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Designer Diary: Libertalia

Paolo Mori
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Libertalia was born, as often happens with my designs, by playing other games – in this specific case, the two masterpieces Agricola and Dominon. What do these games share? They both require players to react to an ever-changing starting game situation. You need to look at the ten kingdom cards or at your hand of improvements and occupation cards, imagine their reciprocal interactions, and consequently plot the best strategy for you. I was fascinated by this aspect of these games and wanted to have a game in which this aspect was stripped to its bare bones, a game in which the main element is a hand of cards which you need to play in the best sequence, trying to maximize the effects and interactions of these cards, while at the same time outguessing what your opponents are doing. Well, this is – still now – the way I would describe Libertalia to a new player.

Making the first prototype didn't take much time: I designed four identical decks of twenty character cards, added a bunch of coins, then asked some friends to give it a try. (Another added value is that this game was super easy to explain and super fast to play, so I wasn't going to waste their game night.) The rules were like this:

At the beginning of the game one player randomly draws ten character cards, and the other players take the same cards from their decks. These will be the cards used in the game. On each turn, each player secretly chooses a card and these cards are revealed at the same time. The effects of the cards – typically something that has to do with coins or with other cards – are resolved according to their number, with the lowest going first. After seven cards have been played in this way (usually taking not much more than ten minutes), the game is over, and whoever has the most coins is the winner.

That was all, and we were ready to play. We played two or three games in a row, and the result was encouraging enough – although I am never expecting too much enthusiasm from my playtesters! – to make me go further in the development of the game. So I designed some other characters to improve replayability, formalized a bit more the different phases of the game in which powers would be resolved, and sat down to play more.

The game worked in the sense that things happened, then at some point there was an end and a winner could be declared – but there wasn't much more. It lacked those tiny details that are often looked for in modern games, like strategy or fun. Many of the problems could be identified in one major flaw: The game was all about choosing the best sequence in which to play your cards, but this same operation was exactly the same for everyone, and the result was that often the same character was played by everyone at the table. I had to give the players another element to consider when choosing which card to play.

Initially I tried an additional deck of cards that introduced a small rule at the beginning of each turn, such as rewarding or punishing those who played the highest cards or the lowest, or that killed some characters. This made the decisions more complicated, but didn't change the bottom line: The decisions were still too similar for everyone.

I needed something that would differentiate the strategies of each player, and this is how "objects" got into the game. At the beginning of each turn, object tiles with different effects (points, set collection, interactions with character cards) were drawn from a bag, and players would take tiles from this pool according to the rank of the characters played, now going from highest to the lowest. This solution not only seemed to fix the problem, but it also introduced new levels of depth in the game – and this is usually the moment in which something in your mind "clicks", and you realize you're on the right road.

First of all, this change was an opportunity to better balance characters, with the highest ranks acting last in resolving their effects (and thus being weaker), but being the first ones to choose objects. (This is why someone might describe this game as a "blind bidding" game, while I still feel this bidding element is secondary to hand management.) Moreover, it offered me the possibility of adding characters effects that would interact not only with coins or other characters, but also with objects, creating multiple paths and strategies according to the objects you collect during the game. I was quite satisfied, so I opened a short phase of open playtesting before feeling ready to show the prototype to publishers.

The right chance for this game showed at Ideag 2011, an annual meeting of game designers we hold in January in Turin. This meeting is also attended by publishers, and in 2011 a new publisher was with us: Asterion Press. Asterion was a well-known RPG publisher, and in 2010 had also started to distribute and localize board games. In Turin they were looking for their first game to produce entirely on their own. They tried the game, looked interested, but left the meeting without many comments.

Some months later, I got a call in which they said they were definitely interested in making the game. It was a nice opportunity to work in close quarters with a publisher as these guys live not too far away from me, and I felt the honor and responsibility of being chosen as the author of their debut game. So I said it was okay – not only okay actually, but great – for me. We met and shook hands, then met again and again to define details of the game and fix some other flaws (choosing a final list of characters, finding a better way to solve ties between the characters' ranks). In general, the game concept was being defined. It looked and played like it was not a card game any more, so we decided to make it a board game, with more elements and also an increased length. A game would now be played over three rounds, and players could keep unused cards in hand between one week and the next. This introduced something similar to long-term decisions and was another way to differentiate player strategies. Another click in my mind.

Then Asmodee came in. Asterion was in close contact with Asmodee, having localized and distributed in Italy several of its releases, and was thus discussing having the game distributed by Asmodee in France and the United States. So they sat at the table and played the game together. The reactions were just described to me later, of course, but had to be quite enthusiastic as the Asmodee guys decided to produce the game themselves through the newborn development studio Marabunta – at least this is how I've understood things are working! Probably this was a wise decision for every person involved since Asmodee had the expertise and channels to produce and develop the game in a way, and with a print run, that would have been probably impossible (or at least too risky) for Asterion.

And now we're at the end of the story. Periodically, the guys at Asterion have been giving me updates about decisions and developments of the game. Something of which I am particularly proud is that the game mechanisms never changed during the development. The updates were mostly about theme and other production aspects of the game, so I discovered that the game was going to have a pirate theme (really well chosen in my opinion) and also the title of the game: Libertalia. I think I was one of the few people to already know what "Libertalia" actually was – a utopian republic governed by pirates, if you want to skip a Google search – and realized that I had designed a game about one of the favorite themes from my "themes reserve" (where it was floating between renaissance soldiers of fortune and Congress of Vienna, among the others waiting to be fished for) without even knowing it. Great!

Paolo Mori
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