In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.

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Designing Demokratia

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twenty-first of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

While designing Peoples: Migrations, I studied literature on the ancient civilizations but stopped when I reached the classical Greece. Nevertheless, the idea of designing a game rooted in an interesting theme had been with me for a while and why not Greece? Ever since Christina Regina: The Queen's Path, I wanted to try out a political game again and the first democracy would be an excellent theme for such a game: Demokratia



Initially, my thoughts went to games like The Republic of Rome, with its political offices and factions, as well as semi-cooperative building games like Between Two Cities. The idea was a game where the players play politicians, responsible for various areas of the city state.

* The archon may collect taxes and distribute them to the other players or keep for himself.
* The strateg may build an army to defend or seize the power himself.
* The architect may build buildings to increase other players' points (but ask for bribes for it).
* The magistrate may charge other players for corruption.
* Etc.

An intriguing idea was to have modular event cards chosen by the players themselves, that combined would tell a story that the players could act and react upon. Depending on their actions, they would get tokens that could be exchanged for gold, votes, monuments, orators and what not to build a victory point engine. Poor actions would bring the entire city of Athens down. I started to study the literature I had on Athens, including The Athenian Agora with its many detailed descriptions of Athenian buildings, and found inspiring images at Ancientathens3d.com.

However, I couldn't really fit all this into simple and streamlined game mechanisms. Should all offices have to be occupied? How should they be balanced against each other? How should the event cards be interpreted? Why would I want to help other players exercise their offices?

Struggling with those questions, two other games came into my mind. One was Carolus Magnus, with its intriguing "control the controllers" mechanism. The other was the simple but powerful "build to increase value" mechanism of Acquire. The idea would be to let the players build score engines in two dimensions: first by erecting buildings in Athens of different colors and second by controlling the factions in the Boule that score for the different colors. To do both would take too long so the players would have to negotiate with each other. The offices would be turned into Monuments and the orators would remain but renamed to the Greek word of Rhetor as additional mechanisms with special powers for the players willing to invest in them. (How would I be able to resist a game with strategoi and Socrates?)

To create additional strategic paths, I added two more victory conditions to the standard one of getting all your tokens into the game: a majority in the Boule (an "Oligarchy" victory) and a majority in the city of Athens (a "Tyranny" victory). Thematically, they made sense as well as the democracy in Athens was constantly threatened by the oligarchs and the tyrants. With that decided, the work of detailing the mechanisms and the art could start.

Initially, I reused the six civilization areas from Peoples; Culture, Civics, Economy, Military, Religion and Science; and tried to link them to the various buildings of the Classical Athens. The Strategeion would increase the score of the military faction and so on. However, I soon came to realize that the military faction would have no particular ability that differed it from the other factions and that it didn't make much sense thematically either.

Another initial idea was that certain buildings would have certain effects on each other, similar to the computer game Ceasar. I also considered asking for permission to use the 3D images mentioned above to really bring the ancient atmosphere to the game. However, the idea of checking effects each time you place a tile felt clunky and not challenging enough as buildings could be placed anywhere.

Instead, I decided to let the city tiles form actual blocks and roads and to base the factions on the historical tribes of Athens instead of the imaginary political factions. The former was visually more appealing as a real city with streets and blocks would emerge in front of the players while the latter made the game more thematic as the historical purpose of the tribe system was to maintain the political balance in Athens. (The fact that the players try to overcome this balance to win the game is another story.) The colors of the buildings and the connections of the roads could serve as restrictions for tile placements and the buildings on the placed tiles rather than the adjacent tiles could affect the score for the different colors. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to abandon realism for function and design the buildings with simple symbols and clear symbols (encouraged by the elegant design of Glory to Rome).

Another seemingly minor change was the transition from an "influence the influencer" game to an "increase the satisfaction of your voters" game and later to an "increase the power of your voters" game. This is an example of how the theme makes a game mechanism easier - writing rules with two different majority concepts was a nightmare while increasing your influence with powerful factions makes more sense.

This was the last obstacle and the rest of the game design proceeded quickly. I wrote down the draft rules along the phases of Assembly (player negotiations), Vote (hidden votes), Athens (city building) and Boule (counting of votes and distribution of new citizens). Each citizen and city tile placed in Athens would increase the number of new citizens and each citizen in the Boule would determine who gets the new citizens. This created the tight decision between investing citizens in Athens (to increase the value of the tribe where you have the majority) and in the Boule (to claim majority in tribes with a high value and claim the new citizens).

A lot of tweaking and tuning was required to find the optimal balance of tiles and colors, where the main outcome was the introduction of black "negative" buildings to make tile placements more challenging and to reduce the endgame "inflation" in power. They also added a new dimension to the game, as the players now had more options to modify the power. With that, I had a tightly balanced game, where the players have many small and simple options for modifying it in their own favor - not unlike the challenges the real demagogues of Classical Athens must have had!

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Sun Aug 7, 2016 6:00 am
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Reengineering Nova Suecia

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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The old game

The first edition of Nova Suecia: The Last Letter Home was also my first attempt to design a board game. I had just taken my first step into the world of "real" board games, beyond the world of family games and war games, and just began to understand the genius of designers like Reiner Knizia and Wolfgang Kramer.

Nova Suecia started with the idea of designing a "real" economic game, where the players interacted with each other in an setting full of interdependencies. This basic mechanism spawned several new mechanisms, partly in response to design challenges and partly to incorporate the theme of the picturesque but short-lived colony of Nova Suecia. The result became a mishmash of mechanisms that individually worked well but together drew attention from the core of the game.

The thought process could look like this:

"The players need to trade with each other. The game needs a trade phase."
"The players need goods to trade. The game needs a production phase."
"The players need production facilities. The game needs an acquisition phase."
"Will that not give a first-player advantage? They could bid for their acquisitions."
"What do the player do with the money they earn? They pay for the colony's survival to avoid a loss for all players."
"Won't a free-riding strategy, where a players doesn't pay, break the game? Not if payments have both positive and negative effects, giving paying players a chance to harm non-paying players."
"Won't the game lose tension when the players eventually have enough money both to production and taxes? Not if they have to exchange money for victory points - the more victory points they acquire, the less money do they have for investment, creating another tension."

