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Designer Diary: The Long Road to Kitara

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Kitara
Board Game: Armorica
In 2010, my game design career was just starting to take off. A new game company, Sandstorm LLC, had bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia and seemed interested in seeing more work from me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia, another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box and have roughly the same number of components, but a higher level of complexity.

A comment by one of my regular playtesters, Jon Spinner, came back to me — something about "a card game and a board game that interface at one end". I don't remember the exact words he used, but it got me thinking about the self-published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica's central card-drafting mechanism could be combined with an area-control board game, similar to Hibernia.

Board Game: Armorica
Sample cards from Armorica

I came up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula in which players drafted a card every turn to build up a card display that gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica), as well as movement points and new units for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board, requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards. Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanism created the need for dynamic expansion each turn and prevented players from just playing defensively, serving the same function as the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way.

The resulting game was a little larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the design off to Sandstorm for playtesting anyway. When I went to the GAMA Trade Show for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me they liked my new design and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at Gen Con, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.

From gallery of erichv
Looking for Publication in All the Wrong Places

I took advantage of being at Gen Con already and showed the new game to some folks from a much larger publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after some subsequent interaction with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it were dice-based instead of card-based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different game. That version got me all the way to a meeting with the publisher's actual decision-maker at next year's Gen Con, but he ultimately passed on it.

That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game Lost Empires, which will be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021; however, that is a story for another designer diary.

Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game. The two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game.

Board Game: Kreta
Board Game: Kreta
I had been playing Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them between three different types of meeples: units that let you keep cards when they were in particular territories, units that scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3 VP. This change added a significant new decision point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.

In 2013, my friend Cedric was working for a French company called MyWitty Games that used a novel crowdfunding approach. I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting in which the unit types became humans, dwarves, and ogres. The movement mechanism was also changed to use movement actions that would move a group of pieces at once instead of having movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change differentiated the design even further from the dice-based version.

However, MyWitty also went out of business before we got to the point of signing a contract. I pitched the game to Evil Hat Productions in 2014, but they passed on it in favor of Kaiju Incorporated.

A Home at Last

Family: Organizations: Forgenext
In 2016, I became a client of the Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaëtan Beaujannot started representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement as I am not a great salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to the San Francisco Bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the game at that meeting, but I don't remember precisely what the changes were.

Gaetan began pitching the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another large publisher that had expressed strong interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In particular, I developed an alternative card deck that used a different pattern of icons across each card to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card ever provided multiple types of meeple; in the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple types, and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My playtesters seemed to like this new deck better, so it became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was unhappy with some of this publisher's plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.

Board Game Publisher: IELLO
It was then that Gaetan got me a contract for the game with IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting developed from African history and mythology.

I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism, or ancient Egypt. The rest of the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There are very few games about ancient Africa.

How to Design Games about Africa

From gallery of erichv
I found the prospect of creating an ancient sub-Saharan African setting for the game a little daunting. I am not African, nor am I of African Diaspora descent. I wouldn't call myself an expert on Africa, although I do take an interest in African history, current affairs, and cultural theory.

However, I am a professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina's 2005 satiric essay "How to Write About Africa", which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa: "In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country... Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions."

I knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture, and era in African history; IELLO wanted the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between history and mythology, like the Trojan War.

Board Game: Kitara
I identified a couple of promising settings, which I may come back to for later games. However, eventually we decided to theme the game around the break-up of the Kitara Empire, located in the great lakes region of East-Central Africa, in the 14th century AD. Scholarly sources on this empire were not easy to find, but I eventually did track a few down.

Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara Empire was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the interlacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation by the Abachwezi dynasty of kings. According to folklore, these kings had magical powers and introduced important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were supposed to have become angered by their people's disobedience and disappeared into the great lakes. Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda.

The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming. Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures. According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to the region. Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to population increases, more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished over cattle and grazing land.

However, some historians also suggest that ancient Central Africans used a traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara Empire may have been one in which more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by traditional practices that limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fit well with the mechanisms of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of units from combat.

Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire let me create a very evocative backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the mechanisms, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined mechanisms of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some needed artistic license.

From gallery of erichv
Miguel Coimbra, meanwhile, had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the game. Cheetah-centaurs aren't a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are part-human, part-animal creatures in African folklore, and there are many varieties of sentient animals across several African mythologies. I used "master animal", a term applying to sentient mythological animals I found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls these pieces "cheetah-centaurs" — or "chetaurs" — anyway.

I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players depict armies of female warriors. I don't have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors or leaders in the region of the Kitara Empire, but there are documented traditions of women as warriors, war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).

From gallery of erichv

I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanisms at IELLO's request. They wanted a new alternative deck that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet another pattern of icons, that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an expansion.

IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat mechanism so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips; a player can keep only one chip per turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provides a better chance of drawing a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, added a new tactical consideration, and made the scoring elements in the game more diverse.

Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the U.S. were great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game and consulted me in regard to all the decision-making about the game's production. Gaëtan was also active during the game's development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game. (I don't really speak French, sadly.) I was also very impressed by how IELLO adapted to lockdown and was able to keep to its timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That it's able to release this game in 2020 is a testament to how well its team works.

Board Game: Kitara
Kitara in the IELLO media room at SPIEL '19
As I write this, I have just received my first copy of the finished game, delivered to the doorstep of the apartment in which I have been locked down for six months. I think Kitara has the highest production values of any game of mine published to date, with lots of cool custom wooden bits and other top-notch components. Miguel's artwork for the game looks fabulous.

Any published game is a team effort, reflecting the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaëtan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it.

Eric B. Vogel

Sources Referenced

Doyle, S. (2006). From Kitara to the Lost Counties: Genealogy, Land and Legitimacy in the Kingdom of Bunyoro, Western Uganda, Social Identities, 12:4, 457-470, DOI: 10.1080/13504630600823684

Ford, C. (1999) The Hero with an African Face. New York. Bantam.

Kaur, M. (2017). Mother of Nations and Kali's Daughters: An Empirical Study on Amazon Dahomey Warriors and Indian Queen Warriors. Military Science Review / Hadtudományi Szemle, 10(4), 126–141.

Moreira Ribeiro, O., Torres Moreira, F. A. & Pimenta, S. (2019). Nzinga Mbandi: from story to myth. Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, 11(1). https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.7559/citarj.v11i1.594

Nwanna, C. (2012). Dialectics of African Feminism. Matatu: Journal for African Culture & Society, 40(1), 275–283. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1163/18757421-040001019

Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.

Uzoigwe, G.N. (2012). Bunyoro-Kitara Revisited: A Reevaluation of the Decline and Diminishment of an African Kingdom. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 48(1) 16–34.

Wainaina, B. (2005). How to write about Africa. Granta, 92, 91.

Board Game: Kitara
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Tue Oct 13, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Kaiju Incorporated, or A Kaiju By Any Other Name Would Be a Cable Car

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Kaiju Incorporated
The Thing I Miss Most Is My Memory...I Think

Fair warning that this designer diary may be a little vague in spots. Once in a while, a game of mine has such a long and convoluted path to publication that I have forgotten the beginning of the story by the end of it.

According to my files, I started prototyping the game that eventually became Kaiju Incorporated back in September 2011. That would have been about the time that Cambria and Hibernia hit the market, and I was seeing early indicators that the company that published them was having difficulties, so I was mostly trying to design games I could potentially self-publish in the pre-Kickstarter era.

This game began as most of my games do, with an idea for the core mechanism. Players would draft a card from a random row, then either pay to add it to their tableau or discard it to trigger income in the suit of the discarded card. This is the kind of mechanism I like to build a game around: a simple choice but with a lot of factors that influence a player's thinking about which choice to make. I think I fiddled around with the number of suits before settling on three as the most functional. The game was initially just vaguely themed around city construction.

Because I was thinking in terms of self-publishing, I wanted to create something like my previous game at the time, Armorica, that is, something card-based without the need for bits to represent resources. Because of this, the first iterations of this game tried to use unconstructed game cards as money, similar to Race for the Galaxy. However, I recognized at a certain point that this limitation was holding me back, so I decided to let myself include game money and VP tokens as components. This let me breakthrough to the early stages of this design, with its biggest early influences being London, Citadels, Saint Petersburg and Phoenicia. I admire those designs for how much mileage they get out of an economy based solely on money and victory points (VP). It was probably London that had me thinking about making an economic game about city building.

In the early versions of the game, all cards provided money or VP or both to players on their own turns, and these versions of the game were pretty dull because the game wasn't interactive enough and other player's turns were just downtime. By October 2011, I had come up with the "Your Turn/Rivals Turn" mechanism, and this brought the game much closer to its final form. Now some building cards paid off when you chose to discard for income, and some paid off when other players discarded for income. This made other player's turns more exciting because you were waiting to see whether they would give you income. It also added more decision points because you wanted to force later players into situations where they had to give you income. Thematically, too, this change better represented the action of an interactive economy. Rivals Turn buildings were initially themed as the suppliers to retail businesses, so when the retailers sell, they buy from the suppliers. I don't recall whether the idea for this mechanism grew out of the thematic desire to model economics more closely, or the mechanical need to get the players interacting more.

Board Game: Race to Adventure: The Spirit of the Century Exploration Game
I Left My Hat in San Francisco

At this point I was playtesting with Chris Ruggiero, who later became the co-designer of [company=9656]Race to Adventure[/company], Evil Hat Productions' first board game. Chris proposed making the game about rebuilding post-earthquake San Francisco, which I thought was a great idea. He had a lot of specific ideas about how to implement this theming, and I immediately brought him on board as a co-designer.

Let me say at this point that I am not a natural collaborator. All my other designs are sole authorship for a reason, and that reason is that I am a control freak. I have tried and failed to co-design with others on other occasions, and it has been mostly my fault. Collaborating with Chris worked because he is an exceptionally easy-going guy, and he was happy to let me be senior partner and have final say about everything. Generally if I am going to be involved in a design process with others, I would rather be a developer than a co-author because it is easier emotionally for me to take a backseat in that situation.

The game went through a bunch of changes that ultimately did not work out, and I don't recall which ideas were Chris' and which were mine. At one juncture in October 2011, the game had a majority control map that interacted with card placement. I believe this is when we instituted the cards having neighborhoods on them as a way to get a little more San Francisco into the game. The map went away, but the majority control neighborhoods stayed. At one stage, building cards had hit points that could get eroded, but that did not work very well either.


Board Game: Kaiju Incorporated
Sample new product cards


Then in December 2011, I think it was Chris who introduced the general idea of a newspaper-themed mechanism (which eventually became new product cards and Kaiju cards). I wanted to introduce a penalty points system, similar to poverty points in London, and Chris had the idea that instead of scoring VP and PP (penalty points), players would collect good and bad newspaper stories about their companies. This was a big thing in early San Francisco, where corruption was rife and labor disputes were frequent, so I replaced the game money and VP with advancing tracks that eventually allowed you to collect a good headline from the San Francisco Chronicle or a bad headline from the San Francisco Examiner. (If you lived in the Bay Area back when newspapers were a thing, then you know why we themed them that way.) Eventually we arrived at the bad headlines destroying your building cards (by ruining the businesses) and good headlines awarding VP based on the building cards in your tableau at the end of the game. This helped with a mechanical issue that most tableau-building games have, that is, the tableau growing too large to manage.

