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W. Eric Martin
• Probably not a surprise to anyone, but the Days of Wonder Ticket to Ride: Map Collection due out in October 2011 will not be a one-time release but the first in a series, as noted in this event notice from Alliance Game Distributors. (For those not familiar with this item, it's tied into a contest from DoW in which Ticket to Ride fans – or anyone really – could submit a map for a chance to win $10,000. Here's an update on the contest from late May 2011.)
• Bruno Faidutti has posted English and French rules for The Dwarf King on his website.
• Andrew Agard's Card Farm won Protospiel's 10th Anniversary Card Game Design Contest, and his design is now undergoing development for a planned release in 2012 with worldwide distribution. (Sponsors of the contest were ElfinWerks, Delano Services and Alliance Game Distributors, but for now the game's publisher is listed as "unknown" as the sponsors are working out who will be credited with the game's publication, according to Protospiel's David Whitcher.)
• Somewhat old news, but perhaps new to you: Jolly Roger Games plans to release Ted Torgerson's Free At Last as the next title in its line of history games. JRG's Jim Dietz says that the game will be out by Origins 2012 at the latest and will be packaged similar to Founding Fathers with preorders possibly opening as early as August 2011. Rules, counters, game board and other materials are available on the BGG game page, so feel free to check it out now.
Further updates from Jolly Roger Games: Dietz expects the final art for Pirates vs. Dinosaurs to be available by the end of July 2011, which might then tip the number of preorders over the required amount so the game can head to the printers. Dietz said that the game could be available in late September depending on how the preoders come in.
Finally, Philip duBarry's Family Vacation is now available for preorder on the JRG website for $20, with the expected final retail being around $35.
• Christian Lemay of Le Scorpion Masqué notes that Aldo Ghiozzi's Impressions is now carrying the publisher's English games – including Climb!, I Betcha... and the new for 2011 Trafffic – so they should be available to retailers no matter where you might live.
• Eric Franklin, who demoes games for Asmodee at conventions and edits some of the publisher's rules, has blogged about the next (possible) expansion for Dungeon Twister, that being Dungeon Twister: Traps.
• Larry Levy previews what is likely to be a Spiel 2011 release from designer Friedemann Friese, a solo deckbuilding game themed around Robinson Crusoe currently labeled "Freitag II" after Friese's Freitag game-design project.
• Sherlock is a cooperative memory game from designer Arnaud Urbon due to be released through his own Ilopeli in the near future. You can download the rules in four languages from the Ilopeli website or try the game now on Vassal Forge.
• Chris Kirkman at Dice Hate Me as posted a few details about Alien Frontiers: Factions, which he notes is due out March 2012. Clever Mojo's David MacKenzie notes that he plans to open a Springboard project for the expansion on September 1, 2011.
• Gigamic has released a new wood version of Claude Leroy's Gyges as part of its awesome series of chunky wood games that are as good to play as they are to look at.
• New games of interest in the BGG database include:
-----* D-Day Dice from Emmanuel Aquin, with the game being new in that Valley Games has picked up the print-and-play game and will release a professionally produced version in November 2011. Valley is running a poll on the cover art on BGG.
-----* Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan, another hidden movement game from designer Frederic Moyersoen (Nuns on the Run) that Alderac will debut at Gen Con 2011.
-----* Carnival from Dice Hate Me's Chris Kirkman and Cherilyn Joy Lee Kirkman. Naturally Chris has something to say about the game on Dice Hate Me.
-----* Shitenno, the third release from designer Cédric Lefebvre and French publisher Ludonaute, which is due out by Spiel 2011.
-----* Pyjamaparty and Kullerei mit Drachenei, two releases for the younger crowd from Selecta Spielzeug, both scheduled for a July 12, 2011 release.
(The final few items were in a post-in-progress when my time was completely consumed by moving. Thus, they are no longer new, but they might still be relevant, so here they are...)
• English rules (PDF) for The Road to Canterbury are now available through BGG.
• English rules (PDF) are also available for the new edition of Evo, coming from Asmodee/Descartes.
• Recently released titles include the international editions of Paris Connection, Lancaster and the New York Card Game (all from Queen Games); Innovation: Echoes of the Past (from Asmadi Games); Munchkin Zombies: Kill-O-Meter and Munchkin Cthulhu: Crypts of Concealment (both from Steve Jackson Games); For the Crown (from Victory Point Games); Murus Gallicus, International Checkers and ConHex (from nestorgames); and Slapshot (from Columbia Games).
A. B. West
Why aren't you PLAYING a game?
There's an old saying that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. For the game Ninjato this was absolutely true. Most of the 10 percent came quickly and easily during a phone call in June 2008. I was talking with my great friend Dan Schnake, co-designer of Ninjato. "Let's make a game with ninjas. Let's make it easy, too – and fast paced. It should finish up in 45 minutes. It'll be great! We'll have ninjas sneaking into houses!"
I'm sure many aspiring game designers have thoughts just like this. The problem with inspiration is the game itself always sounds fantastic – like it's almost in reach as soon as you finish the thought. Galactic Emperor was just like that. Ninjato on the other hand took nearly two years. The reality is game design is exceedingly hard to do well. I'm still searching for solid design rules to guide me and shorten the path (and time) to a great game design. So far, the only solid rule is to playtest repeatedly. During testing, it generally feels like wandering, so the process is uncomfortable. You do have to lay out objectives and goals for the game.
It's strange to look back through all our playtest and design notes. (I keep copious notes during design.) The game that is being published by Zev and Z-Man games is nothing at all like the versions before it. At one point, we had a version of the game with a map of a single temple. Another version had worker placement spots where you collected weapons and smoke bombs. We had a diluted share track akin to Chicago Express. We had a future of Japan track that was like a simplified Die Macher (as if that were possible). None of that found its way into the final design. In fact, the only thing that remained reasonably consistent was the concept of a game that played in about an hour and involved ninjas. Here are notes from over a hundred playtests:
Playtest #24: There are huge swings in the auction if one person begins to bid it up. For example, if a player bids five actions, it means giving that to another player – who is then more at liberty to bid some large amount to get what they want. This isn't necessarily bad, but it does make for some swingy decision – especially so if you have a newbie who bids higher than he should and gives actions to an experienced player.
Auction mechanisms are incredibly hard to build. Later we ditched the auction mechanism completely, although we did get to something pretty fun. In this design, your currency for the auction was your actions. Pretty interesting really. Maybe we'll use it in another game.
Playtest #36: There could easily be some complaints about luck, but the fact is: you can use Temple to scope out a house. However, you can't really act on it except in combination with House and Dojo. So it seems kinda worthless really. I mean – what do you do if you can see the cards? Decide what you need to take from the dojo. Else – there's *nothing* you can do – except avoid a stuffing by push your luck. I dunno. It just doesn't work really well.
We worked continually to reduce the amount of luck in the game. I often think in terms of what players would complain about or would suggest is the only reason for victory, and if they suggest it was all luck, the game isn't very strategic. Like all design elements, luck should be thoughtfully placed.
Early version of the game board
Playtest #43: One tester said at the last round: "I can't win!" This lead to a big discussion about possible plays by all the players. In the end, it turned out he did have a few choices, but none of them would get him points necessarily (or at all). This resulted in a king-making feeling. Although not guaranteed because other players would have to cooperate, it sure felt that way.
An important aspect of playtesting is being able to sit by quietly and see what the players do. In this test (which was really enjoyed by the players), at least one person felt there was no way to win. That sets up things like kingmaking from boredom or spite. This version of the game didn't last much longer either – even though I was very encouraged by this one playtest. I find you have to temper even great playtests by taking careful note of every bit of problem experienced by the players.
