Warriors & Traders is a pure strategy, historical game, combining several mechanisms including area control, action point allowance and trading. It falls under the category of light civilization game, with a playing time of two hours.
Warriors & Traders was released at Spiel 2011, is the first game from NSKN and from myself, and has a unique story behind it.
In my group of gamer friends, I was usually suggesting changes to make games either more strategic or less dependent on dice or in some way different from what the original idea was.
The idea to design my own board game was laying dormant inside me for a while, but a friend gave me that final push that made me start working. He gave me an actual challenge, telling me that within one year I have to come up with a board game that all of the people in our group will enjoy playing without complaining. So a few weeks later, I started putting my idea on paper. The one that seemed to be a step ahead of all the other ones was of a historical game independent of luck. Once I chose my winner, I also came up with the name and the gaming paradigms I was going to abide to no matter what. And so the story began...
I had to write down what I wanted to make out of this game, which I decided from day 1 to call Warriors & Traders. I had decided not to make any compromises and laid down all the important things that I care about and believe make a game with potential:
• Eurogame mechanisms
• Deep strategy
• A war component
• Lots of player interaction
• Layered long-term decision-making
• Historical accuracy
Drawing the line, I realized that it would be hard to combine all of these in a game playable in less than an afternoon, so I chose my priorities.
First, I decided to put the playability before the historical accuracy, but without making severe compromises. This is why I chose the set-up of the Dark Ages of Europe, when empires were forming and setting the bases of today's European countries. At some point in time, every country was covering roughly the area which is drawn on the game board. And here and now I promise to come back with the details behind placing each single country on the board!
Another key point in game design was the decision to leave every single aspect of the game untouched by any element of luck. That means no dice, no event cards, no randomness whatsoever. At this point, the major decision was whether to go toward an economical game or a war game, keeping the "no luck" paradigm. At first I was tempted to go toward the Euro side, as it would have been much easier to balance economic decisions in a randomless environment, but I did not gave up and decided to search for a way to put together armies and war, while resolving battles without rolling the dice.
The place where I compromised a little was the player interaction. Having a fixed (non-modular) map, it was obvious that gamers would find more ways of interaction in a six-player game than in a two-player game. This seemed like the least amount of distance from the original idea.
Once design paradigms were fully covered, I started to mentally make order of the game components and mechanisms. I had to always keep in mind that I was my own harshest judge and I would not go on easy on myself if not following my core design principles.
First, I wrote down game components, most of which you'll still see in the actual box of Warriors & Traders:
• Game board showing the countries in Europe, with each country divided into provinces
• Army units, both player and neutral – all defined by power (which deals damage) and toughness (the ability to absorb damage before dying)
• Resources: weapons and gold to build armies, food to keep them alive, and products as a generic "currency"
Then I wrote down the mechanisms and the main aspects of a turn:
• Tech development that applies to the entire "country" a player controls
• Actions: each player takes action(s) each turn, developing a technology or building armies
• Simultaneous army movement, followed by combat and clean-up
• Strategic resource management, using resources before gathering new ones; this required strategic planning for at least one turn ahead.
Version 0.1 – Plain Paper
Every province had 1 to 3 resources drawn on it, 1/2 of these resources on the map being Products, 1/4 Food and 1/4 Weapons, with Gold being available only through trade. The resource "tokens" were small square pieces of brown (Products), red (Food) and yellow (Gold) paper and some poorly drawn swords (Weapons), these being somewhere west of the map, outside of the picture.
Provinces consisted of Capitals (three resources and starting provinces for players) and common areas (one or two resources). Barbarians – random armies who would fight the invaders and nothing more – were in all provinces.
The development cards, nowadays replaced by the playmats containing the technology tree, were divided into... countless categories. The most important ones were upgrading Trade technology (allowing simply a better exchange rate with the bank for Gold), Production technology (multipliers for resources) and Military technology. This Military technology was the key to randomless combat as players were able to have up to five types of army upgrades with three options each, so you could end up with any kind of army X/Y (x-power, y-toughness) with X and Y ranging from 1 to 10!
After seeing the pictures above, you're allowed to laugh (but not too loudly).
