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W. Eric Martin
My apologies for leaving you all largely newsless for the past couple of weeks, but things on BGGN should be back to normal soon as my family's items are finally on the moving truck and on their way to North Carolina. Even after selling/giving away/recycling/trashing 300+ games, I had nearly 1,300 to box, which was absolute madness. (Not to mention all the other stuff I've collected over the years. My packrat tendencies are a horrible curse.)
In the future I need to either strip down the collection to a more manageable number or else stay in one location until I die...
In 2008 I was given a plastic flower, two eye patches, two earrings, a bag of colorful cotton balls, and a full year to turn those things into a game. It came to me all at once, in seconds. I created Garden Variety Pirates, in which scurvy pirates invade a citrus garden and compete with two gardeners for Leaves of Wisdom, Flowers of Despair, and a Ring of Power. In 2009, it competed against two other game designers in the Game of the Afternoon competition at Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends, and lost.
In 2009, I was given a bunch of small round mirrors, a bag of wooden balls, a paint tray, and another year to turn those into a game. I knew exactly what to do, all at once, in seconds. I'd add lasers and stick the mirrors on pieces on a board, and the lasers would shoot opposing pieces using the mirrors to aim them. I'd work in the balls and paint tray later.
A little research, and it became clear that my idea had already been done. Khet did what I wanted to do, did it better, and was still not very popular. So, for eight months of that year, the mirrors and balls sat in the paint tray on my desk and mocked me. It's embarrassing to be mocked by a paint tray.
Staring back at the paint tray one day, I thought, "I'm going to cut you, sucker." I had already decided to cut the paint tray into lots of pieces, and use the pieces somehow. Then, all at once, in seconds, another game came to me. The pieces would all have a wooden ball stuck to the back, so that the opponent in this two-player game would be unable to see them. Above the ball would be a mirror, so if you got your piece behind the opponent's piece, you could look in the mirror at the hidden ball. I put the pieces on a chess board and made the object to capture the one piece that has the green ball. That would work, right?
The paint tray had eight sections: four round and four flat. It also had an edge. So I cut the edges off and each section apart, and used foam core to make 18 pieces – nine white and nine black – that would stand up, looking just like large Stratego pieces, or Confrontation pieces if you prefer. I glued the round and flat pieces to 16 of them and cut the edges to look like parts of a crown and stuck them to both of the last two. The game had four knights, four ladies, and a queen on each side because that's what the paint tray told me to do.
The ladies jumped like powerful checkers, both diagonally and orthogonally, because I needed pieces that would quickly get beyond the opponent's pieces. Knights also jump well, and, hey, they are the coolest pieces on the chess board. And queens are fun.
Each piece had a wooden ball Velcroed to its back, and four balls were red, four were blue, and one was green. Your job is to capture the opponent's piece with the green ball. Why? Uh, because, uh, the pieces are courtiers and each has a secret letter, and you want to intercept the green one that the opponent has while keeping yours secret. Why not? I believe a great theme will not save a bad game, so I usually focus on mechanisms first and theme later.
"At the beginning of the game," I'd tell players, "you take your pieces and rip their balls off." I thought that line would play well with the female players and get a groan from the males. "Then you reattach them to whichever pieces you want, and place the pieces on the second and third ranks of the chess board. Finally, the game begins with the Germans moving first."
Germans? Well, many of the players at the Game of the Afternoon are German, and all the pieces had names to make it easy to take notes on which pieces you had seen with which colored balls. So the white pieces were all named after famous Germans, and the black pieces after famous Brits, specifically people who had been knighted. I picked Queen Victoria for the black queen, and Kaiserin Friedrich for the white queen. "Kaiserin Friedrich" is actually Queen Victoria's German name, which I thought was very clever, so the same person had two pieces on the board. Only I thought it was clever. Ah, well.
Queen Victoria prepares to sneak a peek – image courtesy of Henning Kröpke
I playtested it quite a bit with friends, several of whom said that it was a new design that would be worth publishing. Aw, shucks, I just wanted to win the Game of the Afternoon, playing to the audience and showing them something neat.
I named the game Mirror Mirror, and it did win the Game of the Afternoon in 2010 against three other excellent game designers. I was awarded a cake, which I immediately shared with everyone. At the end of the convention where this competition happened, one of the designers put his game on the prize table, so I decided to put mine up there as well. I was done with it.
During the convention, I happened to be sitting with Rick Soued, who published a game designed by my friend Kory Heath called Uptown, and was reintroducing it as Blockers!, with a small but important rule change and a very different set of pieces. Rick introduced me to another designer who had a game that Rick was planning on publishing, and the three of us sat and discussed how to improve that game. Rick and I traded solutions to the game's problems, and we seemed to work well together. And working with smart designers is always a lot of fun, which is why I do it whenever possible.
Rick got an early pick from the prize table and picked up my game. He brought it over to me and said, "Can you teach me this? And if it's good, can I publish it?" Hell yeah. I taught it to him and his wife, and they enjoyed the game, so I took the game back from him to tighten it up.
Now the real work began. Ideas are actually pretty easy. They spring from our intuitive mind, which links disparate patterns into something new, and I've been practicing for most of my life to listen to my intuition and encourage it. But once you have an idea, the hard work is presenting that idea in its best form. In this game, that meant changing the pieces, the board, and nuances of the rules to make the original idea shine best.
Finding the queen too powerful, I changed it to a chess king and switched one knight to another king, giving a pleasing four lady, three knight, two king set. I changed the balls to "letters", the important one being a red love letter to some princess, with the decoy letters being blue and green. I needed an odd number of pieces so there are an even number of decoy letters, which makes a blind guess as to the letter color worse than a break-even play, although sometimes necessary when desperate. I tried out these combinations, among others, to see what played best. I spent a lot of time trying the endgame to see whether two knights could corner a single king, or two kings could corner a single knight. Eventually I decided that if you got down to just one piece, you should perforce lose, so I simply made that the rule. As fun as it may be for chess players to do the endgame, I doubted that it would be fun for most players.
Speaking of chess, I get to throw out the rule about "check", which I submit is a bad rule in chess. In my experience, you don't need a rule to stop players from making bad moves and not being allowed to move into check causes stalemates, which is dissatisfying and not fun. So when making a chess-like game, I get to fix chess.
After more playtesting, often with myself or with my twelve-year-old daughter, then with many game designers whom I admire, I felt the game was ready to send back to Rick. I made a wooden model for how I thought the pieces might be created, packed it with the original pieces (now modified for the new rules), and shipped them off.
Since I have no eye for art, I enlisted my friend Alex Bradley to do the art. I believe he did more work on the game than I did, and it shows in his great characters and the cover. Rick and his group also did enormous work, figuring out how to make the pieces, working with Alex on the art, designing the box back, and making the rules look good. As expected, it was easy to work with Rick: he'd suggest something, and I almost always agreed that it was genius, and when I suggested something, he'd say I was a genius. Egos were stroked, good decisions were made, and a lovely game was created – which is running as a Kickstarter project through August 10, 2011.
In 2010, I was given four game spinners, a bag of suction cup hooks, a square of fake giraffe skin, the theme of "espionage", and a year to put them together in a game. The idea came to me all at once, in seconds.
