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Designer Diary: Under Falling Skies

Tomas Uhlir
Czech Republic
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Microbadge: 2017 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: 2019 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participant
Board Game: Under Falling Skies
Game cover by Kwanchai Moryia
You are facing an alien invasion. Hiding in a base below the city, you must defend yourself long enough to research a weapon and repel the enemy.

Under Falling Skies is a dedicated solo game for 20-40 minutes that uses a unique dice-placement mechanism. Place dice on rooms in your base to perform various actions, but for every die you place, the enemy in the same column moves towards the base. Higher dice rolls give you more powerful actions, but also make the ships descend faster.

Use your jet fighters to shoot down the enemy, maintain the energy supply, install robots, and expand your base — but don't forget about the research, which should be your priority.

Enemy fighters are not the only threat you face, however. The mothership slowly descends towards the city and will eventually crush you if you are not able to finish the research in time.


Under Falling Skies is a game being published by Czech Games Edition (CGE) in 2020 — but it started as a freely available 9-card print-and-play solo game.

Those of you who have been following Under Falling Skies more closely probably know that I wrote a few designer diaries already. I focused primarily on the changes between the print-and-play predecessor and the published version. They describe some interesting production ideas, graphics and user interface improvements, and the approach with the campaign.

But I still have an interesting story to share. How did it happen in the first place that a game consisting of only nine cards and designed with no publishing intention in mind became one of the awaited titles of this year?

BGG Print-and-Play Contests

It all started around January 2019 when I once again decided to enter the 9-card print-and-play design contest. In case you haven't noticed, at least a dozen similar contests happen every year on BGG. They are run by great enthusiasts, and they have an amazing community of print-and-play players and passionate designers around them. All the games are free to download, and it is assumed that people will print them themselves. Probably because the games from the 9-card contest are very easy to build, this particular contest is one of the most popular out there.

Designers of these contests actually take the role of the whole publishing team. You not only design the game, but you need to playtest it, take care of all the illustrations and graphic design, write the rules, and do the typesetting and proofreading — but all this is still not enough because there are around 100 other games in the contest, and you need to make your game stand out in the competition, so you touch the marketing side as well by starting the "work-in-progress thread", where you write about the game, hoping to attract enough players to get some desirable feedback. Oh, and you have about two months for all of this, working mostly during evenings after work, so as you can imagine, it's a very intense process. Believe it or not, there are even designers who enter with two games at once!

From gallery of uhlik
Some of the BGG print-and-play contests

To make these contests more interesting, most of them come with some kind of restriction. In the 9-card contest, the game can have only nine cards, plus up to 18 other common components: six-sided dice, cubes, tokens, etc. The design all needs to fit to one double-sided sheet of paper so that it's easy to print, but there are also 18-card or 54-card contests that don't allow components other than cards. Some contests are built around the number of players, like a two-player contest or — one of the biggest — the solitaire game contest. But you can stumble upon even more challenging restrictions like 1-card, 1-page, Postcard, Mint Tin, Video stream, 24-hour, etc.

I strongly recommend that aspiring designers try at least one of these contests. It's a great opportunity to go through the whole process of designing a game. The restrictions don't allow you to make it too big, so it stays manageable. However, the restrictions have also another big advantage: They force you into the most unique and creative solutions.

I will end this small detour by reminding you how great the BGG community really is. While the designers compete, they also playtest one another's games, provide feedback, make design suggestions, proofread other's rulebooks, and sometimes even help with the art. For me, it's this friendly community that makes it really special.

Initial Design

But back to Under Falling Skies. I had already participated in the 9-card contest in 2017 with a two-player game called First Snow, which ended up winning that year, so I had a pretty good idea of what entering the contest involved. However, when looking back at First Snow, I must admit that making a deeper multi-player game with only nine cards was probably a bit too ambitious. Equipped with that experience, I decided to go for a solo game this time.

I have to confess that at that time I had very little experience with solo games, but I took it as a challenge to design a solo game that I would enjoy playing. I realized that when there are no other players, the game itself needs to provide a satisfying challenge. Many solo games mimic the structure of multiplayer games by altering player turns with AI turns, the latter of which are mostly resolved by some kind of deck or instruction table, but I wanted to avoid any artificial AI rules or long upkeep phases.

Since you are the only player, you should play the vast majority of the time. The enemy actions should be closely tied to what you do, ideally with your own moves creating the challenge.

From gallery of uhlik
The first two prototypes — quite rough, right?
Once I decided upon a dice-placement game, the core idea emerged: The placed die's value determines both the strength of your action and the reaction of the enemy. This approach also solves the problem with dice games in which some rolls are simply better.

By that time, I was playing with the idea of designing a tower defense game, and this mechanism would fit it perfectly. The enemy would move towards your base based on the value of a die you place. After a short brainstorming about the theme, the "Space Invaders" inspiration emerged.

I won't go into much detail about other design decisions, but to my great surprise, the whole process from the initial idea to the first working prototype was really fast. I recall that I had been thinking about the details for a few evenings, doodling some sketches into my notebook and waiting for the weekend to make a prototype.

The first prototype was really rough, but as you can see, mechanically it hasn't changed much from the final version. All the core concepts are there: the drill, descending mothership, re-rolling dice, how research works, robots, the AA-gun rooms, etc. In the next iteration (about two hours later), I added room modifiers and the mothership effects; the main reason for them was to ensure that the player wouldn't forget to move the mothership at the end of each round.

Looking back at it, it still feels unbelievable how fast it all clicked. Even the very first game was fun and challenging to play, in contrast to the usual design process when it takes weeks or even months before you get at least a little playable game. I spent another week or two with details and balancing before I submitted the first prototype version to the contest.

And people liked it. Only a few tried it at first, but it kept spreading. At one point, I made a collage from various builds that people shared with me.

Board Game: Under Falling Skies: A 9-Card Print-and-Play Game
Print-and-play leads to great creativity and variety in builds

Joining Czech Games Edition

While I was working on the game for the contest, an opportunity emerged to work for CGE. I took it immediately as it was a secret dream of mine, after all. These were a super intense two months as I was working on Under Falling Skies, while quitting my previous job (as an interior designer) and starting to work for CGE.

Czech Games Edition stages a regular yearly gaming event called "Czechgaming" which is an opportunity for all employees to meet, playtest the upcoming games, and try new prototypes. I took Under Falling Skies with me, just to take the opportunity to playtest it — and you know what, it got played quite often. People were curious about that unusual tiny game, solo on top of that. I remember a really nice moment when people came to me one morning to tell me how they got an urge to try the game, then played until 3 a.m., and they wanted to let me know how it went. Word started to spread that CGE should publish it.

I should explain how it is usually decided in CGE which games are going to be published. Everyone is supposed to give their opinion, so that it will be clear that enough people are enthusiastic about the game, willing to work on the development, playtest it, go through the necessary iterations, etc. It's basically a joint decision by the whole company.

Soon after, the results of the 9-card contest came out. Under Falling Skies won not only the main category, but came in first or second in most other categories, too. It started to grow in popularity as more players built it.

By that time, we in CGE were already pretty sure that we wanted to do it; the question was when. One option was to take it mostly as it was and publish it right away (for SPIEL '19), but we wouldn't be CGE if we didn't seize the opportunity to do something extra. I had a few improvements in mind from when I had been working on the print-and-play, but in the end, we went much more generous than just tweaking some rules and adjusting the user interface.

From gallery of uhlik
Only one more pallet until we reach the weight limit for the container...

Development Process

Looking back on the process, I believe that most publishers would have released the game as it was and spread the other ideas into several expansions — but I am not a big fan of this approach. When there is something that makes sense in the base game, it should be there already.

Also, since I like to work within a predefined amount of components, I applied this approach to Under Falling Skies as well. In CGE, we made an estimate of what can we afford in the game's price range, and I started from there. At one point, it looked like we couldn't possibly fit all of the components in the box, but in the end it was the weight that surprised us. The finished game weights over 1,400g (over 3 pounds), which makes it one of the heaviest games of its size. The fun fact — or sad fact actually — is that we exceeded the weight limit for the container and weren't able to fill it completely, even though we combined boxes of Under Falling Skies with other games. Yeah, I wasn't aware that containers have a weight limit since the size is usually the limiting factor. I guess, you learn something new every day...

