Archive for Designer Diaries
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A Fistful Of Dinero, a game of violence and greed, is a half-hour saloon brawl in which a group of vagrants and outlaws draw iron, throw chairs, and scramble for a pot of poker money in the middle of the table. It is published by Magic House Games, and distribution in the U.S. is being handled by Homeland Games.
A very miniscule amount of you may recognize me for the work I've done reviewing on 2D6.org, FortressAT.com, and here on BGG. I've been writing reviews for several years now and gaming for many many more. What may be surprising is that I consider myself first and foremost a game designer, as opposed to a reviewer. While I'm extremely passionate about the hobby in general, my true desire lies in the creation of thematic Ameritrash games that espouse theme with strongly integrated mechanisms.
As my gaming group would tell you, A Fistful Of Dinero is far from the first game I've designed, but it does have the distinction of being the first I stuck with, developed, and playtested repeatedly to the point it was ready for publication. This is a unique little game that packs a great deal of depth and variability into a relatively short playtime. I'd classify it as a super-filler, packing enough meat to push the boundaries of the small games envelope and offering a rich and dynamic experience that is continually engaging.
Most of my game ideas sort of pop up organically either originating with theme or germinating with a specific setting or narrative in combination with specific mechanisms. A Fistful Of Dinero is no different as in early 2013 I found myself daydreaming while listening to a podcast, contemplating unique ways to resolve gunfire in an old west shootout. I'm a huge fan of gritty 1960s westerns and would take Eastwood over Wayne and Leone over Ford any day of the week. It's a theme under-represented and a setting I love. Richard Hamblen's Gunslinger is the only game that comes immediately to mind, capturing that grit, bite, and bare-knuckle feel. It's a fantastic game, but it's complicated, heavy, and very difficult to teach. I wanted a design that captured that spark but brought it into an accessible, unique game that was streamlined and more suitable with modern game design.
The idea of using a card drafting mechanism to select Action cards that were then programmed came to mind almost immediately. Card drafting does a great job of keeping things interesting and dynamic, while allowing play to move along at a brisk pace and downtime to be non-existent. I'm also a huge fan of action programming as the inherent chaos and unpredictability does a great job in fostering tension and mimicking real-world spontaneity and havoc. This combination would yield the initial prototype, which would actually change very little from inception to its current published state.
I'm a huge fan of the drafting mechanism, but one issue I've had is that no drafting game has really approached the idea of embracing conflict. Most are extremely passive, allowing you to indirectly affect your opponents but handcuffing you to some degree when it comes to interaction. I wanted to change that.
A set of core actions initially sprung up which would form the bulk of the action deck. These include:
-----• Fire! – Allows you to attack another player
-----• Aim – Stays in play and builds up, adding to your attack roll
-----• Hit The Dirt – Stays in play and subtracts from an opponent's attack
-----• Mad Dash – A reckless sprint through the carnage to grab a handful of dinero from the poker table at the center of the saloon
-----• Cover – A wide array of objects you can play to gain defensive benefits
-----• Reload – Reloads a round in one of your weapons
-----• Re-Arm – Switches weapons between your Off-Hand and Main-Weapon slot
The idea of including specific actions undertaken by the participants in combination with an evocative weapon selection and an vibrant damage deck births sizable chunks of narrative that arise from playing the game and are easily grasped — much like the aforementioned Gunslinger. You witness an intense action scene playing out before your eyes while placing you at the center of the action. Films like Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch come to the fore and put a grin on your face as you lap up the intensity.
The selection of actions you perform are drafted from rotating card hands à la 7 Wonders, programmed onto your player mat (called a Gun Belt), then executed one at a time in player order. The goal is to have the most chips or to be the last man standing. It's a chaotic, riotous experience as players blow holes in each other and hold in their guts as they scramble for money and flip tables. You can dive behind the bar, throw bottles of whiskey, and even chuck a stick of dynamite to light up the room like the Griswold's Christmas tree.
Attacking involves rolling 2D6, requiring a 7 or above to hit. You can mitigate the odds by building up a steady Aim or bolster your defense by hiding behind a billiard table or a support beam. When you're hit, you draw a wound card and apply the effects. The combat is tactical and framed around tough choices facilitated by the draft/programming mechanism but is surprisingly flexible in your ability to adapt between going for victory points and pursuing the path of violence.
One of several unique elements to the design are the Cover cards peppered throughout the action deck. Cover cards remain in play and will protect you until you Mad Dash, sprinting from your position to clutch a handful of coins. Cover cards feature a diagram based on the number of players participating in the game and offer protection against specific seats at the table. Thus, you may deploy a Bystander Cover card (as you shield yourself with a hapless civilian) which protects you from the player sitting to your left and the player two seats to your right. Later you may swap that out for a Keg cover card which protects you from the two players sitting to your right. Different options allow you to adapt and shift depending on who forms the largest threat at the table.
Another mechanism I want to highlight is the ability to throw objects and weapons at your enemies. Certain weapons, like the Frogsticker and Iron Stingers, allow you to play a Fire! action and physically toss the action card at an opponent's player mat. If the card lands touching the mat but not touching his Cover card, you hit him and inflict damage. Several action cards allow you to perform throws as well, such as the fan-favorite Tomahawk and Thrown Chair. This light dexterity element births moments of laughter and intensity as the table becomes razor focused when someone lights a stick of dynamite or tosses a chair at a drunk neighbor.
It was important in balancing the game and the experience to get the mix of action cards correct. The thrown cards were of significance here as I did not want them to overshadow the experience. In a typical game you will see only three or four throws, which through repeated plays seems to be the perfect mix. Additionally, while the standard actions listed previously are the most prevalent cards, a healthy mix of special actions offer unique benefits, such as action cards that allow you to ward off the effects of wounds, fan-fire your Peacemaker, and place Bounties on enemies incentivizing target selection. You never quite know what the brazen sawed-off wielding lunatic sitting adjacent will do.
An element that adds flexibility and curtails frustration in action programming are the dual-sided cards. Many action cards found throughout the deck feature two actions, one on the top and one on bottom. This allows you to execute either of the two actions when you resolve the card. It also brings about opportunity to introducing additional drafting options by allowing the single action cards to possess a bit more bite. This manifests through single-sided Fire! cards occasionally possessing special effects that allow you to steal a chip from the person you target, or draw two damage cards and choose which one to apply if you roll a hard 12. The choice of flexibility versus focused quality is ultimately interesting and another layer contributing to the richness of the whole.
When you start to combine all of these elements – drafting, programming, special actions, throwing, variable cover, interesting wounds, and unique weapons – you get an experience that plays quick and brutal while focusing on enjoyment and theme. Playtesters quickly remark how the subtle tension and exhilarating chaos emerge naturally in play, and the resulting narrative of bloodshed is utterly memorable and distinct. This is a 30-minute game that plays 3-6 and offers a unique experience, separating itself from similar titles. It's a game that I wager appeals to many and ultimately delivers on its promise.
"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them — that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." —Lao Tzu
I was sitting on the grass on a glorious spring day among stunning magnolias and cherry blossoms. A man with long, gray hair stood with his feet set wide, knees bent, his jaw set. He held a long bow. His face was serene and his eyes never veering from his target as he lifted the bow slowly over his head, then brought it down, drawing the arrow with a smooth, seemingly effortless motion. With a sudden shout, he sent the arrow on its way, and it lodged itself into the target and the hay bale behind it with a thwack. I noticed that even as the audience applauded, his face was unmoved. It took a moment for him to step out of his archery stance to address the people around him. He was demonstrating the art of kyudo — what's sometimes called "zen archery" — a meditative practice that focuses on an idea that if one is in harmony with the world, one cannot help but achieve a true aim. Hitting the target is almost incidental. It becomes a natural consequence of being fully present.
It was 2011. I was with my pregnant wife at the Japanese festival that takes place at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum. We had recently completed the trip of a lifetime from Beijing to Mumbai over nine months, and now we had started a new life in a new city, with the birth of our son just weeks away. After the demonstration, we began walking through the park, along wide paths, rolling lawns stretching out to either side. We were chatting, enjoying ourselves, talking about what lies ahead. We didn't have a destination in mind. We stopped beside a pond, watching the ducks squabble over something in the water. Of course with a baby on the way, we couldn't help talking about the future, and yet we were fully present, following a meandering path through the arboretum, just taking it all in.
Of course, we didn't just decide one day to take a nine-month excursion through Asia. Doing it successfully took two years of planning and cooperation. When we met, I asked Erin: Do you want to live in India? Absolutely, she had said. That's when I knew she was right for me. She didn't blink an eye. We had a vision: We wanted to see everything there was to see in the world. So we started early on, she and I, planning. We knew we'd need to quit our jobs. We knew we'd have to be careful with our money, but in the end, we were able to make it happen. I don't know if either one of us knew what to expect, but we knew that it was a journey we wanted to take.
We began in China, arriving in Beijing with only a general idea of what we wanted to see. Thrust into a new world where we did not speak the language, having little more than a Lonely Planet to guide us, we learned over time that the life of a traveler is one of near constant uncertainty. We never knew where we were going to be the following week; we would find lodging when we arrived. Getting something to eat sometimes amounted to pointing at something on a menu with no idea what we would get. Over the course of the trip, we had to learn to let go. We had to be prepared, but allow things to happen. We had to think ahead, but always allow for the unexpected detour. Living presently, being mindful of our surroundings, listening hard, being quick to laugh, willing to compromise — these were our survival skills as we made our way through Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and, yes, eventually, we made our way to India.
Erin and Dan at the Taj Mahal
But we decided to return home and now we were ready to embark on a new kind of journey. Perhaps fittingly, we had been playing Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities every night for weeks. Both of us loved the card play, the sense of give and take that it had as you tried to simultaneously advance your own goals while having to remain cognizant at all times of what your opponent was doing. And as we walked through the Morris Arboretum, this game was definitely on my mind. That night I thought to myself about how "Arboretum" would make a great name for a game, and that one takes a journey through an arboretum just as one might take a journey to some exotic location.
The ascending values of the cards in Lost Cities represent progress along a path toward an ultimate goal. When preparing for an expedition to some forgotten temple, one prepares, prepares, prepares, and then strikes out. I wanted to use Knizia's ingenious metaphor and adapt it to a different kind of travel. In Knizia's game, players start small and work their way up, hoping that they have enough resources to make it worthwhile. Wandering through a botanical garden is a different experience altogether. One starts at one point and ends up in another. There is a sense of progress, of moving forward, but it's not defined until the end. In Arboretum, players start in the middle and work their way outward. The paths they're creating grow organically, slowly building outwards, discovering new colors and new directions at each step of the way. Maybe this path is a short stroll through the maples; maybe we've been through that way before on the way to a stand of cassia trees. We might not know where we're going until we get there.
And so probably from the very first day I started writing down ideas in my notebook for this game, the general mechanisms were set: I wanted the players to each grow a garden by laying cards adjacent to one another to form paths represented by numerically ascending series of cards. But by itself, this didn't create a fun game. It was just not interesting enough. I tried many different ways to make it work, including having players all contribute to the same arboretum, having hidden goals, and representing visitors as their own cards in the deck.
Members of the NYC-Playtest group playing an early prototype of Arboretum
One particular part of the game that I was constantly adjusting was hand size. When it was too large, the cards in hand felt unnecessary, and when I shrunk it down to a size where it became a real constraint, play felt random. I came to recognize that this was the part of the game that was missing, and quickly from that insight, I hit on the idea that it could become part of the scoring mechanism. Suddenly, it fell into place. Each phase of the game felt tense: which cards to draw, which card to play, and which card to discard.
But one final pattern emerged in playtesting that I felt needed to be solved: ones and eights. Ones were almost always being laid down and eights almost always held back. For a game where every other decision felt appropriately uncertain and situational, this was something I felt compelled to address. The "one cancels the eight" rule felt like it completed the scoring system.
The version of the game that I submitted to Z-Man
At the end of the year, I went to the first Metatopia, the game design festival held in northern New Jersey. There I met Zev Shlasinger and showed him Arboretum. The following year, at the second Metatopia, he told me that Z-Man Games had decided to publish it. I am in awe of the spectacular art that it has been given. I'm so very proud of this game, and I am delighted to be able to share it with all of you.
So remember to think ahead, but be prepared to change directions. We never know where our lives will take us, but if we follow our hearts, the path will be made clear.
Sample arboretum layout by WEM
Arboretum gameplay overview by W. Eric Martin:
While Cassar gave some hints at the gameplay of Arboretum in the write-up above, I thought I'd present a more detailed overview of how to play the game, which I've played five times so far on a press copy from Z-Man Games. The short description is that the Lost Cities DNA comes through strongly in the feel of the game, the dynamic tension of extending a path versus keeping cards in hand for strength later versus giving up what opponents need. The games feel similar in those areas, but Arboretum is its own design.
Pandemic: State of Emergency expands Pandemic with five new roles, seven new events, and three new challenges. It is compatible with Pandemic's earlier expansions — On the Brink and In the Lab — but requires only the base game in order to play.
As before, players can simply add the new roles and events to the base game and begin play.
Help the Players? That's Crazy Talk!
State of Emergency also gives players a new tool to help them stave off the spreading diseases: quarantines.
Instead of Treating Disease, a character can impose a quarantine on a city, placing a two-sided marker there. This protects that city from the next two attempts to place disease cubes in it (from infections, epidemics, outbreaks, etc.).
Effectively, players gain an action via a quarantine (compared to two Treat Disease actions to remove two cubes). The catch? Players can have only four quarantine markers in play at once (unless The Colonel, who adds two more markers, is in the game). Further, by leaving disease cubes untreated, running out of cubes becomes more of an issue.
Quarantine markers were created by Pandemic designer Matt Leacock before we did On the Brink. We held off including them (twice!) as we didn't want to clutter up our clean concept that expansions consisted only of roles, events, and challenges. In SoE, I use quarantines in the Superbug challenge (see below), so it was time to add them.
Quarantines can be used with any challenge except the OTB Bio-Terrorist challenge. They allow players to fine tune Pandemic's difficulty. If a combination of challenges and Epidemic cards is proving too hard, try adding quarantines. That extra bit of board control may be just what you need to hit that "sweet spot" of a tough challenge, without being overwhelmed.
