In The Beginning
Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): After designing Dice City, I knew that the "dice-crafting" mechanism it had could find many uses in other games as well. That’s why, even before Dice City was actually released, I began to explore other options to see where I could go with this "system" I had come up with.
At its core, the mechanism in Dice City is about "crafting" your dice. Each die is represented by six cards (one for each side) and by placing new cards on your board, possibly on top of existing cards, you are effectively changing the faces of your die. As a concept, this could theoretically apply to all kinds of games that use dice.
The idea that I initially wanted to explore was that of a dungeon-crawler. Going with that idea would also define the first characteristic of the game: This would be a cooperative game (as opposed to the competitive nature of Dice City). The players would not compete with each other, but would work together instead. In turn, this would allow the core mechanism to be tweaked a bit to give players the option to interact more with each other. For example, you could spend one of your dice to move one of another player's if needed.
Another key characteristic also came from the theme. Since the dice would correspond to various attributes of the characters (like speed, combat, magic, etc.), why have a single board for all of them and not separate ones? If one die, for example, was the race, another one the class, another the weapon, etc., why not allow the possibility of mixing-and-matching? Not only would this increase replayability, it made perfect sense with the theme as each player would be able to create their own character as in a role-playing game, a hero with the attributes they'd want.
I made a rough prototype and started testing the idea. I sketched some rooms with tiles, I came up with rules for their placement, I made a few quick enemies and some simple player abilities and started playing. Although way too early in the process, the experience was fun and I knew this could lead to something good. To check whether I was on the right track, I showed the prototype to some people and explained the concept behind it. EVERYONE loved the idea behind the modular boards. It was really cool and seemed very promising. However, they weren't thrilled with the dungeon board. As one friend put it: "There are actually two games on the table. One here (pointing to the player boards with the dice and the character abilities) and one there (pointing to the board with the mock-up enemies)." There was simply too much stuff going on for the game to be viable. Not only would it be insane production-wise — tons of boards, cards, miniatures, etc. with less than half of the game being more than all of Dice City — it would also ask a lot from the players, especially in their first games.
Thus, a decision was made to make the "dungeon-crawling" a bit simpler. Perhaps just cards that would be drawn or something along those lines in order to keep the focus on the advancement of the character in front of you.
So the goals of the game were more or less set:
• Dungeon-crawling theme
• Cooperative game
• Modular player boards (and as a consequence variable player powers)
• Relatively simple (card-based perhaps?) mechanism for the dungeon/enemies
• Multiple paths to victory
And that's how this journey began…
The Designers' Trials
With the goals in place, I started exploring how the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game would work. Around that time, my friend Tassos (whose full name is Anastasios, but we call him Tassos) got the chance to see the rough prototype in action and loved the idea. He has vast (and when I say vast, I mean vaaaaaaast) experience in role-playing games, so when he expressed interest in helping with the game, I immediately agreed to bring him on board. His experience would prove to be very important while designing the game.
Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): I've loved the idea of dice-crafting since the beginning. I'm a huge fun of Dice City and I've worked successfully in the past on many projects with Vangelis, so when I actually put into the basket the words "dice-crafting", "RPG" and "Bagiartakis", I knew that this would be an awesome journey!
VB: For our first attempt, we took the rough version I had initially made and tried to adapt it. Since we were working with cards, the "dungeon" became more abstract. The enemies would be cards that would be placed on rows, simulating enemies coming to you in a dungeon corridor.
The player boards represented the characters and the first problem we had to deal with was what the players' "resources" were going to be. In the first rough prototype I had gone with Strength, Dexterity, Mana, Cunning and Movement. For this version, some changes needed to be made (like the removal of movement as it no longer made sense) and we ended up with Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Mana and Defense. The goal was to have each player be able to specialize in one and pursue a different strategy.
Regarding the enemies, each monster would give you XP after being killed and you would spend those to upgrade your character with new cards (abilities).
AG: Basically we needed to create a board game that would simulate an RPG session in an hour. You live your adventure, you gather experience, and you upgrade your character. Sounds simple, but it is not.
VB: We did some playtests with this version, and while there was some potential in it, there were many things bugging us. The most important one was the resources.
AG: We knew from the beginning that Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Magic and Defense were not working as resources, but we had to start with something to reach our goal. The basic problems were:
• Melee Damage and Ranged Damage were almost the same thing.
• Magic was essentially the only attribute that you could call a resource as it was producing mana, but again only to do damage.
• Defense had the same problem as Damage as it was not a resource to be spent.
In other words the main problem was that there was no economy based on the resources that players gathered and needed to spend in order to achieve goals and upgrade their player boards. In a sense, we had only Damage, which was not enough to build a game around.
VB: Defense was the most awkward of all the attributes. It didn't help you win; it just prevented the damage you would be getting. While it could be important in the game — for example, a character could play the role of the "tank" and absorb damage while the rest of the players would attack the enemies — it wasn't very fun to play with and it also wasn't a viable strategy on its own. You couldn't play solo and win just with a "defender".
This inconsistency in the resources also made creating new abilities problematic. While it was normal to say "I have five mana", it was weird to say "I have five Melee Damage". Damage should be the outcome of your actions, not something you accumulate to spend. What's more, the way mana worked also had a few issues. The spells you had on your character required mana to be used. That meant that not only did you have to land on them, you also had to land on mana-producing spaces with your other dice to cast them — double the work for something that should be much simpler.
We knew we could do better, so we decided to start from scratch and try a different approach.
VB: For our second attempt, we decided to examine everything from the beginning. The basic goals were still there, but the approach could be anything we wanted; we wouldn't be tied to the previous version. The brainstorming started with what was creating the most problems last time: the resources. They had to be thematic and fit with the dungeon-crawling theme, and they had to allow for different strategies. A fighter and a wizard, for example, would focus on different ones, but they should both be able to defeat enemies and win the game somehow.
AG: When something doesn't work, you go back to basics. The goal now was that each player would chose a different class — basic archetypes: fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue — and all together would fight the big bad boss at the end of the game. We agreed on Combat, Dexterity, Magic, Holy, and Cunning as the resources that would be used based on what the characters could produce and what they would need to defeat the monsters. Those five attributes could create various combos and thus different sets of actions for each class, allowing each player to interact in different ways with the monsters.
VB: For the monsters, we decided to go with a very different approach. Enemy cards would be drawn each round and they would have three options on them: Evade, Push, Defeat. Evade (which would require few resources) would allow the players to prevent the damage the monster would deal. Push (costing slightly more) would be a temporary solution to the problem; you would scare the monster away, but you would have to deal with it later. Finally, Defeat would be a permanent solution; it would get rid of the monster forever but would require the most resources to do it.
The concept behind this approach was that each monster would ask for different "resources" on each level, which in turn would allow each character to deal with them differently. Some of the monsters, for example, would require a lot of Combat in order to be defeated, which the fighter would be able to easily provide. The wizard, on the other hand, would have a hard time defeating them through combat, but would be able to drive them away via Magic or just evade them. Similarly, against monsters like ghosts Combat would be useless but Magic or Holy would be very useful. Depending on how you dealt with each monster, you would draw cards that would be the upgrades for the players' characters.
When the final boss would appear, it would be accompanied by all the monsters the players pushed. It would have to be dealt with differently compared to the monsters, but the players would still be provided with some options (so that each class would have a chance against it).
AG: This implementation was closer to what we wanted and the feeling was much better. Now the players were focusing on how to advance their characters and how to interact with the monsters which was closer to the basic concept of dice-crafting: roll the dice, do something (in our case: fight the monsters), upgrade your character.
VB: We did numerous playtests with this build, but once again the actual game turned out differently compared to what sounded cool in theory. If you made the monsters easy to defeat for one class, the others would struggle too much. If we made monsters meant to be defeated by all classes (containing different combinations of all the resources), then every class would struggle since they wouldn't be able to produce everything. Therefore, there would be enemies that could not be defeated and would have to either be evaded constantly or driven away, only to make it even harder to win at the end.
AG: Welcome to asymmetric balancing! In RPGs, every player usually has a different role that works in different ways from the others. Players should feel important during the game no matter the role they play, and characters must be balanced and (most importantly) feel balanced even when they do totally different things. RPGs usually are played in groups of 4-5 players plus a narrator, and in my groups when someone is missing, we play a board game or do something else because the absence of that player will have a significant impact in our game.
Board games accommodating 2-4 players, on the other hand, must give the same gaming experience whether you play it with two or four players. That means that with two players you are lacking two characters and what they bring to the party. Usually this is not a problem, but when a game wants to be theme-driven and has different roles, then you have issues that need to be addressed.
Another issue was the resources that our characters were producing. Although closer to our goal, the economy of the game was again not solid. Removing a class was weakening a resource. The classes that were played were trying to match up the lack of other classes but not very effectively, and that lead to weaker characters overall, characters that could not interact in a proper way with the game.
VB: Essentially what we had was not necessarily resources but different types of attacks. It still was a bit weird to say "I get five Holy", but if everything else played all right, we would have worked with it. Unfortunately, everything else didn't play like we wanted. Players weren't as excited as we'd like, and it gave the impression that it was lacking something.
