype
If you have at all followed Flamme Rouge's life here on BGG, it should come as no surprise that an expansion would be coming. From before the base game released in late 2016, I had released extra print-and-play expansions in the files section. Since then, fans from around the world have helped develop these things and provided lots of input that has inspired me — not least the awesome Benoît Gourdin from France, who contacted me out of the blue and asked whether he could turn the Grand Tour campaign mode into a completely free companion app (Android and IoS). This is just one example where a fan vastly improved upon what I was doing, and personally I haven't looked back. However, the community has also worked on solo play, lots of stages, velodrome rules, mountain and sprint jerseys for the tours, and much, much more.
Therefore, the hardest choice was to decide what to include and what to cut (for now!) in the Flamme Rouge: Peloton expansion — and I am certain that whatever I chose, there would be some who wished I had prioritized otherwise. Nonetheless, I decided early that I really wanted to expand the player count of the base game. I hated the idea of Flamme Rouge staying on the shelf simply because five people had turned up for game night. If you like the game, I want to give you as many opportunities as possible to bring it to the table, so we added two new teams: white and pink.
From One to Twelve in...One Box
We didn't stop there, though. We also added official solo rules with two different types of AI directly developed by ideas from fans here on BGG. It is fantastic to see how the solo community here has embraced the game! These AI teams can be added to other player counts, too. Add a peloton team to a two-player game, or add two different AI teams to your four-player group and experience the full twelve riders on the road.
The official variant included in the expansion also allows you to play with up to twelve players, all playing free for all! This twelve-player game still plays in 30 minutes because each player has to consider only one rider. Since you can't coordinate your two riders, this variant emphasizes that you have to second guess what everyone else is doing. Of course twelve players also means that on average you will win only 1/12 of the games played, so as in real-life cycling, you have to learn to lose MUCH more than you win and still love it just for the chase! WARNING: You might need a very large table or have all players stand for the entire game.
When I first designed Flamme Rouge, I actually had it as a 2-5 player game — so why was it released as a 2-4 player game? The explanation is quite simple. During the first year, I introduced the game to a lot of people. If there were 2-3 of them, I almost always joined (because I enjoy playing it myself, and still do!). If there were four players, I started skipping and staying out simply to watch. To me, the game got a little worse at five players for a primary and a secondary reason. First, breakaways were harder to pull off, and they provide a lot of the game's tension. Second, congestion meant that riders could end up losing several movement points out of the blue.
These are what I see as the key design challenges in expanding the player count here: congestion and randomization.
CONGESTION: In Flamme Rouge, the road is only two lanes wide. This means that any third rider trying to access a square is blocked and loses movement. Each point of movement is important, so this is a big deal, particularly because losing movement can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can escalate. You start at the back, try to leapfrog ahead, get blocked, and find yourself in the same position. The issue increases just at the foot of ascends as that terrain feature further blocks your move. With four players and eight riders (two per player), this effect is already present, but at this player count it is a feature, not a bug — something occasional that catches unaware riders out.
However, with twelve riders on the track at the same point, this effect greatly increases, and the risk of chained blocks where you can't even fit on the next free space but end up losing 2-3 squares at once explodes.
Solution? The first solution to this problem is pretty straightforward. Widen the road with a third lane, and the risk of blocking declines dramatically. We tested and found that having these at the start of the stage where riders are most bunched, then at a few key other points of the stage, was again enough to make this congestion a feature and not a bug — well, once we included the solution to the randomization issue explained below.
When you are used to seeing at most eight riders on the track, twelve looks intimidating
RANDOMIZATION: I'll explain the main crux of this problem by first exaggerating it. If you roll a single die, there is a 1/6 chance any result will show up. If you roll one thousand dice, the average will be very close to 3.5. Why is this important in Flamme Rouge? Because the game needs random outliers or else breakaways will never happen. Regardless of how wide we make the road, if we gather one hundred riders in a pack, then breaking away will be almost impossible because somebody in that sample will play (or be forced to play) a card that catches you immediately.
The game lives off the tension created by chases, with the chased trying to stay ahead, burning high cards to do so and knowing they now can't compete in a sprint, and with the chasers trying to spend just enough energy to catch them, but save enough to beat the rest in the sprint. Tipping that balance one way or the other can quickly remove some of the key tension.
Solution? The idea I came up with is to reduce the number of dice I roll, or rather reduce the number of riders in the pack. That idea goes counter to the stated goal of the expansion, which is to increase the riders in the pack, but what if we split the pack from the start of the race by taking 1-2 of the riders that would otherwise add to the congestion problem and moving them ahead of the pack. We do this from the start when the congestion problem is largest, and thus minimize it. In a 5-6 player game, up to two riders can go into a breakaway, but the rules also transfer to lower player counts where you send only one rider ahead.
Of course this idea needs balancing to ensure the breakaway has a shot at winning, but not too big a shot. Initially I tried to brute force this balancing, which never quite worked 100%. Then the game's graphic designer Jere Kasanen suggested the perfect solution: Bid for it! This means that the "correct" bid can change based on the stage layout (as some are more suitable for breakaways than others), your starting position, or any starting exhaustion (from handicap or Grand Tours). If you've ever seen the start of a cycle race — and I don't mean when the broadcasting normally starts two hours into a race — there can be quite hectic "bidding" to get away. This solution was less clunky than my first attempts, and it also benefits from mimicking the existing round structure, now just translated into a two-stage bid/auction.
Whenever I do get into the breakaway, the lead always seems so fragile, and the peloton so large
Regardless of whether or not you envision Flamme Rouge as only the last kilometer or as the last one hundred, the narrative holds, and all we've done is to speed forward a few turns from a normal race in which a breakaway succeeded.
However, the best part of these breakaways to me is that they also create tension from the beginning. Yes, they help solve a mechanical problem of occasional congestion at larger player counts, but they always add drama at any player count by injecting asymmetry from the first round. I've seen breakaways hold all the way because the peloton didn't agree to chase or split up into multiple minor packs themselves. I have also seen breakaways fail to cooperate or attempt to get greedy with low cards initially, then be caught within the first round or two.
The Peloton expansion also includes two new tile types, aside from the breakaway tile, namely the cobblestones prominently featured on the cover of the box and the supply zones that are also three lanes wide to accommodate the congestion issue. I enjoy how I have been able to change gameplay just by manipulating the tiles and using the already introduced rules in slightly new ways.
SUPPLY ZONES: Supply zones in the Peloton expansion introduce a new rule, or rather an old rule as it has a minimum speed of 4. They work almost exactly like the descends, but the reduction in speed is much more important than you would think at first glance.
From a micro-level perspective, these zones are an abstraction, but only in timed delay. The effect of supply/feed zones in a real race is that you get a small burst of energy if exhausted. In Flamme Rouge, the effect is immediate, whereas in real cycling the effect is in the following kilometers. Despite the delay, these rules achieve just that, and everything in Flamme Rouge is already compressed timewise.
Second, feed zones open the possibility for unsportsmanlike attacks, while everyone is predictably taking supplies. These rules also achieve just that. The peloton is going slow and predictably enough that an attack can be easy to get through — unless of course someone else reads your move.
Finally, these rules slightly favor the sprinters over the rouleurs. This is not super important in the base game, but in Grand Tours or in the three square extended 5-6 player stages, it is a good counter balance. (Yes, the 5-6 player game is longer than you're used to.)
I can understand how it can look like "just" a slower descent, but it was one of many solutions considered, and it was picked because it achieves the macro level feel of real life supply zones in the smoothest way. I hope you will agree once you try it.
Crashes, Why Are There No Crashes?
The last tiles we have in Peloton are the cobblestone tiles. Again, these use existing rules — no slipstream, but any max speed allowed — and otherwise "just" manipulate the number of lanes. So far we've done a lot to minimize the issue of blocking by widening the road, but cobblestones are their own beast.
The cobblestone sections range from 6-11 squares of length and are mostly just a single lane wide, with a few exceptions of two lanes. This dramatically increases the chances of getting blocked, and though there are no added rules for crashes, the macro level effect is almost the same. I've seen sprinters shoot off a nine (their best card) and end up moving only 3-4 squares, effectively removing them from contention.
As a result, much like in real-life cycle races, everyone is quite eager to zoom ahead and be the first to enter the cobblestones as that effectively eliminates the risk of "crashing" too hard. This also means that once entering cobblestones, players seem to get a little more timid for fear of riders ahead of them slowing down, which opens up the possibility for riders in the lead to break away (taking advantage of the lack of slipstream). Cobblestones can make or break your chances, and sometimes it breaks simply because you get unlucky. For me, they are usually some of the most uncomfortable sectors of a stage to navigate, sweaty palms and all.