Playtest #52: The opening felt really bad and was generally a tone for the game. When a player has guard cards, they are going to go spend them on clan tokens. The only decision is which one – and there is a bit to think through – this is where the game feels a bit mathy. When you were low on cards, you pretty much went and got them – although there was a bit of decision making if you had (say) three pretty good cards – do you go ahead and take a house to get guard cards? That was kinda cool.
The essence of the game was being drawn out at this point. It's another important aspect of watching a game play: what worked well, what was enjoyed, what made the players laugh and joke and have fun? That's the stuff that needs to become the focus of the game. In Ninjato, we eventually knew that attacking the houses was the center of the game. Finding this type of focus early in design moves the rest of the design along faster.
Playtest #107: Favors although intentionally gathered and plotted out, scored too high in the end. In percentage, it was something like 52/124 - 40% of one player's score. That player had three swords 5 x 5 (so 25 pts), two elites 3 x 5 (15 pts), one skill (3 pts) and two honor favors: 9 pts. Total is 52. It should be no more than 30%. So with about 70 prior to favor scores, they should have gotten about 30-35 pts. Which means I would need to reduce the total by about 20 pts.
Much of game design revolves around math and statistics. Dan and I routinely fall back on computer simulations to figure out how something will work over thousands of plays. Here we were trying to get the end game "surprise" scoring to balance out. I dislike a game where a final surprise score blows away everything else in the game. In my opinion, no single scoring lane should outweigh any other scoring lane. In Ninjato, we adjusted the number of cards and frequency of rumors until the very last moment in design. I think this part of Ninjato is thematically sneaky and fun – especially the "Dishonorable Opponents" set that scores best if only you have managed to collect them. That was Dan's design idea. Brilliant.
As you can see, the 90 percent perspiration was a willingness to play the game over and over, then throw away whatever didn't work. After about thirty versions of the rules, I came to a point of nuking the entire thing. I literally threw out everything that was even slightly out of place, leaving only the core items that made the game work and made it fun.
It was then that the idea of playing cards to defeat guards came into focus – and another touch of inspiration which was the result of solving a simple problem when using cards: How do you make all the cards valuable to the players? This was especially troubling when we had numeric values on the cards. If we made high value cards most important, the low cards just fill up your hand. If low cards are what win, what about the high value cards? How do you make all the cards worthwhile? That was when I was inspired to let the player choose how they would invade a house: either by stealth (making low cards valuable) or strength (making high cards valuable). But then what about the middle value cards? They wouldn't be valuable in either situation. The solution was to make the middle card a regular value – and also a modifier to both high and low cards. Now every card is worthwhile and invading houses was thematic, too.
The other very important concept came from more perspiration: reading historical non-fiction on medieval Japan. Ninjas have appeared in board games before, but rarely with any sense of history. After reading the book The World Turned Upside Down by Pierre-Francois Souyri, it was immediately clear to me that we needed to use the clan rivals and the rise of the Bushido code as a backdrop to the game. Early on I was convinced to have indirect conflict in the game. To me, this means each player has a plausible, intermediate reason to interfere with an opponent. It isn't direct – there's always a mediating mechanism. The clan rivals of 12th century Japan were thematically perfect for this. Players would support and oppose a clan rather than simply themselves. If that interfered with other players, it was plausible deniability. They weren't directly attacking an opponent – they were merely furthering their own goals. This theme framed the game and refined all the ideas behind it.
Another important aspect of the game design is production values. I've watched BGG for years now and one thing that creates buzz for a game is the illustration for the board and the box. I'm a believer in great artwork for a game and to get that, you have to reach pretty high. I cold called several great board game artists, but none were available (and all were very polite). Then I saw Drew Baker's art for Legend of the Five Rings. I met him at Gen Con in 2008 and he agreed to do the game – I think mainly because it was a challenge to do a board game. Everyone can see he was perfect for the job, and arguably he single handedly brought Ninjato into the spotlight.
I also knew we needed something more than just illustrations. I am a passable graphic artist, and although Galactic Emperor was all right, a professional can do so much more. Like many, I've been a huge fan of Peter Gifford's work with game guides on BGG. At first, we thought we'd just use him for a terrific game guide for Ninjato, but he agreed to do the entire game with us. I couldn't have been more pleased. Peter put in a crazy amount of hours on Ninjato.
Last but in no way least, the playtesters made the game. Some graciously moved with us through terrible versions. Some refused to ever play again (understandably!). Some made truly brutal criticisms (that proved to be invaluable). But what I'm most happy with is even after we were ready to go to publishing and were surprisingly picked up by Z-Man Games, we continued to refine the components and the rules. I'm a big believer in letting a game go when it is done. You can't keep making adjustments forever because at some point, you're just moving things around and no longer improving. But this time, we continued to respond to playtest feedback. Zev made the suggestion that collecting cards is rather boring. We responded with a very smart change to give a player more cards if he has fewer in his hand, thus encouraging players to try to play perfectly, to not have a card left after attacking a house. Since the game plays for seven fixed rounds, making the optimal move every time – a move with as little waste as possible – is not only thematically perfect, but creates a natural tension and story arc, something that Dan and I believe every game needs.
Ninjato is our second published board game. We have a few others already in the works - including a murder mystery game set in 1938 New York City, another from our computer RPG design experience applied to the epic fantasy board game genre, and a third game based on the thousand year history of Athens. I'm extremely excited about each of these. Some games literally jump to life from the aether; others are a long hard journey. Ninjato was certainly the latter. Simplicity is a most difficult task, but a hard journey can be very rewarding. Most of all, I hope you really have fun with the game.
(For more from Adam West and Dan Schnake about the creation of Ninjato, you can check out this video on the BGG game page. —WEM)
W. Eric Martin
• Wired previews the next 221 Arkham Horror expansions from Fantasy Flight Games.
• Spiel Portugal "interviews" designer Michael Schacht, who spills a bit of info about future releases.
• On a related topic (site?), anyone looking for suggestions of "beefier" games following the SdJ and Kennerspiel des Jahres announcements should check out the nominee list for Spiel Portugal's Jogo do Ano (Game of the Year). Previous winners from 2006 to 2009 are Imperial, Brass, Agricola and Maria. The five finalists for the 2010 award are:
-----• Dominant Species
You might think that the 2010 winner should have been announced prior to July 2011, but check out the fancy, personalized award given to the winner of each of the previous years. I'm sure those take time to make!
• Designer Matt Leacock might be 0-for-3 in Spiel des Jahres wins, but his designs do keep being nominated: Pandemic in 2009, Roll Through the Ages in 2010 and Forbidden Island in 2011. Now Het Verboden Eiland, the Dutch version of Forbidden Island from White Goblin Games, has been nominated for Speelgoed van het Jaar (Toy of the Year) for 2011 in the 8-12 year-old category. The Speelgoed van het Jaar website hasn't been updated with the complete list of nominees for 2011, so I don't know what Leacock is up against. In 2010 the category was won by a €170 LEGO train system, while Tricoda, aka Code 777, won the 12+ category and LEGO's Minotaurus won the 6-8 category.
• At Go Forth and Game, Tom Gurganus interviews Kevin Nesbitt from Stronghold Games.
• Universal Head celebrates back-of-the-box shots.
• The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan (U.S.) profiles designing brothers Chris and Paul Nowak and their 2011 Mensa Mind Games winner Uncle Chestnut's Table Gype.
