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Archive for Jeffrey Allers

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Designer Diary: A Pulp Nonfiction, or The Story of Citrus

Jeffrey Allers
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Creative Juices

Design competitions can be helpful in many ways, especially for someone like me who doesn't do this full-time. Apart from the opportunity to have a game playtested and critiqued by a jury outside my normal gaming circles, the main benefit of competitions is that it establishes creative limits. Most contests have a specific target audience in mind (age, playing time, etc.) as well as specific components that can be used. And there is a time limit — the deadline for the entries — that prevents me from tweaking the game endlessly.

These kinds of limits are what get my creative juices flowing and keep me up at night as I try to find something original within that designated design space. It's not unlike playing a well-designed game that allows one to explore different strategies within a defined set of rules.

In 2006, not long after I began designing games with my local Berlin group, I decided to finally enter a competition, a rather small one advertised on the Internet that required two-player dice games using only components common in every house. Aside from dice, one could use standard playing cards, pawns, poker chips, etc. To make it more interesting, I invited my new friend, designer Bernd Eisenstein, to compete with me. After all, he had already won the more prestigious Hippodice competition with Maya on his first attempt. I looked forward to seeing what he could create within the boundaries of this competition, and I thought it would be both practical and fun to test our designs with each other.

Even though the competition was cancelled before a winner was announced, Bernd and I clearly "won". He helped me develop one of my designs, which became Alea Iacta Est, and he's now working on a multi-player version of his entry which I'm looking forward to seeing someday under his Irongames label.

The third design from that competition has taken a number of different forms in the years since. The working title derived from its theme was "Netherlands". The first version required players to roll 1-3 dice, then bid on them in order to place them on the board. The pips represented different flower types, and dice with the same number were placed adjacent to one another to form regions, which always started from a player's side of the board. The goal was to control as much of the middle of the board as possible, forming large regions and blocking the opponent. The tension came from this little mechanism: having fewer and larger regions scored more points, but having more regions provided more income, which was necessary to bid on the dice. Every region also needed to connect to at least one windmill (the 6s), and windmills could be placed only in the center rows of the board.

The first version of Citrus, originally an abstract dice auction game called Netherlands

Not Yet Ripe

I opted to focus on what became Alea Iacta Est, however, and didn't dig "Netherlands" out of my prototype closet again until 2008. I replaced the dice with tiles, but kept it as a two-player game. There was some interest from publishers in Nürnburg and Göttingen the following year, but no contracts. Strictly two-player games, I discovered, were very difficult to sell. It went back into the closet.

The two-player version of Netherlands with tiles instead of dice

In 2010, I took it out again and decided to make it multi-player. Again, each player started from the edges of the board and tried to build towards the middle where the windmills were built.

That's when American designer Sam Brown, who was part of our Berlin group for almost a year, suggested that it might be more thematic to have the fields work their way out from a central starting position, and use the windmills to allow for that expansion.

The idea of the game after Sam's suggestion to use the windmills for expansion

I was excited about the design again and tried several versions until I arrived at one that worked well. The game used land boards that each had 16 spaces for flower tiles and windmills, and new boards were added each time a windmill was built on an edge. Windmills were also where players could begin new regions of flowers.

I then added a bulb market in which players could buy rows of tiles that were drawn at random from a bag then placed on the market board. Each player also had a set of five farmers to mark each of his regions.

The final layer to the game came in the form of cards as a form of money. Each card showed one type of flower, and buying a row of flower tiles required the right set of cards. The mechanism for earning income (drawing cards) provided much of the tension in this version of the game. Instead of buying and placing flower tiles, you could collect income equal to the number of workers you had not yet placed in the fields. A third option was to build a windmill, where all players could begin new regions.

The Netherlands prototype after further development

My favorite games offer clear, simple options that nevertheless provide interesting dilemmas. After playtesting the latest version of "Netherlands", I was convinced that this was headed in that same direction.


As I prepared to bring the prototype to the Göttingen Game Designer's Convention in 2010, however, another tile-laying game with a Netherlands theme was released: Seeland from German powerhouse Ravensburger and veteran designers Günter Burkhardt and Wolfgang Kramer. There was no interest from publishers in Göttingen, and I put the game back into my prototype closet again.

In 2011, when I finally attended Spiel, the annual game fair in Essen, Germany for the first time, I brought only a handful of prototypes with me and scheduled a few meetings with publishers, choosing instead to spend more time "taking it all in". My Netherlands prototype was returned to me by a publisher who didn't like it in its current form, and I decided to put it away again for the time being.

Fruit Basket

When Spiel 2012 rolled around, however, I scheduled over a dozen appointments with publishers and had quite a few prototypes ready. I even created a portfolio with photographs and "sell sheets" so that publishers could get a quick overview and decide which prototypes I should unpack from my suitcase to show them. I also decided that enough time had passed since the release of Seeland, so I included "Netherlands" in my portfolio. Perhaps the timing would be better, I thought.

Even with my optimism, I could not have guessed that it would receive as much attention as it did. One of those interested in testing the game was Klemens Franz, prolific game illustrator and developer for Lookout Games. After I sent the prototype to him, he reported that he enjoyed playing it, but felt it might fit better with another publisher. As he does illustrations for dlp games, he thought Reiner Stockhausen would be interested and sent it on to him. Soon after, Reiner was in contact with me for an offer to publish "Netherlands" for Spiel in 2013. After such a long wait, it was wonderful to experience such a quick release schedule.

Pruning the Orchard

I was also excited to work with Reiner as he's an established game designer — and as I expected, he was very hands-on in the development process and invaluable in streamlining the design. His first "cut" was removing the cards from the game in order to focus on the tile placement/worker management mechanism, which he felt was the "innovative core" of the game.

From there, we both proposed other fine-tuning and tested the game extensively parallel to one another, sending barrages of emails back and forth between each test. One of those changes that came from Reiner was actually a misunderstanding in the English rules. It turned out that he had been playing the game differently than I had, and it worked better in his version. (This is not the first time this has happened to me, and a similar phenomenon occurred with Berlin friend Günter Cornett's two-player game Kahuna.)

With so much back-and-forth, Reiner and I even reached a point where we had developed two different versions of the game, which actually gave us an opportunity to try things we would not have tried if we would have been working on only one version. Some of the bonus tiles, for example, came from the second version that was later abandoned in favor of the first.

The fine-tuning focused on the interaction and tempo of the game. Probably the largest change from the original prototype was that the land boards were replaced by a fixed board, and expansion was regulated instead by the addition of the windmills.

Except they were no longer windmills.

Freshly Squeezed

Early on, Reiner asked me if the theme was something I would be willing to change. In the beginning, I had been inspired by the components and program of the design competition, and the product was basically a two-player abstract, but after I had attached the Netherlands theme, many of the new mechanisms were drawn from that theme.

Ultimately, in true "Eurogame" fashion, I decided that the mechanisms we had worked so hard to refine mattered the most, and that Reiner, as a small publisher, should be able to use a theme that he feels he can sell. After spending a good deal of time brainstorming, Reiner settled on the theme of citrus growers in southern Spain and called the game Citrus. Klemens, who I have to thank for getting the game to the right publisher, was also excited to do the art for the game.

The plantation market, as illustrated by Klemens Franz

It has been rewarding to finally be able to work with both Reiner and Klemens on a game. It has also been a long and challenging process since that initial design in 2006, but perhaps that will make it all the more appealing to the public at Spiel 2013 in October when they see a mature, ripe game ready for picking in the "orchard" that is the game fair in Essen.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Fincas, bonus tiles, and a region of plantations being scored to earn income, illustrated by Klemens Franz
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Sun Oct 6, 2013 2:49 am
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Designer Diary: The Adventure of Designing Artifact

Jeffrey Allers
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Prologue: A rugged archeologist sets off through the unknown on a journey through uncharted wilderness with a pack of provisions, an aged antique map, and a mysterious hand-written guidebook with cryptic clues...