A shot from testing, illustrating how cobblestones can split the peloton into fragments
We have included six new double-sided stages as well, with each side slightly different as one is adapted for 2-4 player games and the other for 5-6 player games. Of course you can always build your own stages; my only concern is if you attempt to overdo it. The more I play, the more I'm growing fond of the simpler stages with just 1-2 sectors of hindering terrain features.
The Finish Line
As you have probably guessed by now, I can keep talking about Flamme Rouge indefinitely. I still love playing it to this day and have played 67 games so far in 2017 — and that accounts only for physical games; the awesome Play By Forum organized by Almarr here on BGG isn't included, nor are stages 14 to 21 in our six-player 21-stage Grand Tour that I finished on the Saturday just before SPIEL '17.
The new expansion has only added to my and my friends' enjoyment, with the breakaways creating tension from the start and the new terrain types providing new challenges. I love playing the game at twelve riders because the pack becomes so massive that it really starts feeling like a peloton. I tend to root for the breakaway, but nonetheless there is something satisfying about seeing a ten-rider peloton charge after them on the final finish, with most of their riders having no exhaustion and plenty of energy. It just feels right, too...
As always, I think Ossi the illustrator has done an outstanding job catching a tense moment on the cover of the box, and it tells a story that is easy to find in the game.
If you're attending SPIEL '17, you can find me signing copies of the base game and expansion in the Lautapelit.fi booth on Thursday (13:00-14:00) and again on Sunday (10:00-11:00). Do come say hi!
Asger Harding Granerud
P.S.: Of course I'm lobbying the publisher to commit to a 2018 expansion, too, as we've already tested new tiles, new card distributions for the riders (including special abilities), Grand Tour rules, weather, and much more! If you are as enthusiastic about the Peloton expansion as I am, then it should be easy getting them on our side...
In this shot, the crashes are just looming in the air...
How It Began
I started game designing in 2010. Around that time, the board game scene in Japan was growing rapidly; more overseas games were imported and localized, participants of Tokyo Game Market increased year by year, and so many new games were self-published by Japanese indie designers every year. That was such a good environment that I started trying to realize my boyhood dream: making and selling my own game.
At first, I tried to make a tableau-building game (like Race for the Galaxy) in which players assemble their kingdom by buying units and buildings from an open market (like Dominion). After several playtests, I abandoned the game because it was just boring. However, I liked a mechanism in the game, which was that units got experience counters and grew up through the game. I decided to focus on that. I thought the idea was a bit too straightforward — gaining experience was always good, and experienced units were always better — so I needed a small twist. I turned experience counters into age counters, and now aged units may be better, but units that become too aged must die.
Age counters brought a time cycle to the game. Units come, work, fight, then die. Since units constantly come and go, players must make their plan and keep managing their armies and workers. This idea became the core of the gameplay. It also had a strong feel of a story and defined the theme of the game: a hundred years war. However, I found that buying units from an open market was too slow in comparison with the aging cycle, so I wanted to change the method of gaining units from an open market to another that could deliver units to players more smoothly.
Just then, I heard that a game featuring CCG-style booster drafting had attracted attention in Essen. It was, yes, 7 Wonders. Though it was a little difficult for me to import it immediately, it reminded me of another drafting card game, one published in Japan in 2004: Fairy Tale. So I grabbed that game from my shelf and found that the drafting method would fit with the aging cycle of my game.
In these ways, the prototype got the two core mechanisms: aging and drafting. I renewed the list of units and buildings, then started countless playtests.
Designing Unit Cards
Being a long time CCG player, I wanted to make a card game with a bunch of cards, so I did.
At first, I defined a pool of 72 cards, considering shuffleability and printing cost. Then I divided them into three rarities (common, uncommon and rare) and four categories (military, income, production and others). I used this as a design skeleton and started to design individual cards for each slot. The first card designed was Knight (1 coin / 4 strength), and it became a scale of the power balance.
Since there are a bunch of cards and each player receives five cards at once in a draft, I thought that the majority of the cards should be simple, so most cards have only one role. By doing so, when drafting players can choose not a specific card but what they want to do.
The majority of the cards should be simple, yes, but the others should be something special, so I made rare cards that were powerful, challenging or different. Most of them cost a lot of money but had high potential. In particular, Relic and Kraken provided a unique path to win the game.
As a CCG player, I love combos, so I wanted to put combos in the game. To interact with each other as a combo, cards need some kind of a "common language" that is used by all cards and can be utilized or manipulated in various ways. In the game, there are age counters. All units receive an age counter at the end of a round, and age counters have a basic role of defining the lifetime of each unit. Aside from that, age counters can be placed, removed, counted or converted into coins or VP by abilities.
Thus, the age counters became a "common language" of the cards and made open-ended combos possible. Age counters basically just define a unit's lifetime, but sometimes they bump up strength, provide coins, produce resources, or can be harvested as VP.
Designing Building Cards
In this game, all men must die. To contrast this fatalism I made buildings, which never die.
At first, each building just had a single ability, and there were no levels. Players built buildings by paying resources, and buildings provided their benefit until the end of the game. No more and no less than that.
Trying to make it more interesting, I added three levels to them; the buildings were built at level 1 and could be upgraded to level 2 or 3 later. The higher the level, the more abilities the building has. I like growth, and upgrading is fun. But to indicate its level, each building needed level counters, which I thought were not elegant. After several sessions, I came up with the idea that levels could be indicated by just flipping the card instead of putting counters on it if I decrease the number of levels from 3 to 2. Since it seemed worth doing, I did just that. This change also helped to make each building simpler.
At that moment, putting aside their immortality, buildings still didn't have enough difference from units. I thought that since they last until the end of the game, they should be the axis of each player's strategy. As a result, I changed one of their abilities to something that continuously provides VP by meeting a condition during the game (and I cut down the base VP of the buildings that can be gained at the end of the game automatically).
Through this change, each building came to push players to a specific direction. It allowed players to select their strategy through the choice of a building.
Self-Publishing in Japan
Playtesting the game was always fun. I tested it mainly with my friends from university. They were skilled gamers and gave much helpful feedback. We played from morning to midnight. Sometimes I missed the last train and had to walk home, but I was happy because it meant that the game was so fun that I lost track of time.
After playtesting for half a year, I decided to self-publish the game and bring it to Tokyo Game Market in Spring 2011. I named it [thing=130548]Vorpals[/thing]. I asked a friend of mine to draw illustrations, and I designed components by myself. It wasn't perfect, but that process turned out to be a great experience.
I printed only one hundred copies at first. Back in the days, even one hundred was a big number for Japanese indie designers (as many of them were making copies by hand with a home printer). As it turned out, the copies sold out in thirty minutes, and the game received many positive reviews.
Half a year later, I made the second edition. Some of the cards were tweaked for balancing, and a few new buildings were added. I asked Tori Hasegawa, who is a representative board game artist in Japan nowadays, to draw the new box art and redesign the board and counters. I printed and brought five hundred copies to Tokyo Game Market Autumn 2011. They also sold out in a day.
It was a great success for a beginning indie designer in Japan. Following this, I got to work on a small expansion, which features new units and buildings. To accelerate the development process, I made a small program to playtest automatically. A human playtest takes twenty minutes per game, but an AI playtest takes only twenty seconds and can be repeated all day long: Make changes, AI test, human test, make changes, AI test, human test... This process was iterated rapidly.
After another six months, the expansion was completed, and I printed one thousand copies of each of the base game and the expansion. I brought half of the copies I made to Tokyo Game Market Spring 2012 and sold another half to distributors.
I was very satisfied with both the base game and the expansion, so though they've been reprinted continuously, I stopped working on the game and moved onto the next one.
Catch Up Games and Paper Tales
After Vorpals, I designed a micro dungeon-crawling game, Dungeon of Mandom, and Oink Games published it in Japan. Then Yannick Deplaedt, an agent living in Japan, picked it up and introduced it to IELLO, and IELLO published the game worldwide as Welcome to the Dungeon.
Coincidentally, Yannick and I lived in the same city, Nagoya. Thanks to this opportunity, we became good friends and played games together on weekends.
A few years later, I co-designed a two-player card game, Twelve Heroes, with Takashi Sakaue. Yannick linked us to Catch Up Games, and they liked the game and decided to publish it in France. In addition to that game, they also showed an interest in my older design, Vorpals.
Vorpals was successful, but it was still available only in Japan, so I thought this was a good opportunity. Fortunately, they liked Vorpals, too, and I found that they were solid gamers who I would like to entrust the game to.
We started working together, and we exchanged many long emails.
First, they suggested changing the theme and the art. Vorpals had a dark fantasy theme because death and war were at its mechanical core. But to fit in the European market, they proposed paper-cut style art and a theme like a picture storybook. I liked the concept very much because it emphasized the storytelling feeling of the game, and the initial sketches by Christine Alcouffe were awesome. So the game changed into a different outfit and got a new name: Paper Tales.