By agreeing to publish a game that in fact did not exist at that time, CGE gave me a great amount of trust, for which I am very grateful. The core mechanisms were there, but the amount of additional content and all the various combinations led to a quite demanding development process.

It doesn't happen often that a game designer is deeply involved in other production decisions, such as the artwork, components, etc., but since I was a CGE employee, this was not only possible, but logical. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Board Game: Under Falling Skies
Box content
Thanks to that involvement in the whole process, some unique solutions to the design became possible. Here's an example:

A big part of the retail version is the campaign. I envisioned a legacy-like experience, but replayable and without destroying stuff — yet when you want to maintain the surprise, you usually need to use envelopes, boxes and other quite expensive stuff. Since we had decided to keep the price low, I needed to come up with a different solution. In the end, all of the hidden content is on cardboard sheets the size of the box — sixteen sheets of cardboard. Now you can understand why the game weighs almost 1400g!

The sheets are divided into four chapters that are stacked in the box in layers, with the layers being divided by thin paper sheets with a comic on one side and new rules on the other. The player takes out new chapters only as they progress through the campaign. This approach required close cooperation between production and game design. We needed to decide on the size of the sheets and their number before I could start working on the content — and even then, figuring out the layout of the sheets felt a bit like playing Tetris.

But what kind of campaign would it be, without a story? Under Falling Skies offers an intriguing dynamic puzzle, but it's not a story-driven game. I wanted to avoid long paragraphs of mostly boring text that would distract you from what's the game really about.

I decided to use comics and use them so that they mostly develop the atmosphere and setting of the game, leaving a lot of space for the player's imagination.

From gallery of uhlik

The larger comics that serve as the dividers between chapters carry the main storyline, but each chapter consists of scenarios that can differ for each player and for every time you play the campaign, so the comics can't form a continuous story. Still, they are great for the atmosphere and for explaining what the scenario is about.

Finally, there are characters who join your ranks as you progress through the campaign. Each of them has their own tile with a unique ability, but they appear also in the other comics from time to time. All of this creates a sense of a rich living world filled with many interesting characters and with various events happening all around the world, from which the player experiences only a small portion.

And again, all of this required very close cooperation with the illustrator. It would be too much for one illustrator to do the cover, all the game elements, and also the comics, so we needed to ask another one. Petr Boháček, a skillful Czech illustrator who has already participated in some video game titles, joined us for this project. To be honest, when taking into account the amount of work required, I am still amazed how he was able to deliver it all in time.

From gallery of uhlik

Both Kwanchai and Petr did a great job. I am happy how the game came out, and I can't wait to play through the whole campaign once again, this time with the final components.

My gosh, this means I did it! I designed a solo game I really enjoy playing. After playtesting it for hundreds of times, I still can't wait to dive into it once more. I am looking forward to watching others play it and to reading about their experience. I am curious what variants players will come up with...

This leads me to one important thing. There is only one name on the box, but that isn't completely fair to all those people without whom the game wouldn't exist. I remember one occasion close to finishing the game when it was Sunday, one hour after midnight, and I was really tired and there was still a lot of work ahead of me. Then Jani, my girlfriend, told me after looking at the screen, "Look, can you see how many people are working on your game right now?"

And she was right. I realized that Petr was finishing the comics and he would be working all night. David just sent me a suggestion for a small graphics adjustment. Four or five other people were going through the rulebook, so that Fanda could prepare the next version over night, and so we could continue with the proofreading in the morning. Realizing that it was 1:00 a.m. on a weekend, in that moment, I felt really overwhelmed and grateful.

I thank you all for your admirable commitment, for all the wise advice, for the experience and talent which you've put into this game, and for the encouragement you've given me. Without you, this dream of mine would never come real.

Tomáš "uhlík" Uhlíř
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Sun Oct 25, 2020 1:00 pm
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Interview: Phil Walker-Harding Looks Back on His Career

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move on September 25, 2020. —WEM]

Phil Walker-Harding, designer of Sushi Go!, Bärenpark and Gizmos joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to look back on his career to date.

DM: Hi, Phil, thank you for joining us today. You are one of the most successful game designers working today, with numerous commercially successful titles and many critical awards to your name — yet you started by selling small, self-published card games. Please can you tell us about those early days of your career?

PWH: When I got into modern board games, particularly those coming out of Germany like Catan and Carcassonne, I immediately wanted to design my own! I played lots of games growing up and had even tried making my own as a child, so it was quite natural to take it back up as a hobby.

Way back before Kickstarter revolutionized the way games are funded, marketed, and even produced, self-publishing was a very different thing. My first few releases were hand-assembled in very small print runs. I sold them online and at small local conventions, so it felt like a very small DIY beginning!

Archaeology: The Card Game was picked up by Z-Man Games, and I gradually built up my name from there. Around five years ago, I decided to fully focus on designing and working with other publishers.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Sushi Go!, in 2013, was your breakthrough game. When did you realize that you had a hit, and how did it feel to achieve that success?

PWH: It was a bit of a gradual thing because the first edition of Sushi Go! was self-published, so there wasn't a big audience right away.

Gamewright signed the game a little bit after that, so I knew it would be marketed far more widely, but you never know how successful a game will be out in the market. I suppose I realized how well it was doing about a year after it was out and I saw a whole lot of people playing it all around the world on social media.

It was a great feeling as it had been a real aim of mine to create a popular family-friendly little card game.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Cacao followed in 2015. It features a combined tile and worker placement mechanism. How did the mechanism and the overall game develop from the initial idea to fully formed game?

PWH: Cacao evolved from another design — a card game all about surrounding scoring cards with your cards in order to achieve majorities, so very much like the temple tiles in the finished game.

At some point I tried having your scoring cards trigger immediate actions. This worked so well I made this the whole focus of the game, and the rest of the design followed quite quickly.

I then entered the design in the [2012] Premio Archimede competition, and from there it found a great publisher in ABACUSSPIELE.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Imhotep was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2016. What effect did this have on your career? Did you experience an increased sense of expectation for the releases that followed?

PWH: I did feel that more people knew who I was after the nomination, although probably more within the industry rather than general gamers. It did lead to new contacts and relationships with publishers. I am sure it did help my recognition generally as a designer, but this is something that has slowly grown since I began, I would say.

DM: Many of your games, including the popular Bärenpark, incorporate mechanisms seen in far more complex games, yet are accessible to players of all ages and experience. Is this accessibility intentional and, if so, how do you achieve this aim?

PWH: Yes, it is definitely an aim. One of the best things about our hobby is that it can bring people of all ages and backgrounds together around the table.

I try to make my designs as easy to approach as possible. How exactly you achieve this is a hard thing to quantify exactly, but I do have a few principles I stick to.

For example, the game should take five minutes or less to teach, and the results of the players' actions should have immediate feedback so that they know and feel what they have achieved.

Theme and graphic design also play a big part, so I try to make this a priority in my discussions with my publishers.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Gizmos was another big success. Do engine-building games — with their multiple layers, effect combos and variable routes to victory — require a greater degree of development than some other genres? How do you approach this from a design perspective?

PWH: Engine-building games like Gizmos do have certain complexities about them, yes. Because the powers that the player gains persist for the whole game, balancing them against each other becomes very important.

In Gizmos, it was important that each card was costed correctly so that all the different paths to victory remained viable. I was greatly helped by Marco at CMON in this area. He has a background in collectible card games, so had lots of great insights about balancing and costing cards.

Board Game: Gizmos

DM: For all the success that many of your games have seen, some games remain less well known (Gingerbread House, Silver & Gold, Pack of Heroes). What factors do you think have contributed to the success of some games over others?

PWH: It is a hard thing for me to have full insight into! Some games are just better than others, but also there are all sorts of factors in the market when a game is a released that can factor into its success: Did the game stick out as different and original when it first came out, or did it get lost in the crowd? Was there good early buzz about the game, or did the marketing not quite land with the right audience?

With so many games being released each year, it is getting harder to stand out. Personally, I try to release fewer games that I am really happy with, but of course even then they can't all be hits!

