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Designer Diary: Hibernia – Marching the Long Way Around

Eric Vogel
United States
Hayward
California
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Currently, I am best known for designing fast-playing (and I like to think relatively meaty) filler games. However I do design larger games, and sometimes my little fillers start out as longer games.

I started making filler games because I could afford to self-publish them, then continued to do so because publishers seem more willing to take a chance on a relatively new designer if the game would be inexpensive to produce. I have a large-scale game design (working title: Rise of Carthage) that I have been working on since about 2006, and Hibernia was initially an outgrowth of its development. Hopefully one day I will have enough of track record as a game designer to get larger games published, and Rise of Carthage will finally see the light of day.

There is a common feature of light wargames that has always bothered me, which is that most of them reward defensive play. If player A fights player B, then both are weakened and player C is the only real winner. The problem with this is that attacking is the most enjoyable activity in a wargame – yet the emotionally rewarding play does not bring you closer to victory most of the time.

Rise of Carthage is partly a light wargame and involves several mechanisms to reward players for being aggressive. Back in 2007, Carthage was basically complete, except that I wasn't happy with its scoring system. I was experimenting with possible scoring systems that would contribute to rewarding aggression when I came up with the idea of a multicolored score track that required players to hold board territories of matching colors in order to score. This would prevent players from playing entirely defensively because they would need different board assets to score each turn. I was sure that someone, somewhere must have come up with this idea before because it seemed so simple and elegant, yet I couldn't think of a game that used anything like it. I consulted my good friend, game reviewer extraordinaire, Shannon Appelcline, whose knowledge of game design is virtually encyclopedic, as to which games in his experiences had a score track of this nature, and he replied "Candyland". Kidding aside, he said I seemed to have developed a pretty original mechanism. Unfortunately, this new scoring mechanism did not work terribly well in Rise of Carthage, but it did strike me that it would make a good central mechanism for a light wargame.

I already had a game map set in Ireland that I had created for a different game design, specifically a wargame themed around the Irish myth cycle Táin Bó Cúailnge. (Fun fact: I partially develop five or six designs for every design that I even bother to playtest with other people, and probably design 2-3 complete games for every one that I consider worth trying to publish). For those who aren't familliar with it, the Táin is a kind of Irish Iliad, in which three of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland – Leinster, Munster and Connaught – launch a war against the fourth kingdom, Ulster. Thus, this game map divided Ireland into four player kingdoms, with these subdivided into several territories each. I added the new score track to this existing map and started designing. Thus the theme of Hibernia was present at the outset of the design, although I considered the possibility of re-theming the game later.

Color-coded non-confectionery

I set out to make Hibernia a "minimalist" wargame stripped down to just the essential elements that this kind of design needs. In a good wargame, board position should matter, so I made adjacency of territory be the game element that conveys attack strength. Concentration of pieces, by contrast, would create defensive strength. I knew that getting the amount of randomness in the game right would be critical to its success. If it had too little randomness, it would be prone to analysis paralysis and stalemates; in my opinion End of the Triumvirate is an example of an otherwise good game impaired by this problem. If the game had too much randomness, then putting any consideration into choices would be pointless, and the game would be just a shorter version of Risk.

In general, I think that the shorter and simpler a game is, the higher a level of randomness it has to have in order to be functional; in longer and more complex games, minor logistical and tactical mistakes by players are inevitable and can supplant the function of randomizers. I wanted this game to have a moderate level of randomness, but I specifically did not want it to have random combat outcomes; instead I wanted it to have one-for-one combat like Antike.

I decided to create a game with semi-random movement and non-random combat (in other words, the opposite of Risk). I can't honestly remember where the idea of using colored dice to regulate movement came from, but I do remember borrowing color-spot dice from my copies Genesis and Carolus Magnus while I was prototyping.

In the first design iteration, each color was concentrated in one quadrant of the board, and the territories were irregular. It quickly became clear in playtesting that I had to mix up the colors between regions even though I didn't like the reduction in historical feel this caused. It was also clear that the game balance was too delicate to use irregular territories, so I borrowed another element of the Rise of Carthage game design: a board with exactly equivalent quadrants, disguised to look like irregular territories. I started by drawing a four-pronged pinwheel shape in the middle of Ireland, then subdivided this into equal territories with mirrored connectivity. I then compared this against an early county map of Ireland and tried to somewhat shift the boundaries towards those of the county map. (There was no point in using maps of Iron Age Ireland or Ptolemy's map of Bronze Age Ireland as there were no clear boundaries between familial chiefdoms in those periods.)