Similar mechanisms can be found in games like Advanced Civilization (the direct trade of resources to build sets), Amun-Re, (the bidding for provinces, where the "true" value depends on your strategy), Archipelago (the semi-cooperative nature, where all players may lose but only one player may win), and Puerto Rico (the decision to switch from "money engines" to victory point engines). But in those games, the games and the mechanisms are one - the mechanism serves the purpose of the game ("what should it feel like to play the game?") and the game is built around the mechanism ("how does this mechanism bring me closer to the objective?"). The game wouldn't work without the mechanism and the mechanism wouldn't work in another game. In Nova Suecia on the other hand, no single mechanism defined the game and none of them would be missed if removed. Also, the sheer number of mechanisms prevented the full utilization of each one of them. Nova Suecia may have had breadth but certainly not depth.

So how to proceed from here? Abandon the game and start all over? Yes, that's normally the best advice when a game doesn't work, but I was emotionally attached to my first game attempt and there were some qualities that I felt I hadn't given justice to. Nevertheless, it's not until now that I feel ready to return to Nova Suecia and reengineer the game.

The beginning of a new game

The core

Let's start by identifying the core of Nova Suecia: the interdependence. The players should be faced with several necessities to run the colony but, not having enough time and resources to produce them themselves, be dependent on other players to do so. Rather than picking one or two necessities and move on to other mechanisms, I decided to stop here and identify as many different necessities as possible to allow different strategies. But where to find inspiration? In the theme of course!

The real colonists of Nova Suecia needed more colonists (particularly the lack of women was a common source of complaint), food, shelter and tools. In return, they were expected to deliver fur and tobacco to the motherland. How to turn this into game elements? Well, the colonists are simply workers that are placed at different tasks, similar to many other worker placement games. The cost is the food, which is necessary for the workers to work, while the revenue is the tobacco, that is produced by the workers. The distinction between raw material and ready goods add an extra trade step, where a player may either produce tobacco plants or buy tobacco plants and use them to produce tobacco, depending on where the margin is the best. So far, the mechanism worked like in the first edition, but I wanted to utilize it further.

Two other economic decisions to improve the profit could be to decrease the cost or increase the revenue. Timber could be used to build shelters and reduce the food cost while iron could be used to build tools and increase the production and hence the revenue. So far so good but how about fur? Already in the first edition, I had played with the idea that letting fur be better the more players that produce it (unlike the other resources, where it's best to be the only producer and control the market). The idea was implemented in the second edition by letting the production depend on the total number of fur producers. Producing fur would thus increase not only your production but potentially also that of other players. On the other hand, too much production may cause the prices to fall - just the kind of cooperation/competition balance the whole game was supposed to be about!



With all those elements, I felt that I had implemented several interesting perspectives of interdependence. Do you focus on low costs or high revenue? Do you monopolize one product or spread your risks over several resources? Do you cooperate with an opponent to increase both your revenue and if so, when do you abandon her and pull out of that market? The game had many interesting decisions so far.

The mechanisms

The next step was to turn the actual interaction into a game mechanism: how should the players trade? Direct trade was the answer in the first edition but that's a mechanism that's prone to downtime and the increased number of tradables would make it even worse. How about indirect trade then? A game like Power Grid uses a simple but elegant market mechanism, where the number of products in a market shows the price. By letting the players buy and sell their products on similar markets, they would still be affected by each others' trade, not by paying each other directly but by the fluctuating market prices. Both this market mechanism and the previously discussed production mechanisms were aligned with the core of the game - the interdependence - and was even more more convinced that I was on the right way.




But at all markets, it's beneficial to be first, so how should the first mover be determined? In the first edition, the player paying the highest tax was also given this benefit, while Power Grid's classic catch-up mechanism gives this benefit to the player furthest behind. However, both solutions are based on games played in fairly fiddly rounds. The first edition contained rounds divided in several phases started by a setup phase and ended by a cleanup phase that added constant interruptions to the game flow. Instead, I wanted to move to an action-based game, where a player completes all her actions before handing over to the next.

But how to reconcile this with the replenishment of the markets? In the first edition, some products were added to the market and some removed from the market at the end of each round to reflect supplies and demands from the motherland. To let this happen at the end of each turn would effectively remove the market game as one player's attempt to influence the market in her favor would be followed by the other players immediately taking advantage of the lower/higher prices before it's the first player's turn again.

This was the issue that for a long time stopped my ambitions to reengineer the game until I finally got inspiration to a solution. One source of inspiration was the intriguing "plan-actions-ahead" mechanism of Mombasa, another was a famous Swedish novel covering the second and bigger wave of Swedish emigration to America: The last letter to Sweden. The colonists of Nova Suecia wrote letters home, requesting supplies (and received letter, requesting deliveries). Why not adding those letters to the game? By letting the players place their workers and influence not the current but the future market, they wouldn't plan their actions in the future but rather act according to what they plan the future to be. Do you want to sell tobacco on your next turn? Place your workers at tobacco production tasks, send "tobacco letters" and enjoy higher tobacco prices when your turn returns (no sooner, no later). Simple and elegant!




With those three main mechanisms; products with different benefits, markets with fluctuating prices and letters for manipulating future prices; I finally had the foundation for a game true to its core. So far, the game only existed in my head and on various loose notes but now the actual design work could start...

Going from soul to body

While the soul of the game, or how it should feel to play, can be expressed in visionary terms, there are no shortcuts for the body of the game, or how it should actually be played. A lot of work is required to realize a dream with a lot of agony on the way as the dream meets the reality. Post-it notes, spreadsheets and text editors are my best friends here - post-it notes to capture ideas, spreadsheets to estimate initial game stats and record game simulations and text editors to formulate draft rules and challenge them.

The post-it notes - the actions of the game

Let's start with the post-it notes. Most of the early game design takes place in my head and post-it notes are great for capturing those early game ideas before they are forgotten (or for realizing that the ideas are not good at all).

A crucial early decision was to come up with the actions of the game. What should the players do and in which order? The necessary actions for a market game include producing, buying and selling. In addition, The Last Letter Home needed settlement actions, to acquire productive districts, and ship actions, to demand and supply the resources.

My initial idea was to complete everything within one turn, i.e. let the players choose demands and supplies (to change the market prices), buy and sell. However, not only did this become a mathematical exercise (pick the resources that optimize the prices given what you want to buy and sell this turn) but it also removed the tension of money shortage (given that you buy and sell at a profit in each turn).

The demand/supply question was easily solved. I simply added the ship bag, from which the players randomly draw resources rather than calculating optimal resources. This added a semi-random element, as the player may control the resource distribution in the bag (similar to games like Orléans) but never be sure what to get.