From Animals to You
In the Hinterlands challenge, diseases are jumping from animals to humans in farm or wildlife regions. These regions are represented by four new off-board Hinterlands spaces, one for each disease color, connected to various cities in that region.
For example, the black Hinterlands space connects to Karachi, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai. Colored translucent chips are placed on these cities on the main board to help players visualize these connections.
Hinterlands spaces are treated as city spaces. Players can move from a connecting city to them and vice versa. Direct Flights to them aren't possible as no City or infection cards for them exist.
Each Hinterlands space begins with one disease cube. Each turn, before drawing Infection cards, the Hinterlands die is rolled. If a colored face is rolled, a cube is placed on the corresponding Hinterlands space (or, if three cubes are already there, an Outbreak occurs, spreading disease to all connecting cities). Two die faces are blank; if one of them is rolled, no disease cube is placed.
Extra infections by independent die rolls adds a new element of unpredictable but constant threat to Pandemic. If a Hinterlands space has two cubes in it and is left untreated for two turns, then there is a 1/36 chance of an outbreak there...
But, wait — there's more! If two players Share Knowledge in a Hinterlands space, they can trade any City card of that color between them. The conceit here is that by studying the disease in the animals from which it came (in the Hinterlands), vaccines can be developed more easily.
Thus, the Hinterlands challenge makes things both harder for players on the infection end and easier by helping them collect cards together for a cure. Is this challenge more difficult than the base Pandemic game? Try it and find out!
Testers enjoyed the Hinterlands challenge as a "change of pace" from regular Pandemic. Many commented that "support" roles, such as the Operations Expert or Dispatcher, really come into their own in this challenge.
The Challenge of the Unknown
Emergency Events are compatible with all other challenges. These extra events must be played when drawn and do nasty, unpredictable things.
For example, they might advance the infection rate marker, infect cities twice that turn, reduce players' hand limits, or prevent all air travel. If an Emergency Event has a continuing effect, it lasts until the next Emergency Event is drawn.
You use as many of the ten Emergency Events as Epidemics, shuffling one of them along with an Epidemic card into each Player card pile during set-up (so that they are spread throughout the player deck).
Emergency Events give players another way to fine turn Pandemic's difficulty. If a combination of challenges and Epidemic cards is too easy for your group, consider adding Emergency Events (instead of another Epidemic card).
They also address an issue some players have with adding more Epidemic cards, namely, that the game starts feeling too much like a "treadmill" of constant Epidemics, without enough time in between to react. Adding Emergency Events instead actually spaces out the Epidemics a bit more and ups the challenge in other areas.
An Untreatable Disease?
Of course, no Pandemic expansion would be complete without a challenge that really increases its difficulty. Enter the Superbug challenge.
This challenge grew out of several ideas:
First, some diseases, such as MRSA, are becoming resistant to treatment via antibiotics (in part, due to antibiotic overuse in non-critical situations). What if a disease mutated to become treatment resistant? How would that work in Pandemic?
Second, Pandemic stops when all the cures are discovered. What about vaccine production and delivery?
Third, many players find eradicating, not just curing, diseases satisfying. Eradicating all diseases as a goal doesn't work, as it leads to a boring end-game (where, if the players are winning, the only tension lies in whether or not time runs out). ITL's Team game was one attempt to address this. Is there another?
Fourth, is there a way to build good game tension around when a cure is discovered?
Matt had tried to introduce tension around when cures are discovered in his first draft of ITL's Lab Challenge. Instead of sequencing a disease, players could invest in vaccine production, which would then remove more cubes from the board when that disease was finally cured.
This idea failed in testing as the rewards for discovering a cure (reducing hand pressure, making Treat Disease more effective, and being able to move on to the next cure) were so high that players still cured diseases as fast as possible, so we removed it and focused the Lab challenge on finding cures.
I later realized one disease naturally has tension around its cure timing: the purple disease, first introduced in OTB's Mutation challenge.
Players often cure the other diseases first, then use "spare" city cards for the purple cure. By doing this, they avoid possibly using for the purple cure any city cards of a color that turns out to be mostly at the bottom of the player deck, thereby ensuring that drawing cards for the regular cures won't be a problem. Of course, not curing purple right away makes it harder to keep the purple disease in check...
Why not exploit this tension and make the purple disease the focus of a challenge in which the players face an untreatable disease that they must both cure and eradicate by producing vaccine, then delivering it to all cities with purple cubes?
Assembling a Superbug
In the Superbug challenge, players are faced with a mutating disease that is untreatable. Players cannot do the Treat Disease action to remove purple cubes (although other ways of removing purple cubes are fair game). However, Quarantines are used to give players a way to slow down the spread of this untreatable disease.
To win, the players must cure all five diseases and eradicate the purple disease.
Three purple cubes begin on the board and others appear whenever an infection card is drawn for a city with one or more purple cubes in it or when one of two Mutation cards in the Infection deck are drawn.
In this challenge, a Mutation card turns the next infection into a purple infection. This can sometimes help the players as when the fourth cube of a color infecting a city becomes purple instead of triggering an Outbreak. Gradually, more and more purple cubes will appear in more cities...
To cure purple, players need to turn in two city cards with purple cubes in those cities, plus any three other city cards. Once a purple cure is found, research stations can be turned into vaccine factories, each producing one vaccine vial per player turn. Characters can pick up vaccine vials at a factory, then once in a city with purple cubes spend an action and vial to remove all purple cubes from that city.
Do the players cure purple first to jumpstart its eradication, but possibly delay some other cure until nearly the game end, or do they wait until they can cure the purple disease with only "spare" city cards? Decisions, decisions...
Testing revealed that the Superbug challenge adds a lot of time pressure to the game. To ease that slightly, I added some of the ITL Team bonus cards to the player deck to give players both a bit more time and some useful tools.
The Superbug challenge is definitely challenging, but one which many testers liked. Some even declared it the most fun and thematically satisfying challenge that we've offered so far. Your own mileage, of course, may vary.
Packaging and Compatibility
State of Emergency comes with its own purple disease cubes, mutation cards, cure indicator, and bonus cards, so players don't need the OTB and ITL expansions to play the Superbug challenge. Everything needed is supplied.
The Superbug challenge can be combined with other challenges, except the Mutation and Bio-Terrorist challenges. Combining it with the ITL Lab challenge is only for the most skilled (or masochistic) players as both challenges, separately, add time pressure and the combination is truly brutal...
First edition Pandemic owners can play the new SoE roles, quarantines, and the Hinterlands challenge without needing to do anything.
To use the SoE Events, Emergency Events, or the Superbug challenge, first edition owners either need to sleeve the player deck with opaque sleeves or buy a replacement deck. The Superbug challenge also requires either sleeving the Infection deck, or for owners of first edition On the Brink, using its Mutation cards as proxies for the SoE Mutation cards.
While State of Emergency and Pandemic can fit together in a single box, packing it with the On the Brink insert will be a very tough fit. I recommend instead putting the base game, with all the extra roles, events, and petri dishes from On the Brink and In the Lab in one box and all the challenges in another box.
Too Close to Home
I designed and turned in State of Emergency before the current Ebola crisis erupted from a local outbreak (similar to past outbreaks of Ebola) into a global threat. Last year, I helped Matt Leacock and Jocelyn Becker by designing bonus roles and a special Ebola scenario for their Pandemic Parties to raise over $50,000 for Doctors without Borders / Medicines sans Frontiers.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) is a private charity that has been doing much of the hard and dangerous work that many national and international organizations have failed to do in a timely fashion with regard to this outbreak.
The Pandemic Parties both raised money and increased awareness of the work that Doctors without Borders (MSF) has been doing. I'd like to thank Matt and Jocelyn for all their hard work organizing them and all of you who held or attended one and donated. Both your enthusiasm and generosity were greatly appreciated.
So Long and Thanks for all the Viruses
State of Emergency is likely my final Pandemic project. Matt Leacock is now a full-time designer — congrats, Matt! — and no longer needs my assistance. I look forward to playing Pandemic Legacy and all the other fine Pandemic products that Z-Man Games will be publishing.
It's been a privilege working on the Pandemic expansions with Matt, as well as doing the rules rewrite and contributing the bonus roles to the revised second edition of Pandemic. Enjoy!
Salt Lake City
Musée is a 30-minute card-laying game for 2-4 players from Eagle-Gryphon Games. Collect and curate fine art! Score by filling up and carefully theming your art museum!
First things first — how to pronounce the word "musée". The word is simply French for "museum" or "art gallery", but ask three French-speakers how to say it and you might get three different answers. As best I can tell, the word slinks slyly along a shadowy Gallic frontier, hiding in places English speakers fear to tread, shapeshifting sneakily between "me-ZAY", "moo-ZAY", "muh-ZAY" and "MEW-zay" – spoken example here and here. The official rules state that the player who utters the word "Musée" with the artsiest tone of voice gets to go first, so start practicing! (In belated but related news, my game Fantastiqa is pronounced "Fantastica", not "Fantastiqua".)
Musée has been in the works for well over three years, under various guises, themes, and names. It didn't begin as a museum game. Unlike most of my games, the muse of Musée appeared as "mechanisms first, theme later". For a long time I've admired card games with simple rules but complex and satisfying outcomes, classics like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities and Battle Line and Mike Fitzgerald's Mystery Rummy. I wanted a similarly engaging game, with equally novel mechanisms and a theme that created something beautiful as each of the sixty cards was played. I also wanted the game to play especially well with two players since I play most board and card games with just my wife.
The basic mechanism appeared through various encounters with a particular puzzle I found myself facing, either in shelving books at the library I worked at years ago, or in creating file names for photos I wanted to have appear in a certain order in a folder. If you have a large number of items that you need to put in order (say, books on a shelf) but you have access to only a random selection of a few at a time, where do you place each one you have?
I found that a satisfyingly tricky mechanism emerged if — unlike a book on a bookshelf — a card's position would remain fixed after it was placed, meaning that every card you played functioned as a "bet" on which cards could go in front of it or after it since space is limited and all must go in order no matter what. Requiring this commitment from the player proved nicely nail-bitey. I then added "counter-mechanisms" with benefits such as bonuses for placing cards with matching suits adjacent to one another, and for finishing a complete row before any other player does. I was surprised by just how engaging and tense this simple mechanism proved to be: Should I play this high card far to the right, or risk placing it elsewhere to score a tempting matching-suit bonus? Should I rush ahead and complete a full row before my opponent does and claim a big bonus, even if it means placing non-matching cards next to one another? And so on. I discovered that these rules produce a pleasurably painful tug-of-war with your emotions – each decision matters.
Originally I tried theming these mechanisms as a city-building game in which each card was a different color of building and players competed to build the most compelling and colorful cityscapes. Bonuses, earned by placing matching buildings adjacent to one another or by completing a full street, were represented by bustling pedestrians, parks, and other urban improvements. It worked okay, but I thought both the theme and the mechanisms could be richer.
It was after touring the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the "V&A") in 2013 that my wife and I realized that these game mechanisms would work perfectly with a theme of displaying art in a museum.
We first considered having different categories of museum objects like we saw at the V&A: teacups, dishes, furniture, etc. Later we decided to take advantage of the possibilities of library art and make all of the game's objects into paintings with various subcategories: landscapes, figures/persons, architecture, animals, and water. Some of the artists in Musée (e.g., J.M.W. Turner and William Blake) were on special exhibition on our museum tours in London, so I'm especially happy to see them appear in the game every time I play. Here are some examples of the LANDSCAPE cards in the game:
As you might well guess, I'm an especially big fan of #41 since it's the painting used on the box cover of Fantastiqa, and for the Highlands region and the "Wanderer" Adventurer.
Here is how the final game works: In Musée, you compete to fill your three-story art museum with the most valuable arrangement of famous paintings. Players receive bonuses for displaying paintings of matching theme (suit) next to each other in the same gallery, or by using connecting staircases (tokens), whose pattern changes each game. In a two-player game fifty cards are used: ten cards of each suit, with each number between 1 and 50 showing a unique painting. (Numbers go from 1-60 in three-player games. Four-player games use 1-50 and play as 2-vs-2 partnerships.)
You start with a hand of five cards (paintings). On your turn, you remove one painting from your hand and display it face-up in one of the three galleries (which have six spaces each) in your musée, then redraw. It's that simple. (And here's a helpful one-page rules summary in graphic form for those who prefer visual aids.)
The beauty is, of course, in the details. Namely, you may place this card anywhere, so long as the exhibit numbers of all paintings in the same gallery increase in numerical order from left to right. (Exhibit numbers increase in number chronologically for the most part, from the year 1400 through the early 20th century.) Just as important, you can also score valuable point bonuses based on how you position paintings in relation to one another:
• Adjacent paintings of the same theme in the same gallery score two bonus points.
• Matching paintings connected by a staircase score three points.
• The first player to fill a gallery with paintings scores four points.
• If you cannot display a painting, you cannot play any more cards for the rest of the game. The other players may keep playing until they can no longer display any paintings!
When no players can play any more cards, the game ends and you perform a final scoring. The first player to win two games is the final victor. That's it!
Although I think that fans of, say, Lost Cities and Battle Line would find Musée both familiar and appealing, Musée works quite a bit differently, in large part because of its spatial dynamics. To me, it feels a lot like my earlier games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury because the cards have identical inherent value.
Let me try to explain what I mean. In many games a "7" card is always worth more than a card with a number lower than that. In Fantastiqa it didn't work that way. Instead (say) the Spatula (Sword card) and the Cat (Tooth card) each have greater or lesser value depending entirely on what else is happening in the game. If you need to subdue a dragon, then the sword is very valuable; if you need to nibble through spiderwebs, teeth are great for that. But if you need to subdue a witch, these cards are no help at all! (You’d need a bucket of water instead...) The card values are thus all situational, but that doesn't make their use random because you can work to collect the cards that you need to fulfill specific quests you’ve acquired.
Likewise in The Road to Canterbury, all seven deadly sins begin as equally valuable to a pardoner who wants to pardon them for ready cash. But as the game progresses, Envy might become especially precious because a certain pilgrim enjoys committing sins of Envy so much. Players can capitalize on Envy's value by tempting this pilgrim to sin ever further, taking the risk that the pilgrim might die or that other players will beat them to the pardon. A pleasurable tension ensues as you work to make certain cards valuable through the playing of other cards.