The game round was composed of four steps:
• Feeding armies (yes, before getting resources)
• Getting resources
• Taking actions (upgrading tech OR building the army)
• Moving armies and conducting battles
The first two tests – actually two-and-a-half – were done with just me and my girlfriend. (Again, big thanks for putting up with all that.)
There were no two of the same army after five rounds and no victory conditions. We were just playing to see how the game works and which things needed immediate response.
At the top of the list were the giant number of army types and the Barbarians with random power and toughness, which conflicted with one of the core principles, that being no luck.
The first two game tests were conclusive: The game had potential; it worked, but it was too all-over-the-place. It required a lot of work to bring structure and a bit more effort on the basic design to make it user-friendly. The last test, well... I sneezed in turn three and all the "tokens" flew away, concluding a night that I will always remember – the beginning of an amazing story that changed my career options and maybe my life.
The first moments of euphoria – made of "I have a functional game" and "Oh, my God, it's really happening" – were soon dialed down and replaced with "Is this ever gonna work?"
Versions 0.2 to 0.5
The first big step was to reduce the incredible number of possible army types to just a few, thus implementing a major change, specifically keeping the armies' power and toughness equal to one another and limited to a maximum of three. So the armies became 1/1 army (nowadays called Infantry), 2/2 army (Archer) and 3/3 army (Cavalry).
After testing this and seeing that the project showed a better shape already, I ran into a different problem: The outcome of all battles was easy to calculate by everyone, and there was nothing in the game that could spice it up. I needed a mechanism to make combat ... well, to tell the truth, less boring. The improvement I found and implemented immediately was the first ability in the game. Armies of a certain level had the option to retreat instead of dying when brought down to exactly zero life. This rule remains in place until today, but it took a lot of time, effort and testing to remove any ambiguity. Giving the players the power to freely distribute the damage inflicted by the armies in a battle combined with the retreat mechanism made battles interesting and unpredictable.
Technologies and the Playmat
With armies and the retreat ability successfully tested, the game still lacked structure. To develop the three technologies, players were using Development cards. Actually, every Action in the game was governed by this extensive card usage, a mechanism that slowed the game a lot.
To make it even more complicated, players drew their cards at the start of the turn, before feeding armies, and they used them in a later phase, after gathering resources and trading. Every player drew only one card per turn, but there was a mechanism in place to draw more. Thinking back, I guess we called it "level-up", meaning when you reached a new level on one technology path, you'd immediately draw a new card. When it came to using the cards, there was quite some chaos. Players were allowed to use as many cards as they wanted per turn, with the sole restriction that "Declare war" cards were played at the very end. There was no turn order and everyone was taking actions at the same time, the whole game turning into a small battlefield of screaming louder than everyone else. Furthermore, without a set order of play, the Declare war cards were only used to keep your opponents under pressure, but actual wars were rarely seen.
This whole mess needed to be addressed. At this point in the history of Warriors & Traders, a good friend of mine, Vlad, started being really involved and together we came up with the idea of removing the cards from the game.
At first, we merged the drawing and playing of cards into a single stage of a turn, called the Development phase. There was no need to make players think in advance what they would do later that turn, and there was also no need to pile up cards and play them all at once.
Then, we structured the technology tree for Production, Trade and Military on a playmat. On Production a player would get simple multipliers for the resources, on Trade better rates with the bank, and on Military better armies. To upgrade one level players would need one, two or four cards. This made the game better, but we did not manage to avoid stockpiling cards in our hands.
Versions 0.6 to 0.10
The game started to gain structure, and we enjoyed testing it more and more. If in the beginning, few of our closest friends were interested in playing again, at this stage a "queue" of people curious to try this new project developed, some of them already saying that they want a signed copy when the project was final. At that point, I was still taking such comments as jokes.
After a few more tests, we realized that the game was quite flat and that except for the military path that provided the option for armies to retreat, nothing else special happened in the game. Players would quickly get bored of upgrading a technology just to get more of the same things and went straight for battle. I already had a few ideas of things that would merge naturally into the game, but we needed a few more to make all the technologies interesting and useful.
By that time, we had already made our own resources out of photo paper to avoid so much depending on beans, matches or, at best, resource tokens from other games.
We were testing continuously and making small changes, one at a time, based on feedback from many friends from many places when the idea to transform this into an actual business came out in the open. At first, I did not take it seriously, but it was growing on me and I felt that Warriors & Traders deserved a chance to become a published game. I cannot pinpoint when and what was the final kick – I just realized one day that I wanted this to happen. And I felt so attached to this game that I was going to try to publish it myself.