Eruption is a competitive volcano-themed game for 2 to 6 players that is being released by Stratus Games in October 2011. The game features a cutthroat survival feel, in which each player must defend his own village from destruction by the wrath of the volcano at the center of the board. To do so, players can build walls of various strengths to hold back the lava, place Lava Tiles strategically to direct lava toward other villages and away from their own, or utilize action cards to rotate, replace, and remove specific tiles and carry out other events related to the eruption of the volcano. As lava comes in contact with each village (as it inevitably will), the village begins to heat up until it is completely burned, ending the game.
This game has been a lot of fun to design. As a designer, I prefer to start with a theme or simple idea and build upon it, rather than choose from a list of pre-conceived mechanisms and slap a theme on the game later. The volcano theme proved to be very enjoyable and allowed for some interesting and unique mechanisms to be added along the way.
Here are some of the features that have been designed into Eruption:
1. Placement of hex tiles to direct the flow of lava.
The available tiles consist of Lava Tiles, which direct the flow of lava, and Eruption Tiles, which form a new source of lava that can be placed anywhere. The various lava flow configurations on the tiles allow for interesting board layouts and offer the ability to place tiles both offensively and defensively.
All of the types of game tiles, including an Eruption Tile
2. Strategic wall collection and placement.
Walls are wooden blocks that can be built on any lava flow or at seven points within a village, your choice. You'll need to place them well if you want to have any chance of winning the game, as they help to prevent lava from entering your village. They come in three different strengths – straw, wood and stone – with stronger materials having a higher probability of holding back the lava. Each player starts with one of each type, but must collect more as the game progresses in order to continue to defend against the lava once previous walls burn up.
Close-up of a village with several walls along its border
3. Thematic and useful action cards.
Quake, Sinkhole, Volcanic Bomb, Aftershock, Rain – these are all examples of the eight action cards that allow you to do anything from rotating or removing existing tiles to cooling down your village. Action cards are also dual-use, with a specific wall material for which they can be traded instead of carrying out the action specified on the card. This creates some tough decisions down the stretch.
4. Cutthroat interaction.
You are rewarded with action cards for putting lava in contact with a village. Inevitably, you'll have to decide whether to attack a specific player and incur their wrath, or simply hold back with a defensive strategy and miss out on the abilities provided by the cards. Want to take someone down? Land a Lava Tile next to their village to cause damage or destroy one of their strongest walls with a Volcanic Bomb. Just be prepared for reciprocal action.
5. A balanced and effective "catch up" mechanism.
Village temperatures are tracked on the Burn Meter, which surrounds the island on the board and comes with a built-in "catch up" mechanism. As a village heats up, it enters three zones along the Burn Meter that provide cumulative abilities, including building an extra wall on a turn, drawing an action card, and placing two tiles instead of just one. The first player to reach each zone also gets free placement of an Eruption Tile, which can be placed anywhere and causes all other villages to heat up immediately by 30 degrees. What does this mean? It means that if you've somehow escaped the wrath of the volcano (a.k.a. "other players") toward the beginning of the game, prepare to get ganged up on later on as the losing players use their new-found advantages against you.
Close-up of villages and a portion of the Burn Meter
6. An element of chance to spice things up and add unpredictability.
Will your walls hold up against the lava? Roll the dice to find out. If the lava wins the roll, your wall is toast. The random resolution of wall strength can make it difficult to predict exactly when the next Eruption Tile will be placed. It also can make you rethink your tile placement strategy on any given turn. While tiles and cards are also drawn at random, there are many possibilities for their use, so you'll have to figure out their best use on the fly. If random tile draws aren't your thing, one of the variants included with the game increases the amount of strategy by allowing you to take your pick from three stacks of face-up tiles.
7. An exciting theme and Polynesian-style artwork for visual appeal.
Volcanoes, at least in a game setting, are fun and fascinating. Crisp and colorful artwork and Polynesian-style accents will give this game some nice aesthetics.
Volcano motif on the corner of the box cover
So how did this all come about?
As mentioned earlier, I like to start with an enjoyable theme and build upon it. After my design of Gold Mine and my contribution to Launch Pad, I was constantly asked, "What's next?" Luckily, I had an idea brewing in my head that I could spurt out on demand: "I'm thinking of a volcano-themed game with villages that have to protect themselves from lava flows." Without having spent any time whatsoever on the actual development of the game, the general theme was all I could supply. Even so, the consistent response was, "OOOOOH!!! That sounds awesome!"
I, of course, thought the idea sounded great as well. There is just something intriguing about volcanoes. Perhaps our fascination with massive explosions (a la Mythbusters) draws us to the sheer amount of power and energy that volcanoes release. Maybe we have an instinctive primal fear of their destructive potential that creates a sense of awe within us, or perhaps the pyromaniac in us is drawn to ponder the idea of molten rock burning up everything in its path and creating new land formations as it cools. For whatever reason, there seems to be a common fascination with the destructive beasts.
Breaking Through the Surface
A theme is worthless unless there is a solid foundation upon which to build an enjoyable board game. I am bombarded with various obscure topics nearly every day that make me stop and think to myself, "What if there were a board game built on that theme? What would it be like?" 99% of the time, I dismiss the thought and chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the idea brewing in my head or the impossibility of designing even a slightly enjoyable game around that theme. However, the volcano idea stuck with me as something I should pursue further. My plans became even more solidified after the startlingly positive response from the mere mention of the theme.
So I set to work. Some things were obvious right off the bat: I knew I needed a board with a volcano in the center and villages surrounding it, equidistant from one another; also, I figured that a tile placement mechanism would be appropriate for creating interesting lava flows to be directed toward the outer edges of the board. I decided that hex tiles would work best in this case, specifically for the interesting potential of six angles of rotation.
Just placing tiles to direct lava toward the villages was clearly not enough to make an enjoyable game. So I thought about what I would do if I lived in a village that was being threatened by molten lava flows, besides dropping everything and running for my life. For the purposes of game play, I figured it wasn't unreasonable for villagers to build barriers to hold back the lava for a while. These barriers (i.e., walls) could consist of different materials of varying strengths (straw, wood and stone) that might be available to an ancient village on a Pacific island where volcanoes are commonly found. A wall built of any of these materials probably wouldn't stand a chance of permanently blocking a river of molten lava, but it seemed to have the potential for interesting game play.
If I were a villager building a wall to shield my village from a lava flow, I figured that the next step after its completion would be to stand back and hope for the best. Ultimately, a dice roll was determined to be the best solution for modeling this scenario. With one die serving as the lava and another as the wall, whichever rolled higher would be the victor. Lava, being the most powerful, would get ties. Stronger materials would have additional points added to the "wall" die to increase its strength against the lava.
One thing was still missing in order for me to have a playable prototype: some means of monitoring the "health" of each village. So I created a simple track around the edges of the board, the beginning stages of the Burn Meter.
As I typically do, I drafted the first prototypes for testing in the ZunTzu platform, which allows me to iron out any initial design flaws in a digital environment prior to wasting time and supplies putting together a physical prototype. After tweaking the design enough to create a somewhat playable game, the first physical prototypes were born – but the game was nowhere near where it needed to be.