Second, they asked for optimized two-player rules. Though Vorpals supported a two-player game already, it had fewer options and less surprise. Developing two-player rules was easy and fun since I could playtest with my wife every night. Ahead of this, I had developed two-player drafting rules for Twelve Heroes with Takashi Sakaue, and that experience helped a lot. I had learned that the important elements of two-player drafting are to 1) present enough options and freedom to players, 2) hide some information for hope and surprise, and 3) allow players to appeal or bluff in some way. We tried several methods and found the best way.
Third, we had to make the definitive card pool. Since there was both the Vorpals base set and the expansion, Catch Up Games could make the card pool for Paper Tales by combining them. Receiving their feedback, I tweaked the cards and the card pool one more time. The playtest program worked hard again. We fixed the final card pool and the rules. Some materials were spared for possible expansion in the future.
My job ended here. Even after that, Sébastien and Clément from Catch up Games worked hard to turn the game into reality. They did a great job on the graphical design in terms of ergonomics. Christine Alcouffe produced fabulous artwork. Now the printing process is ongoing, and I'm very excited. I can't wait to receive my copy and play with it... No matter how many times I've played, this game is always really fun.
Paper Tales will be available at SPIEL '17, so please visit Catch Up Games at booth 3:O108 to play!
"Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation"
John Company debuts this week at SPIEL '17, and it looks like copies will be shipping to those who preordered the game in the coming weeks. Given that the design of the game has taken nearly a decade to realize, I thought that I should offer some accounting of the time I've spent on the project.
In 2009 I was living with my wife in a ramshackle cottage on the steep southern shores of Lake Monroe in southern Indiana. I had never lived in such a remote place before. It was a solid twenty minute drive to the nearest gas station, and days could go by without seeing a single car drive down our road. In the winter, a big snow could leave us homebound until a neighbor with a plow would bother to dig us out.
We were both newly out of college and working low-paying jobs. Gas was precious, so we spent most of our days out in the country, tending to the garden or reading. I also had a big pile of games. Getting enough friends together for a game was a logistical nightmare, however, so the games mostly sat on their shelf. At some point that autumn, I found myself reading rulebooks of older Avalon Hill games to pass the time. Though my wife and I played plenty of two-player games, my tattered copy of Squad Leader didn't entice her. Thus, I found myself learning games, setting them up, then packing them away after I moved through a few turns to make sure I had the rules right. I could never muster the focus to manage a full solo play of anything, but I liked the exercise of mastering an unfamiliar and erudite book of rules. I must have been missing my undergraduate coursework.
In any case, it wasn't long before I got to my old copy of The Republic of Rome. I believe I had scrounged a copy on eBay for twenty-odd dollars the year before but hadn't had time to fight through the rulebook. Well, I had time now, so I set it up and got learning. It didn't take long before the design overwhelmed me. I had never encountered anything so immersive. It was a perfect combination of a strategy game and a role-playing game. I needed to play it, now. I convinced a bunch of friends from out-of-town to come down for a visit, and that night we put Republic of Rome on the table. The game exceeded every expectation. I loved the game's core tension: the game's winners needed the other players to win. The game was about interdependency and all of its horrible and necessary complications. I wanted more games like it, and before long I stumbled on a host of economic games that were covering similar ground such as Container, Brass, the Winsome train games, and, eventually, 18xx games.
Those games got me thinking: Was it possible to create a historically sensitive and immersive "experience game" like The Republic of Rome that was built around a business rather than a state? As a late November storm rolled in one afternoon, I scribbled a list of possible subjects in my notebook. At the top of the page, I listed my first entry: the British East India Company.
In my experience, learning about any subject follows a little cycle from ignorance to mastery, then back to ignorance again. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't understand a particular thing. When I first thought about making a game about the British East India Company, I thought I had a pretty good sense about what it was. I knew it was a ruthless monopoly that was propped up by the British Empire and that ruined India. I had a sense of its internal organization and its behavior. I knew the key figures and that the Battle of Plassey happened in late June of 1757. I could tell you the difference between the Nawab of Bengal and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
But as I attempted to deepen my understanding, I began to lose my footing. India was more nuanced than I had first thought, and the operation of the East India Company stunned me in its complexity. My sense of the Company's behavior and that of its officers moved from clichés about British imperialism to total bewilderment. I lost the narrative thread.
So the idea for the game gathered dust. I didn't have a story I wanted to tell about the East India Company. I also didn't know much about game design, and my early attempts were mostly just loose re-skin built on the bones of The Republic of Rome. Over the next couple of years, I would revisit the design a few times, but nothing ever came together.
But if the central design was proving to be a dud, it was at least generating interesting offshoots. My reading on the cosmopolitan life of British and Mugal families living in the eighteenth century lead me to William Dalrymple's writings and his work on Afghanistan. These books would in turn lead to a serious interest in the Company's policy on the Northwestern frontier, and those ideas eventually became Pax Pamir.
At some point I decided that perhaps the best way to tackle the subject was to look at the end of the monopoly. Now deep in graduate school and desperate for a side project to distract me from my dissertation, I tried to make a game on the Great Rebellion of 1857. After that design failed, I turned my attention to the trade in China and tried to make a game about the end of the Company's monopoly and the Opium Wars. This game, too, seemed destined for failure when while reading about some of the critical figures engaged in the opium trade, I had an insight: These people did not care about selling opium; they cared about respectability.
I'm sure I had been told this before. Certainly, I could have taken that insight from Edward Said or from just about any Victorian novel about business, but for whatever reason, I hadn't thought of it in terms of building a model on which to construct a game. I'm sure my heavy playing of Splotter's Greed helped, too. In any case, I now had the proper lens and the game An Infamous Traffic snapped into complete focus almost immediately.
As I finished An Infamous Traffic, I started thinking about taking that lens and applying it to John Company. Though I was happy with how AIT had turned out, I thought the core idea could work in a bigger format. It was time to take on the East India Company once more.
From the start, I knew I wanted John Company to be published by Sierra Madre Games. I could not think of a better and more dedicated audience than the one that Phil Eklund has cultivated over the past thirty years, and I knew they would be interested in this design. But publishing with Phil likely meant working once more with a very small form factor. I wanted a game that would give players the entire history of the Company — but could I fit that game in just 60-120 cards and a small box? My production limitations for An Infamous Traffic had brought that game to life. Perhaps the challenge would be just what the game needed...
While I worked on my geopolitical and economic models of eighteenth century India, I also kept in mind that I would need to fold this game into a very small box. I wasn't sure how to do it until I played Food Chain Magnate. Perhaps the various offices of the company could be captured by cards. Instead of each player having their own company (a là FCM), players instead would temporarily take control of aspects of the Company. I built my first draft on the premise that I would have sixty cards. If the entire company could be done in twenty cards, that left forty to cover prizes, player aids, and events in India.
An early attempt at the cover, back when the game had a very different feel
That brought me to my second problem. With 25 cards likely taken up by player aids and prizes, how in the world was I going to manage with a deck of only 15 event cards? With eight regions in play, that means fewer than two event cards per region. By this point, I had written extensive notes on over one hundred events I wanted in the game.
At that point I did what any self-respecting graduate student would do: I went through my collection and pulled every title with an "event deck" so that I could look for good ideas to steal. This tried-and-true method has saved me more than once, but in this case it just made the problem worse. I discovered that I hated event decks. Even in The Republic of Rome, the universe of the game is so arbitrary and produces more-or-less the same type of game each and every play. In a standard event deck, players can more-or-less bank on certain things happening; they are just unsure when the event will happen.
This works for certain kinds of games like Richard Borg's Commands & Colors line or for Cosmic Encounter, but it did not work in John Company. The chief problem had to do with timing. In John Company, players needed to know a lot more about which events were likely to be drawn that particular turn than an event deck could provide. In effect, I wanted something like an adaptive event queue in which players could see certain events on the horizon and react to them, but where the resolution of an individual event could shift the order and contents of the queue. I didn't want my players to have complete knowledge of what was coming, but I wanted them to be able to make good guesses. Somehow I had to squeeze those ideas into 15 cards.
The old idea of the event table came to the rescue. I decided to make each of the eight regions in the game "players" in a simple game of geopolitics. Each region would have four event tables that would dictate their behavior depending on their status, so Bombay would behave differently when dominated by the Mughals than it would as an independent state. Initial reports for this new system were good, but I needed some way to prioritize certain regions so that they acted more. To this end, I created an initiative system whereby events "move" through India. Here's how it worked: After an event in region two, the next event will be in region three. Then, to stop it from being a fully predictable cycle, I put in a couple of redirects that will accelerate either the expansion of Indian empires or their disintegration.
In testing this system, I wrote a little Python script that would allow me to easily make adjustments to the characteristics of each region, then I ran hundreds of thousands of games. From those runs, I was able to look at a wide range of metrics that helped me get a sense of whether India was behaving in a way that seemed sensitive to historical circumstances. Even when the simulations produced odd results, as long as I felt like I could offer an explanation, then see that explanation operate mechanically, I could let it stand. I was helped in this process greatly by my friend Chas Threlkeld who also served as the game's developer and was kind enough to rewrite my messy script about halfway through playtesting and to help me make my own studies of the game more rigorous.
