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Xeno Invasion expands Race for the Galaxy with two new play experiences: a full expansion set, plus a bonus invasion game.
This expansion portrays a galaxy under siege by a newly discovered violent Xenophobic alien race.
The Xenos Are Coming!
Xeno Invasion is Race's third expansion arc. Similar to Alien Artifacts, it is complete by itself. The 55 expansion cards include five start worlds, 46 play cards, and nine action cards for a fifth player. All players need is Race for the Galaxy (just the base game).
While Alien Artifacts was especially designed for novice players, Xeno Invasion is aimed at intermediate RFTG players. Each player is dealt two start worlds, choosing one after seeing their initial hand of cards.
Xeno Invasion adds three concepts to the base game:
• Xeno worlds — worlds already conquered by the Xenos.
• Specialized military vs. Xenos (similar to military vs. Rebels).
• The Anti-Xeno "keyword", representing various groups working to rally empires' defenses.
In addition, all Explore actions are "mix with hand" to ensure that players can find the cards they need. This concept was introduced as a power back in the second RFTG expansion, Rebel vs. Imperium. In this expansion, it isn't a power but a change to the Explore rules.
This change was necessary in order to add a new "type" of worlds, the Xeno worlds, that aren't in the base set. Otherwise, the variability in card draws would be too high.
"Mix with hand" Explores allow players greater choice and flexibility, at the cost of making this expansion suitable only for players who are comfortable with Race. With novice players, play simply slows down too much.
Since Xeno Invasion is designed as an expansion arc in itself, all keywords hinted at in the base game (Rebel, Imperium, Alien, Uplift, Terraforming, and "chromosome") appear on expansion cards, used in various ways.
Behind the Front Lines
While many cards depict military forces, I wanted to show that life continues during wartime, with cards portraying the home front, black markets, and war profiteering.
Several cards hint that the long-departed Alien Overlords once fought the Xenos aeons ago, leading scientists to search the Alien archives for weapon plans to help defeat them.
Another theme concerns biological terraforming by several Uplift races, allowing them to prosper on newly settled worlds.
Mechanically, this last theme rewards non-military green production worlds, which have always been the "odd man out" in Race. Novelty and Rare production worlds are fairly cheap and lend themselves to produce/consume strategies, while costly Alien worlds are worth lots of victory points. Non-military Genes worlds fell in between. Now, they can used to good advantage.
Designing the Xenos
For the visual look of the Xenos, we had several requirements:
They needed to work in both space and land scenes, which led us to having them hover in the air.
They needed to convey a sense of menace, so that every appearance didn't devolve into a combat scene.
They needed very distinctive but relatively clean lines, so they could be referenced in displays or by just part of their bodies.
They also needed to "feel" alien, something that didn't fit with the sprawling galactic civilization depicted by other Race cards.
Finally, they needed to be different from the many well-known aliens of various books, films, and computer games. Meeting all these criteria was quite tricky and took quite a few iterations by the illustrators, Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan. Here is a sample of some rough concept sketches we reviewed, for both individual Xenos and a star-faring spaceship that might carry them between solar systems.
I'm quite happy with the final result. I think we got to something that is quite atmospheric and easily recognized even when used in a small size or just partially.
The Invasion Game
For players wanting a new Race play experience, forty Invasion cards, five bunkers, five Produce: Repair action cards, and a repulse track are supplied for the bonus invasion game (which also uses the expansion game cards).
In this game, after two "grace" rounds, players must defend against three successively harder waves of Xenos, until their collective military equals or exceeds the Xeno repulse value (which varies with the number of players).
Until the Xenos are repulsed, as many invasion cards as players are turned up each round. These are assigned high to low to players based on players' military. Each player must then either beat this number with their military (including military vs. Xenos) or damage a world, flipping it face down.
Players start with bunkers, enabling a player to discard one card for +2 defense. Defense adds to a player's military for the purpose of fending off a Xeno invasion, but not for conquering Xeno worlds or repulsing the Xenos.
Some cards have Xeno defense powers and repair powers as well.
Players who defeat their invaders receive bonus awards (worth VPs), with the lowest military player receiving two awards if successful. The conceit here is that the low military empires are "civilian empires" — not expected to hold off the Xenos — who receive renown if they manage to do so.
While some players really enjoyed the Alien Artifacts orb game, others complained that it took too long, breaking up Race's quick flow. Here, the invasion step is quite quick: update players' military, check Xeno repulsion, flip the invasion cards and hand them out, and either take an award or damage a world — typically taking about one minute. Then, players are back to picking their actions for the next round.
Players may repair damaged worlds during Produce by flipping them face up with either a repair power, a good, or two cards.
During Produce, players may also contribute goods to the war effort. Each good reduces the Xeno repulse value by 1 and earns 1 VP chip for its contributing player. Both the Xeno repulse value and players' collective military are tracked on the repulse mat.
War contributions are a way to earn VPs without calling Consume. While they can't be doubled, a new strategy exists of calling Produce every turn, once a player has enough production worlds. This can create tension between a player who calls Produce each turn for war contributions and a player who consumes them for double VPs, leeching off these Produce calls.
The game can either end normally or in one of two new ways: the players defeat the Xeno invasion — by having their collective military equal or exceed the Xeno repulse value — or lose to them, by having all players fail to defend against invasions twice.
At game end, the player with the highest military plus military vs. Xenos and the one who contributed the most to the war effort both receive 5 VP bonuses. These awards are not given out if the players lose to the Xenos.
The invasion game changes Race considerably as players have to manage their defenses and repairs while jockeying both for highest military (to earn the VP bonus and easily defeat Xenos) and lowest military (to earn double awards if they can stave the Xenos off). As war contributions affect the Xeno repulse value, a player who is ahead can try to end the game quickly either by producing them or by adding Military.
The invasion game is optional. If you prefer to just play Race with more cards, then simply add the Xeno Invasion cards to the base set and start playing. If you want a new play experience, then — after getting used to the new cards — try the bonus invasion game. Enjoy!
When I started thinking about the game now called The Golden Ages, it was February 2010. For a long time, I was mumbling about civilization games, a kind of game that I have loved since the first Sid Meier's Civilization for PC. I was thinking about how the board games created from this kind of videogame were never without flaws, like the game's length or the high downtime. I felt like they were missing a game that would reproduce the main aspects of the civilization game, with a short play time and with game mechanisms that would make it easier to compete with players suffering from "paralysis by analysis". I hadn't found this game around, so I tried to make it myself!
The first consideration that I felt, and that is perhaps obvious, is that in a civilization board game you cannot have the same complexity of a computer version. At the same time it is necessary that the interaction with other players is tighter because otherwise the game becomes a multi-player solitaire for at least half of the match. Thus, something of the original experience must somehow be sacrificed. Many games typically sacrifice the map; others sacrifice urban development; still others sacrifice the variety of the strategies, which are almost always heavily influenced by the military choices of some of the players; others sacrifice the historical extension to a single historical age. Some games, finally, focus on just one aspect of the matter, such as the tech tree, and leave out all the rest.
I realized that need to leave out something only after the first two or three versions of the initial prototype. At first, there were five different kinds of resources and a more complex technology tree, and the game was still too long and too chaotic — but the basic structure was there and it worked pretty well. From there, the development process went for stepwise refinement — for the curious that meant sixteen major versions of the prototype, plus a few minor releases — some of which have proved to be much more difficult than others. I think it's worth exposing at least some of these steps because each of them has taught me something and maybe they can be useful to other game designers.
In developing the game, I tried to avoid the "headache" at the end of the turn. Typically, the end of the turn in a game of civilization is when you do all the upkeep math: You count how many and which resources you control, you move counters on some tables, etc.
I realized — and I needed seven different versions of the prototype to understand it! — that this part is tiring and boring; for this reason I have removed from the game almost all counting, shifting the phase of economic rent to the time when a resource is acquired. In this way also the attacks become less frustrating for those who suffer them because while losing a resource can decrease the points you'll score, you don't ever lose money, which might have meant stopping the strategy you're pursuing.
In addition, in the development, I have endeavored to reduce downtime. The moves are therefore very basic and take place in a hurry; the turn comes around to you again almost immediately and you don't have time to get bored. Also, and I believe this is the newest mechanism of the game, when you have finished all your moves and pass your turn, you will not wait patiently for other players, but you continue to accumulate money. The fact that you're earning gold that you will use in the next turn puts pressure on the opponents who have not yet entered in the Golden Age. They must then decide whether to continue developing (thereby helping you, too!) or not. I find that this solution is much more fun than waiting patiently for other players to have finished!
