Lewis & Clark in late 2013 — was my fourth accomplished prototype.
Starting Idea (Christmas 2011)
I love Uwe Rosenberg's games and in particular Le Havre, in which you place "worker" tokens on cards that come up during the game, creating an exceptional dynamic and richness. The card gives the action effect and the "worker" token is the trigger. I started to analyze the different possible action/trigger associations, and as I also love card games, "card triggers card" seemed to be the most interesting path.
I quickly imagined that the cards could be used in two ways — either as an action, or as a trigger — and the player has the dilemma of choosing one of these two functions. I sketched a card diagram adapted to this double function straight away. The actions would vary in their power levels, and hence would be associated with a different number of "workers", from 1 to 3 according to their power.
Then I had the idea to add a smooth mechanism for card retrieval: an optional action penalized by various parameters, including the cards still in hand. This introduced a classic strategy games deadline — but without any round counter, being for me harmful to an elegant design. Naturally, the players will be able to improve their hand with new cards. Thus, the "Handbuilding" mechanism with double-use cards — the first originality of the game — was born.
The Prototype's Theme: "Le Village 1900"
Finding good themes for my prototypes has always been difficult for me, and for this game, I was inspired by a book about the economic development of rural villages in France at the beginning of the 20th century.
As I wanted to create a resource management game, a kind of game I particularly like, four types of resources came up, with different uses and rarity. In order to get some interaction, I added a compulsory path on the game board for a certain type of resource. (The wheat in the oven became the wood transformed into canoes in Lewis & Clark.) And this change led to the introduction of "worker" figures, which would also allow improvement of the card effects.
As I don't really like the final scoring phase in games, I thought of something niftier: a victory point (VPs) race. As soon as a player reaches 50 francs, the game ends when the round is finished and the player with the most francs wins.
In March 2012, I made tests on sheets of paper with double information (effect/workers). It seemed to work well! Then I quickly created a prototype with multiple effects, after balancing them using a spreadsheet program.
We playtested many times with my wife (and #1 playtester!) Karine, and then for the first time at the local game group. It met with a great enthusiasm, except for the theme! (You can visit the forum of the VIRTUEL association to check out the history of the project (in French).) In order to know whether this prototype had real potential, however, I had to playtest it outside of the intimate circle...
Toulouse Festival: First Meeting with Ludonaute
For the first time, I decided to go to a game festival other than the local one in Parthenay: the Alchimie du Jeu festival in Toulouse (12.000 visitors). By chance, Benoit Christen (chief editor of the gaming magazine Plato at that time) lives not far from me, and he asked me to get the Crimebox prototype for him from its publisher, Ludonaute. I knew of this publisher from the game Yggdrasil, but had never played it.
On the Friday evening, I met Anne-Cécile and Cédric Lefebvre, who suggested trying "Le Village". The game was very silent, and they were left speechless! Then they played again with their playtest team several times during the festival, took the game with them, and we signed a contract straight away. I couldn't believe it! (Later I learned that they had played it only in order to thank me for carrying Crimebox as they had not been attracted by the prototype, so thank you, Benoît!)
After four months of solitary work, now began teamwork lasting more than a year, with numerous playtests, debriefings on Skype, and meetings at different game festivals.
Development with Ludonaute
The first condition when we signed the contract was to find a different theme. After a month of reflection, we agreed on the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a historical event which is not very famous in Europe and unexploited in board games.
Choosing a historical theme is risky because it gives less freedom compared to an imaginary theme. The race game fit well with the new chosen theme, though. After that began a huge amount of work to change the theme of the existing mechanisms; each character who took part in the expedition has its own card linked to what we historically know about him, even Seaman the dog! This is the second originality of the game: a strong historical theme.
This historical theme even modified the mechanisms! The mountain present on the route became a second type of VP that's much harder to get, and the setting gives the impression that you're taking part in a race rather than to a classic VP harvest. It's this race with two types of VPs that became the third originality of Lewis & Clark. It's now difficult to imagine that our Lewis & Clark game once had another theme!
Mechanism adjustments and new effects
The second condition upon signing the contract was to re-adjust the game balance, which was completely obvious. We did so by creating new cards, making sure to respect the theme. Then we worked on the new DTP, on writing the first rules in French, and on writing the rules in English for the Nürnberg Fair in January 2013.
The decision to work with Vincent Dutrait on Lewis & Clark was made at the end of August 2012. There's no need to explain how happy I was to imagine my first game being illustrated by one of the present's best game illustrators! What's more, he had already worked on this topic, which helped to add respect this strong historical theme.
I met Vincent at Spiel 2012, and we tested the prototype together. He is a nice person who enjoys playing the games that he intends to illustrate in order to take an active part in the project and develop the ergonomics of the graphic design. He's not doing things by half, and this amazed us! (On his blog, he gave an overview of the creative process for Lewis & Clark in French.)
It was a real pleasure for me to see the different steps of his work. My Christmas present for 2012, exactly one year after I imagined the game mechanisms, was the board game sketch!
Presentation to the public
Then we started to communicate through specialized media such as websites (TricTrac, BGG, Jedisjeux) and Plato magazine. The game also travelled to different festivals: Cannes, Ludopathiques, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Paris, Parthenay...
The feedback has been very good since the beginning, even if it was difficult to get into the game and in spite of its numerous resource manipulations. Back from Cannes, Anne-Cécile stood firm about the subject and she wanted us to find a solution. How right she was!
After a long period of reflection and several discussions and trials, we ended up with a solution that was much more elegant and time-saving. (The playing time went down from 30 to 25 minutes per player!) The resource gathering and how the cards arrived on the encounters record became smoother. Thus, the game focused more on its handbuilding core. A huge contribution, so thank you, AnneC!
Finally, we improved the writing of the rules in order to ease a player's access into the game, and we changed some secondary mechanisms (starting space, discount value) before sending the game files to the factory in July.
After much brainstorming about the game title, mostly due to possible confusion with the well-known superhero TV series, we kept the title we had chosen at the end of 2012: Lewis & Clark: The Expedition.
We are proud today of the work we've done and are convinced that we made the game we wanted. And I still like playing Lewis & Clark, which is quite exceptional for someone who is eager to discover new games. Each time you play, the tension rises incredibly as you get closer to Fort Clatsop.
This experiment with my first published game was full of learning and humanly rich for me. I can never thank Anne-Cécile and Cédric enough for allowing me to take part in each step of the development of the game.