My playtesters thought Hibernia was a lot of fun from its earliest iterations onwards, but it took a lot of playtesting to get the board geography and the score track to be balanced and functional. The ways in which different connectivity influenced play were unpredictable, so it came down to a pure trial-and-error development process. In one iteration, players all tended to rotate their positions clockwise throughout the game, temporarily earning Hibernia the nickname "the toilet bowl game" among my regular playtesters.

Quote:
Aspiring Game Designer Social Skills Tip: You need multiple, independent circles of gaming friends for playtesting, and you need to be very careful not to burn them out. Don't browbeat people into playtesting because you won't be able to gauge their feedback.

I had particular trouble creating workable connectivity for the center of the board, something that would enable players at opposite corners of the board to interact occasionally. I experimented with a lot of rules that did not make it into the game, such as indestructible forts that the players could build. Eventually I added a mechanism whereby dead pieces had to be reclaimed from a holding zone; this was mechanically similar to the "Warp" in Cosmic Encounter, but played differently in practice. Players could use one of their two actions to reclaim pieces at any time, but doing so gave all of the other players half their pieces back at the same time. This made piece reclamation a significant strategic consideration.

The first workable version of Hibernia I developed would be recognizable to people who have played the published version, but had several key differences:

• The board was divided into 25 territories rather than 20.
• The score track was about twice as long as it is now and had a row of triples of same-colored spaces at the end.
• Each player had a larger set of pieces.
• The game used two color-spot die, and both player moves were randomized each turn.
• The game took about 90 minutes to play and had a variable game ending mechanism. (This was because I was trying to please the former publisher I mentioned in the Cambria desinger diary, whose playtesters seemed to prefer games in which the end turn was not entirely predictable.)

So Hibernia was originally a medium-length game rather than a filler, but this was probably always at odds with its level of complexity. I think it was "meant" to be a short game.

Hibernia got pitched in this form to a couple of publishers who turned it down. It ended up sitting on my shelf until after I had self-published Cambria on a very modest scale in 2008. At the time, I had intended Cambria to be a one-shot experiment with self-publication. However, I had found that redesigning Cambria to make it shorter and reduce the number of components had also made the game more fun and challenging, so I began to wonder whether the same kind of changes would improve Hibernia and perhaps also make it feasible for self-publication. Besides, I felt I had learned a lot from mistakes I had made in self-publishing Cambria and wanted a chance to put that learning into practice.

Hibernia first edition from Vainglorious Games
Design and component considerations interacted throughout Hibernia's final revisions. I considered both re-theming and re-naming the game, but decided that since people had responded positively to the Celtic theme of Cambria, I should build on the little bit of brand recognition I possessed. (Thus I chose the name "Hibernia" over names like "Erin", even though there was no clear Roman element in this game.) Also, I am of Irish and Welsh ancestry, so the Celtic theme has personal appeal for me.

I wanted to use wooden cubes for player pieces, which would be the most expensive component. I tried buying unpainted cubes and coloring them myself, but was not happy with the end product or the amount of labor involved. I ended up buying a large batch of the smallest cubes Meeple People had available, and raising the price point of Hibernia a bit over Cambria. I found a long, narrow blank-box available in bulk at Kelly Paper that I could use to make attractive, semi-professional-looking packaging relatively easily and cheaply. With some crafting advice from Aaron Lawn of EndGame, I was able to reliably make a folding game board, but it had to be small to fit in this box. Thus, the first redesign task was to reduce the number of player pieces the game needed and to reduce the number of territories on the board. I found that I could get away with reducing each quadrant of the board by one territory, specifically by eliminating the neutral center territory. This was when I added the adjacency arrows in the center territories. I found that my local art supply store was willing to cut mat board into neat half-game-board sized rectangles fairly cheaply. The trickiest component to find was the color-spot die; one finds these things around commonly enough, but finding who actually supplied them turned out to be difficult. Eventually, after a little pleading, Koplow Games was willing to sell me a smaller batch than it normally would on a one-time basis. All the other components I could buy in smaller batches as I went along, so I did not need to commit as much money up front as I did with Cambria.