Another effort has been to balance the different strategies. The lines of development of the technologies are very different, and you can win in many ways. Making balanced strategies has been quite difficult because some technologies were more useful than others with the same cost. For example, before I finally give up the idea that there would be a technology providing additional colonists, I had to bang my head on it several times! Actually, an additional colonist became so useful that it was also indispensable, and then this strategy was mandatory; the whole game was depleted.
The most fun thing in the whole development has perhaps been the search of game effects that were not purely abstract but related to historical reality. This is clearly visible in buildings and wonders, but especially in the civilization cards; each of them has a special power that is closely linked to its "personality" in history. For example, the Phoenicians were the inventors of the alphabet, so they start with the knowledge of Writing; the Portuguese receive additional gold if their colonists circumnavigate the world, the (modern) Japanese have an advantage in technological development, and so on.
I really care about these small "setting" details because I think that they make the game more fun and less abstract.
A similar choice was made with the continent tiles. With them it is possible to reconstruct our "real" world, which is therefore one of the thousands of possible spatial configurations available. If you try, you will find that the continents are not to scale. It is a deliberate choice which simulates how, throughout history, the world has become progressively "smaller" as the ability of humanity's exploration grew up. I hope you enjoy this strange map because I don't recall any other game where you can build a map using modular continents of the "real" world.
The game's aspect that has been more difficult to balance was the attack system. I have tried at least ten different ways to make war, and I discarded all of them. Obviously, the game had to have a military aspect, but I wanted that to be a strategy among the others, not a mandatory path to win the game. In civilization computer games, I have always noticed that there is a kind of schizophrenia in the way you use the troops; the turns cover several years, but the army deployments are purely tactical. From the point of view of the simulation this way to make war appears completely out of place.
The path that I have chosen is therefore one of abstraction; any military action in TGA is similar to a technological development, and "attacking" means investing resources into armaments and military technologies, gaining a military advantage that implies the disadvantage of someone else, who will lose some kind of resource. Getting a military supremacy is increasingly difficult and expensive; the first attack is cheaper and often allows you to make "easy money", while the fourth attack is very expensive and generally you should perform it only if there is a valid reason. This rule also follows the historical fact that modern civilizations think a lot more before starting a war because the social cost (in resources, but alas, even in human lives) is much higher than that of the battles of antiquity. Also, the one who is attacked, as I said before, receives contained damage and rarely is his strategy totally ruined.
A few notes about the game's name: I had several ideas, but I discarded all for several reasons: one name seemed to summon boredom and sadness; another sounded bad in some languages, etc. The thing that amused me is that someone else had the same ideas, and they have all been used for other titles released or soon to be released! What eventually prevailed was the idea to remember in the title the mechanism that characterizes it most, the "Golden Age" one.
In conclusion, I tried to create first of all a game that I would play: a full civilization game lasting less than one-and-a-half hours, a game that you can play also twice in a single evening. I seem to have succeeded, although of course I cannot say so myself! If you'd like to try it, maybe you will say it to me!
One word about the Cults & Culture expansion. I decided to spend time developing that expansion because I thought that the game may want something more; too many things had been left behind along the road, sacrificed on the altar of "easiness" of play, like religion, government, arts, wonders, etc.
I searched for how to integrate all of that stuff in the game in a way that doesn't appear as a superstructure upon a linear game. I think I've found that way, with a single rule that integrates all the new things...and now that the expansion is for real you may say to me whether my solution is good enough or not! And you may also try the game with a fifth player, if you want...
(...and for further consideration, you may look at this BGG blog where I continue this analysis...with more words and badder English...)
Every time I start working on a new idea, I always ask myself the same question: "What would I like to play?" This time I thought: "I like the feeling of cooperative games; I love the dynamics in deck-building games...okay, let's make a cooperative deck-builder!"
The best ideas are often the ones for which you don't immediately realize all the work needed to make them come true. It actually took five years for The Big Book of Madness to come to life and hit the stores.
The story began with a simple thematic idea: run across a temple, loot a sacred relic, then manage to get out alive. From this theme, game mechanisms came flowing very quickly, almost on their own. A series of various rooms with challenges to overcome, enemies, obstacles in the way, traps, room cards to progressively increase the difficulty of the game, and decks with four types of cards: Strength, Intelligence, Speed, and Special Abilities.
As in most deck-builders (like Dominion or Thunderstone), basic cards evolved into more powerful ones (1, 2, 3...) and special abilities allowed various chain combos.
From the start, several things seemed obvious to me: A deck-builder is particularly hard to balance because you need the possible combos to be exhilarating when they happen, without being overkill. I had already explored this issue with a few previous prototypes, but I found out it was an even more challenging puzzle to balance a cooperative game so that it turns out to be neither too easy to win nor too hard. From the first version of the game to the final one, difficulty remained a constant issue.
Interesting things started to come up during the designing process. New interactions between players that I never witnessed before emerged from this mix of cooperation and deck management, with everyone sharing cards, helping to build each other's decks, and giving up cards to support others.
I fiddled a lot with all of this, but something was missing, something that would set the game apart from other deck-builders. Than I thought: "Why not invert the process? Let's start with decks already well-built and spoil them as the game goes. But what would be the thematic reason for this? What if the temple had a curse that made the adventurers inside slowly turn mad?"
That's how the madness first appeared, even though the idea of "unbuilding" the deck didn't hold up for long.
Here I was, spending weeks looking for a mechanism that would prevent the common and obvious strategy in every deck-building game; I didn't want my game to feel just like another quest for a lean and efficient deck with combos that end up with you having all of your cards in hand in a single turn. "But how could I avoid this? What if each time you shuffle your deck, a card comes to spoil it? That's it!" The idea just fit perfectly with madness, which became a core and constitutive element of the game from then on. At that time, the release of Friday (a little card game by a certain green-haired designer) strengthened this idea for me.
After the cursed temple, I tried moving the poor adventurers into a maze reminiscent of strange horror movies, but the game had too many ideas — that I won't disclose here because even if they haven't made it into the final version of the game, I haven't entirely given up on them! — and game sessions were always lost in length and intricacy.
While madness had eventually fixed what annoyed me with the deck-building mechanism, several issues specific to cooperative games remained, especially the alpha male syndrome (or as I like to call it, the "Do this already, you idiot!" problem). I didn't like the fact that a seasoned player could dictate what to do to others. After a few tries, I decided to remove the standard turn order; the players would not play in clockwise order, but in the order of their choice, gathering fatigue and managing their resting time. I actually solved the issue later in the sharing of information.
It was still too intricate, but there was really only one thing left to change to come close to what would become The Big Book: Special abilities were chaotic, messy and unbalanced. I had to move them from the deck to personal boards that each player could activate with skill points. This last change streamlined the mechanism of the game, which eventually allowed me to gather enough courage to show the prototype to a publisher. Or did it?
I am amazingly lucky to work at a boardgame café in Nancy, France ("La Feinte de l'Ours", which literally translates as "The Bear's Trick"), so I have a lot of willing playtesters at hand. Showing my prototypes to our regular customers already felt slightly uncomfortable to me, so submitting them to a publisher seemed quite impossible. I had to wait a whole year of work on the game before I dared to do so — and even then it's really because Gabriel, a good friend of mine at IELLO, played the game several times at the café and insisted on showing it to his workmates. They all approved the game almost instantly! "That's it! My game's getting published!"
But there were still so much work — several years of work actually!
Back then, we enthusiastically named the project "Asylum" and pictured a game in which players would play as Allied agents posing as lunatics to spy on a mental hospital run by undead Nazis! We were young and boldly inventive, so IELLO's management had to kindly got me to understand this theme was..."too difficult". Too bad!
Allied agents became magicians
Another element of the game made things too intricate: a board game composed of a random series of rooms. This issue took us a long time to solve. Reluctant and weary, I eventually gave up and threw all the boards away. To help streamline the game, I conceded another theme change; instead of moving from room to room, players would fight against a book and turn its pages. Deep down, I liked the new idea, but what was I to do with the madness, which was the game's core element? The book would be plagued by demons, and the players would have to prevent them from getting out and spreading terror and destruction! "I like it, it sounds quite epic!" The Big Book of Madness had found its final theme at last, and that made fine-tuning the mechanisms a lot easier!
Some of the monster cards from the Big Book
At first, game sessions were too long and brainy. Gabriel had to fight to make me give up the chosen game order and resting time. Eventually, I agreed to work on a version with more usual, clockwise game turns. It shortened game sessions by half and made the thought process more intuitive. "I have to admit that it's much better this way."