• [OT] While searching for shelving for my new home, I ran across this box in Target for one of those Ikea-ish pressboard shelving units:
Looking more closely at the box, I was surprised by the selection of games stacked on these shelves. Can you name them all from this too-blurry close shot?
After the debut of Munera: Familia Gladiatoria in 2010, I was interested in seeing more from new Italian publisher Albe Pavo. Admittedly Munera is not really a top class game, but it was a good first release – and the attention that Albe Pavo devoted to the illustrations in and graphic design of that game, as well as historical details used, kept my interest alive.
In case you feel the same (or are discovering Albe Pavo for the first time), here is an overview of the publisher's next release, Sake & Samurai, scheduled for Q3 2011, starting with an interview of designer Matteo Santus.
Liga: After the gladiators of Munera, now you have samurai; it seems you are fascinated by warriors and history, doesn't it?
Matteo Santus: Yes, we love both warriors and history – and of course we also love sake! In fact, we are working on a number of projects, and many of them are about neither history nor warriors, but in this case, we follow the same background path as Munera: Swords of the past!
Liga: At first glance, the game appears somewhat light, but by going through the rules and playing the game, you discover something deep and strategic. Who is the target of this release?
MS: We designed the game with the purpose of creating a sort of party game, something fast and fun to play, but with the strategic depth necessary to give it longevity and real fun.
I think that many people would like it. People who love to play easy games with friends will find in it a fun way to pass an evening (by playing multiple matches), but in addition people looking for strategic choices and competition will find it interesting because Sake & Samurai is not just a party game!
(Liga must have a different definition of "light" than I do. —WEM)
Liga: Most card games usually suffer from too much randomness. Do you think you have eliminated this problem in this game?
MS: In Sake & Samurai every card can be played in at least two different ways: to take actions or to use its text. And you have many choices to do: different actions, different cards. The randomness of card games is moderated by the number of choices you can do. Draw a card with useless text? Take an action, as they're always useful! For as long as we playtested the game, we never received comments like "I was unlucky with my hand" because you can use everything in different ways! Of course you might not find a specific card you want, but that's the game! Can't find a naginata? Use a katana! Both can kill! :-)
Liga: Munera was released less than one year ago and now you are ready with a new release. How long did it take to design and playtest Sake & Samurai?
MS: We always have multiple games under development and the playtesting phase can be vary from little more than a year to more than three years. I must admit that Sake & Samurai came very fast to a stable level and it took a little more than a year to develop it, playtesting intensely. We work every day on our products because we want to be sure that they are ready when published!
Liga: Is there something you want to share with us about this game before it hits the market?
MS: In Sake & Samurai we designed a very fun way to have dead samurai keep playing and doing so in a totally different way! Sake & Samurai is about drunken samurai killing each other, but we didn't want to have a samurai killed too soon, with his player then having nothing to do but wait. So we designed the Ghosts of Enma, the God of Death, who are thirsty for sake from the living world! In my opinion, that's a really fun way to play Sake & Samurai because the Ghosts play in a totally different way. (During the game, for example, they use the back of cards because they are dead and see things from the other side!) I want people to know that while Sake & Samurai is a game about cruel dueling in which samurai die easily, no player is eliminated from the game!
Now for some details about how to play. Note that I have played an early prototype version of the game, with almost final rules but with provisional materials.
Players are thirsty and fierce samurai ready to make all efforts to drink the last glass of sake. To win the game, you must be alive at the end and have drunken more sake than any other player.
Each player starts with a small board, a samurai card, and a katana card. Each samurai has different skills and life points. Each turn you play up to two cards, use your followers, draw two cards, and decide the weapon you'll have in hand during other players' turns.
There is no game board, but the players are separated from one another by "step counters". At the beginning of the game you are three steps away from the samurai on your left and on your right; during the game you can move left or right, switching the side of the step counter. It's a brillant way of maintaining the relative positions of samurai without using a real board.
During your turn you can move, attack or drink, or you can use the special text on a card to play followers, weapons, objcets or events. The game features simple rules and a lot of options.
Drinking sake (which you need to do to win the game) requires you to place a sake counter on one of your played cards (weapons, samurai, objects), which means you then lose the special effect of this card – a smart way to simulate the effects of alcohol. When the last drop of sake has vanished from the masu, players start the final round.
During the game samurai (and followers) fight each other and often die. Killed samurai become Ghosts of Enma and can work together to kill the other players in order to win the game together. In the end, the winner could be a single living samurai or all of the dead ones.
W. Eric Martin
(In light of yesterday's news item about Peter Olotka's attempt to organize a community-designed expansion for Cosmic Encounter, I thought I'd reprint a Boardgame News column from September 18, 2007, which ran shortly after Fantasy Flight Games licensed the game and two others from Eon.
I've edited the formatting, but kept all other details – including previously announced release dates – intact. If anyone wonders why a publisher would shy away from announcing release dates, here's yet another example why.)
Fantasy Flight's announcement of new editions of Cosmic Encounter (due out in Summer 2008), "Dune" (Winter 2008), and Borderlands (Summer 2009) made many people very happy, while simultaneously enraging others. To find out more about what gamers can expect to see next year, I turned to Peter Olotka, co-designer of all three games and founder of Future Pastimes, LLC, which runs Cosmic Encounter Online.
Asked about previous editions, Olotka says, "Avalon Hill never got its act together as far as we could see." Even though the Eon crew – the folks who created Cosmic Encounter – offered advice to the AH development team, the Hasbro edition of CE was released with a relatively small number of alien powers, planetary systems incompatible with previous editions, and an upper limit of four players. "We begged them not to do it that way, and there was very little acceptance of the Hasbro design in the Cosmic community."
While twenty aliens were too few for modern buyers of Cosmic Encounter, that's more than three times the number originally in the game. "We thought this game up in 1972 here on Cape Cod, and it predates Dungeons & Dragons, predates Magic: The Gathering, predates all of these things that have exception-based rules," says Olotka. "When we did the design, we had no clue of its expandability for a long time. For years it had six aliens and that was hard enough and interesting enough for us because of the variability attached to it. We didn't realize that it was so unlimited." (That early version, by the way, was also limited to four players.)
Olotka has different expectations for what's possible with Fantasy Flight. "We have a company who we can really work with, one that understands the genre and how to make good product," he says. "Cosmic Encounter has an audience of both hardcore and casual gamers, and we want to be able to reach them all. While at most conventions, it's 99% men, when we had tournaments running, 50% of the players would be women."
Besides, says Olotka, "none of us who were the original designers played those hardcore games".
As for what the new FFG version will include, Olotka says that gamers themselves will have a say in the contents. "We're tapping into players and fans for their suggestions, which I think is very appropriate. There are a bunch of aliens online that we want to release for the first time in the board game."
Admittedly some aliens work only in the online game, such as the Brat, which can skip the game into the next game state and skip over opportunities to form alliances or use alien powers, and the Dork, which floats across a player's computer screen obscuring parts of the interface. Says Olotka, "Perhaps someone can wave his hands in front of an opponent's face..."
What he really hopes to see, though, are alien powers that create some kind of synergy between play online and in the board game. "We're excited to cross-promote the board game with Cosmic Online, so what if buying the board game gave you some kind of advantage online?" he asks. "There are a ton of advantages in both media: With the boardgame you have the social experience; online, you don't have to count everything and you can just play the game for the purity of it."