The finished product of the 2009 first edition of Hibernia would not be mistaken for a professionally manufactured game, but it was a lot better-looking than Cambria had been. The bits were all wood and all professionally manufactured. The box was nice-looking, had a distinctive shape, and was reasonably sturdy. The folding board was functional and sturdy, and had decent artwork.

I sent copies of Hibernia to several reviewers, and the response I got to it was quite positive. Rick Heli of A Spotlight on Games deserves credit for coining the term "Celtic Nations Series" (now Cambria, Hibernia and Armorica) in his review of Hibernia. I also began an enjoyable correspondence with a reviewer who goes by the handle of "Limp" for Jedisjeux, and he has given me good advice about the European gaming scene over the intervening years. Dominique of the Dutch site De Tafel Plakt also has been a consistent source of good reviews for me.

I was a big fan of Bruno Faidutti's games (particularly Citadels and Mission Red Planet) as well as his Ideal Game Library website. His reviews have often steered me toward games that ended up becoming favorites, so drawing upon some previously unsuspected reserve of moxie, I emailed Bruno Faidutti and asked whether I could mail him a review copy of Hibernia. He graciously emailed back and said that I was welcome to send him a copy and that he would play it, but he could not promise that he would review it. That was good enough for me, and surprisingly a few weeks later in June 2009 a really positive review of Hibernia was on the Ideal Game Library. Bruno even mentioned Hibernia in his 2009 Game of the Year recommendations.

This attention catapulted me from regional obscurity to international obscurity overnight, and generated a lot of interest in Hibernia, including from folks in Europe who had a very hard time getting it. It became easier to get game retailers to stock Hibernia and the remainders of Cambria. Unfortunately, a Hibernia set was even more work to handcraft than a Cambria set had been, so I decided to stop making them well before the market demand petered out. I think I made about 70 copies altogether. Ironically, all the copies of Hibernia had been sold before its highest profile review in the U.S. was even published, this being in GAMES Magazine. I had not sent them a review copy, but one of its reviewers, John J. McCallion, had come across a copy somewhere and did a really nice review. So plenty of demand, 0 supply.

In the Cambria designer diary, I discussed how Sandstorm Productions came to put Hibernia and Cambria under contract, thanks to the influence of my friends at EndGame in Oakland. Before that happened, I had a couple of discussions with other publishers about the game. I had discussed the possibility of Krok Nik Douil doing a French edition of the game, but we had some difficulties because its proprietor speaks little English and I speak little French. Unfortunately, through some miscommunication it got announced that KND would be publishing the game without any kind of contract being in place. Thus you can still find a few places online where Krok Nik Douil is listed as the publisher of Hibernia. I had also considered some offers of investment to do a professionally manufactured edition that would be distributed via Impressions Advertising and Marketing, as my card game Armorica had been. Ultimately, Sandstorm offered me the chance of a larger edition and much wider distribution, with more marketing support. I still plan to release another game through Impressions at some point, and I hope I get the chance to work with Krok Nik Douil in the future; I really liked its 2011 release Vanuatu and thought it was beautifully produced.

Board and pieces in the second edition

There were some production delays, mainly because of issues related to shipping, and I got my first look at the new edition of Hibernia at Gen Con 2011, where Sandstorm had about one hundred advance-shipped copies for sale. It was exciting to see the new edition in print for the first time, materially improved in almost all respects, but very true to the strengths of the first edition: a small sturdy box, all wooden components, beautiful art by Brent Knudson, and a low price point. It was equally exciting to be demoing the new game to the gaming public for the first time.

I would like say it was exciting to be exploring Gen Con for the first time, but honestly I barely made it out of the dealer room. I pimped Hibernia and Cambria for almost all of my waking hours. I did get to meet and have some conversation with Reiner Knizia, which was a bit of a fanboy moment for me. My last night at Gen Con, the folks at Sandstorm took me out for a posh celebratory dinner and a glass of port at a swanky cigar bar; the next morning I rushed through the dealer room to buy souvenirs, then headed home. Both Hibernia and Cambria hit stores in mid-November 2011.

As I write this, we have just wrapped up the launch party for both games (at EndGame of course). It felt great to have so many people who were involved in bringing the games into being in one room, and to take a little victory lap at the end of a very long march.

Eric B. Vogel
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