Back to the drawing board…
VB: Once again, we started from scratch and again the brainstorming focused on the resources. We knew that it was the most crucial part of the game, and if we could fix that, the rest would easily follow from the theme. We needed resources that you could gather, resources that made sense having a lot of them, that it was intuitive to say "I have three of X". Up to now, the only one that came close to that description was mana. With that as a basis, we decided to explore the option of having different types of mana. We could go the "elemental warrior" path which would mean four different types of mana: earth, fire, water, air. The players' abilities would then all be spells, each requiring different mana and focusing on different aspects. This also meant a change in the theme. Instead of "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy, we would go to eastern fantasy with a focus on the elements and different types of magic. That was not necessarily a bad thing since sword-and-sorcery has been overused in gaming and something different would look more appealing.
As far as the mechanisms were concerned, we also tried another approach. Dice City had a system with three resources and it worked. You would spend those resources to get new cards on your board (which in turn did not require resources to use them). You could also use those resources to get closer to winning (Trade Ships). The abilities you got would grant you other things (like Army strength or VP) which would also lead you to win through other means. Was there a way this approach could be applied to this game? Why try to re-invent the wheel when you have something that works well?Fire, Earth, Water, Air: The four types of mana we used
We started with the abilities. Each would cost an amount of mana to "build" on your character just like in Dice City. Some of these abilities would generate damage which would be used against minions, a similar approach to the army strength and the minions of Dice City. This covered one way to win, but there needed to be more. An interesting thought we had was of large spells with a big effect for which you had to spend a big amount of mana in order to cast them. This was something similar to the way Trade Ships in Dice City made use of resources. In the end, we changed it a bit and instead of them being spells, we had the cards represent Magical Seals that granted abilities to the boss, making it uber-powerful. You would be able to break these Seals before reaching the boss, thus weakening it enough to kill it more easily. That added another strategy. Could we do one more?
Dice City also has the cultural strategy, that is, building locations that don't do something when you land on them as they just grant you many victory points. Since we wanted to have a rogue-like character, we combined the two and ended up with another strategy: What if you were able to search the dungeon you were in and come up with magical artifacts? You would add them to your character and they would grant passive abilities (like deal one damage for free wherever you want, get free mana, etc.). It made sense thematically, and if you were to focus on it, you would become powerful enough to overcome even the boss.
So the basis of the game was this:
• Players explore a dungeon, and each round they are in a different area/room.
• They are attacked by minions which they need to destroy.
• They can search the rooms they are in to find artifacts.
• They can break magical seals that make the boss very powerful.
• After a finite amount of time, they come upon the boss and they must destroy it.
AG: Abandoning the classic path of fantasy RPGs was the right call, and it was not the only one. Keeping basic mechanisms from Dice City actually solved most of our problems. This greatly affected the way we designed the game: If we wanted to have different roles, equally important in the game, we needed to create different ways to interact with it.
In the end, we had four different types of resources and three key characteristics that players advanced in to interact with the game: Damage, Insight and Health. Based on that, we instantly knew that we had created four distinctive roles in the game:
• The character that would focus on damage — They would deal with the minions and apply a lot of pressure to the final boss, despite it being very powerful.
• The character that would focus on gathering mana — They would break the boss' seals and make it much weaker.
• The character that would focus on items — They would search each room, getting a lot of magical artifacts that would "work on their own". Effectively that character would become "Robocop" (as Vangelis used to joke) before getting to the boss, dealing damage and generating mana without even needing to roll the dice.
• The character that would focus on the group's Health — They wοuld ensure that the party would reach the boss in good-enough shape to have a chance of defeating it.
Although this is almost the classic archetype of fantasy RPG with wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric, our characters were using different types of mana that they needed to produce and spend in different ways to activate their cool powers.
VB: After some tests, it was clear we were on the right path. Going with mana solved all the problems we had with resources, and the different paths to explore made each character unique and interesting to play with. That was obviously the way to go.
VB: With the game's basics in place, it was now time to deal with the difficult part: the details. The first thing to do was define our setting and the exact way the resources would work. Having played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, I was aware of the importance of a "color wheel". Each type of mana should have its own identity. It would be associated with certain things, and the various classes would have different access to it.
For example, fire mana would be used mainly for abilities that caused damage, while water would be used mainly for healing. The earth mana would be associated with mana generation/conversion, while air would be used to stun/disorient the opponent along with searching the rooms.
Since we had shifted to elemental warriors, we spent quite some time examining what the races should be. At some point we realized that in the theme we had chosen, it made more sense to go with monastic Orders instead of races.
AG: Every resource should be used differently inside the game, but at the same time they should all have equal value: Fire=Air=Water=Earth. In the color wheel, no resource is above any other. All are equal, but at the same time they have a different impact on the "world". Also, based on the wheel we could safely say that:
• Fire is the opposite of Water
• Earth is the opposite of Air
VB: What we needed to settle on pretty early was how the "mix-and-match" of the boards was going to work. In other words, what was each part of your board (class/order/weapon) bringing to the table? What abilities would they have?
This was important because we wanted every combination to be viable. However, that was harder than it sounded. We had assigned some characteristics to each type of mana and as a result, each class was focused on one of them (based on the same characteristics). But what about the Orders? If we also focused the Orders on the types of mana, then there would be certain combinations that would be way more advantageous. The other important aspect that we needed to nail down was what exactly their abilities would be. The abilities between all three separate boards needed to be distinct to let them have their own identity. If we were going to focus the damage-related abilities on the fire-class, then what would go on an Order ability? And how would we make them feel different?
After a lot of brainstorming and many playtests, we settled on this: What would define each character would be the class. That's where most of the abilities that would determine each strategy would be. Then the Orders would all have the same abilities but in different quantities. Each Order would be focused on two of the mana types, and it would offer higher quantities of the abilities that required them. It would still have the rest of the abilities (in small quantities) to give access to everyone if they so wanted.
This solution offered some important advantages:
• The Orders had focus but were not limiting the class you could match them with.
• Having the same abilities in all of the Orders made learning the game easier as you had less information to overwhelm you when trying a different combination.
• It gave us more flexibility with the design of the classes' abilities. We didn't have to worry about putting a new ability on an order.
• When combining a class with an order that focused on other types of mana, it allowed you to play the same character differently and do new things. That was exactly what we wanted in the first place!
AG: In RPGs, the races are actually templates that can be used to alter the way classes are played, e.g., Elf Warrior and Half Orc Warrior. This was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the Orders. In our game, our heroes are trained differently in each Monastery Order. They all share a basic training but focus on a different path and obtain a different mastery. In game terms, we needed to create a pool of abilities that would be bound to a certain color, then distributed to each Order based on their focus. It was again harder than we thought because we needed to create four universal (for our game) thematically driven powers. If I remember correctly, all but one changed — some of them more than once!
We also did another cool thing with the Orders. We added a static ("ongoing") ability to each of them, which we called "Masteries". Each Order's mastery is unique, and they give a special ability that actually changes the way a player interacts with the game.
VB: The next problem that we had to solve was that of scaling. Changing the numbers of minions drawn each round or the seals that the players would have to break was the easy part. The biggest problem was elsewhere, rooted in the game's design.
The "threat" in the game consisted of mainly two parts: the minions drawn each round, and the boss at the end. The minions would have to take damage in order to be defeated, which meant having the fighter-class (which we ended up naming "Avenger") was crucial. The boss, on the other hand, was made powerful through the seals that needed mana in order to be broken, which made the mana generating-class (a.k.a., the "Mystic") very important. But what about the other two? What were they adding to the game? Moreover, if the first two classes were that crucial, was there a point into playing the other two races in a two-player game?
We considered various solutions to this problem. One thought we had was to dictate the exact classes that the players would get at each player count. Unfortunately, that was a very bad solution as it meant that certain classes would never be played in a two-player game and it made them feel like lower-class citizens.
What we needed was for the classes to be equal. Each of them should be able to hold its own and be fully playable, offering a different experience/playing style. They should all have equal chances of beating the game, regardless of the players' combinations.
AG: One of the most important things that we try to keep in mind when developing a game is that the number of players must not affect the experience you get from a game. In RPGs, the narrator reveals the challenge of the party following certain rules, e.g., how many are playing and what their current level is, thus keeping the session challenging. In board games, we have plenty of examples where the number of turns, the number of VP that you need to score, or the number of foes and obstacles change based on the number of players. In our case, this was more complex since classes have equal roles in the game but are totally different at the same time:
• All classes can generate mana but none can be as good as the Mystic.
• All classes can heal themselves but none can sustain an entire party as well as the Warden.
• All classes can try to search rooms and improve their characters with artifacts but none is as good as the Loremaster.
We decided that since the class affects the way our players interact with the game, then the challenge rating would be created by two things:
• The minions (in quality and numbers) are generated by the classes that participate in a game.
• The seals (in quality and numbers) are generated by the number of players that are playing.
VB: The main problem in scaling was the minions drawn. If the Avenger was in play, things were easy as he would deal with them and everyone else would be able to advance their character as needed to achieve their own goals: the Mystic would add mana-generating abilities to their board, the Loremaster would generate Insight to search rooms, and the Warden — the healer of the group — would work on those crucial healing spells. However, when the Avenger was not in play, the rest of the classes would have to compensate, but the threat was so big that everyone needed to focus on dealing damage, neglecting their previous focus. Even when they weren't losing horribly, the experience was not fun.