Over the next 2 years the game got playtested and refined a lot, but with no major mechanical changes. Mercifully, my friends liked it and did not object to all the playtesting. At some point between 2012 and 2014, my longtime friend and playtester Jon Spinner suggested that I should convert the tracks into wheel shapes, to make clearer what happened whenever a track wrapped back to the beginning. It was a great idea, one that really improved the flow of gameplay.

In this period I took the game with me anytime I might have a chance to pitch games to a publisher (which was infrequent), but it did not get any traction. In this period I worked on Zeppelin Attack! and Don't Turn Your Back for Evil Hat Productions, as well as doing game development for them on a cooperative game by Chris Ruggiero and Eric Lytle. It did not occur to me to pitch them this game, however, because an economic game didn't seem to fit their oeuvre.


From gallery of erichv


Stop...Kaiju Time!

Meanwhile, president of Evil Hat Productions Fred Hicks had given me a quasi-commission to create a card game around a time travel/paradox theme he had in mind. I designed a game that I wasn't entirely happy with, but that did give me a chance to create some cool alternate history gags, like: "1500: Philippine Empire colonizes Spain", "1965: Malcom X survives assassination attempt, made bionic", and "1980: Jerry Falwell elected President, bans synthesizer music and coin operated video games, American Dark Ages begin". It was a majority control game about trying to take over different centuries with your version of history. It worked mechanically, but the game feel was off; too many players found the game frustrating because their actions were constantly being undone by other players.

My first game with Evil Hat, Zeppelin Attack!, debuted at Gen Con 2014, and the English second edition of my game Romans Go Home was being demoed by Asmodee at the same show, so I returned to Gen Con for the first time since Cambria and Hibernia had debuted there in 2011. I was hobnobbing with the big-time designers at the Asmodee booth (finally got to meet Bruno Faidutti face-to-face), taking a variety of meetings with Evil Hat, and generally feeling like a real game designer again.


Board Game: Kaiju Incorporated


I demoed the time travel game for Fred Hicks, Chris Hanrahan, and Ron Donoghue, and they came to the same conclusion I had about the problematic feel of the game. I think time travel is a tough theme for a game because it presents a very narrow range of options for representing the theme mechanically. While they were there, I showed them the other prototypes in my portfolio. To my surprise, they wanted to do the San Francsico game! Fred came up with the idea of re-theming it around kaiju (Japanese giant movie monsters), and instantly both Rob and Fred started riffing ideas for re-theming the game. The bad headlines became the kaiju, which made the destruction of player tableaus make a lot more sense. The players became megacorporations, looking to profit from rebuilding the world after kaiju attacks.

Aside from that, I don't remember how much of the broad kaiju theming was spawned at that meeting and how much we did later. My meetings with EHP at conventions tend to be fast (between other meetings), chaotic (with conventioneers constantly stopping to talk to Fred), and conducted when I have had too little sleep. I do remember walking to dinner with the EHP crew afterward, with Fred occasionally turning to me to utter a kaiju roar and make a building squashing gesture; he was very enthused about the game.

The new theme was always intended to be humorous, a parody of kaiju films rather than just a homage to them. I don't think we ever explicitly discussed that; it just unfolded naturally, perhaps a holdover from the humor of the time travel prototype. It eventually became clear that Fred and I were fans of different kaiju properties. He was mostly a fan of Pacific Rim, whereas I was mostly a fan of classic Godzilla movies from the 1960s and '70s. This turned out to be a good mix of influences because it made the game a broad parody of the genre as a whole instead of being a tight parody of a particular series.


Board Game: Kaiju Incorporated


Once we set down to work on the re-theming, it became clear that the kaiju theme was a better fit with the game mechanisms in every way. Chris Ruggiero and I had a field day re-theming the cards, both getting to indulge our senses of humor. The neighborhoods became cities in different nations, so we needed Russian, Chinese, Japanese, American, and Australian themed gag companies. Chris created hilarious card names like "Tchaikovsky Piano Cannon Factory" and "Easily Panicked Masses Stadium". I had the idea to make all of the Australian cards acronyms, like "War Office Mobile Battle Attack Tech" (WOMBAT). EHP likes to keep the humor in their games pretty clean, so some of my gags got toned down slightly, thus "Kaijumojo Male Enhancement Cream" became "Kaijumojo Male Enhancement Pills", and "The Emperor Norton Baby Kaiju Vivisection Hospital" became a "research hospital" instead. By making the U.S. city San Francisco, we were able to keep a little connection to the original theme of the game. Believe it or not, since then I have created another prototype set in the early 1900s Bay Area that also got re-themed as something else. One day I will get to make a game about my hometown…one day…

I also added new material to the game after the introduction of the new theme in the form of the special action cards. These were created to be a KS bonus item, but also to increase player interactivity by letting them buy actions that impacted each other. I experimented with some other add-ons, like a Giant Robot, which did not work. (Giant Robots never work right.) All the add ons that did work are in the published game now. I also made changes that sped up the game so that it would run a little under an hour most of the time.

From gallery of erichv
Fred hired Brian Patterson of d20 Monkey fame to do the art, and he really brought the humor to life. Often the sight gags were very different from what I had envisioned and much funnier. The "Banned-Die Toy Company", with its conveyer belt full of "fun hugs bear" teddy bears with razor arms sent me into hysterics when I first saw it. Sometimes he cleaned up my gags by adding a counter-intuitive sight gag, such as the "Hot Robot Maid Research Foundation" that features a very un-sexy masculine robot in a French maid costume...on fire. The art also did a great job of evoking the kaiju world in general, without mimicking anything specific. I had a little input on the art, which didn't need much because it all turned out so well. I remember for BRUCE, a card that was essentially a big public bomb shelter in Australia, the art didn't evoke Australia in any way, so I asked Brian to go back and put really big beer cans in everyone's hands. (No offense, Australians; I am sure you throw down responsibly.)

Brian works quickly, and the game and all its artwork were pretty much done by late 2015. By that time, The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game was also pretty far along, and EHP decided to bump that up ahead of Kaiju Incorporated on the production schedule. EHP decided to help promote the card game by commissioning a Kaiju Incorporated RPG. Rob Wieland created the RPG about the lives of post-kaiju attack clean-up crews, and I had very little to do with the RPG. I made up some additional background material about the world of the card game when Rob first started work, but I don't think he ended up needing to use that material very much. The RPG is entirely his work, and I think it's a cool RPG and am happy to have it out there. However, I must admit it bugs me when people assume that the RPG came first and I designed the card game around it; for once, it was the other way around.

Eric Vogel
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Sat Sep 30, 2017 2:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Don't Turn Your Back, and Don't Stop Believin'!

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Don't Turn Your Back
In late 2012, Zeppelin Attack had been designed, but most of the production work by Evil Hat Productions had not yet begun. Based on the encouragement of Chris Hanrahan (now Vice-President at EHP), I had pitched one of my board game designs to them — a prototype that ultimately went elsewhere — so I felt like EHP had enough of my stuff in the pipeline and probably would not urgently want more. Meanwhile, I had vague expressions of interest from another publisher for a card game that would use a science fiction setting, so I was thinking vaguely in that thematic realm as I tried to design something over my Xmas break from work.

For every game idea that I feel is good enough to pursue, I get part way through the design of several prototypes that I give up on. Some of these I throw out after the first playtest or two. Many of them I quit without showing them to anyone. Sometimes I give up on these because I realize they are not viable mechanically, but mostly I give up because they just don't have the spark of originality I want my games to have. However, kicking around uninteresting ideas is what usually causes interesting ideas to gel, so that is how my design process usually starts these days. I started dreaming up games and throwing them out, in the hope that a good idea would come to me before my vacation was over.

Meanwhile, I had been playing Friedman Friese's Copycat and really enjoying it. The game is a brilliant, but very straightforward combination of worker placement and deck-building. Each turn, players do worker placement, where they compete to put meeples on limited fields to get assets – hence worker placement. They also play cards from a personal, expandable deck to the table in front of them – hence deck-building. The game is excellent, and I thought that Friese's own caveats that it was altogether derivative did him an injustice. It certainly took a leap of imagination to combine these two mechanisms. That said, the deck-building and worker placement in Copycat are not really integrated; there isn't a synthesis of the two mechanisms, rather they just co-exist as side-by-side systems. As I mused on this, an epiphany suddenly hit me, and the thought went almost exactly like this: "What if the deck-building cards ARE the workers?" The instant this idea came to me I felt like it was the best idea for a core mechanism I had ever had. I started drafting the first prototype that same day.

From gallery of erichv
Everything about the game flowed so naturally from the idea of cards-as-workers that the first prototype came into being almost effortlessly. I started thinking about what possibilities cards-as-workers create, as opposed to meeples-as-workers. Because the cards can hold complex information, that led to the idea of play-area restrictions and various unique text effects, like that of the Face Merchant Card. Unlike a pure deck-builder, every function did not have to appear on a card. Various functions of deck-building, such as trashing and card acquisition, could be assigned to board areas. The same card could be multifunctioned, and the different functions could be triggered by different board areas.

I like clean boundaries between functions in a design, so I made one board area for trashing cards (small, so that cards would not get trashed too quickly), one board area for collecting money, two areas that would generate VP in slightly different ways, and one area where card text effects would be activated. Thus, all the core functions of the final game were already in place in the first prototype, although it took a lot of tinkering to get them right.

Early on in the design process, I experimented with making each player's deck have unique cards. Players are always saying they want that kind of thing in a game, so I usually give it a try. As is the case in most instances, it did not work. Asymmetricality almost always creates problematic imbalances in a game design, and my games usually have tight-enough balance that it won't work. If I was an Ameritrash designer at heart, maybe I would see it differently.

A few prototypes into the design process, the idea of what would become the Law deck gelled, a board area that would provide different rewards each turn based on a cycling card. This got me effortlessly past an issue that is often a struggle: creating a good game-end timer. In this case, I could use the number of cards in the law deck to measure out the turns of the game — easy-peasy.

I also added the endgame bonus for trashed ("encased") cards. I think it is ideal in scoring-track games if some score elements are not going to be apparent until the endgame. Ideally, I want players to at least have the hope of winning until the game is over or almost over. Making this bonus be a multiplier for the cards left in the player's decks got me around the problem of giving the players a reason to still want new cards late in the game.

So I had a complete prototype, functioning well, before it first occurred to me that this design would be a much better fit with Don't Rest Your Head than the theme I had been thinking of. Also, as it became clear to me that this was going to be my best game design yet, I wanted to give first refusal to Evil Hat.