The money shortage question was also easy, although I didn't see it until after some iterations. In the first version of Nova Suecia, the money shortage was accomplished by the option to "buy victory points" by building a fort. This was not very elegant and I wanted something better. A better option was to switch the buy and sell actions so that you sell previous turn's purchases and then buy for the next turn's sales. This lag between buying and selling would give a delayed surplus that would be needed to pay for increasingly higher costs (more colonists and higher production). Simulations showed that this mechanism stretched the players' resources every turn.

Incidentally, this switch made the idea of choosing your ship resources less mathematical as you could never be sure if the resources supplied by the ship one turn would be the ones you wold need the next turn. Nevertheless, I kept the ship bag for the basic game (for quicker turns and less analysis paralysis) and removed it in the advanced game (for experienced players who wish to remove all luck elements).

Other actions didn't survive the early simulations. One was the idea that you first pick districts for settlement (but don't get to settle until the other players have done so), since this gave you less control of your strategy. Another was the idea that colonists arrive in the same way like resources do, since the first player would always hire all available colonists. A third was the idea that the ship could demand fort building (worth victory points in the end) but given that money shortage was achieved, money instead of victory points could be used to determine the winner.

To maintain the balance between supplied and demanded resources (the ship supplies the two resources of grain and iron but demands the three resources of timber, fur and tobacco), I tried adding gold instead of colonists as a third resource. But why would you ever choose a resource (possible profit) instead of gold (certain profit)? Gold was initially removed but made a comeback thanks to the money shortage - by letting the gold be a loan, the players could use gold for investment but have to pay back more at the end of the game (so they'd better invest the gold wisely!).




The spreadsheet - the balance of the game

A game should not play like a spreadsheet but a spreadsheet is great for designing a game. All game decisions offer different paths and each of those paths has a level of success, whether it be a probability or an expected return or something else. For the decisions to remain interesting, they must be so balanced that one path is not always better than another but not so balanced that it doesn't matter which path you choose. Although spreadsheets may not tell you the exact game values (if they do, the decisions may not be interesting or the game may even be solved), they will help you assign starting values to be further refined through testing.

Balancing the strategies

For The Last Letter Home, I had to design balanced resource markets so that one resource would not always be better than another. First, I needed a number of price levels high enough to give price variations but not so high that the markets become fiddly. I settled with twelve, a flexible number that can be divided with many other numbers.

Second, I needed prices for each of the twelve levels and each of the six resources. I wanted the price curves to be different so I made some steep (very low and very high prices) and some less steep (small differences between lowest and highest prices) but let the total sum be the same (all prices had a sum of 42, giving an average of 3.5).

Third, I needed to modify this average for resources that required less or more investments. In the normal case, 1 resource (grain) yields 2 resources while 2 resources (grain+iron) yields 4 resources. In the case of fur, 1 resource (grain) yields 1-4 resources, and in the case of tobacco, 3 resources (grain+2 plant) yields 2 resources and 6 resources (grain+iron+4 plant) yields 4 resources. This made it clear that the fur average should be lower and the tobacco average 3 times higher to maintain the 2:1 ratio between input and output.

Fourth (although I didn't realize this until after some initial iterations), I needed curves with diminishing returns, where a price shift at one part of the curve has less impact than a price shift at another part of the curve. Why? Say that a player enters the tobacco market. Increased tobacco prices will increase only her revenue while decreased food prices will decrease all players' costs. With no diminishing returns, a tobacco price level shift of 1 will always have the same impact as a food price level shift of 1 so player 1 will only be interested in the former, thus reducing the number of interesting decisions for her. With diminishing returns on the other hand, it may at some point be more profitable to keep the food price low than continuing to keep the tobacco price high. At what point? That's part of the interesting decision!



Balancing the overall game

Another important design decision was how to balance the production so that there would be just enough of each resource. Here I started with a basic example of one of each production area (farm for grain, forestry for timber, mine for iron, trade posts for fur, and plantation and spins for tobacco) and one colonist in each. I assumed that two will be engaged in building log cabins (requires timber), two will be engaged in manual production (requires nothing) and two will be engaged in tool production (requires iron). The spin requires plants from the plantation to produce tobacco while the trade post needs nothing to produce fur. All colonists need grain but since one third build log cabins, I assumed that on average only two thirds of them will need grain. This requires the following each turn:

* 4 grain
* 2 timber
* 2 iron
* 1 plant

One conclusion could have been to have more farms and less plantations/spins/trade posts but this would have reduced the decisions. Instead, I let the farms, timber and mines produces two resources each (and adjusted the prices accordingly) while also letting trade posts be able to produce food (which was aligned with the theme, as the real colonists seldom could grow enough food themselves).

Another aspect was that timber could be expected to be in less demand towards the end of the game (as the payoff time is shorter) while iron could be expected to be in more demand (as the players get more money to invest) but this was also aligned with the theme: timber could be demanded by the ship (the ships often needed to be repaired after the journey) and iron could be supplied by the ship (the colonists often requested tools).

This balance was more difficult to calculate in the spreadsheet but it did offer a starting point for future simulations and tests. Of course, the market and the production aren't supposed to be balanced all the time - the players are supposed to act on and take advantage of imbalances, eventually restoring the balance again, just like in a real economy.

Balancing the turn order

More challenging was the turn order balance. All games must assess the first (or last) mover advantage and take it into consideration. In the first version of Nova Suecia, the first mover advantage was the opportunity to receive more colonists and buy and sell first and it was rewarded to the player paying the most tax each round. For the second version, I wanted to move away from this fiddly and sometimes unfair mechanism. (Ties in tax payments were resolved through random drawing.) Many games, like Puerto Rico, use a rotating starting player so I started exploring this mechanism.

Somehow the idea of "short rounds" came to me, where the last player is excluded from one round but becomes the first player in the next round instead (when more colonists are available). This idea had several intriguing complications:

* Each turn order has its own challenges; the first player can take advantage of lower costs/higher prices while the last player can take advantage of more colonists.
* It's less obvious who is in the lead; there are no "complete" rounds where a leader can be identified but all players will be at different stages throughout the game.
* The choice about when to end the game adds a strategic dimension; a short term player focusing on low costs will want to end the game early while a long term player will want her expensive investments to pay off first.




In theory this looked great but would it work in practice?

