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W. Eric Martin
Many games from amateur Japanese designers seem to be born from the notion of taking an idea and saying, "Can we make a game out of that?" Then they do it. The quality of the games can be all over the place, but I love seeing the creative spirit in action, particularly because the ideas are often ones you wouldn't find elsewhere. Plus, I love trying card games of all types, and no one delivers card games like amateur Japanese designers.
Takashi Yamaya's Multiple from doujin publisher KUA seems to have been born along these lines. The number deck consists of four copies each of the numbers 0-9, the addition sign (+), and the subtraction sign (-). Players receive seven cards at random and place them face up on the table in front of them. Be the first player to rid yourself of cards, and you win the game — but you can't just throw the cards on the floor. Oh, no, you must get rid of them by creating multiples of target numbers.
Why are the numbers made of wood? What Japanese pun am I missing?
How does this work? One player takes the mission deck, then reveals the top card, which shows something like "Multiples of 5". If possible, this player then creates a multiple of 5 using one or more cards in front of them, then discards those cards. You can use a single card (which isn't possible here), two cards to create a two-digit number (again not possible), or multiple single numbers that are connected by one or more addition or subtraction signs. Success! You have both 9 - 4 and 7 - 2. Which do you want to use?
If you can't or don't want to use your cards to create a multiple of the target number — which will be 3, 4, 5, or 7 — then you draw a new card from the number deck to give yourself something else that you need to discard. That's the opposite of progress, sure, but that's how games work, by making things difficult.
You can't create a multiple that someone else has already used for a mission, so if you have choices, look around the table to see who you can block. You also can't use 0 as a multiple, which seems reasonable given that while 0 is indeed a multiple of all numbers, creating a 0 to rid yourself of cards is lame.
A couple of missions force all players to draw a card, then the active player must draw a new mission. Anti-progress strikes again!
I've played Multiple three times on a review copy from Japon Brand, which will sell the game at SPIEL '17, once each with two, three, and four players. After playing, one of the players joked that it was almost a game, yet when we played again with someone who had just arrived at the game table, I did far better than I did the first time.
In the first game with two players, our number card counts bobbed up and down like corks on a wave, but in the second and third games I had an idea of which mission cards remained in the deck and I played to those probabilities. You can still be thwarted in that effort by the "draw a card" mission or the missions that prohibit you from using the addition or subtraction signs, but even so, you can play better than you did the first time. You realize that you can string together multiple signs to create a target, e.g., 8 - 4 + 1, or that you might want to save a 5 or 0 in case a "multiple of 5" card is revealed. Okay, you probably don't want to save a 0; they seem terrible, aside from making an easy 30, 40, 50, or 70, in which case they're golden.
I'm probably overthinking this, aren't I?
Don't forget to trigger earworms when possible
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Iron Curtain is a short and brutal microgame cramped with tough decisions in a 20- to 30-minute time frame. You play as the U.S. or the Soviet Union, map out the Iron Curtain to your advantage, and control the most countries and regions on your side of the curtain.
Playing Iron Curtain well is no easy ride. We have made an effort to include as many interesting and tricky decision points as possible in the slight twenty-card framework. You will play cards that aid you greatly, but also open new opportunities for your opponent to take.
The Journey that Began 13 Days Ago
Before I continue, let's pause for a minute. I feel this is the time to thank all of you who played 13 Days, our first Cold War game, and shared the love and wonderful stories. I can positively say that Iron Curtain (and 13 Minutes) would not have existed today had 13 Days not been so well received. We are immensely grateful. This is why we design games, so thank you all.
The Third Cold War Game
When 13 Days came out, it was branded the Twilight Struggle filler game. I used that moniker myself, not knowing if it would come back to haunt me one day. I still don't know.
13 Minutes, which was released in early 2017, is the 13 Days microgame. It boils down the experience of brinkmanship in a box.
Following this line of thinking, Iron Curtain could be said to be the Twilight Struggle microgame. I may be going out on a limb here...again. Time will tell. Iron Curtain shares some game concepts with the 13 Days/Minutes titles, but it very much has an identity of its own.
Different Game, Same Cold War
I asked on social media for topics to discuss in this diary, and the question that came up the most was how we decided to make Iron Curtain different from previous Cold War games. Three games in fairly short succession will beget that question.
The short answer is that there is no "13" in the title.
The artistic answer is that Iron Curtain by intent has a distinct look with more vibrant colors and layout. The message we are trying to convey is that this is not 13 Days II…or III…or whatever! We hope Iron Curtain will stand on its own legs and be judged on its own merits, good as well as bad.
The game design answer is that Iron Curtain offers a different core experience from the other games. I will highlight two key experiences below that were design goals of ours from the outset. There are more, but I will leave that for you to explore.
First Design Goal: Building the Iron Curtain
Iron Curtain has a proper in-game geography, something that wasn't present in 13 Days/Minutes.
Cards double as actions and as key countries during the superpower struggle. When you play a card, it immediately goes to the table next to countries of the same region. As the game progresses, the world map is built one country at a time.
How you build the world now matters a great deal. When you want to expand your influence later, you are limited by your current presence on the table. Except for certain events, you may move only into adjacent countries, so some countries are within easy grasp, while others will take much greater effort to reach.
This is a feature you may — no, let me rephrase — this is a feature you should use to your advantage. How so? Be the first to drop two or more cubes onto a country to control it and create a temporary safe haven behind that line where you can drop cards. Play the first card of a new region so that you have the freedom to place that card where you have easy access to it and your opponent does not.
I love how the "map" looks different each time you play
Second Design Goal: Adding Doses of Suspension and Agony
Iron Curtain has no scoring cards of the type with which you might be familiar in Twilight Struggle and no hidden agendas as used in 13 Days. In fact, every card is a potential scoring card.
A region scores when all cards of that region are played to the table. So should you play early to jump ahead in that region, or wait to control when the scoring will happen? Or perhaps abandon the region entirely, discarding the card at the end of the round? Managing and sequencing your hand of cards is the single greatest challenge you will face in this game.
What all this means is that you will see scoring approach all over the table — at the same time. You are constantly trying to pre-empt your opponent's moves in, say, Africa and Europe, yet you also want to put pressure on them in the Middle East and Asia. The card you want to play allows the use of only two cubes, so what do you prioritize?!
Asia scores when Japan, Vietnam and Pakistan are all on the table, then again at the end of the game
250 Plays and Counting — A Playtester's Perspective
We always intended Iron Curtain to be a highly replayable microgame with layers of depth, a game you can play over and over and still learn new tricks.
The question is: How do you measure replayability? How do you know when you've succeeded? This would be the perfect moment for me to derail the designer diary and go on an analytical rant, but I won't. Instead I sat down to talk to Sagad Al-Serjawi, a most dedicated playtester who has played an insane number of games of Iron Curtain.
You could say I am turning this designers' diary into a playtester's diary.
