Before starting the Richelieu project, I had been designing games for about two years – and before having an interest in board games, I was very much into RPGs, especially 7th Sea, which led me to an interest in the 17th century, particularly in French history. I've read a lot about this era and later it proved useful for this game.
The spark for Richelieu happened in 2008. Me and two others were playtesting an early version of Québec for co-designer Pierre Poissant-Marquis. As usual, random ideas about gaming in general were discussed. At some point, I had the idea of a game in which you lose all your points if you pass the zero on the scoring track instead of receiving some kind of +X marker. Pierre suggested to me that this could actually be made into a more serious game. I considered his advice, and the idea soon evolved into an interactive pawn on a score track that would hinder the characters with too much prestige.
I immediately thought this could only be the unique Cardinal Richelieu.
The First Prototype
The next day, I started doing research about the Cardinal. I already had a general game concept, but this step helped the game get really started. When I had enough thematic information, it was easier to work out the game.
The main idea of the game involved intrigue in the court of Louis XIII; every intrigue would set Cardinal Richelieu against his enemies. The players would be nobles taking sides in these intrigues, choosing to side with Richelieu or the conspirators – or even helping both. Players control agents with secret value to influence those intrigues. The Cardinal's mood is influenced by his success or failure, and he would be intolerant against nobles – that is, players – who became too influential. The intrigues would have costs to place agents, and the winning faction gives higher rewards to the players who helped them the most.
I also had a lot of ideas of additional places to play the agents and to gain favors, additional money and agents, but I quickly realized it was diluting the game instead of adding interesting options, so I focused on the core mechanisms. The game basically offered two actions per turn, with two options:
-----• Play on one of the three intrigues, or
-----• Collect income.
At first, the game had fixed intrigues and named specific historical events as intrigues with different costs and circles to play. However, I quickly realized this would hinder the game, and randomizing the intrigues would help the game's replayability. So each intrigue would always have four circles with the same costs on each sheet.
The next step was to give every faction some personality, while tying those to the intrigues, so if a player wants something in particular, he would have more chances to get it from specific allies. The four opposing factions were easy to determine: French nobility, Habsburgs, England, and the Protestants.
There also was a military track to represent the player's implications in the Thirty Years War. The purpose of this track was to have rewards to offer in the intrigues, but also a way for players (1) to score points without worrying about the Cardinal and (2) at certain points in the track to improve their income.
In addition to the Cardinal, two other characters needed to be present: the Queen and L'Éminence Grise. The Queen played an important role in history for Richelieu in the famous Day of the Dupes, and L'Éminence Grise – he was a shady and feared character at this time. For game purposes, they are special neutral agents won in intrigues, and their purpose is to hinder their respective opposite factions, so they add an aggressive element to the game, even allowing multiple intrigue resolutions if timed properly.
An additional rule seemed necessary to encourage players to play on different intrigues, so I added an additional cost if a player wants to play twice on the same intrigue, for the same faction.
Finally, the first prototype was ready to print and be tested. The board was quite rudimentary, and the intrigues were also simple but easy to modify. The icons on the intrigue sheets are the rewards offered for players.
I made three playtests with this version of the game, and while it worked well, there was a considerable balance issue with the military track. Also, players tried to lose some intrigues to receive the lesser rewards – at this stage the game offered compensation for players who lost intrigues – so it didn't work at all with the thematic and game spirit I was aiming for. I took some notes and stored the game to work on other projects.
Renaissance of the Game
About six months later, my brother was at my home and we talked about games. At this precise moment I remembered the Richelieu prototype and decided to restart working on it. I quickly had ideas to fix the balance issues, and the game was more balanced and effective. At this point I was still aiming more for a family game and the game was quite pleasant to play. Of course, intrigues no longer gave backers of the losing side a reward as it was the prototype's major flaw. This simple modification fixed most of the balance issue with the military track.
Previously, the player who had the first place used to pick his reward in the two offered. Now the first and second player rewards are fixed, and I made the second place bonus more interesting on purpose for some intrigue. This can lead to some tricky situations, like placing good agents to win the intrigue – but not too much in order to get the second place if the player wants this specific reward.
During a weekend, I wanted to play a game with my brother, so I made a two-player variant. I am not a fan of neutral players, but I think I made something interesting here. It needed a few tests to find the correct balance of agents. The secret value of agents helped the game, as each player knows only the half of the secret player, so this can make for interesting game situations.
