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In the middle of 2015, Doug Garrett (of Garrett's Games and Geekiness) mentioned the Japanese game Age of Craft to me. He had just played it at his West Coast MeepleFest invitational (brought by Denis Begin and taught by Joe Huber), and while the players enjoyed it, it was difficult to play due to the small cards and the need to refer to a translated guide while playing. He suggested it might be something that Bézier Games should consider translating and publishing. I picked up a copy and found that it had a lot of really interesting elements, kind of a "Dominion meets Settlers" vibe, and that by itself it was pretty compelling, despite the components and language barrier. I found that the license was available and got to work on developing the game, discovering in the process that the core game could be used to create something really compelling and deeper than the published Japanese version.
At its core, Age of Craft is a dice-drafting game set in medieval times in which the dice faces are resources, and those very specific resources are used to purchase cards that provide various abilities, like producing more resources, exchanging resource types, and generating victory points. Players continue to obtain cards until they reached 20 points or a certain card type was used up, at which time the game ended. The game came with 29 different "random" cards, and each game you used only seven of them, so it had a ton of replayability built in.
There were a whole bunch of things I loved about Age of Craft:
• Dice as resources
• Dice drafting
• Tons of "random" cards (which we now call "variable")
• Engine building
• Seven different categories of cards
And those things were pretty much kept in the game, forming the core of what Colony turned into.
The first thing I did when looking at the game was deciding whether we were going to keep the theme or not. I'm fine with medieval/renaissance-themed games — yes, there are tons of these, but for good reason as the setting is rich with opportunities for various game mechanisms — but I didn't want this game to blend in. Add to that the fact that Dominion, which shares some DNA with Age of Craft, was also set in this broad thematic space, and it felt as though it could really be better by having a different setting.
Post-apocalyptic near-future games haven't been particularly overused in the boardgame world, and the idea of rebuilding civilization after some sort of cataclysmic event was interesting, and as the rest of the game began to take shape around it, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate setting. Near-future technology is fun as it takes the things we know and twists them just slightly with a bit of science to show where we might be headed. It also left the door open for some really compelling thematic followups, like the in-the-works sequel/expansion which Shall Not Be Announced Yet.
Naming the game provided another challenge, but Colony stuck out for several reasons: First, it's not really been used by another mainstream hobby game, and second, that's essentially what the game is about" building up the best possible colony. Finally, it also provided a great jumping off point for follow-up titles.
The graphic design on the original cards wasn't going to work for a number of reasons, so a great deal of effort was made to come up with a design that would work universally for all of the cards and be as functional as possible. The resulting design is evocative of the theme and super functional; you can spot the cost of cards to be purchased from across the table, the different kinds of cards are clearly colored (while this isn't important to gameplay, it's very useful for set-up), and the imagery used fits the theme and the mechanisms perfectly. The upgraded version of each card is framed in black instead of white, and the artwork between the 1.0 and 2.0 sides of the cards is tweaked just enough to be noticeable.
Once you've purchased a card, you add it to your tableau in front of you, and if you're short on space or just want to keep your tableau compact, you can stack cards up, displaying only the bottom part of each card, which shows both what the card does and the number of VPs on the card. It's a well-thought-out design that is incredibly elegant and flexible.
The best graphic design is the kind you don't think about; it just works, and our graphic designer achieved that with the Colony cards.
The first thought I had when playing the game, as a designer, was, "Whoa…this would be awesome with custom dice, with each face representing a different resource." I wasn't alone in this sentiment as playtesters, after or even during their first game, would also make the same comment. I tested this out and found that while it was an interesting concept and definitely enriched the theme, it made playability nosedive. The number one reason was because purchasing cards in Colony is done with exact resources: such as three 3s and two 2s. Changing those pips to three wood symbols and two food symbols made it significantly harder to both remember which resources you had in front of you, and also what each card cost. Add to that the fact that players have to learn the six new resources and what they look like, and you've got an extra layer of translation going on behind the scenes for virtually every action in the game. Games with custom dice took significantly longer to play and were more likely to result in missed options because players couldn't track what they could and couldn't do as easily.
There were other reasons why custom dice weren't appropriate for the game, and while I've seen comments from folks who haven't played yet mentioning it would be better with custom dice, they'll find out that once they play, the dice values fade into the background, and the focus is on how to use the resources they have most effectively and not on the resources themselves.
To summarize why there aren't custom dice in the game:
1) Our brains can track combinations of numbers much easier than combination of symbols, even if those symbols are meaningful.
2) There are several other ways that the dice are used besides resources, and one of the modifiers allows you to tweak the resources by one or two at a time.
3) Traditional dice patterns are amazingly clear to read from across the table versus any sort of symbol. Again, that probably has to do with our brains being conditioned to track numbers.
Drastic, Sweeping Changes
There were a few things about the original game that I didn't care for. The most prominent one was the mechanism in the game that prevented players from hoarding resources so that they could buy the cards they wanted on future turns. It was essentially a creative Settlers' robber mechanism, but due to its implementation, it could turn out to be incredibly frustrating: By saving up resources to buy the thing you really wanted, you were putting yourself at risk of losing many of those resources with a roll of the dice, thus scuttling your efforts and making you start over. It was frustrating instead of fun. At the same time, I realized that hoarding isn't a particularly engaging gameplay mechanism, so I came up with a warehouse card that everyone starts with that limits the number of stored resources to six in between turns. As all but one of the 30+ cards in the game can be purchased with six or fewer resources, it was functional but at the same time reduced the possibility of hoarding.
That change sparked another major addition to the game: unstable resources. Instead of all resources being storable, these resources must be used that turn, or they dissipate and aren't available anymore. All of the cards that produce resources produce unstable resources. In Colony, stable resources are represented by white dice, while unstable resources are represented by frosted dice.
That change resulted in yet another major addition to the game: upgradable cards. In Age of Craft, all cards were singled sided; in Colony, every card in the game can be upgraded to a better version of that card. For production cards, upgrading them results in producing stable resources instead of unstable ones. In order to upgrade, players must pay 1 2 3 4, and this allows them to flip a card over to its upgraded side. You can even upgrade the "Upgrade" card, reducing the cost for upgrades to 2 3 4. Upgrading the "Warehouse" gives you three more slots for resources, and most upgraded cards results in more VPs than the original side of the card.
Now that cards could be upgraded, it caused a dramatic overhaul of all of the cards in the game in functionality, cost, and VPs. The original Age of Craft game had some balance issues with some of the cards, and the cards from [Age of Craft that made it into Colony were almost all modified in some way in order to work well together. The balancing of cards in a game with such a large scope continued throughout playtesting, up until the second quarter of 2016.
As cards were modified, several of them were dropped, and many new ones were created. At one point in testing there were about fifty unique cards that were active, and this number was eventually winnowed down to 28 for the final version of the game.
In order to streamline the rules, each player's turn was divided into four phases, with the Activate phase being the time when players could use each of their cards (once per turn). This in turn resulted in the Construction card, which is a card that players can activate to build (purchase) new cards. Sometimes you'll have a turn in which you are saving up for a card you really want and don't purchase anything; if that happens, you get a CHIPI (Cybernetic Holder of Instant Production Income), which you can turn in on a future turn for a random unstable resource. If you upgrade "Construction" to version 2.0, you can purchase multiple cards in a single round, or if you decide not to, you get two CHIPIs.
In Age of Craft, players started with a single card, which they could discard at any time during the game for resources equal to the difference between their score and the leader's score. This provided a nice catch-up mechanism, but typically didn't affect the game otherwise. In Colony, I took this to a whole 'nother level by allowing the players to discard *any* card once per turn, again for the difference between their score and the leader's in stable resources. Because this can be done multiple times during a game, it's no longer simply a catch-up mechanism, but instead it's this extra strategic tool that you have to know when to use (or if to use) at just the right time. Of course, discarding a card takes away the VPs you had for that card, so you have to leverage to resources you'll receive to compensate (and then some) for that. As the leader, you want to be careful not to get too far ahead of your opponents, or you'll give them a whole bunch of additional resources near the end of the game just when they need it, possibly enabling them to catapult ahead of you to victory. This unique mechanism adds a layer of tension to the game for all players and makes the last several rounds of the game fraught with excitement.
Age of Craft didn't have a score track, relying on players to do the math for themselves and other players throughout the game, both for purposes of seeing who is winning, as well as what they can gain from discarding a card. Colony has a scoreboard, which in the first few rounds is pretty much unnecessary…until you start to see one player leading by 2 or 3 points, and then the pressure to discard or not is on.
Speaking of reaching the total number of VPs in order to win, Age of Craft could end in a tie, one in which "all players share the victory". Anyone who knows me knows I HATE that (which is probably why co-op games aren't high on my list of game types I enjoy), and I even created TieBreaker in 2011 to solve what I see is a blight on the boardgaming hobby. For colony, you can never end in a tie because once someone gets the VPs required to win, the game ends instantly. This can mean that players don't get the same number of turns…too bad! The starting conditions actually account for this, and in the 300+ recorded plays of the game in the last few months of playtesting, players 1-4 were almost exactly evenly split in terms of who won, with about 3% difference between them.
All of these (and many more) changes took place in the first few months of design and development, reshaping Colony into a totally different game from its ancestor.
Interaction Between Players
I'm not a take-that kind of player. Targeted take-that mechanisms rub me the wrong way, both as the recipient (oh, that sucks) and the disseminator (now I feel a little bad about picking on you, even if you were the leader). Age of Craft had a bunch of attack and defend cards, and I definitely struggled to see whether they would have a place in Colony. I know some Euro-minded individuals felt the same way I did, and that any sort of attack cards would be a huge turn-off for them.
But the Age of Craft attack and defend cards were pretty clever as they were, and I made it a mission of mine to see what could be done to make them less "mean" and more like a reasonable strategic path. Attack cards in Colony are all about the attacker getting resources. However, some of the defensive cards in the game result in the defender getting resources, too…resulting in a little game of chicken as attack and defense cards are purchased. The powerful attack cards have some downsides — for instance, each time you use an un-upgraded "Pirate", you might lose it — and the defensive cards are relatively inexpensive…but they can derail a player's strategy, which is often more important than just taking a single resource from the opponent. The cost of attacking is simply the resources needed for the card as well as the missed opportunity of purchasing something else, so those cards, if you purchase them, have drawbacks as well.
And then there's trading. Some players love this, others not so much. In Age of Craft, players could always trade on every turn. For trade-minded players, this made the game incredibly long as negotiations and assessments of players' resources and game position added A/P that sucked the fun out of the game. In Colony, you can trade only if you have a card that gives you that ability, and only one trade per card is allowed. Further, everyone is incentivized to trade with you because there's usually a benefit for them in the trade, like a free resource.
If these kinds of interactivity interest you, there are a bunch of attack, defensive, and trading cards to add to the game; if not, there are plenty of cards you can put in the game in their place. It really does allow you to customize the game exactly to your group's liking.
I love it when you discover different aspects of a game that work well together. There are two, three, and four card combos throughout Colony just waiting to be discovered. As the game was developed, we discovered some combos that are truly awesome and incredibly satisfying to pull off. Some cards were tweaked to avoid being too powerful, but at the same time, if you're able to pull off a combo of cards every turn for a few turns in a row, you'll have your opponents wincing (haha) when it's your turn as they frantically scramble to figure out how to offset your devastating moves.
It's really hard not to list my favorite combos here — really hard — but I'm not going to because discovering them yourself is incredibly satisfying. Argh!
With a game like Colony, which has dozens of cards to pick from each game, you need some form of organization for them. The first comparison most people will go to is Dominion, which has a similar number of cards and, at first glance, a very nice insert — unless, that is, you're a gamer who wants to keep their cards clean and in good shape, and you use sleeves. Then the Dominion insert fails miserably and makes a lot of gamers very sad.
The Colony insert went through seven iterations in design and prototyping, resulting in what is likely the best, most functional insert available in any game. Not only can you store both unsleeved and sleeved cards, but the cardboard label insert is used as a cover for three hidden pockets that hold score markers, CHIPIs, and dice, and that label insert snaps into place in the plastic insert to keep those items from moving around when the box gets turned sideways or jostled around. Just close the lid and the contents are securely held in place until the next time you play.
The Set-up App, and the Awesome Meta Rule
With all the variable cards in the game — you play with seven types, and there are 28 types from which to choose — you might not be sure which set to pick. The rules have a great starting set, and three additional tested sets for different types of players. Instead of having a deck of random cards to determine which cards to choose (you’re *so* much more sophisticated than that, right?), there’s a free Colony set-up app for iOS and Android phones and tablets that provides a random set of cards for each game. You can also specify which cards you want to see more often, all the time, or not at all, even while providing you with one card of each type (or not…that's an option in the app as well).
If you play multiple games of Colony in a row (and you very well might want to do just that), there's a special meta-rule you need to follow. The players who *didn't* win each pick one variable card to get rid of and a new one to replace it with. This way, the player who won by taking advantage of a card (or combo of multiple cards) has to find a new way to play next game, and each of the other players gets to pick a card they really like or that suits their particular play style.
An Honest-to-Goodness Strategy Dice Game
In general, I really like games in which you can plan out what you want to do based on where you start a game, or how things start to evolve around you. Each game of Colony starts you off in a different potential direction, and you have to evaluate what your options are each turn in the midst of planning your long-term goals, all the while being aware of what each of your opponents are doing.
Colony redefines how dice are used in games, with a randomized starting point for each turn — the active player rolls three dice, then they are drafted around the table — instead of the dice determining what you can do. The dice are merely a gentle nudge in one direction or another, but what you do with them — whether you store them, modify them, or use what you have to purchase something as you get them — is up to you. It allows for both short- and long-term strategic planning, as well as a pivot when you find yourself with a set of resources that could provide you with an alternative strategic direction as necessary.
Colony fills the void of a deep, strategy game with dice as a central part of it. The more you play, the more you discover additional nuances and combos that are really satisfying to pull off. I can't wait until everyone starts to get their hands on Colony when it is released at SPIEL 2016!
Germania Magna: Border in Flames was supposed to be published in 2015 by Wydawnictwo Alter. This didn't happened, but we heard stories about it, saw the artwork, played the game...and we couldn't resist what we experienced, so now PHALANX has acquired the publishing rights and prepared the game for release at SPIEL 2016.