Daniel: Hi, Sagad. Thank you for joining this designer diary. So tell me, how many games of Iron Curtain have you played?
Sagad: I don't know! I stopped counting after 250 games. I played with everyone from friends to family to strangers at a bar one time. You can say I got addicted...
D: Why do you think you went on to play such a huge number of games?
S: It's a fun game, and no turns are the same. There is always a new challenge to figure out. The game takes place during the Cold War, and you can really feel the pressure from your enemy; whether you play the USSR or the U.S. you will always find new ways of winning (or losing).
D: Do you prefer to play a particular side?
S: Hmm, I'd say U.S. for no particular reason. Both feel balanced.
D: Do you recall a cool move you made during a game?
S: Well, my friend had taken Cuba and invested a lot of energy in holding it. I was playing USSR and got the Brazil card at the right moment so that I could use the ability to remove his cubes from there, thereby making it possible to enter.
The evolution of the Algeria and Poland cards from early prototype to finished cards
D: With all those plays did the experience change over time?
S: It sure did. To be honest, the first time I heard about Iron Curtain I did not believe it would be something for me, but to my surprise it is now one of my favorite games. The first time you play Iron Curtain everything will be a surprise. You don't know what the different cards do and what tactics to use, so the first game is usually quite slow. Then you get the flow.
D: How many games had you played at that point?
S: After around five games I understood how the game is built. I began planning bluffs like placing some cubes in Asia while my sole objective was to conquer Europe. At this point I also planned which cards to throw away in the Aftermath, and where to invest influence cubes. I personally loved this state since there were still room for mistakes. The best way to learn is through mistakes. That changed at a later point.
D: How did it change?
S: Once I hit the point of mastering the game, everything turned from kids play into hardcore thinking. It was fifty or so plays in. At this point I started thinking several moves ahead and I knew all cards in and out. I had no room for mistakes — any little mistake could cost me the game. The tactics changed as well. You start building scenarios in your head and learn when to drop off the opponent's cards.
D: Thank you, Sagad, and thanks to everyone reading all the way to the bottom of this diary. Have fun with the game.
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
P.S.: If you are at SPIEL '17, swing by the Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games booth as Asger and I will be there to say hi and demo/sign games on Friday, October 27 at 13:00-14:00 and on Sunday, October 29 at 12:00-13:00.
It feels kind of crazy that we now have three Cold War games
W. Eric Martin
German publisher HABA kicked off its family game line in 2015 with Adventure Land, Spookies, and Rüdiger Dorn's Karuba, which went on to pick up a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2016.
The company released more family games in 2016, and for 2017 it's going even bigger, releasing Karuba: The Card Game (as well as a Karuba Junior for its traditional audience of younger players), the somewhat traditional roll-dice-to-get-stuff King of the Dice (to be previewed later), the abstract-ish card-laying game CONEX, the firecracker-tossing Boom, Bang, Gold, and the game I'm talking about today: Michael Feldkötter's Iquazú.
A glance at the cover of Iquazú might have you thinking of Avatar, but the gameplay is set in the Iguazú Falls located on the border of Argentina and Brazil. I'm guessing that "Iquazú" is how Germans spell "Iguazú", although the name change might be used to indicate that the action in this game takes place on an alternate Earth, one in which the Inox tribe — which includes you — wants to hide their gems for safekeeping behind the Iguazú waterfalls. To do this, they have called upon their water dragon Silon to temporarily block the flow of the river so that they can embed their gems in the rocky walls behind the falls.
All of which is a familiar genre premise to set up the somewhat fiddly, yet extremely cool mechanism that represents the falls, which can be seen below in this set-up for two players:
Okay, that shows you the bits in the game: a box of gems in four colors with each player using only one of those colors, a box of wooden water droplets, cards in three colors, a scoring track, and...something in the middle that isn't exactly clear. How about we look at this close-up image instead?
Several turns into a two-player game
Yes, there we go! The colored spaces on the rock wall represent holes where you can stash gems. Why are these spots in three colors? Because otherwise you wouldn't have much of a game. In terms of the setting, I'm not sure what these colors are supposed to represent — perhaps the different colors of vines down which you must rappel in order to reach this location — but whatever it is, these colors matter during the game, so pay attention to them.
On a turn, you either draw four cards from the deck (with these cards showing one of the three colors on the rock wall) or you play 1-5 cards of the same color to place a gem on a hole in the rock wall of that same color. Why 1-5 cards? Because the more cards you play, the farther to the right you can place that gem.
Underneath the dragon are numbers 1-5, showing how many cards you must play to place in each column
What's the point of all this? Distracting yourself from the terrors of the outside world? Perhaps so, but more specifically you want to place gems in a better way than your fellow tribe members, and the only way such things are measured are in points.
More specifically, each column of the rock wall will be scored once during the game, and when it's scored, the player with the most gems in that column scores the most points available for that column, the player with the secondmost gems scores the secondmost points, and so on — but note that in a game with n players, only n-1 players will score points in a column. If players are tied in gem count, then the player with the bottommost gem breaks the tie. Let's assume that they took more chances rappelling down the rock face and are now being rewarded.
But wait, there's more! Whenever a column is scored, you also look for majorities in each row, with a bonus token being given to whoever has the most gems in that row; ties are broken by whoever has the gem farthest to the right, with the bottommost right position being the final tiebreaker. These bonus tokens net you:
• Points, which can be hidden for now and added to your score at game's end for a "surprise" ending
• Cards, with you spending those tokens whenever you choose
• A joker ability so that you can fill a hole by discarding the right number of cards without care for their color
• An extra turn, which is the best bonus of all, so fight for these!
You can use as many bonus tokens as you want on a turn, and since the points for each column escalate as the game progresses, you'll likely want to save these for critical turns in the future.
My green gem is far behind near the end of a four-player game — so sad
That's almost the entire game. All of these components assembled in this elaborate structure are in the service of you either drawing cards or spending cards to place a gem each turn — with one exception. The last player in turn order at the start of the game holds a box of water droplets, and at the end of this player's turn, they place a droplet in the highest empty space in the leftmost column. The dragon is moving slowly across the falls, and the water is starting to drip down as it moves.
This drip-drip-drip functions just like any other drip-drip-drip you've encountered in music or movies. It's a timing device, something to ensure that the game keeps moving; more importantly, the drips pressure you and influence what you want to do because they will fill open spaces in the current column, perhaps locking in majorities that you wanted to challenge, whether the lone vertical column that will be scored or the five bonus actions available when that scoring takes place.
Scoring in four steps: score points & bonuses, remove part of the falls, slide the falls right, replace falls and reveal new bonuses
As much as Iquazú is about majorities, the game is also about timing. I've played five times on a preproduction copy from HABA — four times with two players and once with four — and the more you play, the more you start paying attention to the rhythm of the game. You know that 0-n gems (or possibly more due to bonus turns) will be added to the board each turn, along with one water drop; you see what everyone is fighting for, whether due to intent or due to them having certain cards; you know that in at most x turns the column will fill, the waterfall will advance, and bonuses will be distributed, so what will you do in those turns?
