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 Nova Suecia

Nicholas Hjelmberg
Sweden
Saltsjö-Boo
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This is the second 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....

Nova Suecia was my first attempt to design a board game. It built on an old game idea of mine, where the players would have to trade with each others to manufacture raw material into goods. The shorter value chain would be safe but yield less return and the longer value chain risky but yield more return. The last step in the value chain would be to sell the goods to fluctuating market prices.



This was combined with the idea that the players would act individually but face (positive or negative) outcomes together and so was the tax table born. Bidding for production facilities (districts) were introduced early, to allow the players to choose their strategies as well as removing first-player advantages, and so were manufactories (later log cabins), to allow the players to invest for long-term gains.

At that stage, I started to think of a theme and a colony seemed to fit well for the game mechanisms. The choice fell on Nova Suecia, a rather poor attempt of Sweden to become a colonial power and I started to study my theme. Grain (short value chain), plants-tobacco (middle chain) and ore-iron-metal (long chain) fit both the game and the theme. Fur (from native trade) came from the theme and was initially added as non-investment good.



Coming so far, I began to feel that grain and fur were dull. In addition, low risk may work in real life but not in a game where such a strategy only leads to a middle position whereas risk-takers ends up first or last. Instead, they were given influence on the overall game balance instead. Grain got important for colonists (to engage in the production) and fur got important for the colony (to pay taxes for common expenses). Thus all production types have a bearing on the game balance!

The final additions to the game were the "take that" mechanism in the taxation, which allowed players not only to pay taxes to promote their interests but also to damage other players' interests, and the "invest or spend" decision in the fort building, where builds get more expensive the longer the player wait.

Fans of Reiner Knizia's masterpiece Amun-Re may recognize several mechanisms from this game and it's true that it served as a source of inspiration. I even went to the length of finding a copy to be able to see what such a game would feel like to play. Others may think of
Puerto Rico (at least my first testers did) but if anything, I tried to steer away from role selections (with the problem turn order influencing the outcome) and engines (with the problem of rich get richer). Nevertheless, the testers kept calling the colonists slaves, although the real Nova Suecia never had any.

Looking back on my first game, there are many game mechanisms applied: bidding, worker placement, investments, production, trade and common expenses. Are there too many? Nova Suecia certainly opens up for many strategies but also for the agony of decision as each action has an outcome that is not easily assessed. For the hard-core gamer willing to dwell into this intricate web of dependencies, Nova Suecia may offer a challenging gameplay, but in subsequent games I would stick to one or two game mechanisms at the time.
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Thu Jun 11, 2015 8:48 am
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Designing Iconoclasm

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

I've always wanted to create a purely tactical "battle of the minds" game like chess or go but never been able to come up with a unique mechanism. Movement mechanisms are already perfected in Chess and area control mechanisms in Go. But then I discovered Reiner Knizia's master pieces Tigris & Euphrates and Samurai and got more inspiration. Perfect games can still be made! The missing piece in the puzzle came in a discussion with another game designer about another game, where the innocent words "cycling gods" were dropped. All this created a chain reaction that ended up with an Iconoclasm!



How about a game where the players can build and destroy kingdoms, like in Tigris & Euphrates, but where they have to build them together, like in Samurai? Add to that an element of uncertainty, where the players don't know each others' colors but can play any color (similar to Leo Colovini's Clans, although I discovered this gem only later). And an element where the colors have a circular supporter/opponent relation. This was an idea that I initially came up with for a political game but never found a good way to realize. Now the "cycling gods" could use it.

Iconoclasm is a purely tactical game but the theme of cycling gods fits it very well. Together, the gods build a world and attract followers. As the four elements of the world are interdependent, so are the gods, but as in all mythological dramas, the gods have different agendas and their means are their followers. The inspiration to the name came from another favorite game of mine: Advanced Civilization and the calamity card "Iconoclasm".



In spite of the dramatic name, I wanted Iconoclasm to be a primarily abstract game where the art would not cloud the tactics. As often in my game designs, I went to the history for inspiration and what could be better for a world building game than the classical four elements of fire, water, air and earth?



There I had my playing pieces and to make them as clear as possible, I gave each piece a distinct color as well.

Why including the fifth element of spirit, you might wonder? The answer is an interesting example of the unexpected turns a game design may take. Initially, I wanted to have up to 5 players so when I found information about spirit (or aether, as Aristotle called it), I happily included it. However, early game testing showed that five elements made the circular relation rather complex but I had started to like spirit and even included it in the game logo. Those are two very poor arguments for including something in a game but maybe the spirit influenced me for I finally came up with the idea of letting spirit be a neutral non-player element!

To use hexagons for the game board was an early decision for two reasons. First, hexagons allow connections in six directions compared to the four directions of squares (which is why it's so popular in battle games). Second, the sum of a hexagon and its connected hexagons is seven, a number that is not easily divided and thus could help avoiding ties when counting which color occupies most hexagons in a group. Since the players build a world, it was a natural choice to have a void background, and the dark space fit the theme colors of black and gold as well.



A greater challenge was the player aide. In the game, a player needs to know which other element that supports her element and which other element that opposes her and I can't rely on players remembering this - the information must be visible, clear and concise. After some consideration, I once more returned to my old friend Aristotle and used his way of illustrating this. (Maybe he would have liked my game?)

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Wed Jun 10, 2015 1:25 pm
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