I grew up enjoying the retro-adventure movies of the 1980s brought back to the silver screen by filmmakers such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. At the time, I was especially attracted to the romanticized archeology of their Indiana Jones films, depicting the hero and heroine in a frantic race to find lost treasures and bring them back to the museum before they could be stolen by tomb raiders and black marketeers. When I started to design board games, this was one of the first themes I tackled as Tikal was the only other game I knew on the subject at that time. (Mykerinos, Thebes, Pergamon, and The Adventurers had not yet been released.) Little did I know, the design of the game would turn out to be an adventure in itself, with as many surprising twists in the story as any blockbuster film.

I wrote down my first ideas and made parts of a prototype as early as 2004. The main concept was that players would send teams of workers to four different continents in a race to uncover the most valuable artifacts, then ship them home before they could be stolen by one of the other players at the site. I had several "cavern tiles" that would be combined randomly at each site to show the paths and rooms that the workers needed to enter in order to find the artifacts. I had a set-collecting mechanism that allowed a player to produce exhibits of either one artifact type (pottery, sculpture, etc.) or one location (Asian exhibit, etc.), and I came up with a mechanism that gave players more income for each exhibition they produced, but that also decreased the base income for all players. (The work of the archeologists is heavily subsidized in the beginning, but as the players begin to hold exhibits, they are increasingly expected to generate their own revenue for future digs.) Each exhibit also awarded a number of victory points, which would decide the winner of the game. These basic mechanisms survived years of development and are still a prominent part of the published game. Even so, these design elements desperately needed an original, central mechanism that could tie everything together.

The first ideas were scribbled in my sketchbook from 2005

The Beginning of a Partnership: Hands are shaken over a bottle of whisky in a shady canteen in a forgotten border town – a pact is made between two very different explorers whose unique skills complement each other. Their mutual needs have brought them together, along with a common vision of adventure, fortune and glory...

When Bernd Eisenstein moved to Berlin and joined our gaming group in early 2005, I found out that he, too, was a budding game designer, having won the Hippodice Game Design Competition on his first attempt. (His game was published as Maya from ABACUSSPIELE.) I had always wanted to try co-designing a game with someone and asked whether he would like to meet sometime to share unfinished prototype ideas. I hoped that together we might be able to help each other move a few of our game designs forward.

We met a week later, and he showed me the beginnings of Zack und Pack. He also pulled out a racing game that didn't quite work but had an interesting market mechanism. I showed him Artifact, and he was intrigued enough to take the prototype home with him.

The Pieces Come Together: Each adventurer discovers he is in possession of a section of engraved stone which, much to their amazement, fit together perfectly to form an ancient tablet with the clues they are looking for...

At our next game night, Bernd brought a fully functioning prototype of Artifact with him. He had spliced in the market mechanism from the racing game he had shown me, and it worked much better in this context. The idea was that every action had an action track with markers in the color of that action, and that players started each round by taking markers for themselves. Each marker taken from the action track made the price for that action increase so that the actions most desired at that particular time became more expensive – but the cost of an action was not paid until a player took the action and replaced the action marker on the track. In this way, as players took actions, the costs of the actions would decrease. Thus, a player could pay top dollar for a popular action in order to beat the other players to a valuable find, or he could wait until the action was less expensive — but usually not as lucrative. We were excited to have this as the game's central mechanism as it was different than anything either of us had ever played before, and I've still not played anything quite like it.

Bernd also revised my worker movement system of using chains of workers to search the caverns, and he stacked increasing numbers of artifacts on each tile so that going deeper into them was rewarded. He also balanced the victory points and income for each exhibit so that some types of exhibits would offer more income and fewer victory points, while the more difficult exhibits would offer more points and less income. Deciding when to switch a player's focus from income to victory points gave the game a nice "engine-building" feel.

Recruiting a Specialist: The archeologists know that they are on the verge of an exciting discovery, yet they realize they need a broader team to uncover the project's full potential. They begin a secondary quest to find a knowledgeable and reliable local who can help them reach their goal...

We knew from the start that this would be a more complex "gamers' game" and sent it to a publisher who produced those kinds of games. Furthermore, this publisher was always quick to playtest prototypes and give detailed feedback; within weeks, we had our prototype back with several suggestions for improvements. We made changes for many months, testing them, then sending the prototype back to the publisher, but it was always returned with requests for further adjustments.

We finally looked at streamlining certain aspects of the design. The game had mounds of components with stacks of artifact chits piled high on top of changing room tiles and a game board full of action tracks covered with tokens. I decided to combine some actions so that only six different types of action markers existed rather than the original eight – and four of them were the workers one could hire on each of the four continents.

We also changed the artifact tiles to cards and simplified how they were discovered: Players would now reveal a card for every worker hut built at the site after the first one. This small touch from Bernd also added tension in deciding when to ship artifacts back from the site as the last player to ship would wind up with one artifact card less, in addition to not having a broader selection of cards from which to choose. It also made reference to my original idea of allowing players to steal artifacts right out from under the nose of their opponents.

As money was tight and the ship markers had only one action attached to them, I added a "black market" action so that players had the option of selling artifacts for cash when they were in a pinch. Any player could also buy one of the cards previously sold, and the ship market track determined the current price for buying and selling. This provided a much-needed boost for players who were not able to get their income-producing exhibits finished as quickly, although the exhibits were still a much better source of income and victory points. Besides, it continued the inside joke among our game designers' group that almost every prototype of mine has to have a black market!

Finally, I redesigned the game board so that it better described the game's narrative. Although I still used only clip art and simple desktop publishing software, both Bernd and I have always felt that the graphic presentation of a prototype is important. First, it makes the rules of the game more intuitive, giving the players visual cues to the rules. Second, it helps immerse the playtesters in the game experience. And third, it gives the potential publisher and graphic artist an idea of how the game could look and function. In Artifact, our first game board had reflected the hierarchy of the game's elements, with the income and exhibits in the center and the sites placed around the edges. The new game board expressed the design from the perspective of the gameplay, reflecting the linear process of digging at various sites, then shipping (or dealing on the black market), and finally producing exhibits.

After many successful playtests, I confidently packed the game into my bag to show the publisher at the annual Game Designer’s Convention in Göttingen. They were excited to see its progress and took the game with them for more testing.

Bernd (left) and I playtested the game at Michael's (center) Spielwiese gaming cafe repeatedly

Danger and misfortune lurk at every turn: Just as the treasure appears to be within their grasp, the adventurers are caught unawares by a hidden trap door and soon find themselves fighting for their lives in dark, previously undisturbed catacombs, where each step reveals seemingly insurmountable obstacles...

After several months of playtesting, we received a difficult critique: There was too much downtime as each player was able to take up to six actions per turn. Each player would also have only one turn per round, and determining the starting player for each round seemed arbitrary, although it was quite important.

I decided to try the obvious and limit each player to 1-2 actions per turn. This worked surprisingly well and also opened the door to a solution to our starting player problem: The last player to pass on taking actions and bow out for the round would take the starting player marker for the next round. Players who passed early, however, could already begin refilling their action markers back to six, which made the actions more expensive again for those still in the round. This added some interesting tension to the simple decision of whether to take one action, two actions, or pass, and player turns were now quick with little downtime.

Exhibiting the Findings: After overcoming all obstacles to recover the artifact, the explorers shake the dust of the wilderness from their leather bomber jackets and return to the bustling metropolis, donning coats and ties to meet with the rich and the powerful in order to bring their treasure to the public.