The game already had shape and was fully playable...or was it? Well, not quite, as it was missing one important element – the game board!
Building the Map of Warriors & Traders
Like any other person with high self esteem, I left the hardest part to the end. Being passionate or as some might say borderline obsessed with history, I could not make my peace with a perfectly playable game board without respecting the history.
With the medieval theme in mind, the first big decision to make was to choose a more precise historical setting of the game. My biggest problem was that Europe was divided into small kingdoms and other state-like entities throughout the Middle Ages, with borders changing on a monthly basis. No matter how I was looking at the history, there wasn't any single period in which all the great European powers were all within some set borders that resemble what they are today. Furthermore, some nations (e.g. Germany) were split into so many states that it became completely blurry which were the relevant ones that later on would form a country. So I stopped looking sequentially at the history of medieval Europe and I decided to make the border for each country based on its peak of glory. Thus, the setting is not well defined and players are the ones actually making history, taking their country out of the Dark Ages and creating an empire.
Looking at the map from the functional point of view, I had to sacrifice a bit of history to respect a few principles:
• Each country had to be composed of 5 to 7 provinces (including the contested ones).
• The contested provinces had to be "in a circle", meaning that country #4 would dispute a province with countries #3 and #5, and so on.
• The total number of external borders of the provinces of each country should be roughly the same.
Due to the constraints listed above and a few more, I had to bend history and even geography to place on the map a contested province between Portugal and ... Scotland. I knew from the beginning that this would create controversy and I had a plan to change it, but I needed it to start mass testing.
In the pictures below you can admire version 0.12 of Warriors & Traders.
At this point in the history of the game, we had custom-made resource tokens, army tokens, playmats – pretty much everything was homemade, printed on paper and cardboard, but still lacking any kind of artistic design. But good to go for mass testing.
Establishing the Company and First Steps toward Production
Now, I am coming back to the original question: You have a prototype, then what?
As I was saying before, I was too in love with this game and too tired of my old job, so I made the decision to establish an independent publishing house. You know how experts say that the reasoning behind making a decision is rational, but the decision itself is emotional? For me, it was just the impulse. I simply had to do this!
First was establishing the company, but I will not walk you through this bureaucratic process that is different from country to country. Instead I will skip to the main steps related to board game production and the funny inevitable mistakes which can be the difference between success and disaster.
While the game was still in testing, two amazing designers were working on the game box and the components. I thought this will be a piece of cake; I will give them the components with specifications and I will just leave the creative process entirely up to them. I did not think for a moment that the printing company would also have a big say in the graphic design process. I guess this was the second and most important moment where I realized how little I knew.
There's a big difference between being a board game designer and a board game publisher. While my main focus was on designing and improving the actual game, I realized that I also had to be involved in graphic design and production.
So I found a compromise – I became a game publisher by day and a game designer by night. (That's when I said my final goodbye to my former employer.) The graphic design was going well, but the components – while beautiful – still lacked functionality, reflecting our lack of experience.
The biggest surprise was after the first discussion with a printing company. That one meeting tore apart many days and nights of work. The expert in making board games explained to me the restrictions in dimensions, shapes and many more aspects, rendering half of the graphic designers' work useless. That's when I brought back to life an old motto: "Better ask now than be sorry later, and never assume."
Learning step by step what it takes to run a company and produce a board game, I had to go back to the basics and see what was left to fix in Warriors & Traders to get to the final version.
Version 0.15 and Final Testing
My original plan was to have Europe divided into West, Center and North and have three game boards in the box. Even more, I wanted to have them cut in such a way that players would be able to combine them into a giant mega-map on which up to 12 people can play together. Boy, was I naive! After seeing the proposed production prices, I realized that I had to come up with some out of the box ideas on how to keep all the components of the game and still afford to produce. The most important change after this epiphany was to make the map square and thus exclude Spain and Portugal and move Germany, Switzerland and Denmark to Western Europe. This proved to be quite simple and even more historically accurate than the previous version. I had a new round of testing to have the proof that these changes did not affect the dynamics of the game.