Online play is also a good argument prevention measure: "I personally know there are no conflicts between the aliens," says Olotka, but most players – okay, everyone not named Bill Eberle and Jack Kittredge – lack his level of knowledge and experience. CE Online will also experiment with a partners version in the next league, and Olotka expects to add Team Cosmic to the board game as well.
Olotka encourages CE fans to visit the Cosmic Encounter Online forum, specifically the thread labeled "Fantasy Flight Cosmic Board Game Wish List" and post your suggestions. Kevin Wilson from FFG visits the site, so your ideas could play a role in the appearance of the final product.
FFG's ability to release editions of the game in multiple languages around the world through its publishing partners is a nice bonus from Olotka's point of view as it might prevent unauthorized knockoffs, the existence of which he discovered after talking with CE Online players located in Brazil. "I traded a Hasbro game for a Brazilian Cosmic Encounter that I never knew existed," he says.
While new versions of Cosmic Encounter and Borderlands were greeted with almost universal excitement, the decision to use the "Wheels within Wheels" game system of Eon's Dune in a new game set in the Twilight Imperium universe was met with an equal mixture of excitement and outrage. As of mid-September 2007, a petition asking Brian Herbert to license Dune to FFG had gathered more than 3,300 online signatures.
"I don't disagree with what [these petitioners] are saying," says Olotka, but he doesn't expect it to have any effect either. "I know of two or three other companies that tried to get the license. You can't dig out that license. It's like talking to mud. It's not there."
As for the hubbub over the nigh blasphemous notion of stripping the Duniverse from the Dune game, Olotka doesn't understand the fuss – but that might be because the game system wasn't designed for Dune in the first place.
"We wanted to do a Dune game and it turned out that Avalon Hill already had the rights, so I called Jack Dodd or whoever it was, and they said they had someone," says Olotka. "That was that."
Time passed, and Avalon Hill came back to Eon because it didn't like the game created by the other designer. "So the deal was that we would design the game, and if you didn't like it, fine, but we're doing it our way," says Olotka. "We had a game created earlier called Tribute and that's where we designed the Wheel system, so we lugged that out and retrofitted it to the Dune characters."
Tribute was set in Rome, and the wheels in that earlier game had Roman numerals. "We had a king among a million other characters, and whoever played the king had to wear a crown," says Olotka. "So we took the whole thing and added ancillary stuff, plugging in leaders. We stole heavily from Cosmic Encounter when we designed Dune; the idea of having these well-defined and different powers, we applied it to Darkover, to Dune, and to Cosmic Encounter."
So the greatest meshing of theme and mechanisms in game design history is, in fact, just another example of a thematic paste job – albeit one with glue so strong that no one previously suspected as much.
"We would love to see the existing game reissued, but after years of trying, it's just not going to happen, so you take another track," says Olotka – and if anyone has the right to say that a Twilight Imperium reinterpretation of Dune is a good idea, it's one of the game's co-designers.
"Dune is one of my favorite games that we've designed," says Olotka. "We used our gaming system that we had developed independently for this Tribute game, added some stuff from Cosmic, and used the Dune setting to place it in. It has all of these nuances, and to transplant the game play into another world is a very interesting idea. It shouldn't be disallowed. We're the guys who did stuff that was different. We did Quirks and Cosmic Encounter and Borderlands and Dune and Runes and Darkover, and each of those games didn't have a copy then and doesn't have a copy now. They exist in their own definition."
Olotka also takes credit for one aspect of Dune game history that doesn't please fans. "When the movie was coming out, we convinced Avalon Hill to reissue Dune with a new box cover that had someone who looked like Sting on the cover, along with two expansion sets. After the movie came out – which was the biggest bomb ever – Dune just stopped selling. It just stopped. That was it, end of story."
In any case, Olotka is excited to see these games in print once again, and if all goes well, he says, "maybe we'll get into a couple of other old games as well..."
W. Eric Martin
I noted in early July 2011 on BGG News that Cosmic Encounter co-designer Peter Olotka is going to work with players to design CE "Expansion Set 5" on the game's Facebook page.
Lots of details on this process still need to be worked out, and Olotka expects that everything won't be in place for a couple of months, but here's what I can tell you now: Cosmic Encounter publisher Fantasy Flight Games and FFG designer/developer Kevin Wilson is starting development work soon on expansion set #3 with publication expected sometime in 2012. Expansion set #4 will likely appear in 2013, which puts the release date for expansion set #5 at no earlier than 2014 – which Olotka says, "from a player involvement perspective...gives us lots of room to add and revise content, and it allows players who are not yet on Cosmic Facebook to come in over the next couple of years and still participate".
CE fans already make lots of material on their own – aliens, artifacts, lucre, endgame rules, etc. – and Olotka thought this would be a fun experiment that plays into the nature of the game, even if it did take the original designers time to discover that nature themselves. "The first time that we played with the aliens we created, we had situations that you never could have expected," he says. The funny thing is "we played from 1972-1976 with only six aliens. We just didn't think about making more. There were no games like it when we first came up with the concept." It was only after Parker Brothers cancelled a contract that Olotka and his fellow designers were inspired to design more aliens.
One aspect of expansion #5 that needs to be settled before design work can begin is what the set will be about. "You need limitations on the expansions," says Olotka. "An outline, parameters to work within – then we make stuff."
I mentioned the mantra of Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater – "Restrictions breed creativity." – to Olotka, and he said that they actually had restrictions along these lines when they started to design Cosmic Encounter: The game would be science fiction, it would allow for joint victories, and so on. Working within those guidelines led to the game as we know it today. (MTG creator Richard Garfield has often credited Cosmic Encounter as an inspiration for his industry-changing card game.)
While the focus of the expansion is being determined, Olotka will also develop a system for how people can get involved on Facebook – as creators, editors, organizers, playtesters – and figure out how best to organize that creativity so that people aren't talking over one another and can focus on each thing being offered. "In the spirit of Cosmic, we'll break the rules and bend Facebook to do what we want to do," he says. Olotka also wants to integrate the BGG community into the creative process, even for those who shy away from Facebook, and that's something else to work out in the months ahead.
Once the design of the expansion is finished, the material will then go to Kevin Wilson for development, about whom Olotka has nothing but praise. He was the one who convinced FFG's Christian Petersen to license CE, says Olotka. "He's done such a good job with this, and in particular making the different phases of the game transparent, putting notes on the bottom of the alien card: 'This power works in this way.'" Olotka didn't like the fussiness at first, but "as I played the game more with more new people I realized it was great."
Among those new people playing CE on the Fantasy Flight version of the game is Olotka's seven-year-old granddaughter, who he says started playing at age five. At one point he mentioned to her the possibility of combining alien powers and he says that for the rest of the day she kept asking, "Well, what if you combine this one and that one?"
As for the two other games that Fantasy Flight licensed from Olotka and his designing partners – Borderlands and the "Wheels within Wheels" game system from Dune, which is being integrated with Petersen's Twilight Imperium universe – Olotka says they're progressing well, but details of the games and their release dates are in the hands of FFG.
W. Eric Martin
Should you be a fan of Age of Steam or Steam, then you will have new options galore come October 2011 thanks to designers Ted Alspach and Alban Viard, who are each releasing new AoS/Steam map expansions at Spiel 2011.
First up, Ted Alspach of Bézier Games has a set of eight new maps, six of which are sold in pairs and will be available separately and two of which will be available only as part of Bézier's 2011 Steam/Age of Steam map pack, which is available for preorder for $80. These expansions, with descriptions from Alspach, are as follows:
• Age of Steam Expansion: African Diamond Mines & Taiwan Cube Factories
Harness the power of railroads to dig up diamonds and produce much sought after wooden cubes.