Now you know the ending of the story, but what has happened earlier? I have asked designers Łukasz Wrona, Daniel Budacz, and Piotr Krzystek to tell their story, and here it goes!
Now that Germania Magna is ready, we often reminisce about the past, going back to the very beginning of the project.
What makes a board game successful? Even the best catchy phrases, an elaborate storyline, or beautiful graphics may not be enough if the gameplay just doesn't "click" as it is indeed the cool gameplay and the game's mechanisms that decide whether we come back to a given title or not. That's why our adventure with creating Germania Magna began by coming up with satisfying game mechanisms.
It's quite a long story as we based this game on our first design: Rok 1863, developed in 2012. The year 2013 was a special time for Poland. It was the 150th anniversary of the January Uprising, one of the most important events in the history of this country. Celebrations took on many forms: reconstructions, conferences and formal events. Łukasz and Piotrek, reconstruction enthusiasts and board game developers, decided to stand out and developed the first ever game about the January Uprising, the aforementioned Rok 1863. The game took the players to the time of the January Uprising, when we once again took up arms against the Russians to win back our freedom. Although historical sources focus on the fight for independence, it's no secret that during the uprising, commanders of the various insurgent parties clashed repeatedly. As such, we felt it was important that 1863 reflected this nuance, so we came up with mechanisms that would let players play against the game itself, as well as against other players. Player cooperation allows them to win battles, but the rivalry plot line between them develops at the same time as in the end there can be only one winner.
Piotr and Łukasz as reenactors of the troops from January Uprising 1863
That was the basic idea for the game, one in which the players go into battle together, helping each other out and...undermining one another at the same time. We'd been trying for a long time to come up with a way for the players to direct their troops, while building tension and keeping them guessing at the other players' intentions. At first, we had it that before playing their cards, the players had to indicate where they would add their units; battlefields had different colors, and the players showed their colored chips at the same time to declare which battle they'd participate in. However, we decided to drop that feature because it quickly made it apparent that a given battle is either unwinnable or too easy. Finally, we adopted a solution in which unit cards are played in sequence, and the player can add a card to a single battle, several battles, or none of them. The result is mounting tension as we send our troops into battle not knowing whether the other commanders will follow suit. Immediately the players start discussing and deal-making!
Should I help the cause — or myself? That is the question.
Almost from the very beginning, we assumed that the players would play with one of the several insurrection leaders. Each commander would in turn have different skills. In time, they also started to determine the sequence of each turn. Originally, we wanted the rounds to go clockwise. In each round, priority would shift to another player. However, we dropped it and moved the sequence determination to the commanders. This was a much better solution as you never know who's going to start the next turn, and at the same time it evens out the disproportions we started to notice between the abilities of different commanders. The assumption was that the stronger (in our opinion) commanders had higher initiative. As a result, players with theoretically weaker commanders had a little more control over the game as they knew what the players before them did. In that sluggish manner, step-by-step, we soldiered on, publishing the game in 2013.
Łukasz and Piotr awarded by Bronisław Komorowski, former President of the Republic of Poland
The game was noticed and became quite popular, both among the players, who appreciated the interesting mechanisms, and public institutions, which appreciated the freshness of the concept. The game received many awards, including the award of the President of the Republic of Poland. It was a major learning experience (both in the positive and negative sense), therefore our next game, based on the same core principles, needed to be thoroughly improved.
What happened next? In 2014, Daniel joined the team as the third author, to work on the next titles as a bigger team, but we always had this idea in the back of our heads to expand and re-use the mechanisms that Piotrek and Łukasz developed for 1863. The January Uprising is, however, too obscure a topic to be interesting to non-Polish players, so we decided to use what we already had, but put a new coat of paint on it. Łukasz put in a lot of time researching player preference, and the team discussed every single possible game concept. We thought about creating a product set in World War II, during the early-medieval Viking invasions, and even the losing battles of Native American tribes against European settlers. Finally, we settled on late antiquity, the area around rivers of the Rhine and Danube, and the asymmetric warfare between the barbarians and the Imperium Romanum.
And so, Germania Magna was born.
Playtesting the game
Since Daniel has always had a thing for antiquity — not only in the pop-cultural sense, but also as a serious researcher as he wrote and published several articles on the topic — he gladly jumped right in and started working on the new game. First and foremost, we needed to splice 1863 with the realities of Germanic invasions. The 19th century military formations and tactics were replaced with the ones described in ancient sources, insurgent leaders changed into German chieftains, the Russians into Roman legions, and Insurrection battlefields into Imperium Romanum provinces.
Aquitania Prima under siege!
Many mechanisms fit quite well with the new setting; however, we weren't satisfied with simply more of the same. Therefore, we decided to replace and improve as many of the elements criticized by the players as we could.
As a result, the final version of Germania is very different from 1863. It has many of its advantages, but without, we think, any of its defects. We not only added new cards and improved the existing ones, but also introduced totally new types. Negative interactions and competition in 1863 took a back seat to battling the common enemy. In Germania, they take center stage, as where insurgent leaders competed for prestige, the German chieftains were oftentimes openly hostile towards each other. Battle cards from 1863 had only a marginal influence at the beginning, whereas in Germania each province is full of features that can completely change the course of the battle, as well as influence victory or defeat. Uniform unit cards in 1863 now come in five different types. Infantry, cavalry and war machines all have unique characteristics, which we can multiply by playing appropriate tactics and formations.
We also developed deck-building, which opens up virtually unlimited possibilities of expanding on the game, especially in the context of planned expansions, or playing with those who own their own copy of the game. As we said, we had so many changes that when we were finishing development, we realized that aside from the core mechanisms, there is very little 1863 left in Germania. Those who played the previous game will probably have a sense of familiarity while playing Germania, but they should also feel that they got their hands on something new — improved not only in terms of graphics, but also mechanisms, and additionally that it is a title open to expansions, new card types, and much, much more...
We love illustrations. For as long as we can remember, we've been passionate for historical paintings and we love discovering the little details in every picture. We have great appreciation for works that, even in the tiniest of details, try to show the characters, their clothing, and the buildings and surroundings as they might have looked like in real life.
Nowadays, you can't have a good game without high graphic fidelity. Products with high-quality art, especially historical titles (most often strategy games), often become our favorites. Unfortunately, just like in movie, computer and literary pop culture, oftentimes the graphics have nothing to do with history. Illustrators go with current trends, copy and replicate falsehoods, and depict characters, events, and locations in a fantasy convention without caring for historical accuracy. For us, an approach like that is a simple cop-out.
Game box image from sketch to final artwork
That's why when we design a board or card game, we pay a lot of attention to the art. This is our favourite part of development. Coming up with ideas for cards and illustrations, browsing the Internet in search of inspiration, contacting illustrators, assessing their sample works, selecting the best candidates and reviewing each individual piece – fascinating months!
Germania Magna is a card game, and those rarely take up historical themes. Therefore, we had to come up with a satisfactory standard all by ourselves. We wanted to present the historical reality not only through game mechanisms (loose, ever-changing alliances between the barbarian tribes in their fight against Rome), or card names and quotes, but also in the graphics.
Fulcum card graphics
We were lucky enough to meet the right candidate on the first try. We were put in touch with a very talented artist who usually works on video games. Apart from great technique, Paweł Kaczmarczyk had several other virtues. He has a degree in history and knows how to work with different source materials, including archaeological findings, which are particularly important for our theme (late antiquity).
Additionally, he expresses his love for the period through historical reconstruction as a member of one of the top European groups dealing with Roman legions, the Legio XXI Rapax. Although he usually plays a Roman soldier from the turn of the eras — and those from the 4th century looked completely different — he knew exactly where to look to supplement his knowledge. He, and by extension ourselves, received help from our friends from the VicusUltimus group, who reconstruct late antiquity legionaries.
After only a few days of talking to Paweł, we knew we would be working with a hyper-competent person. That's why we weren't afraid to leave the scene composition entirely up to him. We came up with the card names and their functions, and Paweł created an entire series of artworks for tribal cards.
Paweł is ready to fight for the Empire!
Therefore our only enemy was the unrelenting passage of time. We wanted to release the game in time for the SPIEL 2015 fair, and in order to make the deadline, we needed the product to be ready for print by the end of August. Not counting the weeks, when we discussed the style of the cards and his responsibilities, Paweł had around two months to complete all the pictures. To make the task more realistic, we decided to contact Judyta Sosna to work on province cards and a dozen or so tribal cards. All the other cards from the tribal deck, as well as all the Roman and Chieftain cards, were painted by Paweł, who also created the layout for all card types, their backs, and most importantly, the box art. A group of German warriors plundering a Roman city is his piece.
A good example of how history influenced our work are the province cards. West-German tribes and confederations, i.e., the Alemanni and Franks, raided Roman provinces along the Rhine and Danube. Those territories were conquered by the Imperium Romanum at the turn of the eras, but during the late Roman Empire, the administration constantly changed their borders, created new provinces, and designated their capitals. Therefore we had to select around a dozen provinces and determine their distinguishing features, with all of this capable of being expressed in a single, small artwork. The process was simplest for provinces, which included cities and monuments we can visit today. The best example is the Augusta Treverorum, which is the modern-day German city of Trier with its famous Black Gate (Porta Nigra). City illustrations appeared on province cards with a high value of military strength. The weaker ones, we decided to adorn with pictures of less civilized parts of the province: forests, swamps, mountains, and at most a village and fields. Finally, we received a set of gorgeous landscapes of antiquity-era provinces, from the lower Rhine province of Belgica to the Alpine Raetia.
Final components showcase
Finally, after several months of work — yes, as you all know, the game didn't premiere in 2015 — Germania Magna can boast several dozen pieces of art that showcase the world of the barbarian tribes and their Roman enemies.
Our vision assumes that Germania Magna will be a basis for a system set in late antiquity and early middle-ages that takes the players back to the difficult times of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries around the Roman Limes, i.e., the borderlands along the Rhine and Danube. In this setting, the players take command of the powerful tribes of Western Germania: the mighty Alemanni confederation and the Franks, banding together around the Lower Rhine. Combating raids from these groups and dealing with constant political intrigue with their chieftains was the most important task of every single Roman Emperor of the time. However, the German menace was not the sole concern of the ruler, let alone officers from border forts, or rich owners of Roman villas and latifundia. The Imperium Romanum also fell victim to invasions from other tribes, which are due to appear in our game.
Some Huns would like to meet you
If you guys like the game, then you can look forward to expansions in the near future that will be devoted to wars between the barbarians and the declining empire. These will let you both play with new tribes as well as upgrade your existing decks and create unique alliances and confederations. We hope that Germania Magna: Border in Flames is just the beginning of a grand adventure in a world lit aflame and on the verge of collapse.
Thank you for reading!
This is how the dreams look, so far only in digital form, but soon in reality
Mon Sep 26, 2016 12:02 am
Hello! My name is Yan, and I am the author of Gentleman's Deal, a new boardgame from GaGa Games. Here is my story...
As a boardgame designer, I am very interested in game theory. Everybody who knows game theory even a little can understand that game theory isn't about regular games most of the time. I know that, too, but game theory is full of mathematical problems and different game-like systems. More importantly, people have been working on these problems for years! That is thousands of playtests that have been already held with open access! All in my hands! So I started digging into this.
My first goal was to make a game based on the prisoner's dilemma. Game theory has told me everything about its main problems, paradoxes, and dominant strategies. I changed the dilemma so that it became more fun, more playable — more of a board game. That game was Swords and Bagpipes.
After publishing S&B, I started searching for another cool game theory problem to use, and I stumbled into the "Pirates' Gold" riddle — and that what Gentleman's Deal is all about.
Pirates' Gold Riddle
Five supersmart pirates want to divide one hundred gold coins between them. According to the Pirates' Code, they must distribute it the following way:
The oldest pirate offers a way to divide the stash, then everybody votes. If half or more of the voters accept the deal, the gold will be divided the way described. If most of the pirates are against it, they will kill the dealer and start again. What should the first pirate do?
This riddle is solvable by the method of reversed induction. (I don't really know how it is called in English, so I just translate it roughly.)
• If two pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal will get everything. He will offer one hundred coins to himself, they will have a tie vote, and the deal will be accepted.
• If three pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal can offer one coin to the youngest pirate, which is more than the nothing he would get in a deal with only two pirates, so they will seal the deal.
• If four pirates are left, the pirate proposing the deal will bribe the guy who would be left out if only three pirates remain.
• And so on...
That's it! So how are you going to make the game out of it? Let's figure this out!
What's the Main Idea?
A negotiation-based party game! I wanted to make a game in which the dealer would get some resources, then offer a way of dividing it. All the players would then vote to decide whether or not they like the proposed distribution.
What Must Change to Make the Riddle a Board Game?
1) People shouldn't drop out of the game for too long.
2) The game shouldn't end after five or fewer rounds.
3) The game shouldn't be solvable.
4) People must have some "conditions" that make them more or less "appealing" for the dealer — and the overall "appealingness" shouldn't be too obvious.
Stage 1: Early Development
What did I do exactly? That was a long journey, so let's get back to 2014. My first attempt was rather straightforward. People were playing as countries during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, and the dealers would be offering each other parts of Africa. I have to admit that was the most boring setting that I've ever done in my games, and I am a big fan of Smash Up and other cool themes.
Anyway, in my game people received the cards with each new deal every time, then tried to distribute them. If the dealer loses, he doesn’t drop out of the game, but rather he — brace yourself — drops out of the game until the next acceptance of a deal.
That was a real hardcore rule, which allowed players to drop several opponents in a row out of the game in order to divide a big fat pile of resources between smaller groups. That was really complicated and not everybody got it. And as you remember, my idea was to create a party game.
Stage 2: Mafia Theme
I next returned to this prototype after almost a year. In 2015, I "kickstarted" an English version of Swords and Bagpipes and was now ready to continue my project by changing the setting and fixing the most major flaws.
First, I had noticed that the game was solvable because everyone knew everyone else's income. You could count the opponents' coins and decide exactly how many coins you could offer to each player. And I had constructed the most ridiculously overweighted counting system in the world that included a VP-tracker with several resources that combined personal goals (Container style) and the place where you got them.
