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Designer Diary: Divinare – It's Better to be Lucky than Smart

Brett J. Gilbert
United Kingdom
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Elysium — coming Feb 2015 from Space Cowboys!
People keep asking me, "Where did the idea for Divinare come from?" and I don't have any good answer for them. I doubt many game designers can fully articulate exactly how they acquire the intellectual seed of any new game, and the best I can say is that I got lucky. But what I can tell you is why it exists today at all: And that's because I drew a little picture of cards laid in a row on a page of my notebook one night, even though I'd forgotten all about it the next morning.

The image below is a scan of a portion of that page. On the right is that first sketch – the one with the little triangles and all the arrows – which may seem too abstract and generic to be meaningful, but when I opened my notebook the next night there it was, staring back at me, an idea. On the left is what came next, after maybe only five minutes more sketching: a hand of cards, a board with multiple tracks of sequential spaces each allied to a card suit, objects placed on the track as a consequence of card play. This isn't everything Divinare became, but it's a long way down the road; indeed, it's most of the way there.

Within a day, and spurred on by the self-imposed deadline of the following weekend when I would be meeting a gaggle of other game designers for two days of intense playtesting, I had a working ruleset of a brand new game. I harvested some numbered cards from the boxes of Phase 10 picked up in TKMaxx for £1 each (a game design bargain!), robbed one of my boxes of Carcassonne for meeples, and scooped up plastic chips from the large miscellany of random components I have stashed under the table. Before I left for the weekend, I sketched out a plausible board layout, unhappy that I hadn't had quite enough time to create a printed version and knowing that I'd just have to draw a rough copy on a sheet of A4 when I got there.

But even at this exceptionally early stage, many details that made it to my final prototype and into the production version were already established. The split of the deck into four suits of 6, 8, 10 and 12 cards is right there. A 36-card deck had the mathematical factors I needed: a neat and tidy third of the cards could be left out undealt, and the remaining 24 split evenly between either three or four players. The rough structure of the boards is also in place, as is the idea of the bonus spaces at either end and the elision of some sequences of numbers onto single spaces. And unseen are the rules about card passing, and the central rule — without which there really is no game at all — that whenever you play a card you must move your piece to a different, empty space (or retreat to the relative safety of the starting space). All this had been worked out on paper and in my head before the very first playtest. This is definitely not typical of the game design process; like I said, I was lucky.

Did I have high expectations for that first playtest? I think I was confident, at least, that the game would work. It seemed hard to imagine how a game that invited the players to play a card and move a meeple wouldn't, at the very least, successfully operate – but would it be any good? I wanted the game to have tension and brinkmanship, bluff and surprise, deception, tactics and the possibility of blind luck paying off in the end. It might have "worked" and done none of those things. It might have "worked" and been dreadfully dull and procedural and absolutely no fun at all.

I was still sketching out a playable board for "Ladders" (as the game had hastily been named) when Rob Fisher, Sebastian Bleasdale and Tony Carr sat down at Charlie and Alan Paull's dining room table and expectantly girded their designer loins (if you get my meaning). Tough crowd. This was hardly a prototype that would dazzle or distract anyone with its practical execution: a scrap-paper board, mismatched cards, suspiciously familiar meeples. And maybe that was a good thing. After all, if you can have fun with those, then you might just have something decent on your hands.

I think the four of us played twice, the second time implementing Sebastian's excellent idea for passing more cards later in each round, rather than just at the beginning. Both games went well; the game did not fall apart like a wet sandwich. The feedback and discussion afterwards was all positive and encouraging, but I realised I had work to do to tighten up the spread of the board spaces and to settle the scoring scheme.

Armed with the encouragement of my peers, and grateful as always for Charlie's catering, I returned home after the weekend and started to fashion a more elaborate prototype so that I could continue playtesting without the need of the scrap paper. Interestingly, when I did this I took a step back from the more complex structure of bonus spaces I'd experimented with in those initial playtests. I'm not sure now why I did this, but the sketches in my notebook and my computer graphic files display a very clear chronology of decisions. The first iteration of a "designed" board is below, by which time the game has been rechristened "Spot On!"