African Diamond Mines has you setting up a mining railroad deep underground to access valuable diamonds with a new depth counter that adds an additional level of strategy. Ramp up production with Taiwan Cube Factories, as you combine resources to produce new ones to keep the new infrastructure in Taiwan booming.
• Age of Steam Expansion: Australia & Tasmania
Go down under as you build railways across the uninhabitable Outback and through mysterious Tasmania.
In Australia, quickly build along the expensive coastal regions of the East Coast and find a way to reach the cities in the west, which will pay more for goods delivered to them. Tasmania requires you to build an efficient distribution system for all of its towns and cities as goods are shuttled in from the mainland.
• Age of Steam Expansion: Outer Space & Reversteam
Two out-of-this-world maps challenge your railroad building and delivering prowess.
Outer Space requires "straight on" deliveries to ensure you don't shoot right by your destination, as well as a handy set of wormholes to get your goods across the galaxy quickly. Things are quite different in Reversteam, where not only has the traditional "great lakes" area been altered, but the cities want every kind of good except for their color.
• Age of Steam Expansion: Orient Express & Disoriented Express
Special preorder-only maps that are challenging in new ways.
Orient Express is the classic European channel between Paris and Istanbul, where moving passengers quickly and effectively is your goal. On the other hand, Disoriented Express will have you scratching your head trying to undo the knots created by foreign, yet familiar landscapes.
Next, Alban Viard, one of three designers who release Age of Steam maps under the publishing moniker AoS Team, has a pair of expansions for Age of Steam only. Here's a brief description from Viard:
The first expansion, Age of Steam: Greece features a nice twist from the basic game and deals with the country's recent economic crisis.
The second offering is an odd expansion taking place in the Cyclades islands where players must attempt to satiate the always-demanding tourists on a unique map featuring no hexes.
One hundred numbered sets will be available at Spiel 2011; to reserve a copy, which costs €25, email Alban Viard at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fifty unnumbered sets will be available via mail for those unable (or unwilling) to make the trek to Essen, Germany; to reserve one of these copies, which sells for US$40 and shipping, write to Viard at the same address.
Quarriors was one of the more unusual episodes of game design in that making the game was the relatively easy part. Actually getting someone to pick the game up proved much more challenging. To really tell the story, I have to go back to how Eric Lang and I ended up joining together on a design project.
It started as a very unusual collaboration. Eric and I have been good friends since I met him shortly after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2005 and he gave me a few tips on freelancing. We have met up a number of times at gaming conventions and he has stayed over at my house a few times during his trips to Seattle. There was also that magical night, but I can't tell that story since my wife might read this diary. I have yet to visit him in Canada because, well, it's Canada and I have watched enough Ice Road Truckers to know I don't want to go there. I believe Eric lives near where most of the trucks crash, but I am not completely sure.
Over the years Eric and I have talked about possibly collaborating on a project, but both of us are fairly opinionated on game design and often that can be a catastrophe if you are not both on the same page. When I did the Thunderstone project for AEG in 2009, Eric had been working on a few ideas for deck-building style games as well and we started talking about various things that could be done with the deck-building mechanism. We hit on dice as a possible extension to the deck-building genre, and we were both fairly excited by the possibilities on what could be done; it seemed like this would be a great project to try out working together on. Eric scheduled a trip out to Seattle to work on it.
I did a lot of preparation for the project. I took several courses on the Canadian language and by the time Eric arrived I was saying "Eh?" at the end of almost every sentence. I brushed up on Eric's design style by playing a few games of Senator and Frenzy to make sure I would be able to interact with his style. As a game designer, I have lots of various components around like small blocks, poker chips, and dice. I did not, however, have nearly enough different dice for this type of project, so I had to run over to the local game store, Blue Highway Games, and clean them out of different colors of six-sided dice, cubes and marble bags. Having cubes of each dice allowed us to make multiple prototype copies, which let us both work on playtesting and development after Eric went back to Canada. For the dice tray, I used bead trays that I got from Michael's craft store, which made great cases for the game. If you decide you do not like the tin the game comes in, I would recommend this as a play storage solution.
We spent the first day brainstorming various concepts. We wanted a more interactive game than Dominion or Thunderstone, and we wanted the diversity and high replay value of random setups. We toyed around with a couple of accumulation game patterns, but these were not particularly interactive. The basis was always going to be buying dice instead of cards, but it took a few iterations before we went back to the original bag cycling system. This emulates the concept of a deck fairly well since you are basically cycling dice with some dice staying in play for a little longer period of time. (For details on how to play, download the English rulebook (PDF) from WizKids.)
We had to limit the amount of information we could put on the dice, so the idea of having marker cards in the center fit fairly well. In the prototype, the center cards explained everything including the attack and defense values, so it was a little abstract to play since you were constantly referencing the center cards for every creature. The resource system was tied into the creature dice, so even if you bought a lot of creatures, there was still a chance you would not get a particular one out when you rolled it and might get more resources instead.
I realize that some players despise randomness, but those players probably don't play a lot of dice games anyway, so we figured we would go for an appropriate range of results for the players that actually like dice games and might buy this type of game. It is a common mistake to try to cater to every audience. If you are a hardcore player of Through the Ages (great game), Agricola (great game) or even some of the deck-building games (greatness varies widely), this might not be your type of game. Almost every die has a "1" result, which is typically one resource, and a "6" result, which is typically the strongest version of the creature or something simple like a two resource result on the basic dice. Most of the middle results are a range between these two ends. There are a number of effects that let you modify or reroll, but there is some element of randomness; similar to Texas Hold'em or Magic, the better player may get unlucky and lose a particular game, but in general, the players who can adapt to other players' strategies and make optimal purchases and activations will win more often.
We had a fairly good prototype ready about a month after Gen Con, and we did some loose pitches to a couple of companies but at that time of the year a lot of companies are focused on conventions. None of the early contacts were interested. Either the game did not fit what they were looking for or their calendar was filled and they were not looking for any new projects.
Enter the Geek
I went to BGG.CON in 2009 with the express purpose of trying to get more contacts within the game publishing community. I had met up with Derk Solko (of BGG fame) at PAX earlier in the year and chatted with him for the first time. Since then I seem to run into him everywhere. I explained to Derk that while I had worked for ten years on Magic and had done over two dozen games, including two of the current top three trading card games in Japan, that I was not particularly known in the U.S. or Europe. I explained that I was hoping to branch out into board games since I find them much more interesting to design that trading card games, mostly because I have done fourteen trading card games and was feeling I was being typecast. Thunderstone helped a little, but Thunderstone was still basically a trading card game engine at its heart and at the time it was still a new game with not a lot of attention. He gave me the pitch for BGG.CON and explained that it was a smaller con that was starting to gain momentum and was being attended by a number of larger publishers.
There were a number of the larger companies at BGG.CON that year like Mayfair and Z-Man. Unfortunately, many of the larger companies have very full calendars, get hundreds of submissions a year, and are often looking for very specific types of games to produce. As I mentioned before, my games in Japan have done very well, but back in 2009 Thunderstone was just coming out and I had very little recognition in the United States. Not many people know who the designers were on the various Magic sets I had worked on, and trading card experience did not carry a lot of weight with most companies. They would talk to me, but it was very low key and some were willing only to listen to a quick pitch and not a demo. Eric Lang, on the other hand, had much higher name recognition from his successes with the A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulu boxed card games, and his Chaos in the Old World game was just starting to hit big. In Europe, very few people even know me from Magic and Thunderstone was not localized yet, so in 2009 I had almost zero name recognition in Europe.