Board Game: Silver & Gold

DM: You have had the opportunity to revisit older games including Archaeology and Dungeon Raiders? How do you feel when revising past projects with the benefit of experience, and is there one that you would like to revisit if you could?

PWH: It was a great opportunity to revisit both of those designs for new editions. I was really thankful to be given that chance by Z-Man Games and Devir.

I definitely felt my experience gave me some ability to knock some of the rough edges off my older designs, so in both cases I felt I could clean them up a little. However, both games already had a bit of an audience and a core mechanism that was working, so I didn't want to completely overhaul them.

Also, it was interesting to see which design choices I made back then that I would not make now that were actually probably the right fit for the design.

Board Game: Dungeon Raiders (2018 edition)

DM: Which game do you look back on and think "I'm glad I did that" and why?

PWH: Designing all the different types of cards in Sushi Go Party! was a real challenge, and at points I was not sure if I could make it work, but I am really glad I kept at it and finished the design. I think it was a great learning process for me as a designer, and the game has really helped keep the Sushi Go! line going.

DM: Do you have any design or publishing advice to share with readers?

PWH: I often say to new designers to just get your first design out there. Making your game available through print-and-play, GameCrafter, or an online design competition is a great way to get a whole lot of eyes on your work.

And it is okay if your first designs aren't fantastic because you will learn from each game you make, and the feedback you get from players will be invaluable as you progress!
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Sat Oct 24, 2020 2:00 pm
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Charles S. Roberts Awards Pending, Plus Wargames for Two from Worthington, Hollandspiele & GMT

Candice Harris
United States
Los Angeles
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From gallery of pzmcgwire
• In June 2020, I posted an article announcing the exciting comeback of the Charles S. Roberts Awards for Excellence in Conflict Simulation after seven years of inactivity. Well, today I'm happy to report that the results are in and will be announced on October 25, 2020 at 8 p.m. EDT (UTC-4) on the No Enemies Here YouTube channel. Thanks to everyone who submitted votes and the CSR Awards team who compiled the results!

The presenters for the CSR Awards include Trevor Bender, Fritz Bronner, Jack Greene, Jan Heinemann, Mark Herman, Lawrence Hung, Steve Jackson, Tim Kask, Derek Landel, Dean Liggett, Riccardo Masini, Bruce Monnin, Marc Miller, Allan Rothberg, Fred Serval, and Kevin Bertram...with a "Candice cameo" where I'll present the "Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Wargame" category.

You can check out the list of 2019 nominees on the Charles S. Roberts website and start making your guesses.

In the spirit of the upcoming CSR Awards broadcast, here are a few interesting 2020 wargame releases to check out:

Board Game Publisher: Worthington Publishing, LLC
Board Game: Freeman's Farm 1777
Worthington Publishing is releasing Maurice Suckling's American Civil War-based, card-driven game Chancellorsville 1863. Suckling's 2019 release Freeman's Farm 1777 is, coincidentally, one of the 2019 nominees for the CSR Awards' "Best Ancients to Pre-Napoleonic Era Board Wargame" category.

Here's a brief overview of how Suckling's 2020 follow-up to Freeman's Farm 1777 works, as described by the publisher:
Quote:
Chancellorsville 1863 is a card-driven game on the American Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville. Playable by 1 to 2 players in one hour, the game comes with a card-driven solitaire engine. Designed by Maurice Suckling (designer of Freeman's Farm 1777), the game uses many of the concepts from that game. However, added hidden movement, much more maneuver, and other design tweaks make this a truly unique game.

Board Game: Chancellorsville 1863

Each turn, players play one of their three in-hand formation cards to maneuver or attack enemy forces, gaining momentum cubes based on the formation activated. Each formation is a Confederate division or Union corps. Each formation card allows a major and possibly an additional minor activation: major allowing two moves for a formation while the minor allows one move. After each formation moves, combat can occur if a move ends in a location with an enemy formation. Tactic cards may be played during the formation's activation giving it movement or combat bonuses.

At the end of the formation card activation, players may spend their momentum cubes to buy tactics cards which may give them benefits in combat or movement in future turns. Players then draw a new formation card refilling their hands to three. Hooker, Lee, and Jackson have bonuses that can be played once a game, adding to movement and combat.

Board Game: Chancellorsville 1863
Game board w/ hidden map screen posted by the publisher

Victory is determined by destroying enemy formations through morale/strength loss, or the Union occupying the three victory locations that represent cutting off the Confederate army from Richmond.

Additional rules allow for fixed defensive positions, Jackson's Flank March, and even his death.
Board Game Publisher: Hollandspiele
Board Game: Brave Little Belgium
• In September 2020, "wargames and weirdgames" indie publisher Hollandspiele announced the release of White Eagle Defiant from Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw, the design team that brought us Brave Little Beligium in 2019, which is another CSR Awards nominee, but in the "Best Post-Napoleonic to Pre-World War 2 Era Board Wargame" category.

Here's a preview of what you can expect from White Eagle Defiant, the 1-2 player, chit-pulling, wargame that partially follows the footsteps of its predecessor Brave Little Belgium:
Quote:
White Eagle Defiant recreates the German, Slovak, and Soviet invasion of Poland in September and October 1939 that marked the beginning of the Second World War. Germany and its Slovakian ally began the invasion on September 1, 1939; the Soviet Union followed suit on the 17th. Known in Poland as the September Campaign and in Germany by the codename Fall Weiss (Case White), the campaign ended on October 6, 1939 with Germany and the Soviet Union splitting the country in two.

In White Eagle Defiant, one player controls the Germans, Slovaks and Soviets (simplified as the Germans in the game) while the other player commands the Poles. The German objective is to gain control of Warsaw and other designated Victory cities while preventing Polish forces from destroying their forts in East Prussia and recapturing Victory cities. If the German player does so in less time than the historical campaign, they win the game. Anything less is a draw or a win for the Polish player.

Board Game: White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939

This quick-playing wargame employs very similar mechanims as Brave Little Belgium, but with a modest increase in complexity. The game uses a point-to-point map and a chit-pull mechanism to simulate the campaign, with each turn representing four days. Random event chits are included to add variety and excitement to the game, reflecting the weapons (such as armored trains and aerial bombardment) used at the beginning of World War II. The combat system, while still simple, is enhanced to better simulate mechanized warfare, as well as the use of combined forces. (Players can bring forces from adjacent spaces into an attack, creating primary and secondary combat groups.)

Other new features in White Eagle Defiant include Panzers for the Germans (which can roll two dice instead of one) and cavalry for the Poles (which can roll a "first shot" at the beginning of a combat round). A Victory Point track allows for variable entry of Soviet forces (depending on the success of the German player in capturing Victory cities), as well as the possibility of the Allies launching an attack in the West (if the German player fails to do well in capturing Victory cities). Finally, a "blitzkrieg breakdown" track is used by the German player; if the turn ends before both German army group chits are pulled, the German player may elect to activate a group, but possibly suffer a "breakdown" while doing so — and if five such breakdowns occur, the German player automatically loses the game.

Players who enjoyed Brave Little Belgium will find that White Eagle Defiant offers the same tense play for both sides, while presenting new challenges that reflect the dawn of the blitzkrieg era.
Board Game Publisher: GMT Games
Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
• On the GMT Games front, I'm looking forward to sharing some impressions of their latest COIN series release, VPJ Arponen's All Bridges Burning, once I get a couple more plays in, but Mark Simonitch's Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul recently caught my attention since it's a reimplementation of Simonitch's asymmetrical, card-driven classic Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, which is on my list to try.

From the publisher's description below, it sounds like you'll ease right into Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul if you're familiar with Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage or PHALANX's 20th anniversary edition of that game, Hannibal & Hamilcar, but it should be a solid entry point even if you're new to the system, like me. Here's that description:
Quote:
Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul is a fast-playing, easy-to-learn, two-player card-driven game on Caesar's conquest of Gaul. One player plays Caesar as he attempts to gain wealth and fame in Gallia at the expense of the Gauls; the other player controls all the independent tribes of Gaul as they slowly awake to the peril of Roman conquest.

Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul uses many of the core rules and systems used in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Players are dealt seven cards at the start of each turn and use their cards to move their armies and place control markers. Players familiar with Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage will quickly learn this game.