Examples of the FIGURES/PERSONS suit
Musée follows this same model. The five different suits of art all begin equal but become more (or less) valuable depending entirely on where you play them in relation to one another. I tried to sidestep one of the big problems of suit-matching games by not flat-out requiring a match or meld to play a card; a player may play a card anywhere in their Musée so long as all cards in that gallery increase numerically from left to right. But once (say) a green (animal) card is in play, it becomes important to find ways to place other green cards next to it. And doing so entails risks: Each suit's numbers increase in fives — green is 5, 10, 15... while gray is 1, 6, 11... — so acquiring good bonuses means taking the risk of not being able to place other cards in the proper sequence.
Examples of the WATER suit
For a long time I've wanted to design a game whose rules could fit literally on a single page, and finally I have one. What some people call "elegance" in a game I call "simplexity", which is the greatest amount of interesting complexity emerging from the simplest rules possible. Musée couldn't be simpler — each turn you play one card and draw one card — but there's a great deal of pleasurable anxiety involved in the commitments you make with every single card you play. Decisions are hard because there's more than one way to score; each card you play functions like a "bet" on what the future holds for you based on the risks you take. Because you can see your opponent's musée and only one unique card exists for each number, the ratio of known to unknown information is well-balanced, resulting in neither chaos nor analysis paralysis.
I should take a moment to mention just how happy I am with the finalized artwork in this game. Like my earlier co-design Cubist and my games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury, Musée uses library art, which Eagle-Gryphon Games licensed through Bridgeman Art Library. Designer Sean MacDonald and Eagle-Gryphon Games together did much to spur this movement towards fine art in games via Pastiche (thanks, Sean!), and I'm delighted they did. When you have full access to a vast art library, you can pick from the very best: DaVinci, Raphael, Caspar David Friedrich, Monet, Van Gogh, Franz Marc, and Klimt for starters!
More important to me as a designer are the benefits that library art brings to my actual game designing. One thing I especially like about working with Bridgeman Art Library is that often the artwork inspires mechanisms. For example, in Fantastiqa I wanted to transform deck-building mechanisms into something more embodied and spatial, with players not just purchasing cards from a supply but subduing strange creatures and fulfilling quests that required they actually go places. In so doing, I tried to follow the lead of fantasy writer Lord Dunsany from a century ago. For his classic collection The Book of Wonder he worked with artist Sidney Sime. Instead of asking Sime merely to illustrate his tales, he flipped the arrangement around and agreed to write stories based on a series of artworks that Sime would create himself. The result was a series of especially enchanting tales with such evocative titles as "The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator", "The Loot of Bombasharna", and "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him". By letting Sime's material images stir his imagination, Dunsany was kept from falling into a rut where stagnant mental patterns repeat themselves and each new creation looks just like the previous one.
On these lines, while working on Fantastiqa I stumbled upon a painting in the Bridgeman Library called "The Gentle Dragon", which showed a friendly green dragon wearing an apron and serving tea. The moment I saw it, I thought: Hey, that might be funny, a creature in your deck who doesn't curse you or mean you harm, but who is simply (in game terms) useless because he's too busy making tea to subdue other creatures or go on daring quests!
Existing artwork helped inspire mechanisms in Musée as well. It's an equally spatial game — I didn't want it to be "yet another" rummy or soulless set-collection game. In early incarnations of the game, the three rows of cards were separated by city streets. Each row was a "world unto itself". But once the theme was changed to fine art and I saw how different works of art looked together, I realized that each row could be treated as a separate floor of a museum, and that cards could connect with each other not just within the same gallery, but also between galleries via staircases. So I got rid of the boards I'd been using and substituted tokens that show staircases (connections) on one side and chandeliers (no connection) on the other. Their patterns change every game, adding a lot of variety. This simple change added enormous depth and challenge to gameplay and helped make what was already a fun game into (in my opinion) something genuinely special.
I'm especially fond of the ANIMAL suit
I'm fortunate to have such a great developer and publisher. Rick Soued and the others at Eagle-Gryphon Games are fantastic to work with, and I feel like they genuinely honor a designer's creative vision. Even if we don't always agree on every point at first, the final product is something we all feel good about. Musée is my fourth title with Eagle-Gryphon Games, counting the recently released game Cubist, my co-design with Steve Poelzing. The production on Musée turned out beautifully. Everything from the box to the cards themselves is top-notch. The cards are oversized — almost, but not quite Lost Cities sized at 100x70 mm, the same as the cards in Day & Night, which makes for easy sleeving — and they sport a nice linen finish. The gallery bonus Ccards are ultra-thick and each displays a different painting of Sunflowers from Vincent Van Gogh. Andrew Long did a fantastic job on the card design, as did Pixel Productions with the box and rules. As always, I'm grateful for the feedback of playtesters, including Jacovis here on BGG, Zach Johnson, and Patrick and Ian Whiting.
Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoy playing Musée!
With special appreciation to the illustrious Paco Garcia Jaen of G*M*S Magazine, whose earlier interview helped me shape this designer diary. I'm very happy I got to visit him as part of our trip to England in 2013.
We have read a number of designer diaries on BGG. Each diary walks us through the designers' thought process during the game's development, allowing us to develop a finer appreciation of the game.
Similarly, we hope to share some of our key considerations during the development of Three Kingdoms Redux via our designer diary, which is complemented by valuable input from our playtesters. We hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed the game development process.
HOW THE IDEA COME ABOUT
My Significant Other has been a fan of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story (三國演義) and history (三國志) since he was a teen. He has read the novel, has played almost every edition of the famous Koei series of PC games, owns a well-drawn series of comics, and has watched the China made drama series several times.
In terms of Three Kingdoms knowledge, I was his direct opposite, knowing next to nothing about the story and history. He has a big collection of books and I recall browsing through his collection and coming upon a set of Three Kingdom comics. This was during one of my visits to his home before we got married. Curiosity got the better of me and I started reading them. That was how I started to develop an appreciation of the story.
While surfing and researching via BGG, my Significant Other found a GeekList of Three Kingdoms-themed board games. Sieving through the list, he found some general similarities that hinted at a gap in the current crop of Three Kingdoms-themed board games. One of the most important and intriguing themes of the story was the natural balance of power between the three states of Shu, Wu and Wei — power not only in the military sense, but also from the economic and social perspectives. The emphasis of many of the Three Kingdoms-themed board games he found on BGG was on the military aspect. He thought the Three Kingdoms theme could be enhanced by including the other elements. These considerations led to some initial ideas, which ultimately formed the backbone of Three Kingdoms Redux.
A series of events, which I will not repeat here (as we've relayed the full story on this GeekList), led us to deciding to develop those initial ideas, with the ultimate goal of publishing the board game. The rest of this post discusses the development process.
PLAYTESTING BETWEEN OURSELVES
My Significant Other worked on the preliminary set of rules for much of 2010. The first draft was ready in December 2010, upon which we started on the first playtests. Here is a brief description of the initial ideas for the game:
The as-yet-unnamed game started life as a card game for three players.
The initial part of the three kingdoms era was marked by civil disorder and chaos as many warlords fought for power. This soon stabilized as the three states of Wei, Wu and Shu emerged. The second half of the three kingdoms' era was marked by the intricate balance amongst these three states.
Most if not all board gamers prefer games with a well-integrated theme; the term "pasted on theme" is often used for the opposite case. We wanted our game to explore the balance of power between the three states, so with theme very much on our minds, we gravitated towards a three-player game (akin to why Twilight Struggle is a two-player game). While we appreciated that it limited the number of players, theme was of greater importance to us.
The game was to undergo a whole host of changes during its development, but the three-player premise was maintained throughout.
Asymmetrical Starting Positions
Each state starts the game with a fixed list of generals, with Wei having the most generals to demonstrate its higher strength relative to the other two states. The starting generals are:
• Wei: Cao Cao, Cao Ren, Cao Hong, Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan
• Wu: Sun Jian, Huang Gai, Cheng Pu and Han Dang
• Shu: Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei
The asymmetrical starting positions and identity of the generals are in line with history. Wei was the first state to develop, followed by Wu and Shu. The above generals are also the ones who joined Cao Cao, Sun Jian and Liu Bei respectively at the earliest stage.
Cao Cao, Sun Jian and Liu Bei
More importantly, we wanted to increase the replayability of our game via asymmetrical starting positions. Players playing with different states enjoy a different playing experience. With three states in our game, this should hopefully imply three times the replayability.
The asymmetrical starting position idea was also retained throughout the game's development. We were to experience significant difficulties balancing the asymmetrical starting positions, which led to lengthy discussions and we did consider dropping it on occasion. My Significant Other was the more persistent of us and we kept plugging on. I am glad we did! Nonetheless, we did make changes to the starting list of generals subsequently.
Each general possesses a number of attributes, namely intelligence, war, hit points, development phase skill, engagement phase skill, and battle skills.
There is a Development phase occurring over five years with four seasons each year:
• Spring: Tax collection by players depending on the marketplace level and payment of salary for general.
• Summer: An event occurs (which may be good or bad).
• Autumn: Harvest by players depending on the farm development level and payment of upkeep for army unit.
• Winter: Nil.
During the Development phase, players use their generals to carry out actions. There are common actions available to all players as long as the pre-requisites are met and costs are paid; there are also limited actions which are on a first come, first served basis. The number of limited actions available increases as the game progresses through each year.
The list of common actions available to all players if pre-requisites of intelligence or war are met:
• Search talent
• Recruit general/official
• Develop farm
• Develop marketplace
• Recruit armies
• Train armies
• Manufacture weapons (spear or crossbow)
• Rear horses
• Build vessels
Here's the list of limited actions available to all players on a first come, first served basis, which appear at different stages during the game:
• Trade rice
• Trade weapons (spear/crossbow)
• Trade horses
• Trade vessels
• Build city wall
• Build barrack
• Build armory
• Build stable
• Build harbor
• Technology: Repeating crossbow
• Technology: Combat ship
• Technology: Catapult
• Build Palace
• Alliance: Loan of generals between allied states during Engagement phase
The Engagement phase follows after the Development phase. During the Engagement stage, players take the military forces and resources built up during the Development phase into battle against one another other at selected battle locations.
The game features a total of fifteen battle locations with different terrains, and terrain awards military advantages to different army types. Each pair of states — Shu 蜀–Wu 吳, Shu 蜀–Wei 魏 and Wei 魏–Wu 吳 — has five battle locations and they select three of the five locations to engage in battle. Every general has hit points and skills that can be used against the opponents during the battle. The player who manages to defeat the other two players in battle wins the game.
1) Game Duration
The game took too long to complete, easily taking more than three hours.
There is insufficient interaction among the players as the common action spaces are available to all. It felt like a solitaire game as the mechanism does not enhance the theme of the game. Players would like to experience more conflict between the states.
3) Development Phase
Some of the Development phase action spaces felt unnecessary and are too similar to one another. The Alliance action space felt awkward and alliances were not easy to form.
4) Engagement Phase
The Engagement phase did not work well because it was too cumbersome. Many rules and components were required, but they did not add much to the game. We also learned our first painful lesson in board game designing: Not to spend too much time writing out detailed rules until the main mechanism/ideas have been playtested. As this was our first attempt at designing a board game, we learned this the hard way.
The attributes of generals, in particular their skills, helped to differentiate between each general and gave each general historical flavor. This part will be retained in the game.
1a) Reduce Game Duration
Removed the Engagement phase. This shortened the game, and also simplified the rules significantly.
1b) Change General Attributes
Reduced generals' attributes to administration, combat, military strength and one skill (instead of two previously). This was due to the removal of the Engagement phase. "Intelligence" and "war" were renamed "administration" and "combat" respectively. The term "military strength" was eventually replaced by "leadership".
Bidding was introduced into the game as a core mechanism.
The player with the highest bid (based on administration or combat) for each action space gets to take the action. The idea of common action spaces was removed. Bidding introduced more conflict and interaction among the players throughout the game. With the change, players have to now decide which action spaces were of a higher priority and concentrate their generals on those. This is in contrast with the previous version when all players could take an action as long as the pre-requisites were met.
Bidding was to become the cornerstone upon which we built our game.
Administration and Combat criterions used for bidding
3a) Streamlined the action spaces
Build armory, barrack, city wall, stable, and harbor action spaces were replaced by a Construct Military Enhancement action space that can be used to build these enhancements. The bidding criterion for this action space was combat.
Technology: catapult, combat ship, and repeating crossbow were also replaced by a Research Technology action space that can be used to build these technologies. The bidding criterion for this action space was administration.
Similar actions were also grouped together as one action. For example, Trade weapons, horses and vessels were grouped together.
Previously, a separate action known explicitly as the alliance action space was available that must be taken by twi states before an alliance can be formed. It was difficult to form an alliance with this format.
We turned the idea on its head and came up with something radically different — the idea hit us one late morning when we were sitting side by side on our sitting room couch and staring out of the window — as follows:
An alliance is automatically formed between the two states that took the fewest number of actions in the current round. An action space is chosen by the two states and that becomes the alliance action space in the next round. Both alliance players can bid for the alliance action space and their bids are summed up. If both alliance players win the alliance action space, then both players may take that action. The two players making up the alliance changes from round to round, depending on which two players took the fewest number of actions.
Alliances were a key feature of the three kingdoms' era. The two weaker states, usually Wu and Shu, would protect themselves by forming an alliance with each other. The alliance make-up changed occasionally depending on the relative strengths of the three states.
The new alliance mechanism was conceived to replicate this part of the three kingdoms' history and to increase the theme factor. It also gave the two weaker states a leg up against the strongest state, helping to address the imbalance brought about by the asymmetrical starting positions.
This new alliance mechanism went on to survive the rest of the playtests, without any changes.
We made major changes to how battles were fought. Players may deploy generals and army units to the same battle location(s), where their military strength are compared. Bonus military strength can be earned from terrain or technology or from being the first to occupy a battle location. The player with higher military strength at more battle locations than the opponent wins that border. The player who wins both borders wins the game.
An initial playtest session, just between the two of us
After numerous rounds of playtesting between ourselves, we felt comfortable enough to introduce the prototype to friends for their feedback.