Sample cards in the prototype
Derk was nice enough to introduce me to the head of one of the European game companies that was attending the event. I talked with him for a while and gave him the quick pitch on Quarriors. He seemed interested and grabbed another member of his company to get a demo. We walked over to the side area where they were setting up to take some pictures. Scott Alden, who many of you on the site know as the co-founder Aldie, was sitting at the back of a very large circular table off to the side waiting. We sat down at the other end of the table and I started going over the rules and setting up the game. Scott was not paying that much attention initially but perked up when we started playing and rolling dice. Scott gradually slid seats around the table until by the third turn of the game he was sitting directly next to one of the company players and was reading all of the creature and spell abilities and asking questions on the dice abilities. This was not lost on the company head, who asked Scott if this was a game he would buy if it was published. It turns out that Scott is a fan of dice games and he instantly said, "Yes, I would buy this." That convinced the European company to take the game back and work on some of the obvious obstacles like pricing and sourcing that are a major issue with dice games.
We looked briefly at a higher end model with printed dice. Eric had made a dice sticker template and I paid my older son to sticker a set using blank white 16mm dice cubes. (Don't let anyone tell you that having kids around is not great.) Since these were just printed on a normal printer, there was a big problem with smearing, which led me and others to believe that there would probably be an issue with the dice wearing off if we went that route, and the cost issues on these turned out to be pretty ridiculous. Suffice to say, although the graphic version was beautiful, it was fairly clear we were looking at symbols on etched dice with one color ink.
After walking away fairly happy from BGG.CON, the project stalled a little. Sourcing custom dice was a problem and the cost of goods required that we reconfigure the product to reduce the number of dice as much as possible. The amount of dice required dropped dramatically once we went to the multiple cards per die model. By using the same set of stats for multiple dice and varying the abilities, cost, and score value on the marker cards, we were able to get several creatures out of each die, while still leaving room for easy expansion possibilities for additional variant creatures and spells. The symbol system was a fairly nice innovation for this system as it allowed us to make creatures with varying powers – or even vanilla creatures that did not use the symbols and were cheaper to play than the more complicated variants. Utilizing this allowed us to drop the number of dice while increasing the number of effects we were able to put in the base set. But the sourcing issues still proved to be a challenge, and I ended up taking the game back around July 2010. I brought the game along to Gen Con in August.
I had been working with WizKids on a licensed game for Star Trek called Star Trek: Fleet Captains. In 2010 the publisher had early samples of the miniatures at Gen Con, and I swung by the booth several times to look at those and talk with the WizKids staff. I talked with Justin Ziran of WizKids/NECA, who I had worked with previously at Wizards of the Coast and briefly at WizKids when it was based in Seattle. I explained that I had brought along a game that might have some interest to WizKids. Justin was not originally that excited when I mentioned it was a dice game involving custom dice, but we sat down and played a game and his reaction changed immediately to excitement. He discussed it with the rest of the WizKids staff and they requested that we play a game that night with some of the representatives from a distributor. We sat down at the hotel bar and played a game and by the end of the game we had an agreement with WizKids to take the game, with the standard caveat that they had to be able to make the cost of goods work. I was much more optimistic with WizKids since between WizKids and NECA, they produced a lot of plastic. WizKids was in fact able to solve most of the cost of goods issues and the project got a green light.
Dice require resources to power them up as a gravity function to slow down the players who roll a lot of creature faces early. By forcing them to commit resources to bring the creatures out, it allows the other players who might have rolled more resources early to be in a position to hit their stride later in the game, and it has not been uncommon at all to see dramatic leader changes in games.
The size of the dice ended up at 14mm, which is slightly smaller than the size of regular dice, which are often 16mm. When I worked at WizKids, I did a game called Halo ActionClix where we put the values of the Clix dial on the marker card so that players could reference them without having to pick up the figures. On Quarriors, the dice faces are also available on the cards for reference. Although it is not a complete solution for players who might have difficulty seeing small print (since the cards are in the center of the table), it does allow a player to pick up the card and look at what you get on the die if there are readability issues or if they don't want to lean across the table to try to read another player's dice.
Image from Origins 2011
The decision to make the game 2-4 players instead of 2-5 or 2-6 was also mostly a costing issue. If you play a game with more players, you need more starting dice and more available dice in each group. When you are trying to keep the price point down, choices like having five dice in a group versus six or seven dice have a big impact on the final cost of goods of the product, and we were pretty much forced to cut it down to four players – and even with that we could not give any extra basic resource (Quiddity) dice and only a couple of extra Apprentice dice, although in only a few setups will you buy Apprentice dice or basic resource dice anyway.
Eric and I did not have much input on the flavor, but I put my foot down on the naming. I insisted it have some sort of silly name like Agricola so that there would be no question if the game succeeded that it was on the basis of the game and not the name. If the game did poorly, well, hey, it had a goofy name. I suggested maybe modifying the title of some 1979 cult film like maybe Qualien or something like that, but they did not want to go that direction.
Dice Mean Options, Right?
We tried a number of different methods of game play before settling on the final version. For those variant aficionados, here are a few of the different options we worked with:
• No Pile Depletion: The rule that the game ends when four piles run out is mostly there as a control against the occasional game which usually occurs when players draft similar dice patterns and the board is fairly offensively oriented. Usually there are spells that can break this pattern up, but players often tend to undervalue the spells early on as a means of forcing through creature scoring when an aggressive pattern occurs. This typically occurs only in games with four or more players, but when it does, it can occasionally extend the game time from 20 to 30 minutes to almost an hour. This is not particularly long for a four-player game, but since it often involves low scoring and repetitive turns if players cannot find a way to break out, we decided to add the four creature pile depletion rule. Four piles tended to be the best option number to keep the play length at around the standard 30-minute target, but feel free to play five piles or remove the rule if you feel your games are being constrained by the pile depletion game end rule. I occasionally use the rule for a tactical play if I am winning and the scoring is slowing down. If the game is close to the four pile depletion rule, I will often try to buy out the piles to win.
• Perpetual Bag: In this version, you put all of your dice back into the bag every time instead of creating a used pile. It is much more random since you can buy a good die and never draw it if you get unlucky, or alternately, you can draw the same set of dice every time. Having the discard pile allows for a lot more interactions and more consistency, but this is an interesting variant. This variant is not particularly well supported in the final version as many things interact with the used piles, but it was one of the versions we tested for a while.
• Multiple Buy: In this version, you could buy multiple dice instead of being restricted to one die. It created some interesting decisions, and it makes the spell dice much more exciting in two- and three-player games. It created a little too much decision paralysis and it required more dice to be available for purchase, which fought against the cost of goods issue. If you play this variant, you might need to increase the number of dice in each pile if you play with four players. Allowing two dice to be bought per turn is a simple interesting variant. You can expect we will do more things that let you buy additional dice as effects on creatures and spells. This was cut strictly from a rule simplicity standpoint and to keep decision paralysis down a bit.
• Five/six Players: There is a lot more downtime with more than four players and you can get situations where the game can stall. For five or six players, you will need to combine two copies of the game and you would need to implement either a zone of attack method, such as the player following you does not attack your creatures, or play teams with teammates (sitting across) not attacking each other and able to share spells and glory totals. The main drawback is the longer games, requirement for more dice, and in some cases you might have longer periods between scoring. Often with new players they will tend to buy only creatures and not spells, and in larger games the spells can be very powerful in helping to score.