I took the game with me to the Nürnberg Toy Fair to present one more time to the publisher. Finally, they were satisfied and took it with them to their main gaming event in another European country where the final selections would be made by the heads of the company. But several weeks later, we received the difficult news that it had been turned down...for the last time.

Months passed, I submitted the game to another publisher who passed on it and I even sent the idea to an American publisher, who also passed because they had another archeology-themed game planned. I decided to send the game to Larry Levy and his D.C. Gamers group for blind playtesting, and they provided helpful feedback. Working from this, I changed a small but very important rule as they had misunderstood it during their session and it had skewed the results.

I had never before entered the Hippodice Game Design Competition because I was usually able to send my prototypes directly to publishers, thanks to the contacts I made at the Göttingen Game Designers' Convention. But since we had what I thought was a very refined prototype and we had not yet found a publisher, I decided to send the game in. The following spring of 2009, we were excited to learn that Artifact had been one of six games chosen for the final round, along with Andreas Steding's prototype for Hansa Teutonica and the first-place design, Dwight Sullivan's Noblemen. This generated new interest by some publishers, who were on the jury for the final round.

The prototype that made it to the final round of six at the Hippodice Game Design Competition in 2009

After having almost a whole year away from the game, however, I was motivated to tinker with the design again. I felt that our streamlined game, which had certainly become a more efficient design, was now lacking some thematic excitement and strategic variety. I added special cards to the mix of artifacts as well as bonus "research" points for digging at multiple sites instead of focusing at only one or two. I also replaced the wooden coins with a money track on the board and added points for cash left at the end of the game. Now research and money factored more prominently into the final scores, giving players more to think about without adding too much complexity.

At that time, I saw that White Goblin Games in the Netherlands was building a reputation of releasing more complex games, so I took the initiative of pitching Artifact to them as well. They tested the game intensively right away and even suggested adding further layers of complexity. Their idea was to add four different archeologists and four different cities in which a player could move his marker each time he produced an exhibit. Each of these would then provide a unique privilege. This element gave experienced players the opportunity to choose specific strategies and to alter them with each new exhibit. The game was finally, at long last, "finished".

White Goblin Games suggested adding these additional cities and archeologists to give experienced players more options and strategies

However, because the base game worked fine – and was already highly regarded by the Hippodice jury – we decided to keep it separate in the rules from the archeologist and city "modules" that were added later for more theme and depth. Hopefully, this will keep new players from being overwhelmed with all of the choices until they are familiar with the core of the game. Experienced gamers, on the other hand, will no doubt be able to dive right into the complete game from the start.

Although Artifact is definitely a "Eurogame" with lots of action tracks and tiles on the board, it stays true to the original inspiration and is fairly thematic. It does not have the high luck factor of some of the recent archeology-themed games, and there is plenty of depth to explore, especially with the complete game. I enjoy just about every archeology-themed game I have played and have most of them in my collection, and I can say with confidence that Artifact still adds something new to the genre. Furthermore, Bernd and I enjoyed working together on the long road to this game's publication. It was our first project together, we've enjoyed playing it together in every iteration over the past eight years, and we are excited to finally be able to share it with a larger audience.

Jeffrey D. Allers

The finished game components for Artifact

Epilogue: The adventurers recount the tales of their heroics over a cappuccino in their favorite Old World gaming café when suddenly a mysterious gentleman in a toga enters and deposits several objects on the table in front of them before disappearing again into the night. Among the items are an antique map of ancient Rome and five sets of colored dice...
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Mon Aug 26, 2013 2:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Even Olde New York Was Once Nieuw Amsterdam

Jeffrey Allers
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It's difficult to believe that a city as renowned throughout the modern world as New York City started out with a completely different name. All the changes that the original colony – New Amsterdam – went through to become the iconic American metropolis is actually an accurate metaphor for the evolution of a board game design that looks very different from the first prototype I pitched to publishers. Following is a logbook of my own voyage of discovery.

Inspiration in the Old World

It was 2007, and I finally had my foot in the door with several German publishers, anxiously awaiting my first game releases scheduled for the following year. I had a flood of other ideas I was working at developing, but I was distracted by the interesting new dice mechanisms appearing in European strategy games (and I was testing my own dice game, to be released later as Alea Iacta Est). Then I read about Andreas Seyfarth's new game Airships and was intrigued by yet another unconventional use of dice. It challenged me to think about other ways dice could be used in creative ways.

The Bright Side of the Plague

Then, suddenly, "the plague" hit my family. For a two month period, every member of my family was sick with something, and my twin one-year-old sons went through cycles of everything from scarlet fever to bronchitis to stomach flu. It was a very difficult time for us, and we could not have survived without the help of our German friends.

Although I missed quite of bit of work during that time, I could not let my mind become idle as I rocked ailing children back to sleep in the middle of the night or sat with them in our doctor's packed waiting room several times each week.

I used some of this time to think about dice games again, and I came up with the idea of having dice colors represent actions, while the numbers on the dice could determine how those actions were grouped together. I decided to have three different areas of influence in the game and thus three colors, with four dice in each. I would roll the 12 dice at the beginning of each round, group them together according to their numbers – e.g., the blue "6" with the two red "6's" – then players would bid on the groupings of actions along with the player order tokens. Furthermore, I had always wanted to design an "engine-building" game, and I decided that this would be its core action-selection mechanism.

Discovering the New World

Although these first ideas were purely mechanical, I am usually most inspired by interesting themes, so I began thinking of something appropriate early in the process. A colonization theme usually fits engine-building games quite well, but so many of them had already been used in other games. Then, in one of those late-night rocking-chair sessions, I remembered a grade school textbook that had fascinated me with detailed drawings of the founding of New Amsterdam, the colony that later became New York. Excitedly, I researched the history further online, and I discovered that it was even more fascinating than I had remembered.

Nieuw Amsterdam, as it was officially called, was actually founded by the Dutch West Indies Company in order to encourage the lucrative beaver pelt trade with the local Native American hunters (mostly from the Lenape tribe) along the Hudson River. To establish a trading post there, they needed a town and a fort, which was built on the tip of Manhattan Island. To encourage European patroons – settlers of means or noble birth – to populate the colony, they granted them both land and indentured servants. The patroons became the lords of a new feudal system not unlike that seen in Europe.

Now I had my theme – one that, surprisingly, had not yet been used in a modern board game. It fit my dice mechanism beautifully as I made the three areas of influence (and thus, the three types of actions) the city, the land, and the trade along the Hudson River. I even found an antique map of the original colony online, which I modified for my prototype game board.

It was clear at this point that this was to be a "gamers' game" design with a higher level of complexity than most of my games to date. A rich historical theme can do that to a game. However, I was still entrenched in the German school of design in that I wanted the theme abstracted enough for players to easily internalize the rules and maintain a good pace.

Building from the Ground Up

Now that I had an overall vision for the project, as well as a central mechanism, I was ready to start putting the other pieces together. Actually, it was more like weaving an intricate narrative in which several stories diverged and converged at different points.

For example, with a City action die, the players could build businesses in the city for financial gain (money) and compete with each other in elections for victory points – but they would also need food to sustain them. With a Land die, players could add to their land for VPs and develop it so that it would produce building materials and food – both of which were needed in the city. And with a Trade die, the players could trade along the Hudson River with the Lenape Indians and ship the Furs back to the Old World for VPs and money. However, the trade with the Lenape was connected back to the acquisition of land by the players. The more land taken by the players, the farther each player had to go to trade with the Lenape as the tribes were forced to move their camps farther up the Hudson River. I found all of these elements and interrelationships fascinating from the perspective of a historical narrative as well as the mechanisms of the game.