FIRST PLAYTEST WITH FRIENDS: LIP GHEE and KENG CHIONG
Two of our friends, Lip Ghee and Keng Chiong, became the first playtesters of our game (not counting ourselves). Their first playtest took place on June 23, 2011. Lip Ghee was to continue on as our main playtester for the initial part of our game development.
1) Set-up time
Set-up time was a little long, due to the number of cards involved.
2) Insufficient Conflict
There was insufficient conflict between players at the battle locations because both players were allowed to deploy generals and army units to the same battle location at the same border. Players were not allowed to block off the opponent from a battle location. This failed to bring out the theme of Three Kingdoms in which the states would engage in battles with one another to expand and control new territories.
3) Game Duration
Playtime was still too long. This was primarily due to the number of generals recruited during the game. In addition, the game ends after twenty rounds of play, i.e. four seasons for five years.
4) Tedious Computation
The computation of military strength towards the end of the game became tedious, especially during the last round since it was the only winning condition. In addition, other action spaces were ignored in the last round since gaining military strength was the only way to win the game.
5) Imbalance in Generals
There was still significant imbalance between the three states, with Wei much more likely to win. Shu starts the game with the fewest generals and appeared significantly weaker.
Initial playtest with Lip Ghee (center) and Keng Chiong (right)
1) Game Board
A game board was introduced to replace the action space cards, thereby changing our card game into a board game. This simplified the setting up process and reduced the number of cards required.
Version 1 of our game board, which was made of mahjong paper; the prototype game board underwent a number of changes and was eventually upgraded to a cardboard version
2) Battle Action Spaces
Three battle action spaces were added. Players have to bid and win the corresponding battle action space before they can station generals and army units at battle locations. Bidding was based on the total of administration and combat. This change added conflict for the battle locations. It also ensured the battle action spaces were consistent with all other action spaces, i.e., all action spaces require bidding.
The number of general recruitments was reduced, and the smaller number of generals in play should shorten the playtime.
3b) End Game Condition
An end game condition was introduced. The game ends when any two of the three borders are totally occupied, i.e., no empty battle locations along two borders. The maximum number of rounds was reduced to twelve, i.e. four seasons for three years.
4) Scoring Categories
Alternative scoring categories were introduced, as follows:
• Number of battle locations occupied (which was subsequently renamed to border locations to avoid confusion)
• Winning a border
• Marketplace development
• Farm development
• Military enhancement
• Players may score VPs via some events if certain conditions are satisfied
Military strength at the battle locations of the borders was no longer the sole factor to winning the game as now players had other avenues to achieve victory. The nature of these scoring categories underwent substantial changes in subsequent playtests, but the core idea of multiple scoring categories was retained for the rest of the game's development.
The multiple scoring categories was aimed at improving replayability and reducing the repetitive feel during late game when players would deploy generals and army units to battle locations as that was the only victory condition, while ignoring all other action spaces. This was also a conscious change to expand on the non-military aspects of the three kingdoms' era.
It is also worth noting that the inspiration for the military enhancement and technology idea came from Agricola. We are huge fans of Agricola and thought the minor improvements (and occupations) increased its replayability tremendously. We wanted to achieve a similar impact with the military enhancement and technology cards.
5) Generals' Skills
Skills of some generals were adjusted to address the balance in strength among the three states.
Adjusting/inventing general skills (and state enhancements) was to become a task we repeated after nearly every playtest. The only generals whose skills remain unchanged from the beginning until the end of the game's development are Cao Cao and Sun Ce. We did not throw away the old general "cards" (printed on normal 80 g/m² white paper), as the reverse side could be used for future games' development. That stack of old general cards now measures 10cm thick.
Stack of old general cards
INITIAL PLAYTESTS WITH REGULAR PLAYTESTER, BRANDON
As elaborated upon in our GeekList, Lip Ghee was unable to continue with the playtesting after a couple of months of helping us. We started to look for alternative playtesters.
My Significant Other had met a young chap by the name of Brandon during his annual in-camp-trainings. Brandon was nearing the end of his two-year stint, after which he would be waiting for enrollment to a local university. We contacted him and asked whether he was interested in a part-time job of playtesting. He replied to the affirmative, and we were able to resume our playtesting after a delay of a few months. The first playtest with Brandon took place on March 4, 2012.
Playtest with Brandon (left); note that the game board has been upgraded to a cardboard version.
Events sometimes widened the gap between the stronger and weaker states. We tried to introduce events that help the weaker state, but that resulted in the turtling of resources and was also deemed an unfair penalty to players who had played well.
2) Predictable Start
Actions taken in starting round were predictable as the identity of the starting generals were fixed.
3a) Timing of Some Actions are Fixed
The timings of the harvest and tax collection were fixed in spring and autumn. Players who failed to develop before those seasons tended to suffer, which gave rise to the inclination to develop farm during summer and to develop marketplace during winter.
3b) Action Spaces
Some of the action spaces were not popular, in particular Sabotage. The Construct Military Enhancement and Research Technology action spaces were not clearly differentiated from each other.
4) Scoring Categories
Scoring categories were not balanced, resulting in certain categories being ignored by players.
5) End Game Condition
The end game condition of two fully occupied borders was never achieved, which made it redundant.
6a) Military Enhancement Cards
Military enhancements were too costly.
6b) Generals' Skills
The generals' skills were not differentiated sufficiently.
Events were removed from the game. This removed the undesirable effects, i.e., turtling of resources and unfair penalty, and simplified the game.
2) Starting Generals
Players chose their starting generals via card drafting. This improved replayability greatly and starting moves became less predictable, but at the expense of a small decrease in theme.
3) Changes to Action Spaces
a) Timing of Harvest and Tax Collection
Timing of harvest and tax collection were left to players' discretion. This was done by introducing both as options on the develop farm and develop marketplace action spaces respectively. As a result of these changes, the idea of "seasons" were removed from the game. This change increased player flexibility and led to less restrictive decisions.
b) Introduction of Control Han Emperor action space
The power of the Han throne declined alarmingly towards the end of Eastern Han Dynasty. A number of Han emperors ascended the throne at a young age and governing power usually rested with the regents, often the emperors' older relatives. As the young emperors matured, they experienced great difficulty in regaining control of the government from the regents.
During the initial period of the three kingdoms era, warlords took over the roles of regents. The Han emperor was often kept under control by a powerful warlord, e.g., Dong Zhuo, Li Jue and Guo Si, and Cao Cao, under the pretext of supporting and protecting the Han emperor and the Han dynasty. The true motivation of doing so was to gain promotions and the legal authority to control the other warlords.
The Control Han Emperor action space mechanism was designed to mimic this aspect of the three kingdoms' history. Resources and manpower was required to control the Han emperor, but it gave the player additional authority via the Han emperor token to complete tasks.
The inspiration of this mechanism came strangely from a Xiang Qi variant known as San Guo Yan Yi Qi. It was Xiang Qi for three players, but included the Han emperor and some Han troops. Whoever controlled the Han emperor would be able to control those Han troops.
We were quite excited when the action space was first conceived as it was another aspect of the three kingdoms history captured in our game and a scoring category in its own right.
c) Introduction of Maintain Tribal Relations action space
The three states of Wei, Wu and Shu not only faced the threat of war with one another; they also suffered from incursions/rebellions from various border tribes. The main tribes residing in or near the states of Wei, Wu and Shu were the Xiong Nu, Shan Yue and Nan Man respectively. These tribes enjoyed an uneasy peace with the three states, frequently challenging their authority in a bid to reclaim sovereignty. The lords of the three states had to maintain a balance in their military allocations between the internal and external enemies. Zhuge Liang of Shu, in particular, spent much effort in quelling the Nan Man rebellions.
As with the Control Han Emperor action space, we designed the mechanism for the Maintain Tribal Relations action space to mimic the above described aspect of the three kingdoms' history. It was a further enhancement to the theme of the game, as well as another scoring category.
Wei, Wu and Shu's tribe markers
d) Replacement of Sabotage action space with Win Popular Support action space
We found ourselves disliking the Sabotage action space with each playtest. It was an action space that was detrimental to an opponent but carried no real benefit for one's own state. Players also tended to take the action as a defensive measure. Espionage was certainly part of the three kingdoms' history, but the idea did not translate well into a game mechanism.
We therefore replaced the Sabotage action space with something more positive: a Win Popular Support action space. Many of the wise leaders and their able advisors, e.g., Cao Cao and Xun Yu, espoused on the need to win the hearts of the people as a precursor to earning the right to govern.
The Win Popular Support action space mechanism was designed to incorporate winning the people's support into the scoring of the game. We also wanted to provide players with the means of increasing their bids and the popular support tokens were a logical way to achieve this. It is always easier to achieve national goals with the people's support.
e) Combination of Trading Action Spaces
Rice was harder to collect than gold in the game. The two trading action spaces were also not popular compared to the other action spaces. We combined both trade action spaces to increase the attractiveness of the trading action space; this change also provided players with an alternative avenue to collecting resources.
f) Combination of Military Enhancement and Technology Cards
As the Construct Military Enhancement and Research Technology action spaces were not well-differentiated, we combined them into a single Construct State Enhancement action space. The respective cards were also combined and renamed as state enhancement cards.
We eventually added more state enhancement cards, included drawing additional cards on one of the action spaces, and separated the state enhancement cards into two decks. One deck served to provide resources while the other offered alternative means of earning additional victory points. The two decks gave players some control over the card draws, based on what they needed at that point in time.
4) Scoring Categories
Adjustments were made to the scoring of each category. After much tinkering, we were eventually to settle on the 5/3/2/1/0 scale.
5) End Game Conditions
More end game conditions were introduced, which certainly led to more interesting playtest experiences. Players had to be alert to the possibility of any of the end game conditions being triggered by other players during late game. Later game rounds became more tense and exciting.
The end game conditions were also to go through much tweaking before we settled on the five generals stationed, full development of farm and marketplace, and achieving the Emperor rank format, in addition to reaching round twelve.
6) Adjustments to State Enhancement Cards and Generals' Skills
Further adjustments made to generals' skills and state enhancements. The costs, pre-requisites and benefits of each state enhancement gave us much headache at one point in time. They were reviewed and adjusted time and again before we were happy with their balance.
FURTHER PLAYTESTS WITH BRANDON
Further playtests with Brandon gave very promising results. For one, issues and concerns were starting to decrease in magnitude. In particular, the various scoring categories were bringing out the feel of the three kingdoms well. Players had multi-faceted concerns to contend with, much akin to how a warlord must have had to go through running a state.
1) Popular Support Token
Popular support tokens were not used to increase the bid. Instead, players tended to retain them for end game scoring. As a result, there was usually a popular support accumulation race throughout a game.
2) Bidding Criteria
Bidding for the Control Han Emperor action space was based on combat while bidding for the Win Popular Support action space was based on administration. A player who chose to recruit combat or administration-heavy generals will have a high chance of winning the respective action spaces, thereby improving the chances of winning the corresponding scoring category. This led to some predictability in the game, i.e., a "samey" feel from game to game with respect to these two categories.
1) Introduction of Upkeep
An upkeep cost was imposed on the popular support tokens on hand. This was designed to reduce the propensity towards accumulation and to encourage its use during bidding.
2) Bidding Criteria
The bidding criteria for the Control Han Emperor and Win Popular Support action spaces would alternate between administration and combat from round to round. This made winning the corresponding scoring categories less straightforward. Recruitment also became more balanced, with both administration and combat-heavy generals required to do well. This was also thematic in an indirect way, as a successful state needs both wise administrators and strong generals.
As a result of this change, combat-heavy generals were viewed as weaker than administration-heavy generals. To address this imbalance, the bidding criteria for battle action spaces were changed from maximum of administration and combat plus number of army units to combat and number of army units. This came with the added benefit of a small thematic improvement; we always thought it was a tad strange for the battle action spaces' bidding criterion to include administration.
Playtesting was progressing well with the regular sessions with Brandon. Based on the feedback and results of each session, we made adjustments until eventually arriving at what we felt was a stable game backbone. From then on, we did not expect major changes to the game mechanisms and and just tweaks to the generals' skills and state enhancement cards. These adjustments would be based on the winning statistic of each state as well as the likelihood of generals being recruited or state enhancement cards being played.
As our game's playtime is reasonably long, averaging between 135 and 150 minutes, we took extra care about approaching friends or other boardgamers for playtesting. It was not until we were satisfied with the results from the playtesting sessions with our regular playtesters that we started to approach our friends and local boardgamers for additional playtesting or blind playtesting sessions.
PLAYTESTS WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY
We joined a local gaming club at the beginning of 2010 and made quite a number of board gaming friends there. We approached some of those who preferred heavy Eurogames to playtest our game and they acceded! A few of them (Weiliang, Tatu, Jeffrey, Ashleigh, Favian and Michael) have since tried our game for a number of times, playing with different states.
Ashleigh (left) and Favian (right) playtesting our game
My brother had also just graduated from his university course at around this time. While looking for a job, he volunteered some of his spare time to playtest our game.
My brother playtesting our game on a mahjong table
A number of other friends outside of the gaming club also volunteered their time to playtest our game and provided us with valuable feedback.
1a) Tightness in Resources
Resources (gold and rice) were tight in the game. This limited the actions a player could take and hindered the player's ability to station army units at border locations. One such feedback we received was that the tightness made gameplay feel like "work".
1b) Stationed General
It was penalizing to station a general with only one army unit since a general is unavailable for future bidding.
2) Blocked out from Recruiting/Training Armies
A player might be blocked out from recruiting untrained armies and/or training them as only one action space existed for each.
3) General Recruitment
Recruitment for each state at the start of the game: Wei drew six general cards and chose four, Wu drew five and chose three, Shu drew four and chose two. Since Shu started off as the weakest state, there was concern that Shu does not have significantly more options than the other two states during the initial general recruitment.
4) Insufficient weapon differentiation
There was not much differentiation between the four weapon types. Players commented that it did not matter to them which weapons they are producing during the game.
1) Reduce Resource Tightness
Reducing tightness of resources via introducing the granary and treasury spaces, adding another option into the harvest and collect tax actions and including border location tokens.
When taking the harvest/collect tax action, each flipped farm/marketplace token on the state's farm/marketplace development space could either be converted to five rice/four gold or be placed on the granary/treasury space. Each flipped farm/marketplace token on the granary/treasury reduced the state's stationed armies upkeep by one rice/gold token at the end of each round.
