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Designer Diary: Shitenno

Cédric Lefebvre
France
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Board Game: Shitenno
In the beginning, I wanted to design a game in which the players do not choose their resources. Instead they give resources to the other players. I like that because it creates dilemmas in every choice. This idea occurred to me while working on the two-player version of Offrandes, a version in which one player divided the character tiles into two lots and the other player chose the lot he wanted. I realized that these mechanisms could be used with several players, too, so I started thinking about a card game.

The First Step: The Forbidden City

I fetched the five types of resource cards from my old copy of The Settlers of Catan and grabbed the Development cards as well to serve as victory points. I quickly made about fifty cards representing the different buildings of the Forbidden City.

Thus, the first prototype was born: The players were Chinese architects who built the Forbidden City with materials such as stone, wood, bricks, jade and tiles that they had to share. After the first test, I realized that playing with five different resources was too hard, but with four resources the mechanisms work well, as many test games later confirmed. During the whole development of the game, the mechanisms of sharing did not change. It was the germ of the game and always remained in it.

From gallery of Cedric Lefebvre

In fact, the main issue was the way to get the "Forbidden City" cards: If they were all available, the table was full of cards and it took a long time for each player to find the one he wanted; if they were in hand, taken from decks, there was too much chance in the game.

The Second Step: Shaolin Monks

I decided to change the theme since for me there are too many "building" games now. Thus, I made a second prototype named "Shaolin" with the resources transformed into teachings from the Panda, the Tiger, the Dragon and the Crane. The players were Shaolin monks who learned fighting techniques. It was fun. At this point, I added permanent effects on some technique cards. The techniques were also grouped into sets, and if you succeeded in acquiring the four cards of the same set, you scored more points than with four cards of different sets.

From gallery of Cedric Lefebvre

I noted three things about this design:

• The technique cards with effects were too powerful. Moreover, the problem of how to get these cards was increased. This issue was solved by giving all of the technique cards an effect.

• The turn order, which at the time was fixed, was essential to how the game played out. Depending on the way you want to play and the tactics you want to use, you may want to be the first player or the last player. I decided then to change the turn order each round, introducing characters who were shared with the teachings and who set the turn order.

• The theme of Shaolin fighting techniques did not work well because the players always wanted to fight after learning.

The Third Step: Prehistoric Times

The third big development came with a change of theme. The players were now prehistoric men returning from a hunt and sharing the booty, which was made up of wood, silex, animals and plants. The goal of the game was to find technologies such as sewing, breeding, cooking, and so on. You could combine cards in sets (for instance, needle + thread + leather in the sewing set). In addition to this, the characters that determined the turn order had a specific power, which allowed me to balance each power with each position in the turn.

From gallery of Cedric Lefebvre

At this point, the game was really good (even if the method of acquiring the technologies was still unsatisfactory) – but I did not want to keep the prehistoric theme for I was not able to find the right way to deal with the artwork: funny with cartoon characters or more true-to-life but with dull pictures.

Finally – Shitenno, the Board Game

So I returned to Asia, specifically to ancient Japan. I gathered information on it and found the legend of the Shogun Tokugawa who unified Japan thanks to his Generals. This story made sense with the game: The players share troops at the Shogun's court (with honor and diplomacy) and then with these troops, the players take control of provinces, which are linked with different areas of Japan. Everything was fine except the way of getting Province cards in hand. The players drew these cards randomly at the end of each round depending on their position in the turn order, a process that was too complicated, was difficult to explain in simple words and made the game too long.

From gallery of Cedric Lefebvre

After a series of tests at the annual Cannes games fair in France, I decided to do away with the Province cards, replacing them with a game board featuring eight Areas, with four Provinces per area. Two or three troops are needed to control each Area, with the final troop granting the player a tile from that Area. Once acquired by the player, the tile has a one-shot effect at some point during the game. The card game had become a board game! The characters' powers were adapted to fit with the theme. Shitenno was almost completed.

My wife, Anne-Cécile, who as Ludonaute is the publisher of the game, started to work with the artist Vincent Dutrait. They made up their mind to give the game a specific look, processing the pictures with lots of black and white and some hints of color.

From gallery of Cedric Lefebvre

The last change in the rules was made at this time. The power of one of the characters – the Senseï – bothered us. At the end of his turn, he can take one kamon he has not already used, or one kamon in the box, and place it on the board. This power needed additional contents (tiles), its explanation was difficult to express, and we could not find the right icon to represent it. For us, all of this was a sign that the power had to change (even though it worked perfectly).

So we found a simpler power that didn't require additional contents and that was easy to both explain and play. Now the Senseï player simply moves one of his kamons on the game board, with this kamon counting for two kamons at the end of the game. Sometimes, pragmatic reflections lead to changes that make a game better...

In the end, Shitenno is a game that was born from an idea for mechanisms and that progressed through several themes until it found the right theme that fits perfectly with the mechanisms. For me, it does not look like any other existing game as it is unclassifiable.

The game is now in production and will be released in Essen at Spiel 2011. I hope that the public will like its originality and its design.

Cédric Lefebvre

Board Game: Shitenno
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