From the mechanical standpoint, although I had two possible actions connected to each action die, I realized that I needed several other actions available to all players every round. I added one of these to each city district, and a player could purchase one action there every turn. Having a majority of businesses in a district meant a discount on the corresponding action. The nature of these actions changed quite a bit over the course of the game's development as they were vital in providing ample opportunities for players when they did not have an action die, yet they still needed to be subordinate to the dice actions.

And although the historical theme was important to me, I needed to abstract the game as much as possible to make it easier to understand and play. This is especially apparent in the resources: Corn is used to represent all food, and wood to represent all building materials. Goods represent all items imported from Europe for trade with the Lenape. And finally, there is money earned in various ways and furs to ship back for victory points.

Playtesting the game with Michael Schmitt in his Spielwiese gaming cafe in Berlin

Playtesting Complex Games

I found that it is a real challenge to find the time and the players to test longer, complex games. With multiple game designers attending our playtesting sessions in the Spielwiese gaming café in Berlin each week, when a longer game was played someone would have to sacrifice getting his game to the table that night. Sometimes my colleagues were gracious enough to do so, but I also set up private testing evenings for those who were interested in being part of the process, and that was very helpful. I also played the game by myself quite a bit, although it is always difficult to get a feeling for a game with auctions when playing it solo. (How do I bid against myself?) Nevertheless, the game was progressing well, and friend and fellow game designer Bernd Eisenstein even started calling the game "Jeff's masterpiece" on his blog.

Publisher Involvement

I took the game with me to Nuremberg in 2008 to pitch to several publishers I knew who released complex games. One even took the prototype to the Gathering of Friends that year, and I was able to get feedback from Larry Levy, who playtested the game there. Another publisher playtested it for a year after that, and I redesigned the game from their feedback, testing the new version with my group intermittently.

Then I noticed that White Goblin Games was also interested in publishing complex games, and I pitched another game to them that Bernd and I had been doing together for some time. Not only were they interested in that game, but they had also read Bernd's blog and were interested in Nieuw Amsterdam as well. Within a few months of receiving the prototype, they sent me a contract.

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Even though I had a contract, I wanted the game to be as good as I could make it. I began testing it again heavily and I began a new round of development. With the motivation and time pressure of publication looming, I was able to smooth out more, cutting quite a bit of unnecessary complexity after taking a hard look at what was really necessary.

I also noticed some problems that could occur in specific circumstances, and I had to break down and chart the interrelationships of the mechanisms in order to correct any imbalances.

Charting the interrelationships in the game early in the process...

...and then again towards the end of development

The biggest change of all was to the core mechanism, the one that was the impetus of the game idea itself. I finally realized that the dice were not the best way to determine the action groupings, and they even presented some imbalance issues if one number was rolled too often, especially in the first round of the game. Replacing them with tiles was much easier to balance, and this change also proved more cost-effective for the publisher, allowing us to produce other more lavish components.

A late prototype that would get tweaked even after Josh Cappel began working on it

I could write endlessly about the many other tweaks, cuts, and redesigns, but these notes would be difficult to understand without knowing the game – and probably not much fun to read either. Suffice it to say, I am very grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of both Jonny DeVries of White Goblin Games and graphic designer Joshua Cappel, both of whom contributed to the process. Up until now, in fact, I had never worked so directly with an illustrator of one of my games, and Josh's feedback and graphic design even influenced some of the final mechanisms. I was impressed with his keen understanding of the game and my goals in creating it, and his development of the rulebook shows that.

A mockup from Josh of the finished game components

The design of Nieuw Amsterdam has been a long and complex journey, with a cast of interweaving characters and story lines as varied as the history of New York itself. I began with an original mechanism around which I thought I could build a game, but the rich historical theme eventually became the driving force in the design. I hope that players of the game will enjoy participating in that narrative, as well as being able to create some stories of their own.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Start of a five-player game, with five longhouses in the Lanape camp and five Trading Posts along the Hudson river
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Wed Sep 5, 2012 6:30 pm
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Designer Diary: Pala – Notes from the Artist's Palette

Jeffrey Allers
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Preparing the Canvas

Back in 2005, I was still working my way through the vast archive of classic German board games. At the same time, I was refining my own ideas so that I would finally feel confident enough to bring them to my Monday night gaming group – one that included several established designers as well as others who soon would be.

I had learned German back in the mid-1990s when I had first moved to Berlin, but entering the world of game design felt like language learning all over again. And although it was important for me to master the grammar of game mechanisms, the theme of each game idea was what inspired me the most, in the same way that the content of poetry moves me more than rhyme or meter. Or the way that, as an architect, I was much more interested in the spaces and forms created and the concepts communicated than the structural calculations. (That is why we have structural engineers, after all.)

In any case, I was on the hunt for themes I had not yet seen, confident that new and interesting mechanisms would automatically follow. One of those early designs was about ticket scalping, and it turned into the published game Circus Maximus, released in 2008. Another dealt with one of my favorite pastimes of that period: painting.

The First Brush Strokes

One of the most interesting parts of painting, especially with oil or acrylic, is searching for the right colors, which usually involves mixing several preset colors on the painting palette. This actually feels very much like a game, and I thought to myself (in 2005, mind you), "THIS is an original theme!"

I jotted down ideas for games of different types and genres, but finally focused on a trick-taking card game mechanism. The first version included a real wooden palette as a small game board, and I painted spots of the three primary and three secondary colors onto it. Each player received a hand of numbered cards in six suits (again, three primary and three secondary), and one colored six-sided die. The die was used to bid on a particular color, secretly and simultaneously. For each secondary color that was bid, a trick was worth +1 point that round, while for each primary color bid, a trick was worth +2 points. All primary colors not bid were, on the other hand, worth -1 point per trick, while the secondary colors not bid were worth -2 points per trick.

But the color mixing was what made this different from any other trick-taking game I had played, and this was the core idea of the game: If a player led a trick in a primary color, another player could later change the color of the trick to a secondary color by mixing it with another primary. Likewise, a player could follow suit on a secondary trick by playing the two corresponding primary cards. The opportunity to play two cards instead of one at key moments led to some interesting hand management challenges. Since the cards would be added together, I made the secondary cards have higher number values than the primaries.

And although I am, as mentioned, a "theme" and "concept" type of designer, once I got that part nailed down, I did not shy away from doing the math. I soon had the numbers on the cards balanced enough to take the game to my group.

Exhibiting the Work

In the spring of 2006, I tested the game with new friends Bernd Eisenstein and Peer Sylvester, and Peer liked the game so much, he later declared it his favorite prototype of the year on his blog and was even partially inspired by it to create one of his own trick-taking games, later published as Filipino Fruit Market. For his part, Bernd suggested the name Pala, which has stuck every since.

One idea that came after the initial playtesting was to discard the painting palette and dice in favor of using only cards. In the revamped design, I had a bidding card for each color with the corresponding negative value, and then added the positive values to one side of each of the other cards. This required each player to sacrifice one card from her best color to bid, which formed a row of bid cards in the middle of the table showing both positive and negative points for that hand. The mechanism worked beautifully, and I was anxious to present it to publishers.

In June of that year, I took Pala to the Game Designer's Convention in Göttingen. While playing the game with several publishers, I probably made a first-timer's mistake by trouncing them both. They joked that I was supposed to let them win, and I confessed that I had skipped the workshop for "Pitching to Publishers" that day – but they left the table without requesting a prototype, and I was left to wonder if they were only half-joking.

I later tried to send the game to a publisher that releases a number of mass-market card games every year, but the publisher returned the game several months later, claiming that it was too heady for their test groups.

Soon after the prototype was returned to me, I saw a note from Ed Carter seeking games for his Cambridge Games Factory. I thought it would be interesting to try to work with a smaller publisher – and one from the U.S. at that – and sent him the rules to Pala. Ed wrote me back with a contract after testing the game with his MIT group and was excited about publishing the game soon.