This translated into a significant amount of savings in resources, especially when the flipped farm/marketplace tokens were placed on the granary/treasury early in the game.
Having occupied new territory in the form of a border location, it was reasonable to expect that the new territory would produce some resources. We needed another mechanism to reduce the upkeep. More importantly, it had to reduce the upkeep by a greater percentage when deploying generals with only one army, which meant some camouflaging of the mechanism was required.
The border location tokens were created with the above considerations in mind. Placing the border location tokens on a state's granary or treasury was akin to receiving some form of regular income from the occupied territory. They also provided the perfect camouflage of decreasing upkeep by a greater percentage for deployment of one army: Upkeep for deployment of one army was now halved, whilst that for deployment of two armies was reduced by only 25%. Players are therefore faced with the choice between upkeep payment and victory points earned.
Developed farm, developed marketplace and border location tokens
2a) Alternative Avenues for Recruiting Armies
Other avenues to recruiting untrained armies were introduced. The demand tribute action space doubled up as a lesser recruitment action space. State enhancement cards and generals' skills were reviewed (again!) to provide other means of obtaining untrained armies.
2b) Alternative Avenues for Training Armies
An additional action space was introduced for training of army units. Bidding for this action space was based on administration, in contrast to the other training action space which was based on combat. The drawing of additional enhancement cards action was eventually added to this action space.
All states drew six general cards at the start of the game and recruited 4/3/2 generals accordingly. This boosted Shu's initial options. Wu's initial options were also increased, but to a smaller extent.
4) Army Type Specialization
Army type specializations was introduced as a new attribute for each general. If the generals were deployed with their corresponding army type specialization, they would earn 1 victory point from the border location token. The border location token was still placed on the treasury/granary and still reduced stationed armies' upkeep by one gold/rice.
This addition was made to differentiate between the different weapons and army types. We already had a number of state enhancements that gave bonus victory points for different army types, but these were deemed insufficient by our playtesters. The army type specializations meant weapon production planning was vital to earning the victory points from the border location tokens.
We researched and tried to make the generals' army specializations as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, this was not always possible as we also needed to make sure the total number of army specializations was balanced with the number of border locations requiring each army type for each state.
The four weapon types in the game: spear, horse, crossbow and vessel
5) Flavor Text
There were suggestions to include some form of flavor text for the general cards to enhance the theme of the game. We adopted the suggestion by including flavor text to the three lord cards. Besides enhancing the flavor, it also served to differentiate the lord cards from the rest of the general cards.
We attended a local gaming convention to seek feedback from the local gaming community. A number of them (Alexis, Adrian, Bohan, Ou Yang) volunteered their valuable time to try out our game.
In addition, we were invited by a local game reviewer, Eric Teo to playtest at his home with a few other local boardgamers (David Chiu and Kok Hian).
We also received help from Juan M. Medina, Ana Forero and their daughter Sara Medina. They took the time to produce their own prototype (which consists of quite a number of components) to playtest and provide us with feedback. We are very grateful for their time and effort! Their feedback led to much improvement to our rulebook.
Property of LunaClara
Board games rule my life, and my wife's. That is a good thing, believe it or not ;)
We received much valuable feedback from all blind playtesters and due consideration was given to all suggestions. Much of the feedback received pertained to the rules. Observation of the game play also gave us a better idea of the areas in the rules that needed further clarification.
FEEDBACK RECEIVED & CHANGES IMPLEMENTED
1) General Cards
• Some general skills were reworded to make them clearer and a compendium has been uploaded on our website for players' reference.
• Adjustments were made to the layout of the cards, e.g. enlarging the icons on the cards
An example of the changes made to the layout for Liu Bei's card
• Most Chinese wordings were removed from the rules to make for smoother reading.
• Replacement of some of the terms used in the rules, mainly to avoid confusion.
• Certain rules — e.g., alliance action space, improve tribal relations action space, and military VP earned — were misinterpreted by the players. We extended the explanations of them and included pictures and examples as further clarification.
• Cosmetic changes were made to the domestic development mechanism to remove the clutter on both development action spaces, thereby improving the flow of the game.
• Some action spaces on the prototype game board have lengthy descriptions and were not easily understood by players. The final version of the game board comes with icons instead of wordings to describe the actions. There is a strong preference among our playtesters for the icons, which can be understood easily.
• The wordings on our prototype game board were facing all directions and some players experienced difficulty reading them. The main suggestion received was to have a game board with all information facing in one direction. We kept this in mind when planning the layout for the game board. All the wordings and icons on the final game board face the Wei player. The Wu and Shu players flanks the Wei player and are able to read the wordings and icons easily as well.
• We also received many suggestions from players regarding the design of the game board, such as not to paint the board too dark and not to include too much frills that may overwhelm the functionality of the board. These were kept in mind when we worked with our artist on the design of the game board.
Picture of the actual game board
4) Additional Suggestions
Players thought it would be useful to include the following items:
• A list that summarizes the use of the tokens, especially those which are for one-time use vs. repeated usage.
• Tips for players to shorten their learning curve and help new players to formulate effective strategies right from their initial plays.
• An example play, e.g. one full round, to aid new players' understanding of the rules.
PLAYTESTING BETWEEN OURSELVES FOR A TWO-PLAYER VARIANT
Like us, many boardgamers play board games mainly with their spouses/partners. For this reason, we thought it would be worthwhile to attempt a two-player variant for our game.
Objectives of the Two-Player Variant
• Retain the theme of the three kingdoms, i.e., the tension between players is maintained and the alliance action can still be implemented effectively.
• Make it simple to implement and learn, i.e., do not need to include too many additional rules nor involve too many changes to the base game.
• Maintain the fun factor of the base game.
We spent a few months playtesting various possible ideas between ourselves. The results were unfortunately not satisfactory.
We found that we needed to include quite a number of additional rules for the dummy third player, which felt cumbersome. Another unfortunate development was the loss of a huge chunk of the base game's theme. The natural balance between the three states was no longer there, largely due to the arbitrary rules we had to put in place for the dummy player. As a result, much of the fun from the base game seemed to have gone missing.
After more thought, we concluded that no matter how "smart" we make the dummy player, we will not be able to replicate that delicate balance between the three states when played by three human players. In the end, we decided to stop work on the two-player variant. We do not wish to include a two-player variant for the sake of making our game seem more scalable when the variant wasn't really that viable.
The above playtests were interspersed with our regular playtests with Brandon. We are grateful to all playtesters for their time and feedback as they offered us different perspectives upon which adjustments could be made for the betterment of the game. We would also like to thank all BGG users who have supported us, via their advice and feedback as well as proofreading our rules. We are very grateful to all of you! BGG is indeed a supportive and helpful community!
After four years of hard work, Three Kingdoms Redux has finally become a reality. We had set out to replicate the experience of a lord governing his state during the often chaotic three kingdoms period via our game. We hope we have succeeded and that you will enjoy the game as much as we do!
Christina Ng Zhen Wei and Yeo Keng Leong
Game set up and ready for play!
Hi! I am Matt Riddle, and this is the story of Eggs and Empires, a card game from Ben Pinchback and me courtesy of Gryphon Games. You may remember us all working together on Fleet and, errrrr, Fleet: Arctic Bounty and also... Well, probably just that, if at all.
Eggs and Empires sprang from a conversation between Ben (herein writing in red) and me about how we liked blind bidding as a game mechanism because, well, it was just fun. We loved For Sale and other games like it. As it turns out, we also REALLY like card powers. Who doesn't right? So, what if...
Blind bidding + card powers = Fun. I mean, it had to! That is sound math right there. With no further ado, we decided to make a blind bidding game that used awesome, interactive card powers. So we did. The design cycle went surprisingly fast. If you read the designer diary for Fleet, you know that design took a long, LONG time. With Eggs and Empires, we brainstormed card powers and within a few days had proto cards mocked up and played a hand or two.
Matt is being too kind with his version of the story. He deserves much more of the credit on this one than he'll give himself. The conversation above we did have, multiple times even, but it was Matt who showed up excited at my house one day and said, "Here it is, our new game. Blind bid plus powers. Every player has the same ten cards, pick one, bam." Immediately the idea of positive and negative goal cards emerged and the powers to avoid/discard/pass those negative cards soon followed. Funny enough, at that time we had never even heard of Raj and some of the other big games in the genre. Having positive and negative goal cards in the pool is a staple of some of those as it turns out. Who knew? Great minds think alike, I suppose.
We began playing the next week at lunch as we often do and right away the game was fun. It was early in the process still, but we knew we had something here. We began tweaking powers, adding new ones, discarding ones we didn't like. We played and played and played. Very soon we had ten powers that we liked and that worked and were good. Those would become the Empire Deck.
Most of the final powers in the game are pretty close to what we came up with early on. By now, we seemingly have a decent grasp on what makes an interesting decision turn to turn, so powers that were too lame or too obvious in use were weeded out quickly. It wouldn't be a fun game if it were overly apparent each turn which card you should play. Therefore each card has some sort of opportunity cost or risk built in that makes the player think twice before choosing. I know one of our personal favorite choices is when to sneak in the Merchant (5) card. Avoiding an egg and getting that 6 VP from him can be a huge boon, and it's a really satisfying play.
We had been playing for VP cards without defining the exact values, so it was time to do so. We knew we wanted "good" and "bad" VP. We designed several of the powers with that in mind. Boring math and lots of brute force later, we had a nice spread of positive VP cards and negative VP cards. The negative VP cards — not wanting to win a hand or trying to figure out how high to go to get the good card but not get hosed into taking the bad card — drove good decisions.
That is when we started the best part of game design: playing the game a LOT. We spent the next months using our company mandated lunch periods just playing the game. We would play, then iterate, then play some more. A 15-25 minute game was perfect to play at lunch. We could play 2p or each run multiple hands or get our buddies to play. We could get several plays in one lunch period. We played over and over tweaking a bit here and there. It was so much fun. Over the course of all that playing, and having a good time doing it, we realized that maybe we had accomplished another goal we had set for ourselves.
GOAL: We should make a game that truly anyone can play, but we still enjoy.
This is true. I wasn't sure we had it in us, but I think with plenty of luck and brute force we stumbled upon it. Now onto my next big goal: a party game. Make a party game; rule the world. Actually my design bucket list does include a party game, along with super heroes, time travel, something regionally themed to Michigan/Detroit, and a heavy thematic adventure game.
Now, LOTS of games say "Fun for new AND experienced gamers!" As often as I hear that, I cannot actually say that I have played many that deliver on the promise. It is a difficult balance to achieve. I tend to think it is more achievable in a filler length game and those tend to be the games that indeed are fun for everyone. Eggs and Empires definitely fits perfectly into that mold. Ben and I generally prefer heavier games, so if we made a light, fast-playing, easy-to-teach game that WE liked, it had to be good right? (Hint: IT IS )
If Matt sounds a little big-headed here, it's because he is, both physically and figuratively. I'm generally the voice of reason in this outfit. At least I'm claiming so in my section after he's already done writing his part.
One of the reasons that we wanted to make a game like this is because of how successful Fleet has been. Fleet and Fleet: Arctic Bounty have been incredible. We are blessed and humbled by its success. Fleet is a gamer's card game that is not terribly difficult IMO, but it does take some time to learn and to teach and is generally enjoyed by more experienced gamers. Our family and friends, many of whom are non-gamers, were incredibly supportive of Fleet through development and the KS. It has gotten many of them into gaming and we could not be prouder. With that said, there are many that have a copy or two of Fleet sitting proudly on a game shelf or in a closet on top of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit...still in the shrink. That motivated us to design a game that those family members would actually play. We realized that Eggs and Empires could be that game, and we kept that tenant in mind as we designed and tweaked.
I tease my lovely wife all the time that she doesn't like Fleet. She would never admit it, but she does not. At all. Fleet just is not for her. She likes lighter, gateway games like Settlers of Catan, Compounded, and Takenoko. We play Takenoko with my 10yo daughter, and it IS a blast.
We have played hundreds of games of Catan with my family, and it is still fun. She still requests it. I wanted Ben and me to make a game that she would request, that she would WANT to play, not just begrudgingly agree to play. Eggs and Empires has been that game. She truly loves it. She makes her family play it. It was the first time they agreed to play something other than UNO or Kids of Carcassonne (which is the BEST kids game BTW), and it went smashingly! They came over a few weeks later, and my nephew and mother-in-law asked to play it again. It was so cool.
It's all true. Fleet was kind of a sucker punch for lots of our extended family and friends. They were ever gracious and supportive in our efforts, but for many of them, being non-gamers, the game was too involved. It's really great this time to be able to put out a game with such a low barrier to entry. *insert mandatory: And gamers will love it too!!!* (It's true though, you will.) *support the troops*
Somewhere in there we argued about theme and probably tried 25 different ones that we didn't like until we found one we did. I wish there was a more exciting story, but that is the truth of it. If you know Ben and me at all or read any of our blogs or tweets, you know that theme does not come naturally to us. In the case of Eggs and Empires, it was simply that we thought the idea of dragon eggs was pretty cool and could imagine adventurers from different kingdoms, or empires, fighting over them. And that was that. It worked and it was fun. Plus, it ended up leading to some really awesome art work as a bonus.
To be fair to us, at this point we did tweak some of the powers to better integrate the theme once chosen. Theme usually seems to drive home the last 25-30% of the game and gives it the character that makes the game what it is. Our design process is basically mechanisms for a long time, find a suitable theme, then allow the theme to guide us to the finish line while making adjustments as needed — unless we're talking about monster trucks. Then it's theme all the way from day one.
That Eggs and Empires was picked up by Gryphon Games is very exciting. We know they will do a bang-up job. We showed it to Gryphon Games at Origins 2013 and they were immediately interested. After several months of development and art and planning, it is finally here. Well, almost here. Here any day now....
The art turned out amazing. Cristian Chialhala has been outstanding. Our vision was something a bit lighter, silly even, but when he showed us his vision we were hooked.
Thank you so much for reading this little stream of conscience.
Agreed. I hope you at least mildly enjoyed this read, and if it sparked your interest, please check the BGG page. We think E&E turned out great, and it has been complimentary to see it compared to Coup and Citadels and Love Letter. I admit that I did NOT see any of those comparisons coming, but it is cool with us as they are all great, great games.