The bonus spaces has been rationalised to just two "hot spots" on each track, and perhaps this was my intent: to simplify. This board was unsuccessful for a couple of reasons: The longer tracks were too open, with no pressure on players to occupy riskier spots outside of the central "comfort zones", and, annoyingly, wherever you placed your meeple, at least one player couldn't read the numbers!

At this point in the game's development the scoring was 2 points for a "spot on" placement, 1 point for an adjacent placement, and –1 point for an incorrect placement. The "hot spots" doubled any points earned on those spaces. This apparently elegant scheme was weak for one very good reason, which I realised and addressed only later in the development process: Can you spot what was wrong?

As a game designer, the most directly useful part of my entire educational career has been my A-level maths. Calculating probabilities is straightforward once you realise that it's all just a matter of combinations and permutations. All things being equal, all you have to do is count up the number of ways in which a specific result can happen, divide that by the total number of ways in which anything can happen, and you've got the number you need. If you roll two regular 6-sided dice you know that there are 36 possible outcomes. Of these there are, for example, two ways to roll a result of 11: you can roll 5 on the first dice and 6 on the second; or roll 6 on the first and 5 on the second. Boom! That's two chances out of 36, or 1-in-18.

It is, I agree, a little more complicated to work out exactly how likely it is that in a game of Divinare there will be, for example, eight of the twelve yellow astromancy cards dealt into the players' hands at the start of the round. But I wanted to make sense of the structure of the boards and the logic of any bonus spaces; I could attempt to intuit this after multiple playtests, but doing a nice bit of maths was the only way to really know for sure.

The sketch above is me starting to work out by hand the first of the many individual probabilities I would need, just to get a feel for the numbers. The trick is first working out the pattern of fractional probabilities I needed to multiply, along with the number of permutations, in each case. The maths sketched above allowed me to confidently build an Excel spreadsheet (a portion of which is shown below) to do all the heavy lifting. I didn't fancy doing it all on a pocket calculator; when you're working with even quite small numbers of cards, the number of possible permutations get very large, very quickly. Think about this: every time you shuffle a deck of cards you are overwhelmingly likely to create a unique ordering that no-one else has ever come up with – as in "no-one else in the world, ever, in all of human history since the invention of the 52-card deck". (This wonderful fact comes to you from The Aperiodical blog.)

But the point here is that there are straightforward patterns of straightforward mathematical functions that can render these huge numbers manageable, and out of which you can get simple, clear, useful probabilities. That's what I did, and the spreadsheet allowed me to nail down exactly how the boards should look, how the results should be grouped, and how the bonus spaces should be aligned so that the double and single bonuses (to which I had immediately returned following the first "Spot On!" playtests) would fall into brackets of clearly defined and equivalent risk.

For me, the delight was seeing how the consequences of my game design decisions inevitably ordered the board into a meaningful, playable, elegant — if not actually beautiful — structure. Not that any players ever need to worry about any of this, but you can rest assured that none of this detail is there by accident (or intuition, for that matter).

So how likely is it that you’ll deal eight out of the twelve astromancy cards into the player's hands in a round of Divinare? Well, the answer's right there: It's a little over 29%, or just under 1 in 3. It's possible, of course, that you'll deal zero astromancy cards to the players, but that's a 1.25 billion-to-1 long shot!

Here is the next version of the game board, which codified my freshly calculated schema and also put the crucial numbers on the side of each track, making the board much more readable than my original. Playtests continued to go well, but the issue of the scoring regime was not quite settled. The problem, and it took me a while to see it, was that in some circumstances the "winner" of each board would score no more points than a player with a piece on an adjacent spot (2 points for a win, against 1 point plus a 1 point bonus for the guy next door). There was a perfectly clean logic to this, but it felt wrong in play because it diluted the triumph of a correct placement. It made sense on paper, but was unsatisfactory in practice; simply upping the value of a winning chip to 3 points fixed the problem, and restored a sense of true victory to the true victor.