Board Game: Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul

The game covers the height of the Gallic Wars, the period between 57 BCE and 52 BCE when Caesar campaigned back and forth across Gaul putting down one rebellion after another and invading Germania and Britannia. Units are individual Roman Legions or Gallic Tribes. Each turn represents one year.
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Fri Oct 23, 2020 1:00 pm
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Game Preview: Switch & Signal, or Funneling Trains to Marseille

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Switch & Signal
BGG.CONline — our game demo livestream — starts on Oct. 22 at 12:00 p.m. EDT (UTC-4) just 90 minutes from me writing these words, so let me invite you to join us on the stream to get overviews of new games from SPIEL.digital 2020, while also leaving you with a personal overview of one game in particular.

Signal & Switch is a co-operative game for 2-4 players from David Thompson and KOSMOS in which you collectively manage a rail network that must pick up goods in four cities and deliver them to one or two port cities, depending on which side of the game board you use. Everything about the design is straightforward to understand and play, but you are nicely challenged to handle lots of uncertainty — thanks to the cards and dice — and complexity, thanks to the system of signals and switches that you need to monitor and adjust as trains move between cities.

I'd write more, but I must away and tend to my ravens prepare for my host duties during BGG.CONline. David Thompson will be on air on Sunday, Oct. 25 at 12:30 p.m. EDT should you care to ask him any questions about the game.

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Thu Oct 22, 2020 3:31 pm
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Designer Diary: Gods Love Dinosaurs, or Making Mechanisms Mesh

Kasper Lapp
Denmark
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Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs
I have never played the game Silk — but I heard Shut Up & Sit Down's review of the game, and they really liked the moments when the monster ate worms. ("Nom, nom, nom!")

That made me want to make a game in which animals eat other animals, too. This then turned into an idea of making an "ecosystem manager" — a game in which you have to keep the balance between populations of animals in an ecosystem.

I decided to use dominos to build the ecosystem. My aim became to make "Kingdomino, but where your kingdom comes alive." (I have a special relationship with Kingdomino because it won the Spiel des Jahres the same year that my Magic Maze was nominated, but that's another story.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The inspiration — Kingdomino image by Henk Rolleman

I chose the first animals that came to mind for the ecosystem. Rats, rabbits and frogs are all at the bottom of the food chain, and they are all eaten by tigers and eagles. I chose them because...well, because they are cool. But what would eat tigers and eagles? Something even cooler, hmm...

Dinosaurs, of course!

From gallery of Kasper Lapp
I never imagined that all the animals I chose would make it into the final game, but I think the fact that these animals don't make sense with each other in a zoological sense has a certain charm to it — and this mismatch fit what ended up being the narrative: Crazy gods building ecosystems.

The goal I wanted players to have in this game was to keep a fine balance in their ecosystems, but how do you measure this balance in a simple way? I realized that a balanced ecosystem would be one that allows a lot of top predators (dinosaurs) to live. If, for example, there were too few tigers and eagles, the dinosaurs would starve, but if too many tigers and eagles existed, they would eat all the prey and end up starving, ultimately making the dinosaurs starve as well.

Initially, points were given based on how many dinosaurs you had alive in your ecosystem at specific moments of the game. Later, I decided that you would score a point each time a dinosaur ate a tiger or eagle because then points were tied directly to the most exciting moments of the game: When your dinosaurs come ravaging down from the mountains to eat. (I don't think dinosaurs actually lived in mountains, but again, it just seemed cool.)

During the game, players draft tiles with two different (or similar) terrains and often with a new animal on one of those. That didn't change during the design process, except that I changed the spaces to hexagons instead of squares. That made the placement of tiles less frustrating. It can be surprisingly hard to keep similar area types together using square dominos, but it became a lot easier with hexagons. In Kingdomino, keeping area types together is a central part of the challenge, but in Gods Love Dinosaurs the challenge lies elsewhere, so I wanted to make that part easier for the players.

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

The most important development of the game was the flow. In the first version, the game consisted of a set number of rounds. In each round, players were presented with tiles and picked one each to add to their ecosystem, then a card was drawn that dictated which animals would move, e.g., rabbits and tigers.

There were two problems with this. First, it was often obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem. Second, you didn't get any chance to plan ahead since you wouldn't know which animals were going to move.

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

Even though the game didn't really work, the playtesters clearly enjoyed the "eating moments" of the game a lot, so I knew the game had potential and set out to fix those two problems.

First, I tried less random movements. You now knew ahead of time that the rabbits were going to multiply soon, or that the dinosaur would have to eat in a few turns, but you still didn't have any control over it, and it still didn't solve the issue that your best tile choice during drafting was often too obvious.

I needed more reasons for players to want one tile instead of another, and then it came to me: I could perhaps solve both my problems at once by introducing five columns of tiles, one for each non-dinosaur animal. Whenever the last tile in a column was taken, that type of animal would move.

Suddenly, you have a lot more to think about when choosing tiles. It might still be obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem, but what if it were in the wrong column? Players now have to balance the choice between "which tile is best" and "which animal should move". Problem one was solved! At the same time, players now had control (collectively) over which animals ended up moving instead of it being decided by random card draws. Problem two was solved as well!

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

I love the moments when a rule change suddenly makes a game "click". This was one of those moments. The rest of the design process was just about getting the details right, and it ended up being my fastest idea-to-contract-proposal process yet (three-and-a-half months).

Pandasaurus Games did an amazing job with the visuals and made ani-meeples for all the animals, so I can't wait to get my own copy once it's released on October 21, 2020.

Kasper Lapp

Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs

Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs
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Tue Oct 20, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Praga Caput Regni

Vladimir Suchy
Czech Republic
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Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Starting Point

For only the second time in my game design history — Last Will was the first — theme was the starting point for the design process for my latest game: Praga Caput Regni in this case, with the title being Latin for "Prague, capital of the Kingdom".

So how did the city of Prague become the focal point of this new game? Well, the seeds of it were probably sown when, as a schoolboy, I'd go on many walks in this beautiful and fascinating city with my best friend at that time. I was fortunate enough to be born in this exceptional city, and from a young age I wanted to find out as much as I could not just about its famous historical sights, but also its lesser known ones.

It was clear to me even then as a youngster that, especially when viewing the panoramas of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I absorbed its history on my regular walks through its streets and that had a great impact on me in my formative years, and those walks gave me many unforgettable memories and experiences that I look back on fondly even to this day.

From gallery of sucd
Prague's famous Charles Bridge and its gaming equivalent

In the intervening years since my childhood, inevitably the ups and downs of family and working life got in the way of my ability to explore the city as often as I did in my youth. However, my love of the city did not diminish, and I continued to learn more about the history of Prague from a wide variety of books that I read on the subject.

Board Game: League of Six
So when I started making games, it was no surprise that I was keen to introduce a historical element to the design process whenever I could. You can see this clearly in the first game of mine that was published, League of Six, a game set in 1430 about a group of wealthy Lusatian towns that banded together to defend their commercial interests and the stability of this region, which is situated in the present day on the borders of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic). While I often considered Czech history as a potential source of theme for my games over the years, the city of Prague (and its special history) has had to wait its turn.

After having finished designing Underwater Cities and its expansion, I was casting around for themes for my next game. I had an urge to design a historically themed game — my favorite type of game — and it suddenly occurred to me that it might finally be the right time to fulfill one of my dreams, that is to say, to design a strategic Eurogame based around my hometown: the royal city of Prague.

From that point on, some thoughts started rattling around my head about designing a game in which the main goal was to build up the medieval city of Prague during the period of the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378 CE), king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. This was a time when the city flourished and a great many of the iconic sights of today's Prague were constructed. I was intent on including as many of those real historical sights and buildings as I could in the game, places such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the Charles University to name a few, all of which you can still see today of course.

From gallery of sucd

From gallery of sucd
The Hunger Wall and its gaming equivalent

Mechanisms

The next step in the design process was trying to find a way to incorporate as many of those historical buildings and events from the Charles IV period into the game as possible through appropriate mechanisms. It was inevitable that I would have to make compromises as it wasn't possible to include everything!

