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Design and Development Diaries

My notes about the games I am preparing for publication by Ares Games

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From "Fog of War" to "Aztlán": Development Notes (Part 4)

Roberto Di Meglio
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As the full Aztlán rules have already been made available on the publisher’s website (www.aresgames.eu), I will skip talking about game strategies, as you can already read our tips in the rulebook!

As a final post in this blog (until the next game!) I want to talk about the two-players “Aztec Gods” rules.

They are indicated in the game as a “variant”. This may seem a little unusual, as they are also a part of the “official” rulebook. However, it was decided to point out this aspect as originally the game was designed for 3 or 4 players only. For a long time we playtested and developed it in this form only, until in conversation with one of our publishing partners, Federico Dumas of Red Glove, we started discussing if a 2-player game was indeed not possible… and if it was possible, how this could work.

Initially, we tested some “basic” variants – just playing head-to-head with more pieces, playing with two tribes for each player… However, we soon found out the main problem with such an adaptation.

One of the most interesting mechanics in Aztlán is the decision, after a conflict, whether to co-exist with your opponent or eliminate it.
In a two-players game, the game turned quickly into a bloodbath. There was very little reason to leave your opponent alive, and the game turned into a “pure” wargame. This could have been appealing to some tastes, but really distant from the original spirit of the game (if you are interested, you can easily try this version at home – just start out with 10-12 pieces for each player, and play in the normal way – except that the player who goes second in the first Age cannot play a “9”). The game became too deterministic, and the bluff element was completely lost.

We discussed our ideas with Colovini, who in turn involved in the discussion Alfredo Berni, one of his veteran playtesters. Alfredo is a master of “breaking games”, finding ways to twist the rules, and in a matter of minutes he found all the problems with our suggestions. Fortunately, he also provided a brilliant solution. It was a matter of changing perspective on the game.

The key idea was to make the elimination of enemy pieces problematic. If you swapped the control of the tribes from one Age to another, suddenly you had to think VERY hard if it was a good idea to remove a pawn – as it will be YOUR pawn in the next turn!

We immediately liked the concept. Sure, it was harder to justify thematically – you were not in control of a specific tribe anymore, and you had the feeling of being some sort of “higher power” playing with the lives of mortals… Hence, the idea of calling the variant “Aztec Gods”.

Developing the idea was a matter of days –we were in a rush against time, and the game was ready to go to the printer, and we could not miss the deadline to get it ready before the Essen Spiel… Since the very first playtests, the variant was working almost perfectly, and there was no need to change any other rule of the game. The only real issue was to balance the number of pawns, to avoid the board being too crowded or too sparse, and to generate the right number of conflicts.

So, indeed, Aztec Gods is a “last minute” bonus that we managed to squeeze into the game – if the idea came a few days later, it could only be presented on the Internet as a “true” variant. But it’s definitely a good addition to have for those times when you don’t have enough friends to play Aztlán with!
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Thu Oct 4, 2012 3:45 pm
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From "Fog of War" to "Aztlán": Development Notes (Part 3)

Roberto Di Meglio
Italy
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As befits a Colovini’s game, the rules of Aztlán are deceptively simple.

The rulebook is 12 pages long, but that includes the cover, the explanation of components, a page of strategy tips, and a reference table that works as a calculator for calculating your victory points. Actual rules are about 6 pages long, including graphic examples!

The game can be played by 2 to 4 players: The game was originally designed as a 3-4 players game, then a 2-players version, “Aztec Gods” was added during development, more on this later.

Each player controls one of four different peoples, each identified by a totemic animal and a color: the blue Quetzal, the yellow Ocelot, the green Coyote and the red Serpent.

The game is played over 5 rounds, called “ages”.

Depending on the number of players, you start the 1st age by receiving a certain number of tribe pawns: 8 in a 3-players game, 7 in a 4-players game. In each of the following ages, you will receive one pawn less than in the previous one. As the game goes on, the board gets more crowded, and each pawn becomes more important, so the length of each round remains about the same in each of them.

You also receive a set of 6 “power cards”, numbered 4 to 9. Each card indicates the strength of your people in an age, and the terrain that will give you a victory point bonus in that age.