First, I needed to find a mechanism that would allow a variable number of turns. The very first game board showed the Delaware river (based on an authentic map), around which the historic colony was based, but since districts were bid for, the river never got any game purpose and hence was removed. What if I could return the river and let the players choose districts by moving a Swedish ship along the river? In addition, I could let the players move a Dutch ship that removes districts from play and bring the game closer to the end (i.e. when no more districts are available). This would not only let the players influence the number of turns but also let them choose which districts to get for themselves and which districts to deny their opponents. It also fit the theme - the real colony was raided by the Dutch (districts removed) and eventually captured by them (end of game). Perfect!

Second, I needed to check the range of turns. At first, I let the Dutch ship remove districts permanently and the game end when no more districts are available. Simulations gave an acceptable range of 2-10 removed districts out of the total 24 districts (or 14-22 turns). However, I later came up with the idea of allowing districts to be returned into play for more variation and added a money limit to end the game if necessary. The important thing was to give the players the option to shorten and prolong the game depending on their strategies.

Third, I needed to check and adjust the turn order balance. Would there be a first or last player advantage and if so, how should it be mitigated? For the simulation, I assumed that each colonist would cost on average 1 thaler (for feeding) and yield on average 2 thaler. I also assumed that once the game end has been triggered, each player gets to sell at on average 1 thaler less than the previous player (because of lower prices). The result surprised me - it turned out that the player would end up almost exactly the same irrespective of turn order! I guess you have to be lucky sometimes, this convinced me that there was no specific turn order advantage and that the outcome was dependent on the players themselves.




Testing and tuning and testing and tuning...

No matter how much you try to balance a game in theory, unbalances will remain that only a lot of practical testing and tuning can remove. With the first edition of the game, I made the mistake of introducing it to testers before I had done my own testing and tuning. I didn't take any shortcuts this time, although I often wanted to because this is probably the part of game design that I like the least. You run a simulation, assess the outcome, adjust a number and rerun the simulation over and over again. Spreadsheets help to keep track of all iterations and avoid repeating them with the same number combinations but this is still a daunting task.



Nevertheless, it was during this phase that I learned things like having diminishing returns on the markets and how to make the strategies equally strong. The simulations also inspired new markets like the colonist markets (different strategies have different preferences regarding the number of colonists) and the loan market (the possibility of extra funding opens up new strategies).

It was also during this phase that I realized a flaw in the simulation: the flow of new colonists wasn't enough to maintain the money shortage. It was true that in the first rounds, where going from 1 to 2 colonists meant a 100% increase and so on, but when going from 5 to 6 colonists, the money earned in the previous turn was more than enough to finance in the current turn. Would this force an "alien" mechanism after all?

No, I already had one! The gold market, meant to offer players loans in the beginning, could also be used to offer them deposits in the end. Just like the other markets, the conditions would be worse the more money that enters this market, so the players would have to find out whether the gold market or the other resource markets give the best return on investment.

Streamlining the game

Having come this far, Nova Suecia was balanced and challenging. However, the fact that a player takes ALL actions with ALL meeples in a turn did take too long. But since the underlying economic system was so stable, it was a simple matter to divide the turns into 1 action/1 colonist. The only thing that had to be added was the assembly action to take back all colonists and encourage players to acquire more colonists (to minimize the number of improductive assemble action).

It's not only the inside that counts

No matter how great a game plays, the appearance of the game significantly impacts how it's received. Art has never and will never be a skill of mine but I don't let that stop me. There are a lot of free resources and for historical games like The Last Letter Home, you have many old paintings in the public domain at your disposal.

The early drafts of the first edition of the game used a game board based on the map drawn by Peter Lindstrom during the last years of the colony as well as game cards depicting the historical governors. However, they turned out to be redundant and were removed but I was glad to find a new use for them in the second edition as placeholders for ship movement and letters home.




(Well, to be honest, there are only paintings of two of the governors - Peter Minuit and Johan Printz - so I selected portraits painted by Frans Hals instead. He was not Swedish but Dutch but so were some of the colonists and after all, since the Dutch eventually conquered Nova Suecia, it's just fair that they contribute.)



For the resources, I simply relied on the excellent icons from Game-icons.net.

It's also interesting to note that I've worked more on functional art. The first edition district shows simple empty squares and circles for the resource placeholders whereas the second edition districts uses symbols to convey the functional meaning of them.




Last but certainly not least, I put some effort into the box. The front was made more colorful, with a special place for the governors, and the back was made more representative for the game with component photos and lists, including sleeve size, as well as more formal information such as a CE marking. My very first game, the ugly duckling of Nova Suecia, had finally become a beautiful swan!

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Fri Jun 24, 2016 9:22 pm
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Designing Apokalypsis

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twentieth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

I fell for it again. Although I had promised my old games to focus on promoting them instead of designing new ones, I couldn't resist the contest Survival Challenge. The requirements included a survival theme and the size of a small box and such a game must be simple and quick to design, right?



My first ideas for Apokalypsis' game mechanisms were simple enough: move meeples from a central city tile to a coastal edge tile, where a ship can be used to sail to safety. Add to that the Tre Kronor Infernum: Fire to Ashes mechanism of drawing coordinate tiles, to determine which ones that will disappear, and a cooperation element, where players may cooperate to help each other up from disappearing tiles or even build bridges to cross them. The only printed components I needed were some terrain hexes. The game shouldn't take more than a week to complete. Why do I never learn?

My initial concept testing showed that the idea was too simple to work. Moving meeples from A to B was too repetitive. Drawing coordinate tiles had too little room for strategy and tactics. Cooperation was rare and (literal) runaway leaders were frequent. But having come this far, I didn't want to accept that the idea couldn't work and started iterating various elements.

* Hex tiles instead of Square tiles
* Areas instead of Coordinates
* Stay on the island instead of Escape from the island
* Push opponents instead of Block opponents
* 2 meeples per tile instead of 1 meeple per tile
* Accept Fate instead of Defy Gods
* Draw 2 omens instead of draw 1 omen

Square tiles are excellent for coordinate mechanisms, since all tiles can be named with a letter and a number (A1 etc.). However, they make movements clunky, particularly when tiles can disappear and players have to spend twice as many moves to move around a missing tile (instead of moving A1-A2-A3, you have to move A1-B1-B2-B3-A3). Hex tiles allows more flexible moves and were a natural choice.

However, hex tiles work less well for coordinates. It requires more time to identify which tile that is referred to by a specific set of coordinates and some combinations of letters and number do not appear at all. Instead, I turned to overlapping areas instead. Some areas could be based on compass points (North, South, East and West) and others on distances from the center (inner, middle and outer circles). Thematically, this made more sense than coordinates, particularly when I translated the distances into cataclysms (volcanic eruption strikes the inner tiles etc.).