That was re-e-eally complicated.
So I simplified it and simplified it and in the end I had only one resource that was hidden behind the screen. That was exactly what I needed! People can't remember the income of each player anyway. And it took almost a year of playtests.
The second big thing was the different "conditions" I talked about earlier. I realized quickly that the only punishment the dealer can get was skipping the turn. Without detailed information about money and without the ability to make a "kicking combo", every player became the same. There were not a lot of things to negotiate about. It was still possible. There were triple-vote tokens, for example, but that was not much.
And then the "Partners" kicked in...
Stage 3: Le Finale
I worked with one Russian publisher at a time. The "partners" cards really make this game. The six cards that can go from one player to another drastically enrich the gameplay as people now get things to negotiate about. They still have triple-voting, different offers, and different money behind the screen, but now they also have cool abilities:
• Do I want to negotiate with the guy who has the Senator?
• Do I want to give some to the Sheriff so he won't take me down?
• The guy with the Banker will get money anyway. Maybe I will give him a little bit extra to lure him to my side?
And this is only tip of the iceberg.
I went with this version to Essen and showed it to several publishers. GaGa Games made the best offer.
I hope that this game becomes a success as I think that it's a really cool pure-diplomacy party game, and the full rules are available on the Gentleman's Deal page here on BGG.
Thank you for reading.
Once upon a time in a kid's movie, I heard an amazing quote:
No dream is too big and no dreamer too small.
And it is so right! Never stop dreaming. But what are dreams really? And how do they affect our lives? I don't know, and in fact I am not so keen to know after all. All I know is that they are awesome and maybe even necessary. Either when sleeping or daydreaming, dreams have a meaning, that's for sure. What affects our dreams? Do they depict our inner shelf, or are they affected by our everyday experiences? So many unanswered questions, but I won't analyze it anymore. I could write about dreams all day long!
Instead I will write about my first to-be-published game: When I Dream. As you probably already understand, I like dreams a lot! There was also a time that I was even keeping a diary of my dreams — but I also like board games, too. In my free time, when I do not play, I am constantly thinking about themes that can be transferred into board games.
First, let me tell you a bit about my game. When I Dream is a party game in which each round one player becomes the Dreamer and puts on a sleeping mask for the two minutes of the round. The other players become the Dream Spirits, and in those two minutes, they draw dream cards, one at a time, and try to help the Dreamer guess the words on those cards. The fun part, though, is that some of the spirits are naughty and want to confuse the Dreamer to guess wrong! So let's take it from the beginning...
I participated in the sixth Greek board game design contest in 2015 with two games, and I had such a great time! I met great people who I admire and they sat to play my games, so I knew that I couldn't miss the 7th design contest in 2016. I had a game already prepared, but then I came up with the idea of a dreamy party game! My closest friends aren't hardcore gamers, so I decided to create a game to play with them, and if it turned out to be good enough, I would participate in the contest with this game, too. And the ''music'' for my game would be… what else… dreams! But I needed to create the ''lyrics'' — the mechanisms — of the game.
The first idea was that one player would be sleeping, of course. A cloth mask would be great for keeping his eyes closed and it fit the theme. The other players would try to describe things that appear in his sleep and are parts of his dream, and that is the idea I started with.
"But it would be too easy to identify the dream if his teammates spoke clearly, so what about his teammates giving fewer clues? Maybe one word each, this could maybe work… Still though, it would be very easy to find what he is dreaming about… Oh, that's it! Some players will try to confuse him! Great!"
With all these things spinning into my mind, I gathered some friends to have the first playtest. To do that, I used the cards from the game Hedbanz. There were four players, and each card had a word and an image. I also picked someone to be the "bad" guy who would try to confuse the dreamer — and it actually worked quite well!
The following day I started working on the game, writing down words to make my own cards. I wrote three full pages with possible words. Oh my god, my choices were endless! I could put every single word that came to my mind, but then I thought better of it and reduced them by keeping only words that could be guessed with just two or three clues. You see, when your eyes are closed, it is not so easy to guess correctly, especially with someone trying to confuse you. Let's take for example the word "watermelon". If you hear the clue words "fruit-summer-red", you can easily guess it, but if you hear "fruit-summer-yellow", then you would probably mistake the item you're supposed to guess as a melon — and that was the point of each card/word. With some thought, the traitors would be able to confuse the dreamer.
After a lot of brainstorming, I made the first prototype consisting of two hundred cards, each with a word and an image found online, then the playtesting began. It was so easy to playtest and to find people willing to play because of the nature of the game. Fast and funny!
Each game had a lot of laughs, and everyone wanted to play again as soon as they finished. People seemed to enjoy it a lot. And through the players you can feel it, too. In the first prototype version, I used a timer app that beeped every five seconds so that no player would take too long to give a clue, an addition that I removed from the base game for later playtests because it confused many players.
After many changes, the game was now as follows: One player closes his eyes with a mask. He is the dreamer of this round. The other players assume the roles of good, bad, and trickster spirits. Every round lasts 120 seconds in which players give clues for cards that the dreamer needs to guess. Every good guess gives points to the good spirits and every bad guess gives points to the bad spirits. Trickster spirits are also a late addition in playtests and maybe the most fun role to play! At the end of the round, the dreamer can storytell his dream for extra points using the cards he guessed.
After months of playtesting, I appeared at the first pre-show of the contest with When I Dream.
Many people playtested the game that day. A designer I admire, Vangelis Bagiartakis, also playtested it and told me the design had great potential. That day Drawlab Entertainment also playtested my game, and they saw that potential in When I Dream, too!
I got a call from Drawlab the following day while I was away for a business trip, and I was ready to jump into the sea from happiness! And when I later heard that the artists of When I Dream would be Vincent Dutrait and Christophe Swal, I was thrilled! I couldn't believe it! I was living in a dream... Later I was approached by other great publishers, but we had already started working with Drawlab and the future looked bright.
The first thing to do was clean up the words according to what worked best and worst in playtesting, which reduced the number of dream words down to 120. This was easy. I also divided the cards into categories. In each playtest I kept changing cards that I found too difficult or too easy. I wanted all the words to be equally hard or easy to describe — goodbye, gravity! — and also to be a single word (goodbye, ejection button).
The final day of the contest was a blast! The convention center was full of people and When I Dream always found players eager to try it out. At the end of the day, the judges awarded When I Dream the third best game of the contest (tied with Motion Pictures, which turned out to be the other SPIEL 2016 release from Drawlab). But even more excitingly, the people showed their love and appreciation, and When I Dream won the people's choice award with an enormous difference from the second-best title! What more can I ask? People's appreciation is something unique!
After a while, the first art samples for the cards arrived. I loved them all, but they were not really what I expected. I was concerned that the piranha was too scary for children who may play the game, the chef too violent with the lobster. We discussed it with Drawlab, who understood what I meant and reassured me that the final art would not be "aggressive" or "violent". They had in mind more surreal and bizarre illustrations, and both Vincent and Christophe were in line with these. The art took a turn to look more dreamy and playful and it was amazing! Every card now is a unique piece of artwork.
Artwork was our main concern from the very beginning as in playtests we saw that players, because of the pressure of time, were giving word clues according to the images they saw in the card. A great example of that is the "boar" prototype card. As you can see, the boar in the prototype card wears a fancy yellow helmet, and this guided many players (maybe one in every two games) to say "helmet", "hat" or "yellow", which has nothing to do with the boar. And the worst part is that those players were not bad spirits. We concluded that a lot of things on each card was the way to go. After all, a dream is weird, right?
Now that the time for our trip to Essen is coming, we have the art of almost all the cards ready. Day by day, we will have more and more before the game goes to the printer. They are big (almost Dixit-sized) with amazing artwork and two different words on each! The game will come with a cloth mask and point tokens. High quality, great artwork, and a lot of fun for the players — exactly what I need for my first published game!
Hope you enjoy the game and never stop dreaming!
What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
It's a bit unusual that I can remember exactly when the first idea for a game popped into my mind, but in this case I can — or rather, for two games. But first things first.
On Thursday, June 7, 2012 I didn't have to go to work early for some reason, but could sleep in. When I slowly woke up without the help of an alarm clock, I had an idea for a game in my head. As my mind became clearer, I realized that a game like that already existed — but at that same moment, a new idea emerged, an idea about a card game in which the players have to fulfill silly tasks with useless items (in a storytelling form). Throughout the day, I pondered on this, and since I usually visit Reinhold Wittig on Friday afternoons to play and chat, I quickly noted a few tasks and items — I think there were about 15 tasks and 45 items — printed them on thin paper, and cut them out.
The next day, I went to Reinhold's place and told him I had brought something that I would like his opinion on, but before it came to that, we chatted about this and that. I wasn't expecting to play the game because it was clearly for three players and up, and at that time, we were usually the only ones at his place. Then the doorbell rang and Reinhold's friend D. showed up – a man in his late seventies, a friendly, but rather serious guy, only slightly interested in games, occasionally playing along, but usually content just watching. Hmm, I thought, maybe this is not a good day to show Reinhold my game. I was slightly disappointed, but the idea was so unrefined that I thought, well, I can give it some more thought until next week and try again. We chatted for a while, and as it got later, Reinhold reminded me I wanted to show him something. I said something like, nah, I don't want to push this on everyone, but he insisted. Then I explained the rules, which took only two or three minutes as the concept was quite simple, and suggested we could try it at the regular Tuesday designer meeting. He wouldn't hear of it, he wanted to try it, and convinced D. to play along. And then the most astonishing thing happened.
More than I had seen him laugh ever before (or since).
Even better, after we finished, we did some brainstorming for additional tasks and items, and he gave many good suggestions. That's when I knew I was really up to something.
I went home thrilled as this had been the best first impression any of my games had left. That night, I wrote to my designer friend Martijn, telling him I made a game in which you have to pick useless items to fulfill weird tasks and the other players had to guess which task you were going for just by seeing these items. I attached a first draft of the rules (just one page long). My excitement knew no bounds...for precisely eleven minutes, when I received his answer: Doesn't this sound a bit like Cat & Chocolate?
Oh no. My idea had been done before, somewhat successfully. My dreams were shattered for a moment, but upon reading more about Cat & Chocolate, I gladly noticed that the games weren't all that similar, despite the similar premise. A few months later, I managed to get hold of a copy and played it, which confirmed my belief that these games are different enough. To make sure not to get too close, I decided to stay away from any voting mechanism, although it was occasionally suggested by playtesters.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to play my prototype quite a lot in the next few weeks, with different player counts and different audiences. Everyone loved it, and the list of tasks and items grew. For the fifth play, I added a small mechanism to keep everyone more engaged during all parts of the game: a risk element (the option to interrupt the player choosing items to make an early bet). That was the last major change to the game for some years.
After that, I focused on refining the cards. It turned out that players tended to use quite different items in the same way — anything that was long and stick-shaped was used as a long stick, for example, no matter whether it was a broom or a fishing rod — so I had to make sure that I had a good selection of different items and tasks. I almost didn't have time for this at all because Reinhold had already told a publisher about the game, and that publisher wanted to see a prototype. I rushed one out to them, then the unromantic part about being a game designer started: Sending out a prototype, waiting for an answer, rinse and repeat. I got very nice responses from various publishers, but none were biting.
In the meantime, I played the game many more times and got plenty of suggestions from playtesters, but in the end, the core of the game remained the same. One frequent remark was that it was a pity there was no mechanism to reward the best stories with extra points. However, I noticed that the people who cared about good stories most weren't all that interested in the points, while the point lovers were fine with any kind of story (plus, I wanted to avoid a voting system, see above). Both groups can play together perfectly well, so I only added a variant and left the standard game intact.
I got about five rejections from publishers, and one initially positive reply about which I was very happy. Alas, it wasn't to be. In Nürnberg in 2014, the publisher told me that they had run into some difficulties through no fault of their own, and they wouldn't be able to publish my game in either 2014 or 2015, so they encouraged me to try other publishers first. They also told me about this French publisher in a booth across from theirs, and the game might be just what he was looking for.
So I walked over and met Franz of Le Droit de Perdre, a small French publisher of mostly communication games. He asked me to show him the prototype later (he was expecting someone at that moment), and we agreed on a time. Now I had to find someone to help me pitch the game, because the easiest way of explaining it is to just start playing, and we needed a third person for that. I had someone in mind, but that someone had to leave unexpectedly just before the appointment, so another designer came with me spontaneously. I was so relieved and grateful that I failed to properly inform him that this wouldn't be a playtest session, but a publisher pitch. We started playing the game, and the other designer kept making suggestions for changes instead of just playing along, which wasn't exactly what I needed at that moment...but I got a rather enthusiastic response from Franz anyway. Things seemed to be moving forward fast, and eventually I promised the French language rights to the game to him. Franz was a great person to meet, and we exchanged countless emails and sometimes spent a few hours talking on Skype (and he recently even stopped by my house for dinner and gaming). However, he kept thinking about changes because he essentially wanted a game that could be played right out of the box. I wasn't entirely convinced that this could be done, but he kept coming up with interesting ideas, so we kept the idea alive. He also thought of a cool French name: Débrouille-toi. Can't translate that properly as it's an expression that doesn't have an elegant counterpart in German, and I won't even try in English. Maybe some of those French speakers around here can help out...
Meanwhile, I hadn't made any progress for any languages other than French (which I don't know too well, so I won't be able to play the French edition myself). When the Göttingen Designer Gathering came around in early June 2014, I pitched the game to a few other publishers. This included some notable talks, such as two editors from the same publishing company arguing about the right way to deal with a game like this right in front of me.
And then there was an invitation to talk to K. from Vennerød. This time, I made sure the person joining me knew the situation (and the game) well. I did what I always do during those publisher pitch talks: I explained the basic idea for a minute or so, then set up a sample turn to show the game flow (really the easiest way of showing a game like this). I drew a task, picked some items for it, then the guy I had brought along made a guess and elaborated on what he thought I'd be doing (the essential storytelling part), which was great. Now it was K.'s turn. He mumbled something like, "I think you are trying to do this and that." No story. Silence. Then: "Sorry, but I hate this kind of game."
Here are the thoughts that I processed in the following second-and-a-half: Oh great, this isn't going well at all. Does the only really negative response have to happen at this very moment? Maybe the game sucks and my 100-odd playtesters have just been polite to me?