RPG Item: Don't Rest Your Head
Before I was commissioned to design Zeppelin Attack (as I detailed on BGG News in August 2014), I had spoken to Chris Hanrahan about the possibility of pitching a game to Evil Hat, and he directed me to take a look at the Don't Rest Your Head RPG, the first RPG that Evil Hat Productions published.

In Don't Rest Your Head chronic insomniacs become so sleep-deprived that they become sucked into another world, The Mad City, where they acquire dreamlike powers and are pursued by living nightmares. I am not a role-player, but I really liked Don't Rest Your Head as a piece of literature; it had an evocative, atmospheric setting with fascinating characters. As surreal as the Mad City is, it does have culture and structure like any other society. It also had a marketplace and economics (for very odd currencies and goods!), which seemed like good fodder for a board game. Early on, I had started playing with ideas for deck-building games that would be set in this world, but did not get very far, and most of those ideas ended up being incorporated into Zeppelin Attack. However, now when I tried to see my new game through the lens of the Don't Rest Your Head setting, the natural correspondences were immediately apparent. I went back to the Don't Rest Your Head sourcebooks, especially to the book of short stories set in the Mad City, Don't Read This Book, to refresh my knowledge of the setting. I encourage readers of this diary to take a look at those as well.

There are several distinctive districts in Mad City, so it was easy to theme the different worker placement fields as these. The Wax Kingdom is a part of the part of the Mad City where characters become sucked in, assimilated, and cannot escape, so it seemed like a natural place for the trash function to go. The Nightmares in Don't Rest Your Head travel to the normal world — the "city slumbering" — to harvest people's dreams to sell, so the money-generating function was a natural fit with The City Slumbering. The Bizarre Bazaar is the place where deals get made, so it seemed like the natural setting to activate the text effects. The 13th District and the High School are the most dangerous districts, places that players have to battle their way through, so those seemed like the natural places to score victory points via majority control. The movement of cards through the High School seemed to me like a nice representation of matriculation, so I altered the mechanisms to make this feel even more apparent. The 13th District was a natural fit with the idea of "Law" cards that dictate scoring.

Once the new theme was in place, I went back and started tweaking cards to make them better representations of some of the best-known Nightmare characters in DRYH. From that point on, development was mostly a matter of playtesting and tweaking the scoring of various game elements to get the balance right. It was important that District 13, the High School, and the endgame bonus for The Wax Kingdom had similar overall scoring potential. It was not my intent that each one of these represent a simple "path to victory", but I thought that player strategies should be able to focus on any of these areas.

It was at about this point that I demoed the game for Fred Hicks and Chris Hanrahan at Chris's house. In this case, three games were being demoed for Fred on the same night: a cooperative game by Eric Lytle and Chris Ruggiero, my 4X board game that Chris Hanrahan wanted Fred to look at, and Don't Turn Your Back. Fred had been given prototypes of the other games previously, but I sprung DTYB on him cold as the last game of the night. I've now done enough playtests and pitches to recognize a publisher reaction that signals real interest, and clearly Fred liked what he saw. By the end of the playtest it was fairly clear that Evil Hat was going to produce this game. I had become so enamored of the theme at this point that I am really not sure what I would have done with the game if he hadn't liked it!


Board Game: Don't Turn Your Back


There was not a tremendous amount of change to the game from this point on. Fred did some of his own playtesting at game conventions and asked for specific tweaks to a couple of cards that improved their theme-mechanism relationship. It was Fred who suggested that the distinctiveness of the Roof Rat would be that it was a weak card that could be played anywhere; that seemed like an excellent fit with the Roof Rats as they are portrayed in Don't Rest Your Head. I recall that I had to fiddle around quite a bit to get a distinctive Bazaar text effect for the Tacks Man that reflected his character. I think it was also Fred who suggested I add different third and fourth place scoring levels for the Wax Kingdom endgame bonus. Fred also named the game Don't Turn Your Back sometime during this period. Part of why I like working with Fred is that he is a great resource for game theming. (This is true even when he isn't the author of the original IP!) I also expanded the number of Law cards to create more variety from game to game.

Overall, this was a short design process for what is probably my heaviest game to date. The way I initially envisioned the design worked well enough that I had to revise much less than I usually do.

Let me say that I am exceptionally happy with the look of the finished game. I have been quite pleased with the art on all my professionally published games, but Don't Turn Your Back is the first one where I feel like the game itself is a visual art object. George Cotronis, the artist who has been primarily associated with the Don't Rest Your Head series, created wonderfully bizarre images for the game. Because the Mad City is so dreamlike, it is inherently difficult to translate it from narrative descriptions into concrete images. However, George was able to bring these to life without losing any of their strangeness or menace. The art is both beautiful and creepy at the same time, with a Goya-like quality.


From gallery of erichv


Fred did the graphic design for DTYB himself, creating a highly functional layout, which graphically complemented the strangeness of the art, using irregular splatters of color for the borders. One of the interesting things Fred set out to do with this design was to make it friendly for players with impaired color-vision, so in addition to some of the normal devices for this, such as having a symbol paired with the player color on each card, Fred did a lot of research into which set of four colors would register as most distinctive for people with various forms and degrees of color-blindness. This led us to have an unusual set of player colors: orange, blue, olive and teal, which again just helps to enhance the overall strange feel of the game.

Given the way Kickstarter has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom in the game industry, I find it bizarre that the range of popular artistic styles for board games seems to have actually narrowed over the last ten years. There is cute, cartoony art and painterly realistic art, and that is about it. There is nothing wrong with either style, and my games have used both at different times; the problem is the exclusion of other styles, and the way that the limited range of acceptable visual styles constrains the range of game themes we tend to see. Why should the range of visual styles in boardgames be any more limited than the full range of artistic styles that exist?

With that design done, we Kickstarted the game, successfully, and my second publication with Evil Hat Productions was done! As I write this, I have two more designs in different parts of the pipeline for Evil Hat, one of which I expect gamers to get particularly excited about, but those are stories for another day. Now as the Kickstarted copies of the games are getting into the hands of the backers, I realize that I have been having bizarre disturbing dreams for the last six weeks or so; meanwhile Fred Hicks reports suffering from chronic insomnia. I wonder...


From gallery of erichv
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Wed Sep 9, 2015 7:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Zeppelin Attack, or The Balloon Goes Up!

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Zeppelin Attack!
Somewhat to my surprise, on the morning of January 12, 2012, I opened an email from Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions, the subject line of which read, "You're the next contestant on Game Doctor!"

You see, Evil Hat Productions had previously commissioned a card game design from Jeff Tidball called "Zeppelin Armada". This was a game in which the evil mastermind characters from the Spirit of the Century role-playing game fought each other with fleets of airships. I had played the prototype once with Fred and Jeff at Origins 2011. After the design was finished and the artwork was already in process, some of the playtests EHP had done of the game led the Evil Hat team to think they wanted some changes to the design. Chris Hanrahan — in addition to being co-owner of my favorite game store, Endgame — is also part of the leadership team at Evil Hat Productions, and he asked me to do some playtesting of the game and give him my thoughts, so I did, making a few recommendations. Of course, the Evil Hat team first approached Jeff about making the revisions, but Jeff had too many commitments to work on Zeppelin Armada at that time. Thus, with that email I was asked to put my money where my mouth was and to try to implement my proposed fixes myself.

I had never tried to do anything like this before. Normally, I just design games on spec and present the finished product for publishers to evaluate. With this commission, I was working under several restrictions. The overall size of the game needed to be the standard 112-card double deck. It needed to utilize all of the artwork that had already been drawn. It also had to retain certain key thematic elements of Jeff's design. Although Jeff had okayed EHP approaching me to doctor the game, I felt a little guilty about messing with another designer's baby, so my initial approach was to try to be less of a designer and more of a developer. I wanted to try to "fix" the existing game, while changing as little as I could manage. All the while I was doing this, part of my brain was thinking: "If I had a free hand, I would turn this into a deck-building game."

I created about four prototypes using this approach. While these prototypes addressed the issues in the original that I was trying to target, I wasn't happy with the results. To do game development on someone else's design, I needed the original author's participation, and that wasn't possible in this case. As I was thinking about how to deal with this, one of my regular playtesters – Chris Ruggiero, who is also a co-owner of Endgame and one of the designers of Race To Adventure — made his own report to the Evil Hat folks, stating that he thought I needed to be given a freer hand with the game to really make progress with it. That is exactly what they did. I was still under the limitations regarding the numbers of cards, the existing artwork, and some of the card names; I still had to make it a game about fleets of zeppelins fighting, but aside from that I could design whatever kind of card game I wanted to.

From gallery of erichv

Now to back up a little, I had been wanting to design a deck-building game for years. When I first played Dominion, I loved the game but couldn't imagine designing something like it. It seemed like the amount of playtesting it would require would be overwhelming. However, as other deck-building games came along, it started to seem more like something I could do. Ascension, which is probably my favorite deck-building game, seemed more like something I might design. Also, between 2008, when I first played Dominion, and 2012, I had learned a lot as a game designer, particularly about card games. Complex card games initially seemed overwhelming to me because it seemed like it would be impossible to discern the balance of individual cards from within a playtest. However, that changed when I designed Armorica.

Board Game: Armorica
Armorica grew out of an "a-ha" moment in which I realized that I could create a point system for card attributes, use that to determine how much stuff should be on a given card, then instead of playtesting a given card I could playtest the point system as a whole. (E.g., is drawing one card equal in value to scoring 1 VP? Or is drawing two cards equivalent to 1 VP?) That principle has more-or-less informed all of my subsequent card game development.

I had previously spoken to Chris Hanrahan about the possibility of designing something to pitch to Evil Hat, and he had pointed me towards theming a card game within the Don't Rest Your Head franchise, so for a time I had played around with trying to develop a deck-building game that would fit that theme. I never exactly designed that game, but had been playing with a number of ideas for elements of a deck-building game that would be different from any of the deck-building games with which I was familiar. So I now marshalled those together to create what would become the first draft of Zeppelin Attack.

Let me say this: Originality is the hobgoblin of the deck-building game design process because it cannot be totally original and still be a deck-building game. The question becomes how original is original enough? My game had to be purely a card game, and I wanted it to be a true deck-building game. Thus, I expected at the outset that my game would end up somewhere on a continuum of originality, that it would find its originality in disparate mechanisms (rather than one central mechanical innovation) while retaining many of the common deck builder elements, and that it would probably start out somewhat derivative and get more original as it was revised. That was in fact exactly how the process unfolded.

I had observed that the main way in which other deck builders differentiated themselves from Dominion mechanically was by leaving out elements of Dominion. Tanto Cuore has actions, buys, and money that all work exactly as they do in Dominion, and this is part of what makes it feel directly derivative. Thunderstone got rid of actions and changed the money system, but kept the concept of buys. Ascension got rid of both actions and buys and introduced a system of two suits of "money" to compensate for their absence. These variances were enough to make the play of these games feel quite different from that of Dominion.