The next step toward making Warriors & Traders an affordable project was to reduce the number of components to a strictly useful amount. For this, I organized a few gaming sessions with different groups and recorded the maximum amount of resources, number of armies and Development tokens that players used in a heavy six-player game. At the end of this experiment, the number of physical bits and pieces was reduced by 60%, completing the process of making this a cost-effective project.
This was the outcome...
Releasing the Game and the Essen Experience
Once again, I will take a long jump in time, past the whole production process, arriving at the most exciting and scary part of making my first board game. I am talking about releasing it to the public.
Spiel 2011 was the first time NSKN Legendary Games was present at a gaming convention, and I am not only talking about Spiel. We were coming as an absolute surprise, the first Romanian publisher ever to attend the biggest gaming convention in the world. This was also the moment we chose to release our "first-born" – Warriors & Traders.
Signing-up and Preparing
Having little to no experience in preparing my company's attendance at fairs, I signed up for Spiel 2011 on the last day possible! It was one of the big lessons learned in the publishing industry – never leave things for the last moment. Thanks to Ludo Fact, the company that produced Warriors & Traders, I realized that Essen would be the perfect place to launch the game, so on the 15th of May, at 16:00 I sent the application papers, and this is how the adventure began.
With a plan in mind, the actual preparation for Essen started for NSKN at the end of September, when the games were shipped from Ludo Fact's production plant in Germany to our warehouses in Romania and Belgium.
The most important thing I did not account for was the amount of people. It's common to hear that 150,000 people have something in common, but this number of people usually represents the attendance at a great sport event or the populations of a medium-sized town or a small country (four times the population of Liechtenstein). So it is hard to imagine how this many people would look like and fit in the exhibition center and it is even harder to prepare for such an audience.
The original assumption was that as a completely unknown company, we would not attract much attention, so having a small booth, six people at the stand, and about fifty game boxes should be enough for the whole fair. Oh, and we'd also have time to go and advertise the game with distribution companies and retailers.
Day -2: First Contact
On the Monday before Spiel 2011, three days before it all started, we – the NSKN team – went to see the exhibition halls and to figure out what to bring and when.
On some level, I always knew that the booth would contain only white walls and nothing more, but that does not mean we were prepared for it. It was too late to ask the organizers for tables and shelves for rent.
We unloaded everything prepared for that day and started planning. We had three days left to fix the situation and make our booth look exceptional – or at least decent!
To avoid the feeling that we were leaving everything for the last day, we put our first poster on the wall, then headed to the place that held the answer to all our problems: IKEA. While driving, we made a whole list of things to buy. Four hours later, we came back, unloaded again and headed back to Brussels, our temporary headquarters, too tired even to take pictures.
I forgot to mention this before, but besides the standard booth we also signed up for the inventor's table. This is where designers bring their unreleased creations to get first-hand feedback from the public. Of course, we had to prepare a prototype worthy of the showing to the outside world.
Day 0: Setting Up the Stand
That's when I started counting down the hours. One last trip from Brussels to Essen, loaded once again with game boxes, we drove early in the morning allowing plenty of time to set up the stand and have everything ready for the grand opening.
We started paying the price to our lack of experience. NSKN was not present at the press conference on Wednesday, missing a lot of exposure with reviewers or distributors; we did not use the exhibitor's parking and so on. We did not even have a power plug in our stand!
In the evening we made the final "battle" plan. Having six people at the stand for Thursday and Friday and eight for the weekend, I assumed that at least one of us could do advertising and sales all the time. Again, time will have proved me wrong.
Day 1 (Thursday): The Initial Shock
8:00 AM: The whole team arrived at the stand, bringing the rest of the game boxes to a grand total of 48. This is what we expected to sell over the four days of the fair. From 8 to 8:30 we made last moment arrangements inside the booth and had a chance to walk around halls 4 and 6 to decide what to buy later on.
8:55 AM: We met the first potential customers. In spite our lack of German language skills, people were listening to our explanations and were amazingly interested... "Really, a pure strategy game with battle?"
9:20 AM: We sold the first copy of Warriors & Traders. We could not believe what was going on around us, it was pouring down with people, all interested to hear all the details and some of them actually buying the game.
11:45 AM: The first meeting with a distribution company ended up very promising and two weeks later we were shipping a full pallet with 120 games toward the United Kingdom. The interest in Warriors & Traders was far higher that I expected and the flow of people to our stand exceeded our most optimistic expectations.