And then he continued: "You know, I personally like meaty games that take three or four hours to play. I just can't stand party games, but I think the game is good. I will have to discuss this with my partners before making any decisions. Could we meet with them in Essen?"
Fast forward to October, SPIEL 2014. I was able to go there only briefly that year, but at least I could go together with my wife (a rare opportunity). We met K. in a cafeteria that was otherwise mostly empty, but he had brought a couple of other Norwegian fellows to have a look, so we played a round while he was watching. The usual raucous laughter ensued, and the players wanted to do another round. Afterwards he thanked me and said he would need another week to make up his mind — which he did within three days, and it was a yes. I was obviously delighted.
2015 was a less than an ideal year for me. I got severely ill and spent several months in the hospital, and I wasn't always able to think clearly, but we stayed in contact, working out a contract, and began to discuss some details. I learned soon that the game wouldn't make Essen in 2015, and in retrospect I am not unhappy about that because when Essen came around, I was still not strong enough to go (although I was recovering). On the other hand, the thought of holding the finished game in my hands seemed a good enough reason to stay alive.
Prototype box; one editor regretted that no chocolate was inside
The game still lacked a name (for the English/German version). Until then, my prototype had been called "Impossible!?", but from early on, we had agreed on finding something better. Lots of ideas were flying around, but we didn't come up with anything really fitting. In desperation, I remembered what happened when my last game had needed a name, so this time I contacted Kathleen directly. She promised to do a brainstorming session in some of her game design classes in St. Louis. Next thing I knew, I was online watching a Google Doc grow as her students threw ideas at her, which she then speed-typed into the file. There were literally hundreds of suggestions, some quirky, some good, some outright strange. While she was typing, I marked those that I liked especially and tried to explain why, so the students could get a better idea of my thinking. It was a great experience, and I had never done anything this before — the magic of the internet.
Yet when we were done, there were a suggestion from Kathleen herself still sitting at the top of the document, and that was "Mission Impractical". The more I stared at the title, the more it grew on me, and in the end, we settled on it. For those of you who haven't seen Kathleen's GeekLists about her students' designs, do check them out as they are very well worth reading.
I met with K. again in Nürnberg in early 2016, and from this time onward, the project picked up speed. He showed me some works from Gjermund Bohne, the artist he had in mind, and those looked good to me. SPIEL 2016 was set as the publishing date, and I had something to look forward to. K. also gave me some homework: I was to make some suggestions for a cover motif. I am a horrible artist myself, so this is really something I was a bit unsure about, but I regarded it as an interesting challenge and sent in three suggestions.
Another while later, planning with Franz intensified. He suggested making a cooperative game out of Débrouille-toi, which wasn't something I had ever contemplated. Ideas went back and forth, I went back to playtesting and noticed that it was very cool, too — but at this point I finally realized that my original game wouldn't just see two different editions with different artwork, but two different games with the same basic idea. In other words, when I had woken up on that morning almost exactly four years earlier, I hadn't invented one, but two games. Débrouille-toi doesn't have a BGG entry or a publication date yet, but I am very excited about it, too.
The day after I had gotten the suggestion from Franz, Gjermund sent some thumbnails from which to choose a motif. They contained my suggestions but also several more. While number 4 looked great, 2 and 10 captured the spirit of the game best. Hard to decide – but in the end, we went with number 2, partly because of the box format. We discussed some minor tweaks, and in my opinion, Gjermund did an outstanding job — so much so that I tried to copy it. What do you think?
From then on, we worked on the details: component design, rules layout and some changes here and there, box back text, and so on. I felt involved in every step, which was a very pleasant experience. Some designers might be glad to not have to worry about stuff like this, but I was used to not having much of a clue what a publisher was doing to my designs, and I much prefer the more cooperative effort.
Now Mission Impractical is at the printers, and I am keeping all my available fingers crossed that it will make it to Essen in time for the fair.
My son and co-designer Matt has described the tortuous process by which Pax Renaissance was forged as a game. Now I want to describe how philosophy has shaped this game, as well as my own life. Yes, the birth of a new kind of game is reflected in my own decades-long intellectual renaissance. This journey, lasting almost as long as the historical Renaissance, includes my schooling, arguments with friends and enemies, and my big move to Europe.
My overarching vision was to explore how the medieval world was replaced by Western society, notorious for subsequently conquering the entire globe. This globalization of Western ideas and power occurred in a brief exciting period called the Renaissance. Certain personal events influenced the game concepts of trade routes, republics, the Inquisition, the Reformation, class warfare, theocracies, and the great East/West dichotomy.
The Novels of Dorothy Dunnett
A college girlfriend shared with me a series of historical novels called "The House of Niccolò". Niccolò is a boy of humble origins, an unacknowledged son working as an apprentice in a Flanders dye shop, but he is good with figures, and with this strength goes on to found a banking empire, with its own troop of mercenaries, couriers, cryptographers, notaries, insurers, and one great galley. Everything pivots around trade with the Far East and secret deals with the Ottomans who controlled the routes to the East.
The novels described a surprisingly modern world of banks and capitalism. It shattered my vague impression that the Renaissance bankers were nobility making their fortunes with interests on royal loans. Instead vast fortunes were made with large amounts of small loans to merchants and commoners, while simultaneously avoiding the unwanted attentions of royals who could demand money backed by the force of arms. The novels describe the historical Medici oath forbidding both lending to royals (since kings had no incentive to pay back) and avoiding holding public offices to stay in the private sector. Since the bankers were commoners with no rights and vulnerable to forced "loans", they could survive only in places where the warlords held no power, i.e., the guild-run city-states of Italy and Flanders.
The series, written by a polymath named Dorothy Dunnett, are fiction, but they mesh closely with what is known about the lives of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, one of the unheralded heroes of civilization, and his son Cosimo. The stories of the banking houses of Fugger, Welser, and Cœur are similar. They would become starting player roles.
In high school, I became friends with a strange kid with a German father and Hungarian mother. We had heated discussions about politics, I defending democracies and he dictatorships. It was during these arguments that I found myself defending things that were really indefensible. For the first time, I began to distinguish democracies (rule by the majority) from republics (rule by natural law), and began to defend the latter. It became apparent that powers as diverse as Rome and the USA accomplished much while they were republics, then declined sharply thereafter. And then I had the revelation that the Renaissance originated in the only spot on the entire globe that could be called a republic. The Doges were figureheads, there was no supreme dictator, and the rule was a rule of law.
Nobody Expects This
An important relic of medievalism during the Renaissance was the Inquisition. During this period, it targeted largely Jews. I first struggled with the bizarre phenomenon of anti-Semitism when my aforementioned best buddy got married to a lovely Jewish girl and immediately became estranged from his German family. At first I was convinced this was a religious war, up to and including the Holocaust — but the problem was that Hitler did not seem like a Jesus freak. Why target Jews? And what hidden stream of resentment had he tapped into, in a Western society no less? "Jews are like crows, picking the bones of the fallen", one college friend told me. Another friend was a disciple of the Rothschild-Jewish conspiracy theory. Even some of my seemingly rational partners today still soberly tell me that bankers secretly run the world to the distress of everyone else. I came to realize that this bizarre hatred was aimed against the profession of banking. Thomas Sowell calls this irrationality the "middleman prejudice".
It was only for incidental historical and doctrinal reasons that Jews became bankers and moneylenders, both in the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Europe. These professions have always unpopular, further exacerbated by government propaganda by those who are always looking for ways to subjugate and exploit bankers. From the Renaissance kings, to the Nazi regime, to the modern politicians, bankers and other middlemen are portrayed as greedy and heartless — unless subjugated to the divine right of kings to confiscate their earnings, right down to the fillings of their teeth, as frequent Inquisitions and Holocausts demonstrate.
Banks Then And Now
During the Renaissance, there were attempts to set up public banks using tax money. The rulers hoped to become as rich as the private bankers, but all the central banks failed within months. Today's World Bank is not a bank but a political bureaucracy run by politicians and funded by tax dollars, one that has clearly outlived whatever usefulness it may have allegedly had. Someday I may do a Pax game in modern Mexico, so post-Porfiriana, showing an optimistic future under private banks rather than the World Bank.
Two of the starting bankers: Medici and Marchionni
My Jesuit Training
I was trained by Jesuits. "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man" is the Jesuit maxim. (In my case, the man produced was a fundamentalist atheist — not the desired result, however.) In any case, the salient point here is that the Jesuits were specifically established during the Renaissance as the ideological shock troops of the counter-Reformation. They were trained like Jedi knights to bring down Luther and his heresies, So I had to read a lot of material on Luther in high school, including his rampant anti-Semitism and his role against the peasants in the Great Peasant Revolt. All these features and events would appear in the game.
One of my colleagues at the rocket factory introduced me to Will Durant, whose life's work was the documenting the story of civilization. I enjoyed Durant's in-depth style, and quoted him copiously throughout the game's footnotes.
Lords of the Renaissance From Below
My readings inspired my game Lords of the Renaissance, published in 1996. As Matt has mentioned, this game used a big map with trade routes that generated the economy. The routing of the trade routes determined which nations grew rich and powerful, and which withered. Tableau cards determined which lands and which offices you held. Like the earlier game Lords of the Sierra Madre, the revolutionary part of the game was that it was "bottom up" rather than "top down". In other words, the players were neither nations or national leaders. They were instead commoners struggling to influence the royals to their advantage.
This "bottom up" perspective is one of the hardest things to describe to newcomers of the Pax games. Q: "Why don't I get the income from taxes?" A: Because you are just a banker, not a tax collector. Q: "How can he move and burn me with my own inquisitors?". A: You may have funded the creation of these zealots, but you aren't the Pope. Q: "Wait, my pirates should give the stuff they steal to me." A: You are not a pirate captain and those are not your pirates. Q: "I paid for those knights; I don't want them joining the crusade." A: Those aren't the droids you're looking for.
The Renaissance is defined by the new merchant class overthrowing the old warlord classes of knights, kings, and pawns. Therefore, class warfare had be at the core of Pax Renaissance. I hit upon the idea of assigning cards to chess pieces. The knights, bishops, pawns, and kings of the medieval world would be represented by chess icons, and the game would feature the struggles among them. A way to show a class as being suppressed or enslaved was devised. These were envisioned as seething in discontent, ready to revolt at any sign of weakness by the ruling class.
The represented classes are medieval. Most are agents of force: the kings, queens, knights, bishops, and castles. Others, represented as chess pawns in the game, are those who earn their way in the world by their products and services, what we would call today the business class. This includes not only serfs but also the new emergent class of merchants and bankers. It is suggestive that these capitalist classes emerged in entrepôts furthest from the influence of kings and nobles, such as the Italian city-states.
In 2004, I met Nicole, a medical student (and boardgamer) from Karlsruhe, Germany. We were both on vacation in New Zealand at the time. We began a long distance relationship, while struggling to learn each other's language. Inevitably, we searched for a way to shorten the ocean between us. Initially I thought she could move to Arizona and become a doctor. The alternative, me moving to Germany, was lightyears out of my comfort zone. I would be in a village with no English speakers other than Nicole, but on the bright side I might become more cosmopolitan, more multicultural. My tiny business Sierra Madre Games would become one of those multinationals so maligned by anticapitalists. Germany was undoubtedly the global center of non-computer games, always good for business, and Europe was the epicenter for the start of the Western society, a topic of continued fascination for me. After many vacillations, in 2013 I took early retirement from the rocket factory and boarded a one-way 747 to Frankfurt, Germany.
I now live in a village overlooking the Rhine two hundred kilometers west of Augsburg, the Renaissance center of the Welser and Fugger bankers. This was at the birth of privately earned wealth, and Jakob Fugger was judged in a recent study to be the richest man in history. I have a documentary on his life called "Kauf dir einen Kaiser" (Buy yourself a Caesar). But ask yourself, who really holds the power, the man with the purse or the man with the sword? I learned that the vast Fugger fortune would come to be simply seized by the emperor.
Market shown at set-up, with the East market in the upper row and the West in the lower row
Once in Germany, my experience of various cultures expanded greatly. My best friends here in Germany are a refugee couple from Iran. I was able to obtain firsthand information about theocracies, those governments where church and state are intertwined. Theocracies were to be at the heart of the game's holy victories, and the means by which to implement the Reformations, crusades, and jihads of their time. I needed to know, for instance, how militaristic and aggressive theocracies are compared to dictatorships.
The status and treatment of women is a telltale difference between The East and The West. Much of the hatred of Eastern regimes is directed toward the Western idea that women are independent agents not forced to submit to societal needs. Before her escape from Iran, a friend of mine was imprisoned for the crime of working at a secular kindergarten. Both she and her boyfriend have since renounced Islam and become atheists. If forced to return to Iran, a possibility given her visa status, she could be stoned. She tells me it is illegal to be happy in Iran, referring to an incident in which teenagers innocently dancing to the western music called "Happy" were whipped and imprisoned. By the way, she is an artist and painted a small element on the game box.
East and West
So why am I so fascinated with Western society? So much of today's world is taken for granted. Supermarkets, bank accounts, private auto and jet travel, cheap housing with electricity and flush toilets, the industrial revolution, the current food glut from the green revolution — all these are gifts bequeathed by industrialists trained in Western-style logic and reason. The Western basis of thinking originated with Aristotle in Athens and was preserved by thinkers in Rome and Alexandria. Lost in Europe's dark ages, the scholarly tradition continued in Constantinople and Baghdad. As the Islamic world entered its own dark ages just before the Renaissance, it migrated west once again. This westward migration of Aristotle's ideas heralded the Italian Renaissance, as exemplified in the largely secular University of Padua, which counts Copernicus and Galileo among its alumni.
Just Where Are the East and the West?
The decision to make separate East and West decks solved a serious game conundrum: how to reasonably restrict a card's influence. Restricting a range of operations to just one empire out of ten failed the playability test. Making a card range over the entire map failed the realism test. Letting a card influence just the East or just the West was in the goldilocks zone — but the next question that arises: What do we mean by "The East" or "The West"? Is the difference geographical, religious, or philosophical?
Although for the range of operations the game describes the East and West in geographical terms, it fundamentally defines the two as opposing philosophic and cultural dispositions. For this reason, Western cards can be located in the East and vice versa. More on this in my closing paragraphs.