From gallery of erichv
A game which used some kind of action point system, but got rid of buys, was a little corner of variance in the deck-builder formula that hadn't been explored yet, so I decided to play with that idea at the outset. Based on the artwork that "Zeppelin Armada" already had, the game had to involve zeppelin cards, armament/attack cards, defense cards, and crew cards of some kind. Clearly zeppelins needed to be part of a tableau and not just part of your hand. They would be played from your hand to your tableau, then periodically get knocked out of your tableau into your discard pile only to later reappear in your hand and re-enter your tableau. However, the zeppelins would all have a very novel function; they would provide your action points in the game, with each zeppelin essentially being an action point. Thus, to launch an attack on another player, you need a zeppelin from which to launch the attack and an enemy zeppelin to shoot at. This would make the theme of the game more palpable as well.

I realized that one problem I faced was that with only 112 cards to work with, I couldn't have players buying cards at the rate they do in most deck-builders. In Dominion, Ascension, etc., buying cards is the primary activity of the game, and people expect to buy 1-3 cards every turn. If they did that in a game this size, it would be over in five minutes! I like fast games, but not that fast.

This problem was compounded slightly by the fact that I needed to make the starting decks relatively large. Most deck-builders have starting decks similar to Dominion, in that players start with a fixed amount of two or three types of generic, weak cards. Throughout the time I was playing with ideas for deck-builders, I wanted the starting decks to be more complex, to constitute an "advanced-start" game state. I got the idea from advanced-start options in various video games I had played over the years, such as Masters of Orion II. So I needed to create a mechanism by which players would save up money over multiple turns, to buy a card on average every 2-3 turns.

I also noted that while the money systems in the different deck-builders varied, most of them had infinitely-reusable money like Dominion; when you acquired a money card, you could re-spend it every time it came up in your deck. This mechanism tends to make purchasing power snowball pretty quickly. I decided to make a game in which money would be acquired into your deck, then removed from your deck when you spent it. Instead of acquiring permanent money, you would buy cards that let you acquire new money cards; these would be the Operative cards, which would give me a way to use the character artwork created for "Zeppelin Armada". In turn, this meant that I needed to add a hand management element to the game. In Dominion, you always discard all of your unused cards at the end of the turn, then draw a whole new hand, and most deck-builders have stuck with this mechanism. The exceptions to this are Eminent Domain and A Few Acres of Snow. After playing with different variants of hand-management mechanisms, I settled on just letting players carry over unplayed cards within a hand limit. So if buying cards was going to be a secondary and occasional activity, what was going to be the primary activity of my game? Simple: Combat!

From gallery of erichv
Having targeted attacks against other players is something that the preexisting theme of the old game clearly called for. Attacks had been an element of Dominion, and a lesser element of subsequent deck-builders, but those attacks were always global — that is, directed against all opponents at once — or else they would hit particular opponents based on some criteria that the opponent met (having the most cards in hand, etc.) rather than at the attacker's discretion. Clearly in Zeppelin Attack, players would be aiming at particular other players, and other players would be attempting to block the attacks in some way. I didn't want the combat system to bog down the action of the game; if players had to add up modifiers and compare attack and defense numbers, it would create too much downtime. It was also clear from my playtests that players often found the consequences of losing in combat too punishing, too discouraging. I wanted this game to have a lot of combat, but for the consequences of losing a battle to not be too dire.

I also retained a modified version of one mechanism from Jeff's game that I really liked. He gave the zeppelins in his game a capacity value that determined how powerful of an attack they could launch, and if a zeppelin launched an attack that exceeded its capacity, then the zeppelin took damage. So I decided that the zeppelins should have different capacities for each kind of card they could play, and that any of these capacities could be overloaded. Being attacked or overloaded would force a zeppelin out of a player's tableau and into his discard pile. Since the zeppelin can then be re-drawn and put back in the tableau, losing a zeppelin this way would not be an excessive consequence. So all the cards that the zeppelins deployed — the action cards — would have payload sizes, but not numeric strengths. The notion of using nominal categories without numerical values is one I have always found interesting to play around with as a way of decreasing the proportion of math in the game.

I started with a very simple combat system in which any attack could be blocked by any defense card. This quickly proved to be too simple; there needed to be a greater element of chance in whether an attack would succeed. I eventually moved toward creating suits of attacks and defenses; matching defenses would block attacks, while non-matching defenses would not. I played around with different numbers of these suits, trying to get the odds of drawing the right defense just right. It eventually became clear that the number of suits had to match the number of players, and that the suits would match the player characters in the game thematically.

From gallery of erichv
Another challenge had to do with variable powers. Thematically, each player was going to be a different evil mastermind, so the thematically correct choice was for them to have different starting assets in their decks. As far as I am concerned, variable powers are the bane of my game design existence. They are always thematic, and players always like the idea of them, so they are very attractive to include in a game. However, any number of potentially good games suffer from irredeemable balance problems because of their variable power elements. Creating different powers that are truly equal in value is very difficult. If you have to acquire such powers during the game, then imbalance between them is fine, as long as they are priced right. However, if players start the game with different abilities and assets, then even very tiny differentials in power iterate across the game and create overwhelming advantages for certain players.

Most of my early attempts to make the starting decks different from one another ran into this problem. Eventually the solution was to be found in the attack and defense suits. The same card powers would appear on all the attack, defense and operative cards in each of the starting decks, and all the attack and defense suits would appear in each deck. However, the powers would be matched with different suits in each deck. This provided a way of creating difference, without creating imbalance. The zeppelins in the player's start decks would have the same capacities, but these would be distributed differently across the two zeppelins in each player's starting deck.

Finally, there was an issue with the card effects themselves. At least some cards need to have special text effects in almost any deck-building game. My first thought would be that the attack cards would have powers that worked only if your attack succeeded, and defense effects would work only if you successfully defended. The operative cards that gave you more money would always be effective to ensure that players would not get stuck and be unable to buy more cards. However, it quickly became clear that players did not have enough incentive to attack because if the attack was defended it advantaged your enemy too much.

Player incentive and motivation concerns are a huge part of game design. An action in a game can be highly advantageous, but if it doesn't look advantageous to the players, they won't try it and will never learn its true value. As a designer, you have to manage the appearance of contingencies as much as the reality of them. I finally got around this problem by giving the attacks and defenses two effects each, one that occurs only when they get used successfully, and one that always occurs. This way, attacking is always beneficial and simply becomes more beneficial when it succeeds. It also got me around the problem of a player's hand getting cluttered with defenses he could not use because no one happened to be attacking him; players could use the defenses on their own turn to get lesser benefits. This dual text-effect mechanism added a lot of novelty and a new risk-management consideration to the game. So, as I noted earlier, original mechanisms crept into the game organically over time as I worked to resolve various problems.

Fred Hicks' input also served as a major catalyst for the game becoming more distinctive. While I developed the game over several months, there was a period of one week in which Chris Hanrahan and family were visiting Fred Hicks and his family back east. Chris' son P.K. graciously took on the job of learning Zeppelin Attack and teaching it to everyone there, so Fred, Chris, P.K., and Chris' younger son Ian playtested the game a bunch of times and gave me feedback. I then revised the game and express-mailed it back to them, and they tested again and gave me more feedback. It was probably the most intensive design process I have ever been a part of, and the game really transformed a lot in this period.

From gallery of erichv
The money in the game was originally just called "money" and came in simple denominations of $1, $2 and $3. However, I kept running into a problem with how purchasing power scaled up. If a weak operative card added a $1 card to your deck while a strong one added a $2, then the increment of improvement is 100%; that's a big jump in buying power. This would cause the first person to get a strong operative card to gain too much advantage.

Meanwhile, Fred told me one day that he was making an executive decision that money would be called "fate points" to better tie in to the Spirit of the Century RPG. At first I balked, thinking "Fate is nothing like money" (although in a capitalist society, really, it kind of is). So I then thought: "Well, how can the money operate more like something that would be called fate?" This led me to make two changes. Instead of a bank stocked with different denominations, I created a single, shuffled pile of fate cards that ranged in value from 2-5. A weak operative card would let you draw three and keep the lowest single card, while a strong operative might let you draw three and keep the highest single card.

I also added text effects to the cards. In early iterations of the game, I had experimented with having hero cards that would interfere with the players, a bit like disease cards in Thunderstone. P.K. Hanrahan had given me the cool idea of each mastermind having a nemesis in their starting deck, which when they drew they would have to reveal, shout "Curse you, Mack Silver", and then suffer some negative consequence. As I say, it was a cool, thematic idea that the Evil Hat team liked, but ultimately I could not make it work. I am afraid I disappointed Fred this way several times. Me: "Hey Fred, maybe we can do X!" Fred: "Yeah, X sounds great, do X!" Me, one week later: "Sorry, X doesn't work."

Still, I wanted to incorporate the idea of meddling heroes somehow since thematically that should be a big part of the villain's lives. I added text effects to about 20% of the Fate cards and themed these around the meddling of heroes from the Spirit of the Century RPG. Low value fate cards had global, positive effects that impacted all players, while high value fate cards had negative effects that impacted all players. These changes, taken together with the fate cards being consumed when you spend them, created an economy that was distinct from existing deck-builders.

I seem to recall it was also Fred's input that led me to add the experimental zeppelins. All players start with a flagship, which is a powerful zeppelin that can never be forced out of a player's tableau, thereby ensuring that players can always play at least one action card on their turn. Originally, the ambition was for the flagships to have different special powers, but again, this turned out to imbalance the game. So to give more distinctiveness to each player's deck, we gave each player an expensive zeppelin with thematic special powers that only that player could buy.

All the while, as I was conceptualizing the effects for the individual cards, I was keeping in mind the artwork that was already done. I say it was done because Christian St. Pierre had already done about thirty beautiful pencil drawings based on the card names from Jeff's original game. I did not need to keep the card names the same, but I did need to design cards that would use that artwork. For example, a card in Jeff's game was called "Look, a Monkey!", and Christian had drawn a hilarious and terrifyingly beautiful picture of a spider monkey wielding samurai swords. I needed to design a special attack card for Gorilla Khan's start deck, so I used that picture and called the card "Monkey Samurai Catapult". All the time I was designing, new art from Christian would appear, pencil drawings would become inked drawings, which would then become full color drawings — all gorgeous stuff. In turn, I would try to create card names and powers that would fit these. So oddly enough the art inspired the design in this case, reversing the typical order of such things.

From gallery of erichv

Did I mention that in the middle of all this, I was also designing expansions? Fred and Chris did not actually ask me to design expansions, and I'm not even a big fan of expansions. However, I was a little afraid that if I did not design the expansion(s) at the same time that I did the base game, I would not be able to do so successfully later. Race for the Galaxy was the first game that I thought was genuinely improved by its expansions, and I knew that its first few expansions had been designed at the same time as the base game.