Civilization games — ask any heavy gamer what is their favorite genre and more often than not you'll hear this answer: "Civilization games, of course." In today's world, with everyone being busy – and this category includes the aforementioned heavy gamers – many people are looking for short, yet deep empire builders, games that offer that epic feeling yet last just a few hours. The civilization game playable in less than one hour has slowly become the fata morgana of the board games world.
As a designer – probably like many others – creating a civilization game is "the jewel of the crown", the one achievement that I can be most proud of, so there I was, in mid-2012, with a pen in my hand and a piece of paper in front of me, thinking of the perfect civ design, one game that would define my career as a designer. Now, let's fast forward into the future. In November 2012, co-designer Agnieszka Kopera and I were sitting on the couch, cutting and sleeving no fewer than 550 cards which made up the first playable prototype of the game we used to call "Evolution (of Technology)".
In 2012, everything and everyone at NSKN Games revolved around Exodus: Proxima Centauri. We brought it to several fairs and conventions and, curious as we are, we kept asking people "What do you like the most about this game?" and the most common answer was "the tech tree".
It was one regular evening, one of our many game nights, when it suddenly happened. After an epic game of Civilization that I lost miserably, I said out loud "I love this game" and the natural question was "What? Why?"
Indeed, why did I like Civilization, along with many other civ games? Well, it was the tech tree.
I think that now it's time to state the obvious. The will to design a civilization game meshed perfectly with the new idea of making a game which is all about the tech tree. So there it was, sitting in front of the eye of the mind, the idea we were looking for, a game about researching technologies, following the path of mankind from ancient times to modern days, discovering technologies and shaping the things to come.
The First Prototype and the Secret Plan of our Friends
In the beginning it was all about research. We went through the history of technology, the history of inventions and of religious ideas, and we selected what we believed to be the most important technological achievements in human history. I keep saying "we" because Progress: Evolution of Technology, as the game was eventually known, was not an undertaking suitable for one person. The amount of information to process was huge and it required teamwork and since Agnieszka and I had done it before for Exodus, it was supposed to be the perfect team. And so it was...
Back to November 2012: The first tech tree required the entire back side of a one square meter poster and it featured no fewer than 160 technologies divided into five types (Culture, Engineering, Science, Military and Government) and five ages, starting with Antiquity and ending up with the creation of BoardGameGeek. This did not discourage us, so we went on to make the first prototype consisting of 550 cards which would all be used in a five-player game. Agnieszka warned me that the game might be "a little too heavy", but I went on and tested it with a group of good friends.
The first play was epic indeed. Advancing to the third age after three hours of play, the table was not large enough to support almost one hundred technologies, so I decided to end the experiment and ask for feedback. To my surprise, they loved the game — but they also all said, "Do not do this to me ever again". Back then I could still pretend it wasn't my fault and blame Agnieszka because for all they knew, it could have been her who insisted on allowing all those technologies in the game, not me.
The second group had a slightly different reaction. After a little more than five hours, when they had finally reached the end of the fifth age, I asked for feedback. One of them stood up and said to the others, "It's just the five of us here with no other witnesses. If we kill him now, no one will ever know." As it turns out, they didn't go through with it. On the contrary, they quite liked the idea behind the game, the flow of technologies, and how it all came together. Progress had an epic feeling and the only major problem was the length of the game.
A friend of mine came up with a simple yet enlightened idea: "What you've got here is a game with like five expansions. Trim it down to just one game." So we did.
From five ages we cut it down to three; from five technology types we chose three of them that made up the core of the game and went back to review the mathematical model.
So What Is Progress?
The rest of the story is neither that epic nor that funny. We went on playing, designing, and revising until we and our testing groups could agree that we had a good game in front of us. The final version of Progress features fewer than sixty technologies spread over almost 200 cards, and the playing time is now under ninety minutes compared to the original 5+ hours.
The final stage was to dress up the game with illustrations and graphic design:
We think of Progress as a light civilization game, focused solely on technologies and their impact on mankind. In terms of gameplay, Progress revolves around hand management mechanisms. Each card represents a technology that comes with costs and prerequisites, while it is also the "currency" used to pay for other technologies. Each technology offers gameplay enhancers (such as a larger hand size, extra actions, etc.) and means to compete for victory points.
We did not give up on the rest of the original game ideas, the ones that we had to cut out. We kept optimizing and we split the universe into a base game plus several expansions, trying to separate both game mechanisms and historical ages. We went even further and made plans for an additional two ages beyond the one already designed with the idea in mind that it's better to be prepared than otherwise; what's more, it's an awesome feeling to play with your imagination and try to anticipate which technologies humanity may develop in the near future.
Is Progress the light civilization game that I was talking about at the beginning of this diary? We think it is, but we created it, so you don't have to take our word for it. All I know is that we have both learned a lot of history (and some physics, and some anthropology, and some...more of everything), we argued, we laughed, and we met a lot of awesome people on the way. Designing Progress was an amazing journey.
This diary is written with considerable input from Judy Martin, co-designer of Quilt Show. Thanks, Judy!
The Cast of Characters
I'm Steve Bennett. I've dabbled in game design for twenty years, with several party or creative games that I regard as essentially done except for that pesky publishing issue.
My wife is Judy Martin, a quilter/quilt designer/quilt book author of some considerable renown in that particular pond. For the past 26 years we have worked mostly side-by-side at our home, publishing Judy's books.
Judy and I have always played games – as a couple, with other couples, later with our two kids. We've always played word games together. We went through a trivia phase. There was a party game phase. Of course we went through a children's game phase. We were glad that one didn't last too long! For the last ten years we've been in our Eurogame phase.
We always thought it would be fun to make a quilt-themed game. After all, quilting was an unused theme, and who better to create such a game than Judy and me? We felt Judy's name would help sell the game to quilters, thus reducing the risk for the publisher that picked up our game.
The Early Attempts
The art of patchwork quilting is, at its core, working with geometric shapes of varying colors to create either standalone quilt blocks or quilt blocks that produce a larger overall pattern for the quilt. Understanding how these geometric shapes work with each other; being able to determine what size to make them; and having the eye for color, value, and contrast to make the patterns pop are some of the skills that Judy possesses in spades, skills that have enabled her to design and publish patterns for one thousand original block or quilt designs in her career. (To put that in perspective for non-quilters, one thousand published designs makes her the Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron of quilt design. I prefer to not think of my wife as the Barry Bonds of quilt design.)
Building a game around the skills enumerated above is not something we can recommend. Our early attempts were focused on building quilts from a variety of squares, rectangles, triangles, and other shapes. It was more a puzzle-making or puzzle-solving process than a game. We played around with real-time implementations but didn't like how that worked. And we never found a way of scoring the quilts that satisfied us.
Early board for prototype that had more in common with Bingo
The biggest problem is that to make a beautiful quilt, you need a lot of different patches — but having a lot of different patches means that often you won't be able to put the right patches together. It's one thing if Judy has designed it in the computer, given you the pattern, and told you how to make it; this is what she does when she writes a book. It's quite another if she gives you a selection of patches and says, "Here. Go make something from this." It can be done, but it's just as likely to lead to something both ugly and frustrating.
Every now and then we'd drag out our notes and paper quilt patches and kick around some new ideas — then we'd put it all away and get back to playing good games. Over the years we also tinkered with ideas that were less puzzle-making and more Eurocentric, but every attempt yielded more questions than answers.
The Rio Grande Games Design Contest
Every industry has a system of gatekeepers that keep the rabble from wasting the time of the decision makers in that industry. If Hollywood studios read every script written in the U.S., they wouldn't have time to actually turn any of them into Ishtar or Waterworld. I'm a quilt book publisher, and I've had people send me unsolicited manuscripts, void of good ideas, good designs, and good grammar. If we had to deal with a steady flow of such things, we'd never get Judy's books to market.
The game industry, while more accessible than most, is no different. There are barriers to getting looked at and seriously considered. When the Rio Grande Games Design Contest was announced in June 2009, Judy and I decided to drop everything and just work on a game. It represented the greatest opportunity for access we were likely to get. It wasn't quite now or never, but the contest created a sense of urgency for us.
The contest was set up in a fairly free-form fashion by the indefatigable Nate Scheidler. Eleven cities with active gaming groups were given the opportunity to arrange a local competition to send a prototype (along with its designers) to the Chicago Toy and Game Fair in late November. The twelve winners — twelve because Chicago sent two games — then got a half-hour each to pitch their games to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games. One game was guaranteed to be published. (I won't rehash the nuts and bolts of the contest as you can read about it on this BGG thread.)
Our first obstacle was finding whether one of the local competitions would let us enter. They were all free to set up their own rules for entry. We live in Iowa, at least four hours from any of the competitions. Some wouldn't consider it, feeling the competition was only for their local designers. Others would consider taking us, but there were logistical hurdles. Fortunately for us, the organizer in Orlando, Pat Matthews, agreed to take our game.
With a place to send the game, now all we needed was a game to send to the place!
The Mantra and the Niches
Simple enough for non-gaming quilters and interesting enough for non-quilting gamers: from the beginning that was our stated goal.
To give our game the best chance to succeed in the marketplace, we had to be able to snare quilters whose exposure to games might well be limited to Monopoly or Pinochle. A quilt-themed game with the depth of Puerto Rico would not cut it with quilters, save those who are already serious gamers or those who are Judy Martin completists. Simple enough for quilters — we had to keep reminding ourselves of that goal.
But interesting enough for gamers. Judy and I tend to swim in the shallower end of the Euro pool. While we love us some Puerto Rico and Power Grid, we're more likely to sit down to Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. We wanted to create a gateway game, one that could be pulled out to introduce your mom or your skittish co-worker to the world of wonderful games you play — but to be a great gateway game, it needs to be one you'll play with other gamers simply because you all enjoy it. When Judy and I play Carc, usually it's not because we're trying to pull someone into our gaming orbit; it's because we like the game and want to play it. Interesting enough for gamers — we had to keep reminding ourselves of that goal, too.
In addition to wanting to create a gateway game, we saw some niches we hoped to fill. The most obvious was the much-cliched "girlfriend/spouse" game. While Judy and I both realize gamers are gamers regardless of size, shape, gender, hair color, or any other distinguishing features, we also realize the pages of BoardGameGeek are filled with pleas for suggestions for games that one's wife or girlfriend can be enticed to play. If we could just make a good game about making quilts, we would have an obvious candidate for all those girlfriend/spouse GeekLists.
Another niche we sought to fill was that of games with well-integrated themes. It was important to us that the gameplay mirror what quilters actually do in real life. We wanted quilters to feel at home with the game because they are doing the same things they do when they make quilts. And we wanted gamers to feel like they were really quilters. Neither of those goals would be met if we merely slapped some fabric on cards and called it a quilting game.
Thebes is an archeology game in which you're digging into bags containing treasures of varying values. Your dig might be productive, or you might come up with nothing but sand. That's a game in which the game play and the theme dovetail perfectly. Lost Valley, an exploration game, is another one. Judy and I don't have a problem with abstract games with so-called pasted-on themes, but we definitely prefer the experience when the theme is central to the game play. In Quilt Show your game actions are drawn directly from the quilting theme. That was an important consideration for us from the very beginning.
Looking for Inspiration
I think most new designers start out by looking at games they like, looking for elements from those games that can be pulled out, tweaked in some way, and mixed with other tweaked elements to create a whole new stew.
Inspired by Stone Age, we toyed with a worker placement quilt game. Now visualize me making a slicing motion across my neck, the kind of gesture that is banned in the NFL. That's what we thought of that version. I should point out that someone could make a great worker placement quilting game. We were working on a tight deadline, and adequately developing and testing a more complex game just didn't make sense — but even if we had the time, it defied our mantra of being simple enough for non-gaming quilters.
A tracking board from our short-lived worker placement version
We had another version with a map of the United States. You had to get to the quilt shows you wanted to enter, and the shows in real quilt meccas such as Paducah, Kentucky; Kalona, Iowa; Houston, Texas; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Ontario, California had to attract busloads of quilters. The more popular shows gave the better prizes.
We tried another version that was about buying and selling quilts. It was a speculation game. You can speculate all you want about what happened to that version!
Our first worthwhile effort, though, was informed by two of our favorite games: Queen's Necklace and Union Pacific.
We started with a deck of mixed cards: fabric in one of various colors, quilt patterns, or quilt classes. We used a card purchase devaluation system similar to the one employed in Queen's Necklace. We envisioned three tiers of cards: a Display Window, a Sale Wall, and a Closeout Bin. Each card had three prices, and its tier determined the price paid.
The best part of Queen's Necklace are the three gem sales, which comprise the game's scoring rounds. Everyone secretly decides which and how many of each of the four gems to enter. In true Bruno Faidutti fashion, you also have a lot of cards you can play in order to make a mess of the whole shebang. It creates a wonderful psychological tension for each of the sales.
From that game we got our three quilt shows, which form the backbone of Quilt Show. In every show there is a tension created by the random (within a range) prizes available. Each player is struggling with questions such as, "Should I break this large quilt into two smaller ones and try to claim two prizes?" or "Should I sit this show out since the prizes aren't good enough?" or "Do I need to add a quilting chip to this quilt in order to claim a prize (or claim the largest prize)?" or "Am I better off taking this red block and using it in a sampler quilt (all one color) or leaving it in the scrap quilt (all one pattern) I was originally intending to make?" How well you make those decisions and anticipate what your opponents will do determines the outcome of the game.
If you have never played Queen's Necklace or Quilt Show, the tension of the gem sales or the quilt shows is a stepped-up version of the tension in the property sales in the brilliant filler For Sale.
We also liked drawing from the notion in Union Pacific that you're either adding to your hand or you're playing cards from your hand onto one or two stocks (or in our case quilts that you're working on). It's simple, familiar, and comfortable.
Our favorite part of UP is the uncertainty of knowing when the next scoring round will occur. In that game, following a particular formula, four scoring rounds are shuffled into the deck of stock cards. They pop up randomly, and that uncertainty drives the game. We would have loved to include some variation of that element in our game, but it simply made no sense. In quilting you know when the show is going to take place. You may not feel like you have enough time to finish your quilt, but you know the timing. A further problem of randomly timed quilt shows was the prospect that some shows could occur so suddenly that no one would have any quilts to enter. We needed to time the quilt shows in some way that wasn't tied to the deck.
