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Designer Diary: Polis – Fight for the Hegemony

Fran Diaz
Spain
Zaragoza
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I think that sitting down in front of a person to enjoy a board game with a certain level of complexity to it is the best leisure experience possible. If you know that opponent well, a very special – almost intimate – feeling of competition emerges in each game, and if on the other hand you hardly know the person, that one-on-one game makes it possible for you to know him – to understand his nature – in only two hours while you are also having a great time.

Aside from wargames, games designed exclusively for two players are usually abstract games, or too soft in their approach (many of them bearing the suffix "pocket"), or what I call games of "direct confrontation", typically played with a deck and sometimes including a small board. In late 2009, I considered the challenge of designing a thematic management game for two players having the biggest paradigm of these games in mind, the magnificent Twilight Struggle.

If I were to say to you that I considered different thematics and historical ages until I found the one which best fit my first ideas, I would not be honest with you because right from the start and with a huge conviction in my choice, I wanted to design a game based on a period – Classical Greece from the fifth century BCE – that's usually treated in board games with an emphasis on its military aspect.

It is a fascinating age, and it's difficult to think of another period from antiquity in which the best and worst of human nature is so clearly noticeable. At the beginning of the century, the Greeks were able to forget their differences and join forces to face the Persian threat and avoid extinction as a people with their own existence. In my opinion, that victory defines the western world in which we live in the same way as the development of the Roman civilization.

Oligarchy and Democracy – the two main polis cards

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony begins after that landmark battle for survival against a neighbor with a land military power superior in number. The two most powerful cities – Athens and Sparta, each one represented by a player – started to show their disagreements and quarrels at once, distancing themselves by two different manners of understanding life. In this period, extraordinary developments occurred in culture, thinking, arts. Its epicenter was in the Athens of Pericles while bloody confrontations took place between both adversaries, like the so-called Peloponnesian War.

An event card from Polis
That final confrontation finishes, in fact, Classical Greece because even though Sparta was the nominal victor of the war, actually both sides lost, weakening enormously and from that point on being a shadow of their former splendor.

My approach to this rich amalgam of achievements and fratricidal confrontations was relatively easy. To my desire for developing a historical period in which I have always been attracted, I added a great variety of publications which deal with that period. From all of those works, those from Danish author Mogens Herman Hansen, who is the greatest expert in Greek poleis for me, stand out. From his essays in English, I extracted the necessary information and knowledge for considering the course of the city-states and which aspects should define Polis without just being based on other games which cover that same period.

First Ideas

For two months I combined first outlines about the mechanisms of the game with research about the historical period. After that period, the most complicated task still remained: facing a blank sheet of paper on which one is supposed to design the game itself.

With Polis I started at the end – that is, how I wanted the game to work and submitting all of the design to a pair of preset premises.

First, the game would give players more freedom than usual since they – and not the rules – would decide how long to play (the number of turns and therefore the game's length). Second, the winner should be the player who grows in the game reasonably and not the one who grows more in a simple manner, exhibiting both impetuous decisions and lack of ambition.

Delimiting the game from the beginning and adopting certain constraints forces the development of the game to take a sharp line – that is, any idea or any mechanism which does not fit with premises that you establish is rejected. I think that restrictions, self-imposed in this case, can be used to clear up and define game design. If I had not designed in that manner, I'm afraid that the game would have lost its identity and become blurred during the process.

Thus, before I designed anything, I had a game enshrined in a period and a time, and I knew how it should be in its final stage: offering the players great freedom, while also making them feel a great deal of responsibility because the game would reward the player who was most reasonable in his actions – not only the player who was able to be the most powerful.

To achieve that feeling of "reasonable development", I established two definition, which became the two main parts of Polis:

Decision: A variety of actions and choices.

Evaluation: A final assessment of your responsibility as a player – that is, your capacity to keep your empire.

Pericles, what are your resources?