Since the problem was in the minions, the solution that we settled on was based on them. The minion deck would change its contents depending on the classes present in the game. If the Avenger was present, it would include more difficult-to-beat monsters. If the Mystic and the Warden were the only ones playing, it would contain mostly small monsters which would be easier for the players to handle. They would still pose a threat, but not one that would distract them from their main goal.
Although we were a bit skeptical to try this solution, it worked like a charm. It achieved exactly what we needed and helped the different classes to stand out. We were no longer worried about the class combinations. Each and every one of them could stand its own.
Even though the Loremaster would have no trouble gathering Insight and using it to get more artifacts, the other players would completely ignore it. That wasn't necessarily a problem, but it would get worse due to another factor: After a point, experienced players would become quite powerful and near the final rounds they would generate a lot of Insight, but they would no longer need it as much.
It was clear that we needed to find other uses for Insight as well.
Around the same time, we had another problem to deal with. They way the Seals worked, one player had to generate enough mana to break them. More often than not, that player was the Mystic. However, inexperienced players would have a hard time generating enough mana for the more expensive Seals. Since they were the more powerful ones, not dealing with them usually spelled their doom.
AG: Although this is a dice-rolling game, we love the idea of "tough" decisions. During your play, you will always have to decide whether to spend the resources you gathered to remove an obstacle or to improve your character? With the new approach to Insight, it became the party tool to deal with high level seals. Insight was now an equal answer to threats and was helping the party to interact with the seals more efficiently.
VB: Near the end, most of the issues had been solved and we were happy with how the game was playing. Although it was already quite challenging, we even thought of some additional hurdles to throw to the players who wanted more.
There was now only one thing remaining: the solo game.
With the game being cooperative, we knew that it was suitable for solo play. The problem was that it would be difficult for a single character to deal with everything that was happening in the game. Not only that, but since each class focused on different things, the experience would be different with each of them. If we were to make the game easier, one of the classes would still struggle while another one would find it way too easy. On top of that, we wanted the players to play differently with every class. If only one was present in the game, they would all have to play the same way to defeat the game.The Warden
That's when it hit me. Why not change the requirements? For each character, the goal would be different. The Avenger (who couldn't easily generate a lot of mana) would focus on killing minions and would have to kill the powerful boss. The Mystic (who could easily generate a lot of mana but had trouble with dealing damage) would not have to worry about killing the minions or the boss, but would have to break numerous Seals in order to win. The Loremaster would need to gather as many artifacts as possible, while the Warden would bring a companion along and would have to make sure they stayed alive.
This way, not only would each character play the way they would in multiplayer, the game would offer four different solo experiences. It felt very different with each class, and we knew the solo gamers would absolutely love it!
AG: Regarding the solo version of the game, I wanted three things:
• To be fun and challenging for all classes
• To be an excellent tutorial for new players who wanted to explore the game before playing with their friends
• To give players the opportunity to explore all aspects of a class
I strongly feel that we addressed all the above.
AG & VB:: All in all, we are very excited with how the game turned out. It went through a lot of rough periods, with many changes and complete overhauls, but in the end we created something that we are really proud of. The work we put into this game is probably more than what we've put in any other game we've worked on, but it was totally worth it.
As soon as you open the box, we are sure you will agree!
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archive for Vangelis Bagiartakis
Designer Diary: The Masters' Trials: Wrath of Magmaroth, or Two Designers' Trials to Go from a City to a Dungeon
17 Oct 2017
- [+] Dice rolls
Among the Stars was published by Artipia Games. It was a card-drafting game with a sci-fi theme in which players tried to build space stations. It ended up going very well, having a big reprint a couple of years later, localized versions in various parts of the world, as well as a co-publication with Stronghold Games. It also gave birth to various expansions that added numerous new things to the game.
Since that time, Konstantinos Kokkinis (the president of Artipia Games and a close friend) kept telling me how cool it would be to have a game with the mechanisms of Among the Stars, but with a farming theme: "Wouldn't it be cool to have these square cards represent fields in a farm?"
This wasn't a one-time suggestion. Every few months he would pose the same question but always with a "half-joking-half-serious" attitude. My reaction was always the same: "Meh."
You see, I've always been a huge sci-fi fan. Although I'd play farming games and I'd enjoy them, I would never place them (theme-wise) above sci-fi. "Why would someone want to play the same game with farms over space stations?" was my way of thinking. (Boy, was I wrong!)
Come early 2016. I was at the offices of Artipia Games and we were discussing options for the company's main game at SPIEL 2016. Once again, the farming-themed Among the Stars game was mentioned, but this time it was different. It wasn't mentioned as a half-joke; this time it was 100% serious. I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled with the idea. I tried to offer alternatives. I listed reasons against it. But the tide wasn't turning. Everyone else was agreeing it was a great fit and that it would be really popular.
With a heavy heart I agreed to work on it. Luckily, the plan wasn't for me to do everything on my own. Konstantinos (who was super-excited with the whole idea) would help with the adaptation and we would share design credits. He was already writing down various ideas and suggestions on how the game would be.
Our first task was simple: How would this game differ from Among the Stars? Yes, it would be based on that game and would have many similarities, but one thing I definitely didn't want was to just have a retheme. This game should be able to stand on its own and offer a different experience to the players. Someone could easily own both in their collection and not have to choose over which one is better.
One of the first things we discussed with Konstantinos was the introduction of a new type of abilities. In Among the Stars, we had immediate ones (their effect was applied when you built them) and delayed (their effect was applied at the end of the game). In this game, we could introduce end-of-round abilities. The theme allowed for recurring abilities as they would be part of the harvest season so that fit perfectly.
Regarding the card types, after some discussions we settled on having four types instead of five: fields, animals, buildings, and "miscellaneous" (basically, whatever else we could think of that didn't fit in the previous categories).
Since we were changing things in the game, it was a great chance to address some of the complaints we had heard about Among the Stars. Many players said that although it was very enjoyable, they were worried a bit about the set-up time, especially when including many of the expansions. With "Among the Farms" (our initial nickname for the project), we knew we had to make set-up as easy as possible and in such a way that additional content from future expansions would not take more time. During a brainstorming session, Konstantinos suggested we do what New Dawn was doing. This was a game designed by him in which each card type was in a separate pile and players could choose what exactly to draw. It made sense to apply the same logic in our new game. Instead of drawing six cards from the same deck, there would be four piles and players would draw their new cards in any way they wanted.
Another change we discussed was getting rid of the scoring track. We thought it would speed up the game not to have to adjust your marker every round and just focus on the cards you play. Scoring would be easily done at the end using a scoring pad. What we weren't realizing at that point, though, was how hard it would be to have immediate effects in the game that would not grant you points. Since scoring would happen at the end, they had to have different effects.
We also had to take a look at the game's resources. Money would remain, but energy had to change as it didn't make much sense on a farm. It was, however, easy to change. Making it water, something much needed on a farm, made perfect sense, so we went with that. We also explored the possibility of additional resources. There would be many different types of plants, there were many animals — we had many options on what to do. In the end, to keep things simple, we settled on just using one more resource: food. This would be the product of the fields, and it would be used by the animals. In short, fields would require water and animals would require food.
That's where it started to become more and more apparent that the game would offer a different experience than Among the Stars. This was now turning into an engine game. You have water towers that produce water. You plant fields, and you use your water on them to produce food. You use that food on your animals in order to make money. And then, you use your buildings to turn money into victory points (VP). That's also when I became very excited with the project. Here was the chance to create something new and different; I could explore design space I couldn't in the original game and that was great!
The final thing we added that would change the game even more (compared to its predecessor) was a series of tracks. Instead of having the players gain a fixed amount of resources each round, there would be tracks indicating what they would get. Card abilities and players' actions would advance their pawns on the tracks, making them gain more resources as well as VP at the end of the game.
Up to that point, most of the above was mainly in discussions as we hadn't tried all those ideas yet. It was time to build a prototype and see how it played. I started making some simple cards to see whether everything was working. Suddenly, a ton of other details that we hadn't thought of became apparent — but that's what playtesting is for, right?
The signs from the first playtests were very positive. Most of what we had thought of was working. Maybe an adjustment would be required here and there, but for the most part, the game was turning out very nice. The exception to that was the tracks. While everyone commented on how they differentiated the game from Among the Stars, the impact they had was not that great — and sometimes people ignored them altogether. In other cases, a player would focus on them, lagging behind on the development of their farm. The rest of the time, people would be doing roughly the same things. Although it sounded like a good idea, it ended up not being fun, so I knew they had to be changed. Some other ideas were explored, but they made the game more complicated. The harvest abilities were already requiring more from the players (thinking-wise), so we didn't want to make things even more perplexing.
At one point I thought of tiles that the players would place on top of their locations, with these tiles having an ongoing ability. For example, you could increase the range of a water tower or the production of a field. I made a few of them and tried them out, and they were really interesting. They couldn't all have ongoing abilities, but that wasn't too much of a problem. On top of that, the theme was very nice; they would be equipment that you use to improve your farm.
