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Designer Diary: Of Goats and Alcatraz

Rafał Cywicki
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Cooperative games are usually created when people bored with negative interaction start making their own board games. Alcatraz: The Scapegoat was created when people who love negative interaction decided to make a cooperative game. Nice to meet you – we are the authors of Alcatraz, and we would like to tell you a few words about our game.

"Previously on Alcatraz: The Scapegoat" – Wait, a Goat?

If you haven't heard of our game before, here is a short summary:

The players are prisoners planning an escape from the most famous prison in the world. But the plan has one weak point – it assumes that one prisoner will stay in as the eponymous scapegoat. Which one? The most useless one in the end.

What do you do not to be the scapegoat? You fingerpoint the victim, you lie, you manipulate and betray. And if you are chosen to be the scapegoat – you upset plans, steal items, blackmail other players and inform the guards.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

The Scapegoat – an Open Traitor

The scapegoat is the most innovative mechanism in the rules of Alcatraz. It is responsible for non-standard game dynamics, loads of negative interaction, and a whole spectrum of emotions that the players may experience, from the joy of triumph through a feeling of being used and betrayed, up to anger and the thirst for revenge.

During the game, you vote for the scapegoat each round. The current scapegoat also takes part in the voting and – somewhat importantly – is the one who breaks ties. The voting is an equivalent of planning made in the yard in the "Prison Break" series. This is also the time when the action doesn't take place on the board anymore; it takes place above the board in the form of: "You can trust me", "I have a plan, but I won't say it aloud because the scapegoat will hear", and "If you choose me, I will play a blackmail card".

The scapegoat is a euphemism for the loser who isn't a part of the plan in a given round. If the group carries out a task bringing them closer to escaping, the scapegoat stays where he was (and doesn't get a reward). This is why you usually do everything not to become that goat.
The goat, of course, will try to prevent the rest of the group from carrying out tasks by stealing items, playing blackmail cards, and moving guards.

But the scapegoat doesn't want to screw up completely. There will be another vote in a while, right? And the most useless prisoner will be chosen – or the most harmless one.

Don't Harm Others If You Don't Benefit

Thanks to the special dynamics mentioned above, the game play is unique:

• The scapegoat harms others, but only to the extent that it makes somebody else a better candidate for the goat.
• The players carry out tasks, but nobody wants to be obsolete in the end.

That second aspect in particular can create some fascinating cases. The following situation happened during one of the first test sessions: One player had all the items and met all the conditions required for completing a task, but he said, "I won't do this. If I sacrifice all my resources, I will become the Scapegoat soon." After these words were said, we knew that what we did was good (or rather bad – but in a good way).

Another situation: The whole team gathered together, collected their items, and according to some engaging plan, delivered a set required to complete a task to one player. It was enough to spend an action to complete the task. What did he do? He took the items and waited until the next round. Why risk becoming the goat? Pure evil – and genius.

But the number of instances of such behavior is limited. It's not certain that anyone will escape. If the last guard enters the board, the plan fails and everybody loses, including the current scapegoat, so it's important to cooperate and carry out the plan, while keeping the risk in mind.

The Goat Blackmails

The idea behind Blackmail cards is as old as the concept of our game. After all, they are a perfect evil addition to an evil game.

Each Blackmail card is a one-time ability that may be activated by the scapegoat. It always involves negative effects, sometimes powerful enought to slow down the entire team for a round; usually playing one card is enough to upset the whole task. But more often it serves the purpose of threatening other players: "Don't choose me as the scapegoat, or I will play it." And it goes so every round until somebody goes to the Chapel and cancels the card or until the players decide that the blackmailer is too impudent and make him the scapegoat anyway, accepting the risk connected with this. In such situations, it often turns out that the blackmailer isn't really that keen to carry out his threats.

In order to get a card, you must go to the Warden's office and spend an action. Doing so is easy most of the time, depending on the arrangement of locations and the number of guards, but you spend precious actions without getting closer to victory. And what if all the players have Blackmail cards? Everyone threatens everyone instead of completing tasks – and the time is ticking out quickly...

Consistent Scapegoat

When we played with the team of Kuźnia Gier publishing house, one drawback of the game was pointed out: The players may just have it in for one person and choose this person as the scapegoat every round. Against all logic, just don't let him escape. We've never played any games this way, but there are many different people in this world...