Then, magic allowed us to bring everything together. Personal boards were dropped, and skills became spells. Strength, Intelligence and such were replaced by four common elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. And the element cards were now used for all actions. The game was more clear, better balanced, but also much more exciting to play!
Sample element cards
Later, I received the first roughs by Naïade. I felt so proud that I was exultant, while people at IELLO were pouting with discontentment. There was no way I could judge this without bias because it's my game and because I think so much of Naïade's work, so I stepped back and silently watched new briefs and sketches come and go. It took quite a while, but now that I see the result, I think it was really worth it!
Spells that you can learn
Now that we had chopped bits off the prototype, it looked like a real game. Game sessions at the boardgame café were looking increasingly exciting. As soon as I could get my hands on a little of Naïade's art, I made a new, better-looking prototype. I kept on fine-tuning and balancing, one bit after another. Changes became smaller and fewer. Playtesting progressively seemed less necessary. "It looks good! Now I just need to wait for the actual box to get on my shelves..."
Prototype at the 2015 GAMA Trade Show
"This story takes place in the dark times from which legends come."
These are the opening words for the rulebook of Ekö. For those of you who have already played the game, I hope that this "designer’s diary", where I permit myself to talk a little about game design in a more general fashion, will show you how the game was born and has evolved. For those of you who know nothing about Ekö, let's just say that you will discover it the same way I did — by groping a bit. Oh, and sorry if those little titles in the text sound odd sometimes; I've tried to make them sound funny as they do in French, but...well, you'll see.
It all starts with the chicken and the egg question. The pawn or the Emperor — which came first? Theme or mechanisms? Here, it is the pawn. In 2012, I was fascinated by stacking games. Basically, I had tried to produce an adaptation of the "match 3" games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush with pawns and as a multiplayer game...without much success. I was not satisfied with the result at all: It was strategically poor and demanded a lot of fiddly manipulation, things that are normally taken care of by the system in the video game.
However, I found it excellent to start with a pawn, an "abstract" game, with a random set-up of the tokens: It created different situations each game and required the player to read a game freshly constructed right on the first turn. I saw the antithesis of games with scripted "openings", like chess, in which the set-up is fixed, and in which the first turns are far too crucial and can be more or less identical for seasoned players. I even used this principle for Crab Stack, which I created at the same time.
The Stack Options
So I was going with a random set-up of colored pawns without really knowing where I was going. Some mornings, you just play with the pieces like a toy and see how you naturally want to use them as a player. I stack the pawns, I unstack, and I see the possibilities of several amusing systems — but I tell myself that in terms of stacking games, it is awfully easy to reinvent the wheel, considering that there are already a number of them out there. I spent a little time researching, on BGG or François Haffner's site, in order to familiarize myself with the domain and to know where it was useless to go because others had already gone there before me — and better.
At that time, this resulted in a simple stacking and capture game — a distant cousin of Focus and Avalam, but with its own distinctions. I pasted on a theme because it's prettier, and — presto! — I cranked out a first prototype on a square cloth. The game functioned...not too badly...but there was a little problem with the victory conditions. Furthermore, it's a little dry, remaining a pure and true abstract game, and even though I adore games of this type, I had the feeling that this game would not be good enough to compete in the abstract domain. Since the system was already very pure, I told myself that I had a little room to add something to the game.
A Game of P(r)awns
The following draft was called "Medusa". I kept the sea floor theme because I was attached to my kawaii medusas, but I moved the game to a modular, hexagonal board: Hexagons are more "fair" than a checkerboard in terms of movement and trajectories, and the modular board fit well with the random set-up of the pawns, reinforcing my goal of high replayability by producing very different set-ups.
In order to enhance the theme a little and to resolve my victory condition problem, I placed "reef" spaces on the board, obstacles on which we do not place pawns at the start of the game and which are necessary to control during the game. In order to control a reef, you simply must have a majority around it. This is the prototype that I made to play at Cannes (the biggest gaming convention in France) in 2013. People had a lot of fun playing it, but numerous times I was told that even though the game was good, the theme was not a good fit. The colors of the board and the pawns suggested that it was a friendly family game, perhaps even childish, while the experience of playing the game was very calculated — literally, because you were constantly counting the pawns around each reef to see who controlled it, which was a bit tedious. Nevertheless, feedback on the game mechanisms were mostly positive, most notably a point that will later be what spices up Ekö: the placement of reinforcements.
Spinach Is Like Nietzsche: It Reinforces
"Medusa", like Ekö later, is a game that I wanted to be playable with up to four players. In its scale and features, "Medusa" is already a game of conquest. One of the problems with conquest games — games in which strong interaction is pervasive — when playing with three or four players is that in the same round, one player can be eaten alive by all the others (even without specific collaboration on their part as it often can happen circumstantially), and thus this player loses all traction and any hope of staying in the race. I wanted a balancing mechanism that could level the playing field in such a situation or at least make it less crippling. I decided that whenever a player's pawns are captured, he gets them back in front of him and can later bring them back into play on his turn. So, sure, he lost his strategic positions, but this gives him the opportunity to return his pawns to play with the flexibility to place them pretty much wherever he wants. This way, all players remain relevant and involved throughout the game. This (re)placement of captured pawns in reinforcement is a really nice addition to the game.
However, there was a parameter to bear in mind: In spite of this balancing mechanism, the game still needs to resolve. Allowing players to replace pawns on empty spaces can lead to loops or blocked situations. A strategic advantage in one region of the board can be destroyed because pawns are "parachuted" from out of nowhere. (In Ekö, this will be prevented in part by the rule that forbids placing reinforcements adjacent to an enemy building.)
But it was equally important that the board gradually empties in order to allow movement. Because of this, I decided that the reinforcements must be placed on friendly stacks. This prevents the creation of new stacks, which means the board can empty, so movement becomes necessary if you wish to reclaim a strategic zone that you lost.
The Wrong Movement
The more the pawns pile up, the more empty spaces are created. In Ekö, empty spaces permit movement, and this is what provides the story arc for the game: The board starts the game full, and movement is impossible. As the game progresses, opportunities open up, and pathways emerge.
In "Medusa", stacks moved only in straight lines. This drew from a legacy of classic games with pawns: You could think of the queen in chess, or many, many "pawn" games that make use of vector tactics. My modular board, full of obstacles, produced winding corridors, and this linear movement was laborious; it was often unappealing to move because going from point A to point B often required several turns. As a result, the starting set-up, which was random, induced a bit of predestination. This was a problem.
I think I have provided the simplest solution in the world. If the problem is that you cannot go from point A to point B, um, let's just say that you can. That's it. Thus, a stack of pawns can go anywhere it wants on the board as long as there is a clear path to it. Certainly this can seem less "realistic" than the movement in a normal wargame. How would my army get to the other end of the map in a single turn? I would respond by pointing out that it is all about the scale: scale of time, scale of distance. Now, you will notice that this scale is not explicitly defined in the game. We kind of ignore whether the lands represented on the board are an entire country or a simple valley. Visually, the "geography map" style chosen for the prototype advantageously did not define this scale. Game boards often use this type of graphical ellipse, and this was the scale that was ultimately chosen for the final game board of Ekö.
Tactically, this rather liberal movement rule suggested another interesting aspect; instead of thinking in terms of the "range" of the troops, as is often the case in conquest games in which movement is limited to a number of spaces, this game will make you think in terms of "access": open or closed. This was even more efficacious than the proposed board of winding paths; managing access could be done at multiple locations and by different players. The starting set-up was becoming far less determinant.
The Stack of Cthulhu, or The Question of The Theme
Upon returning from Cannes in 2013, I still needed to acknowledge the shortcomings of the game. Even though I was fond of the gap between the form and the substance, in which a cute and colorful game could in actuality be less light than it might seem, I had a choice to make: Either render the game more accessible in order to keep my pink jellyfish, or find a more adult theme for the game. I decided to set my octopi aside. The game was rather pure, so I chose to adapt it to a theme of medieval Japan. Not bloody original, sure, but doubtlessly effective.
The Map Is The Territory
Having discovered at that time Taluva, which I adored, I realized all the pleasure that can be found in handling little wooden buildings. This is where games and toys share common borders. A little wooden building, this is quite concrete; the game constructs itself, stirs, and comes to life as the game progresses. Looking at this game, we see neither numbers nor icons, just a flat region portrayed in three dimensions by little wooden buildings.
Thus, I decided to include little houses, towers, and castles in the game. This kills two birds with one stone: On one hand, it permits me to totally create a construction part of the game, and something on which to base the victory conditions (adieu, simple majority!); on the other hand, it brings the game away from being a pure game of pawns, and this reinforces the theme.