Erupting into Production
This is the part of the story where, if this were a movie, music starts playing and months of effort and progress are compressed into a triumphant and dramatic scene, like Rocky running up the stairs. As any game developer can attest, countless hours must be spent testing, fine-tuning, and testing some more. Luckily, some really great people stepped up to the plate to try this game and they have helped improve it dramatically, including Seth Jaffee, the Gamesmiths guild, and numerous testers from near and far from the Stratus Sphere club. There has been a lot of effort put into diversifying the group of playtesters in order to ensure the best experience for a wide variety of gaming backgrounds.
In a nutshell, here is a list of the various tweaks that needed to be made, along with a brief explanation:
• Inclusion of action cards
Just placing Lava Tiles and building walls got boring very quickly. More strategy and interaction was added in the form of various action cards, which were added to and changed over time to include the most useful abilities.
• Wall availability
In the original prototypes, a large number of walls was provided to each player, who could strategically arrange them into a queue at the beginning of the game. This proved to be unsuccessful and was instead replaced with a scarce supply, with the ability to get more walls by placing tiles on resource spaces and trading in action cards for walls.
• Amount of interesting decisions
The ability to build walls not only inside a village, but on specific lava flows was introduced. Dual-use action cards were also created to enforce a decision each time a card is played: whether to carry out the specified action or retrieve an extra wall instead.
• Balance of scores
The game started out with polarized scores (temperatures), with little or no chance of catching up. Once a village started to burn, it kept burning without fail. The inclusion of action cards helped to alleviate this problem significantly. However, an additional catch-up mechanism was needed, and thus the Danger Zones were born. (Insert Kenny Loggins joke here.) After much tweaking, providing extra abilities to players with higher temperatures ultimately proved to offer greater balance. In addition, Eruption Tiles were added, both to enhance the theme and give the losing player the ability to do some additional damage. With these enhancements, the game tends to be fairly close, often with the winner not being decided until the final round of play.
• Game length and pace
Each turn consists of damage assessment, tile placement, action cards, and wall building. Turns tend to move quickly, but even a streamlined game can be over-analyzed and take an exorbitant amount of time to play. From the beginning, there were many obvious tweaks that needed to be made to reduce the number of turns per game and ensure a more enjoyable experience.
First, the original board size was far too large. Since the real fun begins once lava reaches some of the villages, the board size evolved into smaller and smaller designs. The smaller board also allowed for lava flows to more easily "jump" from village to village instead of requiring a direct path to each village. The number of tiles, the number of walls, the length of the Burn Meter, and the resolution of burn damage also needed to be tweaked significantly in order to find the right balance. In the end, a sweet spot of 30 to 60 minutes average play time was achieved, depending on the number of players. This allows enough time for an interesting story arc without becoming overly long.
The evolution of the Eruption game board, from start to finish
The design of the production artwork and rulebook is a process of tweaking and adjusting all on its own, but Andy Kurzen and Matt Plett have done a nice job of bringing everything together with a visually appealing artistic theme. You can see that rulebook for yourself by downloading the English rules (PDF) from the Stratus Games website. In addition, you can preorder Eruption for delivery in October 2011.
Coupled with high quality components and wooden walls and scoring markers, this game will look and feel fantastic. It has received a lot of positive feedback from playtesters, and I am very pleased with how it has turned out. Many thanks to all who have contributed to this project!
Though dice games have been earning a little more respect lately in strategy gaming circles, they are still overwhelmingly known for the unexpected twists of fortune and frustration they can include, due to those "small cubic luck bringers". I wouldn't label it luck, however, just as I would not attribute to luck the design and publishing process of a dice game from Bernd Eisenstein and myself – Alea Iacta Est – though there were plenty of unexpected twists that made it as interesting an experience as any game...
It Began as a Friendly (Design) Competition
Back in 2006 I heard about a game design competition on the Internet for two-player games using components that were common in every household (playing cards, dice, pawns, poker chips etc.). Each year, the competition organizers also had a theme for the competition, and that year it was "dice games". Since I had been designing games with Bernd, I thought it would be fun to challenge him to a "contest within the contest" to see what each of us could come up with. Because they were two-player games, we could easily playtest our ideas. I came up with two different games, and Bernd came up with a cool take on Tug-o-War using dice and pawns.
One of my games was titled Castles and Crowns – described in detail on my Berlin Game Design blog – and involved placing groups of dice in order to win various cards: Castles which were worth a set amount of points, and Nobles who were worth more as sets. There were also special dice, such as Mercenaries, Captains, and Traitors, that had special functions along with each player's eight Knight dice.
Castles and Crowns
I missed the deadline for the competition, but it must have been discontinued anyway, as no results were ever posted. I put the idea to the side while I worked on other projects, but after a year, I came back to it. I began thinking of more dimensions I could add to the original framework. The idea of making a full-fledged board game out of it became exciting to me, especially when it combined two of the hottest current mechanisms in gaming at the time: dice and worker placement.
The important thing in developing the game further was to provide enough placement options to players so that they could do meaningful things with any dice roll. My next prototype was called Feudal Dice and included a board with three different areas where dice could be placed. The battlefields, where Castle Cards were awarded to the player with the most dice in each, were similar to my original idea. To that, I added a Court, where lower dice would be more valuable in winning Noble cards. The Nobles were worth points, however, only when housed in a castle of matching color. A maximum of two nobles could be housed in a castle, one male and one female.
There were also special nobles who provided end-game bonuses. This added a set-collecting element to the game. The third area for dice placement was the Market, where dice of different numbers could be placed on various stands to earn money. This was important to give players another option when they rolled dice of different values. The money earned from the Market could be used to pay for extra dice (the Mercenaries) or as bonus victory points at the end of the game.
After several playtests, I felt that there needed to be further uses for the money in the game, and I also wanted cards that allowed player's special rule-breaking powers when rolling and placing their dice. I created a fourth area of the board, the Building Site, where two special buildings were up for sale each round, costing one die each and an amount of money (which decreased each round as the buildings could not be used as often when built late in the game).
The Die Is Cast...with a Publisher
I sent the game to a German publisher, who liked it very much, but their program was so full at that time that they recommended I shop it around for a few months and possibly enter it in the Hippodice competition. Another German publisher playtested in for half a year, and it just missed their final cut, so I took it to Nuremberg, where I showed it to Stefan Brück of alea.
He was very interested, and even suggested we change the game to a Roman theme and name it Alea Iacta Est to go with the publishing company's title. But I had to move back to the U.S. for six months, and Stefan likes to work closely with his designers. I asked Bernd whether he would be interested in becoming my co-designer since he was familiar with every iteration of the game and had participated in its development from the start. He gladly accepted and worked hard together with Stefan in fine-tuning the game and playtesting it extensively.
Stefan Brück (second from the left) and Bernd (second from right) playtest the final prototype
A Triumvirate: Three Heads Are Better than One
The first thing to go was the money, as the dice were the real "currency" in the game. Instead, the nobel cards that offered special end-of-game bonuses were moved to the market area of the board (renamed the "church"), where "straights" of dice would continue to be placed. The winner there chose from three face-down cards, however, so that the other players would not know which bonuses were in their opponents' hands.
The special dice – the captains, mercenaries, and traitors – were also removed from the game. Forty dice was the maximum that Stefan could include, and that was just enough for the eight dice per player in a five-player game.