Timing plays out in multiple ways during the game. If a column fills and scores, and the next column is already full, then it will score as well — but only after you've slid the waterfall right, hiding the leftmost column of gems and revealing a new set of bonus tokens to be distributed. Yes, more bonuses! The cost to place gems in the rightmost columns is high, but they'll factor in to you winning bonus tokens multiple times, probably more than paying back that investment although you don't know what the bonuses will be until the waterfall moves.
Another timing element comes into play each time a column scores, because after doing everything else, the player holding the water droplets pass them to the right, thus shifting responsibility to someone else, while also giving them more control over when a scoring takes place. When you have those droplets, you can close two spots in the leftmost column, giving you a greater opportunity to score when the time is right; if you have an extra turn bonus, your control is even greater — which might inspire someone else to close the column so that you have pass along the waterbox before you get much use out of it.
Bonuses during set-up before you add the falls
The final three columns score all at once, with a huge payoff for the leftmost column and middling (yet still meaningful) points for the two remaining rock columns. The final two columns of bonuses are nothing but points since other rewards hold little interest by that point. You should have already spent your collected bonuses for cards, extra turns, or (far less rarely) color-changing joker powers. Leave nothing in reserve!
The rock wall is comprised of five double-sided game boards
In short, Iquazú plays out like multiple, old-school overlapping area majority games, with the moving waterfall shifting the balance of each player's holdings over the course of the game. Despite its straightforward gameplay Iquazú takes a while to set up, but the waterfall structure is ingenious, exemplifying the effort that HABA puts into a design to create a particular experience during play.
Your box will likely have external graphics...and an insert
Lisboa is my third collaboration with Vital Lacerda and Eagle-Gryphon Games, following The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition.
However, it was actually the first game I worked on for Vital. Having first started to discuss working together, Vital asked me for a sketch of the game's cover, which for almost two years was the sole indication of Lisboa's visual style. But I had barely started when Vital asked me to work on The Gallerist, then Vinhos Deluxe. It was a couple of busy years before returning to Lisboa.
My initial sketch for Lisboa's box cover in December 2014
From the start, it was evident that this was a game Vital was passionate about. While all of his games are well researched, the enthusiasm and knowledge with which he spoke about the history of his city was infectious. After much discussion and a perusal of the many, many reference images that Vital had gathered, I wanted to make this a visually unique and authentic game. I wanted people from Lisboa to recognize their city in every part of the game.
For me, there was never a question as to where the visual direction of the game should go. The unique style of Portugal's Azulejos painted tiles leapt out at me immediately. I knew straight away that we weren't going to find anything that was more distinctive or authentic to the theme. There was also a striking visual link between the delicate artistry found in these tiles, and the fact that many are now chipped, cracked, and broken. This ties in beautifully with the theme of constructing a great city from the ruins of a natural disaster. In addition, the style is both historical and representative of modern Lisboa as these incredible pieces of art can still be seen throughout the city.
An example of the stunning Azulejos
To help get my head around the task ahead, I printed out one of Vital's earlier prototypes and played the game with a patient friend. This is absolutely essential when designing a complex game as I need to see how the pieces interact, how the stacks of counters need to be placed, and where the sticking points in the gameplay are. While the game was running pretty well at that stage, it was apparent that development work was still to be done, so I decided not to start with the board. The Azulejos style would demand a lot of time-intensive detail, and changing it significantly as gameplay evolved would create problems. I decided to start with the iconography instead.
The graphic designer in me always tends towards clean, simple iconography. However, it was clear that this approach would cause problems here as I wanted to stay as true as possible to our chosen style. Because of this, I approached the icons as miniature illustrations, using key signifiers to tie groups of them together. All of the resources and the icons related to them (such as Produce) have a circular base. Both of the main institutions in the game, the clergy and the treasury, share a diamond-shaped base. All of these icons, as with everything else, began life as thumbnails in a sketchbook before being fully rendered digitally.
Some early sketches alongside the final icons
The next task was to work on the cards, both political and decrees. While the four decks of political cards are largely separated only by color, design elements such as the decorative flourishes vary from deck to deck to further distinguish them.
The initial layout for the Political cards
As I moved on to the ship cards and began considering how they operated on the table and in conjunction with the player board, a nagging issue that wouldn't go away began to surface. The original player board (called your portfolio) was a simple rectangular shape, and cards played to your portfolio were laid beside it in two rows. This caused a number of issues for me. First, it used a lot of table space. Second, once the cards were played to the table, only the top icon was relevant. All of the other information had no further effect on gameplay.
Mulling this over in my sketchbook, I decided to strongly recommend we make a big change to how this all worked. The idea was to obscure the information on the card that became irrelevant by tucking it under the player board, simultaneously saving on table space. This isn't a new idea obviously, and it's one that my own favorite game, Glory to Rome, uses well. However, I also felt that we could aid the player in learning the rules of the game by doing this.
Each card has a benefit that the player receives immediately when the card is played to the portfolio. By making this icon the one that got tucked under the board, we were able to introduce a simple general rule: "When you cover something up, you receive it." Adding arrows to the area behind these icons to remind players where (top or bottom) each card should be tucked also helped during the learning process.
My first sketch to sell the idea to Vital
Consequently, ship cards became a bit of a challenge as the original mechanism had players flip the ship cards once they sailed away after having been filled with goods. Not wanting to force players to lift the cards from under their portfolio every turn to flip them, I devised the "dock" area on the player board that serves as a space to store goods. This had a number of positive effects. First, it changed the ship cards from portrait to landscape, which serves as a clear indicator to every player of how many ship cards are currently in play. Second, it freed up most of the ship card, which goods would previously have covered, to show the illustration, as well as clear indications of the ship's hull size and selling bonus. The goods spaces also now act as a track of sorts, with the ship card itself indicating the maximum amount of goods that can be loaded onto it.
Ship cards in a player's portfolio
This redesign of the entire manner in which the player's portfolio operates was probably the biggest turnaround we had during the process of creating the visuals for Lisboa. A lot of discussion and convincing was necessary, and a lot of rules rewriting resulted (apologies to all involved!), but I feel that the result is a good solution for the game.
The near-final player boards
Then began the long process of creating the board. The first step was to lay everything out in simple shapes without any illustration or thematic elements. This creates the core functionality of the layout. The key elements at this stage are flow, clarity, and hierarchy of information, as well as ergonomics in regard to pieces that will be placed onto the board.
One of Vital's prototype boards
A change that was made at this stage was to move the treasury track to the center of the board so that it was more related to the noble offices, the ship yard, and the city itself, all of which it affects. Once this bare-bones version was complete, I printed it out full size to move components around and make sure it felt right.
