Musings and Retrospectives

Mostly for design diaries and retrospectives, perhaps branching out into posts on more general design thoughts.

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Jagged Earth card previews

R. Eric Reuss
United States
Massachusetts
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I'm doing occasional card previews for Jagged Earth - I'll collate the links here so they're easily findable.

#1 - three Majors
#2 - five Minors
#3 - six Events
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Fri Jul 17, 2020 4:06 pm
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For SCIENCE! Design Diary - a long road to a Third System

R. Eric Reuss
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If there were only a single story to the creation of For Science!, it would be the story of the Third System.

Some of the reason For Science! was in development for so long was that I had two kids while working on it. Some was due to Spirit Island taking time and attention. But the largest reason by far was trying to find the right Third System for the game.

. . .

From the very beginning, two pieces of the game worked beautifully and were both fun and compelling. There have been tweaks. but the core of these systems is identical to the first prototype I ever took to a con nearly a decade ago:

Creating Designs with Design Cards (satisfying the constraints of Disease Cards)
Building structures with wooden blocks (satisfying the constraints of the Design you made)

...but I always had three steps to Curing diseases, for the following reasons:

1. Some Design Cards are just easier to Build than others. This is deliberate, and good - it adds a pleasing variation to how difficult the challenges are, and allows players to deliberately Design Cures that are easier to Build. But without some other system to interact with, it's just flatly better to draw easy-to-build cards... and if there's nothing deterring players from blitzing through the Design Deck, the optimal strategy becomes to dig for those cards.

2. Supporting 5-6 players. From the beginning, I wanted to support larger groups; I felt the somewhat chaotic atmosphere would go well with the premise / feel of the game, and would really put a spotlight on teamwork. But my testing seemed to indicate that with just Designing and Curing diseases, in 5-6p there were unavoidable periods of downtime where all the Diseases had Designed Cures (this was pre-Workshops) and there weren't enough blocks for everyone to be building at once. I didn't mind 'working around a finite block supply' being part of the game, but this was more "there's just not enough going on to occupy 5-6p at once".

3. Feel. Part of the feel I was going for was "a little too much for any one person to pay attention to all at once" - or alternately, if you think of each major system as a musical note, I wanted a chord of three notes rather than just a pair.

All told, I went through at least 8 mechanically different concepts for the Third System, with multiple iterations on each of them. They fell into three broad arcs.

ARC 1: MANUFACTURING

My inital concept was that to cure each Disease, after Building it (proof of stability / functionality), you had to manufacture it - I knew that a major issue with real-life vaccines is scaling up production capacity.

Each Design Card featured one or two Manufacturing icons along the side. For the first few systems, they were just geometric shapes, looking like this:

From gallery of darker


At the start of the game, players were given some # of Factory cards, looking like this:

From gallery of darker


To Manufacture a Cure, you had to lay out Factory cards in a grid such that you could "walk" a path of factory cards (making only 90 degree turns) that matched the sequence of symbols along the edge of the Design. (Super-early versions involved an abstracted hex-grid, or "walls" you couldn't travel through, or directional arrows you had to follow. Most of these were never seen by anyone but me.)

It soon became obvious that the abstract grid was confusing players, so I moved to using a board with tiles - and for gameplay reasons, went from 5 icons to 4:

From gallery of darker

Yellow arrows were - VERY abstractly - 'logistics'; green vials 'chemical synthesis', and I hope you recognize DNA.

All of these versions had a major problem, though: the band of "interesting problem" was too narrow. Early on in the game, you could Manufacture things almost trivially, because you had nothing laid out, so no constraints. Late in the game, you had to take it into account while Designing, but once the Design was verified, Manufacturing was nearly always easy or outright impossible. Only in the midgame when you faced tradeoff decisions - "should I use this easy card, we'll have to place lots of Factories to Manufacture it" - was it engaging enough for thought.

I moved to versions where you placed some (or all) of the factories down to start, and spent tokens to move them, like a 15-puzzle:

From gallery of darker

(Tiles not shown; the mini-images are setup locations.)

You no longer needed to have a single giant set of Factories that could Manufacture all Cures you did during the game, you could configure for one Cure, then move on to the next. This was an improvement, but still ran into "this Cure we've Designed is literally impossible for us to Manufacture because we spent all our movement earlier" problems.

I tinkered around with locking/unlocking systems (flipped tiles were locked in place), different ways to move them... nothing quite worked.

I shelved that idea, and briefly tried something simpler, making the Manufacturing much simpler and more abstract: you had to duplicate the Manufacturing symbols by discarding matching-symbol cards from your hands. This functioned, and added a bit of interesting hand management, but was ultimately kind of forgettable.


ARC 2: WORLD MAP

A bit of hiatus and some serious brainstorming later, I decided that perhaps this problem could be an opportunity for greater thematic grounding: the game at the time felt somewhat unmoored, as it had no central board; each Lab was its own card, so they could be scattered around the table. I felt the game would do better with something to act as a focus-point of attention, and came up with a world-map.

From gallery of darker

I think the NE America star was where the players were (CDC)? Not sure.
(And yes, some regions are specified by continent and others by country. It was a prototype. :-)


There was a bag of materials (cubes) matching the 4 manufacturing colors. How they came onto the map and how you moved them varied, but to Cure a Disease you had to get the materials for it (as specified along the side of the Design Cards) to wherever that Disease was breaking out. (Which I think was on the Disease card?)

This was the first of many times where the following song-and-dance happened: I try something new. I'm enthusiastic about its prospects! I show/send it to Grey Fox, who is also enthusiastic about it! But their playtesting finds that new players don't find it especially interesting.

This was also around the time that Workshops got added to the game - there'd been consistent feedback that (a) players liked Building, and wished there was more of it (at the time, you played to 1 Cured Disease per player, which could easily result in one or more players never Building anything); and (b) that players who were less sure of themselves on the dexterity front would love it if there were smaller Building challenges to tackle. Giving players the ability to do their own little micro- (or not-so-micro-) Builds was a clear win for player enjoyment, at the cost of some complexity - now there were two places to play Design Cards. But it also could hook into the Third System!