Our solution ended up being a set number of time markers, depending on the number of players. These markers are taken with every block that is made. This allowed us to dictate the number of blocks that would be dispersed to the players in each round, assuring there would be enough blocks to make quilts to enter in the shows. It had an added value of further integrating theme into the game play: Every quilter knows it takes both fabric and time to make a quilt block.
Despite taking the occasional detour into incompatible game mechanisms, we kept coming back to what we began to call the Ticket to Ride version. We liked the comfortable feeling for non-gamers that they had two basic choices on their turn: draw cards into your hand (add fabric to your stash) or discard fabric cards and take a quilt block card (use fabric to make quilt blocks). I should point out that Union Pacific and Ticket to Ride are both wonderful Alan Moon games built with the same basic draw-cards or play-cards-and-claim-things underpinning. Though it was UP that initially inspired us, we evolved into referring to this version as the Ticket to Ride version because that game is designed to be more of a gateway game, which is where we saw Quilt Show fitting in.
Winning the Contest
I won't go into detail about being one of the four winners of the contest as I covered most of that in this post from 2009. I do want to talk briefly about one change Jay suggested during our initial pitch session.
When we pitched our game, on your turn you could either take fabric or discard fabric and make just one block. "Why?" asked Jay. (If you could do one of those word clouds of Jay's part of the pitch session, the largest word would be "Why?" and it would have the question mark attached to it. He was constantly asking us to justify our design decisions.) We did it that way because it felt right. "Aren’t some quilters faster and able to do a lot of blocks at one time?" Well, yeah. Jay's question dictated a change that improved the gameplay and made it fit the theme better.
When we went home and revised the game, allowing players to make multiple quilt blocks on a turn might have been the most important change we made. It moves the game along faster, and it allows for someone to pre-emptively end the round before the next player can get an important and valuable block.
When we first implemented this change, we allowed players to make a block, then turn over the next block in the stack. We found that this really slowed the game down. The way Quilt Show plays now, you can make only those blocks that are exposed when your turn begins; new blocks are exposed when your turn ends. As you start your turn, you know which blocks you intend to make. If you were allowed to replace the first block you took, you would have to wait to make a decision about making additional blocks. We found that made the game drag.
The game that won the Rio Grande Games Design Contest was a card game for 2-6 players. The game that was released in the middle of 2014 is a tile-laying game for 2-4 players. What's up with that?
In February 2011, Jay Tummelson was the featured guest at Gamicon in Iowa City, an hour from our home. We arranged to have lunch with him. Jay said his artists were just finishing something and would soon be ready to begin working on Quilt Show. I asked him how long it would take for the game to actually appear on store shelves. If we didn't have a lot of changes after the artists started, it could be out by summer. Joy of joys!!! But he wondered whether we could turn it into a tile-laying game. He felt that in a game such as this, people should feel like they are actually creating a quilt. We had a game that worked, and now he wanted us to change it! Despair of despairs!!!
We told him why we didn't think it would work. He sat there patiently and countered our various arguments with ideas from his vast mental storehouse of game mechanisms. He wasn't actually designing our game for us; he was just throwing out possible mechanical solutions to each and every objection we offered. By the time we left, we believed we could make it work.
When we got home and created our first tile-laying implementation, it was a slow and static game that we hated. We addressed some of the issues and tried again. Still bad. More fixes. Still bad. The time dragged on, and we imagined our window with the artists was closing, and if we didn't hurry up, it would be painted shut, if not boarded up.
At one point Jay wrote to us to ask if we had anything yet. Every fix we were coming up with was creating some new problem. It was like a Whack-a-Mole game design process.
Finally, I said to Judy, "We know the card game worked. Let's just try to make it as close to a one-to-one conversion as we can." And that's what we did.
The biggest problem we had to overcome was getting enough fabric cards into the hands of the players. In the original card game, with the quilt blocks being represented by cards rather than tiles, a "quilt" could be as little as one card. It was possible to compete in the quilt show with quilts of one, two, or three cards; after all, it was merely an abstraction. In the tile-laying game, one block tile looks like nothing more than one quilt block. It wasn't enough. It needed to be larger, so the smallest quilt in the tile game is 1x3 tiles. We call it a table runner. Most of the quilts in the game are three, four, or six tiles. Getting that many quilt blocks into the hands of the players requires that you first get them more fabric. We had to streamline the process for getting fabric to players.
Early in the design process we had reduced the number of fabric cards needed to make (acquire) a block down to the one, two, or three you see in the final version. We couldn't streamline that any more.
The first thing we tried was to replace the fabric cards with cubes. We had ten cubes out at a time, with the rest in a bag. I don't remember how many you were allowed to take on your turn, but it was more than the two you could take in the original card game. Cubes didn't work for three reasons. First, they didn't evoke anything related to quilting. Fabric cards evoke fabric; fabric cubes evoke cubes. It killed our immersive theme. Another problem was the unwieldy nature of shuffling all the cubes from the bag to the draw pile to the players and back to the bag. It seemed to reduce the game to a cube-pushing exercise. Cards just worked so much better. And finally, cubes created a problem with distinguishing neighboring colors. Our cards had color icons; the tiny cubes couldn't.
Cards from a prototype when we tried reducing the number of colors in the game to three — bad idea
The best thing we could do to get fabric in your hands more quickly was to increase the number of fabric cards you could take on a turn. It started as two, so we increased it by 50% to three.
We made one other adjustment that deepens the connection of theme to game play: We added dual-color cards to the mix. The quilt blocks in the game come in six different colors: the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and the three secondary colors of violet, green, and orange. Each fabric card was one of those six colors. With dual-color cards, we were splitting the difference between adjacent colors on the color wheel. When quilters make a blue quilt, often they will venture into blue-violet or blue-green for their color palette. We did the same thing. With a blue-green fabric card, you can use it on a blue block or a green block. Having this flexibility makes it more likely you can get the blocks you need when you need them rather than having a hand full of cards but nothing to make with them. The introduction of dual-color fabric cards is the single element Judy is most proud of in Quilt Show.
Single-color, dual-color, and dye goods cards. Can cubes give you all this? No.
One consequence of needing to put more quilt block tiles in the hands of the players was that we had to limit the number of players to four. Whereas in the card game you could make a respectable quilt with just two quilt blocks, in the tile game you can't even enter a quilt until it has three blocks, which means players need more blocks and more fabric to acquire those blocks and all of that takes more time. We didn't want the game overstaying its welcome. The solution was to cap it at four players.
Moving Toward Production
In the middle of 2013, as we were in a manic state preparing for the release of Judy's 22nd book, Extraordinary Log Cabin Quilts, we heard from the game artists for the first time. We sent them everything we had on the game. The pattern over the next few months was periods of silence followed by a flurry of back-and-forth emails between Iowa and Germany.
Because we had waited so long to get to this point, we didn't want to be the ones gumming up the works. Every time we received an email about the game, we tried to drop everything and deal with it immediately. We didn't want the artists in a holding pattern waiting for us. It wasn't uncommon for us to be working in the evening in Iowa when we would get that familiar chime that mail was received, and that mail would be from Germany where it was 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.!
When we won the contest, we were worried about how the game's artwork would be handled. We strongly felt that Quilt Show needed an immersive feel to it, that the cards had to evoke every positive feeling you have ever had about quilts. We were convinced that artists would treat the subject in too cartoony a manner, and the connection to the subject would be lost. We thought the cards needed photographs of real fabric and real quilts or quilt blocks. We were wrong.
I'm not sure which artists were responsible for which elements. I could probably go back and figure it out from the emails (or I could ask them, I suppose). Judy and I cannot sing the praises of Martin Hoffman, Claus Stephan, and Mirko Suzuki enough. Their vision made the game better than what we had imagined, and they were so easy to work with. Everyone who designs a game that is produced should be lucky enough to work with artists as talented, knowledgeable, and cooperative as these three men were.
Let me give you some examples. Our prototypes had always had icons for each of the colors as an aid to color-blind people. The artists turned the icons into pinheads, so that it looks like a swatch of fabric is pinned to card stock. The fabric has stray threads and frayed edges just like real swatches would. The quilt blocks have texture. It looks like the blocks are not lying perfectly flat. If you've ever seen a sewn block all by itself, you know how authentic that is. The player screens have a sewing machine and some spools of thread on them. We had no idea what we wanted for the screens, but as soon as we saw these, we knew they nailed it. The fabric was designed by the artists. (We couldn't simply take existing fabric and copy it because all of those fabric designs are copyrighted, so the artists drew their own.) We have seven single color fabric cards of each color; each of the seven cards is a different fabric. We have seven dual-color cards of each combination; each of the seven is yet another different fabric. The embroidered color icons and point values on each block tile are entirely the creation of the artists. I figured we would just superimpose those figures on the blocks. They incorporated them into the blocks. On and on and on. The block designs are Judy's original designs from her books. Beyond that, the look of Quilt Show is the product of our three talented artists.
The designs are Judy's, but the artists are responsible for the brilliant execution
We had occasions where something drawn by the artists didn't make quilting sense. These men had a passing knowledge of what sewing looked like, but they had no experience with the nuances of quilting. Judy would explain what she needed and direct them to pictures illustrating the point she was making. Shortly after, a revised image would come our way. The artists were like sponges absorbing information about a world they had never before encountered. It is a real credit to them that they could learn and adjust on the fly as well as they did. It was a pleasure to work with them.
While I'm at it, let me praise anyone who can communicate in something other than his native tongue. All the back-and-forth with the artists was done in English. I'm grateful as my German is limited to a handful of words.
An Homage to Playtesters
I think if you were at a convention and Alan Moon or Reiner Knizia approached you with a prototype, you would jump at the chance to sit in and offer your opinion — but would you jump at the chance if it were Judy Martin and Steve Bennett approaching you?
Think about it for a minute. Here are Judy and Steve, who combined have a total of zero games published. And the odds say that the game they want you to try isn't going to increase their number of published games. But still you do it. You do it because you're curious. You do it because you want to know what mistakes you should avoid when you design a game of your own. You do it because you want them to test your game. You do it because you always slow down and gape at train wrecks. You do it because you're their friend. You do it because you want to tell people you were in on the ground floor, the early development. Whatever the reason, you do it. And because you do it, Judy and Steve are now published game designers.
It's impossible to overstate how important playtesters are to the process and how grateful we are to everyone who helped along the way. We foisted some bad prototypes on playtesters. We also foisted some not-quite-ready-for-prime-time prototypes on playtesters. A huge thank you goes out to every single person who answered the call and tried our game and provided valuable feedback.
When it became apparent that Quilt Show might be done in time for the 2014 Origins Game Fair, we contacted Jay to see whether we could get in and help demo the game. Our son had recently moved to Columbus, so even if the game wasn't ready, we could justify the trip simply to see him.
We grabbed our daughter, Kate, and drove the 600 miles to Columbus, getting in Thursday evening. Friday morning the games still weren't in. I left my phone number in the Rio Grande room, then wandered out to explore the main hall. Kate and Judy were grabbing a bite. I barely got to the hall when my phone rang. They had games!
I raced back to find Jay punching out one demo copy. He handed me another, which I began to punch. Judy and Kate showed up and helped. We were apprehensive and excited. Quilt Show retails for just $34.95, and it has a lot of components: 96 cards, 160 tiles and chips, and four player screens. Could they get the quality we wanted at that price? In a word: Yes!!
Quilt Show is finally real; Steve, Judy, and daughter Kate at Origins
Seeing the game, our first game, in print exceeded our wildest hopes. Quilt Show is beautiful. The components are of the highest quality. All the tiles have a linen matte finish (like the Carcassonne tiles, for instance). The cards are sturdy and bright. The artists created the look we hoped for. In fact, it is better than the look we hoped for. Jay Tummelson authorized everything that needed to be done. He never once reined us in for wanting too much. Jay helped us adhere the gameplay to the theme with his pointed questions in the beginning of the process. He helped us even more when he pushed us into a tile-laying game. Then he stayed mostly in the background and let us work with the artists. And finally, the folks at the Hasbro plant in Massachusetts did a wonderful job of making the vision a physical reality.
I can honestly say that seeing Quilt Show in print was one of the greatest thrills of my life and Judy's. We worked hard, and the hard work was rewarded.
So what does the future hold for Quilt Show and its designers? That will depend on you and Jay. If enough of you buy copies, he might be motivated to let us do an expansion or a sequel. We have some ideas percolating in case the subject comes up. Additionally, we have some non-quilting games in varying states of incompleteness. Whatever happens, though, we're going to continue to enjoy the ride.
"Carl, let's make a game tonight! I'm bored and want to do something fun." —me to Carl Chudyk on Skype, at about midnight EST on June 18, 2014.
"What is Red," was the response. We laughed and joked around with the idea for a bit, much of the discussion revolving around the sentence "You are playing Red, highest card wins." Quickly we honed in on the idea that each color would represent a different game/ruleset. I wanted the game to be simple, but with enough depth to be satisfying. Carl agreed!
The idea to make an instant and simple game was somewhat a response to Pairs' huge funding on Kickstarter earlier in 2014. I wanted Red — the name of which later changed to Red7 to allow it to be found in searches — to have the same wide market appeal, a game that you can enjoy in any setting with gamers and non-gamers alike. We were actually going to Kickstart it at one point, but it was so popular at Gen Con 2014 that we didn't see the need — and that's why it's out already!
I poked my graphical designer, Alanna Cervenak, about Red very early on because we like to have good looking prototypes. Here's what she has to say:
One morning we started our daily meeting, and Chris told me "so I made a completely new game with Carl. Last night." We'd just finished up production for Impulse
, so I had to ask "what. How." I really loved the concept for Red7
(just "Red" at the time) from the get-go, due to how easy it was to learn and accessible to play.
Chris and Carl had been testing it out with a 7Deck
, and we had a lot of leeway to conceptualize a theme. It was basically "ROYGBIV, numbered 1-7, ideas GO." It was a really fun challenge to try to stick with a simple, clean, yet interesting aesthetic. We decided on this concept of paint splotches pretty early on, and we were able to really expand upon that with the paint brushes, and calling different aspects of the deck by names like "canvas" or "palette". We saw a lot of success with the short-print deck at Gen Con, and it was really rewarding watching people get into strategic planning. We made a few colour tweaks for the final print run to better differentiate between red/orange and indigo/violet and to gain some more readability for the reference cards, then made a box/rulebook.