Pax Pamir To The Rescue
By 2014, Pax Renaissance was in deep trouble. Matthew and I had attempted eight major iterations of the game, some baselined on his ideas and some on mine. Each attempt foundered on the rocks of too much ambition. The ten-empire map scale was so huge that players had little hope of obtaining even two cards in the same empire. This made almost all the operations enabled by a tableau card useless. Now even the most diehard playtesters were losing interest. Without playtesters, the project was dying.
I made an executive decision and shelved the game, concentrating instead on Cole Wehrle's new project, Pax Pamir. Cole was tackling the same problems I was, with more success. In particular, Cole was able to integrate all three game arenas: the Market, the Tableaus, and the Map. However, late in the process and with little time left until the publication deadline, Pax Pamir failed in Matthew's playtest. His players were unable to figure out whether campaigns or other operations would succeed or fail unless they examined each card of their opponent's tableaus, which brought the game to a standstill. Previous playtesters, including me, had noted a problem, but were unable to identify its source. Matthew did.
Afraid the project would fail, I made an emergency Skype call to Cole in Texas. I was full of trepidation because I recall working with another game designer who refused to alter a design, and thus it never got published. To my utter relief, Cole was unflustered by a major late redesign. In fact, he quickly grasped the problem and took the redesign lead. His game proved immensely popular, in fact the fastest-selling Sierra Madre game.
The next step in my secret plan was to scrap the rules and cards of Pax Renaissance and start with Pax Pamir rules and cards as a new baseline — basically plagiarize Cole's ideas of Market/Tableau/Map integration wholesale and steal his mechanisms of a closed economy and operations icons, then backfill this with the core ideas of Pax Renaissance, ideas like trade routes, imperial military strength coupled with custom fees from those trade routes, theocracies and republics indicated by special cards, class warfare, etc. I pleaded with burned-out playtesters, finally getting together a fresh team in Italy.
On Location Pax Renaissance
I owe a lot to Stefano and his Italian team of playtesters. Living where it all began, they made sure I got the details right. The one from Genoa was fit to throttle me when I made Columbus and Doria into pirates. Decisions on what to name the empires were filled with landmines. My indecision regarding what to call the Iberian peninsula was brought directly under fusillades from both Castilians and Portuguese. Ditto between Hungarians and Polish-Lithuanians.
Pax Renaissance trade map: theocracy
What Are the Differences Between the East and the West?
By "Western thought", I mean an epistemology that upholds reason (i.e., observation and logic) as man's means of knowledge. By "Eastern thought", I mean a reliance on mystical sources of knowledge. As a consequence, Western cultures tend to uphold the value of the individual, particularly independence and free thought, while Eastern cultures suborn individuals to group and collectivist thinking. Three examples common in the East but vanquished by Western efforts are arranged marriages, the caste system, and slavery. Western philosophy since John Locke views leaders as just one of many, subject to the same rules as everyone else, while the leader assumes supreme status in the East. Western discourse is marked by candor, frankness, and honesty, while discussing something as basic and important as child birth or sex is still a taboo in the East. Western decisions are concerned with this world, while Eastern ones are concerned with the next. Economic freedoms, especially capitalism, are enjoyed in the West (even if largely unappreciated), while they are reviled in the East. Western medicine relies on analytical approaches, while that of the East relies on holistic approaches.
To repeat, these generalities are derived from the reason versus mysticism premises of individuals and are not associated with any location or place of origin. To say it another way, any style of thinking that suborns the individual to society, instead of the other way around, is what I am characterizing as "Eastern".
Eastern Versus Western Medicine
My wife is a doctor, and the fight to exclude pseudoscience from medicine is a daily one for us. I define "pseudoscience" as any attempt to substitute anything other than observation and logic as a source of knowledge. I am not saying that alternative medicine and Eastern holism is worthless, but that it must satisfy the same Aristotelian standards as anything else to qualify as knowledge. In particular, it must specify a causal chain to actually qualify as a scientific treatment.
Physical causality is conspicuously missing in claims for acupuncture, aural fields, bloodletting, voodoo doll treatments, etc. This debate is as active today as it was in the Renaissance.
Wars of Politics, Wars of Philosophy
Besides class warfare (conspiracies and peasant revolts), Pax Renaissance also represents political and philosophical wars. The former — wars chiefly fought to enhance the power and vainglory of the kings and rulers — are represented by "campaigns". This game mechanism was copy-pasted from Pax Pamir. The philosophical wars, on the other hand, are represented by crusades, reformations, and jihads.
During the Renaissance, most of the Ottoman Wars against the West were campaigns, concerned over territory, not ideology, but some of them employed jihad, against, for instance, shi'a muslims.
The Allied invasion of occupied Europe in WWII is an example of a modern philosophical war. My evidence comes from an informal poll made of my neighbors and relatives here in Germany. All of them, including even those who actually fought in the war, consider D-Day to be an honorable action. Where else in the world can you find such overwhelming support for invading foreigners? The reason is that the invasion is regarded as ideological, not a grab for power or territory.
D-Day was fought between Western powers, yet I would argue that the National Socialists in control of Germany followed Eastern ideals of individuals as pawns of society. Our family copy of Mein Kampf, issued to us during the war, is full of phrases stating that there is no higher good than to die for the Fatherland. "Du bist nichts, Dein Volk ist alles" (You are nothing, your race is everything).
The Eastern idea of individuals sacrificing themselves for their society has persisted from the Janissary and Mamluk slave-soldiers to more modern Kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. The latter are used in today's Muslim ideological war targeting Western values. I write this in the wake of terrorist attacks in Nice, France, about 840 km south of here, and in Munich, about 300 km to the east. The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks — three days of terror in Paris — demonstrated that I personally can be killed for what I have stated and depicted on several Pax Renaissance cards.
This war is between anyone in the West and those who are trained to hate the West, everything from miniskirts to individual liberties. Trained by regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to express their hatred with bombs. As a religion, Islam is not so different from Christianity. Indeed, they are treated identically in the game. However, most Christians have since been tempered in their fundamentalism by the Western Enlightenment. The Muslims who I am speaking of have not been so enlightened.
Frankly, I am scared. Frightened enough not to publish the names of friends of mine in my article. Those in the USA who snigger at my fear should remember that the death tolls are hundreds of times higher here than in the states, and that two of my closest friends are victims in this war. In order to fight, those who believe in Western values must acknowledge that we are at war. If you forget everything else I have written, remember that.
Pax Porfiriana was an experimental revamp of The Lords of the Sierra Madre. The goal was to take my father's game — in all its sprawling, turbulent, cutthroat, and ethically-dubious glory — and refine and distill it until it was palatable to modern gaming tastes. This distillation was a success beyond any expectation and allowed us to explore some of the more political and social goals of the major players in the time period rather than merely the economic ones. That success also paved the way for a proposed "Pax" series of games, each with similar basic mechanisms, but each attempting to capture a slice of history and culture with unique rules and cards.
We knew that the second Pax game would be the most important. It would define which parts of Pax Porfiriana would become pervasive and pass down to its heirs, and which would be ephemeral, utilized only in the context of turn-of-the-century Mexico.
The Next Pax
I wanted Pax Renaissance to be that second Pax game for many reasons. First, it would follow the proven evolution of Lords-game-into-Pax-game formula as Phil had published Lords of the Renaissance long ago (1996). Second, it seemed like a lush topic on which a Pax game could explore fundamentally new themes above and beyond the dark entrepreneurship and skullduggery captured in Porfiriana, themes like commerce versus monarchy, religion versus empiricism, and religion versus… well… religion. And last, while an astonishing number of games about the European Renaissance had been published, not a single one seemed to include the Eastern cultures/empires/influences, let alone explore the fascinating interactions both within the Eastern empires and between the Eastern and Western world. At the same time that the kings of the west were trying to preserve their nations from bellicose neighbors, rebellious constituents, and eccentric Popes, so too were the sultans, viziers, and shahs of the east trying to navigate dangerous waters fraught with tax revolts, religious schisms, western crusades, and the Golden Horde. As Cole Wehrle reminds me in a comment he appended to a draft of this piece, it is important not to get bogged down in the East versus West paradigm, and completely ignoring the contributions, as well as the trials and tribulations, of the East is really just falling into that trap.
The Ottoman Empire was particularly conspicuous in its absence. The single most important and powerful political entity during perhaps the single most important time in Western history is an almost complete no-show in the game-o-sphere. Pure madness… madness that had to be addressed. Making sure there was going to be an "East Deck" that concentrated on all of the interesting events and characters in Turkey, Egypt, and the dying Byzantine Empire was of critical importance to me from the get-go.
Other basic but historical ideas captured in Lords of the Renaissance would remain goals for Pax Renaissance, and often proved elusive. The actual geography of trade moving from East to West had to be simulated. Constantinople was the most important city on the continent for centuries due to its geographical location: the crossroads of Black Sea and Mediterranean trade. Simultaneously, trade needed to be linked to military power. Empires taxed trade in order to fuel their military development. This went hand in hand with the rise of paid and professional armies, as well as mercenary armies and fleets that could lend their services far and wide. Individual cities needed to be able to change religions so that reformations, conversions, and schisms could be tracked. Pirates needed to be a force of commercial annoyance and political instability, yet be resilient to destruction by traditional military attack. We would later compromise on a rule allowing local military or mercenaries to destroy pirates (via Siege) but prevent empires from doing so (via Campaign). Perhaps most importantly, in order to fit the Pax mold, new means of victory above and beyond economic, needed to be forged.
Pax Renaissance was conceived before Pax Porfiriana was sent to the presses. The phrase "Pax Renaissance" was first used in an email from me to Phil and Jim Gutt (co-designer of PaxP) in August 2012, bemoaning the continuing small tweaks to Porfiriana and wondering when we could turn our attentions elsewhere.
I had Phil email me an Excel card roster for Lords of the Renaissance in October and began development. The actual digital files for the card layouts were in a format long forgotten by modern computing, but the card list was an excellent starting point for high points in the history of the era. I had a preliminary prototype together pretty quickly, but it was an awkward expansive mess that wasn't a substantial departure from Lords of the Renaissance in terms of playability. It had a big map, it had cards for individual cities and buildings, it distinguished galleys and roundships and caravans, it had complex interwoven trade routes, it had an empire track which stored the relative military capabilities of each empire, it had cards for individual documents and marriages and loans. The status of the reformation, the shi'ia split, and the orthodox schism were all tracked statuses within the game. Every major city, including as many of the awesome little Italian city-states as I could fit, were represented. At 280 cards covering all bases of the era I could think of, it was simply too unwieldy to survive.
Broadening the Time Period, but Narrowing the Scope
Lords of the Renaissance covered Europe from 1460-1499; in my early versions of Pax Ren the date range expanded from 1452 (conquest of Constantinople) to 1499 (Vasco de Gama returns from India) or so. Phil wanted to push the top end of that back even further to include the high points of the reformation (95 Theses 1517, and the Diet of Worms 1521) and even out to the start of the Counter-Reformation (founding of the Jesuits, 1540). This created an ambitious swath of time, territory, and culture. Choosing only the most distinct and important characters and events (even if individually obscure) was an ongoing challenge throughout all iterations of the game. Important topics like art, architecture, invention, and warfare technology had to be set aside entirely to make room in the gamespace for four even more important developments: exploration, reformation, principled law, and meaningful class warfare.
In a later discussion Phil proclaimed, "Look, this is not a game about art!" It would become something of a recurring motto and/or battle cry when things got tough.
Phil and I have a... unique, design process. Our game designs usually sit around as vague ideas with trappings of labor as different projects float in and out of focus. At some point, one of these ideas reaches a threshold of cleverness and becomes compelling enough that we take a real shot at it. Usually one of us is the designer and the other is the primary playtester or developer. In other words, one of us is the creator and the other is the gantlet through which it must pass. My role is usually that of meat grinder. I break Phil's creations. I refocus them. I translate them. I try to cull the fiddly detailed bits so that the game might appeal to more than just Ph.D. candidates — pretty much basic playtester stuff, only meaner and more direct. Sometimes destructive criticism is the name of the game.
Sometimes our roles are reversed. Phil has a slightly different process of development. Instead of breaking my games down, he breaks them up. He'll often passively suggest some totally exotic mechanism that addresses the very core of what I had intended my game to be about (or what the game "should" have been about)… which totally rewrites the paradigm of the game, often fatally.
Once upon a time in the late 1990s, I spent two years in college making a role-playing game about primitive man. It was something of a dungeon crawler clone, but with historically accurate creatures and tools, and the primary goal of the game was family survival. I spent endless hours testing, retesting, and playing this game. My group loved it. I laid it all out, with cards and flavor text and character sheets and everything. I played with Phil one time... one friggin' time... and he comes up with this idea of a "Brain Map" wherein there would be hex tiles that would represent the development of individual words and concepts, and interact with each other.
It was at the same time the best idea I had ever heard and a hopeless destruction of my creation. I could never publish or even play "100,000 BC" again. There was no reason that a realistic role-playing game about cavemen shouldn't have a brain map in it, indeed no reason the brain map shouldn't be the primary focus. The project was scrapped (but Phil's contribution wasn't… it would sprout its wings a decade later in Origins and another decade after that in Neanderthal). The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate that co-designing games, or even having Phil in any way part of your process, is dangerous. I am confident that Neal Sofge, Dr. John Douglas, Jim Gutt, Cole Wehrle, and any of the many others who have developed games with Phil would agree; your ideas and perceptions going into the process might not be the same coming out the other side of the rabbit hole.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a project in which both of us want to be the creators, and we each have a vision for what the end product will be — and that's when it gets ugly. In order to keep things sane and civil we each individually work on the project one at a time. We pass the design back and forth between each other depending on who is tapped out or who has the time and gumption to actually put the work in. We call it "the boulder". Whoever has it has an imperative to be making active progress with the game; whoever doesn't have it gets to be as active as they want to be, either the devil's advocate criticizing and critiquing every step, or the passive playtester, or somewhere in the middle.
The boulder passed from me to Phil sometime in early 2013, and in August of 2013 Phil emailed me the first cards from the second draft of Pax Renaissance.