With the main "skeleton" of the game in place, it was now time to take a more detailed look at the card abilities. That's where the studying started. You see, in most of my games, I want the abilities to be theme-driven. In this one, I didn't want to take abilities from Among the Stars and rename them, nor did I want to just stick names to cards randomly. Of course, my knowledge on all things agricultural was quite limited which meant only one thing: Internet to the rescue! I started reading a lot about growing fields, taking care of livestock, and running a farm. My goal wasn't to make a 100% realistic simulation, but I did want the abilities to be tied to the cards' theme.
The process went like this: What field could I use? How about "X"? Okay, let's see how X is grown. Many articles later I would hopefully read something that I could "translate" into game terms and make an ability for the card that would be interesting and fun. In the end, not only did the abilities turn out more thematic, I also learned a lot about farming (to the annoyance of my friends to whom I would randomly say something that I had read about).
All this time, the playtesting would continue. Abilities would change, new ones would be tried, even small changes in the core rules were tried when needed. Luckily, the general consensus was very positive and it showed me that I was on the right track. In the end, the feedback from the players helped a lot to shape the game to its final form.
Unfortunately, despite his involvement in the initial brainstorming sessions, Konstantinos wasn't able to participate a lot afterwards, so he decided it was best that I be credited as the sole designer. I thank him a lot for that, especially considering it was his idea that started everything!
After a long process, the game is now ready. It has been produced and is about to make its debut at SPIEL 2016. So far, the reception it has gotten has been very positive, both during its Kickstarter campaign and here on BGG. It turns out that the farming theme is actually very popular. Konstantinos was right to suggest it!
- [+] Dice rolls
Quarriors! on it. I have just gotten the game, and I can't wait to play it. I've read all about it, how it takes the deck-building concept and applies it to dice, how the designers came up with the idea, how they ended up getting it published, etc. I read the rules and decide to play a two-player game on my own, to get a feeling of how it plays.
When the game ended, I found myself staring at the table in front of me and realizing that something was bugging me. On one hand, I liked the concept of having many cards use the same die in different ways; on the other hand I was feeling that I should have more control of how the die functioned during the game. "Wouldn't it be better if instead of having different abilities corresponding to the same die (through the use of different cards) I could actually completely change/upgrade the sides of a die?"
BAM! That was the exact moment when Dice City was born.
The cogs in my brain immediately started turning. Imagine a game in which you would start with some dice and as the game progressed, you would change the faces of those dice, replacing them with better options.
Great concept, cool idea, innovative thinking — but it left out a tiny, tiny insignificant problem: How could anyone actually change the faces of a die in a physical game?
I did some rough calculations and figured that five dice per player would be a good number, so I ordered 20 LEGO dice (to cover up to four players). I also ordered spare LEGO tiles in various colors that would snap on the faces of those dice so that I could use them for different types of abilities.
Right from the start I had the idea of "building" something, like a city or a kingdom. The dice would represent the area I controlled and during the game I would change their faces with new buildings — more or less something like a deck-building game but instead of building a deck, you would "build" your dice. (By the way, something that was bugging me then — and still does — is that all those games claiming to be dice-building are actually dice-pool-building. The dice themselves remain the same; they don't change. Your pool of dice is what increases/changes as the game progresses. Not in Dice City though!)
I am a fan of games having different paths to victory, and that was something I wanted to put in this one as well. The theme allowed me to have three different winning conditions: One would be an economic victory — build the wealthiest city. The other way to go would be military — build the most powerful army and attack the other players. The third way would be cultural — build the most fabulous and majestic constructs: statues, temples, universities, that sort of thing.
The greatest thing with these three paths, however, was that not only were they quite different theme-wise, they allowed for different gameplay strategies as well: Economic would be about going for a single big roll. Imagine combos, rerolls, one die affecting another one, chain reactions and so on. The whole game, you would be setting up for that huge winning roll that would generate tons of resources. Military, in a way, would be the exact opposite of that. You would build your dice in such a way that every roll would give you something small. Slow gain but steady. Bit by bit, round by round, you would attack the other players gaining something here, something there, always advancing towards the end but with small steps. The cultural victory now would be completely different from both the other two. It wouldn't care what your dice would roll. It would be about what buildings you had built. This would be worth that many points, this would give you extra points if you had built that one, and so on.
While trying to figure them out I would keep notes of ability ideas. I would imagine combos in my head, I would come up with medieval buildings that I could use and try to design abilities around them (or vice versa), and I would look for pictures online to put in my prototype. The toughest part in the beginning was figuring out the whole "attack" thing, or in other words, how interaction would work in the game. I didn't want the game to be all about attacking the other players, but I didn't want it to be multi-player solitaire either. It had to have the right amount of interaction that would allow a player to affect his opponents, without that becoming devastating or game-breaking.
Meanwhile, at some point the actual dice arrived. I was super excited and started working on the prototype. I printed the tiles that I had designed on transparent sticker pages (artwork and name only — nothing more could fit within the space I had for each of them) and began putting them on the actual LEGO tiles. I started playing around with the dice, creating new tiles, removing the previous ones, rolling and changing them again and again to get the "feeling" of how the game would be. Very quickly I realized that swapping the tiles was not the easiest thing in the world. Unless you had really big nails, you had to use a small tool of some kind. "Okay, that tool will be included in the game" was my first thought, not really wanting another "detail" to affect my plans.
Also, another problem that became apparent quickly was that the game would require a LOT of tiles. Just for the initial faces of the dice, I would need at least 120 tiles. (Twenty dice, remember?) How many more would there need to be to make for an interesting game? One hundred? Two hundred? The manufacturing costs were starting to go beyond the "really really really hard to do" and into the "just forget about it" territory.
Around that time, life started catching up with me. My second child had recently been born, I was super busy at my day job, and my free time was minimal at best. I ended up working less and less on the game, to a point that I was doing nothing at all about it; it was just lingering at the back of my head.
About a year later, I don't really remember what the cause of it was, but I had an epiphany: What if I replaced the tiles with small cards? They are much easier to produce, and I wouldn't have to worry about their quantity. I would get rid of the whole LEGO dice concept and simulate it using a 5x6 grid. Regular dice would now be used, and each side would correspond to a card. If I wanted to change the face of one of the dice, I would just place a new card on the corresponding space. Voilà! Problems solved!
Indeed, that was a solution that solved the two major problems I had. Of course that meant the game would lose some of the "dice-building" aspect it had since you wouldn't physically alter your dice anymore, but gameplay-wise it was effectively the same. If only I could also come up with a way to create time so that I could work on it...
Another year passed by. My busy schedule continued, so I couldn't work on the game. However, from time to time I would think about how it could be made with the new method I had come up. No playtesting yet, just exploring random thoughts and trying to see how it could all work. In some rare cases when I found time, I created a pseudo-prototype: a board with the 5x6 grid and some handwritten cards with a few abilities on them.
Nothing more (noteworthy) would probably have happened if I hadn't taken a very important life decision about a year ago. I decided to quit my day job and work full-time on game design. Okay, that probably sounds more dramatic than it actually was. Truth is, there were many factors that led to that decision and an opportunity rose that allowed me to do so. (In fact it was less risky than it may sound.) But that's for another story. What is important is that this move gave me what I needed: Time to work on the game.
And work I did!
One of the first things that I had to look into was the starting boards of the players, what their dice would look like when the game started. During the long "not-playing-only-thinking" period, I had considered having the players do a draft first to pick for themselves some of the cards that would be put on their boards. This way there would be a differentiation in the starting dice and every player could set their board according to the strategy they would like to pursue.
The first playtest I did when I started working on the game was with this method. The abilities on the cards were far from final (in fact they were still on hand-written cards), but it would give me an idea. From what little I saw, I thought it was kind of okay, but the comment from my opponent after the game was heartbreaking: "After the draft, I didn't feel like I needed to get any more cards in my board. I had already set an engine, and I was using it to pursue my strategy."
He was absolutely right. Having the players draft first was not just an alternative to a random set-up. It was effectively half the game, and its outcome was what I wanted the players to accomplish by rolling their dice in the first place. Obviously it had to go to return the focus to where it needed to be: The building (or crafting, as we would later call it) of your dice. That meant that a fixed board would have to be used. I only had to find out what it would need to be...A very early draft of the player board (one of many attempts)
Around that time, I also had another important problem to solve: The game's resources. Right from the start I had considered "coins" to be the game's single resource. There would be buildings giving 1 coin (perhaps the starting ones on a die) that could be upgraded to other buildings giving 2 coins and finally upgraded to the ones giving 3 coins. All the buildings had a coin-cost (in order to buy them) and I even had the economic win condition laid out: Get 15 coins in one turn and you win the game! However, reality soon proved that things weren't as simple as I had imagined: The game just wasn't exciting. You would roll your dice, you would see how many coins you had and that was it. Booooooriiiiing! Your turns just weren't that fun (and obviously, the fact that there wasn't much dice manipulation at that point contributed to that effect).
Then one Sunday morning while at the countryside with my family, I had another epiphany. I was thinking of the game's board and realized that it could also represent the layout of your city. All the outer cards (first & last row, first & last column) would be the surrounding landscape while the inner cards would represent the central part of your city. When you'd start building, you would place the new cards anywhere on the board, showing that the city was expanding.
