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Designer Diary: Liberatores, or The True Nature of Games with a Traitor

Yan Yegorov
Russia
Moscow
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Hello, I'm Yan Yegorov, and here are my designer notes on the board game Liberatores: The Conspiracy to Liberate Rome.

During the past few years, I've designed several games. They are based mostly on psychology of some sort. I have a psychology degree and am a big fan of psychological games. I like games with traitors, negotiation, diplomacy, bluffing, and so forth, and I've already published a game based on the "Prisoner's Dilemma" — Swords and Bagpipes — and one heavily based on negotiation: Gentlemen's Deal.

Theory of Traitors

In 2016 I was up to new challenges. Onу day, my friend Nick and I were discussing the theoretical basis of games with a traitor. My main issue was that the strategy of these games is in a way pretty straightforward. If somebody does something a bit irrational, he is the traitor, right? Nobody in his clear mind will do bad things for his team, so how can the traitor ever harm his team without exposing himself?

Most board games solve this puzzle by making some of the information hidden. You can do sneaky stuff when nobody's watching in Battlestar Galactica, The Resistance, and many other games. You will always have some kind of hidden information whether it is secret moves or just a closed hand.

I found this approach a little bit cheap. I like classical traitor games a lot, but it is not an interesting solution to the problem. It is totally playable, but I wanted something else. Hidden information makes the game more of a puzzle in which you can combine all the evidence together to track down the bad guys. I wanted to provide players with a situation in which a traitor can act naturally and everything will be okay. The other approach has already been used in many games, so there's no need to make a new one like that.

My friend and I came to the conclusion that it would be very interesting to make players with good roles act irrational — but how can I do so?

The Solution

I immediately chose a Roman Empire theme, with the players being conspirators who are going to kill Julius Caesar. The theme was chosen mostly because of the design convenience. Conspiracies often have a lot of hidden goals, betrayal, and twists, so it's easy to speculate about what's going on.

My first attempt was to make the roles unclear. I made a game in which you had some kind of "Traitor Rating" cards, so you didn't really know if you were a traitor or not. More specifically, you were dealt several cards and the person with the highest traitor rating became the traitor. You know whether you have a high rating or not, but you can't be sure that you are the traitor.

What did it gave us? Nothing. That was a really bad idea because in effect you're randomly thrown to one or the other side at the end of the game. It was a major upset when you were trying to play as a traitor, but then you lose because you've picked the wrong side.

With time, the concept evolved into the following idea: the traitor inside the game with a traitor. One of the good guys becomes the "Competitor"; he wants to be the new Emperor, so he wants to kill Caesar, just as the other players, but he also wants to accomplish his personal goal.




With this concept, the game went crazy! People within the group started fighting each other. You can't trust anyone, so you have to beat the Competitor by yourself. Everybody starts to make selfish moves, so you can't tell who is who. The goal of actually killing Caesar becomes secondary because now the conspirators have an enemy within — and it's not just a regular traitor, who basically plays for the game. One of your teammates is out there to double-cross you.

"Has he done it because he is a traitor? Or is he a good guy who's making an action against the Competitor once in awhile? Or he is just stupid and doesn't see the better option? Or what if he is right?" — you ask yourself these questions all the time, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Gameplay

The basics of the game are pretty simple. You have Caesar and "Liberatores" (the conspiracy group), and both sides will gain power points during play. If at the end of the game the Liberatores have more power points than Caesar, they kill Caesar.

• One of the players wants to save Caesar. He is Caesar's Agent.
• Two or three players want to kill Caesar. They are Republicans.
• One player wants to kill Caesar, but also wants to get more personal power than any of the Republicans. He is the Competitor.


Identity cards


Players also get their personal power points from time to time. You will mostly need these power points to fight the Competitor, but you can also transfer them to Liberatores (or Caesar).

The players have a "market" of citizens that they can lure to their side, and they take citizens from the market turn by turn. A player can spend money to buy the citizen for themselves to get a special ability, or they can spend money to send the citizen to Liberatores, so they gain power points, or they can send the citizen to Caesar, so that he gains power points; this helps Caesar, but the player gets to activate most of the citizen's cool abilities and this is the most common way to earn money. Thus, players give Caesar power to get money, then use this money to overthrow Caesar and prepare themselves for future turns.

