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Spanish castle magic
I wanted to build castles. Most board games won't let me. Sure, we have lots of games like Caylus or Carcassonne: The Castle that are about castle building, but the player is more managing a building process or creating something else than a real medieval castle.
Already when I started designing board games, I got the first ideas about Albarrana. The game had to really be about building a castle focusing on what kind of a castle we're getting - how big, how high walls and towers, and most importantly, how easily defended. A castle is in it's essence a defensive structure and there's no point in building castles that can't be defended.
As a designer I value inventiveness and I'm often aiming to use creative components. I got excited about using LEGO or similar blocks in Albarrana as they have been designed to be used for building three dimensional structures like castles. The game scale is such that a normal less than 1 cm block is about 3 meters in real life. In LEGO's normal scale the building would be even cooler, as one could have real LEGO units with spears and arrows. Unfortunately this would make it almost impossible to find enough blocks for playing. Even though LEGOs are probably the best component for the game, any similar blocks cloud do.
In spite of everything the first drafts of Albarrana had massive amounts of resource management. The players collected stone and wood and needed architects and workers. The version was completely unplayable. The resource management didn't work at all and was quickly replaced with a card draft to determine what everyone can build and by adding a push your luck -mechanic. Later I realized that the result reminds me of the computer game Rampart.
Free as in Beer
When the outline of the game play and the components had been decided, I had about five game ideas in similar phase. I decided to focus on three of them with each having a different launch model. One of the models was to make the game available for free and this suited Albarrana perfectly.
Although Albarrana is free, I'm not emphasizing it's fully open source. All development ideas are very welcome and anybody can naturally write their own rule versions. Still, I'll try to publish the latest 'official' rules so that everybody knows where the development is. I hope this makes contributing even easier.
Making a free game limited the choice of all components to those that should be available in any household. Therefore I dropped the idea of custom building cards. The final version is playable with simply the blocks, a die and a deck of ordinary playing cards.
War, war never changes
I tried to study the development of castles as much as possible to get ideas for the game. Studied constructions from palisades to palaces and dug deeper into different parts like albarranas, draw bridges, moats and towers. I was constantly thinking how each historic facts could be turned into a game mechanic. I'm pretty satisfied in how simply towers and wall-walks are incorporated in the mechanics.
Historic castles often developed for centuries and that what remains today is very different from what was initially built. I wanted to model this is Albarrana by changes between the three battles. One can imagine each period representing for example a century. The attackers get stronger on average, but without sacrificing simplicity there couldn't be big changes in materials or weaponry. In the third battle the defense get cannons, which sort of signify the end of the era of the medieval castle. In real life the castles were replaced by bastions and later with trenches, which wouldn't have fitted into the same game. Therefore Albarrana ends immediately after the third battle deciding if your castle lived as a historical monument or not.
The biggest design challenge was that the battles took too much time. Albarrana was turning into a war game rather than a building game. The battles are an important and fun part, but easily take more time than building. The biggest invention to solve this was letting the attackers move to paces per turn and compensating this with more accurate defense. Another important late development change were the introduction of the forests. These make building more challenging and even speed up the battles.
When Albarrana felt ready it participate in a game design contest. The feedback helped me improve the game for more than two player dramatically by minimizing downtime. It was especially important since you can theoretically play Albarrana with as many players as you like. This is to my knowledge a rare feature for a board game. Most of the testing has been for the two player variant, so there might be balance issues if you decide to try out with six.
Albarrana – is it edible?
We had several ideas for the name related to castles and the medieval period. Of all the castle parts Albarrana won. It means a detached tower that is accessible from the main wall by a bridge. The word has Arabic roots and it sound in my opinion cool. Still the most important criterion was that it isn't already taken. I also considered using a name of an area or a city, but it felt like ripping off Carcassonne. Carcassonne wouldve been an excellent name for this game by the way - even better for this than the one that took it. However Albarrana might be even better. It's shorter, more descriptive and earlier in the alphabet.