The battlefields, which previously held one castle card each, were reduced to one battlefield where the winner had first choice of the face-up cards, second place could choose next, etc. This increased the competition considerably.
The court went through several iterations, ranging from guaranteed seats for each player to the final mechanism of the lower dice pushing the higher ones out the back door! The court also awarded players who were placing dice later in the round, which provided a nice balance to the battlefield, where it was advantageous to place dice early in the round.
And finally, Stefan thought that it was too frustrating for players to invest large amounts of their dice on the board only to come up empty-handed, so we added "re-roll chips" that could be used by players later in the game or turned in for bonus victory points at the end.
At the end of the summer I was also able to test the game in its current form with a couple of different gaming groups in South Carolina. They were very gracious in trying out a prototype from a complete stranger! This allowed me to develop the Senat cards further, increasing their number to 19, and to bring my own feedback to Bernd and Stefan as I prepared to return to Berlin in October 2008.
Then in November, Stefan came to Berlin for two days of intensive playtesting. We had finally decided that the building cards, which had provided special actions when rolling or placing dice, added too many rules without enhancing the game play significantly. But we needed a fourth area for dice placement, so Bernd and I came up with four different options to try. They were all interesting in their own right, but in the end, we did not use any of them because they detracted from the heart of the game. Instead we developed a fifth option during playtesting that we decided to use in the finished design. In any case, there are plenty of ideas for expansions!
And of course, we finally made the changes in the theme so that the battlefields were now the barracks or "Castrum", the court was now the Forum Romanum, the church became the "Senatus", and the market became the "Templum". Putting everything together gives us the following summary of game play:
Players take on the role of Caesar and compete for the most prestige points. This happens by clever placement of their eight dice, which are placed on five different buildings. At the Castrum (barracks), new provinces can be conquered, while patricians can be recruited at the Forum Romanum to be sent to those provinces. At the Senatus, cards can be won for bonuses that will be kept secret until the end of the game. The Templum awards prestige points directly from the Goddess Fortuna.
Each die that does not win a spot at any of these locations finishes the round at the Latrina, where it provides its owner with a "repete!" chip, which can be used to re-roll dice or traded in two-to-one for prestige points at the end of the game.
Each building has special rules as to how the dice can be placed, allowing many tactical possibilities with any roll of the dice. Each round ends when one player has placed her last die, and after five or six rounds, depending on whether you have 4-5 or 2-3 players, the patricians are organized in their provinces, the senate cards are revealed, and the scores are totaled. The player with the most prestige points wins!
Each round, players take turns rolling their dice (of which they have eight to start) and placing one or more of them in one of the five buildings. When one player places her last die, the round is played to its completion, then the five buildings are scored. Each building has different placement rules:
• Templum: The first player to place here places one die of any value, then takes one of the face-down prestige point tiles (worth 1-3 points each), looks at it, and places it face-down in front of him. The second player to place here must place exactly two dice, which must have a higher combined value than the first die placed. That player takes two tiles from the Templum and looks at them in the same way as the first player. The next player to place here must place three dice with a total value exceeding the two previously placed dice, and that player takes three tiles, etc. Note: A player who already has one or more dice at the Templum simply adds a die or dice to make the correct amount. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice at the Templum keeps any two of his tiles and turns them face-up. All other players with dice there keep one tile each.
• Senatus: A player places any "straight" of dice here (for example: 3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4). You may not place a straight that is identical to one already placed. At the end of the round, the player with the most dice in a straight draws three Senate Cards from the stack and chooses one to keep, face-down. The player with the secondmost dice chooses one card of the remaining two. If there is a tie in the number of dice, then the tiebreaker is the highest value die in the straight. (For example, if a player already has 3-4-5, you may place 4-5-6 or 2-3-4-5, each of which is higher.) The Senate card offers end-of-game bonuses, such as allowing patricians to be sent to provinces that do not match their color, or giving a player a one-point bonus for every province tile, etc.
• Castrum (barracks): As many province tiles as the number of players are drawn each round. Here, the players place one or more dice of the same value. A player may place more than one group here during the round (but only one per turn). Again, you are not allowed to place a group of dice that exactly matches an opponent's group that was already placed here. (For example, if an opponent has 5-5-5, you may place 5-5 or 5-5-5-5.) You may also reinforce a group you placed earlier with more dice of the same value, provided you do not match any other group. At the end of the round, the group with the most dice (tie-breaker: highest value) brings that player first choice of the province tiles. The secondmost player is awarded second choice, and so on, until all province tiles for the round are taken or all dice groups have been awarded. Note: Since one player is allowed to place more than one group during the round, it is possible for a single player to win several province tiles. There are six different colors of province tiles, each worth 1-4 points, but they are worth 1 point less if there is no patrician of a matching color in that province at the end of the game.
• Forum Romanum: There are 5-7 patrician tiles drawn from the pile each round (depending on number of players). They are each worth 1-3 points and are male and female. A player may place one die of any value or two dice with a total value of 5 (1+4 or 2+3) in the Forum Romanum. The lower valued dice are more valuable here, and a die is always placed to the left of any dice equal to or higher, shifting the other dice to the right. There are only as many spaces for dice as the number of patricians (5-7), and when a die is shifted off the board, it lands in the Latrina (see below). At the end of the round, the die farthest to the left awards its player first choice of the patricians, the next die awards second choice, etc. The patricians are worthless at the end of the game if a province of matching color is not found for them. A player may send a male or female to a province, or send one of each as a pair, but both have to match that province's color.
• Latrina: All dice not used by players at the end of the round, and dice that fail to win a province tile, patrician tile or senate card are placed here. Each die here awards its owner with a "repete!" or re-roll chip. These chips allow a player to re-roll any number of his dice during a turn, or they can be saved for the end of the game, where two chips are worth 1 prestige point each.
Jeffrey D. Allers
Editor's note: This preview first appeared on BoardgameNews.com on February 13, 2009.
The development and eventual publication of Nitro Dice is a long and convoluted story involving numerous publishers. I will not be naming any of them except for the one – Minion Games – that eventually picked it up.
Way back in the mists of time, circa 2003-2004 I was experimenting with alternate uses for dice in games, attempting to find potential in using them for pretty much anything other than just a randomizer. All manner of dice with common numbering and custom faces were considered and from such experiments came curiosities such as the abstract games Op-Position, Coffee & Tea, and the minimalist Arrow Cubes.
Although I enjoyed creating and playing these games, none of them gripped my attention like the other idea that was spawned by this exploration: a card game which I worked on under the name "Die Racing". Since I was endeavoring to use dice in an unusual manner, it's no surprise I was of a mind to do the same with cards. Die Racing uses dice as cars (with the speed visible at a glance) and segmented cards as the track so there is some real jockeying for position with multiple lanes involved. Players move based on their speed, discarding cards from their hand to change lanes, trying not to discard ones they may need later. The cards are also used to accelerate, break, and place hazards. It's an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket sort of game.
Having had the hydra known as parallel development rear its ugly heads before, I decided to see whether anyone had already done something similar. To be certain, I searched a well-known online game database, which at the time had a couple of thousand items recorded. I looked through every item listed as a race + card game, finding nothing significant similar. With my fears quelled I dug in and worked on the game alone, doing solo tests where I played as all six players to work out the mechanisms. It wasn't long before that process yielded all it could. I knew several other game designers in my area and did my first real playtests with them. As a first filter you can't beat game designers for feedback. The results were encouraging enough to spring the game on some testers who I didn't know personally.