I pulled the "factories" concept back off the shelf, but instead of putting them on a grid, they went onto the world map, grounding them in physical space. (Thematically, these were just-in-time manufacturing facilities your corporation could rent on short notice.) Players could add / move / remove factories by doing Workshop builds. This turned into a Money system, where side research in Workshops earned you Money, and you spent money on Factories... and to handle some bad Events, and to deal with Riots (areas on the map that got marked with blocks and were impassable until the rioting was dealt with), and other things I no longer remember.

From gallery of darker

This factory supply/money board postdates Riot mechanics.
From gallery of darker

As gameplay dictated that I lower the # of map nodes, I tried to keep things VERY roughly in line with actual population while still maintaining a network that went all over the world.

This direction seemed really promising. I couldn't even say how many iterations I went through on it - a LOT. And it solved many of the flaws of earlier versions: you needed Money from the very beginning, so nothing was trivial to Manufacture; and as you got later into the game while it was beneficial to match the existing Factory-chains, you could in theory Manufacture anything if you could earn enough Money to throw at the problem. There was some puzzle-y-ness to it, which meshed with the rest of the game, and a good relationship between effort put in and reward received.

But while it overcame these, ultimately, testers didn't find it compelling.

There were a few more iterations using the map - one where Design Cards had locations on them which interacted with the map in some way, one which involved having to Build on the map itself, connecting a Lab with the Disease site; another which involved a Threat Track (which is more about another story, the "how do we throttle card throughput?" question). Same song and dance each time.

(There was also a single post-map iteration that involved earning dice which you rolled to try and match Manufacturing. I wasn't as enthused about this, but was willing to go with it if it tested out well. Same song and dance - no dice.)

ARC 3: EPIPHANIES

Then I had a breakthrough realization, which in hindsight was so obvious that I'm embarrassed it took me such a long time.

When Curing a Disease, building the block structure was engaging, interesting, and tense enough that anything you had to do afterwards was going to be an anticlimax. No third system could ever work, unless I found something that could top the interest of Building!

(In more game-design-jargon terms, it was a problem with the interest curve arc of 'curing a disease'. If you're a game designer and haven't read A Book of Lenses, try to do so at the first available opportunity! Despite it being more focused on video games, probably 80% of it is directly applicable to board game design, and it's super-useful.)

So I started looking at doing something *before* Building, to maintain a good interest curve. I kept the concept of Workshops and Side Research, but instead of earning money, you did Side Research to solve particular problems with Cures - many Design Cards had icons on them (shown below), and you had to earn matching tokens to cover those icons before you could Build it:

From gallery of darker

Note that this is the same Design Cards as above - you can see the easiest-to-Build requires a hard-to-earn skull, while the hardest-to-Build requires no side research at all.

While there was a hierarchy of which icons were "easier" and which were "harder", different Roles could earn different icons more or less readily, which made for interesting Role differentiation and provided different Design incentives depending on which Roles were in play. It was neat! It was colorful! It made easier-to-Build cards harder in other ways! I sent it to Grey Fox, who were also enthusiastic!...

...same song and dance. In hindsight, I'm not super-surprised; while on paper it turned each Disease into a small arc of Builds, in practice it didn't feel different enough from the rest of the game, so while it functioned, the game felt more 2-dimensional, and like these extra requirements weren't adding anything to the overall *experience* of the game.

But my mind had gotten out of the rut it was in for so long, and had a follow-up realization: I'd been thinking that Curing a Disease needed a third system, for all the reasons outlined at the top of this very long post.

But I was wrong. The game really wants a third system, for all those reasons... but that system doesn't need to be part of Curing a single Disease.

That led me to the Master Cure system: Curing a Disease (or doing Side Research in your Workshop) is only two steps, but instead of a flat "Cure N Diseases and you win", each Cure / Workshop build earns you Master Cure tiles, which you puzzle together to capture Insight in closed areas. Capture enough Insight and you win!

From gallery of darker


As I was working on it, I felt so strongly that YES, this was it, finally!... just fiddling around with the Master Cure tiles to try and puzzle them together was fun in a way that no previous system had been on its own. But I'd thought so many times before that I had something that would work that I remained skeptical on principle... until word came back from Grey Fox that yes, players were as enthusiastic about this as we both were!

<cue heartfelt sigh of relief> End dance number.

The Master Cure has gone through a number of iterations, but is still the same core concept - and what I love most about it is how well it handles varying levels of effort: you can't just glance at a bunch of tiles and quickly arrange them in an optimal pattern! So spending time and attention on it is worth it - which is exactly what you want for a system that's fun to tinker with, and that's supposed to have enough to it to engage 1-2 players for much of a 5-6p game.

After a long time, a happy ending! I like to think I've learned a few things along the way, so hopefully for my next game (whatever that proves to be) the wandering won't be so lengthy.
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Thu Apr 30, 2020 4:13 am
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For SCIENCE! Design Diary - Overview

R. Eric Reuss
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Massachusetts
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It is wonderful - but very strange - to see For SCIENCE! on Kickstarter.{1}

Part of the strangeness is because of how long I've been working on it - for nearly a decade! (Its original design predates Spirit Island.) When you've been working on something for that long, its prototype state comes to seem the norm.

The other half of it, of course, is the sobering surreality of it hitting Kickstarter during an actual global pandemic, while I am staying isolated in my house.

I should explain, for those not familiar with the game:
Brief Game Overview wrote:
FOR SCIENCE! is a realtime, cooperative, dexterity-and-strategy game. Set in the near-future (perhaps 1-3 decades hence), you play the part of workers - mostly scientists - in a somewhat misfit / corporate-dysfunctional lab, scrambling to combat a series of global pandemics and discover a Master Cure for all of them.

(You can see a graphic showing the following 3 steps here.)

To cure a disease, first you Design the cure using Design Cards.

Then, you physically Build the structure you've designed, using wooden blocks.

Each disease Cured earns you Master Cure tiles, which you puzzle together to capture Insight about the diseases (by making closed regions). When you capture enough Insight, you've won!

But you only have 15 minutes to save the world!