I initially set out to design about four expansions, at least some of which would expand the number of players. However, having the game take more than four players turned out to be infeasible as I would have had to build five attack/defense suits into the base game, which would have made the base set of cards too large. In my opinion, no deck-builder really works well with five players anyway – too much downtime. I also found that once I distilled my expansion mechanisms down to just the ones that seemed novel and clearly added something to the game, I had enough material for only one solid expansion. So I designed one expansion, Doomsday Weapons, that involved zeppelins with onboard text effects, instead of the capacity to play attack or operative cards, and a fifth suit of attacks and defenses that players do not start with and which have global instead of targeted effects. I also gave each player an experimental attack to go along with their experimental zeppelin. The base game is great by itself, but the expansion adds a lot of variety and interesting new strategy. I think I probably could design a good second expansion now that my brain has had a break from the Zeppelin Attack design process, but I'll wait to see how demand shapes up.

The game still went through a lot of tweaking and testing after that point. I tried a lot of interesting ideas that did not work for this particular game, e.g., having the starting cards be worth negative victory points so that your score goes up as you remove them from your deck. It didn't work in this game because of the size of the deck, but I might come back to that idea in another game someday. Removing cards from your deck became a difficulty in this game overall because of the small deck size. I eventually just settled on a standard mechanism through which players could "purge" an action card from their hand or discard pile every time they bought an action card. This way, players could never whittle their decks down to be so small that they drew their whole deck every turn.

The cards available for purchase went from being a totally random row to being randomized stacks of a single type; again, carving out an unexplored variant in-between the existing mechanisms of prior deck-builders. Almost at the very end of the design process, after Chris and Fred felt the game was done, I came up with the notion of representing the points you score in battle by taking cards available for purchase and tucking them underneath your flagship card. This solved a perpetual problem the design had in regards to the game-end timer, so I had to push Chris and Fred a little to accept one more revision to the game late in the process.

From gallery of erichv

Between the different versions I worked on, over the course of roughly a year I created about 33 separate revisions — distinct decks — to reach the final version of the game and about nine versions of the expansion. That was certainly the most revisions that any of my designs has been through. With the benefit of hindsight, what was the impact of all those constraints I was under on the game and the game design process? They probably did make the game design process longer and more laborious than it usually is for me, but I think they were good for the end product ultimately. They served as a kind of random seed that made the game different from what it probably would have been if I were left entirely to my own devices. Like I said, a lot of original mechanisms grew out of finding ways around the external constraints. Up to this point, I'd been going in the direction of making my games simpler and simpler, and with Romans Go Home! I felt like I had gone as far in that direction as I wanted to. It was time to design something more intricate again, and I think the constraints of the commissioned design process helped take my thinking in that direction.

From gallery of erichv
At this point, a lot still needed to happen, but it was largely out of my hands. I have to say that Evil Hat Productions is awesome to work with. They have great in-house talent, hire excellent people, and consistently consulted me along the way – which is very different from how a lot of game publishers work. EHP did some playtesting of its own that I wasn't involved in. Because I wasn't able to make Zeppelin Attack rely 100% on the art Christian had already done for the previous game, particularly with the addition of the expansion, some new art was commissioned from him. Daniel Solis was brought on board to do layout and graphic design, doing some really beautiful and distinctive work and getting some extra mileage out of the art assets we already had. Evil Hat took the time to have me do extensive playtesting once the layout was done to test how well the written rules and the layout were working, and we made significant changes to both as the result of this testing. Karen Twelves was brought in to proofread away my inconsistencies from the card text and the rules. Sean Nitter was made project manager, and he sent me weekly requests for project updates.

Throughout this, there were lots of emails back and forth between everyone on the team. I believe the layout email chain is now up to something like 160 emails. Quality control is a bit of work, but certainly worth it. The Kickstarter for the game was quite successful, and both the base game and the expansion funded. The KS included a cool little two-player card game called Zeppelin Conquest as a PNP backer reward that is now up on DriveThruCards. I also brushed up my somewhat rusty video editing skills — I went to film school once upon a time — so that I could do the Kickstarter videos myself. I have pitched EHP a couple of other designs during the process of creating Zeppelin Attack, which they have optioned, including a worker placement/deck-building game set in the world of Don't Rest Your Head, tentatively titled "Don't Turn Your Back". Fred is working on a suitably creepy layout for that game now, so I hope EHP and I are going to be able to keep working together — and if Zeppelin Attack does well, then I think the sky is the limit!

Eric B. Vogel

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Sat Aug 9, 2014 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Romans Go Home! Kicking the Can Back Down the Road

Eric Vogel
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Hayward
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
From gallery of erichv
In late 2011, my first two games – Hibernia and Cambria – were republished in lovely new editions by Sandstorm LLC. The games initially sold quite well, but unfortunately about three months after the games went on the market, it became widely known that Sandstorm was going out of business, which it did about a month later. Having gotten to know everyone at Sandstorm and seen how much work they had put into the company, this was a sad event for me to witness.

It also had a couple of impacts on me. First, I had to repurchase the rights to my games and get back prototypes for games Sandstorm had not yet put under contract. The owners of Sandstorm were fair and accommodating with me about this, in the midst of a lot of frenetic activity for them. Then I unexpectedly entered into rushed negotiations about possibly immediately reselling the rights to the games to other companies that expressed interest in them, but these did not pan out for reasons I won't discuss here because they touch on other people's businesses and need to remain private.

From gallery of erichv
Waiting for a new home
The other significant fallout from the closure of Sandstorm was that it dried up retailer and distributor interest in acquiring more stock of the games because of a peculiarity of the game industry. When a game company goes under, retailers and distributors expect that the publisher's stock is likely to get "dumped" on the market at absurdly low prices by discount outlets, so they're afraid to acquire more – even at a discount – for fear of having product they cannot sell at a reasonable price. (The games did not, in fact, end up at a discount outlet, so this never occurred.) I looked into acquiring the leftover stock myself, but it would have required more money than I felt like spending, more warehousing than I could easily manage, and I would have been up against the same retailer/distributor fears trying to recoup my expenses.

Besides, if I am going to spend money, I would rather have it be on the next game rather than the last game. Now having no real relationship with an extant game company, I started to think about self-publication once more and designing a new game well-suited to self-publication.

Board Game: Armorica
For me, at least for now, self-publication means card games exclusively. There are limits to how much money I want to spend, how big an edition I want to make, and how much of my house I want to devote to warehousing games. (My collection is bad enough!) When I started designing Romans Go Home!, Kickstarter had just come on my radar, so initially I was envisioning doing the game out of pocket as I had with Armorica. This meant designing a 54-card, single-deck game with no additional bits; I find this to be a tough constraint to work within and still make the kind of game I enjoy. Armorica has 63 cards, which made it more expensive than it had to be because the price point for card games depends upon whether they use one press sheet (which yields around 54 cards or a few more) or two. (If I had known that when I designed Armorica, I would probably have made it a little larger as it would have been about the same cost.)

When I repurchased the rights to Cambria and Hibernia, I also bought the rights to the beautiful artwork that Brent Knudson had done for the games. He had been a full-time employee of Sandstorm rather than a freelancer, so I got not just the final art for the games but early drafts, artwork developed for the games but never used, etc. Going through this trove of art I now owned, I thought about the possibility of creating a Cambria card game that might use the same artwork. While I quickly realized that not enough art existed to do the card game the way I wanted to, my fondness for the Cambria art – which I still consider to be Brent's best work to date – got me thinking about making this card game, Romans Go Home!. I also learned a bit about graphic arts by taking apart the layers of his Illustrator files and seeing the evolution of his final artwork over several iterations.

I started out by trying to envision how I would translate Cambria into a card game. This is probably my favorite kind of game design puzzle, trying to move a mechanism from one gaming medium to another – like turning a dice mechanism into a card mechanism, or vice-versa. I did not end up directly translating any mechanisms in this case, though; rather I tried to put essential elements (a phenomenological term) of Cambria's gameplay into the new game. So what were these essential elements? Collusion of player actions to create outcomes, the game needed to feel "fighty", it needed to have fast play, and of course it needed to be a game about laying siege to fortresses. I tried to have the game include a network, as Cambria does, but that led toward a board-made-out-of cards game, which I never like. I decided the essence of the network mechanism in Cambria was to be able to build an outcome out of a series of plays that have an interactional effect; in other words, I wanted players to build up a multi-card play over time somehow.

From gallery of erichv

I then landed on the idea of having a pre-programmed row of Fort Cards that the players would compete for in the order of the row. The players would each have their own deck of warrior cards to use in bidding, as in Knizia's Great Wall of China, because I think that is more balanced than having all players draw from the same deck, as in Condotierre. To make the game faster and distinctive from those two games, I decided to use simultaneous blind bidding rather than a standard auction mechanism. Players each bid one card, and the high bid takes the next Fort. The winning player discards her bid, and the other players keep their bid on the table and add to it. Over time, the bidding is not truly blind, but more like a partial information bid. Winning one of the later, larger Fort Cards requires an effort to hang back and build up.

After trying this with nothing more than numbers on the warrior cards, it quickly became clear that the warriors needed to have special powers. I put a heavy emphasis on balance in my designs, so I used the text effects to balance the numerical battle strength of the card: the lower the battle strength, the more positive the power for the player, and the higher the battle strength, the more negative the power for the player. I also tried to use these powers to put some clear theme-mechanism relationship into the game; the best example of this is that if multiple Chariot cards are played at the same time, they crash into each other and are discarded. I don't feel that some of the geek-griping about my prior games being abstract is entirely fair, but I did try to head it off at the pass this time by making the theme a little more in-your-face.

At this point the game "worked" – that is, mechanically it was sound. However, the playtesters weren't enthusiastic about it. After debriefing them, I discovered this was because the choices on any given turn were too obvious; there weren't any tricky decision points. I also didn't feel like the game had its "money note" yet – the mechanism or gameplay aspect that would make it stand out from other games.

I came close to giving up on the design, but then landed on the idea of having not just blind bidding, but blind PROGRAMMING. Instead of bidding one card at a time, then revealing, players would program six cards at a time, then reveal them one by one. This change required the revision and addition of some card powers, such as the Queen Card, which allows you to reprogram your remaining face-down moves. This really gave the players much more to think about and also made the card-revealing phase much more exciting; the effect is a little like 6 nimmt!/Category 5, although the choices are more strategic than in that game.

At this point the playtesters were really enthusiastic about the game, and I felt I had hit upon an original mechanism. There are certainly programming games out there – Marchands D’Empire/Himalaya and Ad Astra are my favorites – but I couldn't think of any pure card games with this amount of advance programming; Nuclear War has a two-card programming sequence, but it doesn't matter to the game play very much. (I write this knowing full well that Geekdom will soon inform me of the existence of literally dozens of card-programming games, fully half of which will actually be card programming games, while the other half of the responses will make little or no sense. I give the dog a spoonful of peanut butter, fully aware that he will be happy and preoccupied, making noise for some time.)