This brings us to our first publisher. While I was testing Die Racing in the Penguicon game room, a publisher in attendance took notice of the novelty of the design and asked to see more. Let's call him "Joe" (not his real name) so that I don't have to keep saying "the publisher". My early prototype was minimalist, printed on 110# card stock which is barely thick enough to shuffle properly and just opaque enough to keep the other players from knowing your hand. It was also quite small.
No, I don't have freakishly large hands. The prototype was really small.
The first prototype had fulfilled its purpose. It was time to make something sturdy for heavy testing. Joe supplied me with hundreds of blank playing cards so that I could make a better prototype. Over several months we tested and refined the design, addressing runaway leaders, the details of cornering, and road-blocking issues. We also changed the focus from point A to point B races to multiple lap races since this is where the hazards really come into their own. Although Joe had great faith in the game, this particular company's process of choosing new titles is done by the board of directors, not just by him. Two of the board members happened to be coming through the area on business and I got to show it to them in person which is always great. After some deliberation, the game was turned down because it wasn't quite right for their product line.
This left me with a fairly polished design but no publisher. Knowing my disappointment, Joe was nice enough to get me in contact with a rather large German publisher he did regular business with. He thought they might be interested since they maintain a large line of card games. Their decision came quickly. They said it was a good game, noted its expandability, and even noticed that multiple sets could be used together – but even with all that they said they couldn't publish it. The reason set me back on my heels a bit. The game was too large for their small boxes and too small for their large boxes. That's right – the game was the wrong size! That's the first time Joe or I had heard this reason but after having it explained to us it made sense.
Being tenacious Joe took the game with him on a trip to Italy and found a publisher that was interested in co-publishing it with their American, Spanish and French partners. More prototypes were made so that each partner could have their own copy. At that time the deck had 112 cards, so I became quite good at building decks. There was a catch, though – they wanted changes, and the changes turned out to be extensive. Road racing is very big in Italy and they thought that the game mechanisms lacked realism. I had at this point been working on this game for over two years but listened to and adressed their concerns. I worked out a way to simulate high-speed cornering within the confines of the current system. It added a full page to the rules, and limited a player's options.
You see it was really quite simple to understand with everything color coded.
I was only moderately happy with the result but still pleased at the prospect of getting published. All of a sudden, however, they changed their mind and wanted it made into a chariot-racing game with new mechanisms to match. While I was trying to get them to reconsider, the Italian economy caught up with them and they dropped all but one title from their development queue for the rest of the year. A while later they decided not to publish the game at all but the partners were still interested as long as a replacement partner could be found. As you can probably guess, that never happened. The search lasted nearly a year.
Once again a ship without a port. The game sat dormant until late 2008 when I started working with an overseas publisher that was looking for multiple games to start a new product line. I showed them several designs, including Die Racing. They immediately became interested in two of them. Neither of the two were Die Racing. They felt it was too complicated for their audience. I offered to simplify it and provided them with a motorcycle-racing themed version for kids. They turned it down again. I couldn't simplify it further without ruining the fundamental mechanisms, so back on the shelf it went.
Fast-forward to July 2010. For those who don't know, I run the game designers conference known as Protospiel in Ann Arbor, Michigan each year. Some attendees arrived the night before the event, which coincided with one of the Ann Arbor Gaming Groups meetings. We hold our meetings at local restaurants, have dinner, then play games. Over dinner I was chatting with Keven Nunn, designer of such games as Duck! Duck! Go!, Rolling Freight and VeloCity. VeloCity is a racing game that was coming out at the time, and it got us talking about racing game mechanisms. I described Die Racing and Kevin, being a race game enthusiast, asked to see it. I dug out one of my better prototypes and packed it along with the other games I still needed to get tested. During a lull, Kevin and I grabbed some willing participants. This is where fate or luck comes in. The game accommodates up to six players, and two of those players were our guests from Minion Games, including the owner James Mathe.
Although he hated the working title, James was interested and asked to take the prototype with him. Having had the game sit on the shelf for such a long time, I wanted to make sure none of the Italian complexity remained in the rules and told him I would deliver it to him at Gen Con, which I did. His testing group gave it a high rating and the usual process of developing the design to fit the publisher's vision started again. He saw it as a drift racing game and that meant adding the nitrous oxide boost. No problem; I liked the idea and easily integrated it without compromising the design. We also added the garage for brutal races where you can't avoid taking damage. That being settled, the game was put on the fast track. Rules layout, editing and artwork commenced. This part was quite enjoyable since I got to weigh in on all aspects from character design to rules layout.
There was still the name issue to deal with. To go with the theme we considered several names including "Nitro Card Racing" but thought that Nitro Dice sounded like more fun and represented the "car dice" better, even though it's not a dice game. The game is due out in June 2011, hopefully in time to have copies for Origins 2011. That's less than a year from submission to publication, but what do you expect – race games should be fast.*
David E. Whitcher
P.S. I'm still friends with Joe.
* Yes, I realize this is an ironic statement for a game that took seven years to get published.
Researcher in AI and automated game design.
In November 2007, a new board game called Yavalath was invented. The rules of Yavalath are simple: Players take turns adding a piece of their colour to a hexagonal board and win by making four-in-a-row of their colour – but lose by making three-in-a-row beforehand.
Fig. 1 – Yavalath puzzle: White to play and win.
Fig. 1 shows a Yavalath puzzle by way of example. What is White's only winning play? Hint: Consider what happens if Black is allowed to play at either cell marked X.
Yavalath has proven reasonably popular as its simple rules allow interesting and surprising situations to develop due to its innovative win with four but lose with three winning condition. But Yavalath is really set apart from the many other board games invented in 2007 by one remarkable fact: Yavalath was designed by a computer programme.
This computer programme, called Ludi, creates games by taking the rules of existing games and scrambling them into new combinations using genetic programming (GP) techniques of crossover and mutation. New games are tested through selfplay trials and assigned a quality score based on their estimated potential to interest human players, hence the complete process of design, testing and evaluation is entirely automated. Ludi creates a unique name for each evolved game using a Markovian process seeded with Tolkien-style words.
Ludi produced 1,389 new games over a four week run, of which it deemed 19 to be playable and of varying degrees of interest. It ranked Yavalath as the fourth best evolved game, while a group of human player testers found Yavalath to be the second most interesting of the evolved games. However, it was obvious from the moment the game arrived that Yavalath had a special quality about it, and it has since emerged as the clear favourite and now stands as a game in its own right. The game caught the attention of Néstor Romeral Andrés and was commercially published by nestorgames in 2009.
The nestorgames edition
Yavalath is played on a hexagonal field of hexagons which is initially empty. The standard board size is five cells per side (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2 – The Yavalath board.
Two players, White and Black, take turns adding a piece of their colour to an empty cell. A player wins by making four-in-a-row of their colour (or more) but loses by making three-in-a-row of their colour without also making 4-in-a-row (or more). If the board fills without either player winning or losing, then the game is a draw.