Another change I wanted to try out was having a standard tile for the stores, but having a cut-out "entrance" that would indicate which street the tile faces. This would have the positive effect of reducing the number of tiles needed from 40 down to 24 (since they would no longer be color-specific) and would also make set-up easier and faster. You can see here my rudimentary prototype that I presented to Vital, who liked it enough to give it the go-ahead.
A bare-bones mock-up, testing the concept of the store tiles
Once the layout was working, the process of illustrating the board began. There are no real shortcuts here; it's just focusing on each section in turn and trying not to go mad in the process. The drawing process took about a week to complete. Once the main elements were in place, the iconography was added, and I started to introduce color into areas to differentiate them. This is a fine balancing act. Too much color betrays the style we're working in and distracts from the icons during play.
The near-final board
The box cover was the next big task, but time was beginning to run short. This and a number of other unrelated factors led to the cover illustration being completed in just two days — two long, long days. Thinking of the box as a single piece of design (rather than as a front cover and four sides), I liked the idea of players picking up a chunk of rubble, with the painted tiles still attached to the front. The fact that I knew the final box would be pretty heavy helped to reinforce the concept.
From sketch to final cover
Once most of the elements were complete, I made a full prototype and organized to play it with a few different groups. The reason for this was to uncover issues that don't become apparent until new players sit down with the game. I always make a point of not using a player aid during these playtests at it puts the burden of communication on the board and other components.
Late-art prototype, using 3mm think foam core to mimic the thickness of the final tiles
These playtests proved invaluable, and a last round of updates were made for further testing by Vital and approval by the folks at Eagle-Gryphon Games, the publisher.
There are many, many more elements to this game that needed individual attention, such as the thematic custom meeple designs and public building illustrations, as well as the task of splitting the player board into three separate levels of cardboard before production.
It's been a long road since that cover sketch I created in an afternoon in 2014, but a hugely rewarding one. I hope I've managed to do justice to the amount of passion that Vital has poured into his game, and it's not only one of the projects I'm most proud of from a creative standpoint, but also a game I really love to play. I hope you will, too.
Late-art prototype in play at PAX Aus 2016
3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)
3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)
3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)
3D render created for Kickstarter page (excluding custom meeples)
P.S.: Sorry it's so blue.
W. Eric Martin
I've already posted an overview of Michael Kiesling's Azul, which Plan B Games will debut at SPIEL '17 in October, but now I've played the game many more times since then — ten total on a pre-production copy and a review copy, four times with four players and six times with two — so let's talk about it some more.
In a recent preview of a new edition of Alex Randolph's Venice Connection, I talked about that game's Nim-style gameplay. Nim is extremely basic: Start with three or more heaps of objects, then take turns with another player to remove any number of objects from precisely one heap; whoever removes the last object wins. Unfortunately, Nim is also solved, which makes it uninteresting to play — but the framework of Nim gives you a great structure upon which other better games can be built.
Azul is one of those games.
Now, the premise of Azul is ridiculous. You're supposed to be a tile-laying artist who has "been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora" in order to impress King Manuel I, but at most you'll complete a 5x5 grid of tiles and in most cases you won't have more than a couple of lines of tiles on that grid with numerous holes throughout, and I daresay that only the daftest of kings would be impressed by such a half-assed display of tilery. Perhaps that 5x5 grid is meant to suggest some larger tile-pattern that will be used throughout the palace, but even then you think the king would look at your unfinished work and suggest that you'd be better off as a sheep herder.
No matter. The premise of the game is mere window dressing on what's going to get you to the table — the wonderfully chunky colored bits — and keep you coming back to the table after that first playing, that being the Nim-style gameplay alluded to earlier.
At the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on whether you have two, three, or four players) with four tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table. You take turns choosing a disc or the center of the table, then taking all tiles of one color from this location and placing them in a single row on your personal player board; if you chose a disc, then you push any remaining tiles into the center of the table. If you're the first person to choose the center, you take the first player marker along with your chosen tiles.
The start of a three-player game; what do you want?
If you can't fit all of the titles into your row of choice, with the rows being 1-5 spaces in length, then excess tiles "fall" to the bottom of your player board, with you being penalized for such waste at round's end. You can add more tiles to a row you've already started as long as all the tiles are the same color.
You take turns choosing tiles until they've all been claimed, then for each complete row on your player board, you move one of those tiles into the matching-colored space on the same row in the 5x5 grid. You score points for each of these moved tiles, and if you can cluster those tile placements, you score more points. Tiles in incomplete rows stay where they are, while all excess tiles from completed rows are placed in a discard pile. Continue to play rounds this way until someone completes a horizontal row on their grid. At the end of this round, the game ends and you score bonus points for completed rows (not much), completed columns (worth more), and completed colors (the best of all).
That's it — Azul in three paragraphs, three dry paragraphs that don't get across the wonderful tenseness that develops during the game. In that first round, you're mostly trying to grab whatever seems best. Can you take three tiles of the same color? Then do that. Can you take only two? Then do that. But wait? Which tiles are being pushed into the middle, and how many of them lie on other discs? Which color did the player before you take, and are you giving them a gift of tiles on their next turn? You feel things out, take this or that, then the round ends, you score a few points, then the game picks up from there.
Now you all have investments, whether tiles in your grid or rows of tiles in waiting, and those claimed colors — both by you and everyone else — start affecting everything else that you do. Does the player behind you need two yellow to complete a row? Take them for yourself! Make them take actions to scratch out only a single tile each turn, thereby possibly dumping multiples of colors in the middle that you can then scoop up.
Not a great first round, having completed only two rows — that dark blue tile will be removed
The same number of tiles are put into play each round (except possibly in the four-player game when the bag runs low because so many tiles have been used), but those tiles needn't be distributed evenly. You want to grab great globs of them for yourself so that you can complete those four- and five-space rows quickly and repeatedly. If you let those rows drag along half-filled from one round to the next, then you have little hope of completing columns or grabbing five tiles of the same color, and that's where you land the big points, so be greedy at the expense of others, and the only ways to be greedy are to:
1. Pay attention to who's taking what, and
2. Take tiles from the right places at the right times.
This latter aspect of the game only starts emerging after your first couple of rounds. You realize that if you had taken that one red tile from the center instead of the final disc then someone else would have taken a tile from that disc, possibly allowing you to grab three blue tiles instead of two since one blue was dumped into the center. Or you see three blue already in the center and realize that everyone else either already has blue in their fourth and fifth rows or is at work on some other color and can't take blue, so you let it sit a round to build up to four or more tiles so that you can complete a row in one go. Anyone who's drafted in Magic: The Gathering or other games will recognize this tension: How long can you wait to take something? Will someone else snatch it first? What's more, can you wait longer so that the pot builds?
Round #2 begins with you going second; what are you aiming to collect?