He turned over the development of the game to Rob Seater, who has given me some of the most thorough written feedback and analysis of any game developer I have worked with. He soon became the "structural engineer" compliment to my artistic sensibilities, and I enjoyed working through his ideas with him.

As is often the case with publishers large and small, the project was delayed for some time and I moved on to develop other game ideas. I even toyed with using the idea of color-mixing in a board game until the arrival of Fresco, soon followed by Pastiche. It was still a pleasant surprise, however, to hear that CGF was shooting for a Spiel 2011 release for the game, especially since I would finally be attending the fair myself. Color-mixing may not be a "new" idea for a game anymore, but at least this would still be its first implementation as a trick-taking card game.

In the meantime, Rob had playtested the game extensively with fans of trick-taking card games, and through further study of the genre had come up with alternate ways of bidding that they preferred. He cleverly named them after painting styles. In the Impressionism variant, which more closely resembles my bidding mechanism, players collectively determine the value of different colors (suits) by discarding cards from their hands before the round begins; points are bad, analogous to Hearts. In the Pointillism variant, however, players bid with colored chips to indicate the colors they expect to win, but over-bidding risks losing all of a player's points for the round; points are good, analogous to Spades.

New bidding board sketches, courtesy of Rob Seater

Once players learn the core mechanism of the game, the way colors are played and mixed to take tricks (or force others to take tricks), the two variations in bidding and scoring can be picked up easily and interchanged to offer variety to fans of trick-taking games.

Although a painting may have a tendency to increase in value after its creator's death, I hope – now that it's finally being published – I'll be able to see many people enjoying Pala long before I'm gone.

Jeffrey D. Allers

In case you've forgotten your color wheel – plus a reminder of card values

Editor's note: This diary was first published on Allers' Berlin Game Design blog on October 1, 2011.
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Mon Oct 10, 2011 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: From Berlin to the Heartland

Jeffrey Allers
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Eine Frage der Ähre is a game that most certainly started with the theme: farming in the Midwest of America where I grew up, and where the one-mile-square fields of different crops look like a traditional game board from an airplane. I've now lived in Berlin almost 17 years, but I could not resist returning to my roots for one of my first published game designs.

My mother grew up on a farm, and I spent plenty of time in my childhood with my grandparents and uncle there. Planting and harvesting crops seemed like an intriguing theme for a game, especially when factoring in crop rotation, in which fields are planted with different crops year after year. I was interested more in designing a family game, however, something that my Iowa relatives would enjoy playing, so I had to abstract the theme quite a bit in order to keep the rules accessible.

The Seeds Are Planted

My first step was to design a board of squares with five different crops represented. Then I added domino-style tiles with two different crops on each. Players had a hand of these tiles to place on the board and form larger "fields" or chains of the same crop. But due to crop rotation, a player could never cover a crop with a tile of the same crop. The stacking of the tiles also necessitated a second placing rule, which is fairly intuitive: New tiles could not be placed over fields on different levels.

This starting framework was still one-dimensional and very dependent on a good tile draw. More options for the players were necessary. The next layer, then, was the one or two "barnyard points" printed on each square of each tile. These allowed players to advance on a track matching that type of crop. Reaching a certain point with the markers on the track allowed a player to place a barn on the board and reserve a nicely-developed field of crops for herself. Each player had one of these "development tracks" on a player mat in front of her.

Cultivating the Design

I finally playtested the game with friend and designer Bernd Eisenstein and his girlfriend, and they were both very enthusiastic. After testing the game further, however, it seemed that the barnyard tracks could offer more than just the opportunity to place the barns – they could also increase the competition in the game by providing a race to the top of each track for bonus points. These bonus tiles became the "livestock" and rewarded the first player to reach them with extra points, while the second-place player received a lesser amount.

Now that there was competition involved, it made sense to put these tracks on the board so that players could compare their positions at a glance. To make the turns more interesting, I then made it necessary for the players to choose between these barnyard points and the harvest points (or victory points) for each field.

I also added one single-square tile of each crop for each player to use at any point during the game to allow greater flexibility, in case a player could not draw the tile she needed at an important time. These tiles are also useful in "leveling out" two fields to make it possible to place a double tile there.

I was finally ready to let the "experts" in our weekly game group try it out, namely Hartmut Kommerell, Thorsten Gimmler and Andrea Meyer. I was a bit nervous, as this was only the second prototype I had ever taken to the group, where they were always playing each other's prototypes. But it was received well again, and I had more valuable feedback to tweak the design and the courage to bring it back to the group regularly to playtest.

The last major changes in the design were the result of their feedback: randomizing the bonus livestock tiles a bit (but still awarding the more valuable ones to the fastest player) and keeping them hidden until the end of the game. This kept the winner of the game in doubt, adding tension and keeping the last round from slowing down too much, as players calculated and re-calculated their scores to see how they could best take the lead or keep it. And I also added an "End of Game" tile which made the timing of the final round unknown to the players.

The prototype of what was then called "Heartland"

Harvest Time

In the summer of 2006 I traveled to the Game Designer's Convention in Göttingen for the first time with Hartmut, and with his help I was able to demo the game to several publishers who all wanted copies of the prototype afterwards. Several months later, Pegasus Spiele offered me my first game contract. Their intention was originally to publish it the following year, but several things slowed down the process.

First, they were considering producing the game in a more abstract, all-wood edition, but the prototypes received from China were not of the quality they had wanted. I was not terribly disappointed, as I preferred the more thematic approach of artwork on cardboard (perhaps I'm too "old school") and even suggested acquiring the rights to Iowa artist Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic for the box cover.

Soon after that, a new developer at Pegasus got involved with the design and worked together with me to further tweak the game. During that time, we went ahead instead with my card game Circus Maximus, opting to continue developing Heartland until it was as good as we could make it. Then they decided on a much more German name, a play on words with the German expression (and German title of the film A Few Good Men) and farming terminology. "Herzland" was a term once used by Hitler to describe Russia's breadbasket, a taboo the game certainly did not need to break. Later, however, I was pleased to hear that the games sent to the U.S. were covered with a wrapper using my original title, Heartland.

It was a relief to finally get the project "out the door" and into the market after all this time. I feel that the finished publication is worth the wait.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Editor's note: This diary was first published on Allers' Berlin Game Design blog on July 12, 2009.
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Sat Jul 23, 2011 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: The Strategy of Designing a Dice Game, or The History of Alea Iacta Est

Jeffrey Allers
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Though dice games have been earning a little more respect lately in strategy gaming circles, they are still overwhelmingly known for the unexpected twists of fortune and frustration they can include, due to those "small cubic luck bringers". I wouldn't label it luck, however, just as I would not attribute to luck the design and publishing process of a dice game from Bernd Eisenstein and myself – Alea Iacta Est – though there were plenty of unexpected twists that made it as interesting an experience as any game...

It Began as a Friendly (Design) Competition

Back in 2006 I heard about a game design competition on the Internet for two-player games using components that were common in every household (playing cards, dice, pawns, poker chips etc.). Each year, the competition organizers also had a theme for the competition, and that year it was "dice games". Since I had been designing games with Bernd, I thought it would be fun to challenge him to a "contest within the contest" to see what each of us could come up with. Because they were two-player games, we could easily playtest our ideas. I came up with two different games, and Bernd came up with a cool take on Tug-o-War using dice and pawns.

One of my games was titled Castles and Crownsdescribed in detail on my Berlin Game Design blog – and involved placing groups of dice in order to win various cards: Castles which were worth a set amount of points, and Nobles who were worth more as sets. There were also special dice, such as Mercenaries, Captains, and Traitors, that had special functions along with each player's eight Knight dice.