Swap Rule: White makes the first move, then Black has the choice of either swapping colours – effectively stealing the first move – or continuing with their move as usual. This discourages White from making an overly strong opening near the board centre.
The key tactical play in Yavalath is the forcing move, as shown in Fig. 3. White move 1 threatens to make a line of four white pieces next turn, hence Black is forced to play blocking move 2 to intervene. Unfortunately for Black, this forced blocking move completes a line of three black pieces to lose the game.
Fig. 3 – A forcing move by White.
Games are typically won using sequences of such forcing moves to manipulate the opponent into disadvantageous and ultimately losing positions. Long sequences of forcing moves can be difficult to predict correctly, especially if forced replies by the opponent themselves trigger further forced replies from the mover, and so on. Hence players can plan ahead with some certainty but must be careful of any surprises that might lie in wait once a forced exchange is triggered.
With this in mind, consider the simple puzzle introduced earlier (Fig. 4): White to play and win.
Fig. 4 – White to play and win.
A Black move 1 at either cell X will force a losing reply 2 from White, as shown in Fig. 5. Hence Black must not be allowed to make either of these moves, and the only way to achieve this is for White to go on the offensive with forcing moves of their own.
Fig. 5 – Black can force a win with either move X.
White has three forcing moves available to them, marked a, b and c in Fig. 4. A move 1 at either a or b would indeed force a reply 2 from Black as shown in Fig. 6, but each of these replies would in turn force a losing reply 3 from White. Such forcing moves that come back to hurt the mover are called rebounds (similar to the Go concept of "snap-backs").
Fig. 6 – Forcing moves a and b lose for White.
The only non-losing choice available to White is therefore move 1 at c, as shown in Fig. 7. This move forces a harmless reply 2 from Black and sets up White for another forcing move 3 which forces another harmless reply 4. White can now play move 5 which forces Black to make losing move 6.
Fig. 7 – Forcing move c is White's only winning play.
Triangular piece formations tend to form very strong patterns. For example, the small size-2 triangle shown in Fig. 8 allows White to launch a variety of winning attacks.
Fig. 8 – The small size-2 triangle is a strong pattern.
Figures 9 and 10 show forced winning sequences by White both above the triangle's apex (9) and below its base (10). Given that both of these attacks can be applied in each of three rotations and two reflections, it is difficult for the opponent to block all possible attacks from the small triangle; all three sides of the triangle must be blocked. Players must therefore be wary of the opponent forming such patterns unless suitable precautions are taken.
Fig. 9 – White can force a win above...
Fig. 10 – ...and can force a win below.
Medium size-3 and large size-4 triangles (Figures 11 and 12) are also strong formations that allow forced wins, as shown. However, medium and large triangles are easier to block - it is usually sufficient to block one side - and hence do not present as much danger as small triangles.
Fig. 11 – Medium size-3 triangles allow a forced win.
Fig. 12. – Large size-4 triangles allow a forced win.
First Move Advantage
White has a huge (winning) advantage if allowed an unconstrained opening move. Fig. 13 shows how White can form a small triangle with their first three moves, which Black is helpless to defend against. This strong opening was first pointed out by Néstor Romeral Andrés in 2011.
Fig. 13 – A strong (winning) opening for White.
Fig. 14 shows how it is possible to block a small triangle on all three sides with only three pieces. However, White can choose which way to orient the triangle with their third piece to avoid this situation; Black would have to catch White napping to achieve such a blockade.
Fig. 14 – Black foils White.
The solution to this imbalance is the swap rule, which enables Black to swap colours in lieu of making their first move, which discourages White from making an overly strong opening move. This rule is used successfully to balance openings in a number of combinatorial games.
Fig. 15 – Swappable openings.
Fig. 15 (left) shows opening moves that Black should swap. The large dots represent moves that should undoubtably be swapped, while the small dots represent moves that appear to be reasonably balanced. Opening moves in unmarked cells need not be swapped as their proximity to the board edge reduces the danger of the small triangle on that side. A general rule of thumb: Swap any opening move that is three or more cells away from the board edge.
Fig. 15 (right) shows the best opening moves for White. Opening moves along the board edge are too weak to consider, while openings one cell away from the edge (marked "1") are weak but plausible. Opening moves two cells away from the edge (marked "2") are stronger and reasonably balanced, and the opponent will not necessarily swap such a move.
Draws, although possible, are extremely rare. Players generally tend to make a fatal mistake due to the difficulty of correctly predicting forced sequences, or are forced into making a losing move as the number of available move choices dwindles in the end game.
Fig. 16 – A indecisive fill pattern.
Fig. 16 shows a possible fill pattern that precludes a result, but which will not occur in standard play unless both players conspire for a draw.
Yavalath works well as a three-player game. The standard two-player rules apply as specified by Ludi, with the following additions:
a) Any player to make three-in-a-row is removed from the game
(but not their pieces).
b) The mover must block the next player if possible.
Rule a) allows the game to continue when a player loses but a winner is not yet decided between the remaining two players. Rule b) removes a potential king-maker effect, which is the undesirable ability of a losing player to decide the outcome of a game. The move order is: White, Black, Grey.
For example, Fig. 17 shows a three-player game with Grey to move. Grey must move at a to block White, then White must move at b to block Black and hence lose the game. If rule b) were not in effect, then Grey would be free to choose between a White loss (or a Black win) with move a or a White win with any other move. Example by Stephen Tavener.
Fig. 17 – Grey must block White at a.
The three-player version was devised as a natural extension of the two-player game shortly after its invention in 2007.
To celebrate the second anniversary of Yavalath's publication, we're running a tournament on igGamecenter. Please participate for a chance to win a copy of the game!
Computational Creativity Group
Imperial College London
Dark Horse, to be released by Knight Works in late 2011, will be my first professionally printed game. During this process, I've learned that designing board games is a unique hobby in and of itself. Once someone feels that they have an excellent idea, the realities of how hard it is to publish a game slowly set in.
I have dabbled with serious board game design since around 2000. The first game that I self-published, Shadow Wars, was produced by hand. My wife and I printed, cut, collated, laminated, and boxed all of the components for the game. The game materials, pieces and printer ink cost me roughly $16 per game – not to mention taking more than two hours to produce – and I charged only $32 for a copy. I ended up selling roughly 75 games before my supplies ran out. I learned quickly that producing games by hand was tedious and not something that I wanted to do in my spare time.
So now a decade later I have five or so rough game ideas and three games very close to a final prototype stage. The problem with getting these ideas out to the public has always been coming up with the funding to print a game. Once I stumbled across the Kickstarter site, I was sold instantly. I put together a video and launched the Kickstarter campaign within a few weeks. Of the various ideas I have been working on over the past ten years, I am most excited to see the Dark Horse board game hit game tables around the world. So on that note, I wanted to share some of the history behind the game and explain the origins of the initial design.
Back in 2002 I threw together the rough mechanisms for a Wild West board game. At that time I had even commissioned five pieces of artwork from my current card illustrator for the game. I had always wanted to brainstorm a western-themed game idea, but I wanted it to revolve around building up territories using both cities and railroads. I have always had a soft spot for building games and I love that mechanism. I picked at the concept occasionally but for the most part it sat on my computer for over five years before I revisited it in 2007.