As I write this, we are at the point where the game is very nearly finished and requires only minor tweaks to balance and the odd minor mechanism. However, even now, when I think of some lesser known historical sight in the city I think to myself, "Why didn't I include that square on the main board?" or "Why didn't I include this church?" But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn't include them all. While I did have some initial concerns about connecting this theme with more complex game mechanisms in a smooth and streamlined way, I also wanted to do the city justice by how it was represented in the game. In the end, I think I managed to fit a good selection of the most interesting parts of Prague into the game.

This historical era, one of the most famous periods in the history of both Prague and the Czech kingdom, provided a lot of rich design possibilities right from the outset. In 1346, the young and able Charles IV of the Luxembourg dynasty ascended to the throne and became King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. One of the first steps he took was to order the building of the New Town (Nové Město) next to the Old Town (Staré Město). During this period, he also initiated the construction of the famous Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and many of the buildings connected to the University of Prague, which was founded in 1348 and would eventually become known as the Charles University of Prague, one of the oldest universities in Europe. By the end of his reign, Prague had become one of the largest and most important cities in Europe.

Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Prototype components

The main goal of the game is, obviously, building. At the start of the design process, I tried to incorporate these historical elements into the fabric of the game. You can see this clearly on the game board where the Old Town and the New Town are separated by the King's Road (Královská Cesta). Players also help construct the City Walls, as well as the Hunger Wall (which was built during a famine in the 1360s and is reputed to have been ordered by Charles IV as a way of providing jobs and food to the affected citizens and their families), in addition to the aforementioned Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral.

One of the main mechanisms of the game involves players selecting an action to carry out in order to help with the construction of these locations. They do this by gaining resources and upgrading those actions. When I modeled out possible turns in my head, I tried to interconnect the mechanisms as much as possible through this core action-selection mechanism. My main aim when designing this central mechanism was to encourage players to not select the same action repeatedly so that they would have to combine different action choices to make their overall strategy succeed. Although the game's mechanisms seem very logically connected to me now, I found the mental exercise of keeping tabs of the possible permutations of players' actions to be one the most demanding challenges I have ever experienced while designing games.

I like using dice in my games a lot, and they were the main component of the central mechanism in the first versions of the game. Players would roll three dice to choose their actions and the accompanying bonus actions. However, after testing this at home with my family I realized that this was not the best choice of mechanism to be at the center of this game. I tried several ways to adjust the dice mechanism so that it not only worked but was fun, yet I just wasn't happy with it; the dice were too random to base strategic decisions on.

This led to me having a new experience as a game designer. In my previous games, I've started by determining the main mechanism, then building other mechanisms around it. I sometimes had to adjust the central mechanism a bit, but generally it stayed fundamentally similar to how I first envisaged it. Realizing that my central mechanism didn't work as I wanted it to was something new that I had to deal with. I decided to keep the secondary mechanisms, but come up with a completely different core mechanism.

In the end, I decided to use a mechanism I had come up with years ago in which tiles with two actions on them are inserted into a central wheel. There are also bonuses on the wheel itself so that you get to take the bonus when you select an action tile. From the action tile itself, you choose one of the two actions indicated on it.

From gallery of sucd
The first version of the action crane

I refined this mechanism to work in the context of this specific game, and it eventually turned out to be the most suitable central mechanism for Praga. From a design point of view, I thankfully managed to find a way around the initial design challenge of having to completely change the central mechanism without having to majorly change the secondary mechanisms.

Further Development

I felt good about the change of the central mechanism at this point, but it still needed some refining. I reduced the number of possible main actions to seven and experimented with them on the wheel. I came up with different bonus actions for each slot on the wheel connected to the secondary mechanisms of the game. This led to players having to choose from a veritable smorgasbord of actions, each of which provided different bonuses depending on its location on the wheel.

Also, the bonuses on the wheel, which thematically became the wheel of a builder's crane, get increasingly more advantageous as they travel round. In more detail, when the tiles start out on the wheel, a player has to pay more resources to get the more frequently used action tiles that end up back at the start of the wheel more often, but as the action tiles move round the wheel, the bonuses to take them get better until a player eventually decides they are just too good to pass up. At this point, I was really happy with how this core mechanism worked.

Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Final design of the action crane

The next thing I had to deal with was reducing the amount of time it took to take a turn. I didn't want it to be too long. I tried reducing it by simplifying the main actions and the complexity of the bonus actions. Initially the variety of bonus actions was too wide, which led to analysis paralysis and slowed the game down.

Following discussion with playtesters, I decided to get rid of the main action that allowed players to move on the cathedral or wall tracks and turn that into a bonus action you get when constructing certain wall tiles, thereby reducing the number of main actions to six. This turned out to be the final number of actions in the game. These discussions also led to the decision to simplify how it was possible to get an additional movement on the cathedral and wall tracks — by spending two white windows — which sped up the flow of the game considerably.

Numerous playtest games helped to balance the design. Through those tests, it became clear that it was necessary to strengthen the "upgrade actions" action. (I settled upon a bonus of advancing on the University track to provide additional motivation to do this action.) The production tracks also needed strengthening as there were other ways to gain resources without actually moving on these tracks, so I made the benefits of going up this track more enticing and together with the large endgame scoring bonuses possible at the end of them, this turned the "production" strategy into a viable one.

One of the things I'm really pleased about with Praga is that the number of players playing the game doesn't affect the flow of the game too much. Apart from the starting set-up, there was little need to adjust the game according to the number of players.

From gallery of sucd
Graphic development of houses

There are a LOT of hex tiles in this game, too, and balancing these to ensure that none of them were too powerful was a demanding part of the design process.

The increasing popularity of solo modes in games (especially in this time of COVID-19) was a motivating factor for me to include this in the game as well. I carried out a lot of testing during lockdown periods at home, so I played solo a lot, which helped me hone the game and this particular mode. This didn't replace playing games with playtesters and getting their feedback, but it was definitely a useful supplement to that process in these difficult times. I have noticed recently that solo players tend to prefer modes in which they have a "dummy" opponent. However, I still tried to make the simulated opponent as realistic as possible and less of a dummy! The rules for this version of the solo game will be published through our website at the same time as the game.

In the end, I'm very happy with how Praga Caput Regni has turned out. In my opinion, it is the most complex game I have ever created, and I believe it is a worthy successor to Underwater Cities.

Vladimír Suchý

P.S. Thanks to Mike Poole for the language corrections.

From gallery of sucd
Old Town Hall with the inscription "PRAGA CAPUT REGNI"
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Sun Oct 18, 2020 1:00 pm
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Lookout Sows Fields to Produce Hallertau, More Agricola, and Patchworks Galore

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Patchwork
Uwe Rosenberg's two-player game Patchwork was a hit when it debuted in 2014, and it's continued to find new fans in the intervening years. (Here's a quick overview of the game if it's still unknown to you.)

Publisher Lookout Games has released a few Patchwork spinoff titles, and now it has three more in the works for those who prefer the gameplay of the original but not its graphics. Note that all of these new versions differ from the original only in their graphics, with the exception of one non-game related element.

The most widespread of these new versions will be Patchwork: Winter Edition, which features red, green, and blue-and-white patches, in addition to a patch-shaped cookie cutter for those who'd prefer to eat patches as much as play with them. This version will be released initially in separate English and German editions.

Board Game: Patchwork
Board Game: Patchwork
Board Game: Patchwork

The other two editions are dubbed Patchwork: Folklore Taiwan and Patchwork: Folklore China, and they feature imagery by artists local to the regions being depicted: Gru Tsow for Taiwan and Rex Lee for China. This artwork was created for licensed versions of Patchwork that will be released in Taiwan and China by local companies, but Lookout liked the style of these versions so much that it's releasing a 500-copy limited edition version of each one, with these being available through the Lookout online shop starting on October 22, 2020.

Board Game: Agricola: Dulcinaria Deck
Board Game: Nusfjord: Salmon Deck
• Lookout Games has three other items due out in Germany on that same date, with two of those items being expansions to existing games: Agricola: Dulcinaria Deck, which contains 120 new occupation and minor improvement cards for use with the revised edition of Agricola (and the original one if you can gloss over differences in terminology), and Nusfjord: Salmon Deck, the second expansion deck for Nusfjord, which contains 44 new building cards for players who have a good understanding of the base game, as well as 25 metal coins to replace the coins from the base game.