The original inspiration behind the game was me noticing that most dexterity games which required you to build unusual structures tended to dictate exactly what it was you had to build. This meant two things:

That there wasn't much room for creative solutions - you could build the thing as pictured or you couldn't. This also meant that the difficulty-level was baked in: something easy enough that less dextrous folks could handle it would be super-easy for balancing masters.

That it was 100% dexterity / physical-skill. I wanted opportunity for cleverness and thought to impact the difficulty of the physical challenge - in either direction!

I grabbed various blocks and block-like objects I had in my house - a supremely odd mix which included prop ammo cartridges for a semi-live PARANOIA game I ran back in the '90s - and started messing around with ways to make a dynamic challenge system.

Here's some of the very first prototype cards:
From gallery of darker


I quickly discovered two things: First, that this basic connection-graph of what blocks did and didn't touch could result in interesting challenges, and second, that oddly shaped blocks - particularly those that had no 90-degree angles - tended to create a challenge so hard that it was unsatisfying.

I was already thinking that these block-towers reminded me of the model molecules we made in high school chemistry - not directly in structure or in shape, of course, but in *feel* - and quickly settled on a medical theme. I did revisit this initial assumption, but none of the other ideas I came up with worked nearly as well; I wasn't the only one to feel there was a parallel. Of course, there was already this hugely-big disease-fighting co-op called Pandemic which had been released just a couple of years prior.... but I figured that hey, if this game panned out well, I could pitch it to Z-Man as "Pandemic: The Lab", representing the research being done inside of research centers! (Sadly, Pandemic: In The Lab was announced before I got to the point of pitching.)

I guessed that "wooden blocks" were a potential pitfall on price-point, so despite the enticing possibilities of really weird block shapes, I found the most inexpensive set of unit-blocks I could online and got those. (This proved fortuitous, though not for the reason I anticipated: when other folks wanted to make playtest kits of their own, buying a set of blocks for $18 was a lot easier than needing to laboriously re-create custom wooden shapes.)

A bit of playtesting quickly led to a small slew of minor refinements, after which the core system worked really well. People got it pretty quickly; the only thing they tended to need prompting on was that it was legal (and MUCH more effective) to lay down certain shapes on their (flat) sides rather than trying to perform insanely precise balancing atop curves or points. (Which is still legal for balancing virtuosos, but most of us - including me - aren't that.)

It became clear, however, that the game really wanted a third system of some sort. Partly because without something else to interact with, playing with more than four players resulted in too much scarcity of blocks; partly because without some other constraint the Design Cards were too hard to balance (game-balance) - some were just easier to build than others, and once players got a feel for the deck there was nothing preventing them from tearing through looking for the easiest cards which would satisfy a given Disease.

Finding the right 3rd system - which was fun on its own merits, fit with the rest of the game, and appropriately rewarded attention paid to it - took over six years. It's a designer diary all its own, or possibly multiple.

I signed the game with Grey Fox in 2015, under the working name Response Lab Alpha.{2} We eventually settled on SCIENCE! or DIE as a title, only to change it due to an actual global pandemic erupting - I think Grey Fox explained this really well in their statement.

After this long journey, I'm tremendously excited to see it finally coming to life!

(As are a number of playtesters who've been wanting a non-cobbled-together version. :-)

There are many other pieces of the design to be written about / drilled down into; I hope to have time and attention to manage at least a few of them.

--Eric

Footnotes:

{1} = I'm not linking directly there due to BGG guidelines. Here's the BGG forum post if you want to go find it.

{2} = CGE was taking a look at a prototype for a while, but it turned out that the constraints of manufacturing in Europe would either make the game too expensive to sell or the blocks would need to be much smaller. The CGE folks were consummate professionals, and *extremely* gracious about me moving on to a different publisher who could create the game closer to how I'd hoped. I immensely appreciate the feedback they gave me back then, and For SCIENCE! is a better game because of it!
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Wed Apr 8, 2020 2:15 am
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Spirit Island Development Diary - Spirit Complexity

Ted Vessenes
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Somerville
Massachusetts
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Microbadge: Dune Series fanMicrobadge: Spirit Island fan - River Surges in SunlightMicrobadge: Spirit Island fanMicrobadge: Johann Sebastian Bach fanMicrobadge: I play Elder Dragon Highlander
Introductions:

Spirit Island has been out for a while now and it seems like a good time to share some stories from the development end of things. But first, a bit about myself.

I’m Ted. I’m credited in the rulebook as the developer of Spirit Island, but like most titles, it sounds more impressive than it actually is. There are dozens of people who contributed to Spirit Island, and at least half a dozen other people were also critical in making the game a development success. I’m not an employee of Greater than Games and I’m not paid for any of the work I’ve done. I’m just a fan, like you, who happened to catch Eric’s ear early in the design process.

The totem pole of who has the final word on something looks like “Greater than Games > Eric > Ted”. Since I’m at the bottom, my role has been largely advisory: I test things, then report back about whether they are under or overpowered, or just plain wonky (and how to fix it). And I can explain why I think a certain system should get seriously reworked. But at the end of the day, it’s Eric and GtG’s call on what ends up in the finished product.

The split between design and development is like this: Designers make the game fun to play. Developers make the game fun to play against. In other words, designers come up with all kinds of cool ideas and concepts that make you excited to play. Developers make sure that winning isn’t too easy or hard, and that the game is simple enough that you aren’t wasting all your time trying to follow the rules. For Spirit Island, my three main objectives were:

* Keep power level balanced
* Spend complexity budget wisely
* Ensure mechanics embrace their theme

Whereas Eric’s posts focus more on the design and refinement of major mechanics (eg. fear, game boards), I’ll focus more on stories of specific cards, spirits and rules, explaining why they ended up just the way they are. Spirit Island had a ~5 year design cycle, so there’s a lot of stories to share covering every spirit, adversary, and a bunch of the the major/minor powers.

Complexity Budget:

For this post, I’ll talk about complexity budget, spirit complexity and how they affects development. Rules can only get so complicated before players feel like they are struggling to correctly follow the rules instead of enjoying playing the game. There’s a maximum amount of complexity that any subsystem can use and still be “fun” instead of “fiddly”. That maximum is the complexity budget.