Obviously, the trap lay in creating the management part around what I had, which could imply resources, perhaps gold pieces...but I wanted the game to remain pure. In order for the heart of the game to remain in the placement and movement of the pawns on the board, the system to construct buildings must therefore be intuitive, simple to understand, and easy to remember. It should not involve additional components (gold pieces, resources) — it thus needed to be connected in some way or another to the pawns representing the players' troops.
No problem! One, two, three: "Sacrifice" one pawn (returning it to your reserve) to build a level 1 building, which is worth 1 victory point, and so on. Imposing a linear progression in the construction of buildings (house → tower → castle) is reminiscent of development or civilization games, which is a good thing.
That the buildings provide better victory conditions and reinforce the theme is good — but it bothered me a bit that they ultimately served "merely" as victory point markers spread around the board. In order for the game to be able to balance itself and resolve, it was necessary to forbid placement of reinforcements beside an enemy building. Thematically, this is justified if one thinks of it as a form of the building's "zone of influence" — or their territory. Mechanically, this turned out to be an excellent idea: This completes the narrative arc of the game. In the early turns, it is a placement/blocking game, then as the game progresses, it becomes about access created on the map (with the players sacrificing pawns in order to construct buildings), which then becomes a game of movement/capture.
Fish! Fresh Fish Here!
For the most part, Ekö was already here. It was called "Uma-Jirushi", and the game ran like clockwork. I was at the point at which I neither wanted to add nor remove anything. I decided that it was "fini" — or at least as much as possible. Now it was time to find a publisher.
It was François Haffner who told me that pawn games were no longer fashionable — and I think he was talking about a period of time more vast than just last year. When I went door-to-door trying to pitch "Uma-Jirushi" to different publishers, invariably, one may recognize the qualities of the game, but be turned off by the stacking principle of the game.
Without really knowing with whom to publish the game, I joined the Boulogne design competition, which had been won in the past by some non-standard games. The game passed one stage after another, leaving me more and more perplexed, thinking, "Well, crikey, I'm a finalist." At that point, I'd achieved everything I'd wanted with this contest: The game would have visibility to a lot of publishers, which is what I wanted.
The icing on the cake is that the game won! Beyond giving me enormous pride, it was also an enormous springboard for "Uma-Jirushi". The initial task of the Centre National du Jeu in getting games before publishers — whether downstream to francophones or upstream by taking award-winning games to Essen to show international publishers — is enormous. Well, in the end, I found myself playing with the guys from Sit Down!, with whom I had already worked on Wiraqocha and Sushi Dice; they liked the game right away and wanted to publish it. This is where "Uma-Jirushi" became Ekö.
The Void Is On The Box, But Not Inside
Sit Down! and I decided to transpose the game to a more fantastic universe, more dream-like than it was at first. Even if it still takes some Asian graphical cues, the game takes place in a universe that can't be identified, and that is for the better. The cover illustration perfectly serves this purpose in that it hints at more than is stated explicitly, and the line of the horizon allows you to get lost there, looking at it.
However, when we started to talk production, we found that on the larger boards from which punchboards included in the box would be cut, there was still room. Well, this was unacceptable. Although this was a game made without Kickstarter, without stretch goals, we decided to add more content because it didn't cost more and because we had the opportunity.
Note that at first, I was not particularly in favor of this, and for one simple reason: The game had turned out very well as it was, and sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. Adding things for the sake of adding things is not necessarily a good idea because it can transform a simple, functional concept into a kludge-fest. And then very quickly, strongly warning myself with this same notion, I told myself it was also an opportunity to give more breadth to the game, and that this would not only make me happy, but future players, as well. The main thing was to keep in mind that it should not add more complexity to the game and that these elements should be optional, acting as variants.
Thus, our developments have added Tempest tiles, which are the most beautiful effect to add to the game board, while requiring only a single additional rule. I also added the Pyramids, which are a nod to the reefs of the first version of the game, with their majority rule — though now the majority is counted from merely three spaces, which can be tallied at a glance. Finally, the temples bring little interesting effects without breaking the game.
Oh, The Places You'll Go!
If there is a lesson to this story, it would be this: Sometimes one conceives a game with a strong and simple intention, and because it functions, one succeeds in keeping it that way through to its completion.
The story of Ekö is the opposite. This is the story of a hazardous, three-year pilgrimage, armed with a pawn game that was supposed to be Candy Crush on a board, crossed with Avalam, and married to pink octopi and yellow jellyfish; I traveled to a realm at war in which one constructs little wooden buildings to finally stop in a desert of ochre dust, facing a golem of wind and sand who tells me that his Emperor is long dead. In the end, this is a game "of strategy", and I think the term is not abused here. Yes, Ekö is more than the simple abstract game it was in the beginning. This is a game of conquest, tense and open, delivered with elegant components and visuals.
Now the game is yours. Your turn to play!
Translation: Nathan Morse
The theme for Pirates of the 7 Seas came about after inventing an interesting engine for a battle system that involves an unusual use of dice. It allows you to realize truly massive and spectacular battles in an elegant way. Both preparing and determining battle results takes little time, and it adapts easily to the number of participants in the fight. This mechanism has evolved into the "3D Dice Battle System", which was already licensed by another studio for that other project.
The appropriate theme was chosen almost instantly: grandiose sea battles involving dozens of ships. This was exactly what we needed, so we started to develop this game. This was in 2013, and its development was combined with one of our other projects, Mysterium. Maybe you have heard something about that one.
From start to finish, we created seven full-fledged versions of this game! I can't say that it was always easy, but it was interesting, for sure. You know, it's quite hard to create something with consistent balance if you have 44 dice. We wanted the player to always have a chance to win, regardless of his luck. It's not easy with one die, and when you have such a large number of them — well, it's a real challenge for designers. Of course, the quantity of dice rolling could help align the results in some way, but wait, these are dice, and they are unforgiving!
The final version is number 7.7. This is very symbolic, naturally, as the game is Pirates of the 7 Seas! In fact, this numerical figure pursued us consistently during the entire development. It kept appearing here and there as an optimal number. Soon, we realized that it was a sign, so we stopped resisting and decided to put "7" in the title of the game.
But development is not just dry data! How would we describe the creative process behind Pirates? First, the project had its own spirit. We wanted to capture the most fun and "explosive" pirate moments and pack them into the box. Simulation games imitate the most realistic moments of the pirate voyages — such as the economy of the time, or the nuances of pricing in the Caribbean — but we wanted to manifest all things fun, dynamic, and juicy about the pirate life. There was no room for boredom and routine — only adventures!
We chose our direction for the game like a musket shot. Perhaps the closest thing to Pirates is the unforgettable video game Sid Meier's Pirates! from the great maestro of game designing. Yes, his game is far from historical truth — you can hardly find a bit of realism — but it is about precisely those pirates that everyone would like to be at least once, if not more often. (And I think that most pirates dreamed of such a life: incredible treasures, saber battles, meeting the governor, and the opportunity to cross the Pacific Ocean — what a joy.) But we also wanted to add some intrigues, confrontations, and challenges to our game. Actually, each pirate is a mercenary, vain and mean, and this game will encourage you to be like those pirates.
First of all, the battle engine was better for cooperation, but the game is pirate-themed. We didn't want to make a cooperative pirate game, but we realized semi-co-op could work. We've all heard about the pirate brotherhood, but a pirate has no right to call himself a "pirate" if he doesn't love gold more than anything else, even more than friends. The continuous opportunity to backstab is meant to be a leitmotif, a recurring theme in the game — and there has to be only one winner.
The world also has to live. Something always happens there. In the beginning, the role of our "living world" generator was played by a banal deck of event cards. The top card decided what would happen in this world. It didn't seem like a bad idea because there were elements of unexpectedness and it was easy to implement, but in practice this old-fashioned solution wasn't good at all. After a few tests, we realized that it had its drawbacks.
The main drawback was that the deck wasn't connected with all those things that were happening to players. A trade ship could appear on the horizon, and players don't have any ships. The prices could be changed, but players have nothing to sell, which means this can't impact them in any way. Or the time to pay wages might come when there was nobody to pay. It means that these events won't engage the players — there's no emotional connection to events that are disconnected from the situation in the game. Of course, sometimes it happens to work anyway, but not very often.
Thus, we decided to give full control to the players so that they could decide which adventures they wanted to go on and when those adventures would take place. We liked this idea a lot. It reminded me of the revolution in video games that was made when high-speed internet became common. After that time, the whole world dipped into online games, allowing humans to play video games against humans, whenever they wanted. You can polish an artificial intelligence for years, but bots (at least at this stage) are no comparison with human ingenuity and deviousness!