The surrounding landscape obviously led to the idea of multiple resources. I started with the ones that seemed to make the most sense (wood, stone and iron) and they stayed until the end. This changed everything in the game; in fact, this was what made the game. There were now options to be had, resources to go for in order to build a specific building, variety in the costs, and so on. Everything seemed to fit perfectly (both mechanically and thematically), and the game was now much more interesting and exciting.
I assigned the abilities I had thought of to buildings and determined their cost based on the new resources. I also added another type to the previous three (Economic, Military, Cultural) I already had: Civic. These would be buildings that had useful effects for all the strategies, usually dice manipulation abilities. You wouldn't win having only those in your city, but combined with some of the other ones they allowed you to pursue your strategy much more effectively.
Another thing that had to be determined was how the players would buy the new buildings. Initially, I had in mind a system like Dominion. You would start the game with X number of buildings available, different in every game, and you would form your strategy based on those. However, this increased the set-up time a lot, and it would lead to players performing the exact same strategies every time that the same cards were available. I needed something more dynamic that would lead to more interesting gameplay and the players adjusting their strategies accordingly.
After various attempts, I decided to just shuffle all the locations in a deck and have eight of them available at all times. (You buy one, you reveal a new one, and so on.) In order to test this system, I put three copies of each card in the deck. That was meant to be only temporary, but the game played so well this way that it was kept right until the end.
The good thing with me working full-time on the game was that I could playtest it a LOT more than before. The comments from my playtesters were quite positive, but one thing was still bugging me. You still relied a lot — more than I wanted at least — on the luck of the roll. You would add buildings in your city but never have a die land on them. You would want to desperately build something but you would be missing a key resource that just wouldn't roll. Okay, the whole idea was that you would improve your dice in time so that whatever you rolled, it would be useful to you. But in reality, it would take too long to change all six sides and there was still less control in the outcome of the rolls than I wanted. The solution to that problem came during one of the playtest sessions in which it was suggested to allow a player to discard a die to move another one to an adjacent space.
If the switch to three resources was what "made the game", this was what "made the game good".
You were no longer dependent on your exact rolls. You could manipulate your dice in an elegant and clean way to make sure that you could pursue your strategy successfully. It was amazing how much that little change improved the game.
The last thing that I had to deal with was the victory conditions. Initially I had thought of three separate victory conditions:
• To have an Economic victory, get four resources of each type in a single round.
• To achieve a Military victory, attack another player fifteen times.
• To get a Cultural victory, build cards until you reach 30 Fame Points.
However, the problem with having three completely separate victory conditions was that once you went into one path there was no turning back. I couldn't start Military, then suddenly switch to Economic; it would be like starting from scratch and everything up to that point would go to waste.
Moreover, having all these things to keep track of (resources, military, fame, etc.) was too much. I needed something clearer and simpler, so I did the only thing that made sense: I combined them all! Instead of having each strategy go for a different thing, they now all granted you victory points! You would get VP from collecting multiple resources of each type, you would get VP from attacks, and you would also get VP from building new cards in your city. You could do whatever you wanted and everything contributed to you (possibly) winning the game. Also, by using Trade Ships and Bandit cards, the victory conditions were easily adapted to end game triggers and everything was good to go.
From that point onward what remained was playtesting, and we did a lot of that. Costs were changed, buildings were tweaked, actions were adjusted — everything needed to make sure that the game was balanced and the gameplay was fun. All in all, from all the games I have designed, this is by far the one I've tested the most. What amazes me even more is that after all these games, I still enjoy playing it! I haven't grown tired of it and given a chance, I will gladly play one more game.
Come Spiel 2015, you will all get the chance to try it out. I believe you won't be disappointed...
- [+] Dice rolls
Among the Stars, due out in late 2012 from Artipia Games. As you can see below, it starts somewhat...unexpectedly!
About 18 months ago, some time before Christmas 2010, a friend of mine – who knew of my love for board games as well as of my first game, Souvlaki Wars – approached me with a proposal. He worked in a Christian organization that was responsible for some Sunday schools and summer camps all over Greece. At the end of every year they give a souvenir to the children and that year they were thinking of giving a small board game for the older ones (junior and senior high school). So they asked me whether I could design one for them. I immediately jumped at the offer! Even though the job was pro-bono and the game would not be sold in any store, it was a great opportunity for me as a starting designer.
I began working on it at once. I had complete freedom on what to design, trying only to keep the publication cost relatively low. One of the themes that hit me quite early was that of a childrens' summer camp. Since most of the kids getting the game would go (or had gone in the past) to summer camps, a game with such a theme would be something they would enjoy. After coming up with several game ideas around summer camps, I settled on having the players try to build one.
I had this image in my mind of a 5x5 grid in front of each player, with square cards representing locations. A player would start with just the card in the middle, then play every new card adjacent to one already played. The cards would have limits on where in the grid they could be placed; some could be played only around the main square, others only in the outer squares, some only in the corners, etc. The cards would also have an ability on them, stating where to place them in order to get extra points, as well as their cost in resources.
Another decision I had taken right from the start was to categorize the locations based on function and assign a color to them: the red ones would be administration, the yellow ones sport fields, the houses and the locations that provided accommodation would be blue, and so on. This allowed me to have abilities that played with the cards' colors.
The biggest problem that remained was figuring out how the cards were going to be obtained. I tried a lot of things – drawing one new card each turn, having them appear in front of everyone and then be selected, spending actions to take/play them, and various other ideas – but none seemed to be working very well. In the back of my mind I had the card draft mechanism, but I kept on avoiding it. The reason was simple: 7 Wonders. If I were to use a similar mechanism to the one in that game, the comparison would be inevitable (not to mention the accusation of copying it, despite the rest of the game being completely different). However, drafting had some big advantages: It was simple and easy to learn, it was quick, and it was fun! These are all characteristics that a game aimed at younger gamers should have, so in the end I decided to give it a try and it worked perfectly. It was exactly what the game needed!
When the game was finally ready and given to the children, the comments I received were all very positive – and not only from them, but also from (boardgaming) friends to whom I showed it. I came to realize I had something good on my hands and that a commercial game could be made out of this, so I started looking for ways to do that. Luckily, one of my friends who played the game and liked it was Konstantinos Kokkinis, the owner of Artipia Games. He was about to publish his own game, Drum Roll, at that time and he expressed interest in releasing my game in 2012. As you can probably realize, I couldn't have been happier, so I started working on it at once!
From the Camp to the Stars!
First, I had to come up with a new theme. I am a sci-fi enthusiast and my favorite television show of all time is Babylon 5, so naturally one of the first ideas I had was to apply the game mechanisms in a space station building game. However, one thing I definitely didn't want to do was paste a new theme over an existing game. Whenever I design a game, I always put the theme first, using it to guide the mechanisms so that meant that a big part of the game would have to be designed from scratch. The core mechanism of drafting and placement of locations would still be there but everything else would be new.
Still, I wanted more. I wanted the game to have high replay value and to be different every time you played it, so I added more new things:
The first playtest sessions went well, and the feedback I received was positive. The game was easy to learn, fun, and quick – but with a lot of depth and meaningful choices, and it could also be played in different ways! Of course, countless playtesting sessions would follow, endless discussions on matters big and small, and also a few changes here and there to ensure the best experience for the players.
After many months of hard work, we ended up with a great game that I am sure a lot of you are going to enjoy playing! (Reviews from people who played it already indicate that.) We are proud of the work we did and are pretty sure you are going to love it as well!
The Game's Artwork
It wouldn't be fair to write this article without mentioning Odysseas Stamoglou, our game's illustrator. Right from the start, he managed to grasp the game's theme and create amazing pieces of artwork. He helped us a lot, both during the initial concept phase and with his suggestions and ideas on the world we created. His illustrations are top notch and help bring the game's theme to life!
Among the Stars is scheduled for release at Spiel 2012, with wider distribution afterward. If the description above sounds like a game you'd enjoy, you'll find Artipia Games at booth 4-407 – and if you hurry, you'll secure your place...Among the Stars!
- [+] Dice rolls
Sotiris Tsantilas, one of Briefcase's designers. I helped him with the translation into English and am posting it here on his behalf:
When Konstantinos Kokkinis, co-designer of Drum Roll and one of the founders of Artipia Games, suggested that we – that is, me and Nikos Sakaloglou, a.k.a. Nick – write a designer diary about Briefcase, I immediately said, "Great idea, I'm in!" However, it soon became apparent that writing such a diary would not be an easy task. And that's because when a work of art – which is what I consider a board game to be – is designed by two people, it is hard to distinguish how each person contributed, especially when the contributions are products of brainstorming between the designers, with help from friends during the first playtests. That said, I'll do my best to give a timeline of the events from the game's initial concept up to its final form, but from my point of view. Hopefully, Nick will correct me if I'm wrong somewhere.
March 2010: Initial Idea
The morning after pulling an all-nighter at a Greek Guild meeting and quite tired from heavy economic games, I was thinking that it would be interesting if there were a compact economic game featuring resource management about running an enterprise, a game that would last about an hour (but without lacking in depth) and that would offer multiple paths to victory. Okay, the initial concept didn't seem difficult to implement: The players place their workers in turn, they give coins, they buy available companies, they buy resources, they use them on their companies, they produce other resources, they sell them, and they try to reach maximum gain.