I knew I needed distinctive artwork for each card, so recycling Brent's Cambria artwork was out. I usually do my early card game prototyping with dingbat-font art and print it on business cards; this allows me to do rapid, low-effort re-prototyping as much as needed. When a game is nearing final form, I usually do better artwork, print it on Plaincards.com cards, then use that prototype to shop it to publishers. In this case, though, I made art in the style I used for Armorica, with serious theming. Since I had gotten away from the Cambria card game idea, I had reset the game along Hadrian's Wall during the same "Barbarian Conspiracy" period that Cambria is set in. I was toying with the names "Caledonia" and "Hadrian's Wall" for the game.

Around this time I learned to my surprise that Hibernia had been nominated for an Origins award. The games get nominated through a voting process by retailers at the GAMA Trade Show that happens in March. I was surprised because although Sandstorm had submitted my games for consideration, the company was out of business before the show took place, and there was no one representing or showing the games at GTS. So I belatedly made plans to head to Origins Game Fair so that I could be there in case I won. Loren Coleman, who had bought the inventory of Hibernia and Cambria as part of a larger Sandstorm acquisition, graciously gave me some demo space in the Catalyst booth at Origins.

From gallery of erichv

I had designed another card game as well, in addition to a card game and two board game prototypes that came back to me from Sandstorm, so I put self-publication on hold while I looked into whether I could use the bit of momentum I had to find a real publisher for any of my games. Hibernia did not win, which was not surprising given that it was up against a D&D board game in its category. Publishers considering my card games caused some delay in my self-publication efforts, but did not yield any deals ultimately. Friends of mine from Asmodee and FoxMind did like the game, although it did not fit their lines, and it was they who advised me to switch the artwork theme from serious to cute/comic. Jessica Blair, who is a skilled sales and marketing person and who I had worked most closely with at Sandstorm, kindly also set up meetings with publishers for me at Gen Con that year.

When I came home, I got a commission from Evil Hat Productions through my good friends at the game retailer Endgame to do development on their upcoming Zeppelin Armada card game, which eventually evolved into me redesigning the card game from scratch when development proved insufficient. A friend of mine who was working for My Witty Games in France also invited me to submit a prototype, and I ended up spending time redesigning one of the prototypes I originally did for Sandstorm to make it fit their needs better. I'll tell those stories later, but for now suffice it to say that there was a lot of game designing and testing to be done, and it was January 2013 before I really got back to working on the game that became Romans Go Home!

Now that I had a game in production with a real publisher again, I had second thoughts about whether I wanted to self-publish a game at all. However, I really liked this little game and I had gone all the way through 2012 without getting a new game on the market. Thus, I decided to go ahead with it.

Job #1 was revising the artwork. Ultimately I was happier with the cartoony artwork, which wasn't over-the-top humorous but subtly humorous and cute. I renamed the game Romans Go Home! to be more consistent with the cartoony theming. This also alludes to a sort of subtle Postcolonial theme that in my mind (and probably nowhere else) has always been part of the games in the Celtic Nations series. (One day I am going to do a game explicitly about postcolonialism; there are so many games about colonialism, after all.) I then got dumped by my significant other of three years, which initially slowed, then rather speeded up my self-publishing efforts.

Board Game: Race to Adventure: The Spirit of the Century Exploration Game
Next task was getting up to speed on Kickstarter. I had gotten a wonderful front-row seat to watch the Race to Adventure Kickstarter unfold, thanks to my friendship with its impresario at Evil Hat, Chris Hanrahan, and its designers: Chris Ruggerio, Eric Lyttle, and Evan Denbaum. I got good tutelage from Chris Hanrahan in the uses of Kickstarter as well. It was he who first made clear to me that the value of Kickstarter for a game is not just the money it gives you, but the advance sales, publicity and buzz that the Kickstarter generates. I also got good consultation about Kickstarter from friend and longtime advisor Shannon Appelcline; Jessica Blair, who has continued to do nice things for me long after the close of Sandstorm; and Aldo Ghiozzi, who runs Impressions Advertising and Marketing, through which my self-published games are distributed. I recommend that any aspiring self-publishers out there to talk to Aldo about what he can do for your game.

One mistake that game designers and publisher have made on Kickstarter in the past is not getting all their manufacturing arrangements finalized before they launch their Kickstarter, preventing them from knowing their costs and timetable at the outset. So job #3 was getting quotes for printing the game. Once you launch a website that says you publish games, manufacturers in China start spamming you right and left, so I went through the emails I had gotten over the last couple of years and asking for quotes. The printer I had used last time could not do a two-piece box in the volume I wanted to order, and Aldo really wanted me to use a two-piece box this time instead of a tuck box. I also looked hard for someone in the U.S. to give me a feasible quote. I even played with the idea of having a "made-in-America" stretch goal for my Kickstarter. Unfortunately, U.S. printers have the capacity to give good prices only at very high volumes, so I ultimately had to go to China. I eventually found a printer who gave me a good quote, and I was able to look at some samples of their work and talk with previous customers of theirs; special thanks to Numbskull Games for their feedback in this regard.

I then had to plan Kickstarter rewards. I received a lot of good advice I did not take when it came to this. I say it was good advice because I think it was all optimal in terms of getting the most money. I didn't take it because I was priotitizing keeping my first Kickstarter feasible and manageable for me. I am a one-man operation, after all, and my philosophy with self-publishing has always been to start small and ramp up gradually. I have no idea going into this how much interest a Kickstarter I do by myself will generate, but if this one succeeds, I may be more ambitious next time. One of the things Fred Hicks and Chris Hanrahan had done for the Evil Hat Kickstarter was to have some cheap backing levels with purely .PDF rewards that could be delivered by email. This seemed wise to me since fulfillment by mail is clearly one of the biggest headaches that Kickstarters involve. Chris also convinced me that I should offer the game itself as a print-and-play PDF. I had the idea of sweetening the print-and-play pot by including expansions for my other games in an effort to appeal to whatever core fan base I have. (I hear from them, so I know they're out there. I just don't have any good info about how numerous they are.) I also wrote up and included a minimalist RPG that I created entirely as a joke. Some years ago, Ryan Macklin created a hilarious joke game, the rules of which fit easily on one side of a business card called Hit A Dude. I dreamed up an RPG that can be played in 5-7 minutes that I called Be A Dude, the rules of which fit on one sheet of paper. I played it with friends from FoxMind and Asmodee at Gen Con while we were waiting for our food to arrive at a restaurant. I wrote that up in as humorous a manner as I could and included it in the PDF "goodie bag". I also had to price shipping and attend to a whole bunch of other tiresome little details in preparation for the Kickstarter.

One of the biggest jobs was to create videos for the Kickstarter. Another thing Chris and Fred did that I liked was that they made a cinematic Kickstarter main video, then did a good "game instruction" video. However, Evil Hat could afford to outsource the videomaking. Me being much smaller, I would have to make the videos myself. Fortunately, I do know how to use Poser to do computer animation, and I have a little background in filmmaking. I ended up creating a Kickstarter video that I think looks and sounds different from most. I am not shy, but decided to minimize my presence in the videos as a stylistic choice. Because Kickstarter advises project creators to appear on camera and be personal in their appeal, I think this approach gets overused and makes the videos come out looking similar. The teach video by contrast was more of a boring chore to execute, but I was happy with the result; I erred on the side of being dry while teaching the game as efficiently and clearly as possible because that is what I appreciate in a teach.

Overall, my approach was to get as much as possible ready to go before the Kickstarter went live, so I got my banner ads drawn, I prepared my web page updates, and I even wrote most of this designer diary in advance of the launch itself. In the end, my Kickstarter exceeded its funding threshold (which admittedly I set very low) on day 1, and now as I finish this diary, I am mulling over whether to do some kind of stretch goal to keep things interesting. Thirty days is a long time to twiddle your thumbs...

Eric B. Vogel
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Sun Apr 21, 2013 5:16 am
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Designer Diary: Hibernia – Marching the Long Way Around

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Hibernia
Currently, I am best known for designing fast-playing (and I like to think relatively meaty) filler games. However I do design larger games, and sometimes my little fillers start out as longer games.

I started making filler games because I could afford to self-publish them, then continued to do so because publishers seem more willing to take a chance on a relatively new designer if the game would be inexpensive to produce. I have a large-scale game design (working title: Rise of Carthage) that I have been working on since about 2006, and Hibernia was initially an outgrowth of its development. Hopefully one day I will have enough of track record as a game designer to get larger games published, and Rise of Carthage will finally see the light of day.

There is a common feature of light wargames that has always bothered me, which is that most of them reward defensive play. If player A fights player B, then both are weakened and player C is the only real winner. The problem with this is that attacking is the most enjoyable activity in a wargame – yet the emotionally rewarding play does not bring you closer to victory most of the time.

Rise of Carthage is partly a light wargame and involves several mechanisms to reward players for being aggressive. Back in 2007, Carthage was basically complete, except that I wasn't happy with its scoring system. I was experimenting with possible scoring systems that would contribute to rewarding aggression when I came up with the idea of a multicolored score track that required players to hold board territories of matching colors in order to score. This would prevent players from playing entirely defensively because they would need different board assets to score each turn. I was sure that someone, somewhere must have come up with this idea before because it seemed so simple and elegant, yet I couldn't think of a game that used anything like it. I consulted my good friend, game reviewer extraordinaire, Shannon Appelcline, whose knowledge of game design is virtually encyclopedic, as to which games in his experiences had a score track of this nature, and he replied "Candyland". Kidding aside, he said I seemed to have developed a pretty original mechanism. Unfortunately, this new scoring mechanism did not work terribly well in Rise of Carthage, but it did strike me that it would make a good central mechanism for a light wargame.

I already had a game map set in Ireland that I had created for a different game design, specifically a wargame themed around the Irish myth cycle Táin Bó Cúailnge. (Fun fact: I partially develop five or six designs for every design that I even bother to playtest with other people, and probably design 2-3 complete games for every one that I consider worth trying to publish). For those who aren't familliar with it, the Táin is a kind of Irish Iliad, in which three of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland – Leinster, Munster and Connaught – launch a war against the fourth kingdom, Ulster. Thus, this game map divided Ireland into four player kingdoms, with these subdivided into several territories each. I added the new score track to this existing map and started designing. Thus the theme of Hibernia was present at the outset of the design, although I considered the possibility of re-theming the game later.

Board Game: Hibernia
Color-coded non-confectionery

I set out to make Hibernia a "minimalist" wargame stripped down to just the essential elements that this kind of design needs. In a good wargame, board position should matter, so I made adjacency of territory be the game element that conveys attack strength. Concentration of pieces, by contrast, would create defensive strength. I knew that getting the amount of randomness in the game right would be critical to its success. If it had too little randomness, it would be prone to analysis paralysis and stalemates; in my opinion End of the Triumvirate is an example of an otherwise good game impaired by this problem. If the game had too much randomness, then putting any consideration into choices would be pointless, and the game would be just a shorter version of Risk.

In general, I think that the shorter and simpler a game is, the higher a level of randomness it has to have in order to be functional; in longer and more complex games, minor logistical and tactical mistakes by players are inevitable and can supplant the function of randomizers. I wanted this game to have a moderate level of randomness, but I specifically did not want it to have random combat outcomes; instead I wanted it to have one-for-one combat like Antike.