Of course, this requires a certain level of mastery, but that's a good thing! As players become more skillful, the game world becomes more interesting and harder with each new game session.
In that way, players themselves create the plot for their games by choosing adventures for themselves and for other players, at the most appropriate time for the concrete event, but neither earlier nor later than that time.
Working on the box art
I'll mention it again: Because the game is full of dice, it was difficult to balance the battle system, so we brought in such elements as corsairs. It's highly thematic and implemented perfectly.
It's impossible to completely conquer all dice, and each game creates a new situation. Sometimes all players become richer, and they are thus focused on the economic path. But at other times, you are barely alive and fighting for every chest of gold. This is essentially a good reflection of different times of the "Pirate Era", which really existed in the Caribbean.
I think we found a good solution of how to combine your gained experience (XP) and the luck on the dice. I think you'll like the solution, especially those who aren't lucky when rolling dice. The more you lose while others are becoming richer, the stronger your desire to learn, and the game allows you to do that. You'll become a more powerful pirate with better opportunities than others.
Dice-ships are carrying booty
The last thing is the sequence of performing actions. Major events happen simultaneously to all players. It's nearly eliminated that pesky problem in games called "downtime" — and actions that affect only you don't take much time since they are very simple.
But the order for resolving actions of the same type has a huge impact on the game. We had a few options for a solution to this problem, but they were all difficult and uncomfortable. The easiest way is to move clockwise after the first active player. But there is a problem, and this problem exists in almost every game with such a solution: During the game, when players forget to pass the first active player marker, it results in confusion.
We couldn't solve this problem for quite some time. We tried different things, and we almost despaired of finding a simple and interesting solution. Once during our testing, my co-author Oleg Sidorenko offered a double or triple bonus for playing your characters rationally, playing almost all your characters before taking them back into your hand. We liked the idea, but we decided not to use it because it could make the game longer. It must be mentioned that if you are the only one who chooses a certain action this round, you get an extra bonus. That's why the moment of determining which cards other players will play is very interesting, and you wait until each card is revealed with some kind of trembling and excitement.
The next day, I was waiting near our office for a postman with two important letters. I didn't want to miss him because we needed those letters right then — and that waiting was my inspiration. I had had thoughts about how to draw attention to the first player marker, perhaps punishing those players who forget about it (but it's not always the solution) or encouraging those who didn't. But we couldn't find any such appropriate reward as it would always be too little or too much. And I nearly shouted out loud with joy when it hit me: Oleg had suggested this solution even without knowing about it. It was so obvious!
The solution: If you have the first active player marker, and you are the only one who chose your action, your bonus will be multiplied by two. This helps serve as a reminder to pass the marker. This solution was a real relief, and players got a new interesting choice because sometimes it is more profitable to play some certain action simultaneously with the current active player to prevent him from getting some great bonus. I'm sure you can see how the player with the marker would be glad if he managed to get the bonus and upset if he didn't. The bonus is great, but you have to make some effort and consider everything thoroughly to get it. It was the thing we’d been looking for.
Art for adventure cards in progress
The development of the game was long and sometimes arduous, but looking back at the process and at the exciting results of our hard work, we are very happy with what we've got. We in IGames hope you enjoy our game. I am eager to take a copy of the new box and give it a whirl. We are going to set off soon to face adventures across the seven seas. We are looking for some booty, friends! It is time for pirates!
There were a lot of changes. We added things, we removed others, and then we returned to the old version! And, of course, it was accompanied by a huge amount of tests along the way. I think it was the most exhaustive testing process we'd ever been involved in.
I'd like to say thanks to all our testers, families, and friends for their understanding, patience, and support. We couldn't do anything with those stubborn 44 dice in the tin box without you. I'd like to say special thanks to Oleg because the work was not so easy. We spent a huge amount of time being nervous, along with weekends without our families. I am proud to work with such a professional. We fought and argued. Sometimes our office looked like the eye of hurricane when we tried to defend our points of view, but it was because we really liked the game. I hope he doesn't stay angry with me because of that, and that he'll allow me to get the double bonus for the first player marker...at least sometimes.
Sylvion was born out of my desire to create a "tower defense" game in the Oniverse.
I always had a thing for this type of game, maybe because they have so much in common with board games. I thought I could rip a few pages from their book such as resource management, positioning strategies, and coordinating timing.
For my grandmother reading this article, a "tower defense" game is a game in which you need to defend a place, often a castle or a fortress, from evil foes charging in waves. You then have to place towers, barricades or heroes in their way to try to stop them before it's too late. In recent years, Fieldrunners, Plants vs. Zombies, and Kingdom Rush are among the most successful games of the genre.
The theme came to me while remembering the beautiful German forest – I was in Germany for The Marriage of Figaro – and instead of defending a fortress, I wanted the players to protect the Forest of the Oniverse. Fire and flames were the natural enemies, facing an alliance of animals, fountains and floral creatures, each one bringing a specific power.
The draft aspect was the other key element that I wanted to integrate in this game. Instead of playing with the same group of defenders every time, players now have to draft a few of them before each confrontation, giving the players the opportunity to build their own deck for more personalized strategies.
Once a deck is completed, the goal is now to survive the Ravage and its many waves of attacks. Its army and maneuvers are represented with cards, which are divided in four decks. Each of these decks is assigned to a specific zone of the forest.
A game round starts with the revelation of the top card of every Ravage deck and the movement of all of its minions. If one of them reaches the forest, it inflicts a certain amount of damage to the forest — and if the vitality of the forest falls below zero, the game is over.
To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to manage your cards correctly, placing fountains in strategic places and playing the right animals at the right time. But all of these cards have a cost, and you'll need to discard other pieces of your hand to play each of them.
The starting point of Castellion was entirely different: to create a game without any hand to manage.
Even though Onirim, Urbion and Sylvion have very different mechanisms, their objectives and development share a lot of similarities, with the three of them requiring players to manage their cards as well as timing. In these conditions, knowing when to play or discard a card is as important as which card you're actually playing or discarding.
With Castellion, I wanted the decisions to be instantaneous: At the beginning of a turn, the player draws a card and needs to decide immediately if they intend to play or discard it. And since they have no hand of cards, the management takes place somewhere else: the spatial organization of the played cards. Players then need to build something only with these cards: a structure, a building, or perhaps a castle!
After only a few test runs, I decided to replace the cards with tiles as they were much more stable and gave a better sense of construction.
Speaking of tiles, I thought it would be interesting to add a special power to the discard action so that it would create a greater dilemma. This power would then serve to make the castle stronger, able to defend itself.
But to defend the castle from what? That's right: I needed a new villain!
That's when I had the idea of a shape-shifting monster inspired by The Thing by John Carpenter, this cinematic trauma visited on my nine-year-old self. To defeat this entity, the castle has to imitate the monster and also change its form, always getting bigger and stronger so that it might resist the monster's three assaults, each of them more brutal than the last one.
These attacks are triggered when enough Traitor tiles, which are shuffled among the other tiles, are picked and placed. This system creates a great deal of pressure, forcing the players to choose between short-term and long-term preparation, for you never know when the first assault will occur!
The castle's tiles are called Defender tiles, and they represent both a piece of your castle and a defender. There are four types of defenders, each of them carrying a unique shape and a specific power. This power is activated whenever the tile is discarded, whereas the color indicates how and where to position this tile following a defensive formation.
You will need to master these different defensive formations in order to defeat the Menace, and using the right one depends on what form the Menace adopts to attack your castle. For example, if the Menace takes traits of a harpy, your castle will need high towers to defend itself (with these towers being made by aligning columns with tiles of the same color); if the Menace comes at you in a horde instead, you'll need to put up lines of defense (i.e., rows with tiles of the same color).
In the end, Castellion presents itself as a descendant of my childhood puzzles, a puzzle we can do over and over again because of its changing form and versatile pieces. It invites the player to explore all possibilities, but at the same time, reminds them that this is a race against an unavoidable menace.
Preview by Tom Lehmann and Wei-Hwa Huang
Ambition expands Roll for the Galaxy by adding fourteen factions, seven start worlds, two new types of dice, five game tiles, and optional objectives.
Originally, Roll was designed as a standalone game. Its popularity, plus customer demand for more start factions and home worlds, led us to consider doing an expansion in late February 2015.
With Success Comes New Challenges
A popular game faces the issue that experienced players want more complexity and new challenges, while many new players are just getting it but, in their enthusiasm, will also buy the expansion. How do you design it for both groups?