Still, even with hexes the gameplay of moving meeples from a central city to coastal ships became repetitive and I also got a (literal) runaway problem, as the first player to be blocked by a disappearing tile would have to rely on all the other players being blocked twice to get in the lead. The simple solution was to let the players stay on the island and move around to avoid the disappearing tiles. Not only did this offer more variation but also equal winning chances, as I could let the winner be determined by the last survivor rather than the most refugees, giving all the players a chance to win as long as they have at least one meeple left.

Nevertheless, more work was required regarding the movement. The early iterations only allowed 1 meeple on each hex, something that offered blocking opportunities in a "escape game". However, since I wanted to have more flexible movements, I couldn't have too many blocked hexes and instead tried a push mechanism. This gave the players not only more ways to move to safe land but also a way to move other players to unsafe land. An excellent take that mechanism! By increasing the limit to 2 meeples on each hex, I made movements even more flexible, while still allowing blocks if both the hex moved to and the hex pushed to are full.

So far so good when it comes to the meeples but what about the tiles? In Tre Kronor Infernum: Fire to Ashes, the players select coordinates and when they happen to intersect, tiles are affected. This works, since there are only 3x3 coordinates for the 9 rooms in the game. However, Apokalypsis' bigger board requires more than that so I started by letting the players draw random cards to determine which tiles to disappear. This was according to the theme of letting the players react to things outside their control but removed too much control from them. How to return the control?

One intriguing idea, that kept being included and excluded, was the idea of defying the Gods. By letting the pile of affected tiles grow until a player decides to reveal them by "defying the Gods" (and draw the wrath of the Gods upon the island), I added a gamble mechanism where players could move their meeples in safety first before causing the other players' meeples to be lost. In reality, this didn't turn out that way as the players got an incentive to defy the Gods every turn. The attempt to add a cost (at least 1 lost meeple to the player defying the Gods) didn't help either as the players now got an incentive to wait too long to ensure that all other players lose more than 1 meeple.

The simple solution was to let the players draw 2 omens and choose 1 while returning the 2nd to the bottom of the pile. This gave them two levels of control. First, they could choose which tiles disappear later in the game (and move to those more safe tiles). Second, they could choose which tiles to disappear earlier in the game (and move away from those less safe tiles). Also, each player's movements could be observed by the other players in an attempt to deduce which omen was chosen and which was discarded.

After all those changes, my "simple and quick game" was still simple and quick but considerably different from the game I started with!

The only thing that didn't change during the design was the theme. Not only was it determined by the contest requirements but it also fit in the series of games set in Ancient Greece that I had started working on recently. Like the other games Demokratia and Politeia (still works in progress), Apokalypsis was given a Greek name and the true (?) island behind the Atlantis myth, Therea, contributed with the historical setting. Although I had never played any Atlantis game, I realized that the theme could be a worn out one, but I felt that the game was different enough from games like Survive: Escape from Atlantis! and Atlantis. (While searching, I also found the interesting and very different game Atlantis, which proves how little a theme tells about how a game plays. I'm surprised it hasn't been commercially published yet.)



So how did the story proceed? Well, the game didn't win the contest but was picked up by a local store so all is well that ends well (unlike the historical Thera that was completely destroyed).
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Tue Mar 22, 2016 10:37 pm
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Designing Peoples

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the nineteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

Peoples was designed with the ambition of becoming a short civilization game with the unique twist of shifting leadership. Over the ages, the players would take turns to move and settle peoples of different colors (similar to Clans). For each age, some settlements would grow bigger and get more civilization advances (similar to Advanced Civilization) while others would decline and disappear.

But over the ages, the leadership of those peoples would shift (similar to Carolous Magnus) and hence also the player scoring for a certain people. Each player would know which people he or she would lead each age and which other people to count as allies (this time I borrowed from my own game Iconoclasm) and be able to plan the migrations and advances ahead.

The result would be a game not only mechanically elegant but also surprisingly thematic. It would show aspects of world history like migration and urbanization and even thematic benefits of the civilization advances.



Those ideas all looked great on paper but they needed to be realized into a solid and fun game. With solid, I mean that all the mechanisms in the game, from setup to end scoring, can be executed without errors or unexpected situations. With fun, I mean that the game satisfies as many as possible of the fun criteria as possible. As with all my designed games, the ideas clashed with the reality when I tried to translate them into rules and components.

The migration phase of the game was fairly easy but still had its share of questions to be answered. First, since all peoples can be moved by all players, I needed a mechanism to prevent repeating moves. Clans solves this by only allowing tribes to move to populated areas, giving them less and less options after each move. However, in my game I wanted to allow the peoples to move a bit longer before grouping into settlements and needed empty areas between them but how to prevent them from returning? I first considered a solution where (impassable) barren tokens are left behind but this didn't prevent tokens from being moved in circles. A simpler and better solution was to force the tokens to be moved closer to populated spaces. Thematically, this made sense as it represented people urbanizing.

The next question to be answered was how many movement directions to have and hence what shape to have for the regions. Hexagons are popular but that would require a lot of empty spaces to keep the people separate at the setup, requiring more movement time. Squares would allow a ratio of 1:1 between populated and empty regions but I went for triangles a la Alexandros. They also allow a ratio of 1:1 and reduce the movement time further thanks to only offering 3 movement directions. In addition, they give the game board a unique look.



To proof this concept, I outlined a map of 6 continents, each with 24 regions and populated by 12 peoples. The figures were selected to be divided by 6 (the number of colors) and to be a good balance between options and playing time. With 2 of each people on each continent, all colors may move for own majority or seek their allies.

The numbers and sizes of the settlements were selected in a similar way. 12/9/6 settlements allows all players to get at least 1 settlement in the last age. 3/6/9 in size allows majorities that may shift between the ages. (2 red in the first age may be beaten by 3 blue in the next and so on). An idea of a fourth age with metropolises of all 72 people tokens grouped in 6 settlements was considered but rejected since it would add little new compared to the first three ages.

The movement restrictions added some asymmetry to the continents. In the first age, there are clusters of 1/2/3 connected continents (Europe/Asia/Africa, North/South America and Oceania). In the second age, the serves as direct or indirect connector (through coastal settlements), and in the third age, all are connected.

Of course, numerology is not enough as a proof but the figures are intuitive and a good starting points before giving the final word to simulating and testing.