• Solo Play: We never discussed this much during the design or playtesting. I have recently been playing around with solo play options, but have not hit one that I am comfortable pitching as a possible official variant yet. Since the game play for Quarriors is so fast, the solo option is not as critical as it would be if it was an hour-long game where you might have difficulty getting time commitments from players.
• Longer Games: You can, of course, vary the number of Glory Points required to win the game to make for a longer game. As with the 5-6 player option, you might need to combine sets if you are playing a long game with 3-4 players or you will potentially run out of dice in many stacks, or you can play the game ends when five or six creature stacks have been depleted, or just remove the depletion rule completely.
• Pick 6: In this variant, you draw more than six dice, then typically throw the extras into your discard, although you could throw them into the bag in a similar variant. I usually played this version by drawing eight dice and throwing two away to discard. It evens out your draws a little and lets you get combos a little more often, but it can sometimes take players a while to figure out what to keep, so it does add some decision paralysis in exchange for cutting down the randomness a little.
• The Mulligan: In this version you are allowed one free reroll of one die. It was an interesting option, but it made the reroll effects on the regular dice like Apprentice less special and it added to the length of turns. This is another option that cuts down a bit on randomness at the expense of producing the occasional decision paralysis. In case you were wondering, I hate decision paralysis with a passion since several of the players I play with analyze every possible option. I prefer to limit games to a reasonable number of choices in a turn and Quarriors already had the activation versus purchase analysis among other strategic choices.
• Other: I suspect more variants will come as this type of game is very much a toolkit game. Richard Launius (of Arkham Horror fame) made a very nice variant for Thunderstone that I have played a number of times and enjoy. I am sure that readers will come up with some exciting options, and of course Eric and I will add a few wrinkles to the game through expansions as well.
For the record, I don’t really have anything against Canada (and have been there many times) and there was no magical night with Eric. I was just trying to spice up what would otherwise be a relatively boring back story for most readers. Game design is not one of the most exciting fields to describe to others and ranks only a few steps above describing the adventures of your D&D characters. However, on the plus side, as a game designer you do get to play a lot of games, and occasionally you hit on some that other people like to play as well.
W. Eric Martin
On July 1, 2011, I previewed Craig Van Ness' new take on the Battleship game of old: Battleship Galaxies, a design that is thoroughly modern, yet with just enough of ye olde Battleship feel to call to mind lazy summer days in which you and your brother and neighborhood friends would spend hour upon hour playing games in the garage, eating Popsicles and wishing it would rain so that you could run outside and cool off.
Now U.S. publisher Hasbro, through its Avalon Hill brand in the Wizards of the Coast wing of the company, is bringing back another oldie-but-goodie – Mike Gray's Ikusa, né Shogun and formerly retitled Samurai Swords, due out July 26, 2011 – but this time the game plays exactly as you remember from those halcyon days of youth, a brutal hours-long face-smashing, neighbor-pounding, back-stabbing, "I'll never play with you again!"-vowing, territory-grabbing adventure fest.
That said, while the game plays the same as in decades past, the artwork and components have been updated to modern times. Gone are the pumpkiny samurai and technicolor green ashigaru of old, having been replaced with more muted shades of orange and green. The iconic, yet somewhat stereotypical "land of the rising sun" imagery on the game board has been replaced by a more realistic look of land and sea. The troop bin/action reminder shield holder is a solid block of plastic, fortress-like in its own right.
The only thing missing from the new version, compared to the original game, is the set of swords used to designate turn order, these swords having been replaced with cardboard markers. If that's enough to have you turning to eBay for the earlier editions, then so be it.
For those not familiar with the game, here's a rundown of how to play, decorated with a few photos from yours truly in my makeshift photo studio: The goal of Ikusa is to own 35 provinces out of the 68 in the game. (With two players, you must own at least fifty provinces at the end of a round to win the game.)
To set up, shuffle the province card deck and deal an equal number of provinces to each player. Each player places one ashigaru spearman in each province he owns. Then in the randomly determined turn order, each player takes turns placing two spearmen in six different provinces that he owns, then takes turns placing his three army markers in different provinces that he owns.
Each army marker represents a number of figures: its daimyo (or leader), samurai bowmen and swordsmen (one of each to start), and ashigaru gunners (two to start) and spearmen. These armies differ from the provincial forces in that they are led (by a daimyo) and can therefore become more experienced over time, making multiple attacks and traveling greater distances. What's more, while a province can hold at most five individual units, an army can be comprised of up to fifteen units.
The risk, however, is that a daimyo can be assassinated by a ninja, and if you lose all three daimyos – whether through assassination or through battle as the last casualty in your army - then you're out of the game. (You can replace an assassinated daimyo if that army survives until the end of a round, but without its leader the army can't move, making it more vulnerable to attack.)
Each player receives koku (coins) equal to the number of provinces he owns divided by three and rounded down. You're now set to play.
At the start of each round, each player first secretly allocates all koku to the five locations in his planning tray, those being Turn Order, Build, Levy Units, Hire Ronin, and Hire Ninja, which are (not coincidentally) the next five actions of the round. Based on player bids, turn order for the remainder of the round is determined, with ties being broken by random draw of the turn order markers in question.
If a player spent two koku on Build, he then builds a castle in a province he owns or adds a fortress to a castle already on the board. These both provide additional defense in the form of spearmen or ronin if this province is attacked during the game – but should someone else manage to take over this province, then they'll receive the defensive bonus. You can't take a castle with you, after all!
Players then buy units based on the amount of koku they spent – one bowman, three spearmen, and so on as shown on the chart above – and place them on the board, with no more than one unit being placed in each province, whether as an individual force or as part of an army.
For each koku you spent, you then hire two ronin and deploy them in secret to any province(s) that you own by placing them on the back of the province card(s). Later this round, when these forces move, attack or defend, you reveal the province card and add the ronin to the army card or the province in question. (The number of ronin in a province must be less than the number of units from your regular forces, and whether used or not the ronin are removed from the board at the end of the round.)
If one player spent more koku than each opponent on the Hire Ninja action, then this player hires the one ninja for the round. (If the high bid is a tie, no one gets the ninja.) This ninja can be used at the start of the next round to spy on an opponent's koku allocation before you allocate your own money or (from the second round on) to assassinate an opponent's daimyo. This assassination isn't assured, however, and should the attempt fail, the opponent gets a chance to assassinate one of your own daimyo instead.
All these actions are preliminary to the heart of the game: war between the provinces. In turn order, each player now moves his armies, declares battles, carries out combat, and makes any final movements.
As mentioned earlier, daimyo can become more experienced during the game; specifically, once per round in which an army has a successful battle against a defender – that is, killing all of the enemy and leaving the province empty – the daimyo's experience marker on the army card is moved right one notch. After three such successes, that daimyo will be level 2, which enables that army to make two attacks each round; what's more, the army can move into a province immediately after a successful attack in order to launch the next one. That army can also move up to two provinces both before and after combat. Daimyos can be as high as level 4.
After moving your forces, you mark every battle to come with a marker indicating which of your forces are attacking which adjacent province, with multiple attacks being possible into a province. Combat is handled with 12-sided dice and resolved simultaneously for attacker and defender, with all bowmen and gunners firing first, casualties then being resolved, then daimyo, swordsmen, ronin and spearmen attacking, with casualties being resolved once again. The combat value for each type of unit is visible on the player screen above; roll this number or lower to succeed. After a combat sequence the attacker can choose to end the attack (whether successful or not) or start the attack sequence again. After combat, you can move armies or provincial forces to reallocate your troops or take control of any adjacent empty provinces.