The solution we suggested is to give extra actions to the scapegoat if the same player is chosen more than once in a row. Later, we also came to the conclusion that this mechanism helps to forgive the mistakes of weaker players. It stayed in the final version.

Also the scapegoat's "vote and a half" may sound strange, but this inequality makes it easier to change the scapegoat with four participants in play. Only two people need to agree to choose a new goat, with one of those being the current scapegoat.


Guards play two roles in the game:

• They make it harder to use rooms (and, consequently, to escape) depending on their number in a particular location.
• They work like the clock in the game; a new guard appears on the board each round, and the arrival of the 20th guard announces the last round of the game.

An interesting thing about putting the "clock" on the board and not outside as a track of some kind is that the game becomes naturally more difficult with each round: One guard in a room doesn't change anything; two guards make the most important actions more time-consuming; three guards make them impossible; and four block the location completely.

However, the players also have ways of coping with guards. By spending one action, they may start a riot and draw a guard from an adjacent location to their room. They may release a false announcement through a radio and move two guards to a different place. And if they have enough cash, they can just bribe a guard.

Abstract Alcatraz

On a high level of abstraction, the game mechanisms look like that:

• I, the player, want to be the one who escapes, so I have to be indispensable for the team or too dangerous to be left alone – every single round.
• If I am the Scapegoat, I do everything to prevent completing a task. And then everything not to be chosen again in the next round.
• We, the team, want to escape, but every single person has to earn his place in the escaping party. If we all delay things for too long, we all lose.

The question is, will only one person lose, or will the whole group lose? As for the idea that everyone escapes – that's out of the question.

Atmosphere of the Game

Nobody in Alcatraz wore orange jumpsuits, but we like them. We had to sacrifice a few historical facts for the sake of the atmosphere. As in the movies, if there is a choice between "cool" and "realistic", the choice is obvious. Without doubt accusations about not being historical will appear, but that's okay as long as you like the game.

That said, there's another reason why we avoided strict realism. The first prototype was prepared based on real photos of Alcatraz, which were in sepia or black-and-white. It was so gloomy! Very, very gloomy. Maybe even too gloomy for a prison game. Just imagine the abandoned post-industrial interiors of a ruined prison. Such a scenery makes you feel much more serious about everything you do.

We decided on a different look – serious, but not too serious; even a bit comic-like. Hey, it's only a game.

Why Should You Play Alcatraz?

We've played Ghost Stories, Pandemic, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. The first two games gave us the most fun while we were learning the rules. Later on, only the player who knows the game best really has fun, and this person simply tells the rest how to spend their actions in the most effective way. In "traitor games" like the second two, suspicions are quite fun, and the moment when you point your finger at the traitor – brilliant. But this happens once, maybe twice per game.

Alcatraz is different. Here everyone thinks independently and cares only about themselves. If you think for someone else, you do it only to predict their movements, and you point fingers every turn.

Alcatraz is not a clone of any of the games mentioned above. It has its own unique mechanism (the Scapegoat) that you won't find anywhere else, so it's worth at least giving it a try.

We have to warn you though: Alcatraz is not for everyone. In this game you will certainly get cheated a few times and you should lie quite often as well. If you are a rather peaceful player or a group altruist, remember that the others will use you. When you play Alcatraz, the person who is your friend in one round will turn into an enemy in the next one. If you want to be effective, you cannot take offense easily or have a grudge against other players; you have to be flexible and choose your companions according to what's happening on the board. Sometimes this will mean that you have to cooperate with a person who lied to you, robbed you, and took your reward for completing a task.

With that said, we recomend you try the game. We won't be upset if you don't like it, but we will be very pleased if you find Machiavellian instincts within yourself... devil

"Enjoy your visit. Hope to see you again soon!"

About Us

Alcatraz was created by three Polish guys: brothers Rafał Cywicki and Krzysztof Cywicki and their long-time best friend, Krzysztof Hanusz.

We love games. In school we were those guys who stayed after class to play Moce Albionu. On holidays we played chess and lots of RPGs. Then we discovered modern board games and got addicted.

Together we created Kingpin, which debuted at Spiel in 2009. At that same time, the first concept of Alcatraz appeared. For a few years now, we have been meeting regularly at least once a week to work on new stuff.

We have different tastes, methods of work and education backgrounds (a sociologist, an IT specialist, a psychologist), but we all love board games full of interaction, emotions and specific atmosphere – and we think we managed to put all these features into Alcatraz.
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