There are tons of designer decisions to make the system work, but that is the main idea.

After some testing, I figured out the core gameplay and have been only tweaking the balance ever since. Why is it fun? Most other games in this genre disguise the traitor through a lack of information, but Liberatores goes another way. The game puts you in the opposite situation. You don't know who is who because you have been flooded with information, and any given move may simultaneously pursue many things.

For example, you've bought an ability for yourself. That can mean that you just wanted that ability, or that you wanted to take this powerful card away from the market, so that it won't go to Caesar, or that you want to prevent another player from sending it to Liberatores. And what will you do with new ability? Oh, you can do a lot of things with your brand new card, and most of them can bring down players in many different ways.

So you have all the information in the world, and you want your guesses and clues to sum up to a solid hypothesis, but you have only a limited number of turns that is barely enough to solve the puzzle, so you will often have to jump to a conclusion just to have enough time to take action.

And it's not like you are given a bunch of irrelevant information; there are just too many possibilities. I think that it plays very nicely. Usually in such games, you barely have enough information to suspect at least somebody. In Liberatores you are struggling to find a player to trust.


I would add more early photos, but, really guys, they all look the same


Publishing

Liberatores happens to be a game with a high learning curve, though the rules are pretty simple. There is a lot to explore in this game, so I needed dedicated boardgamers to publish it. We don't have very hardcore publishers in Russia, but I found wonderful guys during SPIEL '16: Moaideas Game Design.

It was an exciting adventure for me. I met a lot of foreign people, showed them my projects, didn't know what to expect. Soon after SPIEL, Moaideas picked my game. They just wrote something like: "We like the game, let's publish it?" It was very sudden. "Maybe they really liked the concept", I thought. They've made some changes and, looking at these changes, I understand those guys totally dig the game. They have this deep understanding of the game process any designer is looking for in a publisher.

I know that Liberatores is not a gateway casual board game, but I hope it becomes something remarkable for experienced gamers. My story pretty much ends here, so I think that now David Liu should catch up with the narrative and give the Moaideas perspective on the project:

A Word from Moaideas

Hi, fellow gamers! David here, speaking as producer for Moaideas Game Design.

Yan pitched some of his games to us at SPIEL '16, and I was immediately intrigued by the description of Liberatores. We didn't have time to play a full game, so I asked for the PnP files to test it after the show. I printed out the prototype soon after getting back to Taiwan, and we quickly discovered the most unique and fascinating part of the game: All players are forced to perform actions that will help the opposing team, yet at the same time, you have to let your teammates believe you are working on their side.

During development of the game, me and Afong (our main developer) focused on adjusting the effects of citizen cards. We wanted to enhance the core concept of the game by increasing the interactions between players. We culled card effects that were seldom used and added more cards that require players to make a decision about who you want to interact with. If a card was usable only by one side, then it was changed so that all three roles can find a way to use it.


Citizen cards


Now there are tons of opportunities for you to come up with legitimate reasons to persuade someone to hire different citizens for the mutual benefit of all, while actually just advancing your own agenda. Our playtest groups never failed to amaze us with new ways to use different citizens, as well as new excuses to justify their actions.

The more interaction between players, the more you need to be sure you are working with people on your team, or the results may be devastating… However, in this game, there is no way to prove your identity to others. Thus, an interesting dilemma is created; most of the time you can't be completely sure of another player's identity, but with only seven rounds in this game, you don't have the luxury of testing everyone's reactions until you are certain. This is a social deduction game, but it is definitely not a light party game.

For the cover graphics, considering the history and theme of the game, we decided the main topic is a power struggle. A troubled Caesar is sitting alone on a throne, and five senators (the players) are scheming behind his back with malicious intentions. There are no "good guys" in this game as you are trying to get rid of Caesar through assassination, so we hope this gets the message across.

Although Caesar seems pretty vulnerable on the cover, he is not entirely hopeless. A well-played Agent that sows distrust among the others may stop the rebellion before it is formed. Thus, I think "suspicion" is the defining word of this game since players are always suspicious of everyone else, but if Republicans don't work together, then it is very difficult to win.

Finally, thanks again to Yan for submitting his game to us last year, and together I believe we have refined it into an even better game. This is a fresh take on the social deduction genre, and we think the heavier elements of game are something that is rarely seen. Hope you will enjoy the frustration as much as we do.


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