A simpler spirit like Lightning's Swift Strike therefore has a lower complexity budget than a medium complexity spirit like A Spread of Rampant Green, which itself has less budget than a high complexity spirit like Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares. Note that power and complexity are two completely different axes. A spirit can be overpowered and complex, or overpowered and simple. Spirit development is the art of getting each spirit to a balanced power level while keeping their complexity in the right zone for their target player audience.

What separates the three complexity levels? Different people have different opinions here, but these are mine.

Low Complexity:

* Special rules, innates, and powers should only help. Using these should never leave the spirits worse off than not using them.
* Special rules should not increase the number of choices the player has to make.
* The spirit should have no mechanical drawbacks. When the basic rules of the game are different for this spirit, they cannot make things harder.
* Presence tracks may not have elements. There must be two tracks, one solely for energy and the other solely for plays.
* The spirit has exactly one innate power.
* Growth options must be pick 1 of 3.
* Each power must provide an obviously useful standalone effect. Power synergy is fine, but should not be mandatory for the effect to be useful.

These rules are relaxed a bit for...
Medium Complexity:

* Special rules can increase the number of choices the player must make. A poor choice could leave the spirits slightly worse than the alternative, but not significantly worse than not using the effect.
* Special rules should not be something that other players need to be aware of.
* The spirit should have no mechanical drawbacks. When the basic rules of the game are different for this spirit, they cannot make things harder.
* Presence tracks may contain elements, but there must be two tracks, one solely for energy and the other solely for plays.
* The spirit may have up to 2 innate powers.
* Growth options may be pick 2 of 4.
* Each power must provide a consistently useful standalone effect, but its usefulness need not be obvious. Synergy with other powers is still fine, but synergy shouldn’t be mandatory for the effect to be useful.

There are far fewer constraints, but still some for...
High complexity:

* Special rules can dramatically change how the player interacts with the game.
* Special rules can be something other players need to be generally aware of, but they cannot be something other players must constantly pay attention to.
* The spirit will almost certainly have a mechanical drawback. The spirit will probably not be allowed to interact with some section of the game the way most spirits do.
* The spirit may have up to three presence tracks. The tracks may intersect each other. Any effect that could be used by growth could also be unlocked through presence tracks.
* Growth options may be strange and non-standard.
* Each power must provide a useful standalone effect. It need not be consistently useful, nor obvious, but the effect still needs to generally do something useful by itself.
* The spirit needs to feel like a single, cohesive entity. All powers must work towards telling the same story.

What about Wildfire and Shadows?

By these guidelines, I consider Heart of the Wildfire to be high complexity. It quickly reaches a point in the game where it can’t add presence without also adding blight. That’s a large drawback, and something other players should at least be aware of.

From gallery of tedv
From gallery of tedv


Similarly, I consider Shadows Flicker Like Flame to be a medium complexity spirit. Its special rule greatly expands the search space of where it can use its powers, and using the special rule comes at an energy cost. So a strategically poor use of the special rule can cost the spirit a bunch of energy. Using the rule well involves thinking about a lot of the board. Additionally, the Concealing Shadows power card is not obviously useful to players who’ve forgotten they can pay 1 energy to target any land with Dahan. Because the power has base range 0 and it’s only useful when the land would blight, actually using it at range 0 means Shadows is guaranteed to lose a presence.

At the end of the day, designing low complexity spirits is hard, much harder than medium and high complexity, which is part of why Shadows ended up as one of the initial four base spirits. Towards the end of development there was a lot of discussion about the set of starter spirits. We knew Shadows was more complicated than the others, but the spirit also had a lot of fans. We couldn’t find a way to reduce its complexity without giving up what its fans really liked about the spirit (it’s special rule), and there wasn’t enough time to design another spirit. Perhaps someday we’ll come up with more low complexity spirits though. From what I can tell, every designer loves making spirits, and there’s a huge amount of available design space.
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Mon Aug 28, 2017 2:49 pm
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A quick introduction!

R. Eric Reuss
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Massachusetts
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Board games go through both design (initial conception / experimentation) and development (refinement and balancing) - usually as a spectrum, slowly sliding from design-focus to development-focus over time.

Ted Vessenes is a friend and game designer who, in addition to playtesting, did a great deal of development work on Spirit Island - eg, going through the entire Power deck card-by-card reviewing balance. He's volunteered to do some development diary entries for Spirit Island - the first one will be going up shortly!
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Sun Aug 27, 2017 6:37 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Events

R. Eric Reuss
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From gallery of darker
Event Cards are part of the Branch & Claw expansion, which was only split out from the core game late in development (for reasons of cost and learning-complexity). While you're learning the core game, Events are an unnecessary distraction, but once you're familiar with Spirit Island they do several very good things for the game, both mechanically and thematically!

You can see a sample Event Card at right. You draw one each Invader Phase, and most make three things happen: one of two Main Events at top; a Token Event underneath it that deals with Beasts, Disease, or (rarely) Strife; and a Dahan Event at bottom - the existing human inhabitants of Spirit Island taking some action.


Events didn't exist in the early prototype versions. So:

Why Events?

There were (initially) two driving factors:

Mechanically: The core game of Spirit Island has very little random chance. The only major sources of uncertainty about how the board will unfold on a given turn are "Where will the Invaders start their Explore-Build-Ravage cycle next?" and "How will the Invaders panic if we've earned Fear Cards?"

So as you play more, you start to be able to predict victory further and further ahead of time. Eventually - and the number of plays I'm talking about here varies a *lot*, for some players it's 5-10 games and others it's 40-50 - you can sometimes foresee wins with near-certainty 2+ turns ahead of time, which drains the tension out of the endgame. It can still be fun to stomp on Invaders, but it becomes a lot less engaging when you know you've got it in the bag.

The Event deck introduces a bit of uncertainty, a jitter in that mental needle tracking likelihood-of-win. The Event Cards average out to something near neutral-benefit, but they can alter many details of what transpires... and not knowing those details transforms "We're certainly going to win in 2-3 turns" into "We've got a good shot at winning in 2-3 turns", and that makes all the difference in terms of game interest.