Once all players have finished combat, all ronin are returned to the side of the board and players receive koku for bidding at the start of the next round, with a player receiving one-third as many koku as the number of provinces he owns, with a minimum of three.
Build, recruit, attack – that's the essence of the game, but you need to pay attention to when you do what where due to one important detail about the game play: player elimination. Yes, Ikusa being an old-school game, it didn't shy away from kicking players out of the game if they played poorly or were too much of a threat in past games or bothered everyone else in real life by being a smarty-pants. What's important to know, though, is that if you're the one to eliminate someone from the game, then:
• You now own all provinces and units owned by that ousted player.
• You receive new daimyos to replace any that you've lost.
• These daimyos come with no armies, but you can place them on any province you own, picking up troops from that province, if desired.
All of which means two things: (1) Don't weaken someone to the point of nearly eliminating them from the game unless you can finish the job the same turn, and (2) Expect to find a big target on your back after boosting your holdings. Whoa, I just had another flashback to my teenage days of playing in the garage. Who wants to play a side game of Knuckles while we wait for our turn to attack?
I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a preview copy of Arcanum, a 2011 release from Andrea Chiarvesio (co-designer of Kingsburg and Olympus) and Pierluca Zizzi (Caligula, a nice highly-interactive board game). Andrea's design style tends to involve low direct interaction and great balancing, while Pierluca has highly interactive and more chaotic designs, so I was curious to see how they worked together.
Another reason to be curious about this design is that it's the first incursion by Lo Scarabeo, probably the greatest Italian Taroc publisher, into the world of board games. Perhaps not surprisingly, the core engine of the game uses a tarot deck with the major arcana being special event cards and the minor arcana being the true engine. (The Italian distributor of Arcanum, Oliphante, is a well-known name with loads of experience with games.)
Before a description of the game based on four playings of a pre-release version, let's ask co-designer Andrea Chirvesio a few questions:
Liga: Hi, Andrea. Most readers know you from Kinsgburg and Olympus, the two games you designed with Luca Iennaco. This time you have worked with Pierluca Zizzi. How does Arcanum differ from your previous releases, and what does it have in common with those games?
Andrea Chirvesio: The name of my co-designer is different, of course :-)
I would say that in common they all have easy-to-follow and, I would dare to say, elegant main mechanisms, which I believe is kind of my signature in designing games – maybe since I would get lost in more complex gaming architectures. They also each have several different effects (on cards for Arcanum and Olympus, on buildings or cards for Kingsburg) to make things interesting and always different. With Kingsburg, Arcanum shares also the "generic fantasy setting", being a middle-weight (gateway, if you prefer) game, and not being totally deterministic.
What is different is that Arcanum is more of a tactical than a strategic game, and I hope I won't hurt anyone's sensibility if I say that Arcanum has artwork that tops any other game I have seen in a while.
Liga: You have decided to use a Tarot deck as the main engine of the game. Where did this idea comes from? And do you think it could be the first of a series of games based on this engine?
AC: The idea comes from Pierluca, him being a Tarot deck "designer". I had no idea that several kind of Tarot decks exist, and that any single deck needs not only an illustrator, but also a writer who describes every card and its deep meanings. We were in my car coming back from some gaming event I can't remember now, and we started discussing how it would have been possible to use a Tarot deck as a gaming engine for a board game. And I had the idea that now is the core mechanism of Arcanum. From there, we brought the game to a Tarot publisher, Lo Scarabeo, based in Torino which is where we both live, since Pierluca designed Tarot decks for the company already.
They have been enthusiastic about the game and gave us permission to contact Patrizio Evangelisti for all of the illustrations and the game board. (Did I already mention that the artwork is beautiful?)
Through a stroke of luck, Lo Scarabeo even offered me a job that I accepted, so now I work for them full time.
Whether there will be other games based on this engine will likely depend on how well Arcanum will be welcomed by the market. Lo Scarabeo already had some experience with card and board games in the past and is planning to not stop with this single game, but to create a whole range of games, all related to its core business of Tarots, divinatory cards, runes, incenses, talismans, etc... so we'll likely publish more games and some of them could be based on the Tarot, with the same or a different engine.
One important remark is that Arcanum can be played with any Tarot deck, so even with that old Marseille Tarot deck owned by your grandfather, if you want, or with a deck you just purchased since you liked the illustrations.
Liga: How long did it take to develop Arcanum? I know that you were working on the design for a long time. Your games are also famous for the good balancing and the rigorous testing, usually with Luca taking care of this. What about Arcanum?
AC: As with most of my games, Arcanum took around nine months of development and yes, I tried to put in it the same attention for details as always, but with a different way of working.
Working with Pierluca is both similar to and really different from working with Luca Iennaco (Luke). In both cases, I am the one responsible for creating the main mechanism behind the game, while Luke or Pierluca are responsible for creating card or building effects. But when I work with Luke, he is the one in charge of refining, balancing and doing most of the playtesting, while with Pierluca that's a task that I took care of (balancing and refining at least). Pierluca is more a creative guy than Luca, so with Arcanum his contribution was very much focused on making the game coherent with its theme (while when working with Luca the theme is my part of the job).
I don't know whether I have been able to explain myself, perhaps not, so I'll try with a metaphor I hope most of the readers will be familiar with: Working with Luca is like working with Sheldon Cooper [a character on the television show The Big Bang Theory]. He easily see flaws in my projects, and I have to suffer some bitter and sarcastic criticism, but if I can get him to help me, I can be sure he will fix everything and take care of the good balancing and most of the testing. Working with Pierluca is like working with Howard Wolowitz [another character on The Big Bang Theory]. He is creative and enthusiastic, but sometime I have to steer him off dangerous routes, at least for game design issues. This would make me like Leonard, which would be totally fine, especially if some of you readers could provide me with Penny's contacts. (For the three of you for whom the last paragraph did not make any sense, stop reading this and go watch TBBT now!)
Now a quick explanation how Arcanum works: Players represent different paths of Fate moving the destinty of four noble houses which are represented by the four Tarot suits: Chalice, Pentacle, Wands and Swords. The game lasts six or nine turns, with a scoring phase at the end of the third, sixth and ninth turns.
Players use the minor arcana cards from the Tarot deck to move "court figures" on the map, trying to increase the prestiage of a house. At the same time, they bid on one or more houses by hiding every turn a single minor arcana.
During the scoring phase, each player scores points according to the prestige of the houses and according to their bids. Whoever hid the highest number of cards for each suit scores the most points for that house; ties are broken in favor of the player who hid the card(s) with the highest value(s).
The map displays ten cities, and each city provides a different abilty. Each city also offers prestige points according to which figure (type and suit) is moved onto it.
During your turn, you draw cards (three minor arcana or one major arcana) and play a single minor arcana and, if you like, a single major arcana. Playing a normal card (1 to 10) means that you have to move a figure of that suit in the city location with that number. Playing a figure card (King, Queen, Knight and Knave) means you have to move that figure in the location you want. Using arcana to move a figure where you want is nice, but hiding a figure is also a strong choice.
Apart from the special abilities conferred by some locations, you usually hide three cards prior to each scoring, which means that you have to plan your moves with care, trying to bid on houses with high prestige and trying to understand what other players might be bidding on.
After each scoring phase, the hidden cards are discarded and the prestige of the houses brought back to zero, so as Chiarvesio says Arcanum is much more tactical than strategical. The game is quick and highly challanging, and the 22 major arcana all provide special abilities that really make the game shine.
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