Starting with the player with more victory points (playing first is a disadvantage…), the players take one action in turn, until all pawns available for the current age are placed.

One action is very simple: place one pawn, anywhere on the board; then, if you want, move one pawn from one territory to an adjacent one.

When you place your pawns, you don’t have any restriction: you can place a pawn in a territory which already has an opponent’s pawns in it, for example, or far away from your other pieces. What you’re trying to achieve is to control a domain (an area of adjacent territories) as large as you can, including in it as many of your bonus terrains as possible.

The bonus terrain is the one indicated by the power card you’ve chosen in that age – the more territories of that type in a single domain, the higher your scoring bonus.

As you’ve read in the previous post, each number on a power card is linked to a specific bonus terrain (so a ‘9’ card is related to cities, a ‘7’ to mountains, and so on). So when placing and moving, you will also try to bluff about your true goals, so that your opponents can not guess your strength in this age – or at the very least, they can guess only when it’s too late!

After each player has completed his or her actions, it’s showdown time! All players reveal their power card, and, again starting with the leading player, conflicts are resolved in all territories where more than one player is present.

Each conflict is resolved in a very simple way: your power is the number of pawns multiplied by your current strength. The outcome is completely deterministic, there is no randomness, except the “fog of war” about the strength of your opponent. The only way to modify the outcome of a combat is by using certain prosperity cards, such as the “Great Tlatoani” or the “Eagle and Jaguar Warrriors”.

When you win a conflict, the fun part (at least for you!) begins… You can now decide whether the opponents you just defeated get to stay in the territory, and co-exist with you; or if you want, you can eliminate them. If you have more opponents, the same decision applies to all of them: you cannot decide to be merciful with one opponent and ruthless with another one.

If you decide to co-exist, your people will become more powerful: you receive a prosperity card for each territory where you win a conflict and decide to co-exist. Prosperity cards grant you different benefits, which in the end may prove to be game-winning. However, such a decision also brings consequences, as the opponent will maintain a presence in the territory, that will still count as a part of his domains, as well as yours. And of course, who can say what will happen in the next age, if they manage to get the upper hand, because their population or their strength become greater than yours?

After all conflicts are called out and resolved, it’s now time to look at your achievements. You will have one or more “domains”, each domain being a region with connected territories (if you’ve got the “Boats and Rafts” card, you can connect even through lakes, otherwise the territories must be adjacent). Each domain will give you a number of victory points which is related to its overall size and to the number of bonus territories included.

Initially, the scoring system gave you a number of victory points equal to the number of territories multiplied by the number of bonus territories. This very simple formula, however, produced a very high gap between low scores and high scores, which made the game sometimes subject to a classical “runaway leader” problem (that is, a player who takes the lead in the early game cannot be ever reached by the other players). We wanted to steer clear of this syndrome, of course, so together with Leo, during development we found a system which still gives a great importance to bonus terrains, but without the same problem.

The drawback of the new system is that the formula is slightly more complex, but for the less Math-inclined players, we included a reference card which tells you what the bonus is, and the rules include a more extensive table which gives you at a glance the value of a domain, taking into account both the overall size and the bonus territories in it.
(If you’re curious, the new formula is “number of territories in a domain + square of the bonus terrains in that domain; if there are 0 bonus terrains, the domain has a value of 0”.)

Once the value of all the domains of each player is calculated, you can still add more victory points through the playing of prosperity cards (especially the various “Blessings of the Gods” cards).
Then, the points are added to your previous score, the victory points track is updated, and a new age begins.

At the end of the 5th age, the final scoring will be the same, but you will also add up points for your unused power card, your unused prosperity cards, and especially for the “Offer to the Gods” cards that you accumulated during the game.

If everything seems to be too simple… well, that’s the beauty of Aztlán! As it’s the mark of “classic” great strategy games, the rules are very simple, but the strategy is deep, and requires many games to be explored in depth.

