Prophet's Progress: A Game Development Blog

Joe blogs about his experiences trying to develop a strategy board game.

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Why Not More Shared Physical Space in Euros?

Joseph Ellis
United States
Ashland
Ohio
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One reason the true eurogames draw my ire is that there's no physical space. A good map (or something like that) is FUN to have involved in strategy and tactics. Maneuvering, getting in peoples' way, finding good paths, gaining an advantageous position, increasing and decreasing distance, these factors can all be considered AT ONCE in a game with physical space. Hard to beat that.

But physical space is not a board game quality that euros value much. The worst offenders have no physical space to be concerned with at all. Puerto Rico and Agricola have physical space, but as long as you don't screw up, it's not a big deal.

The one true, dry, glorified spreadsheet game that I've always liked is Princes of Florence. It features physical space as a big concern as you place buildings, parks, lakes, etc. Physical space is a dynamic and challenging foe. Fun!

The BEST eurogames, from my perspective, have not just physical space, but SHARED physical space. Settlers, Power Grid, and train games are great examples. It's fun to make decisions on a map because of all the dynamic factors involved.

So I hadn't thought about my gods/prophets game for a while when I visited the ole' Columbus Area Boardgame Society (I've only been there three times in the four years I've lived in Columbus). I got roped into a game of Glen More, and I was skeptical due to the euro-ness of the theme and art. But I was surprised! It's a very fun game because physical space is a huge factor and in a creative and original way.

For those who don't know, in Glen More, each player is building their own personal... uh, scottish society?... by placing tiles. You also have your meeples on a few of the tiles. Each tile has a power like letting you move a dude, generating a resource, converting a resource to another resource or a victory point, generative victory points, etc. The key is, you can only place tiles next to a meeple, and when you place a tile, its power, along with the powers of all the tiles adjacent to it, are activated.

If your game tastes are like mine, you find that concept positively scintillating. Just the idea starts the synapses in my brains exploding, before I even know the rest of the rules! And indeed Glen More is a great game that I still hope to own some day.

However, I do have one problem with it: Why isn't the tile space SHARED? How come everyone has their own personal game world, instead of working together to build one big game world? It would be so great if you could use other people's tiles, compete for position with your meeples, etc. But alas, no.

Playing Glen More got my brain spinning again with my own game. Maybe this concept of tiles with powers, activated when another tile is place nearby, could be used in MY game about gods trying to control earth's people. And the "meeples" could be prophets! And all in one big, shared world. How cool.

I made a failed prototype with this, which I'll share about in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, I'm wondering what your opinion is on physical space in games, both shared and unshared. A strategy game without a physical space factor at all really turns me off. And when I play a game with physical space but not SHARED space, I just wonder why they didn't make the space shared.

What's the appeal of these games with no shared physical space? Is it a dislike of direct conflict? A system where you can only effect others' potential resources, not their current cache resources? Shared physical space blurs many of those lines, even without combat.
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Thu Oct 6, 2011 9:49 pm
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Are you willing shovel the crap?

Joseph Ellis
United States
Ashland
Ohio
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Whenever I've seen tips on game design, it always includes, "Make a prototype quickly!" The reason given is that a lot of your ideas aren't going to work, and you're better off finding that out before you try to nail down every detail in the rules and mechanics and points.

Oh how true!

I had my idea: a game about civilizations where all the kingdoms are generic and the same, but various gods fight over control of the people and send them to war. But that's pretty vague.

Nonetheless, I charged forward on a prototype. I made a grid of smallish hexes, and I made them out to be a series of islands among water. Each island was just one hex, with 2-4 hexes between each island.

In my mind, each island represented a group of people. If you could get an idol built on an island, you had control of the bits on that island and the surrounding tiles.

Trying to keep the game simple, I made it all military. You could build shipyards, basic ships, a stronger but slower ship, and alternatively, you could built big trebuchet-type things on the islands instead of shipyards. I had no goal in mind but I came up with some basic production, movement and combat rules (with no luck involved), and my friend
Brandon M
United States
Ohio
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was nice enough to try it out with me.

It was playable, and even fun for a few minutes. But after about 90 minutes, we had made no progress, having gone around in circles on the same group of islands, with no one gaining the upper hand.

Ultimately, it was boring, and the whole "spatial control" thing ended up taking a backseat to the other rules. Boo.

The experience soured me on the whole game and I didn't work on the game for a couple months after that. Here are a few things I learned:

1 Indeed, our initial ideas for games suck, and we need prototypes to figure that out. If you're not willing to create a game that sucks, don't get into game design, because it takes a few crappy designs to find your way to a good game.

2 Some uncertainty is necessary when combat is involved. Whether its dice or hidden cards that come into play, if you can just roll over someone knowing the exact result, the game is transparent and boring. Games like Antike and Imperial don't have luck, but are they really combat games, at all?

3 For this game, I need various paths for the players to go down. In my initial design, no matter what you did, the best strategies and tactics never changed. I needed god powers or cards or something to help define a variety of strategy paths for the players to go down.