Having done Race and Pandemic expansions, Tom believes that a game's first expansion needs to offer variety in breadth — more of what caused players to like the game originally — plus a few new "twists". This keeps the complexity manageable for new players. Radical changes belong in later expansions, when more players will have explored the game's play space and not as many new players are just discovering it.
New Tiles and Dice
Ambition's development began with an exchange of lists. Wei-Hwa had a list of ideas that didn't make it into the base game: What if a world cost you a die to build? How about a faction that could effectively Scout for free?
Tom had noted down some interesting variations on base game tiles: What would an Uplift world or Contact Specialist (from Race) look like in Roll? How about an expensive world that scores a bonus?
We refined these ideas to produce a mini-expansion to begin testing. However, we also wanted something new. Wei-Hwa suggested adding two new types of dice, differing in how players got them. One would be quite powerful — the Leader die, with every player starting with one — while the other would be acquired normally, through factions, start worlds, and game tiles.
For these dice, Wei-Hwa added two concepts:
First, some faces would show two phases, so if a player assigned it to either phase and it didn’t occur — but the other phase did — then the die would shift after phases were revealed. This lets a player do speculative dice assignments.
Second, some faces would have both a phase symbol and $. If assigned to that phase — and that phase occurs — then after performing its task, the die goes back to the cup, not the Citizenry. (It effectively recruits itself.)
Finally, the Leader die has a wild face and matches all colored worlds, as either the shipper or good, for Consume tasks.
The Leader die was well-received by our testers, not only because it's more powerful than the white Home die it replaces, but also because it leads to more interesting early decisions when players don't have many dice.
The Entrepreneur die was designed as a "leeching" die for shipping players. Not sure whether a tableau-building player is going Develop or Settle? How about a face with both symbols? Wondering whether a tableau builder is going to Explore? How about Explore-Develop and Explore-Settle faces?
To ensure it would be useful for shipping, its other faces were Produce-Ship, Produce, and Ship. This gave us a die with two of every phase. To encourage its non-Consume uses, it doesn't match any world colors. Testing showed this was a bit weak, so we added $s to its Produce and Ship faces.
From Goals to Objectives
With limited design and testing time to produce an expansion in 2015, Tom suggested possibly adapting Goals (from the first Race expansion) to Roll. Wei-Hwa proposed that these objectives shouldn't just give VPs, but instead should provide 2-5 talent counters, "one-shot" wild workers who match all worlds for Consume. Any unused talent counters at game end are worth 1 VP apiece.
We tested this and found it worked well.
Easier objectives entice players into pursuing them immediately since once an objective is claimed, it is unavailable to other players on later rounds. This adds tension to early game rounds.
Harder objectives provide five talent counters apiece. Once claimed, these workers can allow a player to easily put out an expensive 6-cost development or ship a bunch of goods for many VPs in the final round. However, pursuing harder objectives can become a trap if a player spends too much time doing so and then is unable to use these workers before the game ends.
We devised twenty objectives, six of which are randomly in play every game, providing lots of variety. We made objectives optional, so that brand new players won't feel obliged to immediately add them.
Switching It Up
During Roll's development, Wei-Hwa did the design and detailed implementation while Tom offered high-level critiques. With Ambition's development, Wei-Hwa concentrated on new concepts while Tom designed tiles, with both of us sharing testing and revision duties.
Initially, we did a four-week design blitz, each week testing a new sub-system or tile group to make sure we were on the right track. We then reported to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games that our design was sound, so he began work with the supplier to get production samples of the new dice.
After revising Ambition for a month, we took it to the Gathering of Friends to test it with lots of different players. Afterwards, we did two more months of stress testing, with both our main group and a blindtest group headed by Ken Chaney. By this point, we were recording game statistics and maintaining a faction spreadsheet to ensure that the new factions weren't too powerful relative to the base game factions.
The Art of Production
In early June 2015, we turned everything in to the art team. While we chose to reuse some Race art in Roll so that both games would exist in the same galaxy, over a third of Roll's art is original.
Most of Roll's reused artwork needed extensive touch up or was redone, due to being landscape, not portrait, as in Race. For example, if you compare the original card artwork for Pilgrimage World with the corresponding Roll faction, you can see how extensively the art was adjusted.
Similarly, the Ambition illustrations for Mining Robots, Destroyed World, and Rebel Colony above are all based on their respective Race cards, but are brand new.
Ambition features lots of completely original artwork. This takes time, so the art team — Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, and Mirko Suzuki — had to work quite hard for four months to meet our intended press date. They came through, and I think players will like the results.
This was an ambitious project on many levels, but we are quite pleased with how it turned out. Enjoy!
Those of you who have already had a chance to experience some of the games I've designed know that until now they have exclusively been set in historical periods. Sigismundus Augustus, The Outcast Heroes[/bi], [i]First to Fight — each of these games tells a story of real events that actually took place in history. Even Teomachia, which is based on beliefs from various mythologies, refers to history, although understood very widely and less typically.
But regardless of whether a game I was designing was about ancient mythologies, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or World War II, what was important to me was capturing the atmosphere of the setting. And it's not entirely about the artwork or the quotes from history that have been incorporated into the game; they are important to some extent, of course, but they don't make a game thematic. After all, Monopoly set in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean will not suddenly turn into a game about dangerous corsairs and sea battles. What really lets us capture the atmosphere of the game is its mechanisms – which in my opinion is one of the toughest challenges a game designer can face.
Another "Typical" Fantasy Game
This is exactly how it was with Heroes.
Now, if you already know the game, you might be a bit surprised. For those who don't know it: Heroes is a fantasy game, and it's the most classical fantasy possible: powerful wizards, supported by an army of fantasy creatures, face one another in a magic duel — a topic totally worn out and heavily overused in games.
Moreover, in many cases choosing this kind of setting is just supposed to cover the lack of better ideas from the designer and the publisher. Since Tolkien's times, elves and dragons have become a real cliché — but it's a bit different in the case of Heroes...
The theme was the beginning of all in this game. When I started designing it, I knew that I wanted to create a game about a duel of wizards that could capture and reflect the reality of such an event. I know this might sound strange at first; after all, it's not a historical theme that's trying to reflect any objective reality of some time period. Nobody of sound mind has ever witnessed a duel of wizards, or at least nobody can prove that.
But the truth is, if you want to make a game go well with the theme, it doesn't matter whether it is real or fictional. In either case, you can design a game that will reflect the realities well or not. (Any doubts? Check Monopoly set in the Lord of the Rings world.)
The atmosphere is present in Heroes on many levels. Spells work as you might expect judging by their names. The same thing with the creatures. A Dragon breathes fire, a Leviathan may devour a smaller creature, a Hydra can heal itself.
Everything's according to the fantasy canon, but in actuality that's only a small thing compared to what's most important. Creatures and spells are not what make Heroes a game about dueling wizards. The main part of the atmosphere is hidden in the dice and the mechanisms related to them.
When I tried to imagine how a duel of wizards casting deadly spells at each other could look like, the first thing that came to my mind was that it would be a very stressful experience. Why? Well, try to cast a spell — which is not easy in itself, according to all rules of fantasy worlds — while being attacked by a horde of enemy creatures and before the opponent finishes their own incantation to throw a fireball or lightning at you!
In such a fight, the speed, self-control and cold-headedness of both mages would play a crucial role, but emotions must be overwhelming. Capturing those emotions in the mechanisms was my main idea while designing Heroes.
Real Time on the Board
All the main premises mentioned above come down to one thing: Heroes should be a game with a significant real-time element, a game in which the players try to prepare and cast their spell before the opponent manages to do so.
This effect was achieved by introducing dice. They represent the magic energy you must harness to cast a spell. Until someone gets a satisfactory result on the dice, usually after many re-rolls, the gameplay is absolutely crazy. This is where dexterity, perceptiveness and flexibility let you modify your tactics, depending on what your luck brings you.
A Second to Breathe
Of course the whole game cannot be played at such a pace — or maybe it could, but it would rather be a party game then, and I wanted Heroes to be like a computer real-time strategy game adapted to tabletop. This is why when you gather the appropriate symbols on your dice, you stop the game. You apply the effects of your spells, activate your creatures, and have a short while to plan your future moves.
And you can take one deep breath before the dice are rolled again at a really crazy pace.
When I read reviews of Heroes, I often encounter opinions saying that this game could actually be about something else, that it could be set in a cyberpunk world or simply be another of my historical games.
On the one hand, it's true. The mechanisms of Heroes are so flexible that they would fit well to some topic other than dueling wizards in a fantasy world. But these mechanisms were born out of the setting which on many levels determined how the game should look like. I wanted Heroes to make the players feel as if they really entered a fantasy realm for a while and took part in a deadly duel of wizards.