Before I learned the virtues of outputting to a .csv,
I had to sift through pages data that I was just spitting into the console.
My training in the humanities had not prepared me for a project like this!
Over the past few years, my development strategy has undergone considerable changes. Originally I opted to put my designs out there for anyone to mess with and provide feedback on. Like many young designers, I had a habit of making my projects available before they were ready. Playtesting was chaotic. There were always too many voices in the room, and too often I pushed design problems onto my playtesters that I could have easily solved myself.
Now, any designer, developer, or publisher will tell you that the process of playtesting is critical for a game to succeed. However, folks tend to say less about the huge differences in development processes and the different ways playtesters are deployed. In my experience, I find playtesters are best at recognizing ergonomic problems in the design. There's no substitute for a second set of eyes on a pair of rules or watching someone who has never played your game attempt to teach it to another new player. I do a lot of playing of my games in spreadsheets and in my head, so having unfamiliar players go through the various phases and procedures gives me a critical window into how a design works in the wild.
I've gradually created a system for organizing a game's development based upon a simple insight: Most playtesters will burn out after about 3-5 sessions. I've seen this in every single project I've ever worked on as a playtester, developer, and designer. The burnout happens for lots of different reasons. Sometimes there's a new game they want to test, sometimes something has shown up on their doorstep, sometimes they just get tired of having to keep up with rules changes. To address this problem, first I figured I should get as much life out of my playtesters as possible. To that end, I try to be abundantly clear about when updates are coming to a game, and I try to limit myself to a big update once a month. I also designed the playtesting kits so that they would be easy to assemble and I always had "patches" to update old kits if a group didn't want to rebuild everything. In short, I did my best to respect my playtesters' time. Far too many designers and publishers just explore a big pile of jpegs for their testers to sort through.
Second, I tried to use my playtesters strategically. Instead of letting everyone in at the start, the testing for John Company was invitation-only until the last phase of testing. Furthermore, I organized my testers into waves, with certain kinds of groups going earlier in the development and others not being deployed until the final stages. Game development is a marathon, and there's no sense in spending all your best blood in the opening sprint. I also tried to have a clear development schedule composed of different cycles. Each cycle had a set of goals that needed to be addressed before we could move on. Sometimes cycles got added if new problems were found, and sometimes they got taken away as problems resolved themselves. I was transparent in this schedule so that my playtesters would always know what they were looking for when they played.
Back when the game was lighter, I had planned on using
illustrations drawn and painted by my wife, Cati
In December 2016, after about six months of local testing in Austin, John Company entered its closed "beta" phase. For this first phase, I knew the game worked, but I wasn't sure whether its presentation needed adjusting. At that point it was a card game, and players had to visualize the Company. I didn't think this was too much of a problem, but my opinion didn't count for much; I had been living with the Company in my head for too long.
To my surprise, my first playtesters didn't have too much trouble with this, but as I brought in new waves of playtesters over the winter, I noticed these new groups were having trouble keeping their games on track. There was clearly a problem with the game's presentation. Early in the design, I had wanted to build something much lighter — even real-time — but as the design grew up, it also grew more procedural. Freeform elements were abandoned in favor of rigid processes. The game was better for it, but despite that shift in design, the physical profile of the game was largely unchanged.
It needed change, though, so following the suggestions of my playtesters, I constructed a game board that we could use for testing and lobbied Phil for an expanded production. The reports on the board were overwhelmingly positive, and the switch to a board game was made. At the time, I was sad to lose the small profile that had informed so much of the game's design, but the fact that the switch to the board required only two small rule changes was a sign that the game had changed dramatically from that earlier vision. At this point, development was mostly about being a good steward of the version of the game before me — not the version I had first imagined.
Another place where the development took me away from my original intentions was in the negotiation rules. In its early iterations, Pax Pamir was dominated by negotiation, but as the design grew up much of the negotiations were baked out. With John Company, I initially had built a system of subtle, implicit negotiations in hopes of recreating the respectability politics and social mores of the time. The whole thing was built around a "letter writing" system which I loved, but found too cumbersome for a design of this scope.
Eventually, I decided to make things explicit, and like any game with explicit negotiations, they had a way of taking over the design. Originally I had planned on having binding agreements between players to represent the advantages of the British legal system and the culture of respectability that characterized upper-class transactions at that time. However, binding negotiations are a nightmare from a design standpoint for all the reasons why you might imagine. Players have to word their agreements very carefully, and even when they do, there's still a good chance that players will look for a way out. I needed some way to adjudicate these agreements. At one point, I even had a lawsuit system in which players could sue each other for damages or contractual infractions. Things were getting out of hand.
Exhausted, I threw up my hands and reverted the game's negotiation format to that old standby of political games: non-binding agreements. Say whatever you want and let the table of players punish you in its own way. Ugh. The design worked fine, but the reversion felt like a serious retreat. I wanted the legal system in the game to be a central mechanism, and the prize system in the game benefited from the ability to make multi-turn agreements.
Then the answer came. Through many long conversations with my playtesters, we arrived at something that I'll call the "Promise System". Basically, in addition to offering each other money and promotions as currency in negotiations, players can also give each other cubes. These cubes, called "promise cubes", represent an obligation from one player to another. Let's say Dick really wants the new house, but needs cash. Jane offers him the cash if Dick will give her four promises cubes. When Dick gives her those promise cubes, he loses control of them. He can buy them back for 2 bucks a pop or if he shows her some favoritism through a promotion or any other thing they might agree to, but for every one of Dick's promises that he can't get back by the end of the game, he loses 2 points. In this way players can offer each other loans under a huge range of terms and interest rates. Suddenly multi-turn agreements were possible without derailing the game.
This was the first game I've designed that Cati enjoyed playing,
so it got a lot of two-player testing after the kids were in bed
Content with Chaos
With the negotiations solved, the rest of the development went smoothly. My incomparable playtesters provided wonderful feedback throughout the process and stress-tested the game's many systems to a degree far beyond what I had been able to give to Pax Pamir or An Infamous Traffic. By the time I sent the files to the printer, I was about as proud of this design as anything I've ever had a hand it making.
It wasn't until weeks later when I found myself playing the game at summer conventions and with old friends that I began to realize how difficult a game it was. I don't mean difficult in terms of rules. Though the game certainly isn't for everyone, I remain convinced that it is Sierra Madre's most accessible offering since Greenland (at least in terms of the rules). Like Greenland, John Company embraces the vagaries of fate. There are dice, and no how much you spent on an action there is ALWAYS the possibility for catastrophic failure.
What's more, in a world ever more filled with milquetoast event systems and other light points of friction, in John Company the movement of the elephant through India and the roll of an event die could upend the game. I don't use that word lightly. More than once in a post-game discussion we've been able to point to a single chain of events where all of India turned upside down. Fortunes were lost. Empires fell. There were usually warnings, but when the money is rolling in, you tend to feel like the good times are never going to end. John Company, in so many ways, is about that precise myopia. It seemed perfectly natural to reflect that in terms of the game's mechanisms.
However, as I played the game over and over again that summer, it occurred to me that if I was being true to my reading of the history and to the game's core argument, I was also treading through some tricky territory. A lot of folks like An Infamous Traffic, but that game didn't overstay its welcome. If the game could be tricky, it was also short and simple. A lot of folks who are excited for the game would probably want something a little more traditional. Even the venerable Phil Eklund, after a training session with some folks who will be demoing the game at SPIEL '17, suggested that I should soften the endgame a little for the game's living rules. My summer games had prepared me for this suggestion, and I already had some variants prepared that would answer his concerns. I'll be publishing these on BGG in the coming weeks, and soon new players will have a way to adjust the amount of chaos in the game to a more palatable level. There are even ways to play without any explicit negotiations.
While I'm comfortable providing these variants to players, I won't be including them in the core rules of the game. John Company was and is a game from another time. It's my love-letter to the big, open, unforgiving systems of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I don't mean to make apologies for it. It's exactly the game I wanted to make, and it's one that I would have loved to discover during those quiet summer days back in 2009. Taken on those terms, I think it has a lot to offer.
Hello! I'm the designer of Minute Realms, and I'd like to share some of the development phases of my new game.
It’s been a while since I decided that I wanted to design a card-drafting game. My goal was to scramble the typical clockwise/counterclockwise draft a bit, replacing it with something more…multi-directional. Thus, I started experimenting in several ways, thinking of new ways to pass cards among players, while trying to give players deep choices and a fair amount of control over the draft.
Set-up for a four-player game
I thought about a typical medieval setting for the game, using the very nice Travian buildings for the prototype! Players would draft buildings with various effects in order to develop their personal realm.