I picture the ending of each round in Azul as the moment in The Matrix Revolutions when Neo and Trinity briefly rise above the clouds to spy sunlight they would have never expected to see — only to then plummet downward into the thick of battle once again where fresh tiles have been laid out and everyone is fighting and you're not sure what's going to happen. (I apologize for making you think about The Matrix Revolutions.) The rising tension mimics that feeling of when you're reaching for cards in a new round of a trick-taking game: What's possible this time? How can you score what you need and dodge the rest of the time?
Azul is even tighter at two players because you know that whichever tiles you don't get, the other player will, and this makes the Nim comparison even more evident: If I take this tile, then you'll likely take those two, which means I can take these and possibly set myself up for those the turn after. I might want to take these four tiles, but if I can leave them and force you to take them when you have no room, then you'll lose six points, which is pretty much the same as me gaining six points.
You can still do such things with four players, though, and this can be even more satisfying. You see that the next player likely wants a black tile and the person after that a yellow, so if you take this blue (when otherwise you might not have cared which color you took), then player #4 gets stuck with lots of tiles they can't use. Yay, collaborative kneecapping! We used similar tactics in my most recent game to ensure that a player couldn't grab two black tiles to complete a row and therefore trigger the end of the game. (He was the only player who had four tiles in a row.) We hadn't counted out the endgame bonuses, but that player seemed to be in the lead, so we wanted more time and took turns pushing him away from the door.
Possible trouble ahead
I haven't even mentioned the gray variant game board — not advanced, mind you, but "variant", although I'd advise playing on the colored side for your first game or two. When you play on the gray board, you place tiles under the same restrictions, with each row and column of your 5x5 grid allowed to have each color only once, but outside of that you have the freedom to place a tile anywhere in a row.
What has happened in my games is that scores are higher since you can cluster the tiles as soon as you place them, but you also tend to box yourself into corners that will be increasingly unpleasant as the game continues. In the image above, I'm on my way to completing a column — assuming that I can finish the second and fourth rows before the round ends (or the game, really) — but if I place black in the fourth spot in that column, then I'll need to place black in the fifth spot of the adjacent column, but I can't even start working on that black row until I clear out the yellow, and that yellow's not going to score my much anyway, but I've started it, so now I need to end it. If I instead place the black in the fourth spot of the middle column, then I can't place both the light blue and yellow in the second column or else I doom myself to never completing the column since black would have to go in the fourth spot and can't.
Whenever you take tiles, as with those yellow in the bottom row, you can choose to dump them on the floor instead of placing them in a row, but that's like purposefully stepping on a nail. Better to get small points than negative points, right? Maybe?
83 points, despite flubbing the top row
My only regret with Azul right now is that I have many more games to preview ahead of SPIEL '17, so I won't be able to play it as much as I want. I realize that might sound like bragging rather than an actual regret, but it's not. To do a good job in this space, I can't post over and over again about the same game, but thankfully Azul will wait for me until I call once again. That waiting time for the tiling shouldn't be a problem given the king's low expectations...
W. Eric Martin
• I'm a sucker for time travel, so when I see a game (or a book or a movie or an opera) on the topic, I pay attention to it. The latest design spotted in this category is Sarah's Singularity, a Thomas Gutschmidt design that Daily Magic Games will Kickstart in October 2017 for a planned Q4 2018 release. Whether I'll ever play the game is an open question, but know about the game's existence is the first step — unless events change retroactively and this section of my post turns into an introduction to Sarah's Singed Reality, a cooperative game about a woman's attempts to survive an apartment fire:
Future Sarah has fractured the timelines and it's up to you, an earlier-version Sarah, to solve missions and set things right. Bring dinosaurs to Ancient Egypt and ComiCon panelists to Feudal Japan while trying to rescue lost companions scattered in time. Put companions to work in their own times to complete missions. You've got seven time jumps to complete as many missions as possible, but watch out for paradoxes; if two or more Sarahs meet in the same time zone, everything about them will change in an instant and all your plans could go up in smoke.
In Sarah's Singularity, players select an assortment of time periods from prehistoric Pangea to ComicCon 2012 and establish a set of missions for each period. Stranded companions from far-ranging times are scattered among the chosen periods and each player gets a "Sarah Card" with special powers. Finally, players choose two secret objective cards for hidden endgame scoring and a Chronologist is selected from the gathered players.
Each round, Future Sarah visits a time period to strand another companion and the players simultaneously and secretly select a time period to jump to where they hope to solve a mission by matching icons on the mission card with icons on the stranded companion cards and the icons on their own hand of helpful companions. Typically, when the selected periods are revealed, they're resolved in chronological order. However, if two or more Sarahs (including the Future Sarah) land in the same time period, they paradox! Those player immediately turn in their Sarah Cards and get a new one at random, losing the special powers they may have planned to use to help solve the mission. The Chronologist then decides the order in which the paradoxing players gets to take their turns. The paradoxing player who goes last gets to be the new Chronologist.
Players claim solved missions as victory points. They also gain bonus points and a wild icon token for rescuing a stranded companion and hidden endgame points through their secret objective cards. After seven rounds, the points are tallied and a winner is announced.
• In June 2017, Renegade Game Studios announced that it would bring Shem Phillips' Raiders of the North Sea to North America, and now it has placed a Q4 2017 release date for the two other standalone titles in the series — Shipwrights of the North Sea and Explorers of the North Sea — as well as The North Sea Runesaga, an expansion that can be used with any or all of these games.
• Renegade also plans to release a new edition of Wei-Min Ling's Planet Defenders, which debuted from Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4 at SPIEL '16. In the game, players take turns moving characters (guided by restrictions on the board that constantly change) to collect energy and move among the planets to repel invade robots. Renegade's version of the game replaces the cardboard standees with 3D miniatures.
• I thought that I had posted about this title, but no, that was only in my mind. In mid-2017, New Zealand-based publisher SchilMil Games announced a two-year deal with designer Martin Wallace that will include a game set in Middle-earth, a co-designed game about which no details were given, and the 2018 release of AuZtralia:
Ever since 1180, for seven long centuries, the Old Ones held full sway over the riches of the Earth and the affairs of humankind. All that changed in 1888. For in that momentous year, Sherlock Holmes and a clandestine fraternity of intrepid Victorian heroes succeeded in vanquishing these monstrous tyrants and driving them from their lands. Humanity had triumphed, but the countries of Europe and America were in a terrible state. The land was poisoned and food shortages were a constant scourge.
Other parts of the planet had not yet been explored as the Old Ones had enforced a draconic ban on exploration. Humanity, enjoying its new-found freedom, sent ships out to explore the world. A vast new continent was discovered on the far side of the world. At first called Terra Australis, it quickly became known as Australia. Brave prospectors and surveyors came to explore the new continent. They were followed by pioneers and settlers who constructed ports and built railways into the vast interior, developing farms and shipping the produce back to the hungry masses they had left behind. Untold riches in coal, iron and gold were discovered in the hinterland — but that was not all that awaited the pioneers...