Decision

A game designer, sometimes unconsciously, captures his philias or phobias of the world of board games in his creations, trying to ensure that everything he does approaches in part his ideal game.

In my case, I don't feel attracted to games in which actions are "mechanized" and your decision-making is limited to two or three choices on a turn, for example, playing a card, drawing a card, or drawing a card from a discard pile. Of course there are excellent games with such limited actions, but a typical scenario from Polis was going to take two or three hours (another clearly-defined premise), so many minutes of having a limited range of actions could be boring.

When I had outlined units and the intervening resources in the game, I specified twelve possible actions for a player. Each one of them makes progress in an aspect of Polis – economic, military, cultural, etc. – and the player will have many options to develop his strategy. These actions are stripped of divine and mythological aspects that can be found in other games about Classical Greece, and these actions are grouped together in three "quartets": creation, military and political actions.

Evaluation

To achieve the premises of a player's evaluation and the game's length, the typical Polis scenario ended up having four rounds, with each having an undetermined number of actions per player. There is also a phase that is a break between those rounds in which any started Projects finish, and the player who has been more efficient with his resources and population and more sensible with his expansion will begin the next round in a better position to take advantage of the current situation.

To that end, players must be able to feed their empires and whoever can do so will see his population and prestige increase. Otherwise, if the player has been too ambitious, he would surely see his prestige decrease, with his action capacity limited in the next round.

Core of the Game

The game elements are a consequence of the period's reality: armies of hoplites, warships, merchants, ambassadors, prestige over your Poleis League, projects... All of these elements are included in a back-and-forth mechanism which forms the core of the game.

Both players have a common board representing Classical Greece and other important information. The individual components of each player are placed next to this board, and naturally these two elements form the "back-and-forth" way: All that you have off of the board is necessary to improve what's on it, and it is there where you have to be the most efficient with the least possible because nothing you order inside the board will give you victory in Polis.

That is, although most of the time, players will be concentrating on their situation on the board, what's most important is being efficient and investing the least that you can from off the board: your population, your resources, and your prestige.

Unmounted game board from a playtest session

Another aspect that I wanted to represent in Polis is a certain evolution in the capacity of players. The game grows in possibilities following a simple manner. Each one of the four rounds of the main scenario is determined by a number: 3, 4, 5 and 5 respectively. Those numbers correspond with the number of soldiers and ships that each player can have in a territory and the new loads which become available. To that evolution, Polis adds a light additional element: Events become progressively more intrusive in later rounds as the players are (or should be) more powerful and more able to adapt to new situations.

The game continued changing and simplifying after each test. As usual, whoever designs a game begins with the ambition of representing faithfully all that he keeps in his mind, but gradually he has to dismiss elements and keep only with those elements that if they were removed would cause the game to lose quality.

To that end, the first phase of information that I mentioned before was essential because it is a great help to understandably rank the elements of play and know which things you can manage without.

Finally, I implemented chrome: Not all the poleis could undertake the Project that they wished, and the Projects themselves would be more realistic and unique instead of generic ones (with cards representing real Philosophers, for example). I also added Events, which create in each game of Polis small unexpected and uncontrollable elements that ensure variety, game after game.

Some of the Project cards

As designer of the game, I should be the first to criticize it and assume that there is always an opportunity for improvement. Therefore, while the game was available in a print-and-play format, I continued polishing and improving aspects that players pointed out as being problematic.

While working on those improvements, I realized that some points of the rules were not correctly defined: the siege was not well-carried out and almost useless; the combat system was "cold", confusing, and sometimes uncontrollable; I could add more richness, more variety, and more replayability with more real events; and given that framework, I could design more scenarios for the players who have become familiarized with the rules and the main scenario so that they could play shorter and different games.

Sample card of the new combat system. Othismos!


All of that and more is implemented in the definitive Polis, and I hope that you'll enjoy the game, which is available now as a preorder from Asylum Games.

Fran Diaz

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Subscribe sub options Fri Dec 2, 2011 6:30 am
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