• The final title debuting from Lookout on Oct. 22, 2020 is a giant one: Hallertau from Uwe Rosenberg. In this 1-4 player game, players each have a field in which they'll plant and harvest crops, a stable in which they'll tend to sheep, and five craft buildings that they'll progress in order to "expand" their community center, which gives them more workers to use each round.

Twenty actions are available on a shared central game board, and the cost to use an action escalates based on how many times it's already been used in a round; card-drawing actions can be used at most twice in a round, and other actions at most three times. Players manage nine types of goods, planting barley, flax, hops, and rye in the fields. Fields that remain empty will be more productive in future rounds, but the game lasts only six rounds, so sometimes you'll just have to get what you can. Sheep provide hides, meat, milk, and wool, and you'll need a varied mix of goods in order to use the cards you acquire to trade resources, gain additional resources, or spend resources for points.

For all the details of this 24-page rulebook, head to the Hallertau page on the Lookout Games website.

Board Game: Hallertau
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Fri Oct 16, 2020 3:39 pm
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Designer Diary: Lost Ruins of Arnak — The World, The Language, The Art

Mín
Czech Republic
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Lost Ruins of Arnak
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Board Game Publisher: Czech Games Edition
My husband Elwen and I work for Czech Games Edition, where we develop and playtest games and organize playtesting events for CGE's upcoming titles. This year is special for us as the game that we have developed is also a game that we designed. It was quite an adventure!

The game design of Lost Ruins of Arnak was an exciting journey, and I think we will write a separate article just about that, but today I want to let you peek behind the curtains of the Arnak world-building process and its art, which I think is quite special.

Board Game: Lost Ruins of Arnak

Elwen and I believe that Eurogames can both be clever and have a strong theme that helps you intuitively grasp the rules. That was one of the goals we tried to achieve with Lost Ruins of Arnak. We wanted to introduce unique gameplay that combines worker-placement and deck-building with some extra twists. We also wanted to let players experience the thrill of leading an adventurous expedition to an uncharted land, and we hoped for the game mechanisms to enhance the thematic feel, not diminish it. A huge part of this feeling is also in the game's visuals — which is why we gave a lot of attention to it.

From gallery of Minmyska
The whole world-building process started with the decision to set the game in an alternative history of the 1930s where a mysterious island was discovered, so we embarked on a quest to create an ancient culture that we could watch rise from nothing, only to let it fall to ruin, then bury it in the jungles of Arnak. World-building was a new experience for us, and we never expected to go into as much depth and detail when we started.

I cannot stress enough how lucky we were to put together a team of amazingly gifted Czech illustrators who worked on this project. They all brought something unique to the mix, and the results far surpassed our wildest expectations.

In the beginning, we had many long calls with our graphics team in which we brainstormed about how the island would look and who the people that once lived in Arnak were: their lifestyle, their beliefs, the stories pictured in the art they left behind.

From gallery of Minmyska

History of Arnak

I began to write a lengthy document called "History of Arnak" while Ondřej Hrdina started to sketch scenes from the past. This was one of my favorite parts of the process — letting the drawings inspire me to write, or to see my thoughts materialize in the illustrations.

We knew that we were not creating art that we would use in the actual game, but I hoped that the attention to detail would make the place look more real, and these concepts would become a cornerstone on which we would continue to build the world of Arnak.

Our team members Jakub Politzer, Filip Murmak, and Ondřej Hrdina were essential when discussing the civilizations that lived in Arnak throughout its history. They provided valuable information about the steps to take while building a world as well as great ideas and valuable feedback.

We kept adding details (and drawings!); we described the island and its geography, climate, fauna, and flora; and we described people who once lived in Arnak, their myths, lifestyles, materials, technologies they used, architecture styles, trading customs... The list goes on.

From gallery of Minmyska

From gallery of Minmyska

The mythology and religion was an important part of the culture, and you can see it reflected in the artwork they left behind: the artifacts you find, the sites you discover, the stories depicted on the walls of the Lost Temple...

From gallery of Minmyska

From gallery of Minmyska

Forgotten Language

Jakub Politzer led one part of the process that I found fascinating: how oral stories turned into myths, myths into drawings, and drawings into symbols that the people of Arnak used to write their sacred texts — symbols which later, in turn, permeated their architecture and artifacts.

From gallery of Minmyska

In the end, this evolved into a hieroglyphic script that you can see scattered on the illustrations throughout the game.

I promised you a peek behind the curtain, so here is a link to a small part of my notes if you would like to dig deeper into the meaning of different drawings in the game: Mín's notes.

After months of work, Arnak, with all the little details, felt alive to us. That was the moment when our actual work on the board game art began. We had to move centuries ahead, bury everything we knew and start looking at the island with the eyes of the explorers arriving for the first time to uncover Arnak's great mysteries...

From gallery of Minmyska

Discovering Arnak

Finally, Ondřej Hrdina started to sketch Arnak and how it looked when the explorers found it. The old temples and cities, all in ruin, overgrown and deserted. The jungle hungrily took over anything that was left, hiding the statues and sacred places.

We decided to capture two main biotopes on the game map: the vast rocky plains where the most efficient means of transport would be an off-road car, and the large river delta surrounded by dense jungle where the ideal way to get around would be a boat — although, of course, you can get anywhere with amphibious aircraft!

From gallery of Minmyska

Guardians

Jiří Kůs and František Sedláček joined our team and got the task of sketching, then finalizing the artwork for the ancient Guardians. These mysterious beasts stalk the abandoned cities, and the explorers who disturb their peace must face their wrath or find a way to pacify their anger. Below you can see the birth of one Guardian, from the first sketches to the final illustration.

From gallery of Minmyska

Ondřej Hrdina also put together some sketches of explorers making their first discoveries...and meeting their first Guardians. One of the sketches eventually evolved into the image you can see on the final box's cover.

From gallery of Minmyska

Cards

Designing the cards was a part of the game design that I, but especially Elwen, really enjoyed. Trying to come up with interesting effects that would also make thematic sense. Admittedly we were tired when we designed the Ostrich and the Sea Turtle. Still, everyone loved those cards, and as a result, we ended up with far more animal companion cards than we originally anticipated.

From gallery of Minmyska

During that time, Milan Vavroň joined the team, and he started to work on the card illustrations. He originally thought that he would have just enough time to illustrate the items, but he ended up illustrating all the artifacts as well. When we saw his first cards, we were blown away! Milan has worked on several CGE projects, but he seemed to really outdo himself in this game.

Designing the artifact effects was also fun! Jakub Politzer made beautiful concept art, and we tried to pick the right effect that would best fit the illustration, or we even created new effects based on the concepts. Milan Vavroň then took the concept art and set the artifacts in atmospheric environments.

From gallery of Minmyska

It was a fascinating journey to slowly watch Arnak materialize from nothing.

As I am writing these lines, we have just received the first samples from the printer. To be fair, we loved the game from the early drafts — we designed it to have fun playing it together — but seeing it with the final art is one of the nicest gifts we have ever received. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the process, and we hope that you will enjoy our game as much as we do!

Mín & Elwen

Board Game: Lost Ruins of Arnak
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Thu Oct 15, 2020 1:00 pm
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Academy Games Takes Us One Small Step to Team-Based Worker Placement Awesomeness

Candice Harris
United States
Los Angeles
California
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Board Game Publisher: Academy Games, Inc.
Academy Games has a solid reputation for tastefully blending entertainment and education to deliver engaging historical games, such as its area-control hit 1775: Rebellion from its Birth of America game series.

I caught a short, but enticing glimpse of its latest 2020 release One Small Step on BGG's livestream for Gen Con Online 2020. It looked and sounded super interesting, so I was naturally very curious to experience how it played. Uwe Eickert and the Academy Games team graciously sent me a copy so that I could race to space and share some thoughts with the BGG community so that you can determine whether One Small Step is a game to keep on your radar.

From gallery of candidrum
One Small Step is a 2-4 player team-based, engine-building, worker placement Eurogame designed by James DuMond and Gunter Eickert that's based on the U.S. & Soviet space race and that was fittingly launched on Kickstarter on July 16, 2019 — exactly fifty years after Apollo 11 launched to start its journey to land the first men on the Moon. In One Small Step, players split up into two teams of one or two players, and play as either the United States or Soviet Union space agencies competing to develop their space programs, launch missions, and be the first to achieve a Moon landing.

