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Designer Diary: Alcatraz: Maximum Security, or How to Make a Good Expansion

Rafał Cywicki
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Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Introduction: The escape was worth it

Awesome game.
Forbidden Island for bastards.
A wonderfully evil game.

Our escape from the famous prison of Alcatraz exceeded our expectations. All copies of Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – which I co-designed with Krzysztof Cywicki and Krzysztof Hanusz – sold during the Spiel 2011 fair in Essen. (After the second day of the fair, our publisher hugged us tightly with tears in his eyes, which was nice...and a bit weird.) The first printing sold out within two months, and we've had two foreign licenses so far: Z-Man Games/Filosofia in North America and Mosigra in Russia. (Half of the world will be able to play our game!)

In such situations, a game designer feels that what he does makes sense. We felt all this satisfaction thanks to you, our players. Thank you, guys – we owe you one.

And after such a success, it was not strange that we were asked questions like "When will you make an expansion?", "What are you going to include in the expansion?", and "Will you add a fifth player?" So we started thinking: What is necessary to make a good expansion for a board game?

Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat
Welcome to Alcatraz, Tony.
Make yourself at home.
1. Make the impossible possible

An expansion should provide players with completely new opportunities. Period.

In the case of Alcatraz, we felt that the most restrictive thing in the game was the number of players, especially if you keep in mind that you can't just add a set of wooden cubes and more cardboard to bump up the player count. Why? Alcatraz is great for three and four players because the way that rewards are distributed hits this sensitive spot between cooperation and rivalry, and the Scapegoat always has enough resources to finally break even. For four players the balance is optimal, while the presence of a fifth player would simply destroy it. Tasks would become too easy (as more actions could be spent in one round), the Scapegoat's actions would become absurdly futile (as it would be much harder to stop four players), any cooperation would turn out unprofitable (as the reward for those who help is worth less if more people can get it). Introducing another Scapegoat would bring the situation to the opposite extreme: Tasks would simply be impossible to complete.

We tested a few variants for five players and we felt as if we were playing a totally different game. We knew that we had to come up with a new solution.

This is how the idea of the Sucker was born – a new role designed especially for the five-player variant. This is the most thankless and punishing position in the whole game. It's something like being the Scapegoat without all the benefits of it (extra actions, blackmail cards, etc.), but it turns out to solve all the problems. Each player will have to be the Sucker at some point, so the new rule is fair. And the situation, although rather unpleasant, is controllable. All you need is good planning.

2. Listen to your players

...and the reviewers as good feedback means a good expansion.
Alcatraz was criticized for random rewards for cooperators and criticized even more severely for allowing a situation in which the sequence of letters drawn was so unfortunate that the game was becoming impossible to win.

When we were working on the basic version, we focused so much on the gameplay itself that the question of its fairness became less important. Sometimes we even looked at Alcatraz as a social experiment, a game of negotiations. It didn't matter who would win; it mattered how much backstabbing it would involve. It turned out that other people played it differently.

The expansion addresses this issue in two ways. First, we included an alternative set-up version with a shorter task deck. Second, we gave the players the opportunity to manipulate the task deck in one of the new locations. This changed the game completely. You are no longer victims of the task deck. Quite the opposite – it is your weapon now.

3. Offer something new for the experienced players, and make the game harder[/b]

Who buys expansions for games? The people who enjoyed the basic version, who know it well and want more. I'm pretty sure that you would be disappointed if your game became easier with the expansion than it was without it.

This is why we introduced sentence cards. They enable more experienced players to find new strategies. They make your negotiations tougher, increase the number of factors you have to take into consideration, and make more complex strategies much more valuable. Each sentence card provides the player with a unique power, changing his playing style. And at the same time these powers are most useful when you are the Scapegoat – so in fact they make the game harder, not easier.

Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Sample sentence cards

4. Balance, balance, balance

There is a temptation to say: "We can ease up with balancing the expansion as only a few players will get it, after all." A huge mistake IMHO. Those players who get the expansion will be the most balance-sensitive ones.

In Alcatraz we scrupulously calculated the ratio of guards to locations. Adding new locations naturally required adding new guards – and we did that by introducing the Chief of Security (read more below). However, more locations also means longer distances to cover. The longest route takes 4-5 actions, which makes (oh goodness!) two rounds of walking and doing nothing more. This is why one of the new locations makes moving around the prison easier. To be honest, at first we had a more spectacular rule for it in mind, but keeping the balance was more important. (And we hope that the first idea will not be wasted, after all.)

5. An occasion to have a look at old ideas

Expansions provide a great opportunity to have a look at the ideas you abandoned when designing the basic game. Two years ago in 2010, at the very beginning of our work on Alcatraz, we had a great innovative idea: patrol routes for the guards. The whole gameplay was intended to have a deep sense of "being in the right place at the right time" (time management). However, moving all the guards around the board would be too boring, so we dropped this idea.

But we decided to create one special guard: the Chief. He moves each round according to a simple algorithm, and he's a real tough guy, blocking the locations where he currently is and raising the alarm in adjacent rooms, too. His presence introduces an element that we previously decided to omit – planning for the future. Now the Chief blocks some locations, but in a while he will block some other ones. It's also worth mentioning that one of the new locations serves this one purpose – to alter his route.

Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Another tough son-of-a-gun on the Rock

6. Leave some material for more

You have to know when to stop and close the expansion. You will always have more ideas than you'll have room and need for – it's easy to go over the top, to upset the balance, to undertest the game.

To be honest, we still have one really huge idea left to be used in Alcatraz and it's really, really good – but it's an idea for a completely different expansion. Moreover, it doesn't really address all the problems mentioned above. It changes Alcatraz by 90º and makes it a different game – we didn't want to do this.

Okay, I'll let you in on the secret. It will be another aspect of loyalty, a secret one this time. Let's say that one of the prisoners actually doesn't want to escape at all...

Enough. We hope that we will have a chance to show you this idea in practice in the future, but this depends solely on you – whether you will be interested in Alcatraz as much as you have been so far.

7. Official certificate of a good expansion

One playtester hit the nail on the head with only one sentence about expansions: "I wouldn't like to play this game without it." Amen, bro.
I recently played Alcatraz without the expansion and I was unsatisfied. I wasn't able to enjoy this game as much as I used to. Maximum Security makes Alcatraz a far better game, with new solutions, strategies, challenges... The game seems different, incomplete without them.

You know, I have to admit that I always rate my own games 10 on BGG. I know that it's immodest, some may even say unfair, but this represents my "fatherly" feelings about them, my pride, so to say. That said, I will have to make an exception for Alcatraz – as soon as the expansion is released, I will change the rating to 8 and give a 10 to Maximum Security. It deserves that.

Rafał Cywicki

Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Board Game: Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – Maximum Security
Sample blackmail cards
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