Castles and Crowns

I missed the deadline for the competition, but it must have been discontinued anyway, as no results were ever posted. I put the idea to the side while I worked on other projects, but after a year, I came back to it. I began thinking of more dimensions I could add to the original framework. The idea of making a full-fledged board game out of it became exciting to me, especially when it combined two of the hottest current mechanisms in gaming at the time: dice and worker placement.

The important thing in developing the game further was to provide enough placement options to players so that they could do meaningful things with any dice roll. My next prototype was called Feudal Dice and included a board with three different areas where dice could be placed. The battlefields, where Castle Cards were awarded to the player with the most dice in each, were similar to my original idea. To that, I added a Court, where lower dice would be more valuable in winning Noble cards. The Nobles were worth points, however, only when housed in a castle of matching color. A maximum of two nobles could be housed in a castle, one male and one female.

Feudal Dice

There were also special nobles who provided end-game bonuses. This added a set-collecting element to the game. The third area for dice placement was the Market, where dice of different numbers could be placed on various stands to earn money. This was important to give players another option when they rolled dice of different values. The money earned from the Market could be used to pay for extra dice (the Mercenaries) or as bonus victory points at the end of the game.

After several playtests, I felt that there needed to be further uses for the money in the game, and I also wanted cards that allowed player's special rule-breaking powers when rolling and placing their dice. I created a fourth area of the board, the Building Site, where two special buildings were up for sale each round, costing one die each and an amount of money (which decreased each round as the buildings could not be used as often when built late in the game).

The Die Is Cast...with a Publisher

I sent the game to a German publisher, who liked it very much, but their program was so full at that time that they recommended I shop it around for a few months and possibly enter it in the Hippodice competition. Another German publisher playtested in for half a year, and it just missed their final cut, so I took it to Nuremberg, where I showed it to Stefan Brück of alea.

He was very interested, and even suggested we change the game to a Roman theme and name it Alea Iacta Est to go with the publishing company's title. But I had to move back to the U.S. for six months, and Stefan likes to work closely with his designers. I asked Bernd whether he would be interested in becoming my co-designer since he was familiar with every iteration of the game and had participated in its development from the start. He gladly accepted and worked hard together with Stefan in fine-tuning the game and playtesting it extensively.

Stefan Brück (second from the left) and Bernd (second from right) playtest the final prototype

A Triumvirate: Three Heads Are Better than One

The first thing to go was the money, as the dice were the real "currency" in the game. Instead, the nobel cards that offered special end-of-game bonuses were moved to the market area of the board (renamed the "church"), where "straights" of dice would continue to be placed. The winner there chose from three face-down cards, however, so that the other players would not know which bonuses were in their opponents' hands.

The special dice – the captains, mercenaries, and traitors – were also removed from the game. Forty dice was the maximum that Stefan could include, and that was just enough for the eight dice per player in a five-player game.

The battlefields, which previously held one castle card each, were reduced to one battlefield where the winner had first choice of the face-up cards, second place could choose next, etc. This increased the competition considerably.

The court went through several iterations, ranging from guaranteed seats for each player to the final mechanism of the lower dice pushing the higher ones out the back door! The court also awarded players who were placing dice later in the round, which provided a nice balance to the battlefield, where it was advantageous to place dice early in the round.

And finally, Stefan thought that it was too frustrating for players to invest large amounts of their dice on the board only to come up empty-handed, so we added "re-roll chips" that could be used by players later in the game or turned in for bonus victory points at the end.

At the end of the summer I was also able to test the game in its current form with a couple of different gaming groups in South Carolina. They were very gracious in trying out a prototype from a complete stranger! This allowed me to develop the Senat cards further, increasing their number to 19, and to bring my own feedback to Bernd and Stefan as I prepared to return to Berlin in October 2008.

Then in November, Stefan came to Berlin for two days of intensive playtesting. We had finally decided that the building cards, which had provided special actions when rolling or placing dice, added too many rules without enhancing the game play significantly. But we needed a fourth area for dice placement, so Bernd and I came up with four different options to try. They were all interesting in their own right, but in the end, we did not use any of them because they detracted from the heart of the game. Instead we developed a fifth option during playtesting that we decided to use in the finished design. In any case, there are plenty of ideas for expansions!

And of course, we finally made the changes in the theme so that the battlefields were now the barracks or "Castrum", the court was now the Forum Romanum, the church became the "Senatus", and the market became the "Templum". Putting everything together gives us the following summary of game play:

Players take on the role of Caesar and compete for the most prestige points. This happens by clever placement of their eight dice, which are placed on five different buildings. At the Castrum (barracks), new provinces can be conquered, while patricians can be recruited at the Forum Romanum to be sent to those provinces. At the Senatus, cards can be won for bonuses that will be kept secret until the end of the game. The Templum awards prestige points directly from the Goddess Fortuna.

Each die that does not win a spot at any of these locations finishes the round at the Latrina, where it provides its owner with a "repete!" chip, which can be used to re-roll dice or traded in two-to-one for prestige points at the end of the game.

Each building has special rules as to how the dice can be placed, allowing many tactical possibilities with any roll of the dice. Each round ends when one player has placed her last die, and after five or six rounds, depending on whether you have 4-5 or 2-3 players, the patricians are organized in their provinces, the senate cards are revealed, and the scores are totaled. The player with the most prestige points wins!

Rules Summary

Each round, players take turns rolling their dice (of which they have eight to start) and placing one or more of them in one of the five buildings. When one player places her last die, the round is played to its completion, then the five buildings are scored. Each building has different placement rules:

Templum: The first player to place here places one die of any value, then takes one of the face-down prestige point tiles (worth 1-3 points each), looks at it, and places it face-down in front of him. The second player to place here must place exactly two dice, which must have a higher combined value than the first die placed. That player takes two tiles from the Templum and looks at them in the same way as the first player. The next player to place here must place three dice with a total value exceeding the two previously placed dice, and that player takes three tiles, etc. Note: A player who already has one or more dice at the Templum simply adds a die or dice to make the correct amount. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice at the Templum keeps any two of his tiles and turns them face-up. All other players with dice there keep one tile each.

Senatus: A player places any "straight" of dice here (for example: 3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4). You may not place a straight that is identical to one already placed. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice in a straight draws three Senate Cards from the stack and chooses one to keep, face-down. The player with the secondmost dice chooses one card of the remaining two. If there is a tie in the number of dice, then the tiebreaker is the highest value die in the straight. (For example, if a player already has 3-4-5, you may place 4-5-6 or 2-3-4-5, each of which is higher.) The Senate card offers end-of-game bonuses, such as allowing patricians to be sent to provinces that do not match their color, or giving a player a one-point bonus for every province tile, etc.

Castrum (barracks): As many province tiles as the number of players are drawn each round. Here, the players place one or more dice of the same value. A player may place more than one group here during the round (but only one per turn). Again, you are not allowed to place a group of dice that exactly matches an opponent's group that was already placed here. (For example, if an opponent has 5-5-5, you may place 5-5 or 5-5-5-5.) You may also reinforce a group you placed earlier with more dice of the same value, provided you do not match any other group. At the end of the round, the group with the most dice (tie-breaker: highest value) brings that player first choice of the province tiles. The secondmost player is awarded second choice, and so on, until all province tiles for the round are taken or all dice groups have been awarded. Note: Since one player is allowed to place more than one group during the round, it is possible for a single player to win several province tiles. There are six different colors of province tiles, each worth 1-4 points, but they are worth 1 point less if there is no patrician of a matching color in that province at the end of the game.