"This design looks thrilling" are the exact words I sent to him. "I can't wait to play it."
Unfortunately game-wise it was a bit of a dullard. The game revolved around very simple collect and destroy mechanisms, with not a lot of player control or clever, tactical, or sneaky plays to be found. You won by collecting all of the chess pieces. We were both disappointed by the playtests, the boulder passed to me while I attempted revisions, then back to Phil a month later, and so forth and so on.
My wife and I had a second baby. Phil started serious development of Pax Pamir with Cole, as well as Greenland and other projects. Pax Renaissance floundered.
Back to the Drawing Board
By 2014 I was back at it, using my original design as the base and trying to incorporate the better parts of Phil's design with little success. I trimmed the game way down, implemented a class system for the cards the way Phil had with chess pieces, and pushed the game back towards economic competition. In February 2014, I took the resulting hybrid to the Tucson-based Gamesmiths meeting where you present and play your game with local game designers.
It "passed", but only just.
There were plentiful problems and political mechanisms that didn't work. However, the continuing competition for concessions on valuable trade routes while trying to influence neighboring empires and use them to strongarm your competitors worked. Also, the game introduced a procedural conspiracy system wherein conspiracies would appear in the market and develop and "fall" towards their execution, with players able to provide support to either or both sides, or to flip sides at the last second. The game's empire track, combined with a casus belli system in the market, tracked which empires were at war and allowed players to use influence to get other empires to join the battle on either side. It was simple. It worked. It allowed long term and interesting strategies and mischief. Hooray!
Unfortunately I couldn't shake that Phil was right and that the center of my design, indeed its very core, was rooted in wrong questions and ignored the most important echoes of the era.
Much later, the mechanisms above would be replaced with the expansion of the "one-shots" idea to include civil wars, conspiracies, and revolts. With the vital Pax Pamir solutions in place, the game became much more "Pax-like"; long-term tableau and resource development was replaced with a flurry of shorter-ranged events and opportunities. The game's footprint shrunk considerably, the pace accelerated, and it became more tactical. More on this in the next section.
[Note from Phil Eklund: It was really only obvious in retrospect: If you want to have all these game elements in one game, from Reformation to shifting trade routes, the game would have to move at breakneck speed, without time for niceties such as meticulously planned conspiracies and noting who is at war with whom.]
By this time some minor art had been commissioned and paid for, but ultimately I sensed that my efforts weren't going to be fruitful, and back went the boulder in May 2014.
The Third Through Eighth Attempts, and Pax Pamir Saves the Day
The game ping-ponged for the next year or so. Phil's many talented playtesters and comrades sounded off on various iterations. The game continued to evolve with my voice just one of many in the background while Phil labored away. Philosophical discussions about the preconditions for a renaissance and the nature of force and war lit up the Pax Renaissance listserv.
Meanwhile Pax Pamir was released and turned the Pax line of games idea on its head. Cole and Phil had independently solved some of the very issues that plagued Pax Ren. Can a Pax game have a map and bits? How can you handle military and political and religious forces that are not player controlled? How can you incorporate geography, which was so important in Renaissance Europe, into a card game?
But Pamir's successes breathed new hope into the dying Pax Ren project. The creative well on this topic was thoroughly poisoned, with both me and Phil coming to loggerheads on numerous issues, but Pamir stretched the gamespace by introducing an interactive market and ops-based tableau, as well as a simple but evocative bits-and-spaces map. Hope!
At some point in late 2015, Stefano Tiné came aboard as a local resource and a set of eyes not biased by our past failures. We had a productive conversation in January 2016, and it was decided between the three of us that we would give Pax Ren a final push.
Lucky Number Nine
Phil flew across the Atlantic to visit in late February 2016. He was here for two weeks. He brought design number eight, which was quickly dispatched. I asked him whether he was ready to start over. He was ready. I was ready. More importantly we had Chris Peters on the case. Chris is a playtester extraordinaire and has been an important part of every Sierra Madre publication since like American Megafauna or so.
We started scrawling ideas on the blank back pages of the rulebook. It quickly became apparent that many of the physical mechanisms in design number eight were good (like color denoting religion, shape denoting type, and location denoting empire), but they interacted poorly. This meant we could do a full rewrite of the rules but leave the cards mostly intact.
Every night at 9 p.m. or so, after my kids went to sleep, Chris would come over and the three of us would "play" a game of Pax Ren. Night after night we'd make changes, sometimes dramatic ones. At every turn we had to try to remember the focus of the game, that the political and religious systems that dominated the continent for so long were finally vulnerable to attack from below, and that a small slice of independence from those powers could spark enlightenments, reformations, and revolutions.
Sometimes we had to let the gameplay guide the rules. We gave control back to the players. Instead of being liliputians in a land of Imperial giants, the players could gain temporary influence over empires through marriage or regime change and use that power to affect the gamestate. This power is not entirely historical as the bankers were important agents of the Renaissance but less so of the wars therein, but we wanted players to guide history rather than be mere victims of it.
By the time Phil left in March, we had a game. The newest version was sent out to burnt-out playtesters and new groups alike. Stefano helped guide the final touches. Certain issues continued to haunt us (how the hell do we handle pirates!?), but Pax Ren was finally ready for the home stretch of publication.
I have no idea how Pax Ren will be received by the gaming public. It is… unfamiliar. It's a tableau-building game with a market and many interlocking parts and mechanisms, but like both Porfiriana and Pamir, the numerous options that you have to embetter your position are not immediately obvious by just looking at the available cards. Choices have to be made. Opportunities seized. Ambushes sprung.
Do average gamers have the moxy to dive into this fascinating mayhem and try to shape the game to their advantage? It seems unlikely. If the game remains a niche experience like other SMG products, great. But if Pax Ren fails outright, it will not be due to lack of development or effort… or ambition.
I would like to apologize to the following for being left out of either the game, or the above discussion:
• Phil's individual playtesting heroes (you know who you are), and anyone whose contribution to this project I have undersold.
• The following legit empires left out of the game (as empires): Iran, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, Castile, and several Khanates. (Castile and Poland-Lithuania are included on the "other side" of the Empire cards as republics).
• Every amazing church/mosque/monastery/library or other architectural achievement that I charted individually… and every other of the 150 cards cut from my first draft.
• And all the cities and city-states that didn't make the cut. Sorry yo. Once we tied the cities to levies (military pieces), it became important to strictly limit them.
• The Eastern Orthodox Church. Man, we really tried to get you in as an independent religion and not just an offshoot of reformist catholic apostasy. Sorry about that.
• Shi'ah Islam. Basically ditto.
• Empiricism as an alternative to religion. This idea was fundamental to my early designs, that humanity was not necessary fated into a future of religion as the base system of ethics. My perhaps overly-optimistic belief that the age of enlightenment of the 17th century could have come early and overtaken religion sooner was eventually eclipsed by the fact that the class confrontations of Phil's design were more realistic, more compelling, and more meaningful to the average person of that time — certainly more meaningful than the esoteric science versus religion confrontations that wouldn't kick off for another two hundred years.
By Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington
Scott: It's a frosty Sunday morning in Hamburg, Germany. I emerge, bleary-eyed, out of bed with the blanket still wrapped around me, my breath condensing in front of my face like some sort of hungover dragon.
I shuffle over to my computer, where I plop myself down, ready to do a few hours of nothing until my stomach tells me it's safe to eat — the usual routine for an Australian working as a DJ in a country that's demonstrably too cold.
But this time, instead of the usual fare of videos of cats sneezing or dogs falling over to prod my brain into a semi-functioning state, I look over to my small but burgeoning collection of board games and make a decision, a decision to find someone in this town who would actually want to play them with me.
You see, being a DJ makes you nightlife friends: party people, the kind of folk who spend the early hours of the evening (or rather, what we would just call "the evening") preparing for later, which involves a whole lot of food, music and movement — these things being three sworn enemies of sitting down and having some nice organized fun. They weren't interested in connecting Cadiz to Stockholm for a sweet 21 points.
Typing a message on BGG looking for a game buddy feels a bit like delving into the world of online dating. What if they're weird? What if I'm weird? Not long after posting, I get a private message from a half-American, half-German guy named Shaun. He's keen to meet and play some games.
Now before this completely devolves into a blow-by-blow biography of how I slowly mutated into my final form of Full Geek, know that Shaun and I hit it off and started playing games regularly, and my collection began getting the lovin' it deserved. Fast forward a number of months, when after a nice night of games and dinner, the pair of us simultaneously divulge a dirty little secret we had been busting to tell each other.
"I've been… designing a game… really? Me too!" We both stutter at about the same time. It feels a bit like coming out, a huge rush of relief and endorphins fills the room. My ideas, resigned to being trapped in a notebook, could finally possibly see the light of day and be fabulous. "What's your idea? Let's try it out!" I had designed a game about the mob. He had designed a game about golf.
Turns out my game is pretty crap. His game is pretty crap, too.
Dirty little secrets
But it is the start of a constant, never-ending, at times deafeningly distracting partnership of game designers. We make a pact: No matter who comes up with an idea, we share it, work on it together, try to get it polished, and perhaps even published — unless of course the idea is crap, which it often is. We get better at spotting that. Our big dream is to have a game come out at Essen. (Spoiler alert: This story has a happy ending.)
One day, Shaun calls me up with two ideas, one is about toy soldiers conquering bases, the other a dry mechanism with no theme yet, something about "I split, you choose". I like the idea of the mechanism but am a bit lukewarm on the toy soldier thing. We chat for a bit, then hang up. Later on, I call him back because I think I've had a bit of a brainwave regarding his idea.
"Hey, Shaun, I've had an idea for your toy soldier game, you know, the 'I split, you choose' game."
Shaun: "No, those were two different games."
Scott: "Oh, were they? I must have gotten confused. Anyway…"
Shaun: "Wait though… that's a great idea!"
Scott: "But I didn’t tell you my…"
Shaun: I hang up. Everything is falling into place as I almost fall out of my chair — that's how awesome the vague ideas forming in my head seem to me at this point. They are not quite wonderful yet — but we are getting there. We still have to make pirates out of fruit. Keep reading, you'll understand.
One of the two under-ripe game ideas that Scott has so magically meshed in my head is a card game I call "Revoltoy – Rise of the Toy Soldier". (Wow, writing this today, I realize how dorky that name sounds.) In the game, you have to conquer bases, like the living room carpet and the toy chest, with your different toy soldiers.
A first iteration
of the game
It's a simple area-majority hodge-podge I somehow manage to cramp into a normal deck of playing cards. I'm sort of tickled by the theme but not getting anywhere with it.
The other idea firmly planted into my brain is due to games like Piece o' Cake by Jeffrey Allers and San Marco by Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum. The "I-split-you-chose"-mechanism I first encountered in those games was something that held my designer brain in a sweaty headlock and just wouldn't let go. The bittersweet decisions always kept me at the edge of my seat and to this day give me the right kind of gut-wrenching play-pain.
I want to put my spin on this wonderful mechanism. But how? Having an older brother, he always split and chose at the same time, so no experience there. The only thing I have is the idea that the things you split and chose can be used in-game and to score. Not a lot to work with.
But when Scott accidentally/intentionally marries these two ideas on the phone, mechanisms click and interlock into a marvelous little clockwork of a card game: Players split and choose a set of cards which are used to reinforce troops in an area-majority game and the exact same cards can be used to score rather than to reinforce. You can score when you have majority at a base and strive to collect those ever-elusive victory points that way.
There it is. A game idea I fall in love with immediately and have to talk about with Scott again. We do this a lot. Our partners get jealous.
We get together, we test and tinker and more quickly than we expect, we have something in our hands that we consider "done". It's not though. We need a theme. Badly. After trying many things, we come up with fruits — mainly because I think of a great German pun for a name and persist on using it. Scott dislikes the name so much that he yells at me.
Scott: I do!
Shaun: In the game you now want to harvest the most fruit. You either plant or harvest the fruit and try to control the orchards. That works. I make some anthropomorphic cherries and lemons in Powerpoint and after printing out several decks of cards we go out into the world to present our game to defenseless playtesters.
If life gives you lemons,
draw a cute face on those lemons
Amazingly, they don't rip our game apart but are enjoying themselves — quite a bit. Even my brother and father (who don't game) play it and have a ball. (Thanks for the feedback, guys!) We add the last zest to the game with three special cards and call it quits. We're happy, and the testers are, too.
Skip to August 2014. The big Essen game fair is coming up in October and we book a budget train with hard seats and a budget hotel with harder mattresses so that we can enter the magical halls filled with boxes of cardboard. Why not show our game there? We make business cards and a sell sheet for the game, then with a big cheesy smile and a hummingbird's heart rate, meet with several publishers. I sit in a secluded room at the ABACUSSPIELE booth and feel like a VIP, tucked away in a hidden corner in a noisy club. I give the elevator pitch and hear what I've heard a few times before: "Yeah, that sounds cool. We'll give it a go and let you know!"
They do. On December 18, 2014, I receive an email, letting me know that ABACUSSPIELE wants to sign the game and release it in 2016. I wake my one-year-old daughter and my sleep-deprived wife from their nap with squeals of joy. We celebrate with cookies and a diaper-change.
Then we wait. A long time. Forever. 2016 can't come fast enough. The months crawl by and we play the game here and there — even a few rounds with Jeffrey Allers, who planted one of the initial ideas in my brain with Piece o' Cake. He digs it. Motivated, we delve into the design of numerous other games and I spend SPIEL 2015 mostly pitching our ideas (stay tuned!). Scott accidentally double books and gets a tropical disease in Ethiopia.
Scott: I'm OK!
Shaun: Finally, things get rolling in early 2016 with a theme change for the game. ABACUSSPIELE wants to change the fruits into something else, although they like how the mechanisms and theme are tied together — and they even like my super cool name. Problem: Fruits don't sell. Pirates do, though, so we decide on the name Jolly & Roger.
Card art by Michael Menzel.
Note how different the lemon looks!
In May 2016, we get the first illustrations by none other than Michael Menzel, and we are humbled and amazed by what he has created to breathe life into our game. Such a strange and wonderful moment seeing your creation and ideas being worked on by professionals.
ABACUSSPIELE keeps us posted on the production process, and we are really thankful how much time they take to keep us first-timers in the loop. August comes along and we see everything come together: rules, components, box art. On August 23rd, everything is finalized and sent off to the printer — the point of no return.