One Small Step is played over a series of rounds until the end of the game is triggered. Players collect various resources and optimize their engines to launch satellite and crewed missions, increase their agency's knowledge, and advance along the Moon path. The first team that reaches the end of the Moon path receives bonus victory points and triggers the end of the game. The team with the most VPs wins the game and represents the nation that progressed humanity's knowledge for the future most.

Each team has a player board (Agency board) for storing and organizing resources, workers (two Engineers and two Administrators), personnel cards, advancement cards and most importantly, mission cards. Successfully launching missions gives you all sorts of rewarding bonuses, upgrades, victory points, and advancements on the Moon path.

Each round of One Small Step is split into seven phases that will be repeated until a team lands on the Moon and triggers the end of the game:

(1) In the first phase, Countdown, both teams simultaneously advance their missions one space toward the Launch stage. There are three stages on each team's Agency board that hold mission cards in a launch queue: T-Minus 2, T-Minus 1 and Launch. As a result of the countdown phase, players will be attempting to launch any missions shifted to the Launch stage at the end of the round.

From gallery of candidrum

(2) Next, in the Replenish phase, each team refreshes their permanent resources and places four new event cards on the board. Now's a good time for me to talk about the resources in One Small Step.

There are nine different types resources split into three thematic categories: Agency resources (funding, material, personnel), Satellite resources (boosters, navigation, sensors), and Crew resources (capsules, landing, life support). Most often, you gain resources from rolling special resource dice; there's one die for each resource category. We did have some bad luck here and there with the die rolls, but nothing that was ever too detrimental. There are different actions in which you can spend any type of resource, or you can convert resources, or you just stock up because you'll likely need them at some point.

From gallery of candidrum

For each resource, you can gain temporary resources (white circular tokens) that are discarded when they're spent or permanent resources (black square tokens) that are reusable each round. A chunk of the engine building in One Small Step involves efficiently upgrading temporary resources to permanent resources since permanent resources give you way more bang for your buck when playing cards and launching missions.

(3) After the Replenish phase, each team will Draw 2 Cards. The Administator department/player can draw either a Satellite Mission card or a Crewed Mission card, whereas the Engineer department/player can draw a Satellite Mission card, Crewed Mission card, or an Event card from the Event deck. On each team, you can draw one card and then decide which card you want to draw next.

Whenever you draw a Mission card (Satellite or Crewed) you will immediately place it on either the T-Minus 2 stage or T-Minus 1 stage on your Agency board. There's no limit to the number of Mission cards that can be placed on each stage, but strategically it's an important decision as you are penalized for failed missions. For each Mission card added to the T-Minus 2 stage, you also get to roll the red (Satellite) resource die and get a free resource.

From gallery of candidrum
Earth spaces
There are two types of Event cards you can draw: Development and Personnel. Development cards are always placed in your team's shared hand while Personnel cards are played face up to the right of your Agency board. You can have only three Personnel cards at a time, but you can have unlimited Development cards in your hand.

(4) Next you'll jump into the Workers phase where teams alternate taking turns in placing workers on either Earth action spaces or Event cards on the board. A là traditional worker placement, your opponent(s) will inevitably beat you to an action space you are needing to use and it's not uncommon to experience lots of cringing and groans during this phase.

Each team has two Administrator workers and two Engineer workers, and the majority of the action spaces can be taken only by the specified type of worker. If you place a worker on a card, you immediately take the worker action on the card, and at the end of the round, you also get to keep the card...again, Development cards go into your hand and Personnel cards go face up to the right of your Agency board.

The Earth action spaces also have an area for specific types of workers, but they are also upgradeable so they get juicier and juicier as the game progresses. One of the bonuses for successful mission launches is to upgrade Earth action. This is always a tough decision because you're not just upgrading it for yourself, but your opponents also have access to the stellar spaces as a result of your upgrade benefit.

From gallery of candidrum
Card spaces

One Small Step comes with handy action summary sheets that summarize each Earth action and the corresponding upgrades, but the iconography is so well done that it will probably be easy to remember after you play the game once.

The action spaces, whether on card spaces or Earth spaces, vary and give players plenty of options. Many allow you to gain resources, convert or upgrade resources, play Development cards at a discounted cost, gain bonus tiles, place hazard cards on your opponents' missions, advance on the Media track, and even take an action on a space that's already occupied with another worker.

I should note that all but one Earth action space has one action for an Engineer worker and a separate action for an Administrator worker beneath it. This means if you place an Engineer on a space, no one else (including your team) can place an Administrator on the action beneath it. This lends itself to tough decisions, as if it wasn't already challenging managing the limitations of having only two of each type of worker and how to best place them based on your available options. It's great!

I mentioned hazard cards and the Media track above, so let me briefly explain how the Media track works and I'll save the hazard cards for later. The Media track thematically represents how supportive your country's population and government are of your space agency's ventures, but in terms of gameplay it determines who has initiative in the phases of the game that aren't played simultaneously.

From gallery of candidrum

The Media track ranges from -3 to 8. If your Media value is 5 or more, you may reduce your Media by 5 to gain a Media bonus tile that usually provides resources and/or a special ability. If your Media value is at 8 and you need to gain Media, you must reduce it by 5 and take a Media bonus tile, then continue gaining Media as usual. This loop creates some interesting decisions because turn order can be very important especially in the worker placement phase and during the last phase of the round when you're launching missions.

(5) & (6) In phases 5 and 6, teams can use their Personnel cards and/or Play Development Cards from their hand respectively by spending the indicated resources, then taking the corresponding action. Since the Personnel cards are face up by your Agency board, your opponents may have some idea of what you might do, but the Development cards are in your hand which can create some suspense and sneak attack power plays in later rounds. Personnel and Development card actions usually involve gaining some resources, or gaining Media, but some cards even allow you to draw a mission card and immediately attempt to launch it which could be powerful for jumping ahead on the Moon path and snagging benefits before your opponent(s). Resources can be tight so sometimes you'll lean toward passing on one or both of these phases to save your resources for launching your missions.

(7) ...which brings me to the final phase, Launch Missions! This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you've been prepping all round for. In the Launch Missions phase, teams alternate launching one mission at a time from their Launch stage in initiative order.

As I mentioned earlier, there are satellite missions and crewed missions. Each mission card has a minor success requirement and reward, as well as a major success requirement and reward. If you don't have the resources necessary for the minor success, the mission fails and you'll have to take the penalty listed at the bottom of the card. Alternatively, if you are successful with the minor success requirement, you can optionally choose to spend the resources needed for the major success in which case you'll receive the mission rewards for both the minor and major success.

From gallery of candidrum

Successful crewed missions will allow you to progress on the Moon path, which is the timer for ending the game, but usually you'll want to start with mainly satellite missions to build up resources and your engine a bit. Each space on the Moon path has a bonus tile for the first player to land there, so timing can be important if you want a leg up on those bonuses.

From gallery of candidrum
Satellite mission card with a revealed hazard
At different points in the game, you might have to gain hazard cards which you'll have to place on your mission cards, and sometimes you'll get to draw them, take a peek, and place them on one of your opponents' mission cards. They're just enough of an unexpected element to make you sweat a little, but it's rarely catastrophic. You might need to spend an extra resource or lose one of your minor success rewards, assuming you're successful. But if you do have any hazard cards on a mission, you will need to spend the required resources in addition to the minor success requirements or else you fail the mission. The good news is that if you can survive the hazard(s), they usually come with a victory point which is a nice way to balance out the sting of having to spend extra resources.

After both teams have attempted to launch all missions in the Launch stage, you jump back to the Countdown phase and do it all over again but gradually improving your engine and working through three eras/tiers of Event cards that are increasingly more interesting. Between that and upgrading worker placement Earth spaces, the game definitely builds up and progresses well.

There are also Advancement cards you can purchase with resources and special Advancement tokens which either grant you a one-time benefit or on-going special ability which can spice things up even more.

From gallery of candidrum

All-in-all, I found One Small Step to be extremely enjoyable. It's a great two-player game, but from my experiences it especially shines when played with four since the team interaction is refreshing, unique, and challenging in a different way from most Eurogames. I'm sure some will love the team play and others won't be into it.