I decided to create a game with semi-random movement and non-random combat (in other words, the opposite of Risk). I can't honestly remember where the idea of using colored dice to regulate movement came from, but I do remember borrowing color-spot dice from my copies Genesis and Carolus Magnus while I was prototyping.

In the first design iteration, each color was concentrated in one quadrant of the board, and the territories were irregular. It quickly became clear in playtesting that I had to mix up the colors between regions even though I didn't like the reduction in historical feel this caused. It was also clear that the game balance was too delicate to use irregular territories, so I borrowed another element of the Rise of Carthage game design: a board with exactly equivalent quadrants, disguised to look like irregular territories. I started by drawing a four-pronged pinwheel shape in the middle of Ireland, then subdivided this into equal territories with mirrored connectivity. I then compared this against an early county map of Ireland and tried to somewhat shift the boundaries towards those of the county map. (There was no point in using maps of Iron Age Ireland or Ptolemy's map of Bronze Age Ireland as there were no clear boundaries between familial chiefdoms in those periods.)

My playtesters thought Hibernia was a lot of fun from its earliest iterations onwards, but it took a lot of playtesting to get the board geography and the score track to be balanced and functional. The ways in which different connectivity influenced play were unpredictable, so it came down to a pure trial-and-error development process. In one iteration, players all tended to rotate their positions clockwise throughout the game, temporarily earning Hibernia the nickname "the toilet bowl game" among my regular playtesters.

Quote:
Aspiring Game Designer Social Skills Tip: You need multiple, independent circles of gaming friends for playtesting, and you need to be very careful not to burn them out. Don't browbeat people into playtesting because you won't be able to gauge their feedback.
I had particular trouble creating workable connectivity for the center of the board, something that would enable players at opposite corners of the board to interact occasionally. I experimented with a lot of rules that did not make it into the game, such as indestructible forts that the players could build. Eventually I added a mechanism whereby dead pieces had to be reclaimed from a holding zone; this was mechanically similar to the "Warp" in Cosmic Encounter, but played differently in practice. Players could use one of their two actions to reclaim pieces at any time, but doing so gave all of the other players half their pieces back at the same time. This made piece reclamation a significant strategic consideration.

The first workable version of Hibernia I developed would be recognizable to people who have played the published version, but had several key differences:

• The board was divided into 25 territories rather than 20.
• The score track was about twice as long as it is now and had a row of triples of same-colored spaces at the end.
• Each player had a larger set of pieces.
• The game used two color-spot die, and both player moves were randomized each turn.
• The game took about 90 minutes to play and had a variable game ending mechanism. (This was because I was trying to please the former publisher I mentioned in the Cambria desinger diary, whose playtesters seemed to prefer games in which the end turn was not entirely predictable.)

So Hibernia was originally a medium-length game rather than a filler, but this was probably always at odds with its level of complexity. I think it was "meant" to be a short game.

Hibernia got pitched in this form to a couple of publishers who turned it down. It ended up sitting on my shelf until after I had self-published Cambria on a very modest scale in 2008. At the time, I had intended Cambria to be a one-shot experiment with self-publication. However, I had found that redesigning Cambria to make it shorter and reduce the number of components had also made the game more fun and challenging, so I began to wonder whether the same kind of changes would improve Hibernia and perhaps also make it feasible for self-publication. Besides, I felt I had learned a lot from mistakes I had made in self-publishing Cambria and wanted a chance to put that learning into practice.

Board Game: Hibernia
Hibernia first edition from Vainglorious Games
Design and component considerations interacted throughout Hibernia's final revisions. I considered both re-theming and re-naming the game, but decided that since people had responded positively to the Celtic theme of Cambria, I should build on the little bit of brand recognition I possessed. (Thus I chose the name "Hibernia" over names like "Erin", even though there was no clear Roman element in this game.) Also, I am of Irish and Welsh ancestry, so the Celtic theme has personal appeal for me.

I wanted to use wooden cubes for player pieces, which would be the most expensive component. I tried buying unpainted cubes and coloring them myself, but was not happy with the end product or the amount of labor involved. I ended up buying a large batch of the smallest cubes Meeple People had available, and raising the price point of Hibernia a bit over Cambria. I found a long, narrow blank-box available in bulk at Kelly Paper that I could use to make attractive, semi-professional-looking packaging relatively easily and cheaply. With some crafting advice from Aaron Lawn of EndGame, I was able to reliably make a folding game board, but it had to be small to fit in this box. Thus, the first redesign task was to reduce the number of player pieces the game needed and to reduce the number of territories on the board. I found that I could get away with reducing each quadrant of the board by one territory, specifically by eliminating the neutral center territory. This was when I added the adjacency arrows in the center territories. I found that my local art supply store was willing to cut mat board into neat half-game-board sized rectangles fairly cheaply. The trickiest component to find was the color-spot die; one finds these things around commonly enough, but finding who actually supplied them turned out to be difficult. Eventually, after a little pleading, Koplow Games was willing to sell me a smaller batch than it normally would on a one-time basis. All the other components I could buy in smaller batches as I went along, so I did not need to commit as much money up front as I did with Cambria.

Board Game: Hibernia
The finished product of the 2009 first edition of Hibernia would not be mistaken for a professionally manufactured game, but it was a lot better-looking than Cambria had been. The bits were all wood and all professionally manufactured. The box was nice-looking, had a distinctive shape, and was reasonably sturdy. The folding board was functional and sturdy, and had decent artwork.

I sent copies of Hibernia to several reviewers, and the response I got to it was quite positive. Rick Heli of A Spotlight on Games deserves credit for coining the term "Celtic Nations Series" (now Cambria, Hibernia and Armorica) in his review of Hibernia. I also began an enjoyable correspondence with a reviewer who goes by the handle of "Limp" for Jedisjeux, and he has given me good advice about the European gaming scene over the intervening years. Dominique of the Dutch site De Tafel Plakt also has been a consistent source of good reviews for me.

I was a big fan of Bruno Faidutti's games (particularly Citadels and Mission Red Planet) as well as his Ideal Game Library website. His reviews have often steered me toward games that ended up becoming favorites, so drawing upon some previously unsuspected reserve of moxie, I emailed Bruno Faidutti and asked whether I could mail him a review copy of Hibernia. He graciously emailed back and said that I was welcome to send him a copy and that he would play it, but he could not promise that he would review it. That was good enough for me, and surprisingly a few weeks later in June 2009 a really positive review of Hibernia was on the Ideal Game Library. Bruno even mentioned Hibernia in his 2009 Game of the Year recommendations.

This attention catapulted me from regional obscurity to international obscurity overnight, and generated a lot of interest in Hibernia, including from folks in Europe who had a very hard time getting it. It became easier to get game retailers to stock Hibernia and the remainders of Cambria. Unfortunately, a Hibernia set was even more work to handcraft than a Cambria set had been, so I decided to stop making them well before the market demand petered out. I think I made about 70 copies altogether. Ironically, all the copies of Hibernia had been sold before its highest profile review in the U.S. was even published, this being in GAMES Magazine. I had not sent them a review copy, but one of its reviewers, John J. McCallion, had come across a copy somewhere and did a really nice review. So plenty of demand, 0 supply.

In the Cambria designer diary, I discussed how Sandstorm Productions came to put Hibernia and Cambria under contract, thanks to the influence of my friends at EndGame in Oakland. Before that happened, I had a couple of discussions with other publishers about the game. I had discussed the possibility of Krok Nik Douil doing a French edition of the game, but we had some difficulties because its proprietor speaks little English and I speak little French. Unfortunately, through some miscommunication it got announced that KND would be publishing the game without any kind of contract being in place. Thus you can still find a few places online where Krok Nik Douil is listed as the publisher of Hibernia. I had also considered some offers of investment to do a professionally manufactured edition that would be distributed via Impressions Advertising and Marketing, as my card game Armorica had been. Ultimately, Sandstorm offered me the chance of a larger edition and much wider distribution, with more marketing support. I still plan to release another game through Impressions at some point, and I hope I get the chance to work with Krok Nik Douil in the future; I really liked its 2011 release Vanuatu and thought it was beautifully produced.

Board Game: Hibernia
Board and pieces in the second edition

There were some production delays, mainly because of issues related to shipping, and I got my first look at the new edition of Hibernia at Gen Con 2011, where Sandstorm had about one hundred advance-shipped copies for sale. It was exciting to see the new edition in print for the first time, materially improved in almost all respects, but very true to the strengths of the first edition: a small sturdy box, all wooden components, beautiful art by Brent Knudson, and a low price point. It was equally exciting to be demoing the new game to the gaming public for the first time.

I would like say it was exciting to be exploring Gen Con for the first time, but honestly I barely made it out of the dealer room. I pimped Hibernia and Cambria for almost all of my waking hours. I did get to meet and have some conversation with Reiner Knizia, which was a bit of a fanboy moment for me. My last night at Gen Con, the folks at Sandstorm took me out for a posh celebratory dinner and a glass of port at a swanky cigar bar; the next morning I rushed through the dealer room to buy souvenirs, then headed home. Both Hibernia and Cambria hit stores in mid-November 2011.

As I write this, we have just wrapped up the launch party for both games (at EndGame of course). It felt great to have so many people who were involved in bringing the games into being in one room, and to take a little victory lap at the end of a very long march.

Eric B. Vogel
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Mon Jan 2, 2012 1:45 pm
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Designer Diary: Cambria – Walking the Many Roads between Self-Publication and Publication

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Cambria
At the beginning of 2008 I was feeling pretty pessimistic about my prospects as a hobby game designer as a design of mine, a majority control game a bit like Samurai which was set in Mycenaean Greece, had been under contract – yet unpublished – for two-and-a-half years.

Now the publisher had finally stated formally that he did not want to publish the game after all – I prefer not to identify this publisher or the details of our interactions – so I was fielding a lot of well-intentioned but embarrassing inquiries from friends asking, "Say, whatever happened to that game you were going to publish?" On top of that, I had not had much luck pitching designs to other publishers. All in all, I was feeling a bit low.

Prior to this, I had always rejected the idea of self-publishing a game as risking too much money for too little reward. However, my real career as a professor was coming along, and I had a little more disposable income than in previous years.

Quote:
Self-publishing lesson #1: Don't try to self-publish games without genuinely disposable income.
Also, after having done a lot of prototyping of my games, I had gotten better at illustration and at hand-crafting things like game boards and boxes. I thought, "Why don't I do a teeny-tiny, modestly-produced edition of one of my games, sell it through a few friendly outlets, then maybe consider giving game designing a rest." I started thinking about designing a game that would be feasible to self-publish in a desktop-published fashion, one that would need only a few, relatively inexpensive bits. This meant no cards, which I had no way of doing cheaply at the time.