After some attempts, I understood two things. First, secret and simultaneous drafting had to be ditched in favor of a turn-based structure in which each player takes a turn to draft. Second, due to this turn-based structure, I could not allow lots of cards to be displayed at the same time.
The first prototype of the game
This brought me to the point that each player would draft just one card per round. This stands in stark contrast with games like 7 Wonders and Fairy Tale in which players draft entire hands of cards. The result is a game based on what I call asynchronous draft, and I happily discovered that it worked quite well.
Development of the cathedral card, from prototype to production
Most importantly, playtesters liked it a lot — or at least they didn't boo me when I brought the prototype to the table, which is, per se, a very satisfying achievement!
Furthermore, thanks to the idea of placing only two cards in the middle of the table in addition to one in front of each player, I understood that I could trigger specific effects based on the position of cards drafted by players, i.e., there is an important difference if I pick a card from the middle of the table, from in front of another player, or from in front of myself. Is it worth mentioning that of course once a card has been drafted, nobody else can take it away from its owner!
The cards show a specific bonus/penalty — highlighted in yellow — that triggers when a player drafts the card;
these triggers have a different impact depending on the position of the card on the table
After a few tests, the two main mechanisms of "Realms" had finally been tuned: the asynchronous drafting (or whatever you want to call it), and the "triggers" on the cards. While continuing to design the game, I added some twists to spice things up:
• Coins to balance the strength of the different cards and to introduce some micro-resource-management. The higher the cost, the more the points it would score at the end of the game — provided that you manage to defend it from invaders.
You must pay 2 coins to build the Monastery. At game's end, it's worth 9 victory points minus the number of coins you have
• Invaders as an unpredictable threat that menaces the realm of every player. They bring climax, suspense, and more emphasis to the overall experience.
These bad guys march on your lovely realm, so build enough shields to keep them out!
• A defensive bastion on the back of every card in order to give players more choices while drafting by always giving them a chance to defend their realm from invaders and gain coins.
Every card has a defensive bastion with two shields on the back
Bastions are useful for defending yourself from invaders. If you erect a bastion, you immediately gain two coins and two shields. However, you also renounce the chance of building the wonderful building on the front, which would have given you victory points at the end of the game!
Luckily, some buildings provide shields even on the front of the card!
This has been a "one shot-one kill" operation: I went straight to dV Giochi to propose the game, and they were immediately very interested. Since then, the development of the game went quite smoothly, although it required a lot of time to make sure everything was well-balanced.
Regarding the final title, it is not very different from the original. Both the publisher and I wanted to keep the word "Realms" in the title, and in the end we decided to add just an adjective to underline the quickness of the gameplay and the short length of the game. We went from "Small Realms" to "Tiny Realms" (naaah, too many "Tiny" games around) to "Little Realms", then the publisher came and said "Okay, let's add 'Minute' to it." The word fits because it identifies something small — heck, a realm of just eight cards! — and at the same time it reminds you of minutes, which is fitting for a game that literally takes minutes to play.
Hello! My name is Dariusz Kułak, and I am the designer of Wanted: Rich or Dead, a Western-themed party game scheduled to debut from Galakta at SPIEL '17. I wish to tell you a little about my newest game and how I created it.
Actually, despite being a quick and easy game, Wanted: Rich or Dead (as it came to be known) took a long time to design. Its first version left my drawer over four years ago in 2013! Considering that people like Uwe Rosenberg manage to create, say, A Feast for Odin — a game the size of a giant — in half that time or less, I guess I should be ashamed of myself.
Anyway, the first version of the game was called "Acreage", and it was supposed to be a rather simple strategic game of Small World weight. Different races controlled by players would fight for resources, land, and food. The thing that would make this title stand out was its theme: birds, with tomtits that specialized in quick food collection, combat-oriented grackles, and the sparrows who are builders extraordinaire. Most of the mechanisms were based on action cards being played simultaneously and used to create paths to resources, build nests and storages, or expand to new territories. However, a hexagonal board and units with unique statistics resulted in many similarities with Neuroshima Hex!, and in the end I stopped on an early-prototype level.
Some time later, one of the Polish game publishers proposed that I create a strategic game that would consist of only 55 cards. Although it seemed like a tough task, I returned to the idea of "Acreage" and started making serious cuts. After some time, I was left with a number of areas presented on cards, simultaneous actions, and a deck of items providing certain bonuses.
I also created a more sophisticated background to strengthen the theme; the game was still about birds, but they turned into bird gangs trying to prepare for the coming winter by gathering sunflower seeds. Each bird species became a different organized crime group such as Yakuza or Cosa Nostra. I even drew my own art so that playtesters would be immersed even deeper in this brutal world of bird-eat-bird. (Plus, it's quite hard to find gangster bird artwork...) In this way, "In Your beak!" (more commonly known as "Birdies") was born.
In "Birdies", each player controlled one of five different bird gangs. Five areas were placed on the table, and players simultaneously played one of six action cards to move their pawn to a certain area. If a player was alone, they got their resources. Otherwise, a quarrel had to be settled. It can't be simpler than that, right?
The things that people liked were very quick gameplay, practically no downtime, and a light, amusing theme. One of the unique mechanisms was based on the birds getting "fat" with sunflower seeds; the more a player had, the weaker they became, which is the opposite of a snowball effect. By doing this, players who were short on victory points at the beginning could quickly catch up with the leaders. Effectively, this led to an exciting game finale as everyone had a strong chance to win. The playtesters liked it very much, and I knew the development was going well. At some point I even added a neutral bird, a kind of a swallow "Robin Hood" controlled by the poorest player. That bird could steal seeds from rich birds to give them to the poor, which resulted in even more balance.
Lots of playtesting later, "Birdies" was ready for production. However, at that point serious problems with my publisher started. Not to dwell on the past, but the company that ordered the game chose not to produce it after all, so I had to look for a publisher the usual way — by sending the game wherever I could.
At some point, another company (which also refused to cooperate with me on this project) stated that the bird theme is too narrow and the target group too small and I couldn't hope to publish the game with anyone until I changed it. I had to consider some other ideas for the setting, and after giving it some thought I chose to go for the Old West.
I did not have to change much, to be frank: seeds were replaced by cash, birds with gunslingers… The original mechanisms were perfect for accommodating a game about robbers! But I did not feel like it would be enough, so I changed the statistics to introduce a four-sided die. What's more, instead of using the same set of action cards for all players, I made each player deck unique. As a result, each bandit had a unique feel and strategy. Additionally, I removed the "Robin Hood" part and exchanged "getting fat" with "getting burdened by cash". Then I prepared a nice-looking prototype and got to playtesting. That is how Wanted was created.
The playtesters immediately got to like the game. Some of them even compared it to a better and less random BANG!, which is a great review to hear considering that both games have the same setting and BANG! is a worldwide bestseller.
Anyway, because of the changes, I had to balance the game yet once again hoping that some publishing opportunity would present itself so that my toil would not be wasted. It seems I must have drawn a lucky hand then as Galakta announced its yearly prototype competition. A few weeks later, I was ready to send Wanted to them along with all necessary materials…suddenly realizing that I was meeting the deadline with only one day to spare! I got lucky again as maybe three weeks later I got a call from their lead developer asking for a meeting. I felt that something big was coming! By the way, I won the competition in my category, which tells something.
The meeting was more than fruitful. Aside from some minor changes, we reached a conclusion that the very unintuitive D4 die should be changed to a D3 (which meant more balancing and tackling numbers), then we were ready to send the game to a wider group. The game was scheduled for the 2017 SPIEL game fair in Essen, which meant we had about half a year left to work with it.
While I was perfecting the game, Galakta was working on game components. It came as a great surprise that the game originally based on 55 cards swelled to much bigger dimensions. First, the great comic book artist Rafał Szłapa was hired to prepare the front cover and the characters. Michał Lechowski was responsible for items and the general layout, and together they created a really impressive piece of work. Second, the game attained its 3D aspect with thick cardboard buildings and stagecoach tiles. Finally, the dice were custom made to feature bullets and resemble in color real dice used in the Wild West, while the pawns actually started to look like cowboys!
With some cards left on the printing sheet thanks to various changes, I could design a mini-expansion with a completely new building and action cards. The final touch was the title — Wanted: Rich or Dead — and a short background story to make the characters more believable, then we were ready to go.
As you can see, my game has undergone lots of changes, both its rules and its graphic design. I am more than satisfied with the final result, and I am already thinking of some bigger expansion, perhaps adding new players, new characters, new buildings… Just get the game and experience for yourself how much fun it brings. I hope you will have as much good time playing as I had designing. Visit Galakta's stand during SPIEL '17 at 2:B130 to check it out!
My name is Max Wikström, and apart from being a game designer in the Toadkings company, for my day job I work as a freelance set- and lighting-designer for the theater. I've found that the creative processes involved in both jobs complement each other.