This has probably been my favourite project I've worked on thus far as an Asmadi employee as I just really love Red7
. Fun fact: I am Canadian, so forcing myself to spell "colour" without a "u" was one of my greatest challenges throughout this project. Love you, Americans.
As you can see, the visual appeal progressed nicely!
One of the toughest game design issues we faced was how to handle drawing cards. Minor tweaks in that area had drastic effects on game length and enjoyability, and it's part of why we tested the game so heavily both internally and externally with the print-and-play. One of the very first rules we tested allowed you to draw any time you changed the rule. This added a lot of end-of-the-game "miracle draw" chains, which were cute but not very interesting. It undermined the planning choices you'd made early and often tossed the game to a coin flip at the end. Who would draw wrong first!
The next iteration was to allow a card draw if the player both played and discarded. This eliminated the long endgames, but it still didn't quite feel right. What we decided in the end was to leave card drawing entirely out of Basic Red7; that way there was a very casual, easy-to-learn experience for new players and folks wanting a light experience. Advanced Red7 contains this rule: "If you discard a card that is higher than the size of your palette, draw a card." This added an interesting new layer of planning, one suitable for people who've played a few times.
The other issue we faced is that like many card games, drawing the "best" cards in Red7 gives you an advantage. Many people don't care; they just want to play a quick game with luck as a fun part of that equation. Winning with a lesser hand feels neat if you can make that sneaky and clever play to do so! But for people who wanted more (and I fall into this camp often), we devised the optional action rules. By adding effects to the low cards (1 and 3) that were beneficial, and to the high cards (5 and 7) that required more careful planning to use well, we aimed to make it so that any hand could win. If you draw seven 2s, well, that's your own fault. There is a limit to how much luck we can remove from a card game...
The end result of Red7 is a game I'm really proud to have been a part of creating. It looks beautiful, I can play it with casual gamers, and I can play it with serious gamers. Also I hope it sells a lot of copies because I'd like to buy an island! I hear they are cool. Well, warm, but you know.
Picture things back in the summer of 2009: Race for the Galaxy, designed by Tom Lehmann with a lot of advice and development assistance from me, is (around) the ninth-ranked game on BGG (before the site split the game rankings into different categories). Development of The Brink of War, the third expansion, is mostly done; Tom and I are having some back-and-forth with the graphic design team, but there isn't much active playtesting happening in RftG-land.
At the 2009 Gathering of Friends, Lucas Hedgren had brought a prototype, a proposed dice version of Race for the Galaxy. Tom and I were asked to evaluate it, and we both agreed that while it was a reasonable game in its own right, it didn't quite capture the feel of Race. This started us both thinking about what would do this. As Tom was busy with other projects, I created a prototype first, in time for the 2010 Gathering of Friends. Graciously, Tom let me pitch "Dice for the Galaxy" to Rio Grande Games and it was accepted!
A name change, hundreds of revisions, and five years later, here we are. Roll for the Galaxy is being released soon. It's a space-themed civilization-building strategy game for 2 to 5 players, with more than 100 custom dice, 55 double-sided tiles, 18 faction and home world tiles, dice cups, player screens, empire mats, and more. And, of course, its gameplay which is, in my humble opinion, the best part of the game.
The First Part Is Always the Origin Story...
I'm often asked what the inspiration behind Roll is. It goes back to the progenitors of Race for the Galaxy. Race is based on an unpublished CCG Duel for the Stars and Tom's "Puerto Rico card game" prototype. That prototype, in turn, was inspired by the board game Puerto Rico (which also inspired San Juan). But there was one thing both Puerto Rico and Tom's prototype had which was in neither San Juan nor Race: "colonists", that is, tokens representing the populace of your space empire, without which its technologies could not function.
It occurred to me that if we put dice in a Race game, then they would be an interesting way of representing populace, given that people don't always want to do what the government — that's you, the player — wants them to do. Governments have a lot of control over their subjects, but it's indirect and slow; you can motivate some of your populace at any time, but certainly, in a modern democracy, it just isn't true that everyone works for the government.
Employment ebbs and flows based on economy and trade, so the core conceit of Roll is that you have a bunch of dice, representing workers, who will do some work for you (but it might not be what you want them to do, especially if employment is high). That work is all about expanding your civilization and your economy. With the money you earn, you then hire more workers from your general populace, the cycle repeats, and players get to roll more and more dice as the game progresses, which is just plain fun.
...Modified for Dramatic Effect
Okay, I have a confession to make. That stuff about the inspiration behind Roll being drawn from history and how dice are the perfect way to represent galactic population? It's all false. It came later. If Tom were the lead designer on Roll, it might be believable. Tom is a regular role-player and uses story as part of game design. He doesn't create a single card in Race without having some idea of its backstory. Me? I'm much more biased towards game mechanisms and tactical interaction.
What actually inspired the game is that I set the following goals:
• The game should have the "look and feel" of Race. Players should be building up galactic empires and player interaction should be indirect, not "attack-y".
• The game should use dice differently from many other games.
• The game should feel simpler and more streamlined than Race.
I thought the second point would be tricky. Dice are often used in games in two ways:
(1) Dice are rolled to resolve a player decision. For example, I decide to attack you, so I roll some "attack dice" (and maybe you roll some "defense dice") and then we look at the dice to see what happens.
(2) A player tries to roll some combination of dice faces. Typically, you get some number of re-rolls, subject to certain rules. Often, there's a "press your luck" element in which you can accept a mediocre result or re-roll, hoping for a better result, but risking a worse result.
I wanted something different. There's a classic post by Allen Doum about "resolution luck" vs. "situation luck" that goes into this in detail (so I won't), but I wanted a game with "situation luck". Instead of the player making choices and then the dice deciding what the outcome is, I wanted the reverse: The dice make the choices, then the player decides what the outcome of those choices are. I also didn't want players re-rolling dice as re-rolls slow down play, as players angst over whether or not to re-roll.
I also had been thinking about economic engine-building. I had just played Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum's New England and I noticed that games often ended in close scores, even though players were usually choosing quite different strategies. It made me wonder whether there was an underlying mathematical explanation for this — some basic formula that turns resources and opportunities into victory points — and that the good players were squeezing synergies from the game mechanisms to give them the edge needed to win. Race also has some of this, but it is a bit harder to see because there is so much flavor added by the story elements.
Based on these concepts, I came up with the die-rolling and phase mechanisms used in the published game. Players roll their dice once a round. They can then slightly modify what they rolled by using any die to choose a phase, guaranteeing that this phase will occur. (Certain powers also allow players to shift dice to different phases.) When players are done assigning their dice, the player screens are lifted, the chosen phases occur, and all dice assigned to unchosen phases are returned unused to cups until the next round. Roll is very much a game about "making the best lemonade" from what you roll, while also correctly predicting which phases your opponents will choose.
The economic formula is very buried now and I'm not even sure it's accurate for the published game, so I'll let the players see whether they can figure it out for themselves.
That Tile's Mother Wouldn't Even Recognize It
Here are some tiles from my very first prototype:
Here are some tiles from the published game:
Below are some differences between that first prototype and the published version, as well as some details as to how they changed.
In the first prototype, world tiles and development tiles were separate:
• World tiles were in a bag; it cost you one explore die to get a new one to work on. When you settled a world, you received dice, then flipped over the tile so that you could start producing and consuming on it.
• Development tiles had to be built in an order. It cost you multiple explore dice to flip over the tile, then you had to use develop dice to get it into your tableau to be worth points. It was always my intention to add powers to the development tiles, but in the early prototype I made them just worth extra points as I wasn't sure whether my economic model worked and I didn't want to add the complexity of interacting powers right away.
• The big number represented VP value, not cost. The costs were always in dice and represented by the gray dotted outlines. The idea was that you put dice on top of those outlines until the tile was full, then you triggered the icon in the lower-right. (For worlds, the VP value was the same as the cost.)
Most of this changed in August 2009. Tom thought the game had interesting aspects but, without development powers, was boring. Having distinct behavior for developments vs. worlds was a good idea, but it involved a lot of complexity. Once I had a better handle on what sort of development powers I wanted, I decided on a new rule, which is that cost and VP value were always the same. This allowed me to remove all those shaded grey squares and fit the behavior of each development/world on just one face of the tile.
At that point, why not make the game simpler by having all the tiles in the bag? As players could get frustrated if they drew all worlds or all developments, why not save some game material and make each tile double-sided, with a world on one side and a development on the other? So that's exactly what we did.
Nobody Ever Complains That "The Game Started Just When It Was Getting Good"
Early on, players began with one start world, as in Race, but unlike Race that start world wasn't even built! After a lot of playtesting in early 2010, it was clear that the game was taking much longer than Race. While some of this was unfamiliarity, Tom convinced me that the real problem was that the game took too long to get to the interesting bits, with about 15 minutes each game of players getting their engines started. While I was skeptical, Tom convinced me to start players with some existing stuff in their empires.
I thought that giving players multiple starting powers would make the game less accessible. I also worried that creating diverse starting powers would result in some empires being too strong or too weak. In late March 2010 I created the "faction tiles" and the number of possible starts increased from 5 to 81. In retrospect, Tom was totally correct; new players generally don't have a problem with the starting powers — it turns out that newer players can just ignore them and still have a good learning experience — and game length is much shorter now.
How to Paste on a Theme Like You Mean It
I hadn't yet come up with the conceit that dice represented workers; instead dice were just abstract dice. Dice that you didn't roll were in an area called the "Recycle Bin". The next big change happened after the pivotal 2010 GoF.
In this prototype, all powers moved dice around. Phrases like "choose two dice from the Recycle Bin and put them in your cup" abounded. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was a big source of slowdown. Players would think that which dice they chose was an important decision (it often wasn't) and would take a lot of time doing it.
After a long discussion and partial brainstorming session with Jesse McGatha, he came up with an idea I hadn't considered: taking these actions and combining them into a concept called "money" (galactic credits). Now, a player simply buys back (recruits) all his spent dice at once. If he can't afford them all, then he has to choose (once a round) which dice to recruit. Otherwise, he just adds them all to his cup (and decrements his credit total accordingly).
Adding this mechanism went against the general "simplify" guideline of game design. Normally, one shouldn't add more rules to a complex design, especially one that introduces a new layer of abstraction. Tom was even more skeptical than I was. But when my first money-laden prototype showed up in September 2010, we were both convinced that it worked. (I suppose in an eerie way that this isn't too different from the actual invention of money.)
Big Worlds Don't Fly
One remaining balance issue was that building lots of costly worlds was too hard (unless you had just the right development powers). Building a high-cost world tends to tie up a bunch of dice over several rounds (as it is hard to get enough Settle faces in one roll). In Race, high-cost worlds provide either useful powers or lots of VPs; in Roll, where worlds provide dice but no powers and VPs are equal to cost, it was simply more efficient to build several lower-cost worlds for the same VPs and more dice (even though one needed to explore more to acquire these tiles).
In November 2010, Tom took Roll to BGG.CON, verified this problem, and came up with a solution on his flight back, namely that high-cost worlds produce rebates of 1-3 credits when completed. Now, building high-cost worlds still ties up lots of dice, but their overall cost is reduced relative to the VPs they provide.
Here's an example comparing the autumn 2010 prototype to the published version:
There are some other differences worth noting. Having the credit rebate allowed us to do more interesting things with the location of the die gained from settling a world (here it goes into the cup instead of becoming a good on the world), which allows for finer differences between worlds and more flavor. Due to inaccuracies in die-cutting, the final artwork now bleeds off the tile edges; if my original black borders had been kept, they wouldn't always be equally spaced (as shown here).
Dice Are Evolving! It's Super Effective!
My first prototype had colored dice, but the dice faces didn't vary that much. I like symmetry, so initially there were six dice colors. All dice had at least one each of the five phase faces, so only the sixth face varied between dice. Here's a die face chart from March 2010:
By this point, I had added Military dice to represent the Military penchant for expansion while avoiding the details of Race's military rules.
The asterisk face was weaker than in the published game; it always matched the phase that the player chose. I was reluctant to make the distribution much more skewed. One issue is that a "phase strip" behind the shield didn't exist yet. Players had to actually change the die to the desired face using powers. I thought players would get frustrated if the dice they wanted to change didn't have the face they wanted to change it to.
Tom argued that variety in dice was one of the most interesting parts of this game and that the game would work better if the dice colors were more biased and had more "personality". In early 2011, these factors came together for the last major design change in Roll: that a strip would be used to organize dice behind player screens, that wild faces could be assigned to any phase (instead of matching the phase that a player chose), and that re-assigned dice would simply be shifted into the desired column under the phase strip (instead of being turned to the new face).
With these changes, taking greater advantage of other players' expected actions was possible via wild faces and the dice could be differentiated a lot more. Here is the final dice chart:
And You Thought Designing the Game Was the Hard Part
By July 2011, I had been actively playtesting Roll for two years, bringing it to every gaming event I attended. At this point, changes to the game were few and slow in coming. Once a game reaches a certain level of maturity, it is hard to get any solid game-balancing feedback from new players. It's possible that a certain tile combo might be too strong or an individual tile costs too much, but you can figure this out only if you've played the game hundreds of times, and many of those players were starting to succumb to groupthink.
Once the game mechanisms were stable, it was time to test the written rules. That's when a lot of the playtesting switched to blind playtesting. I would present a group of new players with our written rules and observe what they had trouble with. This process is much slower as it gets harder to find players who enjoy playing prototypes, are willing to read rules (instead of having a game explained to them), and haven't already played your prototype.
Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games had emphasized to us not to worry about publishing constraints or the number of the dice in the game, but instead to just "get the game right". After turning in the game, much of 2012 and 2013 was spent by RGG figuring out how to produce a game with so many custom dice in it, while I worked with the artists to create new artwork for the completely new tiles and adapt existing artwork for tiles shared between Race and Roll. The year 2014 was spent finalizing the rules, proofing everything, and working out the final production details.
It's been a long five years getting this game to market and I hope that the extra time spent polishing the product shows. In any case, I hope you enjoy playing Roll for the Galaxy.
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