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Designer Diary: Wir Sind Das Volk! or, The Long and Winding Road for German Unification

Peer Sylvester
Germany
Berlin
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Board Game: Wir sind das Volk!
In 2007 I read an article about North Korea and thought how interesting it would be to design a war game without war: Two separate countries going their own way, and while not directly attacking each other, they would be engaged in a battle over which one is more successful, richer, happier — a no-war-wargame, so to speak. But it's difficult to reconstruct the history of North Korea because not much is known of it.

Then I thought of my own country, Germany, which was separated for more than four decades. This history of two Germanys fascinated me for several reasons: I grew up in the 1980s, and as a student I never felt East Germany was part of "my" country, the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a., West Germany). I knew that it used to be part of Germany. I knew of the border, of the wall, and of the end of WW2 that started it all, but I never felt any connection to it, so the Unification came not only as a surprise but also as a revelation. It went so fast and the transition was without violence and (nearly) without spite. I still choke up a bit when I recall the events of 1989.

I believe that the combination of all these elements became the inspiration for this game.

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I first called the game "BRD vs. DDR". It was clear to me that I would use a card-driven approach similar to Paths of Glory. I like the idea that you have to chose between using an event and using a number value for a standard action. To make sure the events happen roughly in the right order, I divided the game into four decades with each decade consisting of two rounds.

Here began two issues that are central to the game: First was choosing the events. This was quickly solved by a thorough research on the history of the GDR. The second issue was a structural one: I did not want the players to each have their own deck and hold the cards because players would not have a chance of pre-empting an upcoming event. For this reason, I decided that players would have only two cards in hand to ensure an element of surprise; the rest would be open. Thus, players take turns either choosing an open card or playing one from their hand. The round ends once all the open cards are gone. In this way, there is an element of pacing because it takes longer to finish a round when a player makes use of a card from his hand rather than take one that is open. It also forces players to ask themselves: Do I take an event that helps me, or do I remove one that helps my opponent?

Now that I had the mechanisms of card-drawing sorted out, the next step was to think about the variables or the things that can be changed with the cards. The obvious one was unrest. Too much unrest is not good. It didn't actually do much in the early prototypes, but now you get an early loss if you have too much of it. In the later stages, you are blocked from making investments in an area with unrest.

The second issue was the economy. For the economic system, I used a mechanism from an old game of mine: You build factories. They have the value of 1. If you connect two factories with a bit of infrastructure, both go up in value, so it's much better to have a network of factories than just single ones. Through the growth of factories, you can raise the standard of living in the area — and if your neighbor has a lower standard of living than you, then he experiences unrest. It is a way to fight your opponent without weapons but with luxuries. You make use of how contented your people are to fight against your opponent.

There is a catch, though: If the gap in the standard of living within your own country gets too wide, you experience unrest, too.

The last two things I added were prestige — how your country is perceived by the rest of the world, which is something that can be affected only by events — and "police power", something only the GDR uses, a way for the GDR to remove unrest markers by using the secret police and drumhead trials. The West has more trouble removing unrest because it is a state with human rights, freedom of speech, etc. However, they (should) gain unrest much more slowly as well.

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Apart from some smaller problems, the early prototypes were working quite well. I did take a short break as Twilight Struggle had recently come out and I wanted to make sure my game was different enough to continue, but I was overall happy with the design.

However, Richard Sivél, who eventually became a co-author of the finished game, remarked on how the game continued to be quite abstract, and he was right: The winner was always determined by the first player who fell behind in one of the many tracks, the one whose economy/unrest/prestige became much worse than the other player's. It was all relative: There was no good economy, as long as the other player's was better; there was also no critical unrest, as long as the other player was still slightly worse at keeping his citizens happy. There was an awful lot of counting as well. And in the 1980s, the events were such that the GDR's economy would always collapse, no matter how well it did before.

In other words, the design was a somewhat good game, but not a truthful simulation. Richard then put forward some suggestions, and we started working on the game together.

Board Game: Wir sind das Volk!

The Elusive Last 5%

I was working on this game on and off for perhaps four years before Richard started helping me. Since then three more years have passed, but we didn't work on it the whole time straight through — new ideas kept emerging between working on this game and working on our day jobs — but still, it was the longest and most intense phase of working on a single game in my life.

We introduced a new system to simulate the different economies of the East and West. Better yet, we tried out a lot of alternatives for the Eastern economy before settling on the one we have now. In the current game, the Eastern player has to get his hands on Western currencies by using events. If he doesn't, his factories slowly lose value, which may cause him to lose his standard of living. We also introduced "socialists" — people who want Socialism to succeed and help against unrest — although they are very limited. I don't want to get into all the details, but while the basic variables and the core gameplay are still there, all these changes allowed Wir sind das Volk! to reflect a proper simulation.

The Last 5%

This leaves us with playtesting of which we've done a lot — and I mean A LOT. See, the thing is that in King of Siam, a rule change did not affect the balance much. Here, a small change could tip the scale dramatically; a change in the basic cost or a change in the order of certain end-of-decade-events turned the tides.

We also had to be conscious that in the event of the East winning, was it because of better play or is the game unbalanced? Or was it the luck of certain cards showing up? We joked how every time Richard won, he would claim the game is balanced and every time I won he would claim my side had an advantage. It took us quite some time to finally declare the game balanced, but that being said, we notice that absolute beginners tend to lose more with the Western side. Perhaps it requires more advanced planning to balance building up a stable country AND causing unrest in the East via events. But with more experience, both sides win and lose about the same.

Finished

The game is finished, and we are both very, very happy with it. It's the most complex and the most thematic game I've ever designed, and I poured more work into it than any other prototype I have so far. Luckily it wasn't for naught. I still enjoy playing Wir sind das Volk! and I still discover new things. (Once I nearly won by an alternative "Sudden Death", which we both thought was just a hypothetical possibility.) I can't wait to finally hold a proper copy in my hand!

Peer Sylvester

Board Game: Wir sind das Volk!
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