However, something was missing. Originality! The process above not only was common in other games, it was also kind of boring: Coins again, calculations, one more coin here, one coin less there... How nice would it be if we could make an economic game without coins!
So far I hadn't discussed anything with Nick.
April 2010: Enlightenment
Good ideas come suddenly but when they do you recognize them instantly. You almost get to hear them: The sound of all the gears clicking in place like a lock for which you finally found the right combination. DECK-BUILDING! No coins and no placement of workers. A decision deck where the Buy card replaces the coins, while the products of the companies add more decision cards to the deck. The better business deals you make, the more you improve your deck, increasing your options later.
Also, having only one ability available the game seemed to lack variety and depth, so we agreed that Nick would take all the initial cards and try to come up with new ideas and new types of companies, along with new abilities for them. Two days later I received an email from him with fifteen new companies, each with its own ability.
Things had begun to get interesting!
May 2010: The First Playtest
Along with Nick, Manos and Theodore, we had our first playtest game. The resources were small pieces of paper with smiley faces to indicate personnel and hand-drawn small squares (white, shaded or black) for the rest of the resources. Although we had rushed a lot to build it and the game was still in a primitive form, we managed to finish a game (in which I think Theodore won) that left everyone excited. Since both of our new players were experienced gamers, their enthusiasm showed us that we were on the right track!
June-July 2010: First Steps in Developing Briefcase
We tried many things but the idea we finally settled on was to have all the resources available, each in its own stack. Okay, but if everyone had the necessary Buy cards in hand, where would the competition for the resources be? The answer came almost immediately: By using two cards of the same type, a player would be able to block a resource (that is, make it unavailable for purchase), thus creating scarcity. We had just hit two birds with one stone! Not only had we solved our problem, we had also found a way to use the Obstacle cards which up to that point had only been used to hamper the deck-building.
August-December 2010 : Completing Briefcase
During the next months, Nick continued to come up with new great abilities for the companies. I remember that I rejected most of them because I wanted the game to be as simple as possible. Luckily Nick would insist, and in the end we would always end up including them. Seeing the game now in its final form (with almost thirty different abilities), I realize that its depth, the multiple paths to victory, and the replayability would not be there without that variety in abilities.Central Bank game board
It was about that time that we had the idea of the Central Bank. Nick was the one who came up with it and it made the endgame much more interesting, adding another strategy in the mix.
February 2011: Greek Guild's Second Boardgame Design Contest
Briefcase, in a near-completed form more or less the way it is today, took part in the Greek Guild's 2nd Boardgame Design Contest. After a close battle with Drum Roll, Briefcase took second place.
From that point on, things took their way. The feedback we had from all the playtest sessions that followed (more than a hundred) was very positive and led us to where we are today: Artipia Games, after last year's Drum Roll, will publish Briefcase in the following months. The work they have done on it is remarkable, and I strongly believe that the end result will be the best possible.One of thirty different Companies included in the game
In my opinion, what defined the whole design process of Briefcase was the incredible cooperation we had with Nick and the ease with which we would solve problems when they arose. Every time we had a difficulty, one of us would say "Okay, we change this and we do it that way" and it would work perfectly, much better than we had initially designed it. Were we lucky? Perhaps...
I like to believe it was the good vibes of Briefcase...
If Briefcase seems like a game you might enjoy, take a look at the ongoing funding campaign at IndieGoGo. Not only will you be helping Artipia Games fund its production, you will also get exclusive promos that will not be available anywhere else!Designers Sotiris and Nick at the Greek Guild's Second Boardgame Design Contest
- [+] Dice rolls
When I was very young I used to play with my brother's Playmobil figures (which he never saw again). By the time I was finishing elementary school, I was spending countless hours on my Gameboy. Then came a computer in the house and with it, video games. During senior high school I came across Magic: The Gathering and got instantly drawn to it. Fast forward to college and Magic was taking over most of my gaming time. Tournaments, drafts, trades, discussions on deck-building - the whole thing!
And then came the board games, a hobby that easily took over all of my free time.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, during all this time (from elementary school all the way up to college) there was one thing that I remember my mother always telling me: "You spend all of your time playing games. These things are not going to bring you any money, you know."
The reason I am writing this article was that... well... she was wrong.
Souvlaki Wars will be released in a few days, and it happens to be a game that I designed. (Luckily for me, though, my mother was right about most of the other things she warned me about in life)
Enough about me, though. What you are probably interested to know is what Souvlaki Wars is and how it came to be:
Part 1: From Idea to Game
A few months after I had started playing board games, I began to think about creating a game of my own. However, I didn't have that much experience and the whole thing seemed too difficult and too...impossible. So I dropped the idea.
The thought still lingered in my mind, though, and at some point I realized that if there were ever to be a chance of a game being published in Greece and sold primarily in this country, it would need to have a theme that was fun and that people here would relate to. And then it hit me: Souvlakia (the plural of souvlaki). For those of you who don't know, souvlaki is the most popular fast food in Greece. It is basically small pieces of meat grilled on a skewer. Sometimes it is served in a pita sandwich with garnishes and sauces. And it is delicious!
So I had my idea: a game in which players would be owners of souvlaki fast food restaurants!
As soon as I had the idea, the thought of a line of customers came into my mind: People ordering food and waiting in line for their order to be fulfilled. However, as time went by, they would get anxious and after a point they would get angry. This could easily be done with them being cards and rotating them 90 degrees. This way they could have three possible states: Normal, Anxious (rotated 90 degrees clockwise) and Angry (rotated 180 degrees).
The other thing that also came to me early in the design process was the win condition. I didn't want the players trying to gain just money, so I added Reputation to the mix. Each customer when served would increase both the player's money and reputation. This would work well with the line I had thought of earlier and the three states. If a customer was not served after three rounds, then he would leave the line and the player would lose double the reputation that he would have gained.
Okay, I was in good shape, but there were still many things missing. For example, how do the customers come into the game? Do the players select them somehow, or are they drawn randomly and placed in front of them? Here is a part where compromises needed to be made. You see, in reality a restaurant has a big supply of items to offer and the customers come in for food in a random and unknown order. When you see someone coming through the door, you don't know what he is going to order, but nine times out of ten, it is going to be something you can easily prepare for him.
However, this was a game, and players needed to be able to make choices and needed to manage their own resources. So, I decided that players would have a limited supply of the four offered food items, and they would choose the customers coming into their restaurant based on those items.
I now had to find a way for customers to appear and for players to select them and place them in their line. That's where my experience with Magic: The Gathering came to the rescue. Rochester draft was one of my favorite formats, and the more I was thinking about it, the more I realized it could easily be applied. Each round a number of customers would be drawn and the players would pick one in turn. The last player to choose would pick another, then the second to last and so on, up until the first player. It sounded fair and it was a simple solution. The only thing I didn't like was that the first player, in the end, did not have a choice. He was left with only one card and he would have to take it, regardless of whether he would be able to serve the customer. The solution to that was simple enough: The number of cards drawn each turn would be two times the number of players, plus one. Thus the last player to pick a customer would always have a choice between two cards. (I also thought of having the customer pick-up be optional, in case a player couldn’t serve any of the available customers, but in the end I decided against it.)
For the resources that the players would have to manage (the four types of food), I remember spending a lot of time thinking of ways to implement them. Up to that point, most of the games I had played were by Fantasy Flight Games, so I was influenced a lot by that. I was imagining cardboard tokens of souvlakia and French fries, and in my mind they looked very cool. Unfortunately I could not think of a way to make use of them in the game. Cards could fill the role of the resources much nicer and probably a lot cheaper. However, even using cards, there were other things to consider. For example, would each card be a single food? It was nice and simple, but I kept thinking of scenarios in which a player would need a specific type of food and would not draw it. Moreover, a player would have to play many cards every round in order to serve all of his customers. That meant many cards in his hand each round and many cards in total in the food deck.
I started exploring the idea of having multiple types of food on every card, and the more I thought of this, the more I liked it. Not only that, but the cards could also have varied amount of foods on them. Some cards would have three items, other cards two, and a few cards would have only one. This variety would create nice tension during the game as each card could be used in many different ways and on top of that, the players would not need to keep too many cards in hand.
After doing a lot of math and writing down many different versions of the food deck (a process that took more time than you may think), I decided to have two cards for each combination of up to three items, including multiples of the same item. (For the four types of food I had chosen, that was 2 * 34 cards). I also liked the idea of having a card with all the four different food types, as well as a wild card that could be used for any single food you liked. Two copies for each of those two cards, and the food deck ended up consisting of 72 cards.
The math for the food cards was not the only time-consuming process. I also had to create the customers and assign each one an order, that is, the food items that he would ask for. This time I didn't want to have all the possible combinations appear because some of them would be un-realistic. (For example, you don't often see someone go to a restaurant to buy four cans of soda.) So I sat down and wrote combinations of the food items that were likely to happen in real life, and I assigned to each of them a value in money and reputation. To make things more balanced, I used a rough guideline assigning values to each food item. A souvlaki, for example, would be worth 1 Euro and 1 reputation, but a can of soda just 1 Euro. Thus, a customer who ordered one souvlaki and one soda would give 2 Euros and 1 reputation when served. However, as I said, that was a rough guideline and there were cases where I changed the numbers a bit to add more variety.