There was a reason why a ban existed on exploring this part of the world. Unbeknownst to all, hidden in the outback of the land, the Old Ones had created a secret base. Following their defeat the surviving Old Ones and some of their loyal human allies made their way to their holdfasts in the arid plains beyond the Great Dividing Range. As the colonists spread, so the Old Ones began to stir, hell-bent on driving these irksome intruders back into the sea. Terrible creatures bred by the Old Ones started to move across the land, destroying everyone they encountered, blighting everything in their path.
Faced with this horror, the pioneers pinned their hopes on the one advantage they had: the power of modern military technology, which was now so much more advanced than in 1888 when mankind was last called upon to face against the Old Ones.
Inspired by Martin Wallace's A Study in Emerald, AuZtralia is an economic/adventure game set in an alternate reality 1930s in which Australia is waiting to be explored. As well as riches from the land, darkness and insanity lies in the outback. The game meshes themes of exploration, adventure, and economy (farming and mining), with battles against fantastical Old One creatures who act as an in-game player. It also boasts a randomized board set-up, an innovative combat mechanism, and a surprisingly tense solo play mode.
• RWBY: Combat Ready is a board game based on the RWBY animated series created by Monty Oum and produced by Rooster Teeth. U.S. publisher Arcane Wonders is handling development of the game, about which no details have been announced (as far as I can tell).
Asger Harding Granerud
Early Flamme Rouge prototype
Tracking a game's origin back to 1687 is quite a feat as the game would be almost as old as what we call modern chess today. It is even rarer if we limit ourselves to games that are still played to this day. The game I'm referring to, and the game that inspired Frogriders was Peg Solitaire.
Before I'm beheaded by internet warriors, I am aware that Peg Solitaire is probably closer to a puzzle than a game, by any modern definition. However, I'll posit that at its core Peg Solitaire has a couple of features that makes it ideal to use as a template for a modern game. I firmly believe that Daniel Skjold Pedersen and I have expanded upon these core strengths of Peg Solitaire to make it a viable 2017 title. I hope you will agree, and if you want to learn why I believe so, read on!
Frogriders is a 2-4 player family game for players aged 8+ that takes 20-30 minutes to play. Each player is a member of a different tribe of elves that also ride frogs. The game takes place around the elf's tribal pond, and represents a mock battle, reenacting the bold maneuvers of times past.
At its core, though, Frogriders is a straight forward abstract, with some modern mechanisms added: shared and hidden scoring, set collection, and light engine building. Its weight lends itself to a fast filler for the hardcore gamers (best at 2) and a full game experience especially for youngsters (best at 3-4). The gameplay is straightforward, and even if you can't spot the best move, you can always jump a frog and keep it.
The first time I remember seeing Frogriders was on a Thursday evening after bouldering (climbing), which is when Daniel and I had our weekly design session. He turned up with this new game called "Frog N Roll" and a very rough prototype. We went back and forth on the game for a couple of weeks, without any major breakthroughs. There were too many different card decks, and they weren't in use quite often enough, plus the game ended with some analysis paralysis because 95% of the scores were open.
Despite all of these initial troubles, we had a gut feeling we were on to something. We have a few playtesters in our family who aren't actual gamers like the vast majority of our testers. In general, when they get hooked on one of our early prototypes, despite all its flaws at that stage, we know we have to push through with it. For this game it was Daniel's cousin Martin Holst. For Flamme Rouge, it was my wife Malu — though it should be said that Malu asks more often for Frogriders than Flamme Rouge, with the finished copy on our shelves.
Different stages of the prototype board, as it evolved; making changes is faster if we stick with pen and paper
The next thing I remember was having a 70-80 minute car ride with Daniel in which we had decided to brainstorm solutions/changes. I can't remember exactly what was decided in this car, or more generally in the following weeks, but from there the game clearly had the identity it maintains today: a stripped back focus on set collection through the basic action of jumping the frogs.
We definitely cut away some of the different card decks, and we also introduced hidden objectives. This last part both helped reduce AP, as the score couldn't be calculated precisely at any given point, and created the "reveal" at the end, ensuring there is excitement in the wrap-up — and possibly even surprise winners! That was the right direction to go with Frogriders as it is now much more of a fast-flowing tactical game for families than a brain-burning experience for gamers.
In the first iterations of Frogriders, the direction you jumped in each turn also mattered, as did four zones on the board. The current version focuses your attention on your main goal much more clearly — which frog is best to collect this round, and how do I mess with everyone else — whereas the first ones simply had too many differing agendas fighting for your attention.
"The first evidence of the game can be traced back to the court of Louis XIV, and the specific date of 1687, with an engraving made that year by Claude Auguste Berey of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, Princess of Soubise, with the puzzle by her side. The August 1687 edition of the French literary magazine Mercure galant contains a description of the board, rules and sample problems. This is the first known reference to the game in print."
Earlier I claimed that Peg Solitaire had some features that were ripe for use in a modern board game. The features are the board and the basic move that removes a piece each turn. (There aren't many other features left...) As the board starts full of pieces, there are few legal moves and hence you are eased into the gameplay. A couple of turns into the game, the options explode, and each move creates numerous new options for the next player. Towards the end, however, the pieces become so scarce that legal moves start decreasing again, and you are likely looking for that one frog you need to complete your collection. It even becomes feasible to calculate a couple of moves ahead, if you're so inclined.
This simple core mechanism allows for three distinct phases when you play Frogriders. It naturally and gradually changes from opening game through midgame and onto endgame. Now I don't want to oversell this point as the game moves so quickly that you might miss these phases if you blink, but they are certainly there. On the first move, only four options are available; on the second, six moves; then eight, etc. It doesn't actually progress in a linear fashion, though, and then there is the tipping point. When you get into the endgame, the options start decreasing, and thinking ahead to influence how rapidly is certainly feasible.
When the basic action you're doing each turn is the same, it is important that the game evolves in other ways to keep it interesting and varied, and Frogriders (in my opinion) achieves that without introducing extra rules to force the issue. I also think it is a huge plus for a family game that when you're trying the game for the first time, the options up front are quite limited.
One of the things Daniel and I are most proud of with Frogriders is the pace at which it plays. Of course there might be gamers out there for whom analysis paralysis becomes an issue, but we haven't quite experienced it yet. When we pitched the design to publishers at SPIEL 2015, we played a three-player game in all the meetings where we showed it, despite having only 30 minutes AND showing other games. The first review that was live on BGG also shows this well as it has both a brief rules explanation, a two-player playthrough, and a mini-review in under 15 minutes!
We don't linger on making changes — cross it out, replace it, and move on. Pretty is for published!
Frogriders is published by Eggertspiele, and the game wouldn't have been anywhere near as polished without the work of their excellent lead developer Viktor Kobilke and illustrator Alexander Jung. They did an outstanding job on both the illustrations and the graphic user interface, and we are proud to work with these talented people on new projects. Of course, the ever fantastic Stronghold Games is the U.S. publisher.