However, the migration phase relied on the idea of hidden colors. The idea is to let each player play a unique subject and a unique ally each age. Player 1 may play red and blue age 1, yellow and green age 2, and purple and orange age 3. That satisfies several fun criteria, such as surprise (who plays which color?) and equal chances (a strong color one age will belong to another player the next age). Perfect - on paper!

But when I started to express this in rules format, I stumbled on the question on how to distribute the subjects and allies so that they get not only unique but also hidden? A random distribution won't work, as a player may end up only red subjects and allies or only subjects. The use of colored backgrounds would enable the players to draw unique colors but the risk of getting only subjects or only allies or only markers for one age. The attempt to openly create unique piles and randomly distribute them would allow players with good memory to draw conclusions about who play which as soon as the first age markers get revealed.

At last I came up with an idea of a two step drawing. Sort the markers by color, and flip them to their age/subject/ally side. Then create piles with unique ages/subjects/allies and shuffle them. You will now have piles with one of each (hidden) color with one subject and one ally for each age. This shows one of several reasons why I prefer writing the rules as soon as possible in the game design process.

Another good reason for writing rules is to assess how complex a mechanism is and compare it to the depth it offers. The migration rules needed little rewriting. The most important rule that disappeared was the possibility for new settlements to be created in later ages (if peoples group in new regions), as this required decisions on how to handle old settlements.

The migration mechanisms are enough for a basic game and also got a rule section of their own. However, to add more depth to the game, I wanted to give each settlement not only a variable score but also a score dependent on the players' own decisions. This was accomplished by the civilization advances, that are selected by the players in one age but not scored until the next (when the settlement may have a new leader).

My general approach was to identify advances that scored differently for different combinations of colors, relations etc. while still being thematic and I came up with the following:

* Economy: The more economy in the world, the better for all with economy
* Military: The less military in the world, the better for all with military
* Culture: The more different colors connected, the better
* Religion: The more similar colors connected, the better
* Science: The more relations, the better
* Civics (previously Philosophy): The more relations, the better for everybody in the settlement

(Military was first used to attack a selected weaker neighbor but the idea was abandoned due to its kingmaking effects.)

However, I struggled with the civilization rules to find a good balance between complexity and depth. Some intriguing ideas, like the merge of settlements into empires, was abandoned early. The civilization advances won a battle against my concerns on how to visualize them. Initially I imagined a spreadsheet showing settlements and advances (and how fun are spreadsheets?) before deciding on colored and numbered markers in settlement areas. The relations lost the first battle first but came back when I got the idea of using diplomacy markers instead of a spreadsheet. A settlement is simply related to all settlements with which it shares a pair of diplomacy markers.

So far, the rules seemed solid. Then came the simulation. While the migrations worked well, the civilizations, although individually simple, became cumbersome in volumes. Initially, I allowed each growing settlement to acquire 1/2/3 advances in each age AND each not growing settlement to keep acquired advances. The results was 36 city advances (6x6) to be resolved and potentially 15 town advances (3x5)! I quickly had to decrease the number of advances to 1/1/1 and remove not growing settlements from the game.



Following that, the simulation showed that the game had a good flow and that the civilization advances were well balanced with about 2/4/6 victory points over the three ages. Some tweaking and tuning had to be done to the civilization advances to make the scoring as simple and streamlined as possible. Finally I had mechanisms that gave the players deep strategy opportunities in migrations and civilizations with the least complexity possible.
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Mon Mar 14, 2016 9:26 pm
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Designing Mice in a Maze

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the eighteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

I've always found mazes fascinating and even today, I enjoy a game like DungeonQuest, where the players play not so much against each other as against an unpredictable labyrinth. Still, I never ventured to design such a game myself as I couldn't see how it could be distinguished from the many dungeon crawler games out there. But then I got to know Tsuro, with its brilliant and yet simple mechanism of placing a tile and move as far as you can, and the inspiration was awakened.



My first idea was to make a "digger game", where you had to dig into a dragon's cave and avoid not only other diggers but also moving dangers in the mountain (not to mention the dragon itself of course). However, the game only felt like a more complicated and less fun version of Tsuro and I put my game on hold, thinking that Tsuro was the only way to implement this mechanism. Then I discovered Indigo.

Indigo made one simple but brilliant modification of the Tsuro mechanism: instead of keeping your piece on the board to win, you try to get other pieces off the board and score for them. Not surprisingly, the man behind Indigo was my favorite designer Reiner Knizia. He gave me the last push I needed and somehow I came up with the idea of a changing labyrinth with plenty of take that opportunities. The theme was changed to the more unique (and humorous) laboratory mouse environment and Mice in a Maze was born.

The danger of moving out of the maze is adapted from Tsuro (although with the elimination replaced by a lost turn), the objective to pick and deliver was adapted from Indigo while changeable tiles and the mobile traps were adapted from my early "Diggers" idea. Having come so far, I realized the similarities to another childhood favorite: Labyrinth with its inventive sliding tiles.

But what really convinced me that Mice in a Maze could be a unique game was the take that mechanism, where your actions can make not only your own mouse bring a cheese to your nest but also other mice. It took some trials and errors to get the turn order (move first, place next and don't move again until all other players have placed) and the maze tiles (just curves and crosses - no dead ends or junctions are necessary) right but once they were set, the game tests indicated that I had a smooth and solid game full of surprises. There is the marble phase, where the players struggle to get past them to the cheese. There is the block phase, where the players try to block each other to be the first themselves. Then there is the cheese phase, where the players finally have reached the cheese only to find the return difficult. There is even and endgame engine phase, where players try to end the game in a way that there is an open path between the cheese and their nests (for themselves or others) that boosts their score. There is simply a lot of game in a short and simple gameplay!



The limited number of components made the artwork relatively simple. I first considered a unified color scheme but turned to uniquely colored tiles for a more colorful game board that hopefully is more appealing to younger players. Suitable parts for the other components were available at The Game Crafter's ordinary stock; drops for the mice, gems for the marbles and gold for the cheese. Once again, Openclipart provided good images, this time a cartoony mouse and cheese to illustrate some tiles, and I also found authentic mouse tracks to illustrate the rules. Welcome to the Maze!
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Wed Oct 28, 2015 11:36 am
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Designing Mingle & Murder

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the seventeenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer. If you find my games interesting, do consider backing one at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82740830/iconoclasm-a-g....