(But with new players, that jitter is bad: they're still learning the basic dynamics of the game. Per-game variation just makes it tougher to learn.)

If you're about to lose, Events also hold out a glimmer of hope that perhaps you'll survive the coming Invader Phase - though in the core game, Fear Cards often serve that purpose, too.

Thematically: The Invaders are humans, not predictable robots. The Dahan are humans, not obedient minions. The wildest Beasts of the island may make the Invaders' lives difficult (or short), but not in an organized way. In short, there are many living systems on the island, and living systems tend towards the messy and unpredictable. An Event deck creates that unpredictability, that sense of life and wait-you-did-what?

As I implemented Events, I found some other benefits: The token events let Strife, Disease, and (especially) Beasts interact with the board in a variety of ways, expanding and refining their effects without adding any additional rules overhead. It's highly in keeping with the theme for the Invaders to pull unpleasant surprises from time to time: the Spirits are for the most part slow and reactive, the Invaders faster. And the game's a lot more tense when leaving 1 Explorer in a land about to Ravage is very likely to be safe, but not 100% guaranteed.

I also found - the hard way, over and over - that some sorts of Events were just un-fun: for instance, anything which subverted the usual Invader Action progression too heavily undercut the core strategy of the game. Learning to distinguish "this Event is painful and makes the game harder" from "this Event is painful and makes the game un-fun" took some time, especially as some were only ferociously un-fun one time in four.

Choice Events

From gallery of darker
Not all the Events look like the one above. Some offer a situation with a choice to be made, like at right. A choice may have costs associated with it, or not, but the two options always have rather different consequences.

When first making Events, I'd considered including ones based off of mini-stories, but never even tried prototyping it - I felt like there just wasn't enough space on the cards to make it work. Playtesters kept bringing it up as something they'd enjoy seeing, though, and one (Brian - thanks, Brian!) tossed out a few seed ideas that got me thinking along the lines of crux choice rather than paragraph of narrative. Story was still present, but via the framing of a situation and the choices made in response, not as a long blurb of narrative text.

Some early Choice Events offered three distinct choices, but testing found that was too much for players to keep in their heads - particularly when hearing them read out loud. So they all became A-or-B choices - which may have been for the best anyhow, as card space is limited.

Risks and Randomizers

I knew I didn't want Events to be too predictable, so I made a modest number of the early Event Cards involve a random terrain or a random land#. The cards all had a terrain printed in one bottom corner and a land# in the other bottom corner, for use as randomizers - an Event might say, eg, "Draw a random land#. On each board, add a Town to that land."

I got pushback on this from several sources, most heavily from Christopher of Greater Than Games, who felt both that the extra icons on each card were confusing and distracting, and that the Events which used them were generally terrible. (And indeed, there was a strong overlap between them and the "un-fun" Events mentioned above.) I dropped over half of those Events, and found ways to make the remaining ones work without the terrain/land# randomizers. (Which also made them less swingy.)

Then Choice Events came along. Sometimes, it seemed they would be both more thematic and more interesting when one of the options involved taking a risk.

What proved easiest and best was using the Power decks as a randomizer: you'd flip a Minor Power, say, and check some quality of the revealed card. This can even let the randomization be thematic - eg, in Years of Little Rain (at right), flipped Power Cards that grant a Water element are good, ones without are bad.

There's some chance in how these risks play out - but the tension and theme they add is entirely worth it, and players will usually have the option of taking a risk-free path... with its own costs and consequences.
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Mon Jul 31, 2017 6:40 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - the Dahan

R. Eric Reuss
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The Dahan are the first human inhabitants of Spirit Island, who have resided there long enough to develop their own language and culture - particularly since travel to other islands was made more difficult by a particularly hungry Ocean spirit a few centuries ago.

At the game’s start, the Dahan are just recovering from the foreign diseases which swept across the Island in the wake of the first major Invader settlements. They will work with the Spirits if requested, and fight back against the Invaders if attacked, but otherwise tend to their own affairs.


Creating Dahan Culture: Research and Art
From gallery of darker

Most of the lore of Spirit Island has been put together in piecemeal bits here and there, but the Dahan are a notable exception. I wanted to make the Dahan culture a plausible one, reflecting the realities of living on an island with early tech and limited trade. But I also wanted to ensure that it wasn’t a caricature of “island primitives” or “noble savages”. And on the third hand, I wanted them to be their own people, avoiding appropriation of elements specific to other individual cultures.

I hit the library, the internet, and some JSTOR articles a historian friend was kind enough to pull up for me. No single book had the sort of overview-of-island-culture-similarities I was seeking, so I ended up drilling down on individual topics - eg, a survey of tattooing practices across Oceania - and on particular cultures, or types-of-cultures.

The end result of this research was a 25-30 page overview of Dahan culture (and a bit of history). I’m simultaneously proud of it and keenly aware of how limited it is: entire books are insufficient to describe real-world cultures. But while it's incomplete (some sections are blank, or placeholders), it's still enough, I think, to make the Dahan their own people, not a copy-paste-tweak of another culture.

Of course, the largest area of visibility most players have into the Dahan comes through the artwork. I distilled my page-long art guidelines for the Dahan to a list of more essential bullet-points with some image-links for reference... but I was two degrees removed from the art creation (I never was in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly 200 arts not everything came through consistently. However, the #1-most-important request was honored in nearly every case: the Dahan are people. They’re lanky, chunky, graceful, clumsy, angry, laughing women and men, not fetished super-athletes or freaky cannibals out of a dime-store novel.

(Some Power cards depict them as affected by the Spirits - veiled in darkness, or with wings - but hopefully, it’s obvious that any supernatural elements are the effects of what the Spirit is doing. The Dahan have no magic themselves, though they do occasionally assist Spirits' rituals via dance, song, offerings, the making of patterns, etc.)

Where did the name “Dahan” come from?

For most of development, they were simply “the Islanders”, though I knew I wanted to name them eventually: the words “Islander” and “Invader” look too similar on a quick glance, and besides, to feel like a real people they needed a name!