The product shot: the photo
that makes every first-time designer squeal
We are speechless and giddy as all get out about the upcoming months. We are releasing a game at SPIEL and people will be playing it. We will hopefully create many hours of gaming fun and tense play for couples and friends all over the globe.
Thinking about how much joy games have brought us, we are humbled by the thought that other people will find joy in our game that started as two half-baked ideas and has accompanied us over the last two years. Thanks to everybody who helped make us make this game, and thanks to BGG for kicking off this designer duo in the first place.
Thanks for reading this, and happy gaming!
My first Spiel was 2011, the year that FryxGames was founded. We were five brothers there, of which four were in the company, and the fifth was just company. Our few handmade Wilderness sold out and my low-production Space Station didn't fare so badly either. Spiel was amazing, and we were greatly encouraged, deciding to go for it and start making high-quality games in decent (for us) print-runs.
Shortly after that first Spiel, I thought to myself one day: "I should make a game about terraforming Mars." The thought wasn't far-fetched since I LOVE Mars, science and epic scales — and so I did. Now I will show you how Terraforming Mars evolved.
My love for card games shines through all my designs. It is so easy to start prototyping a card game, and the format allows you to simulate almost anything! Beginning as usual with just pen and paper, I made the first prototype with pieces of paper torn from ordinary printer paper. (I get 16 from each sheet.) There are a number of aspects that need to be addressed when terraforming Mars, of which I deemed oxygen, temperature, and ocean coverage to be the most important, so I also had a sheet of paper for these scales.
Aside from being card-based and having scales for different things, other things started to become clear, too:
-----• That the players were corporations paid for terraforming, which was simulated by a terraform rating that provided both income and victory points.
-----• That I wanted unique cards that could simulate anything from importing water and building various industries to introducing life and hurling asteroids at the Martian surface to create heat.
-----• That I would need different resources to simulate these things.
-----• That many cards would continue to work over time, necessitating a production phase.
-----• That I wanted the cards to have thematic tags that could be used to create cool combos and enhance the thematic simulation of the project cards.
-----• That the scales should have bonus steps that could simulate different things, e.g., water being released when the permafrost begins to melt at 0º C, and an increasing greenhouse effect and rising temperature due to a thickening of the atmosphere.
-----• That the game would end when Mars was fully terraformed.
-----• That I wanted to be able to raise temperature gradually, introducing the heat scale that feeds the temperature scale.
One of the most important aspects of terraforming Mars is plant life because it can turn carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen via photosynthesis. It can also give food and useful materials, in addition to binding the dust. Thus, I had a plant scale on which players marked their accumulated plant resources and received extra oxygen increases and VPs accordingly. All of these aspects still remain in the final, printed game (plus more as you will see).
After a month or so, I made a simple Word version of the "cards" and "board" to get a clearer and more playable experience. Algae, for example, costs 1, is a plant bio project, produces 2 plant resources every round, requires there to be 5% ocean in play before you can play it, and gives you 1 immediate plant resource when you play it. This card gets you higher on the plant scale over time, causing oxygen to rise (and your terraform rating!), and is worth extra VPs at the game end.
After designing for a couple of months, I remembered that the Red Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson was about terraforming and began rereading it, discovering that most of "my" ideas in the game subconsciously came from my earlier reading of those marvelous books. I also found more stuff to put in the game, of course. Anyone familiar with the Red Mars trilogy will feel at home in this game! But inspiration has also come from NASA, ESA, Wikipedia and other web-articles, as well as Mars One, and the Mars Society president Robert Zubrin (who, by the way, really liked this game and came up with the slogan "Life to Mars, and Mars to life" that I used for this designer diary). Collecting all this information and inspiration on terraforming naturally got my own cogs turning, too, and I came up with a few terraforming ideas myself, being the nerdy science teacher I am.
The next step in the design process was to visualize the parameters on an appealing game board. You cannot do a theme like this justice without some cool graphics, and here is what I came up with:
The market is where you buy new cards for your hand. This was a feature we abandoned because with all the cards being unique and players buying cards from the market all the time, it was a real chore to constantly reevaluate the market. Instead, I decided that players should simply draw cards and choose the ones they want for their hand, paying for each of them and discarding the rest. This created an investment and a difficult choice: Buy more cards for your hand, or save the money to afford playing the ones you already have?
I realized that this layout wouldn't really visualize the terraforming process, so the next iteration had the surface divided into areas that you could claim and on which you could place cities, forests and ocean markers.
Maybe a cool idea, but markers would still not visualize the spreading of water and life on the surface, so another solution was needed.
By using hexagons, tiles could fill up the areas and create continuous oceans and forests. By this time, we'd also worked in standard projects to complement the cards, and milestones and awards for which you could compete. All these changes greatly increased player interaction and helped visualize the development of a living planet.
We also moved much of the resource management to a player board on which resources and production were marked. Gone were the days of filling up cards with common resources! The plant and heat scales were replaced by a simple conversion of resources, which felt much better. The production phase was also much simpler when all production was summarized on the player boards instead of on all the individual cards.
Speaking of the cards, they also got an overhaul by Jonathan:
The player board shown above features fancy icons that we used for a while, designed by Daniel. (Oh, the blessings of a big and creative family!) We went back to plainer icons in order to increase readability.
Just as the game board now illustrated the theme better, we needed the cards to do the same, but adding pictures to Jonathan's design was tricky because of the semi-transparent panels covering a big part of the picture area, so we needed a new card template with opaque panels and dedicated space for the illustration. I made a first design to illustrate the concept, and handed it over to Daniel — and you can see who the better artist is!
However, we felt that this game should have a positive, scientific look to it, not the usual dark dystopia we always see in sci-fi, so we eventually handed the graphics over to another brother, Isaac, who made the final graphical design for Terraforming Mars:
Needless to say, we are very happy with the result. Another development was that of the corporations. From being anonymous and equal, I invented twelve different ones for the game, each with a background and a specialty.
We still had three problems with the game, though, going into beta-testing.
The first problem was the feeling of being overwhelmed when new players tried to digest their starting cards and choose which cards to buy for their starting hand of ten drawn cards and two corporations. Having all these cards to choose from at the start of the game is important to get enough for a strategy. The solution was beginner corporations for new players that simply gave you the cards and have no extra functions for players to track. Instead of needing to evaluate which cards to buy before even knowing the game, new players could now focus on how to use the cards they received while the experienced players chose their starting hand and corporation. This created a much better learning experience.
The second problem was downtime. As the game progresses, you increase your economy and abilities, meaning there's more to do on your turn; the game bogged down considerably towards the end! A beta-tester suggested that players should alternate doing actions one at a time. This I knew wouldn't work because then the players could just wait until another player was ready to grab a bonus — such as a milestone or bonus step on a parameter — and simply grab it right before their nose without the other player being able to do anything about it. Then it hit me: Let the players choose to do one OR two actions at a time; then it would be much harder for the players to control each other completely, but still the turns would pass quickly. As a bonus, this change allowed players to play fast or slow in order to either race towards a bonus or try to wait out the other players. Worked like a charm...
The third problem was the game time. Even with the new turn structure and its nice flow, the game was long. That's okay for many players, but sometimes you just don't have that time. Shortening the game by adjusting the length of the parameters didn't feel right, so what could we do? Terraforming Mars ends when Mars is terraformed! There are cards that help you towards this goal and cards that increase your economy or victory points. Each action you do in the game takes a few seconds to perform, so shortening the game time would mean reducing the number of actions that players perform, which means taking out cards that don't help move the terraforming along (which turned out to be about a third of all cards).
A lot of fun and interesting cards were cut, so we decided to keep them in the box as a kind of expansion called "Corporate Era". We also decided that the basic game should have starting production to give the players a jump start. As a result of these alterations, the game time was reduced by a full hour!
Many people (and companies) have put work into this game to make it great – thank you so much! There is, of course, much more to say and many more design iterations that I haven't shown you here, but I'll stop now and hope this has been an interesting read for you.
What follows is the long, sordid design history of The Networks. It's been a wild journey over the past six years, starting with me fumbling around in the dark as a part-time hobbyist game designer and ending with me running my own publishing company.
Within, I'll reveal three shocking truths. I'm not very good at clickbait, so here are two right off the bat.
-----• I've heard a few reviewers guess that this game was theme-first. I can see why they feel that way, but it was actually mechanism-first.
-----• The mechanism on which this game is based is no longer in the game.
The third shocking truth is...well, you'll have to keep reading to the end of the article.
In the Beginning, There Was MacGuffin Market
Let's rewind ten years to 2006. I had a game called "Wag the Wolf" that the prestigious Hippodice game design competition put on its recommended list, but the game made it no further than that. It was rejected by several publishers, and after a good amount of playtesting, I realized that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
I had a lot to learn as a designer. I thought that if I combined a cool theme and a cool mechanism, I'd end up with a cool game.
This cool mechanism was an auction in which players could bid slightly less than the high bid to stay in the auction. In a four-player game, there were two underbid slots, so one player would always be left out. That player could raise the high bid, though, which would make the previous high bid an underbid, and force a mad scramble to the new underbid slots.
An illustration of the auction from Wag the Wolf's rulebook;
maybe I'll get this game on the table someday to see how it holds up!
It really was a nifty mechanism. I wanted to salvage it, so I decided to design a new game around it. That game turned out to be Battle Merchants, which Minion Games eventually released in 2014.
If you've played Battle Merchants, you'll notice that it has no auction. That's because playtesters realized that the auction, while fun and interesting in its own right, didn't fit with all the stuff I built around the auction. Sure enough, when I removed the auction from Battle Merchants way back then, the game worked great.
Designers, never hesitate to kill your darlings. It might just make your game better.
So now it's 2010. I had this auction mechanism recently sliced out of Battle Merchants, and I still wanted to make another game around it. I didn't want to fall into the same trap as before, so I figured that I'd design the game completely around the auction. Stripped down, no theme.
The new game was called "MacGuffin Market". It had no theme — or more specifically, its theme was that it had no theme. The players were bidding money on a "Wag the Wolf"-style auction that would give them turn order and gems. They could spend gems or money on MacGuffins, pick up power cards, or end their rounds by getting income, with players who dropped early receiving more income.
MacGuffins were the big objects in the game that everyone wanted to get, named for the film trope of an object that every character wants, without its actual function ever being explained to the audience. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is or what it does; it just matters that everyone wants it.
Sample MacGuffins from MacGuffin Market, with each giving you money or gems & the A, B, and C being a set collection bonus, I think
So in this protoplasmic version of the game, you can already see the seeds of The Networks: Buy big things that give you points, pick up power cards, end your round by getting income.
If only it were that easy!
From MacGuffins to TV
My identity is just as important to this designer diary as the game, so keep in mind who I saw myself as when I began this process. I had a day job that was slowly transitioning into computer programming. I was putting a lot of time into my work, and my career came first. I saw myself as a hobbyist game designer. I'd heard of people who started their own game companies, and I knew with all my heart that I would never self-publish my games.
Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha.
Anyway. At the time, I was playtesting about twice a month, maybe three times if I was lucky. It was a decent amount of testing, although I envied my game designer friends who tested once per week. Progress on my game was rather slow.
Still, I'm lucky to playtest with some amazing designers. Eric Zimmerman gave one of the game's most vital early suggestions: the theme (or lack thereof) just wasn't working.
I realized he was right. Teaching the game wasn't easy. You had MacGuffins, gems, and money, but nothing really made intuitive sense because nothing mapped into anything a player would recognize.
It was a lesson that took me years to learn, but one I preach any time I can. It's not enough to have a cool theme. It's not enough to have cool mechanisms. Your game lives at the intersection of its theme and its mechanism. One is not more important than the other, and it's not more important to start with one over the other. You have to find the best possible way to join them, then make that join as tight as you can.
The problem with "Wag the Wolf", and now with "MacGuffin Market", was that there was no theme/mechanism join to speak of in either game. Nothing tied together. It wasn't even a matter of "pasted-on" because there was no paste. The theme and mechanism were like an estranged couple, sitting at opposite ends of the room and refusing to talk to each other.
Kill your darlings, again. The game needed a theme. We discussed possible candidates. Secret agents? City building? Making movies?
I thought about the last one. Making movies was done beautifully in Traumfabrik, but what about making television shows? No games about making TV shows were available at the time.
Three different covers, three different names, one fine game
We talked about the various ways we could reskin the game. MacGuffins would become the shows. Gems could become stars. Everything else would pretty much remain the same. Simple, huh?
Not Ready for Prime Time
I renamed the prototype "Prime Time" and started testing. Viewers were points; that was in from the start. When you got a show, you immediately got money or Viewers; that was grandfathered in from "MacGuffin Market".
A few new mechanisms quickly fell into place. First, you were limited to three time slots, so your fourth show would mean you'd have to cancel one of your existing shows and send it to reruns. The player with the most Rerun Viewers got a bonus.
Second, instead of always scoring a flat value like the MacGuffins, your shows would score you a different number of Viewers every round. They would constantly age. I have to give credit for this mechanism to the brilliant, underrated auction game BasketBoss, which deserves a lot more love than it got.
Seriously, play this game!
Third, the Gems became Stars. I felt they needed some differentiation, so I made Male and Female Stars and put requirements on the Shows for the different genders of Stars.
Nine shows from the first draft of Prime Time. Some shows took up to four stars. The shows with clapboards also require a director, which you had to get by winning an auction. These cards were from before I put in the aging mechanism, so they all scored a flat bonus when you picked them up.
Things seemed to be going well until BGG.CON 2011. I had a fateful playtest in Dallas that year. I thought the game was in great shape, but I got a bunch of feedback that pushed me right back down into the hole again. The feedback I got was familiar: The testers realized that the auction, while cool, didn't fit in with all the stuff I built around the auction. Just like what happened in Battle Merchants, it was time to drop the auction.
Kill your darlings.
I wasn't ready. I was going through a tough time. I had an abusive boss at work at the time, I was suffering through a move and the after-effects of a divorce, and I was working on getting Battle Merchants ready to pitch to publishers. (It would get picked up the following year.) So I shelved "Prime Time".
Yes, the board looked like this at one point. No, I'm not a graphic designer, why do you ask?