The "inspiration" to Mingle & Murder came from the Killer Gamers' Remorse Challenge (https://www.thegamecrafter.com/contests/killer-gamer-s-remor...). Why the quotes around the inspiration? Because similarly to the The Game Crafter Sprue Challenge (https://www.thegamecrafter.com/contests/sprue-challenge), which inspired me to Explorers & Exploiters, I didn't find the contest inspiring at first due to its requirement of an elimination mechanism. The elimination mechanism is perhaps the oldest game mechanism there is but today it is the absence of an elimination mechanism that is considered crucial for a fun game (as outlined in What makes a game fun?. However, this was precisely what the Gamers' Remorse wanted the community to challenge and since I can't resist challenges...



So, how do you make it fun for an eliminated player? By giving him or her an interest in the game even without participating. When is a game interesting? When you can still win, or at least have a revenge on the player who eliminated you. So far, so good but what would this revenge look like? The kingmaker mechanism is perhaps even worse than the elimination mechanism so what else? Naturally, the best revenge would be to eliminate the eliminator, eye for eye, tooth for tooth... But how would the elimination work? A random mechanism would not feel satisfactory but how about a deduction mechanism? How about letting the eliminated player deduce who eliminated him or her and by doing so, denying the eliminator the victory and claim it him- or herself? The idea of a murder mystery game with a victim's haunting ghost was born.

However, if the idea was fairly easy to form, the mechanisms to implement the idea turned out much more difficult. Obviously, the identity of the murderer must be kept secret so the murder must be done in secret as well. Perhaps a drafting mechanism, where the players trade cards to each other? No, but the player being traded a murder card would still know who the murderer is. How about trading to a pool then, where cards from several players are mixed? Maybe, but then the murderer would strike too randomly and trying to follow which cards leave which players' hands can be too much of a mental exercise. So some kind of board is necessary then, where the murderer can target certain rooms and where the players can follow movements rather cards? Yes, now we're getting somewhere.

Finally it all came together. The players could move from room to room and leave their cards there, of which most would be blank but one a murder card. To make the tracing more challenging, they would not take up new cards immediately but rather leave a marker there. When all markers have been left, they would be taken back together with a card. In this way, the murder card may have been taken from any of a number of rooms and the murderer may be any of the players visiting any of the rooms. This is a mystery similar to Clue - not only is the murderer unknown but also the room of the murder. (I considered for a while finding a way to make the murder weapon unknown as well but decided to keep it simple.) Given this, it would likely be impossible to deduce who the murderer is after the first murder but perhaps after the second...?

The rest of the game design was more about adding necessary features and tweaking and testing the balance. I needed objects for the non-murderer players as well and the most natural objects would be to collect cards from the rooms. Similar to the trade cards of Advanced Civilization, you always want to take one more card but always that you will draw a calamity. I needed to scale the game, as more players would make it too difficult to trace the murderer and a higher murder object would give the other players too much time to collect their cards. After some calculation (see Rules, I added the immune roles of an inspector (trying to catch the murderer) and a doctor (trying to save the guests), something that would add both more variation to the game and fit well with the murder mystery theme.

Finally I had to put together all the components. With room cards, a board was not necessary but I did add Clue components to give a 3D feeling. Using some old oil paintings, I could give the mansion a classy look, while the use of simple symbols from Openclipart.org made the references easier. I also studied suitable literature (Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse etc.) to get further inspiration for the Theme. The party could begin!



Minge & Murder is currently in the final of the Killer Gamer's Remorse Challenge with the motivation: "Whoah Nelly! Minimum of 5 players. But wow! The game play on this one. Clue meets Kill Doctor Lucky meets Murder mystery parties. It's maybe not the most simple game to learn, but the mechanics are there and I can clearly see how the different roles work together to create a great murder mystery story. As players drop off one by one, it makes killing harder to get away with. Luckily the murderer only needs his/her two kills for the night. Sounds like a bloody good time. The game.. not murdering at a social party.
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Fri Jun 26, 2015 7:41 am
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Designing Explorer & Exploiters

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the sixteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer. If you find my games interesting, do consider backing one at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82740830/iconoclasm-a-g....

The "inspiration" to Explorers & Exploiters came from The Game Crafter Sprue Challenge (https://www.thegamecrafter.com/contests/sprue-challenge). Why the quotes around the inspiration? Because I didn't find the contest inspiring at first with its only requirement of using the new sprues or miniatures. The fact that I don't even like miniatures didn't help. But then I saw that there were also civilization sprues with settlements in various sizes. I enjoy civilization games so perhaps I could give it a try after all? But again, there are many of them out there already, so how would I be able to design something new? Usually, game ideas just come to me naturally and design themselves but with this civilization game I really had to struggle.



A miniature itself doesn't add to the game experience, it's what you do with it that counts. But given the price of $4 per color and the cost limit of $30, there wouldn't be much left for other components. How about having only one color then and let the players share the components? This was a tough limit but also opened up an opportunity for uniqueness. The players could either use the components collectively or divide them at start and use them individually. With few units (14 explorers and 8 soldiers) and plenty of settlements (12 hamlets, 12 villages, 10 towns and 8 cities), it was logical to make the units collective and the settlements individual. It was also natural, since units are usually moved over several turns while settlements are usually placed once and remain where they are (unless destroyed of course).

So far so good, but I still didn't have a GAME. Should you be able to place settlements anywhere at any time? Obviously not. How about the classic resource dependency then, like in the computer game Civilization? I could add resources to the game board, either on a fixed map or on a modular map. A modular map of tiles usually gives more replayability and by letting the tiles be turned face down at start, I could add uncertainty as well. The explorers could now be moved around the game board, discover and connect resources, and build settlements. The more resources, the bigger the settlement, and the first player to build all their settlements win.

But would this really be a GAME? I didn't need much testing to see that the game was entirely about turning tiles and placing settlements on a game board where eventually all tiles would be connected. I needed more drama in the game, I needed bad guys. Then the barbarians were born.

In some of my previous games, like Tre Kronor Infernum: Fire to Ashes and Mare Balticum: The Fate of an Empire, I had simulated enemies, but for Explorers & Exploiters, I played with the idea of letting the players manage the enemies as well. But would this not cause kingmaker problems where one player's barbarian actions only served to bring down some players and pave the way for other players? Not at all, the rise and fall of a settlement would not damage other players (since they have already removed the settlement from their hand) but benefit yourself by giving room to place new settlements. Suddenly a number of tactical options opened up. A player could use the barbarians to cut access to resources for some settlements so that others may use them to grow or even destroy settlements to place new ones - all depending on what size of settlement you would like to place. This would give an asymmetrical gameplay where some players are interested in growth (expansions) and others in decline (expulsion). Incidentally, I covered the traditional 4X games concepts before even knowing about them but in a very minimalistic form. Finally I dared believing that I had a GAME!