After finishing my research on their culture, I set about brainstorming a name. How hard could it be? My only constraints were:

From gallery of darker
E 1. It shouldn’t be too long or imposing to pronounce. (Or else people won’t use it, and it’ll take up too much space when referenced on cards.) (This was before I knew that card effects would use iconography for physical pieces.)
E 2. It should use the sounds of their language. (A linguist friend had been kind enough to help me develop a plausible list of phonemes that wouldn’t localize to any single part of the world that I could use when specifying names used by the Islanders.)
E 3. It shouldn’t be confusing when read out loud as part of game effects. (For instance, the name “Atu” looks fine until you say “Push one Atu to a Jungle”, whereupon the sound-similarity to “two” / “to” makes it confusing.)
E 4. It shouldn’t sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
E 5. It shouldn’t be the name of an existing or recently-existing peoples / ethnic group. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the name of a long-ago one either.
E 6. It shouldn’t be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the name of a prominent regional location.
E 7. It shouldn’t be a curse / dirty word in some other language. Ideally, it wouldn’t be a word with a strong negative connotation, either.

It turned out that #1 and #2 (concise; world-common phonemes) made the last three criteria *much* more difficult, because short names made from phonemes used worldwide tend to have been used already! It took a lot of brainstorming, Googling, and use of websites which answer “what does [X] mean in other languages?” At one point I had a shortlist of about 8 candidates… all of which turned out to not work!

Eventually I found a few names that worked, and "Dahan" met the criteria best. It does mean "slow" in Tagalog, but a friend's family from the Philippines said it wasn't in a negative-connotation way - more one of "deliberate / not-hasty". So Dahan it was!

Since Spirit Island came out, a few people have pointed out that "Dahan" rhymes with "Catan" (depending how you pronounce the latter), and asked if it was intentional. I'm afraid it's entirely coincidence - or possibly a result of both Klaus Teuber and I following a similar set of constraints. (I don't know how he came up with the name "Catan".)

Since we're talking about it, how do you pronounce "Dahan", anyhow?

Both "a" sounds are an "ah" like in "father". (Or very close to that. Apparently English does this sound slightly differently than much of the world?) Light emphasis on the second syllable.

Why both Spirits and Dahan?

On occasion, someone asks why there are both Spirits and Dahan. Wouldn’t it suffice to have just one of them resisting the Invaders?

It’s true that just one or the other would have been simpler, but either such game had problems that I felt outweighed the simplicity.

“Just Spirits, no Dahan”:
E Thematically, it loses the human-vs-human aspect of colonization, shifting the theme of the game away from “anti-colonial” towards “environmental”. While I’m all for respecting the environment, it was the colonial nature of so many Eurogames I was looking to reverse.
E Socially, to the extent the game remains anti-colonial, the Spirits then end up standing in for the (absent) indigenous peoples. This portrays the indigenous peoples as inhuman, magical, Other - which is not something I want to be doing.
From gallery of darker
E Mechanically, the Dahan are a strong part of the positional challenge of the game. Some Spirit Powers require assistance from from the Dahan; the Dahan fight (for good or ill) in Ravaging terrains; Fear effects may cause the Invaders to flee from lands with Dahan; and more. Dropping them would result in a blander experience.
E ...and finally, the players of the game are human, and so empathize with the Dahan in a way they don’t with the Spirits. On an abstract mechanical level, a Dahan village being destroyed merely costs a resource useful in throwing back the Invaders - but many players viscerally want to save the Dahan, independent of any mechanical value or utility. That's important.

“Just Dahan, no Spirits”:
E Thematically, this would be a completely different game - not “Spirit Island”!
E Socially, a game with just the Dahan shouldn’t involve magic. They’re a different culture, sure, but human just like us, and that’s part of the point - shifting Spirit-like powers onto them (as “tribal magics” or the like) makes them just as much of a magical-other as having the Spirits stand in for them.
E Many of the mechanics Spirits use don’t work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: Presence, Energy, Elements, Powers, Growth, and more.
E Mechanics for Invader interaction with the Dahan would also need to change. E.g.: historically, colonizers often played local tribes off against each other. In Spirit Island, there are shades of this - attacking one group of Dahan doesn’t incite Dahan elsewhere to counterattack - but the existence of the Spirits means these techniques doesn’t work as well as they did historically. (Partly because “the will of the Spirits is against the Invaders” is clearer, partly because many centuries of “us vs. the Spirits” gave rise to a measure of common cultural identity among the Dahan, despite clan differences.) Likewise for cultural assimilation, which would likely have needed to take on a more prominent role.
E The above mechanical-thematic changes would have removed many of the things testers had said they particularly enjoyed about the game: the fantasy of the setting, the evocative nature of the Spirits, the slow build-up from limited minor abilities to earth-shattering levels of power.

In short, “Dahan Island” would have been an entirely different game on nearly every level.

Despite all that, I did - twice - take a hard look at reworking the game as Dahan-only, because in a co-op, only player-run positions have true agency, and I don’t like that the Dahan lack that. I'm hoping that Spirit Island will prove successful enough to support expansions, as I have some notions for making the Dahan a playable position, which I think would be awesome - playing them alongside the Spirits gets around many of the difficulties above, and could result in an interestingly different type of play.

Ancestry vs. Culture
From gallery of darker

When two peoples meet and mingle, there will be some level of cultural transmission - and perhaps assimilation. Spirit Island has this in both directions: the Kingdom of Sweden can convert Dahan to their cause (via policies that favor and protect locals who voluntarily join their rule), and the Power Card "Call of the Dahan Ways" can call Invaders to a way of life like the Dahan's.

I knew from the start that I needed to include some amount of assimilation (Spirit Island slightly downplays it vs. historically, as mentioned above), and the simple, straightforward way to represent it was simply to replace a Dahan piece with a Town or vice versa. But for a while, I felt weird about that solution, and I continued with it only because I couldn't come up with a good replacement. I eventually realized I was subconsciously assuming that pieces represented both race and culture - and replacing one type of piece with another means rather different things in those two different contexts!