12:00 PM: Seven games sold.
12:30 PM: None of us had a chance to have lunch or even visit the toilets.
4:30 PM: No customers at the stand for five consecutive minutes. We had time to take a breath, grab something to eat very quickly, and rest our feet, except for Vlad who was in the middle of the second session of the day. All my colleagues complained that their throats were hurting from so much talking.
5:00 PM: A new "wave" of people came by. We assumed that those who got out of work or school later did not want to miss the first day of Spiel 2011. We welcomed them.
6:00 PM: The gates of Messe Essen were officially closed for day 1, however all six of us were still talking to customers. Our total number of sold games raised to an amazing 32 pieces. Truly unbelievable!
7:15 PM: Our last customer of day 1 left. We went for a quick clean up of the booth, than we sat down amazed trying to seize the moment. We counted the total amount sold and this was 35 game boxes. This left us with a big smile and a giant problem – almost no games left for Friday.
Did I mention that our only vehicle was a normal five-seater car with a limited amount of space, especially when it came to carrying game boxes? This was a big puzzle: How do you get more games to the fair, using only that car and be rested for the next day, assuming that the games are stored 250 km away?
8:00 PM: Driving to Brussels, sometimes breaking the speed limit, wishing to have had rented a van. Essen -> Brussels = 250 km + a few less hours of sleep. Having games for the next day – priceless!
2:10 AM: It was technically the next day. I was back with 55 more games. Friday was covered, being tired did not matter anymore.
Day 2 (Friday): The Easy Day
You may wonder what was so easy about Friday...
7:50 AM: Arriving in front of the exhibitions hall, we had sixty games to unload and set up in the stand. The biggest challenge wasn't the cold, but the fact that the dedicated parking space was full and we had to carry the games from quite far away.
8:50 AM: Eight people are in front of our booth, asking all kinds of questions about Warriors & Traders. Our second day started earlier.
11:30 AM: Sales were going great, almost twice as good as Thursday. Half of us already lost their voice and we are seriously thinking about getting pills for our throats.
12:00 PM: We gave a copy of Warriors & Traders to the BGG guys to play it at BGG.CON.
12:45 PM: Getting in and out of business meetings, it looked like I have a few seconds to catch my breath. I was, of course, wrong. There was a guy from Alliance already waiting for me for a while. I knew of Alliance, it was just hard to believe they were interested in us. Halfway between confusion and happiness, I went through the first of the three meetings with the largest game distributor in the United States (and possibly in the world). All went well!
2:30 PM: Feeling like a star! I had never had this image of myself being important, but for five consecutive minutes I actually did. Customers were asking to have their games signed by the designer and there were six of them – I am not kidding – just waiting in a sort of queue for me to sign their copy of Warriors & Traders. I have to say that all the corporate meetings felt good, but that was astonishing, seeing all these guys and girls really interested and wanting their game signed made me feel like all the effort and craziness was really worth it. I thanked them then, and I want to thank them again – they made me and all my team feel wonderful.
5:00 PM: The people who played in the second session of the day came back to buy the game. We had to refuse any discount for the press as we were once again running low on stock.
6:07 PM: I gave an interview, my first interview related to Warriors & Traders.
7:15 PM: The last customers were passing by our stand while we made a new plan to bring in more games for Saturday and Sunday.
8:30 PM: I just left on another trip to Brussels to bring back another sixty games. I put the idea of rest in a closed box and decided that sleep is for the weak. I drove again for almost six hours, completing my task without incidents. I thought the day was over...
2:25 AM: We had a review of the day and decided what we could improve for Saturday. I cannot even remember that discussion; I just know that it was very effective.
You might be wondering by now what was so easy about Friday... it was just that great feeling that what you do matters and that it was worth all the effort in the world just to be able to experience such a unique environment.
Day 3 (Saturday): New Definition for Crowded
8:20 AM: The game table was ready to go for the 9 a.m. session. We had to pile up the games to have some space left to move around our booth.
9:30 AM: I could count more than 25 people in front of our stand. Some were just looking around and moving on, most of them were listening to my colleagues and I describing Warriors & Traders. The first session of the day had already started, and people seemed very enthusiastic. The day was looking good.