The rest of the design work was more about challenging details in the game and find solutions. Which tiles were needed to create an interesting game board? Settlement spots and resources to make at least two tiles necessary for a settlement. Optional tiles to restrict movements and/or connections. Wouldn't players be able to stall the game by moving the same unit back and forth? Not if I disallowed the same unit to be moved that turn. Would the resource destruction be managable? Wouldn't you eventually lose track of how many resources each settlement is connected to? Not if you add markers to show which resources are connected to which settlements. Slowly the "ugly sprue" evolved into a GAME!

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Thu Jun 25, 2015 9:52 am
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Designing Politburo

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the fifteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer. If you find my games interesting, do consider backing one at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82740830/iconoclasm-a-g....

The inspiration to Politburo actually came from my professional work, where political differences often delays or even prevent work from getting done. The step to the totalitarian theme of my two previous micro games Comrade and Gulag was surprisingly small.



The initial idea was to have a project with three different priorities; time, cost and quality; and where each player would want to prioritize one or several areas to score most but where all areas must score something or the entire project would fail (causing all players to lose), resulting in a blame game.

This was eventually transformed into the totalitarian theme with the players turned into historical politicians and the prioritizations into ministry areas. The one-way scoring, where a priority may only score 0 or 1. was abandoned due to concerns that players would rather block the scoring and cause all to lose than let someone else win. Instead, the positive and negative scoring was introduced (or repression vs reform) to allow a more dynamic scoring. This also made voting possible, as more players would be willing to approve a plan (although with different intentions). Finally the blame game (or purge) was incorporated into the scoring to give alternative ways of winning (support the project or stop it and blame others).

Whereas my previous totalitarian game had used propaganda images to illustrate the cards, I now used actual photos with added sepia and brush filters to make them look painted, and clipart from Openclipart.org, modified to match the color scheme of the game. Both ministry levels and influence levels got dedicated cards to be flipped and/or rotated to show the current score. Although the inspiration to Politburo came too late for it to participate in the 18 card Microgame Contest (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1211499/18-card-microgame-c...), I still wanted to keep it in the same format as the other two totalitarian games.

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Wed Jun 24, 2015 8:32 am
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Designing Gulag

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the fourteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer. If you find my games interesting, do consider backing one at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82740830/iconoclasm-a-g....

Like its predecessor Gulag, the inspiration to Gulag came mainly from The Resistance: Avalon. I like the uncertainty that is the core of the decuction games and have already used similar mechanisms in Christina Regina: The Queen's Path, where the players balance between moving a Queen towards their colors and keeping their colors hidden. However, the predefined roles may also limit the tactical options and the player interaction as the roles more or less force the players to play in a certain way. To avoid this, I wanted to add another dimension for a more dynamic gameplay but what?



I built on the idea of opposite objectives used in Comrade but tried to keeping the identities fixed this time. Instead, I wanted to create a paranoid gameplay where you never knows who knows who and who knows what and I accomplished that through the semi-hidden information of players knowing one player and being known by another player. Together with the role of the supervisor, I got a very good thematic implementation in the game: you know that you're watched but you don't know whether you and the watchman are on the same side.

Two challenges had to be overcome. First, what happens if players exchange information to acquire perfect knowledge? A commissar whose known player is of the same loyalty will not only pick him for the task but also, since they can trust each other, get to know what the other player know and so on. Second, once a group of players on a task succeeds (or fails), they will always be selected or excluded depending on the current commissar's loyalty.

The first challenge was managed by the rule against revealing cards (similar to Comrade) and the second by forcing the selection of new workers for tasks each turn. Once those challenges were overcome, I had another game where the 18 card Microgame Contest (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1211499/18-card-microgame-c...) limit of 18 cards would be enough for up to 10 players!

The rest of the design was simply a matter of polishing the rules and the theme. The rules were created to give the desired gameplay in every little decision (work and strike tasks corresponding to the opposite objectives and supervision tasks for the possibility/threat to force a worker to change task). The Gulag theme was used to create the paranoid "trust nobody" atmosphere and the White Sea Canal theme to illustrate the score progress (or lack of progress). The result was, I hope, a game that pleases both the brain and the eye.

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Tue Jun 23, 2015 6:58 am
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Designing Comrade

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the thirteenth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer. If you find my games interesting, do consider backing one at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82740830/iconoclasm-a-g....

The inspiration to Comrade came mainly from The Resistance: Avalon. I like the uncertainty that is the core of the decuction games and have already used similar mechanisms in Christina Regina: The Queen's Path, where the players balance between moving a Queen towards their colors and keeping their colors hidden. However, the predefined roles may also limit the tactical options and the player interaction as the roles more or less force the players to play in a certain way. To avoid this, I wanted to add another dimension for a more dynamic gameplay but what?



Somehow the idea of opposite objectives came to me. Rather than just playing out your role through voting (like in Avalon) or moving (like in Christina Regina), you could actually have one player trying to influence the other players (the dissident) in addition to the traditional mechanism of one player trying to reveal another player (the informer). It would be a bit like Old Maid with two maids moving from hands to hands, one chasing the other and one avoiding the other. This would also give a good thematic ending to the game - once enough players are influenced there is nothing more to play about.

But wouldn't this be boring for the passive non-dissident and non-informer players? The answer came almost immediately. Why not let the roles be shifted during the game? This answer actually accomplished several things. First, the players would get the opportunity to try several roles during one gameplay. Second, even non-dissident and non-informer players will have a decision to either avoid the critical cards (if they are afraid to lose) or to acquire them (if they think they can use them to win), effectively eliminating the distinction between "active" and "passive" players. As an additional bonus, less cards would be needed as the "role card" and the "tradable card" is the same and it turned out that the 18 card Microgame Contest (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1211499/18-card-microgame-c...) limit of 18 cards would still be enough for up to 10 players!

The rest of the design was simply a matter of polishing the rules and the theme. The rules were created to give the desired gameplay in every little decision (vote to give clues about who plays who and about how many that are influenced, committee to determine whether the players have seen the dissident card or not, and interrogation to exchange cards in a way that lets all players take active decisions). The theme was used to give a colorful background to the roles played by the players and make the decisions intuitive (dissident wanting to be spread to other players, informer wanting to find the dissident card and so on). The result was, I hope, a game that pleases both the brain and the eye.

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Mon Jun 22, 2015 6:16 pm
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