Forum Romanum: There are 5-7 patrician tiles drawn from the pile each round (depending on number of players). They are each worth 1-3 points and are male and female. A player may place one die of any value or two dice with a total value of 5 (1+4 or 2+3) in the Forum Romanum. The lower valued dice are more valuable here, and a die is always placed to the left of any dice equal to or higher, shifting the other dice to the right. There are only as many spaces for dice as the number of patricians (5-7), and when a die is shifted off the board, it lands in the Latrina (see below). At the end of the round, the die farthest to the left awards its player first choice of the patricians, the next die awards second choice, etc. The patricians are worthless at the end of the game if a province of matching color is not found for them. A player may send a male or female to a province, or send one of each as a pair, but both have to match that province's color.

Latrina: All dice not used by players at the end of the round, and dice that fail to win a province tile, patrician tile or senate card are placed here. Each die here awards its owner with a "repete!" or re-roll chip. These chips allow a player to re-roll any number of his dice during a turn, or they can be saved for the end of the game, where two chips are worth 1 prestige point each.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on BoardgameNews.com on February 13, 2009.
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Sat Jun 11, 2011 1:57 pm
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Designer Diary: A Mouth-Watering Idea, or Serving Up a Piece o' Cake

Jeffrey Allers
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I've always liked the concept of "pie division" in a game, and the only real example of that kind of mechanism that I had ever come across was in Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum's San Marco and the two-player card game version Canal Grande. In both games, the pie division takes place between two or three players, however, and I had often wanted to design a game in which one player divides the "pie" into multiple offerings for more than two players.

One of the challenges, of course, was to avoid making the game so complicated that the task of dividing the pie would induce "analysis paralysis" in the players. The other challenge was to make sure the game was not too chaotic. Each player needed to be able to make meaningful choices each round that had some influence on the outcome of the game. At the outset, I was not certain this was even possible, especially for up to five players.

Finding the Right Ingredients

I mulled over the abstract idea for a pie-division game for quite some time before I finally decided that a theme might help flesh out a playable design. That's when I settled on the obvious choice of dividing an actual pie and collecting the slices.

However, I always like to have multiple strategic options in the games I play, so I needed an option other than set collection and majority battles. That's where the theme informed the design by providing the option of "eating" slices for guaranteed victory points. This game mechanism not only presented players with an interesting choice for each slice they took, but it also made the majority battles into a kind of perfect-information poker. I also liken it to "playing chicken": Are you going to challenge my majority in chocolate pie with that slice you are taking, or are you going to play it safe by "eating" the slice?

The theme also helped solve the potential problem of analysis paralysis mentioned earlier. Since the offerings that were to be divided were pie slices placed in a circle, it was only natural to keep the positions of the slices fixed, while deciding where to cut the pie. This limitation was vital in keeping the options manageable, and served to add excitement as the new pie slices were revealed each round. If players could have moved the slices around however they wanted (as they can with the cards in San Marco and Canal Grande), the dividing would have taken too long, and some of the challenge would have been missing.

The name of my prototype was also an obvious choice for me, having enjoyed the song American Pie in my youth (and, for the record, I have no desire to ever see the film). Pie is also something my wife enjoys making for our German friends to give them a taste of America.

Pie prototype

Putting It in the Oven

After thinking about the idea of the game for so long, it all came together rather quickly when I finally had the theme and these two mechanisms written down. I made a quick prototype and brought it to our playtesting group, but I was almost too embarrassed to bring it out because I had not tried the game by myself yet and honestly didn't know if it would even work. It did, of course, and Bernd Eisenstein especially liked it, which is always a good sign – every game of mine he's been excited about has landed a publisher now! I did not need to make any changes before showing it at the Game Designers' Meeting in Göttingen in 2007, where Winning Moves Germany snatched it up.

It was such an intuitive design, but I was still surprised at how everything fell into place. Because I had written the rules in such a relatively short period, playtesting the game was a voyage of discovery, exploring the different ways one could play the game. All of it worked smoothly from the start. And although I usually like to design through the prototyping process – often making mock-ups that are seen by no one but me – this one was mostly developed in my head.

Adding the Whipped Cream

After Winning Moves playtested the design, however, they requested that the number of slices be increased so that there would always be unequal divisions, even with two and five players. With the original ten slices, for example, players would often feel pressured in a five-player game to divide the pie into five portions of exactly two slices each. Since my original intuitive design was so well balanced (between majority points and guaranteed points), I now had to "do the math" to maintain that balance while adding more pieces to the game.

The theme and name were also slightly changed to reflect German cakes and a popular song here titled …aber bitte mit Sahne ("but please, with whipped cream"). The eating points were then cleverly symbolized by dollops of whipped cream on each slice. When Rio Grande Games picked up the title for U.S. distribution, I was asked to brainstorm English names and submitted a list that included my original American Pie. They chose Piece o' Cake. Local publishers chose the titles for the French and Dutch versions.

I was also asked to work on some bonus slices with special effects that might be given away at Essen or other promotional events, or used as future expansions. The basic game can very easily be added onto, and even a powerful special action tile can be balanced out by a skillful divider. One of those, the Joker Slice, was later released in Spielbox magazine.

I almost forgot to mention a nice suggestion from Eric Martin, my former editor at Boardgame News. Before I was offered a contract for the game, Eric and his wife came to visit me after the Essen game fair in 2007, and he gave me his copy of Qwirkle for being their Berlin tour guide. I wanted to give him something in return, but I knew that he did not have a lot of extra luggage space after the fair, so I gave him an American Pie prototype. After playing the game many times, he was the one who suggested dividing the pie into four sections in the two-player game, giving each player two turns to choose each round.

Many thanks to Michel Matschoss and Uli Schumacher at Winning Moves, Bernd and my playtesting group, and Eric for their input during the development of the game!

Jeffrey D. Allers

Editor's note: This diary was first published on Allers' Berlin Game Design blog on October 1, 2008.
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Sun May 22, 2011 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: The Unusual Inspiration for Wampum

Jeffrey Allers
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Since becoming enthralled with the variety of modern board games, I have been inspired in many different ways to create games of my own. Sometimes the first spark comes from an experience or fun activity, and I wonder how the fun could be relived and reproduced for others through a set of game components. At other times, it's a particular challenge – like climbing a mountain – that gives me a sense of satisfaction for having accomplished something I had never done before. Sometimes I want to take a good game mechanism further, and other times I want to make it more accessible.

Most often, however, it is a theme that grabs me, and I will hunt for years until I find the right mechanisms that fit. The inspiration for my card game Wampum, however, was something entirely different...

One Fine Day: An Unexpected Challenge

For some time, the youth gaming night I had organized in our neighborhood met in one of the boy's family's apartments. I had just become a father of twins, who, together with my wife, needed peace and quiet at home, so we crammed around a small table in a tiny room every week to try out new games from my collection along with whatever prototypes I was currently working on.

As we were testing one of those prototypes one evening, the host's mother walked in and noticed that I had made quick playing cards using plastic card sleeves (unlike the laminated cards I make for late-stage prototypes). She left for a moment, then returned with a pile of unused sleeves from her other son and said, "Here, you can have these, too."

"Now I'll have to use these to make a game for you!" I proclaimed, not being one to miss an opportunity for a unique challenge. "Just tell me your favorite theme."

She thought for a moment, then concluded decisively, "George Clooney." My head dropped as I realized what I had gotten myself into.

Not being one to go back on my word, however, I began thinking about a card game that was simple enough for a casual gamer like herself, yet with enough strategy and originality that I would enjoy designing and playing it. And it had to incorporate a famous American actor in some way.

O Card Game, Where Art Thou?

I knew I could get away with simply borrowing mechanisms from other games and throwing something together to complete the assignment, but that would be too easy – and not very fun either.