Have I managed to achieve this effect? I hope you will see soon, perhaps in Essen at booth 2-B110 where Historical Games Factory/Lion Games will be with the whole Polish Publishing League, or at the booth of our distributor and co-publisher, REBEL.pl. Feel invited to drop by, try the game, and let me know what you think!
February 2012: I am sitting at my dining table with a copy of Quarriors! on it. I have just gotten the game, and I can't wait to play it. I've read all about it, how it takes the deck-building concept and applies it to dice, how the designers came up with the idea, how they ended up getting it published, etc. I read the rules and decide to play a two-player game on my own, to get a feeling of how it plays.
When the game ended, I found myself staring at the table in front of me and realizing that something was bugging me. On one hand, I liked the concept of having many cards use the same die in different ways; on the other hand I was feeling that I should have more control of how the die functioned during the game. "Wouldn't it be better if instead of having different abilities corresponding to the same die (through the use of different cards) I could actually completely change/upgrade the sides of a die?"
BAM! That was the exact moment when Dice City was born.
The cogs in my brain immediately started turning. Imagine a game in which you would start with some dice and as the game progressed, you would change the faces of those dice, replacing them with better options.
Great concept, cool idea, innovative thinking — but it left out a tiny, tiny insignificant problem: How could anyone actually change the faces of a die in a physical game?
As luck would have it, a few days before that event, a member of the Greek Guild here on BGG had posted a link from an online store where you could buy LEGO dice (and other LEGO parts). He had suggested their use as replacements in games with custom dice or as a good option for prototypes and print-and-play games. It didn't take long to realize that my idea could be implemented using those dice. Obviously, I would not be able to use LEGO dice in a published game (at least not in one not published by LEGO), but I wasn't about to let that stop me. I would test my idea, I would design the game, and I would worry about that "detail" afterwards. Worst case scenario I would have a cool game to play at gatherings which would not be able to get published. There are worst things out there than that, right?
I did some rough calculations and figured that five dice per player would be a good number, so I ordered 20 LEGO dice (to cover up to four players). I also ordered spare LEGO tiles in various colors that would snap on the faces of those dice so that I could use them for different types of abilities.
Right from the start I had the idea of "building" something, like a city or a kingdom. The dice would represent the area I controlled and during the game I would change their faces with new buildings — more or less something like a deck-building game but instead of building a deck, you would "build" your dice. (By the way, something that was bugging me then — and still does — is that all those games claiming to be dice-building are actually dice-pool-building. The dice themselves remain the same; they don't change. Your pool of dice is what increases/changes as the game progresses. Not in Dice City though!)
I am a fan of games having different paths to victory, and that was something I wanted to put in this one as well. The theme allowed me to have three different winning conditions: One would be an economic victory — build the wealthiest city. The other way to go would be military — build the most powerful army and attack the other players. The third way would be cultural — build the most fabulous and majestic constructs: statues, temples, universities, that sort of thing.
The greatest thing with these three paths, however, was that not only were they quite different theme-wise, they allowed for different gameplay strategies as well: Economic would be about going for a single big roll. Imagine combos, rerolls, one die affecting another one, chain reactions and so on. The whole game, you would be setting up for that huge winning roll that would generate tons of resources. Military, in a way, would be the exact opposite of that. You would build your dice in such a way that every roll would give you something small. Slow gain but steady. Bit by bit, round by round, you would attack the other players gaining something here, something there, always advancing towards the end but with small steps. The cultural victory now would be completely different from both the other two. It wouldn't care what your dice would roll. It would be about what buildings you had built. This would be worth that many points, this would give you extra points if you had built that one, and so on.
As is common in game design, when you start to work on a new game, you have a million ways to go. How will the attack work? What will be my resources? How will the combos function? Will I have only buildings in my game, or should I put some characters in it as well? Will the dice start all blank, or will they have something on them at the beginning of the game? Questions, questions, questions...
While trying to figure them out I would keep notes of ability ideas. I would imagine combos in my head, I would come up with medieval buildings that I could use and try to design abilities around them (or vice versa), and I would look for pictures online to put in my prototype. The toughest part in the beginning was figuring out the whole "attack" thing, or in other words, how interaction would work in the game. I didn't want the game to be all about attacking the other players, but I didn't want it to be multi-player solitaire either. It had to have the right amount of interaction that would allow a player to affect his opponents, without that becoming devastating or game-breaking.
Meanwhile, at some point the actual dice arrived. I was super excited and started working on the prototype. I printed the tiles that I had designed on transparent sticker pages (artwork and name only — nothing more could fit within the space I had for each of them) and began putting them on the actual LEGO tiles. I started playing around with the dice, creating new tiles, removing the previous ones, rolling and changing them again and again to get the "feeling" of how the game would be. Very quickly I realized that swapping the tiles was not the easiest thing in the world. Unless you had really big nails, you had to use a small tool of some kind. "Okay, that tool will be included in the game" was my first thought, not really wanting another "detail" to affect my plans.
Also, another problem that became apparent quickly was that the game would require a LOT of tiles. Just for the initial faces of the dice, I would need at least 120 tiles. (Twenty dice, remember?) How many more would there need to be to make for an interesting game? One hundred? Two hundred? The manufacturing costs were starting to go beyond the "really really really hard to do" and into the "just forget about it" territory.
Around that time, life started catching up with me. My second child had recently been born, I was super busy at my day job, and my free time was minimal at best. I ended up working less and less on the game, to a point that I was doing nothing at all about it; it was just lingering at the back of my head.
About a year later, I don't really remember what the cause of it was, but I had an epiphany: What if I replaced the tiles with small cards? They are much easier to produce, and I wouldn't have to worry about their quantity. I would get rid of the whole LEGO dice concept and simulate it using a 5x6 grid. Regular dice would now be used, and each side would correspond to a card. If I wanted to change the face of one of the dice, I would just place a new card on the corresponding space. Voilà! Problems solved!
Indeed, that was a solution that solved the two major problems I had. Of course that meant the game would lose some of the "dice-building" aspect it had since you wouldn't physically alter your dice anymore, but gameplay-wise it was effectively the same. If only I could also come up with a way to create time so that I could work on it...
Another year passed by. My busy schedule continued, so I couldn't work on the game. However, from time to time I would think about how it could be made with the new method I had come up. No playtesting yet, just exploring random thoughts and trying to see how it could all work. In some rare cases when I found time, I created a pseudo-prototype: a board with the 5x6 grid and some handwritten cards with a few abilities on them.
Nothing more (noteworthy) would probably have happened if I hadn't taken a very important life decision about a year ago. I decided to quit my day job and work full-time on game design. Okay, that probably sounds more dramatic than it actually was. Truth is, there were many factors that led to that decision and an opportunity rose that allowed me to do so. (In fact it was less risky than it may sound.) But that's for another story. What is important is that this move gave me what I needed: Time to work on the game.
And work I did!
One of the first things that I had to look into was the starting boards of the players, what their dice would look like when the game started. During the long "not-playing-only-thinking" period, I had considered having the players do a draft first to pick for themselves some of the cards that would be put on their boards. This way there would be a differentiation in the starting dice and every player could set their board according to the strategy they would like to pursue.
The first playtest I did when I started working on the game was with this method. The abilities on the cards were far from final (in fact they were still on hand-written cards), but it would give me an idea. From what little I saw, I thought it was kind of okay, but the comment from my opponent after the game was heartbreaking: "After the draft, I didn't feel like I needed to get any more cards in my board. I had already set an engine, and I was using it to pursue my strategy."
He was absolutely right. Having the players draft first was not just an alternative to a random set-up. It was effectively half the game, and its outcome was what I wanted the players to accomplish by rolling their dice in the first place. Obviously it had to go to return the focus to where it needed to be: The building (or crafting, as we would later call it) of your dice. That meant that a fixed board would have to be used. I only had to find out what it would need to be...
A very early draft of the player board (one of many attempts)
Around that time, I also had another important problem to solve: The game's resources. Right from the start I had considered "coins" to be the game's single resource. There would be buildings giving 1 coin (perhaps the starting ones on a die) that could be upgraded to other buildings giving 2 coins and finally upgraded to the ones giving 3 coins. All the buildings had a coin-cost (in order to buy them) and I even had the economic win condition laid out: Get 15 coins in one turn and you win the game! However, reality soon proved that things weren't as simple as I had imagined: The game just wasn't exciting. You would roll your dice, you would see how many coins you had and that was it. Booooooriiiiing! Your turns just weren't that fun (and obviously, the fact that there wasn't much dice manipulation at that point contributed to that effect).
