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Designer Diary: Pandoria Merchants, or Reconnecting Through Game Design

Bernd Eisenstein
Germany
Berlin
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This is the story of how Bernd Eisenstein and I reconnected during the pandemic to make a game that could help reconnect others: Pandoria Merchants, a roll-and-write game that you can download from the BGG page as a free print-and-play game.

Readapting, and Adapting Again

Spending a year in the United States is always a little strange for me. Although I grew up there, I moved to Berlin right out of college in 1994 and have lived there for most of the past 26 years. But occasionally, my family and I are able to take a break from the German capital and spend a year in the mountains of western North Carolina, my wife's "second home". It's a beautiful change of pace, but it does take time to readjust to the culture again.

Board Game Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
Readjusting to North Carolina by prototyping outdoors

This year became even more challenging with the arrival of the global pandemic. Suddenly we could no longer spend precious time with our extended family or do all the things we had planned to do during our limited time in the U.S. And the new relationships we had begun — including those with a very welcoming Game Designers of North Carolina group — were reduced to online communication.

Board Game Designer: Julio E. Nazario
Joining game designers in North Carolina

For me, the main strength of the board gaming hobby has always been the face-to-face interactions with people and the ability to make new friends through these shared experiences. This also extends to board game design, a collaborative group activity, often leading to friendships that go beyond playing with cardboard prototypes.

Board Game Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
Game designers enjoying a weekend at my place in Berlin: playtesting and cooking, with lots of conversation and laughter

The threat of COVID-19 and the restrictions on group gatherings have been especially difficult for boardgamers, as well as game designers. Sure, I have managed to play a few games online with friends, in addition to playtesting another friend's prototype on Tabletop Simulator. It was novel and, admittedly, fun, but I am hoping that it does not become the norm.

Still, creativity thrives when innovators are given new challenges and constraints, and people often band together during a shared crisis. Many designers and publishers began to offer free print-and-play games, for example. Roll-and-write games have been a recent trend in the hobby, and with our current group restrictions, they also suddenly became the easiest games to play on Zoom or while social distancing.

Distance No Longer Matters

The lockdown had another positive side: Interactions with my friends in Berlin were now exactly the same as with those next door. Our Berlin game designers had a reunion Zoom meeting, and I was even able to lead my Berlin church youth group meeting from my notebook computer in the U.S.

Board Game Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
Thanks to the Coronavirus, it was normal for me to catch up with Berlin designers on Zoom

Still, I missed collaborating with my friend and co-designer, Bernd Eisenstein. We had always met regularly to test our prototypes, but even more so the past several years as we developed and playtested our board game Pandoria and its expansions together.

Board Game Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
Bernd and I introducing our co-design, Pandoria, at SPIEL in 2018

What if we developed a roll-and-write version of Pandoria that we could offer as a free print-and-play that could be played over Zoom or Skype? It would be a fun design challenge. It would give Bernd and me something we could collaborate on, even while we are living on separate continents. It would be a gift to gamers stuck at home. And it might even be a great introduction to the Pandoria world we had spent so much time creating. Bernd agreed, and I sent him some sketches of my initial concept. It wasn't long before we were making prototypes and testing them weekly on Zoom.

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
The initial sketch for the roll-and-write I shared with Bernd

Reconstructing Pandoria

The original board game is a tile-laying, engine-building game in which you represent competing fantasy realms with special powers that are scoring resources through the placement of your tiles and workers on the board (though it is NOT a worker placement game), then using those resources to score points and buy cards, cast spells, and build buildings.

Board Game: Pandoria
The original board game (image: Marlon Kruis)

Our roll-and-write version would still be a game with a common map instead of following the trend of "multi-player solitaire" games that have only individual player boards.

But in order to convert Pandoria to a roll-and-write game, the first obvious change was to replace the tile draw with dice rolls. Instead of placing a two-sided domino hex tile with two different resources on a game board, players now roll two resource dice and write their symbols on adjacent hex spaces on the game map.

The board game had only four different terrain types, however, and we had six-sided dice. We made one side of the dice "wild" and came up with a new resource for the final side: "crafts", which are made by artisans and can be traded by merchants at a 2:1 rate for any other resource (or 1:1 after building the market). Because of this unique feature, we decided to name the roll-and-write version of the game Pandoria Merchants.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
Double-hex tiles with four resources became two six-sided dice with a fifth resource and one "wild" side

In the board game, after playing a tile, players then place one of their workers on one half of the tile. In Merchants, writing a worker and a resource in one hex space made the game too cluttered, so we decided that players should write the worker into a third space that must be adjacent to one of the two resources that were drawn this turn.

The main mechanism for scoring resources remains: Whenever a connected area of the same resource is completely enclosed by other symbols, workers, the edge of the map, etc. — i.e., it can no longer be expanded in size — all players with workers adjacent to that area score the number of resources multiplied by the number of their adjacent workers.