Asger Harding Granerud
W. Eric Martin
Game designer, escape room expert, and director of the Brantford Games Network Scott Nicholson recently tweeted the following:
How true! Rare is the game that includes rules like "The player who just opened the box has won." or "Whoever has the largest hands wins." (Exception: Start Player) After all, a game that doesn't push you around is hardly a game at all. The rules of the game constitute an artificial environment, and when you undertake the playing of a game, you submit yourself to those arbitrary, yet ideally internally consistent rules that comprise that world. You lay down cards that punish you, move into spaces that deny you, and contemplate choices that discomfort you — all in the service of trying to come out ahead of your fellow travelers.
Almost every game presents you with choices, and your willingness to engage those choices is what it means to play a game. Even the simplest games — in this case Bandido, by Martin Nedergaard Andersen and Swiss publisher Helvetiq — are driven by a designer's choice to make your life more difficult. An (apparently invisible) bandit is attempting to tunnel out of jail, and you and your fellow players need to stop him.
Why would you do this? This bandit doesn't even exist, and even if he did, you're probably not employed by a law enforcement agency and have no responsibility for maintaining this person's incarceration. On the off-chance that you do belong to a fictitious police agency, you'd probably gas the tunnels with a sleeping agent or tear gas to render the bandit unable to attempt any further tunneling.
But no, that's not your way. Instead you will each take three cards in hand — cards that represent both the tunnels being created and the dead ends that prevent further movement — and you'll take turns laying down a card to extend (or stymie) this tunnel network. You might not want to play one of the cards, but you must. You have engaged this game, perhaps even on your own since solitaire play is possible, and now you must follow through.
Naturally as you take turns, the tunnels must observe some minimal level of verisimilitude. You can't abut a tunnel with a wall of dirt. If you could do that, you could negate play by stacking the deck of cards on top of the bandit and asphyxiating him. Follow the paths, narrow the routes to freedom, and hope to plug the holes.
Don't do this
As the game progresses, you realize that in some ways you're simply counting holes. How many ways can this guy reach freedom? Five? Can I make a play to cut that number down to four? Can I keep the holes close to one another so that someone else can bring that number down to three?
Bandido is a simple game, marketed for players aged six and up, and I've now played the game on a purchased copy a half-dozen times, with players counts from 1-4 and with players as young as five. You might think about figuring out the odds of making this play or that, but I've hardly memorized the deck after six plays, and you're just playing the odds over and over again anyway. Maybe the next player has a card perfect for the situation and maybe they don't.
"What now, brown cow?"
The rules are silent on whether you should talk about what's in your hand or indicate where someone might want to play, and while that absence will surely annoy some, I figure that each group will do whatever it prefers, which might be what they would have done anyway. I've played with adults in silence and with kids in total cooperation with face-up hands. It doesn't matter. You do what you want to do, and as long as all the players agree, then you're taking on the burden of those difficult lives together, each suffering the same burdens and part of the same world.
The number of tunnels shrinks and grows. You might see the net closing, then someone shrugs — perhaps you — and says, "Oh, well" as they triple the number of tunnels in play. Sometimes you benefit by narrowing the bandit's options. If everything becomes gnarled underground, you might be unable to play at all, in which case you can place your hand of cards on the bottom of the deck and draw three anew. Will you find better choices or a tunnel you'd never want to play, but must?
If your life wasn't difficult enough previously, you can give the bandit six starting tunnels instead of five. Why didn't he dig six starting tunnels in the first place? I don't know; why'd you lock him in a jail surrounded by loose dirt? I suppose you just wanted to make things difficult for yourself...
In 1994, my first game, Wyvern, was published. It was a trading card game with a mythological dragon theme. I loved doing the research for that game and told myself I would revisit this theme sometime.
All of a sudden it is twenty years and sixty published games later when I finally decide to get back to that dragon theme. I wanted to design a game in which all players are focused on the same thing rather than multiplayer solitaire with individual boards or hands of cards for players. This led me to do my first game that is not card driven: Dragon Island. I wanted to create a game state that changed with every player's turn and in which every player's strategies would be altered by each play. To do this, I chose tile-laying as the mechanism. The tiles are double-sided and players start each turn by adding a tile to the island.
Each player is a wizard involved in discovering Dragon Island. Players get energy from the island to help them build things and capture dragons, and they tame some of the dragons to help them explore the island. They also discover treasure maps that can lead them to hidden treasures on the island.
In my first version, I had a movement system I really loved. Each wizard had one terrain as their native terrain, and they could move through these tiles for free. Then I made a wizard pay a gold piece to get through a tile that was not their native terrain. It is an important lesson in game design that sometimes you have to give up on something you like a lot to help the real "fun" in the game come to the fore. Figuring out where a player could move on their turn became a tactical chore. Players would want to do some of the fun things in the game without having to brain burn to figure out the movement. It was the playtesters who showed me that the game had plenty of things to ponder without adding the movement complexity. I went through a period with no movement restrictions at all. I knew I would come up with some movement restrictions eventually, but I wanted them to come from the theme of the game and not just a mechanism.
Gold led me to the answer. After all, dragons love gold. This love was at the center of the Wyvern design, and I wanted to make sure it was in Dragon Island as well. I came up with a way that wizards can maneuver the dragons around the island by tempting them with gold. You pay 1 gold piece and can move a dragon from one tile to any other tile. The only thing you can do with gold is influence dragons.
Then it hit me: What if you could make a dragon your pet? Then the dragon could fly you to its own native terrain from anywhere on the board. This became the key to movement. If you do not have a pet dragon, you can move only one tile on a turn. (This was later amended to allow you to teleport to the Wizards Keep starting tile and stay there or move one tile from there.) To tame a dragon to be your pet, you must be on a tile with only one dragon and offer the dragon three gold pieces. They will always become your pet for the gold. You place the three gold on the pet card and put the dragon on the card. Each pet offers the flying service to its native terrain as well as an ability to help you in one of the strategic areas of the game. At the end of the game, each gold on your pets is a game point, and there are ways gold pieces can be removed from your pets. I am happy with how the movement in the game turned out and very glad I listened to my playtesters.
All the tiles have actions you can do when you are on them. The problem is that first you must deal with any dragons that are on the tile. In addition to making them your pets, you can capture them, spending 10 active energy in order to capture all the dragons on that space. You get fame and remove the dragons from the board. Once you are on a tile with no dragons, you can now do the action the tile allows you to do. Then, you still can discover treasure there if a treasure map you hold shows that treasure is located there. I was inspired by Takenoko when coming up with how you would know where to find a treasure. It is not the same idea but comes from loving that game.
As you can tell, there are a lot of things you can do on a tile. The fun comes from the fact that you can do them all on one turn. You will find yourself trying to set up a few big turns in the game by maneuvering dragons around so that you can deal with them to get fame, do the action on a tile, and discover treasure all at the same time.