After many tests and some months, the Plateau d'or game design competition was being held, so I was given an opportunity to give the game a good test; as an unexpected bonus, the game became known by Dutch publisher White Goblin Games. I was very surprised to win this competition; I was confident in my game, but there were good games there.
A funny fact about this competition is that I had the ugliest prototype, even though I work in graphic design. Some time later a French graphic designer, Jean-François Terrabon, took interest in the game and made me a prettier prototype.
Meanwhile Jonny De Vries from White Goblin contacted me via Geekmail, telling me he was interested in the game – great news!
Working with White Goblin Games
Something important about the designer/publisher relationship is trust, and it was quick to develop with White Goblin Games.
Jonny had great ideas about the game, and some of them were major changes. At first, I was not convinced about a few of the changes, but Jonny and his team saw great potential in the game, and I must say today I wouldn't play the "pre-Goblin" Richelieu.
Before changing the rules, some things needed to be clearer visually: Make sure Richelieu is always placed above the opposing faction (to remind players that he wins ties due to his political skill). Also, in the first version of the rules, first place in each intrigue won always gave two prestige points, and the second place one prestige point, plus the additional prestige shown on the intrigue. This was quite confusing, so from now on, the total number of points won is directly on the intrigue. Finally, Jonny wanted more interaction with the Richelieu pawn, so the rules changed a little and the moving value of Richelieu varied from one intrigue to another. All these changes gave me this idea for a new sheet disposition.
The next three changes were about faction majorities, income, and use of agents. In every case, I appreciated the way changes were made. No change was forced on either side; it was a true teamwork.
In the older version, agents came back to a player immediately after an intrigue was completed. This rule was changed to used agents going to a city on the board, with agents coming back only after all were played. I had already received these suggestions a few times before. The numbers and value of agents needed tests to have an interesting balance of choices.
Majorities needed work. Their function as ending bonuses didn't change, but it was a little too easy to get many points with only one won intrigue. Now bonuses are awarded if a player can get many of the same faction, but it is difficult to get three of the same faction (except for Richelieu), so points are now more appropriate to the challenge it represents. Only Richelieu's intrigues now uses a majority mechanism; the other ones are now sets.
The last of this wave of changes was the money scarcity. As I mentioned above, I was aiming to make a family game, and this change would make Richelieu a little more complex. At first I wasn't sure about the change, but it seriously upgraded the game. I then suggested adding jewels to the game, with each player starting with two jewels that would be worth victory points at the end of the game. Selling them for fast income is interesting, but the cost in points makes it a difficult decision. The cost to buy a jewel was difficult to adjust, between 7 and 8 Louis (the money), and 3 or 4 points.
While working on these changes, I considered another game option: purchasing ranks on the military track. It added another available action for the players, and on a thematic point of view, such purchases were commonplace during the Richelieu era.
A few months and many tests later, I received the first pictures from the artist, Marco Morte. It was a great day for me, as the look fit perfectly with the game spirit. (These are not the final versions.)
There were also revised intrigues; they were quite different to the ones in my latest version, but as I mentioned above, trusting the publisher is important. Those new intrigues were very interesting, and the first playtests quickly convinced me they were well tested.
Having a nice board and intrigue sheets didn't mean the game was finished. Jonny had a new idea: Add another circle on the intrigue sheet. It was a simple but much welcome addition. There was also the issue of the jewel cost, and we finally set it to 8 Louis and four Prestige.
After these last changes were made, I stopped testing Richelieu; instead I was playing it.
In the last months, there were a few minor changes, some rule point clarifications, and minor visual modifications...and one last minute change in the rules that surprised me, and again it improved the game.
Working with Jonny and his team was a great experience. I learned a lot from the goblins, especially in pushing a game's limits when the game seems fine. It's a lesson I now take into consideration when making games.
Many people helped the game in many ways, so thanks to everyone implicated, especially my family, Anne Le Floch from La Récréation where I had many regular testers, Louis-David Péloquin from Espace-Jeux and his family for the game nights they generously host every week, Jean-François Terrabon for the nice prototype he made, the Dragons Nocturnes game community, and the many players that took the time to play the game.
(Editor's note: BGG user Henk Rolleman has posted a photo impression of Richelieu, showing off the published game in much more detail. —WEM)