11:30 AM: Our stand was around 80 meters (250 feet) away from the bathrooms. I assumed this would be a five-minute round trip and, boy, I was wrong! It took me 15 minutes and a great deal of pushing and pulling to get there only to acknowledge a 100+ men and women queue for the ... men's toilet. I gave up and decided to return later. I spent another 15 minutes on the way back, reconsidering my definition of crowded.
12:00 PM: I had just completed my fifth business meeting of the day. We had more and more interested people coming over, and we were also stirring up the interest of retailers who wanted to buy our game by the case. Unfortunately, we had to turn most of them down, fearing that we'd be sold out too soon and end up disappointing our customers.
2:07 PM: From our team of eight people, only seven were still able to speak. The first "casualty" went to find some quick remedy to help him get back fast in the game.
4:00 PM: I threw away the original schedule put together before the fair. It was written in there how many companies we had to approach each day of the fair and it was not realistic. We did not approach anyone and yet we had already had more than 50 business meetings, most of them successful, about two-and-a-half times more than what we had planned. And Spiel 2011 was not over.
6:00 PM: We honored some promises made to retailers in the previous days and delivered their games. One box of six pieces weighed more than 13 kilos (29 pounds); nevertheless everyone seemed happy.
6:25 PM: Taking into account the significant decrease in people coming to our stand, we decided that was the right moment to ... have lunch. We took turns; whoever did not have anyone to talk to, explain the game to, or make a sell to had 5-10 minutes to grab a bite. I was the seventh one to go out of eight people. By that time I did not even feel hungry anymore; actually I was feeling nothing but adrenaline. It had been another amazing day. I had met all kinds of people, from a 14-year-old kid impressed by the graphic design but without enough money to buy his own copy to the CEO of one of big names in the industry. They all had two things in common: the passion for board games and the modesty.
7:00 PM: There were still people around. I did not really understand why, realizing a lot later that the exhibition halls were open until later. I had reached another milestone – more that 25 games signed in one day!
8:35 PM: Spiel 2011 was closing down for another day, but this one was special for me, as I did not have to go back to Brussels to bring more games. At that particular moment, there was nothing that could have made me happier.
9:00 PM: It was time to celebrate. The fair was not over, but since Sunday evening was planned for cleaning up and driving back home, we needed our moment of joy, feeling happy of what we accomplished. We did not manage to have a coherent discussion over dinner, but we had fun.
Day 4 (Sunday): What's Going on Outside Our Booth?
11:00 AM: The last day of the fair is also the most prolific for small retailers who are coming to buy the latest and hottest in the gaming world. Warriors & Traders drew some attention, maybe not even half as much as the grand releases, but enough to pose a dilemma: Should we sell to the retailers or should we wait until the end of the day and focus on regular customers? We made a compromise, selling to those retailers who came from a country where we had no contact for distribution or retail, ensuring wider coverage.
12:30 PM: Sunday seemed to be less crowded than all the other days. It is the first moment when I found a half-hour free to go look around and possibly buy games for myself.
1:45 PM: A phone call from a few meters away – a colleague of mine is asking whether I am available as some guy wants to buy all the rest of our games! Sadly, we had to turn him down as there were only so many games we could sell to retailers.
4:30 PM: We have five games left, and three of them are promised to some gentlemen from the press who are late picking them up. Do we sell them or not?
6:00 PM: We had three games left, excluding the two exposed ones. The last hours were rather slow compared to the rest of the exhibition, and we did not have enough energy to make the best presentation to potential customers. Plus, there wasn't much to sell. All of us got at least 45 minutes of walking around and crossing items off their shopping lists.
6:45 PM: Our shelves were dismantled, having no more games to support. Our last gaming session ended and I was ready to run to the officials' desk to ask for a 15-minute parking permit to load all that was left from our stand. We had one game left as someone had not honored the promise to come at 6:30 p.m. and make the final purchase.
7:03 PM: Our last customer, Guido, bought the very last game – and I gave that to him in writing!
7:30 PM: I was the proud owner of two 15-minute Parkschein, rushing back to exhibition hall number 4 to load and make Spiel 2011 just a memory.
11:25 PM: Having had no more unforeseen events, we arrived back in Brussels. I guess that's where the story of the beginning ended and where the story of Warriors & Traders really begins...