The one part of the game that never changed during the design process was how you get your energy. I did not want a separate system of gaining resources; I wanted it to come out of one of the basic actions in the game. I did this by making it part of your tile placement, which is the first thing you do on a turn. You place a tile on the board and gain one energy of the tile you placed and every tile that is touching it. This makes where you place tiles critical because every time you are doing something in the game that requires energy, you can pay only energy of the tile on which you are doing the action or every tile touching that tile. This is what "active energy" means. This creates lots of interesting decision space in where you place tiles and where you travel on the board to take actions.
I have not told you everything that happens in the game, so some surprises still await you. At its heart, Dragon Island is a midweight Eurogame that gives you an adventure theme and treats dragons with the respect I believe they deserve.
I've never designed a game, and I don't consider myself a game designer. The closest term I'd agree to is game developer, but what I do to games isn't really developing them in the traditionally understood way as much as modding them.
So when Phil Eklund approached me about doing a design for an intermediate game between his Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna series — called at various points during the design process "Bios: Paleozoic", "Bios: Pangaea", "Bios: Fauna" and "Bios: XX" — I was initially cautious. For a start, I had already designed a "Bios: Paleozoic" which was a mod to Bios: Megafauna that allow you to start the game earlier in the Paleozoic era. More importantly, I didn't have the confidence to build a design from scratch.
However, I do have some previous experience with procedural map generation, so I decided to concentrate on building a game which procedurally generates the map by using craton movement instead of tile-laying. Jon Manker also came on board the project with the offer of mentoring me and acting as a co-designer, but our actual contributions would evolve substantially throughout the course of the project so that Jon ended up in a developer as well as designer role.
My initial proposal to Phil was as follows:
... I've figured out a non-climax based tableau. I'm going to attempt to model plate tectonics instead
The idea will be cards consisting of super continents (spanning two cards), mountains, landmasses (reverse side is ice), archipelagos (reverse side is ocean). Each card will have a drift number and direction and represent a plate. Colliding plates will either subduct or form mountains or super continents. Rules to be determined.
My reasoning for eliminating climaxes was to cut down on the recognition factor of having to read climax numbers off the map. This part of the original Bios: Megafauna makes creeples (Megafauna's creature meeples) on the lowest climax location significantly more vulnerable to elimination by a new biome being introduced. Improving game state legibility became a central tenet of the new Bios: Megafauna game, and we eliminated DNA, acculturation, roadrunner genes, and a separate size chart for very similar reasons.
Phil insisted very early on that we were going to model skeletal types rather than dentition, and that there be six named cratons. This meant I was working with 2x2 cratons to keep to approximately the same playing area size as Megafauna. I built an event-driven craton movement model that allowed for the formation and separation of a Pangaea supercontinent by giving cratons a direction and using rotation and advance actions to move them on an underlying tile map.
This system was ultimately abandoned as it was prone to have the cratons fly off in any direction and never collide. To fix this required carefully stacking the event deck so that cratons would move in similar directions with a bias to collide and that any variation in movement order was tightly controlled.
But stacking the deck made getting the events work in such a way that Jon and Phil never completely understood it. (Knowledge transfer over the internet is a hard thing to do.) Phil recommended that we go with a horizontal collision model with some vertical movement, and the craton movement has been much more robust and largely unchanged since that suggestion.
Going to a horizontal collision model was driven by another Phil requirement to use hex instead of square cratons, and that requirement was driven by something that had become more and more obvious as development for Bios: Genesis wound down and we began working on the new game in earnest: There wasn't enough design space for a Bios: Genesis that ended up with terrestrial creatures, Bios: Pangaea which did something with those creatures, and a planned Bios: Megafauna 2 that allowed those creatures to grow to enormous sizes.
We made the call to fold Pangaea and Megafauna into a single game. This decision effectively meant that we would be redesigning Megafauna almost from the ground up instead of keeping it largely unchanged. Adopting hexes allowed us to dynamically generate the hex-based Bios: Origins map by using craton movement in Bios: Megafauna 2.
Being a direct sequel to Bios: Genesis meant we could do a lot of the simplification by simply adopting the decisions that had been made in Bios: Genesis and extending them into the new game. This meant organs instead of DNA, with Phil deciding to introduce a fifth organ type to represent cold resistance, and promotable mutation cards, although we innovated by having the promoted side in one of two possible origins to represent specialization of base organ types in various ways (with a large amount of latitude in how this occurs in practice).
One mechanism that survived a long way into the game design process but which was ultimately cut was the intended replacement for BMF 1's acculturation abilities which were called ecomorphs. These would have allowed for everything from the development of various tools (now subsumed into the emotion system) to acting as a keystone species such as a beaver or prairie dog as well as a variety of hunting methods. But a third row of cards in the market made ecomorphs problematic to begin with, and they were completely eliminated when we realized that putting special rule text on the cards ran counter to the improving the legibility of the game state.
Oxygen, clouds and trapped carbon
Contrast the elimination of ecomorphs about midway through the design process with the carbon cycle tracking. As a part of the craton movement, I had suggested that we eliminate event-based CO₂ modeling and go with a counter-based system with CO₂ reservoirs being placed on the map by outcomes such as continents colliding to form mountains. Phil expressed cautious interest in the idea, then ruled it out, preferring a more conservative event-based CO₂ system that was recognizably similar to the first edition of Bios: Megafauna. But in one of many redesigns of the event system (no other system had more changes to it), Phil adopted my initial suggestion, adding the tracking of O₂ (which I had abstracted out) and water, which could fill up the atmosphere (representing greenhouse gases) or clouds (causing precipitation).
Given I am in the most junior of the designers involved in the creation of Bios: Megafauna 2, it is remarkable how many of the systems I initially proposed survived in the final game. However, Phil has definitely owned the design in this instance, which he should do given that he ultimately lives by the success of his games. And he would often pose me a challenge, such as coming up with a way of defining emotions or horror plants in the game, then take a seed of my initial suggestion and take the design in the direction he wanted to go. The tempo of development largely seems to have been that I would build version 1 of something, Phil would flesh out and build the final version, and Jon would ensure that the fun has been put in the game.
I am quietly optimistic that we've been successful in ensuring that Bios: Megafauna 2 is more fun and more of a game than its predecessors. The collision of species expanding on the map is incredibly enjoyable, and lends a "knife fight in a phone booth" feel to the whole proceedings. The climate and tectonic engine lends enough randomness and arbitrariness to feel like a Sierra Madre game, and the personification of Medea as player controlled means that the microscopic world of Bios: Genesis never feels too far away. There are simulationist elements that were in Bios: Megafauna 1 that are missing in the successor game; the climax and biome interactions are simplified and abstracted and that is the loss I feel most keenly, but the games of Bios: Megafauna 1 I played during the development of Bios: Megafauna 2 just highlighted how little direct control players had in the first version.
The art by Johanna Pettersson is beautiful and evocative, and Phil's collaboration with Karim Chakroun continues to pay off in information design and display. I hope you will enjoy playing Bios: Megafauna 2 as much as I have enjoyed making it.
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