Point 1 is the most important. Whenever I think about songwriting, game design, or even just writing, I like to imagine that the perfect creation is just waiting dormant to be revealed in my mind instantly.

Nope, it's not that way. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of working through crappy prototypes to get a really good song, poem, or even game. (I'm not equating game design with regular art, by the way, although they can be artistic.) Being a game designer means not just being an inspired, creative person, but being willing to shovel through some crap.


Agree? Disagree? I'd love to hear some opinions on that. Have you ever had a strategy game just come to you, and it worked perfectly, just like you imagined? Or are you still in the middle of thinking you suck at designing games, while you refine and re-imagine and reorganize?

My key is, I really, really REALLY believe in my basic premise and theme. That's what keeps me working on the game.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about failed prototype part two.
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Wed Oct 5, 2011 9:24 pm
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Space, Control, and Ancient Judaism

Joseph Ellis
United States
Ashland
Ohio
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Saturday I discussed how my game's theme of religions controlling people who are basically all the same grew out of wanting a game where piece control is determined situationally instead of by color or type.

I needed to come up with a system of how that might work. BGG user
Russ Williams
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pointed me to the abstract games Martian Chess and Gyges, which include this dynamic by focusing on space. You only move pieces in your area, or the ones closest to you.

I love games where maps and space and positioning are key, and so space was the factor I had also picked. I'd need some sort of anchor piece, that DOES arbitrarily belong to an individual, determined by color or shape, in order to distinguished who controls all the generic pieces.

Thematically, the easy choice was idols.

Idols were major pillars of ancient Near Eastern religions. Read the Hebrew scriptures and you will see the impossible struggle Israel's and Judah's religious leaders faced in trying to get rid of them. Worshiping the one true God, who has no image, meant getting rid of all idols, but for some reason people are just attracted to and influenced by idols. They felt they needed them. They felt they meant something.

The idea was, however loyal you were to the God of Israel, it can't hurt to have a couple extra idols around, just in case those gods can help you too, right? And so with those idols' presence comes that god's influence over you. The Hebrew scriptures argue that those gods aren't real yet even its authors know well and fight against the negative moral and religious influences the idols have.

Perfect for my game.

It would be by idols that control over villages and armies and resources would be determined. An idol nearby means you have control.

At this point, the mechanic was still fuzzy. At first I decided an idol should be able to control anything within two to three spaces of it. Later I moved onto masses of tiles bowing (literally) only to players who had idols on that mass of tiles somewhere. I'm still not sure if that's the right way to go but it's where I am for now. (I'll explain more about the first prototype tomorrow.)

At first I also came up with other items that would belong to specific players. Prophets could move around the board and build idols or place tiles. Temples were mighty structures that allowed the gods to enter earthly space and cause major destruction. Alters were player-specific spots required if you wanted to feed a god food and provide him/her with power. However, just recently I abolished all those ideas, in trying to keep the game simpler. (Look forward to a future post on the difficulty in keeping such a game simple!)

So at this point the game I described is still pretty vague. There are kingdoms, with armies and cities and farms and forests and more, and control of all that stuff is determined by who has an idols in the kingdom.

Tomorrow I'll get down to brass tax (what does that mean?) and describe my first playtesting session, which caused me to go back to the drawing board and start almost completely over.
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Mon Oct 3, 2011 9:51 pm
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The Initial Spark: Religion, Power, and Division

Joseph Ellis
United States
Ashland
Ohio
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As I said yesterday, the game I'm designing started not with a theme idea but with the spark of an idea for a mechanic: I wanted to make a game where influence and control and ownership of virtually everything are decided not by arbitrary player color but situationally by space and position.

Some start a game design thinking about theme, but I tried to explore this idea for a mechanic and see what theme it would lead me to. I turned to the civilization/dudes on a map world, because all those games depend on factions/armies/kingdoms that have either different colored pieces or different piece types, and THOSE differences decide who owns and controls the pieces. The differences between the armies/kingdoms are fundamental to the game, an unchangeable premise.

There's a hole there, a niche, a possibility of game design that isn't being exploited. In our modern world, many of us try to look past our differences and see the essential unity of the human race. There should be a game that, instead of emphasizing differences between factions, emphasizes that all the various people and kingdoms are basically the same, while external force, not inherent differences, drives disputes and conflict and war.

As a Christian, I'm sad to say that nothing has caused more division in human history than religion. A person's religion is not inherent in the person. They can choose a faith, be persuaded, change their mind, etc. Yet at the same time religion makes a powerful difference in a person's perspectives and actions, for better or for worse. Worst of all, religion is often the tool of evil people, used to wield power over others.

I knew immediately I had the theme I needed to go with my mechanic. The players, rather than represent and control a group of people, will represent and control a religion. The people, kingdoms, armies, etc., of the game will be generic. They are controlled by religion but are not bound to it. With the right actions a player can steal control, increase influence, etc. It is the kingdoms that will do battle against each other, but their differences and the forces that influence them will change throughout the game.