In the next posts, we’ll give some strategy tips (also included in the rules), and talks about the 2-players variant which was designed during the development of the game.
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Sun Sep 30, 2012 4:25 pm
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From "Fog of War" to "Aztlán": Development Notes (Part 2)

Roberto Di Meglio
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Aztlán may be considered a very peculiar “hybrid” between a wargame and an Euro game.
It shares the design philosophy of the previous games by Leo Colovini: simple mechanics, that may be explained in a matter of minutes, but that create a deep strategy. However, the game is also a wargame, as there is direct conflict between players trying to expand their domains, and that conflict can bring with it the elimination of the units of your opponent.

As we told in the previous article, there are two main mechanics which make Aztlán a unique game: the way it handles the “fog of war” element (which gave the name to the original prototype that Leo submitted) and the exciting “thumb up/thumb down” element when you win a conflict.
Let’s look at these two mechanics first, before going into a full explanation about how the game works.

Fog of War
I assume most of you know what “Fog of War” means: In a conflict, you never have perfect knowledge of your opponent’s strength or weakness, so you have to decide based on partial information only. If you’re a good strategist, you’ll be able to make informed guesses, and if you’re a good strategist, you will be able to deceive your opponent about your actual strength.

Fog of War is implemented in Aztlán in a very simple way. At the start of each age, each people selects a power card. The power card indicates both the strength of your units in this age, and the type of terrain you want to conquer (your “bonus” terrain). The relationship between power and terrain is fixed – so, a “7” power card will always be linked to mountains. Each player has a fixed set of 6 power cards, ranging from 4 to 9: Each time one is used, it’s gone forever. At the end of the game, you’ll have used 5 out of 6 cards (and you will get a bonus, which is proportionate to the strength of the card that you did not use).

Your power in a conflict is simply calculated by multiplying the power of your units and the total number of units in a region. Conflict is deterministic, and the player who has the highest power in a territory will win. So, guessing the strength of an opponent is extremely important, as you can prepare for conflicts to win them, or at least to avoid losing them.

During an age, you will try to place and move your tribe pawns to take control of one or more domains, including as many territories of your bonus terrain as you can. But your actions will also be giving hints to your opponents about your strength – if they see you’re trying to get as many mountains as possible, continuing our example, they may guess your strength is 7, and prepare for conflict accordingly. But you may as well bluff about your intentions, or at least try to show them with less clarity, to leave your opponents in the fog about how powerful you are.

So, with the simple idea of linking your power to your goals, Leo introduced in Aztlan at the same time the fog of war concept, and the possibility of bluffing and double-bluffing through a simple action like “placing a piece” or “moving a piece”. Not bad!

Conflict Resolution
The other cool concept that, for me, defines what makes Aztlán a great game, is the way conflict resolution is handled.

Conflict is deterministic (except when prosperity cards come into the scene, more about them later). You calculate your combat strength based on how many tribe pawns you have in a territory and your power in this age; compare it with the strength of your opponent (or opponents); the player with the highest power, wins the conflict.

Of course, you don’t know the power of your opponents until all the placement and movement of pawns is complete, so positioning yourself to have the upper hand is not so simple. But once you’re done with moving and placing pawns, there’s no randomness in the game that can help you if you made a mistake.

This may seem so simple as to be almost trivial, and many wargamers will be worried about the lack of a good die roll to make the resolution more exciting. And while I do like a good die roll A LOT, I must say that in Aztlán, conflict resolution is one of the most exciting I’ve ever met in a game. Why?

Because, after you’ve determined who’s the winner in a conflict, you may decide if your defeated opponents “live” or “die”. That’s the element in the game which initially spurred the idea of the Meso-American theme. We could easily picture the dominating Aztec tribe deciding to subjugate their opponents and keep them as vassals, to exploit them for production or war – but we could also imagine that they would decide to destroy them in battle, and bring the survivors as sacrifices on their stepped pyramids…

Why should you, in a wargame, decide to leave a defeated opponent alive? Let’s remember that Aztlán is not a “pure” wargame, but it’s a Euro-Wargame hybrid. You’re playing a tribe which is in a struggle to become the dominant power in this mythic island, and that also includes being able to interact with the other players on a diplomatic level, and to make your people grow in more ways than just occupying more land. Actually, you could well win the game without EVER eliminating an opponent unit!