At that point, I formalized that whether a set of humans is represented by a Dahan or Invader piece represents culture - or, a little more precisely, how that set of humans interacts with the land, the Spirits, and each other.

This later helped me to figure out ways to handle more complex situations - eg, plantation slaves who have successfully rebelled when playing vs. the French Plantation Colony. Assuming they avoid the Invaders' mistakes and try to go live off the land, should that factor into the gameplay? How? (My eventual answer: when Dahan assistance proves critical to a local uprising, it creates enough of a bridge of trust for the two to work together: the former slaves are helped by the Dahan to survive in the wilds - becoming more culturally Dahan in the process - and lend aid to the Dahan. Without that trust, the former slaves strike off on their own, and the hostile environment keeps them too small in number and preoccupied with survival to play a further part in the conflict.)

How have the Dahan evolved mechanically?

The Dahan are mechanically very similar to their initial incarnation. There were originally more of them per board (8), but they only did 1 Damage each when counterattacking. Making their Health and Damage symmetrical (2/2) was easier to remember, clearly placed them as analogues of the Invaders’ Towns, and - once I’d fleshed out their culture - was more thematically appropriate.

From gallery of darker
Not precisely a Dahan mechanic but strongly related is how the Invaders apply Ravage Damage, which shifted around many times. At first they damaged three things in sequence: one of (Presence or Dahan), then the other of those, then the land. When Presence stopped taking Damage (instead being destroyed by Blight) the Dahan would either take damage before or after the land, depending on iteration (or player choice, in some iterations). For a little while, there was a notion of Dahan Morale, where they were either Bold (took Damage before the land) or Cautious (took Damage afterwards), but that complexity brought little benefit and was quickly dropped.

It became clear that making Ravage damage mostly deterministic (ie, not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go: it kept Ravage streamlined, and was a bit more thematic. But “land first” made Dahan counterattacks too easy, and “Dahan first” turned the Dahan into a Blight buffer, which both made the board position seem more under control than was true and introduced a “constantly sacrificing the Dahan” dynamic that I really didn’t like.

Eventually, I tried having the Invaders Damage both the Dahan and the land simultaneously and equally, and it worked much better than anything prior - it’s a slightly more complex rule, but is deterministic (keeping Ravage streamlined), and makes the Invaders an equal-and-simultaneous threat to both Spirits and Dahan, which fits the mood of the game best and is more thematically true: expansion of farmed territory went hand-in-hand with increased conflicts vs. the local populace.

The only other change to the Dahan I can think of comes from Event Cards, in the Branch & Claw expansion. Each of those has a Dahan Event - perhaps they ready defenses against the Invaders, perhaps they seek better lands to live in, perhaps enough time has passed for a new generation to come of age. It’s not full agency, but it gives them a sense of life and autonomy, and helps them feel a little less like obedient minions and more like allies with lives of their own.

Edit: Forgot to put this into the "Design Diaries" category; apologies if the update re-triggers subscriptions.
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Sun Jul 23, 2017 6:57 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Fear and Victory

R. Eric Reuss
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Massachusetts
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In Spirit Island, Fear is a good thing - it's you striking terror into the hearts of the Invaders. Exactly how they'll react isn't predictable, but it often involves some of them fleeing the island, and as you earn more Fear Cards the game's victory condition becomes easier + easier.

From gallery of darker

1. Fear

Fear is one of the few major systems in Spirit Island that wasn't present in the initial design. After a month or two of testing, I realized that the Invaders felt not merely implacable (good) but inhuman (bad) - here they are facing down all these inexplicable disasters, and it doesn't affect what they do? At all?

I briefly tried working Fear just like Damage - affecting only the Invader pieces in a given land. But littering the board with fear tokens made things super-cluttered, involved way too many rules, and didn't really represent the "Invader morale as a whole" I was looking for.

So I swapped to a Fear track. Powers could do Fear alongside their other effects. If they targeted a land with Invaders, the Fear track would advance; destroying Cities also did Fear. If the Fear track hit its end, the players would earn a Fear level with some static benefit and reset the track. The first versions of this required earning 4 Fear/player to gain a benefit, but that didn't happen often enough, so I swapped to 2 Fear/player:

From gallery of darker


I demoed Spirit Island many times at Origins that year, and one playtest resulted in a huge amount of insightful, useful feedback, including about Fear. (Thanks, Jared + Luke!) They wanted Fear to be more relevant: they'd won while only reaching one or two Fear spaces. That didn't feel right or fun for them... and they wanted the rewards to be game-to-game variable, for replayability. I also realized the effects should probably be hidden (mostly for thematic reasons), so the next Fear Track featured spaces for 7 face-down tiles:

From gallery of darker


This worked better, but the big challenge became remembering. Players forgot to take their bonus Fear when destroying Cities, or to move Fear back when new ones arrived. Players forgot whether they'd done Fear. Players would jostle the track, and not be able to remember where the marker should go. And still, Fear only really felt relevant when Spirits went heavily into Fear-inflicting powers.

The two parts of this problem proved fixable with a single change: make destroying a Town (then called a Settlement) cause Fear. Towns get destroyed much more often than Cities, and that repetition helped players internalize the rule. It also added much more "baseline" Fear (ie, Fear earned without explicit Fear-dealing Powers), making Fear feel more relevant in every game. With a few other tweaks (dropping the "-1 Fear per City built" as too hard to remember), we had:

From gallery of darker


By this point, I was testing ways to boost difficulty, and ran into a problem: making the game harder didn't make a Fear victory much harder. So as the game got more difficult, "just do Fear" became a more + more dominant strategy. I started increasing the # of tiles you had to work through as game difficulty rose, which for clarity's sake resulted in consolidating each level of Fear (by then called "Fright Level") into a single stack of tiles.

Eventually, I got tired of making and stacking tiles, and shifted Fear effects to cards. This also let them be a little more complex - the tiles were extremely space-limited!