As a player, I have enjoyed a wide variety of games from Stratego to Diplomacy, from Chess to M:TG. One of my big favorites was Diplomacy, with which I competed in the European Championships during the mid-1990s. I also have a thirty-year history of active game mastering with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (with modified first version rules). I have had the same group of players since the late 1980s.
My latest game is called Space Freaks, and it will be published in Q4 2017 by Lautapelit.fi and Stronghold Games. It is a 2-4 player tactical combat/skirmish-style board game with a strong sci-fi theme mixed with absurdist humor. Thematically, it might be something like the lovechild of Monty Python and Judge Dredd. One game takes around 60-90 minutes of intensive, fast-moving combat.
Space Freaks is a game with lots of possibilities and a huge variety of "right" decisions. One of the best things is that you can really feel the presence of your enemy from the beginning to the end. Good timing is also crucial when it comes to activating the special equipment and weapons supplied by your team sponsor.
In Space Freaks, each player becomes a coach for a team sponsored by one of four galactic mega-corporations. You first design the perfect freak and clone it into a 3-Freak team, then lead them into the Arena of Annihilation for six rounds of thrilling battle. When your freaks die — and they will die — new ones spawn again in the arena. The team that scores the most points by completing missions, occupying landing-zones, or destroying enemy freaks and bases wins. The coach of the winning team becomes a celebrity (or even a living legend) throughout the galaxy.
Aside from me, the core team for Space Freaks' design and development has been my fellow Toadkings: Markku Laine (who also brings his skills as a graphic designer), Saku Tuominen, and Kare Jantunen. Harri Tarkka has been responsible for the characterful illustrations.
How It All Started, and How the Idea Metamorphosed During the Process
From the first ideas to the ready product is a long journey. The original idea was sparked as early as 2014. It is a very important part of a designing process to have your head open for changes and be ready to re-create the game after each test session.
I got the idea for a board game in a science-fiction setting that combined tactical combat with paranoia. Each player would have secretly built a team of three units, comprised of combinations of troopers, defenders, mechanics or medics. Each team (working for a galactic mega-corporation) would have been locked into the closed surroundings of a space station, abandoned mine, or starship, with rooms, corridors and other places of interest. The goal of the game would have been to first escape the compound, and there might have been different ways to succeed in that.
The part involving paranoia would have been the threats secretly given to the players. This idea remained a component for quite some time, but ended up becoming the mission cards in the final version. This would have made interaction — e.g., the act of trading favors, support, or healing — with other players the key element of the game building a level of paranoia or fear.
After two months of imagining the basic mechanisms of the game, I ended up re-locating the action to an alien planet with a hexagonal grid system, with each player starting from one corner of the map. This open field concept took the design in the direction toward a tactical combat game.
In early 2015, I asked my good friend and fellow Toadking Markku Laine to act as both game and graphic designer, and together we made the first prototype map of Space Freaks / Arena of Annihilation…
First proto map from early 2015
The Power of a Collective Process
After building up ideas for the prototype, e.g., the map, player game-pieces, markers, and a long list of ideas for blank cards/tokens, I assembled the design group of Markku, Saku, and Kare to attend the first testing/development meeting in February 2015.
Saku is a fellow Toadking and godfather to my four-year-old son Edvin. Saku and I had enjoyed drawing fearsome monsters together in our primary school days. Later came designing games and playing in each other's role-play groups (which is still on-going today and entering its fourth decade).
Markku is also a long-time friend (and also in Saku's D&D group) and a game/graphic designer for Toadkings. Markku did a great job upgrading the graphics of our prototypes throughout the entire design process.
Kare and I have played all sorts of games together over the years, from Machiavelli to Magic: The Gathering. Kare took care of the early versions of the game rules. He is also a master player in Go (four dan Europe).
The first meeting was a real, creative success, and by the end of the day, we had settled on the idea of a unit (what would later become a Freak) being built up from different body parts and cloned into a three-unit team. We decided that quest cards (later mission cards) could also be played to an opponent, forcing them to take actions in your favor. (In this early version, you would have accrued movement penalties for having more than three quests undone.) We looked into action cards (later sponsor cards) providing special equipment and extra powers. Planetary cards that changed the conditions for the duration of a game round later became Arena-Master cards.
Planetary card proto, Arena Master card final
At this early stage of development, a player could build walls and turrets to defend their base, which in itself was also a turret. The base could have been destroyed and resulted in the player dropping from the game. A player had five pieces of wall at their disposal, two of which contained hidden explosives and two turrets. The game designing process can be very rewarding when abstract ideas start to take shape and slowly the first playable version emerges.
Early player board and quest cards
At first there was no working title, but I knew that it would end up being sci-fi themed. Because of the emphasis being placed on the amassing of body parts, I felt that the look should utilize absurdist humor, while still being a game of serious, tactical combat in the skirmish-style.
I often think of sci-fi having a heavy and sombre feeling to it with its black and dark-blue backgrounds, austere faces, and massive warships. I like that world, too, but I wanted to do something different.
At this initial stage of a game's design, when everything is still makeshift models and a huge pile of messy notes, the most important thing for me is that I get an intuitive feeling of how the game should play out and feel as a ready product. This driving force is essential if one is to endure the very long and often nerve-wracking process of seeing the project to its conclusion because there is always ten times more work than you could have imagined.
Testing, Testing, Testing…
Throughout 2015 and early 2016, the team met twice per month. The evening usually started off by playing the latest version and making notes. We would then make quick changes to the prototype and play through again with more note-taking. After the meeting, I would take the prototype home and spend many long nights cultivating the next version, with Markku upgrading the graphics in tandem.
I feel that one really important facet of game-design is to develop the prototype continuously along the rest of the work. It is such an integral and vital part of the game because it serves as a user-interface for the player. The continuous updating can also help you to know which elements to discard. Some ideas just can't be realized.
As a designer, you go deep into the mechanisms and begin to form strong opinions as you work through the game in your mind's eye. You begin to know all the details by heart. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to test every detail, and patiently make notes for improvements because conflicts arise when a change clashes with other existing rules.
Here are some of the ideas that didn't make it to the final cut:
• The map included a 10x10 grid that allowed for rolling two ten-sided dice that produced a random location for vehicle parts, droid parts, weapon upgrades, independent alien marauders, planetary events, wormholes, and so on. This was quite fun for a time, but the random effect was too strong.
• Collecting ancient/alien tech-tokens either dropped by destroyed aliens/droids or generated from planetary cards could temporarily upgrade your unit range, damage, or movement. What's more, combining three tokens of the same type allowed for the creation of an ultimate body part for your units. Reducing the amount of components ended up taking priority.
• For a long time there were two different kinds of armor: AF ("armor far") that was used against all damage originating from over "range 3", and AC ("armor close") that was used against all damage "range 1-3". We opted for a simplified "armor" statistic, which in turn resulted in the re-balancing of nearly all body parts.
• The penalty of losing movement for having more than three quest cards tabled was interesting when players could play cards to each other (adding paranoia). Forcing opponents to take actions in chosen directions worked well, but it also created a "kingmaker" problem.
• There were also independent aliens/droids that spawned in random locations, always attacking or moving toward the closest target, but again this proved too chaotic.
• More complex "major" quests were allotted to each player secretly at the start of the game that rewarded 5 victory points when completed. These gave the game an added secrecy (and to some extent an extra tactical layer), but we already had four different types of cards.
One of the hardest things in game design is to find an overall balance between the gameplay and the conditions for winning. I wanted to make a game that could be won through skillful play, wherein the random events create an element of surprise, enlivening the replay value.
During testing, we pondered different ways to score victory points, and eventually we discovered the Landing Zone in the middle of the game board. This is a simple, "king-of-the-castle" mechanism that I haven't seen in many other board games. We already had the system to score victory points from mission cards, or from destroying another player's units, but now you could also score points by having units standing in the four, central hexagons at end of your turn. This increased the movement in gameplay, giving players a new direction to move and score points by entering the more open areas of the game board. Damaging other players' home bases became the fourth way of scoring victory points, opening up a huge array of choices to develop one's own tactics in Space Freaks. One final (and fifth) way to score in the end of each player's turn was still to come at this point...
As a player, you don't actually have time to build a game engine within the six rounds of Space Freaks, but you do have a vast amount of choices from unit creation, to the timing in which your cards are revealed, and with choosing tactics and opponents.
The Structure of a Player's Turn
During your turn, first put one of your three mission cards into play, then shoot with your turrets (if applicable). Next, activate your freaks one by one, and during each freak's turn, move the number of hexagons indicated on your leg card. (Some head cards and sponsor cards provide even more movement.) During any part of that movement, you can use your right-hand card weapon to launch one attack. You are also able to use a higher quality weapon from your sponsor cards instead and use any number of non-weapon sponsor cards. Always indicate which freak is using which equipment. At the end of your turn, build more structures if so desired, and finally your dead freaks re-spawn to the Home Base zone.