Then one Sunday morning while at the countryside with my family, I had another epiphany. I was thinking of the game's board and realized that it could also represent the layout of your city. All the outer cards (first & last row, first & last column) would be the surrounding landscape while the inner cards would represent the central part of your city. When you'd start building, you would place the new cards anywhere on the board, showing that the city was expanding.
The surrounding landscape obviously led to the idea of multiple resources. I started with the ones that seemed to make the most sense (wood, stone and iron) and they stayed until the end. This changed everything in the game; in fact, this was what made the game. There were now options to be had, resources to go for in order to build a specific building, variety in the costs, and so on. Everything seemed to fit perfectly (both mechanically and thematically), and the game was now much more interesting and exciting.
I assigned the abilities I had thought of to buildings and determined their cost based on the new resources. I also added another type to the previous three (Economic, Military, Cultural) I already had: Civic. These would be buildings that had useful effects for all the strategies, usually dice manipulation abilities. You wouldn't win having only those in your city, but combined with some of the other ones they allowed you to pursue your strategy much more effectively.
Another thing that had to be determined was how the players would buy the new buildings. Initially, I had in mind a system like Dominion. You would start the game with X number of buildings available, different in every game, and you would form your strategy based on those. However, this increased the set-up time a lot, and it would lead to players performing the exact same strategies every time that the same cards were available. I needed something more dynamic that would lead to more interesting gameplay and the players adjusting their strategies accordingly.
After various attempts, I decided to just shuffle all the locations in a deck and have eight of them available at all times. (You buy one, you reveal a new one, and so on.) In order to test this system, I put three copies of each card in the deck. That was meant to be only temporary, but the game played so well this way that it was kept right until the end.
The good thing with me working full-time on the game was that I could playtest it a LOT more than before. The comments from my playtesters were quite positive, but one thing was still bugging me. You still relied a lot — more than I wanted at least — on the luck of the roll. You would add buildings in your city but never have a die land on them. You would want to desperately build something but you would be missing a key resource that just wouldn't roll. Okay, the whole idea was that you would improve your dice in time so that whatever you rolled, it would be useful to you. But in reality, it would take too long to change all six sides and there was still less control in the outcome of the rolls than I wanted. The solution to that problem came during one of the playtest sessions in which it was suggested to allow a player to discard a die to move another one to an adjacent space.
If the switch to three resources was what "made the game", this was what "made the game good".
You were no longer dependent on your exact rolls. You could manipulate your dice in an elegant and clean way to make sure that you could pursue your strategy successfully. It was amazing how much that little change improved the game.
The last thing that I had to deal with was the victory conditions. Initially I had thought of three separate victory conditions:
• To have an Economic victory, get four resources of each type in a single round.
• To achieve a Military victory, attack another player fifteen times.
• To get a Cultural victory, build cards until you reach 30 Fame Points.
However, the problem with having three completely separate victory conditions was that once you went into one path there was no turning back. I couldn't start Military, then suddenly switch to Economic; it would be like starting from scratch and everything up to that point would go to waste.
Moreover, having all these things to keep track of (resources, military, fame, etc.) was too much. I needed something clearer and simpler, so I did the only thing that made sense: I combined them all! Instead of having each strategy go for a different thing, they now all granted you victory points! You would get VP from collecting multiple resources of each type, you would get VP from attacks, and you would also get VP from building new cards in your city. You could do whatever you wanted and everything contributed to you (possibly) winning the game. Also, by using Trade Ships and Bandit cards, the victory conditions were easily adapted to end game triggers and everything was good to go.
From that point onward what remained was playtesting, and we did a lot of that. Costs were changed, buildings were tweaked, actions were adjusted — everything needed to make sure that the game was balanced and the gameplay was fun. All in all, from all the games I have designed, this is by far the one I've tested the most. What amazes me even more is that after all these games, I still enjoy playing it! I haven't grown tired of it and given a chance, I will gladly play one more game.
Come Spiel 2015, you will all get the chance to try it out. I believe you won't be disappointed...
CVlizations and my other game Andromeda (which I wrote about previously) are being published at the same time, but their stories are very different.
I started working on CVlizations a year after the latter one was almost done. It was the middle of 2014, and we were working very hard to have Andromeda ready to sell at Spiel 2014. We didn't make it, but looking back now, it was for the better. After that, I felt like starting a new project. I wanted to design something neat and simple — the benchmark: my non-gaming friends can play it — but with interesting interactions. I made a couple of prototypes following this rule: Make the prototype as soon as you can, then see what needs improving. I still think that's a good rule, but it wasn't working for me at that time. All the games I made ended up in the drawer or the trashcan. It was surprising to me how hard it is to design something simple that's actually good. I needed a breakthrough. I took a break, packed a bag, and went on vacation.
Break might be a strong word because after a couple of days my mind started searching for game ideas, but this time I was at the seaside, so I couldn’t test them! CVlizations was being developed in my head at the Baltic Sea beach. When I got back and started prototyping, I had many things already figured out. I had a feeling this might be something.
The Scariest Moment
I've designed games for a relatively short time, starting two-and-a-half years ago. I think I'm mostly fine with critique and other "unpleasant things" of this hobby, but there is still one moment that's terrifying for me. It's when the game you think and hope can be good is being tested for the first time. It's judgment day for the project. The more I test and design, the quicker I am able to see whether something is there or whether it's better to learn from mistakes, ditch the project, and move on.
So when I said earlier that I had a good feeling, I also felt fear. I had already gotten used to this new project because I was theorycrafting about it a lot. I really wished that the first test would go well — and it went amazingly well.
The mechanisms of CVlizations are based on the action cards. Each player picks two every turn, but the strength of the action depends on how many other players also picked that action. That was the main idea that I wanted to test, and it worked well from the very beginning. All the other parts needed a lot of work, but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Third Test, Second Success
The early part of designing is the most exciting for me. I can clearly see the progress and I have my head full of ideas, passion, and enthusiasm. My game was about rivaling tribes, there was a lot of humor, and I had a lot of energy to work on it. For chronological purposes it was August 2014.
At the third test session, something happened that still to this day feels somehow unreal for me. After playing, discussion and comments about the game, Filip Miłuński (author of CV and Head of Publishing at Granna) told me that he wanted to publish this game at Spiel 2015. At first I thought he was joking — it was only the third test! "It's already pretty good, and I trust that you can make it great. Develop it and we will publish it", he said to me at the end of our playtesting meeting.
Three of the action cards in CVlizations
This is the moment when most designers in diaries tell you a story about how they changed cards or how they dealt with problems that occurred during testing. I won't do that. CVlizations was being developed steadily but surely. There was no big moment — just testing, balancing, improving, and even more testing. Six of the eight action cards are exactly the same as they were at the first test; that still amazes me.
On the other hand, the idea cards were changed a lot. I can't even say when I felt I got them right for the first time. For me, designing is maybe 10% creating new concepts and 90% testing and improving the old ones. You might think this sounds boring and ask yourself why I would write about this. The truth is that when I started to get into the hobby, diaries were one of my favorite lectures and I still didn't know how the development process really works. So dear reader, if you are getting into designing or thinking about it, this paragraph is for you...
One of the many tests at the Moonson Group meetup
When Is The Game Ready?
I just told you that the development phase is one of constant improvement. Let's get to the important question I hear a lot at playtester meetups: "When do you know that the game is ready to be published? How can I see that in my game?" I always reply with what I've heard in an interview with Gil Hova in the Ludology Podcast: "Never. There is always something I want to change."
Even now, when I'm writing this diary a month before the game goes to print, I think of how to change that one card so that it can be more fun for the players. But at some point you just need to say "Stop!", take a break, play some other games, then give your game a fresh look. For me that time was after four months of intensive work before Christmas 2014. I handed Filip the prototype and awaited an answer.
Visualization of the material in the Polish edition
After a month-and-a-half Filip told me that he thought the game was great and he wanted to publish it as CVlizations. The graphics would be done by Piotr Socha so that the graphic design would link to Filip's own CV.
I personally really liked the idea, but I knew that the title would get some critique. We had a lot of long talks about the card names, about the box cover, about the graphic design, but in the end he told me, "Jan, I know that you are very invested in this and you care a lot about your project. We do, too. Trust us, we know what we are doing." And so I did.
Now when I'm looking at the current interest in the game that far exceeds my expectations, seeing beautiful artwork by Piotr Socha and watching early reviews, I know that it was the right decision. I hope that you will try my game and have tons of fun. I assure you that there is no greater sight for a designer than seeing people smiling and having a blast playing his game...
The Baltic Sea — apparently the best place for me to design board games...
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