If you decide to graciously leave your defeated opponents alive, you will be rewarded with a prosperity card. These cards introduce the only random element in the game, as each card will give to your tribe a special bonus: you may be blessed by the gods to get more victory points out of certain terrain types, you may get a technological advance such as navigation or elite warriors, you may be rewarded with the raise of a great war-chief and king…

Apart from the direct reward, the possibility of deciding the final outcome of the conflict also introduces into the game an important diplomatic element, as you may try to persuade your opponent to leave you alone, bargain for the life of your people, and so on…

Again, with one simple mechanic (the decision to leave your opponents alive or eliminate them when you win a conflict), Colovini manages to introduce in the game an exciting moment of decision making, the possibility of growing your people through civilizing it rather than just using war, and diplomacy… Again, great achievements for such a simple rule!

After this introduction to some of the most exciting features of Aztlán, in the next post, I’ll go in detail about how the game plays.
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Wed Sep 26, 2012 9:45 am
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From "Fog of War" to "Aztlán": Development Notes (Part 1)

Roberto Di Meglio
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I’ve known Leo Colovini for many years, but in spite of a long cooperation in many ways, the only time that I had the honor to publish something from him was when Nexus Editrice, a company I founded almost 20 years ago, became for a brief time the publisher of Lex Arcana, the historical fantasy role-playing game he coauthored with Dario De Toffoli, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello.

However, as we often were co-exhibitor at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, I followed his career as a game designer very closely, and I often had a chance to test many of his games in prototype form, from Carolus Magnus to Cartagena, often the day before he pitched them to the top German publishers and got a contract signed.

While I always admired his skill and creativity as a game designer, the style of most of his creations was quite distant from the games I was looking for, as a publisher. Leo is definitely a master in the “euro style”. His games have clean, original mechanics and just as much theme as necessary, to avoid their fine strategy to be clouded by the needs of simulation. And in his games, player interaction almost never is pure conflict… not a single drop of “blood” is ever spilt in one of his designs (except Lex Arcana, of course).

It became almost a recurring joke between us that, when we met, I asked Leo if he finally had a game that I could publish, and of course there was none – but a lot for companies like Amigo, Winning Moves and Ravensburger!

So, I was really surprised (and, initially, I thought of a new variant in our joke) when, during a chance meeting in the aisles of the Toy Fair, he replied “I think I do - I designed a war game, would you like to take a look at it?”. I did, and then I was immediately impressed by the beauty and simplicity of the design that, at the time, he simply called “Fog of War”, because of its core mechanic.

Fast forward to 2012, and Ares Games is looking for new games to expand its catalog. The company had just started releasing the first games, and while we had a lot of confidence about the business we could do with War of the Ring and Wings of Glory, we wanted to grow into other categories, such as Euro games and Children games. So I got in touch with Leo: the rights for Fog of War were still available, so we got the game under contract, and started to work on it to get it published as our 2012 Essen release.

It was during a series of playtest sessions handled by Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello (that most of you know as co-authors of War of the Ring and Micro Monsters) that they realized that Meso-American Myth was a perfect fit as the theme of Fog of War (which had a “generic” historical setting attached). One of the best mechanics in the game perfectly fits the way the Aztecs handled war and how they dealt with the people they subjugated. So, we started to delve more into the history of this people, and found out a lot of other good matches between their wars and civilization and elements of the game.

We decided we did not want to set the game in real history, as we liked the idea of exploring the myth of this people as well as their history. We read about the legend of Aztlán, the ancestral homeland of the Aztec people, and we thought that this mythic place could become the setting for the game. The conflict portrayed would be the struggle between the ancestors of the Nahuatl (Aztec) people, to decide who is exiled and who has the right to remain in Aztlán, and the Gods themselves could meddle with the affair of mortals. The civilizations would develop with technologies suited to those that the Aztecs actually used in historical times, and the “game rounds” would become the “ages” which, according to Aztec mythology, marked the flow of history, with world-changing events between one age and the next one. At the end of five ages, this mythic world would come to an end, and so would the game. The winner would be rewarded with staying in Aztlán, and the losers would become exiles to the “real world”.

After this long introduction, in the next article we’ll jump straight into the game mechanics, and we’ll learn how the game works.
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Mon Sep 24, 2012 12:48 pm
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