Now, I had the customers ready. The players would draft them, put them in their line, then serve them.
But that wasn't enough.
You see, I didn't want the game to be "static" or to be the same every round. I wanted it to have a small level of unpredictability and make the players constantly adapt to new situations. Also, I wanted the game to have player interaction beyond just picking up a customer that someone else wanted. The way I decided to do all that was with events that would be played every round and would shake thing up. The catch was that they would be played AFTER players draft the new customers but BEFORE they have a chance to serve the goods. This way, a player would put new customers in his line and would calculate how to serve them, but by the time he would try to do so, many things could have changed: new customers would be added, others would be removed or would decide to change their order, food cards would need to be discarded, and so on. And since there was no way to know beforehand what was going to hit you, the name that I decided to use for these cards was "Unforeseen Events". However, while coming up with the idea was simple, implementing it and fine-tuning it was a different thing.
In the end, and after a lot of thinking, I decided to keep things simple. There would be a single deck of events and all players would draw from it. They would keep a hand of a few unforeseen events but they would be able to play only a single event each turn. This way, more interaction was added among the players while not adding too much complexity - and the possibilities that had appeared were endless since I could have all kinds of effects in these events. Some cards would damage other players, others would help those who played them, others would affect everyone on the table, etc. There was a lot of design space, and every time I thought of something new, I would write it down.
This was also a chance for the theme to shine - and believe me, it certainly did! Most of the time, I would first think of the card thematically, then I would try to translate it into game terms. Of course in some cases I thought of a nice effect first, but in general the theme was so well integrated that I never had any trouble "explaining" what the card represented. What I was aiming for were events common in real life that people could relate to. This would make them fun to play and immediately understood. In retrospect, these cards definitely ended up being the highlight of the game.
The last thing to consider was the "Upkeep" phase of the game. What would players do at the beginning of every round. What played a big part here was that I wanted variable powers for the players. So, I searched for different archetypes of souvlaki restaurant owners and tried to see how I could put them in the game and how they would be different from each other. In the end I decided that each player would pay an amount of money at the beginning of each round, for his operational costs. He would also have to pay to draw new food cards, representing the money he spent on his supplies, and he would be able to pay for advertising, increasing his reputation. All these, along with the initial money and reputation, would differ for each player according to the restaurant owner he chose. That meant that a lot of work would need to be done to balance them, but it was worth the effort.
If you've read any book or article on game design, you probably know that the most important thing to do is to playtest. And not only when you have the full game ready, but even as you design it, you should try to test new ideas on their own (playing small parts of your game) before moving to the big picture.
However, as this was my first attempt at game design (and I had not yet read any books or articles on the topic), I ended up doing the exact opposite! Up to that point every aspect of the game was either in my head or in pages of a notebook that I used to carry with me. (In fact, most of the game design process took place inside metro stations, train wagons or bus stops.) So I bought blank cards and started writing down cards in order to build my first prototype. When it was ready, I started "playing" my game (on my own) to see whether all that I had imagined all that time actually worked.
And to my surprise, it did!
To tell you the truth, I was afraid that many things out of all that I had thought of would not work and would need to be changed. Luckily, the game played out pretty much the way I had imagined. Sure, the need for some changes and tweaks was apparent, but the "look and feel" of the game I had in mind was right there. I could see the line, I could see customers being served, events changing the players' plans, etc. It was right there! And even though a lot of work still needed to be done, I knew I was on the right track!
One of the things that become apparent with those first tests was that the players weren't feeling any pressure. Almost all of the time, I would select customers I knew I could serve so it was rare for one of them to get anxious or angry. Something needed to be done about that lack of tension and the solution came from the theme itself: Telephone orders! Since they are extremely common in all souvlaki fast food restaurants, I had wanted from the start to implement them in the game. This problem gave me the perfect opportunity: After the players drafted two customers, they would each draw one more card from the top of the deck to represent a telephone order they had just received.
The first tests with this solution worked perfectly. Not only did this add just the right amount of unpredictability, it also opened new design space. I could now differentiate the customers in two categories - "regular" and telephone orders - allowing me to design even more "Unforeseen Events" cards around them!
The next step was to test the game with friends. I showed them the prototype, we played a few games, and their response was more than positive! They liked it very much and thought that it was up there with many published games. Still, they commented on some cards and made suggestions, and a lot of them were implemented.
Even a lot of the jokes exchanged while playing gave fruit to new ideas and new mechanisms. For example, I remember playing with a friend and his wife, and when she served a customer, giving him more items than he had ordered, she proudly said "The rest are on the house!" That clicked something inside me and made me realize that I could put it in the game. From that moment on, whenever someone served a customer and played cards with more food items than the ones his customer requested, those items would be considered "on the house" and the player would receive +1 Reputation!
Even though more playtesting was made to the game in the following months, due to other commitments (getting married and all) after a while I sort of abandoned it. Luckily for me, though, fate had other plans. Around the end of 2009 the Greek Guild here on BGG (the largest - and most active - regional guild by far) announced a game design contest. Initially I had thought of taking part with a new game, but weeks passed and I couldn't find time to work on it, so I was left with Souvlaki Wars, which was basically ready. The day before the competition I printed out cards that I made on Word (until then the game was still on hand-written cards) with only the necessary text / numbers on them. With no artwork (save for icons for the food items), with no box (I had the game in a plastic bag), and with wooden markers from other games I went to the competition.
When I arrived, I remember that the first thing that crossed my mind was, "What the heck am I doing here?" You see, everyone else had worked a lot on their prototypes. They had high-quality components, with beautifully illustrated cards and boards, and some of them had even constructed boxes and printed rulebooks. I was sure I had no chance at winning but at least I would get to show my game to other people and get more feedback. However, as the day progressed and people were playing it, they were all telling me that they had a lot of fun and that they liked it a lot. (Also, almost all of them told me that the game had made them hungry and that they wanted to go out and buy souvlakia.) When the time of the voting came at the end of the day, I couldn't believe my eyes. Souvlaki Wars had won first place in the "Best Game" category! (Of course. to no one's surprise it flopped at the "Best artwork/presentation" category...)
Part 2: From Design to Publication
That so many people had liked the game gave me a lot of confidence that it was indeed good enough to see print. Having only friends and family tell you that a design is good is not enough because most times they will be biased - but when total strangers enjoy a game and praise it, you are indeed on to something.
That's why right from the next day I started looking into ways to have the game published. One of them was to try to publish it myself. I found out some costs, made inquiries as to how the whole thing works, and realized that the distribution alone was much more work than I could handle on my own (and with a normal day job taking 8-10 hours of my day). So finding a publisher looked to be the only way. The first and most obvious choice was Kaissa Chess & Games since they are by far the largest board game publisher in Greece. Before knocking their door, though, I wanted to build a decent prototype, something that would look like a finished product to give them an idea of how the game would look if they printed it. In order to do that, I needed to find someone to do a few illustrations and someone to help me design the layout of the cards.
For the first part I had someone in mind and decided to try it out. Some years ago in a magazine I used to read, there was a comic strip at the end which I enjoyed a lot. Many years later, while drifting inside BGG, I found that the artist of that strip was a user here (username: markador) and that he was into board games as well. Thus, when the need for an illustrator came up, he was the first person who came in my mind. I sent him a Geekmail and explained what I wanted. Panayiotis Lyris (aka markador) was very friendly and immediately accepted my offer. We decided that he would draw a cover for the game first and the artwork for a couple of cards to use as samples, which I could use to try to sell my game to publishers.
When he sent me the first drafts, I was amazed! He had done an excellent job and his sketches captured exactly the feeling that I wanted my game to give! When he sent me the final versions, I was speechless. I immediately knew that with that artwork the game would definitely be published, it would become a hit, and that the art would be something that would play a big role in its success. It was only a matter of who would publish it and when.
(A note to publishers: If you need an illustrator for one of your games, try contacting Panayotis. He is an excellent artist; I had no problems working with him and I will be more than happy to do it again in the future. You can see more samples of his work in deviantart or you can send him a Geekmail here on BGG. By the way, he doesn't know that I am writing this...)
For the graphic design I turned to Dimitris Vasiadis, a friend of mine who was also a member of the Greek Guild (username: Base the Bass) and had also participated in the design contest. In fact, he had won in the category "Best artwork/presentation", so he knew his business. Dimitris took Panayotis' artwork, then designed the layout of the cards we would use for the prototype. He also did a very good job and I would like to thank him both for what he did at that time and for later while working on the final product.
So with a nice-looking prototype in hand, I approached the publisher and told him about my game. He liked the theme and we arranged a meeting so that we could play. When we did, it was obvious that everyone on the table was having a good time. And truly enough, a few days later I got a call, we scheduled another meeting, and I was told we had a deal!
You can imagine my joy at that moment! I couldn't be happier! However, closing the deal was only the beginning. There was a ton of things that needed to be done. First of all: Additional playtesting. A word to the wise: No matter how much you have playtested your game (or you think you have playtested it) there is always the need for more. Test it, test it some more, test it again, and then test it twice to be sure, before doing all that again. Test it with experienced players, test it with new players, test it with friends, and test it with strangers. You need to get as much feedback as possible and from as many sources as possible. Be careful, though: While you should take all of the opinions into consideration, you will be the judge of which ones actually need to be implemented.