I finally settled upon the idea of a game called I'm Your Biggest Fan, with players travelling around the world to collect props from George's films as well as the personal items he left behind in hotels, nightclubs, etc. For example, a player could acquire the cigarette he smoked in Good Night and Good Luck or the prison uniform he wore in O Brother, Where Art Thou? She could even collect a martini glass from a nightclub he frequented in his time between takes. Together with autographs and mug shots, there were four types of collector's items for which players would compete. Then there were movie cards that depicted eight different films in which he starred, and players would also compete to be the one who saw each film the most.

Clooney souvenirs that await your grasping hands

I made five different city cards where the items would be available each round, and where the films would also be showing. The number of cities in play equaled the number of players. Each round, one player would be assigned to each city. To accomplish this, I borrowed (with permission) an auction mechanism that Bernd Eisenstein was using for a prototype he was working on called Peloponnes: One player bids for a city, but if another player outbids him, he must move his bid to another city. As with Bernd's game, the bids are locked and cannot be raised or lowered.

But I wanted to try to make my game work using only cards with no added money chips for the bidding. I appreciate card games like San Juan and Bohnanza that use cards as both currency and goods (and sometimes even more), and I wanted to make an auction game in which cards also served different purposes, depending on their position (in a player's hand, as a bid on the table, as the cards on offer in a "city", or in a player's score pile). Finally, I wanted to give the players some control over how the cards would by cycled through this system. For example, although the number of cards in a bid determines where a player will win their bid, the type of cards in the bid determines the action the player will take with that bid – and also have some influence on what will be available in that location in the next round.

This basic principle was present in the first set of rules, in which a player could either trade the cards in her bid for the cards in the "city" where she won her bid, or she could take her bid cards as points, adding one of each type of "good" from her bid to the cards in that city. Trading for the other goods could take place only if the player had at least one good from her bid matching at least one good in the city, and trading for points could happen only if a player did not have any card from her bid matching those in the city. A third alternative was to trade the cards in the bid in order to "watch" the films showing in that city, which meant taking the film cards and collecting them for possible majority points at the end of the game.

Three Kings: Searching for Gold

Once these ideas started to come together, I knew I had something fun and unique that a publisher might even be interested in, so I began to look at other themes. Since the game was mainly about trading in the different cities, I considered different trading themes. Since there already were scores of games about European traders in the Middle Ages, I revisited American history and, in particular, the trade amongst the Native American tribes. I had always been fascinated by the intricate bands of beads they crafted and how those had often been used in trading (among other things, of course).

In fact, further research revealed that some European settlers who traded with the Natives also used the beads as a form of currency – even amongst themselves. The bands were, of course, called wampum – a very catchy word, in my opinion, and one that had not yet been used in the title of a well-known game. The Germans also have a very romantic view of frontier America and the Native Americans, so I thought this would be something that would appeal to them. And, of course, the theme might stand out among all the latest games about European Hansas and Händlers.

After applying the new theme, I also decided to trim some of the mechanisms, getting rid of the "movie watching" alternative and focusing on the two types of trading. Although I would later toy with the idea of bringing it back in, this time as a "hunting" option, I have yet to playtest this version.

The first playtest with Bernd and Peer Sylvester went remarkably well, but revealed a single glaring weakness. Although trading for wampum was never a sure thing, the temptation was too great for players to hoard cards until the end of the game. The obvious solution, however – a set hand card limit – made the game uninteresting, as players would simply collect up to that limit every time. I needed something more dynamic, and finally hit upon the idea of a changing hand card limit that was dictated by the highest bid from the previous round. This not only solved the problem in an elegant way, it also added a tension to the game that was previously lacking. Now, the timing of the trades was essential to a winning strategy, and players had one more way to foil the plans of their opponents – by bidding low when others had large hands of cards.

The Perfect Storm: The Difficulties in Finding a Publisher

Wampum was one of the games I took to my second Göttingen Game Designer's Convention. I had quite a few prototypes to show that year, including what later became Alea Iacta Est and Piece o' Cake. Wampum also generated some interest, and several publishers requested a copy to playtest, including Pegasus Spiele, which had given me my first game contract the year before with Eine Frage der Ähre. Months later, however, they all passed on the game.

Since there are a limited number of German publishers who produce card games regularly, I began looking at up-and-coming American publishers. One of them tested the prototype, but also passed. Out of options, I put the game in my closet.

Some time later, the Hippodice Gaming Club in Germany was announcing its annual competition, and I realized that I finally had a couple of games that were not presently being tested by publishers. I had always wanted to enter the competition to see what it was like, but Göttingen had given me such good connections with publishers that I always had several of them interested in playtesting my prototypes as soon as they were finished. I was curious to see how the Hippodice Club would receive Wampum. It was worth a try, I thought.

Prototype version of Wampum with special 3D tokens for additional snazz appeal

I was excited – to say the least – to learn that it had made the final round of the competition, along with the prototype to Hansa Teutonica and my scheduled-to-be-published-in-2011 co-design with Bernd Eisenstein entitled Artifact. Even better – it had been awarded second place by a jury made up of publishers (many of whom had already seen the game), and two publishers wanted to have copies for playtesting.

The Good German: A Second Chance

The competition copy of Wampum was snagged by jury member Andre Bronswijk, a game developer who is under contract with Pegasus. He worked with me on my two previous games for that publisher, but had not yet started working there when they initially passed on Wampum. He was, of course, surprised to learn when he returned to Pegasus that it had already passed on the game once. I encouraged him to see whether he could change their minds, and he was so enthusiastic, he was able to convince them to publish this time.

Ocean's Eleven: Not All Plans Work to Perfection

I was very happy to publish again with Pegasus, as the company did a top-notch production of my previous two games, and Wampum would join Circus Maximus in its beautiful tin-cased card game line. In contrast to the other games, however, Pegasus moved quickly on this one, working on the art even before I had returned my signed copy of the contract. After several years of development and playtesting, shopping around and entering a competition, it was wonderful to finally see the art and graphic design come together. No further development needed, no changes to the theme – except one.

Andre wrote to me, telling me that they wanted to change one of the five goods from horses to alcohol. The change made sense as the traders travel from village to village in canoes (thus, the hand card limit is called the "canoe limit") – how many horses could fit in one of those? Some time later, however, I realized the historical significance of that "good" on the Native American tribes, and that my light-hearted card game might now have the potential to revisit old wounds – or worse, reinforce negative stereotypes, which is quite the contrary to the purpose of my "Postcards From Berlin" article series. Unfortunately, however, I did not react quickly enough, and the game was already too far along to be changed. Hopefully, if it is ever picked up by one of Pegasus' U.S. partners, they will be able to change the game again in order to be more sensitive to the Native American population, for whom I (and Pegasus, I'm sure) have the deepest respect.

As I have written in previous articles, I do believe there is a time and place for games that bring up serious historical issues. Wampum, however, was always meant to be a lighter card game with an upbeat and, admittedly, pasted-on theme. I hope that the tragedy of real historical events will not be glossed over by a game that has little to do with it, and that most players will be able to enjoy the game the same way they enjoy other games that have a thin historical veneer.

Ocean's Twelve, Thirteen... Postlogue
There is one more question, of course, as yet unanswered: "How did Gamer-Mom like the game I made for her?" Well, she absolutely loved the cards with the humor, selection of Clooney's films, and a starting player figure with George's mug shot glued onto its head. As for the game itself, it was a little bit outside of her "casual gaming" sphere, and to my knowledge, she has played it only once.

Her son, however, loves Wampum and playtested it numerous times over the years. Both are mentioned in the credits at the end of the rules, as I could not have published it without them.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on BoardgameNews.com on March 5, 2010.
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Fri Apr 29, 2011 6:30 am
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