The players will try to either glorify their god, or gain the most influence, or... something. The goal didn't seem important to me yet. But I liked the idea.

Questions emerged in my mind. In the game's universe, will the gods being represented be real? Or imagined? Will players be helping the kingdoms they rule? Or hurting? Hopefully both.

Monday I'll let you know about my first implementation and prototype, and the utter failure that it was.

For anyone reading, I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts on the relationship between theme and mechanics. To me, one or two appealing mechanics are the heart of the game. At the same time, I love a good theme and like to get in character while playing, too. Thanks for reading!
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Sat Oct 1, 2011 4:11 pm
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Defeating Groupthink: What's a Board Game Supposed to Be?

Joseph Ellis
United States
Ashland
Ohio
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Certain expectations come with the words "board game." Some of those expectations are essential to the idea of a "game": structure, rules, a beginning, an ending, turns, goals, winners, and losers.

Most of us, at some point in the past, saw non-essential mechanics as essential to what a board game is. Take, for example, the "roll and move" mechanic. That's the idea that you have a pawn or two or three that represent you on the board, and the meat of your turn is rolling a die or drawing/playing a card or flicking a spinner which determines how far your pawns move along the board.

Sometimes these games are a kind of race (Sorry!, Trouble, etc). At least the "roll and move" mechanic makes sense for those. Other popular games, like Trivial Pursuit (and most trivia games), Monopoly, Life, etc., use the roll and move mechanic, but for no good reason other than the fact that people are used to it. For all those games, we could come up with a way better mechanic to improve the game in less than five minutes, but the mechanic keeps getting used because people expect that mechanic when they play a new game.

What was mind blowing about discovering hobby board games was that it obliterated the requirement for a "roll and move" mechanic and opened up a new world for us in gaming. The entire structure of a game could be oriented around something so different than roll and move that it changed our idea of what a board game is supposed to be.

In the strategy world of thematic/war/euro games, we have ended up with a whole new set of mechanics to have fun with. Deck building, role selection, worker placement, various player/unit powers, area majority, etc. Some great, fun new games stick with those newer mechanics and don't branch out too much. But my favorite games to learn about are those that stretch our expectations further than ever when it comes to mechanics. Here's some of the games that has stretched my expectations for what a board game is the most:

1 Acquire: In Acquire, there is no control or player pieces on the board. Instead each player is a disinterested investor. Once you play a tile, your association with that tile is over. I love teaching this game and seeing the light go on for new players a few turns in, when they suddenly realize the board is a totally collaborative effort, and that no one player has greater stake what is forming than any other.

2 Imperial: Not a game I'm in love with, but I have to admit its separation between players and turns is inspiring. Instead of the players taking turns, the nations take turns, in order, and whoever controls each nation controls the nation's actions. The nations even have their own cache of money separate from the players.

3 Neuland: This is a genius game of logistics in which each player is trying to produce raw materials, convert them into refined goods, and finally convert those refined goods into victory points. The map and all the buildings (which do the goods conversions) are all shared, though, so the logistical puzzle tangles as your aims and the other players' aims come into conflict in the shared space.

4 Dominion: I'm a bit sick of playing this game, but I have to admit it blew my mind a little bit to realize the gold I was buying didn't represent one piece of gold, but an INCOME of 1 gold every time I went through my deck.

I want any game I design to stretch the players' expectations for what board games are supposed to be, like all these games do. The idea I'm hooked on at the moment has to do with player pieces. Why is it that at the beginning of so many games, we each choose a color and all the pieces of that color are mine and mine alone forever (or we each get a player mat the other players can't touch)? It's seems arbitrary to me.

I'd like to create a game where 95% of the pieces on the board are neutral--not belonging to any player--and my control and influence over them is determined situationally, by position and cards and whatever else at that moment in the game.

My chosen theme is religion. Each player is a prophet for a very real god, and the players vie for control over armies and villages and kingdoms. All the armies and villages and farms and forests and whatever else are neutral; they don't belong to any player. But a very few pieces--idols--do belong to certain players and give those players some control over what happens in the idols' vicinities. And that can change at any moment! Players are propping up and supporting the kingdoms, but they can suck the life out of them as well, to benefit their particular god.

This idea first emerged in my brain a year and a half ago. Progress has been slow since then, with a couple prototypes that fell flat immediately. But I feel like I'm finally making progress, so I'd like to chronicle it on this blog.

The next couple weeks, I'll catch you up on the history of the game's development so far. From that point on, I'll keep you updated with progress as it happens.

I hope this blog can also be a forum for game design and game theory. For anyone reading this, I ask anyone who happens to read this blog post to comment below on this question: Which board games have stretched your expectations for what a board game is the farthest? And, if you're working on a game design, what innovative mechanics are inspiring you to keep at it?

Thanks for reading. I'll dive more into my game idea tomorrow.
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Fri Sep 30, 2011 3:23 pm
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