And you need to fight with yourself sometimes. When I had gone to the publisher, I was under the impression that the game was almost finished. However, after many playtest sessions, it was obvious that various changes needed to be made. Not so much to the core of the game - that remained mostly intact - but mainly to the cards' abilities and the various costs. The only change to the mechanisms at that point had to do with the states of the customers. It was apparent that letting them have three states (normal, anxious and angry) was too much as it was rare for a player to have a customer leave due to not being served - and that meant no real pressure. Thus, only two states remained: normal and anxious. Now the effects of the Unforeseen Events were more serious, and the players had to play carefully in order to avoid losing customers.
A lot of work also needed to be done with the artwork and the graphic design. There were countless emails exchanged between the three of us involved, various versions tried, and many hours spent to get a result that was as good as possible. In the end I am proud of all that work and believe it paid off.
So here you have it! Souvlaki Wars: A fun card game for the whole family that puts the players in the shoes of Greek fast food restaurant owners. In a few days, the game will hit the shelves in the Greek market and right after that it will make its international debut at Spiel 2011. If you like what you read above, be sure to drop by our booth (4-308). I will be there all four days demoing the game and answering any questions you may have.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
I'd like to thank a few people not mentioned in the article above who helped a lot during the creation of Souvlaki Wars. First and foremost my wife Evangelia who encouraged me a lot before going to the contest and who later put up with all the late hours I was pulling in order to have the game ready. Secondly, Konstantinos Kokkinis and his wife Santra who were the first playtesters. They encouraged me and gave me valuable feedback - if not for them, I may not have moved forward with the game. (Be sure to check Konstantinos's game Drum Roll, which will also appear at Spiel 2011.) A big thank you also goes to Manos Velivassakis, who had the idea for the design contest. Without it I don't know whether the game would be where it is now. Last but not least, a big thank you to all the members of the Greek Guild for all of their support during the last months! Thank you, guys! It meant a lot to me.
- [+] Dice rolls
GrEEK Guild held its 2nd Boardgame Design Contest in Athens.
For those of you who don't know us, the GrEEK Guild is one of the largest guilds on BoardGameGeek. It was created in June 2007 right after the feature was added on the site, and it has been growing ever since. It has united all the Greek users of the site and we have formed a community where any of our countrymen can talk (in our native language) about board games, ask questions, discuss strategies and meet other people with similar gaming interests. During all these years our little community has evolved and we now regularly meet in a monthly basis (in more than one city!), organize trips, place group orders from online websites, have our own contests, etc.
In 2010, our Guild's creator (ManOfSorrows) had the idea of a boardgame design contest. Without a lot of organization but mostly in a friendly mood, we held the contest with four games participating. (You can find some details here but keep in mind the report is in Greek.) The event was a big success; everyone loved it and almost immediately we announced a second game design contest for one year later! The success of that initial contest was made even bigger when a few months later, the game that won – Souvlaki Wars – was accepted by the biggest Greek company in boardgaming, Kaissa Chess & Games, for publication. (The game will hit the shelves sometime within the next few months.)
As the deadline for the second contest approached, it was obvious that there was more interest this year and more willing participants. Moreover, from the sneak peeks that we were getting it was obvious that the level of the games — both in quality and gameplay value — would be higher than before. We realized then that we should organize the whole event better to make it a nice opportunity not only for the designers to show their creations to more gamers, but for new people to learn about our hobby and our online community. We started looking for sponsors and right from the start, Kaissa Chess and Games offered to help us. With their help, we reserved a hall in a well-known Greek hotel and we printed posters which were displayed in their retail stores. The posters were also displayed in other boardgame stores around Athens, like Fantasy Shop and Playscape.
Another thing that we realized had to change was the process of choosing the winner. In the first year, whoever had played all the games during the contest would vote for his favourite in four different categories, such as best game and most original theme. This year, after lengthy discussions we decided to have a jury which would play all the games and give an award for just a single category: Best Game. However, since we wanted the public to participate more actively in the whole event we decided to have another award, this time for the game that was most appreciated by the visitors of the event.
Initially we had eight games participating. However, a few days before the contest two of them had to drop out since they realized they weren't ready and more work needed to be done on their games. Thus, six games ended up competing for the award of the best game:
In Astrologica, Tony Cimino (BGG user: Diogenis) has the players trying to put some order in the Zodiac Circle, the planets' positions and the Zodiac Houses. A fast and easy game requiring good observations skills and smart combinations, with the art of Bruce Salter.
In Autokrator, a medieval wargame by Lefteris Iroglidis (BGG user: GREEK GAMES), the players take the role of the Holy Roman Empire, the Moors, the Saracens and the East Roman Empire (Byzantines) trying to expand their territories. Emphasis is given to historical accuracy while also having an interesting and original combat mechanic.
Briefcase is an economic deck-building game created by Sotirios Tsantilas (BGG user: sot07) and Nikolas Sakaloglou (BGG user: sakal). The players try to build their own business empires by acquiring various small companies and using them to acquire even bigger ones. A key-characteristic that separates it from all the other deck-building games is that here, with the "Buy" action, the players don't buy cards that go into their deck. They buy resources and companies that they place in front of them. When they activate those companies (using cards in their deck and resources they have acquired) they generate new cards for their deck, which later allows them to buy even bigger companies. It is an interesting variation and the end-result is a fast and addictive game that you will keep wanting to play again and again.
Drum Roll is a Eurogame designed by Konstantinos Kokkinis (BGG user: 3pod) and Dimitris Drakopoulos (BGG user: geremes) and it takes us to a circus during the middle of the last century. Actually not in only one circus, but in many since each player tries to manage his own! In order to achieve that he will have to hire the best performers (jugglers, animal trainers, magicians etc) but also try to equip them accordingly so that when the time for the show comes, they perform to the best of their ability! After three shows in cities around Europe, the player with the highest Prestige ( = victory points) is the winner. A very interesting game, rich in theme and with amazing artwork!
In George Zotos' (BGG user: GeorgeZzzz) Home Sweet Home we get to build the house of our dreams! Starting with just four rooms and with frequent visits to plumbers, builders, decorators etc we get to build new rooms, install central heating or alarm systems, buy appliances or participate in auctions for rare antiques. And what better way to enjoy our accomplishments than to throw receptions and make our neighbours (co-players) jealous??? (Also scoring us some VP in the process.) We have to be careful, though, as their jealousy will lead to accidents happening to us, capable of destroying what we worked so hard to build. The better house we have, the more bad things will happen, from burglars to short-circuits or even earthquakes! Undeniably the most thematically original game in the competition which led to a lot of funny moments during plays!
Finally, in Hunt for the Crown, a card game by Aggelos Vazaios (BGG user: aggelos), we go to medieval Italy and we take the role of noblemen. The king is about to die and soon one of us will be his successor. To ensure that the crown is ours we will have to convince lesser noblemen of various Houses to support us in our attempt. The main mechanism is bidding but apart from money the nobles can also be persuaded with titles, estates or even promises of convenient marriages! However there is a lot of intrigue in the court and the alliances shift constantly ensuring that nothing is certain up to the very end!
When the 13th of February came, we were very pleasantly surprised. The hall was full of people coming to try the games, most of them new faces that we hadn't seen before! Many of them told us that they were unaware that such a community existed, and they became members themselves the very next day! There were also many people who wanted to participate in the contest with their own games. Unfortunately, since we were informed at the last moment, it wasn't possible for them to be included. However we will be more than happy to see their games next year at the next competition!
In the end of the day, the winners were announced. The big "battle" was between Briefcase and Drum Roll, the two games that were considered to be the top contenders for the award. It was hard to select one out of them since both games' designers had done a very good job. In the end, after counting all the votes, the big winner in both categories (jury + public) was Drum Roll but with a very small lead over Briefcase, showing that both games were of almost equal value. (In fact, for the public award it went down to the last two votes since it was a tie between them at that point.) Luckily, both games' designers are planning to publish the titles before the end of 2011, so we will get to play many more games out of each one!
We would like to thank everyone who helped this contest take place, especially our sponsor Kaissa Chess & Games, the gaming club Espairos for the hospitality during the jury's test of the games, the coffee shop Playce where the first competition was held last year and whose owner provided us this time with the big prize for the winner, the online shop Boardgameguru.co.uk for also providing a prize, and the stores Fantasy Shop and Playscape for displaying our posters. Thanks must of course go to Fidel Lainez as well for letting us use his beautiful image in our poster.
We would also like to thank everyone who came by, played the games, talked with the designers and gave them valuable feedback. The feeling of seeing people having fun with something you have created is priceless and we can only feel it thanks to you.
Last but not least, we would like to thank BoardGameGeek without which none of this would have ever been made. Thanks to a feature that many users may not even be aware of (guilds) a community was built, has evolved, and now has managed to change many people's lives forever.
Stay tuned for the next competition, this time next year! We will try to be even better both in organizing the event and in game quality!
Oh, and for those planning to go to Essen in 2011, keep your eyes open! From what I hear, most of the designers plan to appear at the fair and if everything goes well, some of them will even have copies of their creations for sale!
- [+] Dice rolls