The player turn has been structured in this way pretty much since the outset. This singular mechanism has always worked very well, and I have been particularly happy that it does not require any dice.
Upgrading the prototype in January 2017
For the system of icons and player boards, we fashioned tens of versions. The challenge was to create as clear a player-interface as possible, and it was hard going. The player board needed to hold a lot of information, starting with the freak template, followed by three freak hit-point totals, plus information regarding all icons. It also needed to include the stats for aliens, droids, turrets, bunkers and the effects of laboratories and healing centers. As the concept developed, we also wanted to display the mega-corporations' names and logos together with some adverts, to flesh out Space Freaks' theme in what is otherwise a rather rule-oriented player board.
Sketch of Arena 2 in November 2016
As a player, you have a wide variety of choices to make each turn. There are many different tactics to consider and always room to create new ones. Most important is to follow the moves of your competitors, and to find your own way to hoard as many victory points as possible during your grueling six rounds.
The head card and freak template naturally dictate much of your game tactics, be they via brute force or stealth, but here are some examples of tactics that have been successfully applied during our test games:
The Second Wind: Play passively during the early game and collect resources from your sponsors, then during the last rounds, time your sprint to the finish.
One-eyed: Secure your home base defenses before beginning a full-frontal assault against one, disadvantaged opponent. Score as many points as possible from that direction.
Unleash Chaos: Forgo your home base, then at the appropriate moment, deploy all freaks (equipped with as effective sponsor cards as possible) behind enemy lines on suicide missions.
Ambush: Protect your freaks with bunkers or turrets or behind rocks, then make surprise attacks on wounded opponents.
Space Freaks Illustrated
When the list of corrections regarding the games mechanisms became short enough, it seemed obvious to begin working on the production design in more detail and get the game into its box.
I contacted illustrator Harri Tarkka in March 2016, and we met up for lunch. I wanted to gauge his interest in the sci-fi genre that I had in mind for Space Freaks. Initially, I suspected that he might have been interested, but when I saw his first sketches of the head dards I was totally convinced that he was our man.
Having a good artistic connection with an illustrator is such a vital part of a game's success. When you get installments of great looking artwork, it motivates you to work on the other aspects of the project. A game's visual setting is such a vital part of making its theme strong and believable.
Zapper, Force Field Generator, Jet Pac and Alien Scythe
In Space Freaks the amount of art and graphic design is huge: 18 head cards, 5 right arms, 6 left arms, 6 torsos, 6 legs, 20 equipment and weapon illustrations for sponsor cards, 35 arena master card illustrations, 27 mission card illustrations, comic strip, box cover and lots, lots more…
Comic strip from the rulebook
Cards in Space Freaks
We have many different cards in Space Freaks. Developing the three decks of sponsor cards, mission cards, and arena master cards was a really big part of the whole game-design process. One of the most time-consuming parts was keeping track of the card details, their synergy and the deck sizes.
Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the sponsor deck:
Control alien or droid: Gave a player the power to control another player's alien or droid unit. This card was rejected because one couldn't rely on it tactically.
Counter action: Could counter another player's sponsor card equipment. Playing a trump card during another player's turn seemed to go against the game's mechanisms.
Scout droid: Could spy and look through another player's sponsor cards. This was a fun idea but we found it to be too weak in practice.
Stun pistol and stun grenade: Was a mechanism that froze a freak unit (or even multiple units within grenade range), but it ended up being over-powered and boring, while upsetting the game's balance.
Arena master cards
Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the arena master deck:
Time portal and Accelerate time: These cards altered the amount of game rounds.
Energy conflux: Droids and turrets were stunned for one round, and new structures could not be built.
Putrid fog: Vision (and therefore weapon range) dropped to two hexagons. Freaks that were constructed around a melee template gained too high advantage.
Alien virus: Healing centers did not function for one round. Again this was too weak in practice.
Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the mission deck:
Build turrets and bunkers: At some point we wanted more structures on the game board, but when we changed the cost of building it became obsolete.
Use wormhole: Originally there were more wormholes in play, but still this was too situational to function as a mission.
Annihilate mission (version 2): There was a special mission that gave the possibility of acquiring multiple sponsor cards when you killed different opponents' freaks.
Excluding the game itself, perhaps the most important marketing element of a board game is the box. How does one attract your target audience? How do you deliberately attempt to tell a book by its cover?
Harri had already sketched the body parts and many of the card illustrations, so we were already in-sync artistically when it came time to plan the box's design. At this point, we were also getting input from our experienced publisher, which added yet another layer to the process.
It was quite obvious that we would need at least one freak unit on the cover. I wanted to have a neutral (i.e., human) head for the cover-freak because choosing one of the other head designs might have created a false impression (e.g.; a robot head implies a game about robots).
During this time we were also developing the 3D models of the plastic figures, and I came up with the idea of the astronaut helmet to create the generic impression of a freak's head. Eighteen different heads simply wouldn't have been possible. We used the same concept with the box cover, where the broken helmet depicts a concealed head underneath.
One eureka moment for me was when Harri showed me the first color designs containing a beautiful, pink sky together with a warm, brownish landscape. I had decided earlier not to use the classic deep-blue or black surroundings typically associated with sci-fi. I really think Harri did a tremendous job!
I was sure from the start that our game would require plastic figures, and that is always an expensive and complex process. First, one has to convince the publisher that figures are the only solution, then one has to create a solid design that works.
We worked on a lot of retro-space, reference material and designed the freak unit, alien and droid with Harri. Then we got help from our fellow Toadking, Sami Saramäki, who created the 3D models and gave them their finishing touches. I wanted the spirit of the figures to be a combination of both serious and humorous elements at the same time.
As the gameplay of Space Freaks started to become more and more fluent, it became obvious that we needed others to help test our game and give feedback. We had a middle-term goal to present the game at Helsinki's 2016 Ropecon, with which we were familiar, knowing that there would be many eager testers.
We went with prepared leaflets that posed ten questions about Space Freaks gameplay, and we were lucky to get more than fifty completed forms containing valuable feedback. There were questions about overall game mechanisms, game balance and space for comment on particular cards, the game board, and game components. We had had people from outside of our core group trying out the game before Ropecon, but it is always great to make first contact with random players.
It was really a pleasure to again witness the enthusiasm of the gamer community, and how they are ready to take part in somebody else's design process by contributing long answers to questions and imparting their firsthand impressions.
After Ropecon, we had three development rounds to upgrade both the game and all three of the existing prototypes, which we then passed on to blind testers Maja Stanislawska and Jouni Ilola. With a project of this size, it is really a challenge to create an accurate prototype, one in which the rules and components are so clear that strangers are capable of testing the game fully without assistance.
Approaching Our Publisher, Lautapelit
May 2016 was the point when we had our first, boxed version of Space Freaks ready, so I asked Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit for a meeting and test-play.
It is always exiting to meet with a publisher and present the prototype of your new game — but when is the best time to do that? How ready should one be with the project really?
I don't know if there's a correct answer, but I do believe that if one intuitively has the feeling that the gameplay is fluent, and that one can answer questions off the top of one's head about the game dynamics, then one is practically there. It also helps to have a picture about what kind of features might interest the publisher.
We signed a contract with Lautapelit in late 2016 to release Space Freaks at SPIEL '17, and I am delighted to say that again our co-operation has been most supportive and creative. It is just wonderful to work with a publisher who shares the same love towards our common goal, and it was through Lautapelit that we also secured a respected American publisher, Stronghold Games, to participate with Space Freaks. Awesome!
Blind testing is a vital part of the game-design process and should be done as often as possible. In hindsight, we could have undertaken even further blind testing, but we nonetheless ended up making important changes from the resulting feedback. I particularly want to give special thanks to Jyrki Castrén for his thorough, fine-combing through all of the game's details and his sharp observations. Here are some corrections that were applied after blind testing:
• Strike icons were added to right-hand weapon cards, and also to sponsor card weapons, in order to clarify that there are two, different damage types.
• The regeneration head card had a +2 hit point per round instead of a +2 heal per round; this would have been a troublesome mistake.
• Alien and droid statistics were slightly different on the player boards than in the rulebook. (Player boards were also missing Strike icons.) This would have created a lot of confusion.
The Space Freaks Universe and the Arena-Master Character
Fleshing out the back story for Space Freaks was interesting. Having so much else on my plate, I was fortunate to receive help from my fellow Toadking, Mikko Punakallio, and good friend Benjamin Vary who is a native, English speaker.
In a matter of weeks in late 2016, we created the background for the mega-corporations and the Arena-Master — a living trophy attached to his body in the form of Myron Musclehead. The Arena-Master is a kind of combined referee come Godfather of the Arena of Annihilation, calling the shots for each unique round while mascot Myron carps away.