In the next twelve months, I brought the game out for testing only once. It was a halfhearted test, without any different Seasons. Just one continuous flow in which you chose a new Show, immediately scored it, then a new Show came out.
It was terrible. It was boring. Back on the shelf it went.
At some point in 2012, I realized that if I didn't replenish cards as they were taken, and if I split the game back into discrete Seasons, that might add much-needed tension. I finally tested it late that year and was stunned to find that it felt good. There was something there.
At some point, I set the game in the 1980s and 1990s, during the dawn of cable. I made up a bunch of silly show parody names and pasted in the pictures of various 1980s Stars. Sure enough, that became a great part of the experience. People loved putting, say, Ricardo Montalban on Knight Rider.
I was heartened again. "Prime Time" was back on its feet!
80% Is Halfway Done
Let's fast-forward to 2014. This was a huge year for me and a huge year for the game.
I'd been testing the game steadily at my twice-a-month intervals. It was feeling close to done. I'd balanced the Male and Female Stars, I had a great set of Network Cards, and I had this brilliant mechanism where, at the start of each Season, you reached into a bag and pulled out these Drop and Budget chips. They varied in value from $2 to $20, and you pulled out only as many as the number of players. Some Seasons, you'd get a ton of money; other Seasons, you'd get almost nothing.
Another old rulebook excerpt. In a three-player game, you'd draw five chips, sort them, and remove the second and fourth. Why did I keep this fiddly mechanism so long? Some questions have no answers.
But things were beginning to change. Battle Merchants was close to coming out; I'd been hard at work on writing and editing the rulebook, helping guide the art and graphic design, and handling final playtesting. My day job was starting to feel distant from me. I was rebuilding my social life from my divorce. I tried my hand at sketch comedy and improv. This pulled me away from game design, but gave me some nice perspective, good times, and a few good friends.
Who was I? Was I a computer programmer? Was I a comic? Was I a game designer?
A newer board, with help from a graphic designer friend, who I had asked to make it look "Eighties"
About this time, lightning struck. I'd been trying to get into The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon's invite-only convention, for a few years. Somehow, I lucked into an invite.
To say the convention changed everything is an understatement. First off, I ran 13.5 playtests of "Prime Time" in ten days. I did a lot of tinkering with the game's economy. One interesting phenomenon was when I once accidentally made the economy too loose. Playtesters didn't tell me that they had too much money; instead, they started suggesting adding all these mechanisms that would be ways they could spend their money.
A few years before, I would have listened to them. Thankfully, I'd learned enough as a designer by then to understand that they were trying to solve a problem that had a different root cause. I re-tightened the economy, and the players no longer suggested extra money sinks.
The old prototype in action!
I showed "Prime Time" to three different publishers: two rejected it, and one was intrigued, but wanted a different, more interactive scoring system.
I looked for more publishers to pitch to and realized just how many more designers there were in the room than publishers. I was fighting a losing battle, and none of these publishers had the passion for my game that I did.
I didn't know it then, but the seeds of change had been planted at that fateful convention, surrounded by people who made games for a living. A few weeks after I came back from the convention and after an especially troubling day at work, I thought to myself: How much better at game design would I be if I did it every day?
I backed away from comedy. I started pushing my playtest group to meet every week instead of every month. I had already had some experience with this through running my annual 4P challenge every January, but I was amazed at how much more progress my games made with more frequent playtesting.
An old show from when the game was set in the 1980s and 1990s
One day at work during a meeting, a co-worker criticized the job I'd done on a project and I realized I felt nothing inside. I spent a difficult month not telling anyone but family and friends, making sure my mind was set. It was.
In November 2014, I quit my full-time job to freelance part-time as a sound editor and open up more time for me to run Kickstarter campaigns and attend conventions as a game publisher.
My mind was made up. I was going to self-publish "Prime Time".
The Last Throes of Design
After The Gathering of Friends in 2014, I realized there was a lot I needed to change about the game. Having Male and Female Stars bugged me; why did gender matter? I had show genres on the cards, but they were just flavor, with no accompanying mechanisms. Players who started a Season with little money had to drop out early. I had that "brilliant" Drop and Budget mechanism. And most of the twenty-somethings I played with humored me with my 1980s and 1990s references, but really had no idea what any of the Shows and Stars were referring to.
These problems resolved with thunderous effect in the game. One tester was surprised there were no ads in the game, and I smacked my forehead. Of course! Get rid of the genders of Stars. Instead of Male Stars and Female Stars, you have Stars and Ads. It's incredible how late in the process the Ads entered, and how right they felt once they made it in.
At first, you paid for Ads, just like you paid for Stars. The always-clever Paul Incao, who develops Vital Lacerta's games, tried "Prime Time" and suggested that players should earn money from Ads instead. Not only was it thematic, it solved the problem of poor players dropping out too early. He also suggested the Attach Star/Ad action, which I fought because I didn't want to complicate the game, but the suggestion turned out to work perfectly if I made some Stars and Ads optional on Shows.
An old Ad with the same information as what's on the current ad cards, only more confusing!
I also reluctantly changed the time setting of the game. No more 1980s and 1990s references that confused millennials. Once I switched to modern shows and stars, everyone seemed to get a huge kick out of the experience, regardless of age.
It was about here that the "rotation" mechanism entered, which has become one of the most defining features of the game. I could finally play off of Show genres, with some Stars preferring to be on certain kinds of Shows, like Dramas or Sitcoms. They seemed to work with Ads to, although it took quite a few frustrating playtests to get income and upkeep working properly!
Finally, after months of begging from my playtesters, I relaxed my iron grip on my "brilliant" pet mechanism in the game: the variable chips that decided the Drop and Budget values. I went with a flat track of values instead, with a number of spaces equal to the number of players, and amazingly no one missed my weird, ingenious system.
Kill your darlings.
For a long time, I had separate Set-up Cards reminding you of how to set up each Season
That left two problems. First, the Genres still didn't feel like they were pulling their weight. Second, the game felt like a tactical grind. It lacked an arc. Each Season really didn't feel different from the next, and no one was working towards anything; it felt like a rinse, later, and repeat exercise.
Then came BGG.CON 2014, and the final huge piece in the puzzle. I had one test with three players, and I nervously introduced a new mechanism: If you got three Shows of the same Genre, you could draw Stars from the Star deck, or Ads from the Ad deck (along with some money).
I was flabbergasted to see what the change did. Suddenly, the game had strategy. You were working to a goal. You wanted to become Comedy Central, or Syfy, or ESPN. It was thematic, and it was strategic, and it worked perfectly.
Even better, it was no longer a grind. Getting the Genre Bonus injected your network with new resources, and you could jump right back into the thick of things without having to tediously pick up new Stars and Ads.
Up until then, testers had mildly enjoyed the game. They'd found it, y'know, fun, they liked it, it was good. From this point on, they loved the game — as in, they asked me when it was going on Kickstarter, and they enthusiastically signed up for my mailing list.
There was still some buttoning-up to do. The three-player game took a lot of massaging, but I realized that removing a Genre would make things much smoother. I made a solo version of the game that had a new mechanism of card burning, and after a bunch of boring two-player tests, I realized that the two-player game needed card burning as well. The solo game was logistically easiest to test, of course, and went from good to great once I figured out how to put in an immediate-loss condition and midgame feedback that let the player know if they were doing well or not, score-wise.
But it was time to put on the publisher hat.
There was a storm cloud on the horizon. I found out that there were two other games called "Prime Time" in development: One was a deckbuilder that unfortunately didn't fund on Kickstarter, while the other was a heavy strategy game from an established designer/publisher.
I didn't know Elad Goldsteen at the time, and I was pretty sure he would beat me to market. I hated the idea of changing my game's name. "Prime Time" was perfect! But I did what I had to do. I let Elad have "Prime Time", and I renamed my game The Networks.
My next order of business was to find a graphic designer. I thought of all the graphic designers I knew of and who would be a good match.
You've seen pictures of the prototype all throughout this post. It's a lot of cards with a lot of numbers. This game throws a huge amount of information at the players, and I needed a graphic designer who was amazing at distilling a large quantity of information into a streamlined form. I needed someone like Heiko Günther.
I am ashamed to say that I spent a measurable amount of time trying to figure out graphic designers who could a job similar to Heiko, until I realized that I could just, well, email Heiko myself and see what he thought.
Here's what I didn't know: A few years previously, Heiko and a very talented illustrator, Travis Kinchy, worked on Silver Screen, a Knizia-designed card game version of Traumfabrik. It was to be published by Cambridge Games Factory back when Heiko did most of their work. Sadly, CGF encountered financial difficulties and stopped releasing games before Silver Screen could be published.
Heiko and Travis were disappointed; they had come up with a unique visual style for the game, and for a long time, they thought it was just a dead project. But then there I was, with my TV network game. Couldn't they resurrect the visual approach?
I checked it out and realized that it was perfect. I wanted something that was light and funny but not cartoony, yet somehow didn't present itself as a simple take-that filler game. Travis' illustrations somehow perfectly walked the line, and were incredibly funny to boot.
Card images from Silver Screen, done in the same visual style that Travis would adopt for The Networks
Meanwhile, Heiko set about taking my confusing mess of a visual design and putting it in order. He figured out a way to push all the information for the cards to their edges and leave most of the card available for Travis' excellent art.
It still blows my mind that the thing on the left became the thing on the right
The boards became modular. My system would have been ugly and text-heavy; his system allowed for the clean, elegant presentation of information. Instead of having set-up cards to remind players of how many cards went out each Season, he printed it directly on the rightmost board and had players swap out different boards based on the number of players. This let us put just about everything onto punchboard, using only a single cutting pattern to boot.
Make no mistake, Heiko and Travis were essential to this game's success. There is no The Networks without them.
Heiko, on the right, is plotting trouble at Spiel 2015
I had to use my "publisher's hammer" only a couple of times; most notably, I insisted on a scoring track that wrapped at 100 Viewers instead of 50, only because I'd tried that in a previous prototype and my playtesters hated it. I also insisted on testing the graphic design, and I came back to Heiko with quite a few revisions when I saw players were confused by a given graphic design element.
Throughout this process, Heiko was his typical professional, brilliant, and often hilarious self. After a few iterations, we wound up with a graphic design that got raves from just about all my playtesters, especially as Travis' art started to spread across the game.
I started sending the game to reviewers and was heartened to see people like Rahdo and Undead Viking willing to try out the game. Your Moderator Chris from Flip the Table seemed very excited about the game, so I sent him a review copy, making sure he knew I didn't expect a review of my game on his show. I was relieved to see everyone give the game glowing reviews.
Then one beautiful Sunday I was about to go on a day trip with my girlfriend, when I got this email from Rahdo: "Also, I'm curious, since you're going to be directly competing with Prime Time, which is going to be on Kickstarter at almost the exact same time as you..." It turns out that Prime Time was going to launch two weeks before The Networks!
Of course, Elad had no ill intent. In fact, he had no idea my game existed, so Rahdo was kind enough to introduce us over email. I've had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Elad a few times since then, and we've laughed about this crazy coincidence. I mean, we had both worked on our respective TV network games for six years each. We couldn't have timed this better if we tried!
And Kickstarter was kind to both of us; we both overfunded significantly, and we both got our games out. In fact, I picked up Prime Time from Elad at Essen 2015!
Elad and me at Spiel 2015; he's the taller guy on the right
So in the end, why did The Networks turn into a great game?
Obviously, there's the constant, relentless playtesting and iteration. After my turning point at The Gathering in 2014, I was playtesting at least once a week, usually twice. Iterations went fast and furious, and I was never afraid to try something for fear of failure. I got better at killing my darlings and wound up with a streamlined, well-developed game.
Also, this theme is really hard, and I think I backed into some fortuitous decisions. I've played friends' prototypes with TV themes, and they get hung up on a couple of things.
First, scoring in those designs is usually handled with an output randomness mechanism. For those of you who don't listen to the marvelous Ludology podcast (please start!), output randomness is any random event that happens after a player's decision. For example, when you attack the zombies, then roll a die to see whether you hit them, that's generally output randomness as the die roll dictates the outcome.
Input randomness, on the other hand, is when the random event happens before your turn begins. When you get dealt your hand of cards, that's input randomness; your play happens after the random event.
Most TV prototypes I played had viewer scoring as output randomness. This is understandable because it's realistic. No TV executive can predict how many people will watch their shows! That's just the business.
But it makes the game less fun. The whole interesting experience is in assembling the TV show. Having it be judged by a random mechanism devalues the experience of putting the show on the air. It feels meaningless.
One of my favorite stars
Second, remember that publisher who wanted my game to have more "interactive" scoring? That's how most TV games and prototypes I've played try to handle it; the player with the most viewers gets the best ratings, the player with the second most viewers gets the second-best ratings, and so on. Some games even split these into different demographics!
This makes scoring an opaque beast. Logistically, these games are a pain in the neck to score. Worse, it means that a player must evaluate each of their move's potential outcomes on each demographic. This makes for a huge outcome tree and is an invitation to mindbending analysis paralysis.
The Networks gets around both problems by having fixed, deterministic scoring for each show. This would normally be anathemic to the theme, but between the aging mechanism and the extra complexity of the rotate mechanism, there's enough variability in a player's possible score that it feels correct and thematic. Furthermore, if a player's show scores poorly in a given season, the player can easily track that to a specific decision they made. That feels much better than some arbitrary die roll!
Also, the deterministic scoring means that players don't have to study other players' boards and do a ton of math to determine what a good move is. Make no mistake — in The Networks, a player will have to study other players' boards, but what you're looking for is a lot simpler, logistically speaking. Do they need that 8:00 p.m. Drama? Or would they rather go for the 9:00 p.m. Sci-Fi? Or maybe a Star, or a Network Card? There are still decisions to be made and players to watch, but it's not hidden behind an opaque layer of scoring.
That is about it for the huge design history of The Networks. It's been an amazing ride, and it leaves us with one order of business. That is the third and final shocking truth about the game:
-----• I, Gil Hova, barely watch any TV. It's not a hipster I'm-better-than-you thing. It just doesn't fit in with my lifestyle.
I am deeply indebted to my playtesters and my girlfriend for helping me with all the references to modern shows. I couldn't have done it without all of you!
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