Playing with teams does tend to make the game run a bit longer since there's a lot of discussing and strategizing on both sides, but that doesn't bother me if everyone is engaged and having fun the whole time, which was the case each time we played with teams. I also found it surprising how competitive it gets when playing with teams. I felt myself caring more about winning when I had a teammate than I usually do playing games in general. A few rounds in you'll see people on both teams using their player aids to cover up their mouths and be discrete while plotting moves like football coaches covering their mouths with their playbooks as they relay a critical game plan in the final minutes of a tight football game.

I got some Manhattan Project vibes from One Small Step with the different types of workers and also the feeling of racing to progress on the Moon path ahead of my opponents. I really loved the decision space when choosing which worker placement spaces to upgrade — and having upgradeable worker placement spaces combined with the different types of workers really spices things up.

I didn't touch on it much, but I also really appreciated all of the historic facts and flavor throughout the rulebook and on the cards. If I can walk away from the table with learning something new and at the same time grinning from having an excellent gaming experience, I'm generally going to be a fan...and that is the case with One Small Step.

Here's the Gen Con Online 2020 demo hosted by Eric if you're interested in hearing more about One Small Step from the mouths of the creators:

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Wed Oct 14, 2020 3:17 pm
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Designer Diary: The Long Road to Kitara

Eric Vogel
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Hayward
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Board Game: Kitara
Board Game: Armorica
In 2010, my game design career was just starting to take off. A new game company, Sandstorm LLC, had bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia and seemed interested in seeing more work from me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia, another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box and have roughly the same number of components, but a higher level of complexity.

A comment by one of my regular playtesters, Jon Spinner, came back to me — something about "a card game and a board game that interface at one end". I don't remember the exact words he used, but it got me thinking about the self-published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica's central card-drafting mechanism could be combined with an area-control board game, similar to Hibernia.

Board Game: Armorica
Sample cards from Armorica

I came up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula in which players drafted a card every turn to build up a card display that gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica), as well as movement points and new units for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board, requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards. Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanism created the need for dynamic expansion each turn and prevented players from just playing defensively, serving the same function as the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way.

The resulting game was a little larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the design off to Sandstorm for playtesting anyway. When I went to the GAMA Trade Show for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me they liked my new design and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at Gen Con, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.

From gallery of erichv
Looking for Publication in All the Wrong Places

I took advantage of being at Gen Con already and showed the new game to some folks from a much larger publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after some subsequent interaction with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it were dice-based instead of card-based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different game. That version got me all the way to a meeting with the publisher's actual decision-maker at next year's Gen Con, but he ultimately passed on it.

That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game Lost Empires, which will be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021; however, that is a story for another designer diary.

Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game. The two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game.

Board Game: Kreta
Board Game: Kreta
I had been playing Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them between three different types of meeples: units that let you keep cards when they were in particular territories, units that scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3 VP. This change added a significant new decision point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.

In 2013, my friend Cedric was working for a French company called MyWitty Games that used a novel crowdfunding approach. I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting in which the unit types became humans, dwarves, and ogres. The movement mechanism was also changed to use movement actions that would move a group of pieces at once instead of having movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change differentiated the design even further from the dice-based version.

However, MyWitty also went out of business before we got to the point of signing a contract. I pitched the game to Evil Hat Productions in 2014, but they passed on it in favor of Kaiju Incorporated.

A Home at Last

Family: Organizations: Forgenext
In 2016, I became a client of the Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaëtan Beaujannot started representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement as I am not a great salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to the San Francisco Bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the game at that meeting, but I don't remember precisely what the changes were.

Gaetan began pitching the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another large publisher that had expressed strong interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In particular, I developed an alternative card deck that used a different pattern of icons across each card to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card ever provided multiple types of meeple; in the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple types, and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My playtesters seemed to like this new deck better, so it became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was unhappy with some of this publisher's plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.

Board Game Publisher: IELLO
It was then that Gaetan got me a contract for the game with IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting developed from African history and mythology.

I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism, or ancient Egypt. The rest of the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There are very few games about ancient Africa.

How to Design Games about Africa

From gallery of erichv
I found the prospect of creating an ancient sub-Saharan African setting for the game a little daunting. I am not African, nor am I of African Diaspora descent. I wouldn't call myself an expert on Africa, although I do take an interest in African history, current affairs, and cultural theory.

However, I am a professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina's 2005 satiric essay "How to Write About Africa", which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa: "In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country... Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions."

I knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture, and era in African history; IELLO wanted the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between history and mythology, like the Trojan War.

Board Game: Kitara
I identified a couple of promising settings, which I may come back to for later games. However, eventually we decided to theme the game around the break-up of the Kitara Empire, located in the great lakes region of East-Central Africa, in the 14th century AD. Scholarly sources on this empire were not easy to find, but I eventually did track a few down.

Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara Empire was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the interlacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation by the Abachwezi dynasty of kings. According to folklore, these kings had magical powers and introduced important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were supposed to have become angered by their people's disobedience and disappeared into the great lakes. Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda.

The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming. Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures. According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to the region. Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to population increases, more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished over cattle and grazing land.

However, some historians also suggest that ancient Central Africans used a traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara Empire may have been one in which more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by traditional practices that limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fit well with the mechanisms of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of units from combat.

Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire let me create a very evocative backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the mechanisms, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined mechanisms of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some needed artistic license.

From gallery of erichv
Miguel Coimbra, meanwhile, had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the game. Cheetah-centaurs aren't a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are part-human, part-animal creatures in African folklore, and there are many varieties of sentient animals across several African mythologies. I used "master animal", a term applying to sentient mythological animals I found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls these pieces "cheetah-centaurs" — or "chetaurs" — anyway.

I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players depict armies of female warriors. I don't have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors or leaders in the region of the Kitara Empire, but there are documented traditions of women as warriors, war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).

From gallery of erichv

I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanisms at IELLO's request. They wanted a new alternative deck that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet another pattern of icons, that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an expansion.

IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat mechanism so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips; a player can keep only one chip per turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provides a better chance of drawing a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, added a new tactical consideration, and made the scoring elements in the game more diverse.

Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the U.S. were great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game and consulted me in regard to all the decision-making about the game's production. Gaëtan was also active during the game's development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game. (I don't really speak French, sadly.) I was also very impressed by how IELLO adapted to lockdown and was able to keep to its timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That it's able to release this game in 2020 is a testament to how well its team works.

Board Game: Kitara
Kitara in the IELLO media room at SPIEL '19
As I write this, I have just received my first copy of the finished game, delivered to the doorstep of the apartment in which I have been locked down for six months. I think Kitara has the highest production values of any game of mine published to date, with lots of cool custom wooden bits and other top-notch components. Miguel's artwork for the game looks fabulous.

Any published game is a team effort, reflecting the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaëtan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it.

Eric B. Vogel

Sources Referenced

Doyle, S. (2006). From Kitara to the Lost Counties: Genealogy, Land and Legitimacy in the Kingdom of Bunyoro, Western Uganda, Social Identities, 12:4, 457-470, DOI: 10.1080/13504630600823684

Ford, C. (1999) The Hero with an African Face. New York. Bantam.

Kaur, M. (2017). Mother of Nations and Kali's Daughters: An Empirical Study on Amazon Dahomey Warriors and Indian Queen Warriors. Military Science Review / Hadtudományi Szemle, 10(4), 126–141.

Moreira Ribeiro, O., Torres Moreira, F. A. & Pimenta, S. (2019). Nzinga Mbandi: from story to myth. Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, 11(1). https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.7559/citarj.v11i1.594

Nwanna, C. (2012). Dialectics of African Feminism. Matatu: Journal for African Culture & Society, 40(1), 275–283. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1163/18757421-040001019

Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.

Uzoigwe, G.N. (2012). Bunyoro-Kitara Revisited: A Reevaluation of the Decline and Diminishment of an African Kingdom. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 48(1) 16–34.

Wainaina, B. (2005). How to write about Africa. Granta, 92, 91.

Board Game: Kitara
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18 Comments
Tue Oct 13, 2020 1:00 pm
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