And at that point, bar a little bit of shouting, the game was done, and its journey, which my notebook records started on May 19, 2010, had lasted only around four months, having achieved the vast majority of that distance in just a couple of weeks. Later in 2010, I decided to enter the game into the 2011 Hippodice contest, whose submission deadline is always around the end of October. It was prior to this that I decided to spruce up the presentation of the prototype, and "Oracle Pathway" was born. It obviously made sense to move away from suits of numbered cards towards using colours and symbols instead (the game has enough numbers in it already!), and another old design of mine, which never really made it to prototype stage, provided the colour scheme and four ready-made symbols. That game was called "Oracle", this new game had pathways. You do the math.

On its first genuinely public outing, Oracle Pathway didn't do so well. It didn't make the cut in the first round of the Hippodice contest – but then, what do the Germans know about board games? – although I continued to play and enjoy it with family and friends. By the time the deadline for the Granollers game design contest arrived in 2011, I had experimented with expanding the game to two players, which worked better than expected, and had gone over the rules again with a fine-toothed comb to hopefully tease out any conceivable snags.

That the game then went on to win the Granollers' contest was a genuine and complete surprise. Oriol Comas i Coma called me from Spain (I was actually in Denmark at the time) to give me the news on the evening of May 15, 2011 — just three days shy of the game's "1st birthday". I would have loved to have gone to Granollers that year to visit the Fira Jugar X Jugar, but the dates clashed with the UK Games Expo in Birmingham, so I sadly had to decline. It was a curious and wonderful thrill to know, while I was ensconced in the Playtest Zone in the windowless beige cavern of the Clarendon Suites in Birmingham that the Spaniards were toasting Oracle Pathway in Granollers.

Two character cards from Divinare
But what a difference a year makes! Following Oracle Pathway's success in Granollers, I was excited and humbled to be approached by three different publishers, all interested in possibly publishing the game. I was not then (and am not now) some old hand of the game design business, so it was amazing and new to me to get such a response. Asmodee has now published the game, and I could not be more pleased about it, but I want to express my gratitude to Pol Cors of Homoludicus who was first out of the gate and had lots of great things to say about the game, and lots of ideas for its publication. He was both sanguine and gracious when I eventually chose Asmodee, and it was great to meet him in person this year; if he had any hard feelings, then he certainly didn't let them show.

My success in the Granollers contest was announced in May 2011, and my agreement with Asmodee was all but finalised by August. The process was incredibly quick, and as soon as I signed the contract Philippe, Croc and the rest of the team at Asmodee spared no time in getting their teeth into the design work. I may have been a first-time published author, but I was under no illusion. I knew that once the ink dried on the contract that the game's trajectory would be firmly within Asmodee's gift, and was absolutely prepared for the inevitable – that the game might change. And as new to the process as I was, I was still looking forward to seeing what Oracle Pathway would become in the hands a big European publisher.

But, barring only the very slightest of nudges at its extremities — less a rules change than a tickle of clarification — all the detail of Oracle Pathway, the boards' structure, the deck size, the card passing, the scoring, all now exist unchanged within Divinare. When I first heard the name I was a little uncertain about it, but it has grown on me hugely (although I will spend my life correcting people about its pronunciation, but that's just part of the fun), and one simply cannot say enough nice things about Asmodee's attention to every detail of the production, or about Ben Carré's stunningly inventive, dark and witty artwork.

This year I was able to make that trip to Granollers, not to see Oracle Pathway celebrated, but to see Divinare celebrated in its place. I returned home from Spain on May 19, 2012, two years to the day after the game began in the scruffy pages of my notebook.

I may not be one of world's smartest game designers, but right now I certainly feel like one of the luckiest.

Brett J. Gilbert

One of the four game boards in Divinare
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