Board Game: Yspahan
Board Game: Kingsburg
Inspiration
Over the course of 2007, I had been playing a lot of the games that were part of the first wave of "dice Euros", particularly Yspahan and Kingsburg. I was intrigued by the way that using a dice mechanism in a resource management game – a genre of game that usually relied on a card mechanism – transformed the overall experience. It seemed to me that the same kind of change could be made to other genres of game, such as majority control, that did not usually involve dice, so I started with the majority control game that the aforementioned publisher had cancelled and tried to re-imagine it as a dice game.

I found that the form constraints of the dice mechanism practically designed the game board for me. The D6-face values would be the nodes of a network, and each node would have connections equal to its value. I would then use enough nodes of each value to make roughly equal numbers of connections lead to each value (e.g., two "6" value nodes and six "2" value nodes). Players would roll two D6, then select a connection leading to one of the two rolled values on which to play; at the beginning of the game, each roll would give them a choice of about one-third of the connections on the board, with this range of choices becoming more constrained as the game progressed. Scoring tokens would go on the nodes of the network and be worth the node value in points.

Like its predecessor, this game was clearly meant to be themed around siege warfare (surrounding and capturing the nodes of the network with player pieces). The network of the new game did not fit the geography of Greece well, and while the Mycenaeans built citadels (which would make good nodes) they weren't known for road-building (connections). I needed a theme that would provide for siege warfare in a setting with a system of roads and fortresses, so my mind went to the Roman world and the forts and implied roads between them, as in Britannia.

I did not want to just duplicate the theme of Britannia, however, or even the first third of Britannia, so I went digging through the history of Roman Britain for a more specific theme for my game. This is my typical approach; I usually theme a game about halfway through the design process, when the broad form of the mechanism has taken shape, but the details still need to be worked out.

Board Game: Cambria
Cambria game board, first edition
I eventually stumbled on a near perfect (if obscure) historical episode, called the "Barbarian Conspiracy". In 367 AD different "Barbarian" peoples launched a series of coordinated attacks on different parts of Britain to overwhelm the relatively small Roman garrisons which remained at that time. Scots breached the defensive line of Hadrian's Wall and invaded northern England, while various Irish tribes crossed the sea and invaded Wales. These campaigns continued for a year before Rome was able to send reinforcements to drive the invading forces out; the Romans withdrew from Britain just forty years later. I found that my new game network fit nicely into the geography of Wales, and even the number and distribution of forts I needed to place there was roughly historically correct. My own ancestry is about half Welsh and half Irish, so a nice side benefit was that the new theme made my mother very happy.

That said, I was now faced with several design problems:

• "1" value nodes did not work well in the network, so I needed something else to do with "1" rolls.
• Rolling doubles was also bad for the player, which did not make sense as doubles are usually something special and advantageous in dice games.
• The game needed to a way to break ties on surrounded nodes.
• I wanted the game to have a more combative feel to fit the new theme.

The game design had a kind of beautiful simplicity up to this point, so I didn't want to just throw new mechanisms into it willy-nilly. In the end, I added two mechanisms. Doubles would allow a player to replace an enemy piece on a road. This fit well with the theme; the Irish invaders were a temporary alliance of clans who would sometimes compete over spoils. A role of "1" would allow the player to move a Roman legion piece to displace each other, which gave the Romans a more dynamic presence in the game. This was when I really started to form my present philosophy of game design: Accomplish the vital functions of the game with the fewest possible mechanisms, and every mechanism added should serve more than one function.

By now I was ready to head over to game night at EndGame – a game store in Oakland, California – and start cajoling my long-suffering friends into playing yet another of my designs. The game worked pretty well at this point; the small combat element made the game feel more exciting than many majority control designs without making the game unduly chaotic, and with the new dice mechanism, the game finished in just 20 minutes!

However, a couple of early difficulties became apparent in playtesting. First, trying to surround a high value fort, then failing to do so was disproportionately punishing. There needed to be some kind of second place points available on the larger forts, so I added second-place point tokens to the seven largest fort nodes. I was loathe to do this at first because it meant increasing the number of game pieces, so at the same time, I experimented with reducing the number of player pieces. I finally settled on five pieces per player since this meant that the largest forts could not be surrounded without the collusion of two players. Second, when most of the fort tokens were gone, players ended up with rolls they couldn't use, which was frustrating. After some tinkering, I settled on the best end point for the game being when only six forts remained on the board, with those forts being awarded based on endgame position.

I also found that moving the legion on a "1" wasn't an advantageous choice, so I added a mechanism which gave players the ability to reserve a roll of a number of their choosing for a later turn whenever they moved the legion. My playtesters consistently told me that these changes added a lot of interesting choices to the game, a little more sense of control and planning, and generally made it a lot more fun. Cambria had assumed its final form.

Board Game: Cambria
I then started looking for sources of components online, and budgeting for self-publication. Professional manufacture was out of the question for me as that would mean making at least 2,000 units and spending in the neighborhood of $8,000 dollars; this was more money than I was willing to blow, and more storage space than I had in my home. I also didn't think I could sell anything like that many units.

Quote:
Self-publication lesson #2: Start as small as possible because you will inevitably learn from mistakes.
I decided to buy enough materials to make 100 or so units – although I ended up making only about 70 – and to get materials cheaply enough that I could hit a price point that I thought people would consider. In my experience, most of the self-published games I had bought turned out to be bad, so I felt the game had to be cheap enough – around $20 – that others who had experience similar to mine would be willing to take a risk on buying it. This meant that the components ended up being functional, but cheap: plastic cubes, plastic dice, a color laser-printed waterproof label on unfolded mat stock for a game board.

The infamously cheap component, however, turned out to be the box. The boxes I bought looked good online, but turned out to be incredibly thin, like the boxes new dress shirts come in. (Again, expect to learn from mistakes.) The amount of crap I would get from reviewers, geeks, etc. about those thin boxes would turn out to be considerable. I also had failed to account for the sheer amount of dull, repetitive, yet painstaking work involved in assembling the copies from these components: cutting, putting labels neatly on boxes, counting out components and putting them in bags, etc. This is probably the closest I have ever come to carpel tunnel syndrome.

Board Game: Cambria
Cambria first edition from Vainglorious Games
Then I began the process of trying to find retailers that would be willing to stock a self-published game with low production values. The guys at EndGame and my good friend Shannon Appelcline who runs RPG.NET gave me invaluable advice throughout this process. My good friends at EndGame were a sure thing because of our personal association –

Quote:
Self-publication lesson #3: Cultivate friendships with game stores.
–but I needed online retailers as well as brick-and-mortar stores. I built a website (good investment) and got a PO Box (bad investment), and started sending out inquiries to all the online retailers I could identify. In some cases this started rewarding relationships, particularly with Noble Knight Games and Boards and Bits. However, a lot of retailers didn't want to hear from me, and one even ripped me off. (Again, learn from mistakes.) I tried sending copies to some relatively small-scale game reviewers, which also involved trial-and-error learning. Later, when I self-published Hibernia, I belatedly realized there was no reason not to send my games to big reviewers. After all, the worst thing that could happen would have been for them to ignore the game, but at the time it seemed presumptuous for me to send a copy of my crappy little game to GAMES Magazine or to Bruno Faidutti for possible entry into his Ideal Game Library.

So I found some retailers, at which point I realized self-publishing was also going to involve a tedious quantity of trips to the post office. The next year, I applied the scaling-down principles I used on Cambria, and the difficult lessons I learned from making and distributing it, to redesigning and self-publishing Hibernia. (I'll tell that story another time, but basically I decided, "Eh, what the hell – I'll do one more.")

By the time I had started distributing Hibernia, I had managed to sell all the Cambrias I had made. Hibernia got somewhat wider and better reviewer attention than Cambria had, most notably very helpful reviews from Bruno Faidutti and John J. McCallion at GAMES Magazine, for both of which I am quite grateful.

However, it was Cambria that became a hit among people with whom I was in contact. It became the go-to filler for almost everyone who had a copy, which made the effort feel worthwhile. There were even quite a few people making print-and-play copies for themselves. (By the way, now that the new edition is out, it is time for you PnP folks to go buy one!) People overseas started volunteering to translate the game rules into other languages for me. In this way, I established really rewarding long-term relationships with Achim and Magalie Varenholtz, who became my French and German translators, and Yegor Sadoshenko who became my Russian translator, for all three of my self-published games. I also self-published an alternative map, Cumbria, after I belatedly realized a more optimal structure for the game board network.

In 2010 I self-produced a card game, Armorica, on a larger scale using professional manufacture, and with much better distribution thanks to the services of Aldo Ghiozzi at Impressions Advertising and Marketing. Self-publishing Armorica was a whole different set of headaches, which I will go into another time.

Meanwhile, Chris Hanrahan, one of the owners of EndGame, was doing consulting for a start-up game company called Sandstorm Productions LLC, which was looking for new products. Chris mentioned my games, then Chris Ruggerio, one of the other owners of EndGame, volunteered to demo Cambria and Hibernia for them at a trade show. This led to Sandstorm's then-president, David Stansel-Garner, putting both games under contract.

If aspiring game designers take any lesson away from this diary, it should be this (and no, I don't mean go bug Sandstorm or EndGame to help you):

Quote:
Self-publication lesson #4, and really a lesson for all designers: Cultivate your professional friendships most carefully.
I am a big supporter of my local game store, EndGame, because I believe they keep the gaming hobby alive, and also because Chris, Chris, Aaron and Anthony are swell guys. I didn't cultivate that relationship to help myself get published, but it worked out that way; loyalty and sociability get rewarded. Emailing people you don't know from Adam, and asking them to help you make your dreams come true is less effective.

There was some personnel turnover at Sandstorm, and some production delays in the period between the signing of the contract and my games hitting the market. Given my frought prior history dealing with game companies, I sweated those changes and delays a little. However, going to trade shows and cons – and getting to know the Sandstorm folks there – let me form strong working relationships with people who did lovely work on my behalf. In particular, Jessica Blair really listened to my feedback, kept a close eye on component quality, and generally nursemaided the games into existence. Michael Vaillancourt worked very hard on the arrangements for getting the games to our shores. David Stansel-Garner and James Sugarbroad Walker, who had left Sandstorm to pursue other gigs, are now helping me to promote the new games through the auspices of their new endeavor, the Verne-Wells Society.

Board Game: Cambria

If it seems like I am dropping a lot of names, it's because I genuinely owe a lot of people for their help. I first got a look at Cambria around the time of Origins 2011, and the new edition looked just beautiful. Brent Knudson did some really lovely artwork. The new components were all wood, and all of very good quality. The double-sided tri-fold board was very cool. And Jessica, bless her heart, made sure that the new edition had the sturdiest game box I have ever seen, hopefully erasing the memory of my homemade edition's flimsy box forever.

So while I had some fun self-publishing, I have to say it feels great to have the games published in nice editions with professional support and marketing. It feels like Cambria has traveled a lot of windy roads to get here and had to knock down a couple of forts along the way. Ironically, as I finish this designer diary, I am busy hand-crafting a giant copy of Cambria for a launch party at EndGame, proving how little professional publication really changes things...

Eric B. Vogel
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Fri Dec 9, 2011 6:30 am
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