As with many ideas, they usually start with a simple concept and slowly build up over time. Dark Horse originally revolved around players moving characters on the board to collect resources but after receiving feedback on that idea the mechanism was scrapped. I needed to find some way for players to take various actions and collect resources, but I did not want to create yet another dull worker placement game. I started looking around the different categories on BoardGameGeek and stumbled across Kingsburg. I was impressed by how the designers used dice for worker placement and I started cranking out ideas on how to use this in Dark Horse.
One thing that I didn't care for in Kingsburg was that a majority of the actions only allowed you to claim various combinations of resources. Another thing that bothered me was that there was very little tension in taking actions as players had numerous choices from which to pick. I also wanted the players in Dark Horse to be able build out a territory. I knew early on that my final design would be different than other dice-based games similar to Kingsburg, but it was really a race at this point to get the game on the market.
Numerous ideas stewed in my head for another year and I kept jotting down comments on the various actions and different types of characters that a player could use. As the first prototype hit the table in 2009, it was apparent to me that the main building actions in the game needed to be the focal point of the dice placement. What surprised me the most when designing the game was the level of effort that it took to balance all of the actions. In Dark Horse players have different ways to manipulate their dice, so relying upon dice ratios was almost useless. I felt that it was necessary that players were not penalized if they rolled a specific number on their dice, so even though another player may block someone from a specific action that player still has options for taking something that will help their overall goal in the game.
One aspect that I wanted to explore early on when designing the core mechanisms for the game was a possible expansion. This ended up benefiting the overall game and some expansion mechanisms have even migrated to the core game.
I never really considered this before, but I wonder whether larger publishers consider potential expansion ideas when designing the core game? In my experience this has refined and balanced the core concepts in Dark Horse considerably. For example, I knew that I wanted players to obtain progress cards in the expansion. These cards would be represented by actual improvements and buildings in the 1800s. For example, one of my progress cards for the expansion is called "Steam Donkey" and before I did the research I never knew anything like that existed. If players enjoy Dark Horse and choose to pick up the expansion they will have the benefit of knowing that the core game was developed hand-in-hand with the expansion ideas.
Beta test card sample
Business as Usual?
When I started Knight Works in 2001, I wanted to do something different. I wanted the players, supporters, and fans of our games to have some control over what gets published. I am not talking about any sort of open source gaming, which I know exists out there. What I am leaning towards is opening up certain elements of the alpha and beta development to the entire game community so that fans of a specific game project would have an inside track on thematic elements and components within the game and be able to take surveys and polls to decide on game content. As the game nears completion, even more ideas and mechanisms start to unfold and the first rough beta test rules hit the public.
If you think about most publishers, the games that they create are almost in a perfect vacuum. The game community may see a few product shots and read some generic descriptions as the game nears its final stages but that's about it. Of course, playtesters are involved, but if you are not included in the playtest groups then honestly you will not know much about a game until it reaches the final stages of development.
I want to change this black-and-white approach and bring the gamers and fans into the equation. This all starts with the Dark Horse board game and will continue on with its expansion and every other game that Knight Works produces. In fact, the $60 reward level on my Kickstarter campaign will form the basis of the first "insiders" group.
So after almost a year of playtesting various versions of the game and easily hundreds upon hundreds of game sessions, I feel comfortable with releasing Dark Horse. The Kickstarter campaign is coming close to its end date and unfortunately I was late in getting out my review copies. However, various board game reviewers now have the game and will be posting articles very soon. I am crossing my fingers that this will be what the project needs for the last few weeks. For more information, please check out the Dark Horse Kickstarter page.
Limited Edition Character Card for Kickstarter Supporters
W. Eric Martin
• G4 has posted an unboxing video of Wizards of the Coast's Conquest of Nerath.
• Clicker Spiele has noted two releases for 2011 on its website: a second edition of Fliegen naschen limited to 99 copies and a second edition of Blue presented in a tin case.
• Günter Cornett of Bambus Spieleverlag announced in his June 2011 newsletter that he will have a hand-made version of Pingvinas – aka, Hey, That's My Fish! – available at Spiel 2011. No word on how many copies might be available or what one might cost.
• Steve Jackson Games has posted a ten-image photo series of what goes on at its manufacturer in China. The reality is far less glamourous than you might expect.
• Dice Hate Me previews Dark Horse, a game project currently live on Kickstarter, and interviews designer Don Lloyd. I'm posting a designer diary from Lloyd on Monday, June 6, so check back if you want to learn more about the game.
• Stefan Brück notes in the alea Q&A forum that the 10th anniversary edition of Puerto Rico will be at least twice as expensive as the regular edition. The details on what that edition will contain and look like will be released in Q3 2011.
• Tikal II is now playable online on Jeux sur un Plateau. (You need to set up an account on JSP in order to reach the online games section.)
• Not new, but new to me: TricTrac.net highlighted "Life Size Mousetrap", a full-scale version of the Mouse Trap game from the 1960s. Nostalgia is a right powerful force...
• OT and self-serving: My game auction/moving sale with 201 listings ends Monday, June 6 at 8 pm EDT. Titles up for grabs include Talisman (second edition) and four expansions, Marvel Heroes, Mutabohn and much more. A number of games have no bids yet (of course they're mostly sucky games, but still...), and many others have low prices. Add to your collection, while helping to cover my moving costs – we all benefit!
W. Eric Martin
Galen Ciscell's first board game – Atlantis Rising – will be released in Q3 2011 by Z-Man Games. Ciscell has been posting designer diary installments on the BGG game page every week or two, but I wanted to know more about the game and sent the following questions his way. Admittedly these questions might make more sense if you've read the rules for Atlantis Rising (PDF)...
WEM: What inspired the basic approach to Atlantis Rising? Why a co-op game? Why allow 2-6 players? Why set the game in Atlantis?
Galen Ciscell: As I detailed in my first Design Journal here on The Geek, Atlantis Rising was, from the start, a game created to my own preferences. It's co-op because co-op games are my favorite type of game; it can play with only two players because I usually play games with just my partner Chelsie; and it plays up to six because Chelsie and I usually play games with other couples when we play with other people, so capping a game at an odd number (like five players) is just frustrating for me. I chose the theme because (at the time of conception) there were very few good games with the Atlantis theme and because I enjoy fantasy. The theme also really drove the mechanisms of the game.
WEM: What pitfalls did you encounter and overcome when designing and developing the game? And how did you know when it was coming together as a finished design?
GC: Surprisingly, the game just flowed from the very first playtest. It has been through a fair number of tweaks since that initial session, but right away I knew I had hit upon something special with the press-your-luck, worker-placement element of the game. One of the biggest pitfalls was balancing the risk and reward of the various placements, which was resolved by changing the penalty for a bad placement from the permanent loss of an Atlantean to the temporary loss of that Atlantean.
Another design challenge was ensuring that the different options in the game were not only balanced against one another, but that they were also all fun for the players. I had to make changes to several councilors' special abilities, as well as the entire "Athenians Attack" phase, in order to make those councilors more fun for the players and to make contributing Atlanteans to the Atlantean Navy more enticing.