In Pandoria, workers are also limited, and they can even be sent off the board when they are in an area that has been enclosed. Some players have mentioned that they find this mechanism "too mean," although workers are limited, and it is sometimes desirable to get your workers back in this way.

We decided in the new roll-and-write game, however, that workers should be unlimited and would never be removed once they are drawn on the map. At some point, of course, a worker is no longer useful, and it can be helpful to cross out resources that have already been scored and workers who have scored all areas adjacent to them.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
Instead of limited workers placed on tiles, players in Merchants have unlimited workers that remain on their own hex spaces the entire game

Already we had a version of Pandoria that had the core mechanism of the board game, but something new for the fans — and we even removed something from the game that other players of Pandoria were not as fond of. Perhaps, we thought, this could have even wider appeal!

Next up was how to deal with the deck of cards that players can use for either one-time spells or long-term buildings. We decided on separate "realm sheets" for each player that have a grid of these cards printed on them. All players can buy any of the cards, but when one column of three cards has been bought by a single player, no more purchases can be made from that column for the rest of the game. When you use a spell, you simply cross it off. When a building is built, you can circle it and use its effect the rest of the game — or you can convert it to a monument, losing its effect but gaining victory points, just as you can do with the board game.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
The cards of Pandoria are now included on each player's realm sheets in Pandoria Merchants

Additionally, you can collect artifacts when you roll doubles and use them to build relics, as in the Pandoria Artifacts expansion.

Board Game: Pandoria: Artifacts

The realm sheets also have places to keep track of resources. As in the board game, players can store only a limited number of them (ten in the board game and five in Merchants), and any resources earned over that amount are converted into VP.

The game came together quickly, and Bernd and I had some intense playtesting sessions online, with the winner always decided by 2 points or less in games that scored more than 50 points!

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
After breaking my ankle in a soccer game with my sons, playing Pandoria Merchants against Bernd on Zoom became my only "sport"

But Wait, There's More...

Pandoria had started out as a much simpler, streamlined game, and after we finished the more elaborate gamer's game, we also offered "family game" rules so that players could play that original game if they preferred it or were limited on time.

Board Game: Pandoria
Pandoria started out as a more streamlined game...

Pandoria Merchants was also a complex "gamers' game" — especially for a roll-and-write game. Bernd and I decided to also develop a "family" version of Merchants before we released the full version.

The streamlined version of the board game takes out the engine-building element. Every resource is simply worth 1 VP each. Cards are used only for their spells, and they are gained by the player who encloses an area.

For "Merchants Family", we created a new realm sheet with a "spell archive". Whenever players enclose an area, they claim the next spell in their current room in the archive, or start a new room when all the spells are taken.

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
The evolution of the Spell Archive

Again, this version worked extremely well, and Bernd and I had more close games that went down to the last turn. While still very interactive and strategic, this version played faster and is highly recommended for those unfamiliar with the board game.

Playing Solo

When we began to work on Merchants, I thought it might also be possible to do something we could never do with its tile-laying parent: Make it playable solitaire. My first attempts failed, however, and I finally gave up. But after we finished the family version, I had a new idea and presented it to Bernd. He saw the potential and worked on it, too, and soon we had a challenging solo version of the game.

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
A friend playtests the solitaire version with provisional full-color art from Christian Opperer

The key was to make a new map with smaller "territories" that are separated by rivers and lakes. Players must finish play in one territory before they can build a bridge to a new one, and this keeps them from creating huge scoring areas that made the earlier solitaire designs boring and predictable.

I don't like solo games that simply challenge you to beat your previous score. In "Merchants Solo", you instead compete against the "trolls", who score an increasing number of points each territory, with their points also being influenced by how much the player scores. Furthermore, they gradually eliminate columns of cards from the game and also build monuments and relics if the player doesn't build them first!

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
The four print-and-play sheets needed to play all three versions of the game

Three Games in One

When I first suggested to Bernd to make Pandoria Merchants, I thought that it would be a fun project for us and that we would release a free print-and-play game fairly quickly — but as we dove into the design, we found such an interesting new game space that we couldn't help extending the journey further. The full game is surely one of the most complex and interactive games in the roll-and-write genre, the solo variant is a formidable challenge, and the family version offers an easier introduction and quicker game.

Now Bernd even has plans to produce a boxed version through his Irongames publishing house with professional illustrations and custom dice, but for the moment we hope that the free print-and-play version of Pandoria Merchants provides you with a great game experience with friends both near and far.

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants
The boxed version, beautifully illustrated by Chiara N. Monaco, coming in September 2020

And we hope this designer diary also encourages you that challenges and restrictions in life can bring about new solutions — both in creating games and in creating community.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Board Game: Pandoria Merchants

From gallery of jeffinberlin
Playtesting over Zoom with Bernd in Berlin
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