Initially, I jotted down some basic ideas for absurdist mega-corporations, purposely choosing lots of cliché elements because they are precisely the ones that lend themselves most easily to humor.
I wanted there to be an independent droid corporation called the Ion Brotherhood, an alien swarm called Zeraxis, and an old, corrupt empire of humans called the Talar Barony. Originally, the fourth faction was a military corporation, but then I was happy to receive an idea from our publisher to use one of the Eclipse races, the Orion Hegemony. Mikko then developed more ideas for the next versions.
For the Orion Hegemony background, it was fun to inject some humorous, personal touches not only about us the game designers, but also relating to our publisher — namely, inside jokes pertaining to aging, fanatical geeks.
I then wanted to make the front side of the player boards a bit lighter graphically, so I created corresponding products for each corporation to be used as adverts. Each corporation also got a team-name:
Chilling at the Publisher
We had the great opportunity to further our test-play at invitation-only game evenings hosted by our publisher. The honest, constructive, and at times tough feedback made for some valuable changes to the game's balance. Here are some of the last improvements made to the Space Freaks rules:
• Adding +1 movement point to each leg card was instrumental in speeding up gameplay.
• Creating "last dash" victory points, awarded for running to opponents' home base zones during your last turn, added another tactical level to the endgame.
• One of the bunkers was omitted from gameplay while the remaining bunker was strengthened, now with the additional possibility for your dead units to spawn inside it.
• Scrapped the rule whereby the X-ray gun wouldn't be affected by retaliation power.
• The overall game-round total was reduced by one, but the game was still long enough to enable a player to win from behind.
Finalizing the Rulebook
Lastly, one crucial component of game design is to create a rulebook that's clear and easy to use. I want to thank our publisher for giving us the opportunity to work with Paul Grogan (Gaming Rules!) who finalized our rules' phrasing and structure. Over a six-week period, there was continuous updating of rules and card texts via email and Skype, resulting in a huge improvement.
The production design element of Space Freaks contained more detailed decision-making than could have been imagined. Very often, the publisher handles this stage, but I wanted Toadkings to be involved as much as possible. It could be argued that the last 10% of the project is actually 90% of the work. Ultimately it took a small team: Markku Laine (Toadkings’ graphic designer), Jere Kasanen (Lautapelit), and myself. Here are just some examples of the many elements that fall under production design:
• The layout of the rulebook was a huge undertaking. Innumerable versions spread over different page amounts.
• Examining the available sizes for wooden components, then the Pantone colors for both wooden and plastic components.
• Upon settling on the orange-brown color for the game board, we opted for non-primary colors for the mega-corporations and their accessories.
• Finalizing the graphic design details for all the cards in their different decks. For example, which card printing/cutting techniques might best apply to cards of a particular size.
• Designing an economical layout for the punchboards.
• The design of the back of the box with its various texts and sample pictures/photographs.
Looking back, I can honestly say that despite all of the hard work, the result was immensely satisfying.
It has been a great ride to create this board game, and I'll be spending most of the SPIEL '17 festival at booth number 3:L116 answering your questions and holding test games with my colleagues Kare Jantunen and Saku Tuominen. Illustrator Harri Tarkka will also accompany us some of the time. I look forward to seeing you all!
Let's get to the Arena of Annihilation and freak out!
There are 19440 possible combinations of a finished freak
My name is Alex, and I live in France, fifty miles south of Paris. I have been playing board games for more than fifteen years, falling in love back then with gems like Puerto Rico and Euphrat and Tigris, but it is only recently that I took the plunge and started designing my own games. At the end of 2017, it is with a lot of emotion and a bit of fear that I will see the release of my first game in stores: Boom, Bang, Gold. I take advantage of this little diary to tell you more about this wonderful adventure.
Boom was my second prototype. I started it during mid-2015, when it was then called "Gold Fever in Ghost Town". As a beginner in game design, I thought that it was probably wise to start creating with simple concepts and rules as it would be easier to get them out of my head, build the prototype, test to see if they work, and tweak. Well, that approach has a major drawback as you have to find an idea that stands out.
For "Gold Fever", I wanted to make a fast game that can appeal to a large public, a game that has simple rules, and most especially one in which you play with the box. (I love games like Château Roquefort, The Magic Labyrinth, Niagara, and Kayanak to name some classics.) I wondered what I could do differently. My brain grinded for several weeks until this key moment, almost magically (as you never know when, why, or how such ideas happens), when the idea came of shaking and hitting the game box. The spark is this idea of a mechanism: Players would have to hit the bottom of the box with one of their fists to make the tokens inside the box "jump".
All I would need to try it out is a box and a hundred tokens.
With this mechanism came instantly an idea of theme. Players would be in the far west, and hitting the box would mimic the effect of dynamite revealing gold in a mine. The tokens would all have one side with stones and the other side would be more stones or gold or a bonus.
In more detail, at the start of a game, one player throws a handful of gold and bonus tokens in the box, along with tokens that have stones on both sides. Another player takes the game box, shakes it, then opens it — then at the same time all the players try to grab any revealed gold and bonuses. Among these bonuses would be dynamite, and the player who grabs it gets to hold the box with one hand and hit it on the underside with their other hand so that it would reveal more gold that only they can take. Hmm, this sounds fun and looks like a good starting track. I try to put aside this "far west" theme to think of another one, but no, the transplant took too well. It's impossible to find something that would fit better with this mechanism. Even so, for the moment it's all just in my head.
The first ideas for "Gold Fever"
This idea seems promising, but it's only an idea. It's time to get to work and create the first prototype. Hmm, this is one of the most critical moments of game design because it takes a lot to get from an idea to a game you can pitch to a publisher. With this game, for example, it was at least two days of work to have a first prototype (find the visuals, create the material on my computer, print and cut with scissors from the thick cardboard about 160 tokens, etc.) — and nothing says that in the end it will work. But for this prototype, it was worth it. I had my first tests, and "oh joy", the game works right away. It's simple and quick, and my testers are having fun and want to play it more. It also has a little taste of transgression as we players are not accustomed to hitting our game boxes and throwing tokens up to two meters from our gaming table.
Well, the game is not perfect and there are still a few points to review, especially in the game sequences. For example, by placing all the gold tokens at the start, players exhaust all the gold in three rounds and the next rounds are boring. My new idea is to add gold tokens to the box three times, and a player doesn't have to be exact when doing this; they just grab a handful of tokens and throw them in. Thus, three gold veins will be discovered around Ghost Town.
One month after the first spark (and a lot of playtests), I have a game that is worth showing to a wider audience. Even better, I have a nice box cover, thanks to Yann, a person I met through a game design forum on the famous French board game website Tric Trac.
Box cover of the first prototype
My first public presentation of the prototype was done during a board game design contest in October 2015. Thirty prototypes entered this contest, with the public rating the games. That night, I was lucky enough to win. The contest took place on Friday night, the opening day of a board game convention in Angers. As the winner, I had my own table to show the prototype all weekend during the con — and this was a blast. More than a hundred players came to play my game, and some even came back with friends and family. I also had the fortune to meet some publishers.
Demoing at Prélude, the Angers' game design contest
After this weekend, the game is now in the hands of a few publishers. Rather than wait without doing anything — because patience is one of the first qualities that a beginning board game designer must learn — in October 2015, I sent the rules in English to HABA in Germany. And then, just to make a liar out of me, only three weeks later I receive a message from HABA in my inbox: "We have read your rules, the game seems fun, please can you send us a prototype. We need between 20 and 24 weeks to review it." So I sent them a prototype and started to wait again — for real this time.
In the meantime, the first negative responses from other publishers arrived: "The game is fun, but it needs a box too big for our line", and so on. To not lose patience and morale, I started working on other designs. In March 2016, HABA tells me that they still love the game and I am on a short list of sixty(!) games selected for further playtesting and that to bring me good luck, I have to keep my fingers crossed!
Then began a long wait, with the final answer initially planned for June 2016 ("but keep your fingers crossed"), then July 2016 (and I start to cross my toes, too), then August 2016 (and I get a tattoo of crossed fingers on my forearm).
Finally, the positive answer from HABA arrived in October 2016, and for me, it was like the explosion of a stick of dynamite.
Even better, the game would part of their new family line with Karuba, Meduris, and the new Iquazù. What's more, the game was slightly modified by HABA during these months of playtesting. No more shaking or hitting is needed as the box now includes a clever "trampoline" made of cardboard as well as sticks of dynamite to throw directly into the box. Very nice inspiration from HABA's development team!
Final components: the cardboard trampoline allows the dynamite to make the tokens jump
The rest of this story is nothing but pure joy: working on the rules, discovering the first illustrations and components, punching out the components of my first game with my family, meeting the people at HABA France, and going with my family to SPIEL to celebrate the launch of my first game with HABA Germany. Boom, bang, gold!
Punching out the components with my kids
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