I guess I knew Atlantis Rising was nearing completion when everyone who playtested it had very little but praise to offer me. It just sort of felt finished (plus I was exhausted from dozens of playtests), so I sent it off to Zev at Z-Man Games. I actually did several more playtests after signing the contract with Z-Man, but those were mostly fine-tuning, not major overhauls to the rules.
WEM: Assuming you have some familiarity with the genre, how does Atlantic Rising differ from other co-op games? What might entice a player who hasn't enjoyed other co-op games? What might turn off a fan of Pandemic, Ghost Stories, etc., if anything?
GC: As a huge fan of cooperative games, I am extremely familiar with the genre. I own the games you mentioned, along with many other cooperative games and certainly drew from my experiences with those games when creating Atlantis Rising.
Aside from the recently released Brazillian game, Mehinaku, I believe Atlantis Rising is the only major worker-placement co-op game on the market, a feature that may attract players who might otherwise pass over the many cooperative games currently available.
A possible drawback for cooperative game players would be the lack of a current option for solo play, which I know is a much beloved feature of games like Ghost Stories and The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Atlantis Rising is easy enough to play solo by controlling two councilors, but I hope to release an official variant which will allow for a single player to play the game while controlling just one councilor.
WEM: How does the game play differ with the minimum and maximum number of players? I know that the attack track shows a different threat level for different player counts, but what differs in the pace or challenge of the game? What's your favorite player count and why?
GC: I honestly don't have a favorite player count, which is somewhat odd. I have played the game over 100 times with every different number of players and I enjoy it with more or fewer players for different reasons.
With fewer players there is more time to slowly develop a strategy and it's much more reasonable to take a few more risks, since fewer island tiles are likely to flood each round. The real challenge is getting all ten components built before the Athenians completely overwhelm you.
More players means more misfortunes each round, which makes for a more frantic game with a lot of tense, nail-biting moments, which I always love! The challenge is really more about coordinating who is building what, and you're more likely to lose from the misfortune cards than from not having enough Atlanteans to defend against the Athenians.
WEM: The Athenians come across as being a clock-like mechanism – not saying that's a bad thing! – that spurs players to action, while forcing them to divide their forces. Were they present from the start, and if not, how did they enter the design?
GC: The Athenians are indeed a mechanism that forces the issue of the destruction of the island in a set number of rounds. They were present almost from the very beginning of the game, and included for several reasons.
First, the Athenians-as-enemies-of-Atlantis are in Plato's account of Atlantis and theme was very important to me when designing this game (as I hope I've communicated in the rulebook). Second, the Athenians negate the possibility of the players simply collecting enough mystic energy each turn to cancel all of the misfortune cards and stall the game forever. Third, they allow the game to scale properly for a variable number of players. Fourth, the Athenians provide yet another placement option for players' Atlanteans – I really liked the idea of having one threat the players can't really anticipate or control (the misfortune deck) and one that they can (the Athenians). Fifth, because players will often lose the battle against the Athenians, resulting in the loss of one or more tiles, the Athenians provide one more opportunity for group decision-making (choosing which tiles to destroy) in the game.
WEM: Possibly tying in to the previous question, you've written in your diary about the challenge of getting the difficulty level right (while eventually conceding that having only one "right difficulty level" is an illusion). What is the difficulty level of Atlantis Rising for the various levels of play, say, as a percentage of wins to losses? How do those percentages change over time? What do people learn about the nature of game play that makes them better? What mistakes will first-timers always make?
GC: In terms of difficulty, I like to think of the levels in terms of what needs to happen for casual players to win, rather than a win/loss percentage. For instance, at the beginner level I expect anyone to be able to win, even if they are a bit unlucky, so long as they have any strategy whatsoever. Normal difficulty will take either a bit of luck or a bit of strategy to win; hard will take both; and cosmic difficulty will require some very solid strategy combined with good luck. All of the above difficulty levels approximate what I expect casual gamers to encounter in terms of difficulty. The removal of the starting mystic energy token for each player makes the game about as challenging for hardcore gamers or experienced players at each of the above levels as it would be for casual gamers playing with starting mystic energy.
In terms of the learning curve, people learn over time the value of always having enough mystic energy on hand to cancel a basic Flood misfortune, and the value of recruiting new Atlanteans early in the game. The latter is usually obvious to experienced gamers, but not always, while the former generally takes a few plays to realize for most everyone. First-time players almost always place their Atlanteans lower than necessary to achieve the same benefit (several tiles provide the same benefit, but some are closer to the sea than others) simply because they don't pay close attention to the tiles, and many first-time players will ignore the Athenian threat until it is too late! The biggest difference in strategy comes when groups actually begin to coordinate their actions rather than simply pursuing their own individual goals – this makes a huge difference in the win/loss percentage.
Atlantis Rising prototype
Fealty, designed by R. Eric Reuss and illustrated by Sarah Farooqi, is an territory control game being released by my company, Asmadi Games, that plays in a short amount of time, while packing a solid strategic punch and game-to-game variety.
Players are vying for control of a region, which is divided into multiple boards called Duchies – which are worth way more than three points! Each player has available to him the same group of nine units to place, and he must outmaneuver his opponents' placements in order to claim the most influence. Every individual piece has a different footprint of area over which it can exert control, with some pieces being restricted to certain terrain types such as forests. The example card shown below, the Ranger, can place influence on any forest squares within three spaces during scoring at the end of the game. The Ranger also has a special ability that occurs when he is played, allowing another of your pieces to move. Many of the pieces have such abilities, and using them effectively is critical to victory.
The central mechanism of the game is the speed of each piece. In the top left is a number ranging from 10 to 99, which is different for each card. (The base set contains cards 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and so on up to 95.) Influence isn't placed on the board until the end of the game after all pieces have been placed. Pieces claim area in speed order, starting from the lowest numbers on the board and going up. Thus, a low-numbered piece that claims only one space in each direction can block a high-numbered piece that would otherwise claim three or four spaces. Managing this interaction between different types of pieces is central to having a successful strategy.
The speed of each piece also affects the choices available of where to place them. The game lasts eight turns, and on a turn each player secretly chooses a card to play (representing one of their available pieces). The fastest card gets to place first that turn, which is important because each Duchy can be placed into by only one player each turn. You are also restricted by your existing pieces; you cannot place a piece in a row or column where you've previously played. As the game goes on, your available placements dwindle if you haven't planned well!
After all eight turns (in a standard game, players place eight of their nine units; in a short game six of nine), influence is placed as described above. Low pieces go first, high pieces last. Each square is worth only a single influence, except for the cities which are worth two. The player who has the most influence on the board wins! This picture above was taken after the final scoring on one of our prototypes. Here's a more detailed example of how scoring works, using only two pieces to simplify the situation. (Note: The starburst and four-diamond patterns flanking the large numbers are aides for the colorblind.)
Fealty's full release will come in Q4 2011. For now, Asmadi Games is producing 100 copies of a short run Limited Edition for $45, which will be hand assembled by us. The pieces will be wooden discs, with plastic chips for influence markers. Purchasers of the Limited Edition will receive a copy of the finished version this fall for the cost of shipping. (Boston-area buyers are welcome to pick up directly from us!) Fifty copies will be available for sale online, and fifty for sale at Origins 2011 at the GPA Showcase booth. Orders will ship before we leave for Origins. Orders for the Limited Edition are being handled on the Asmadi Games website.
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