Tile-stacks:
From gallery of darker

Cards:
From gallery of darker









The "track" mechanism was still problematic; new players always had fencepost errors with whether the "reset" space was an actual space that needed to be traversed, and bumping the track was a constant issue. I tried substituting a pool of tokens that got moved, and found it worked much better: it was bump-proof, the slightly greater physicality involved in shifting a few tokens (rather than just advancing a cube) let players recollect better whether they'd tallied the Fear for a given act, and there were no more fencepost errors.

I was also trying to simplify game setup - partly for player experience, partly out of simple self-preservation, as I was running so many solo tests - and Fear Deck construction was one of the bigger hassles. You had to shuffle 3 separate small piles of cards, which was irritating. But Fear effects were generally pretty short (due to having been on tiles once upon a time), so I consolidated them 3 to a card (thematically related, but increasing in effectiveness), so any card could give an effect for any Terror Level. Now there was just one deck of cards to shuffle - and dividers between Terror Levels avoided needing 3 separate stacks:

From gallery of darker


...which is the system in the final game, though there was still a lot more iteration in getting the individual Fear effects right. (There are a lot of very interesting / thematic effects which either aren't the right power level or are too swingy in how much they hit/miss. It's OK if Level 1 effects aren't too reliable, but Level 2 and 3 effects should be useful most of the time.)

Oh, and the front of a final Fear card looks like this:

From gallery of darker


From gallery of darker

2. Victory

Main victory: Early versions of Spirit Island simply had "Destroy all Cities" as the victory condition - the theory being that once the Invaders' main power was broken, you could mop up at your leisure. (And mechanically, playing whack-a-mole with a few Explorers in endgame wasn't super-fun.) Once Fear came on the scene, "Frighten the Invaders away" become a second means to victory.

Somewhere along the line, I started having trouble with certain Spirits being able to achieve blitz victories: if a Spirit was fast enough out of the gate, it could take down the starting City on its board before another could conceivably be built. For a while I just accepted it as a Spirit constraint, but it kept cropping up. After some brainstorming, I tied the victory condition to the Terror Level - after all, accidents do happen, and just because one City sinks into the swamp is no reason to abandon this lovely island.

This worked great (and integrated the Fear victory nicely). The only changes made from then on were details of what exactly you needed to destroy.

The Reckoning: For a long time, the Invader Deck had four stages: after the double-terrain Stage 3 cards were The Reckoning. Each one caused the Invaders to do something terrible - add a Blight to every land with a City, or destroy a Dahan in every land with a City or Town - and then test a loss condition of some sort. If you survived all the Reckoning cards in the deck, you won.

The trouble was, games hit that showdown vanishingly rarely: players would usually win or lose long before that time. I was concerned about stalemates with strongly defensive strategies (which I wanted to be viable) - but eventually concluded that "lose when the deck runs out" was simpler. Defensive spirits need to manage some sort of pivot to offense (be that damage or Fear) in order to win.

Bonus Victory Conditions: For a while, some Fear cards gave you bonus victory conditions - things like "Dahan outnumber (Towns + Cities) in all lands" or "Disease in every land with a City or Town" or "Earn 5 Fear Cards in a single turn".

The trouble was that how hard these were to achieve depended *extremely* heavily on the board state, the Spirits being played, and - most importantly - when you happened to draw them. Balancing them so they were interesting alongside the regular victory condition was nearly impossible. However, the core concept migrated over to Scenarios, where you know the alternate victory condition from the start.

As I post this, some Kickstarter backers have started getting their copies. Hooray! It's exciting reading reactions, and that many people are having a good time with the game.!
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Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:00 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Presence and Sacred Sites

R. Eric Reuss
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At Origins last week, I finally got the chance to see (and play with) a production copy of Spirit Island! It was great, and I can't wait to have one in my home. People were super-enthusiastic about it, too, which made for a great convention.

I haven't had much time since getting back to write, but this bit was already mostly complete, so here's a brief history of how Presence has changed.


- - -

The Spirits in Spirit Island have always had "Presence" - pieces indicating where they exist within the land, the places from which they can exert their strength (in the form of Powers). But the details of how Presence worked have changed substantially. Here are the differences between "how it used to be" and the final game, in the rough order that they were changed/dropped:

Things that are No Longer True about Presence

Spirits started with 5 Presence on the board - several in your Spirit Land, and a few more elsewhere. This was because Energy gain was a flat multiple of # of Presence on the board. I simplified this one quickly; with the Hansa-Teutonica style Presence track, you were always looking at your spirit panel rather than counting board presence anyhow.

Presence was limited by terrain. At first, each Spirit had a different Presence limit in each terrain-type - eg, a Spirit might only be able to have 2 Presence/land in Hills or Wetland, 1 Presence per Sands, and none in Jungle. This took a lot of mental overhead, so was rapidly simplified to "there's one terrain each spirit flatly can't place Presence into". That persisted for a little while, but proved to be one of the rules that new players (a) forgot most often, and (b) found most frustrating when they remembered it, so it got cut. (Though once Growth was created, some spirits got "soft" terrain limitations due to Growth choices.)

Presence was returned to the Spirit panel when it was destroyed. On the bright side, this meant you couldn't really run out of Presence. On the MUCH larger down-side, you could easily end up in a game-state where victory was hopeless because you'd lost so much Presence that you were back near starting-game power levels, but it would take an hour to play through to the point where you actually lost the game. Dropping this made for a much more satisfying arc, as well as thematically decoupling "size/strength of spirit" from "how hurt is this spirit?", which turns out to be appropriate for the setting.

Only one Spirit could have Presence in a given land. There was only "room" for one Spirit (of the players' potence/size) to draw power from a given land. Between this rule and the terrain restrictions, there was a huge additional positional-puzzle aspect to the game of figuring out ways to spread unobstructed and getting everyone's Presence into good positions. While this was a fun challenge for experienced players, it proved a terrible dynamic for starting players - in one semi-catastrophic five-player test, the Invaders got wiped off of four boards, but the spirit on that fifth board had put Presence in so many lands that nobody else could get in to help, leaving four players with virtually nothing to do while that last spirit flailed at the Invaders for several turns. (This was also the playtest which led to the "Invaders Explore from Oceans" rule, so that truly locking down a board forever is extremely difficult.)

There was an interim state where only two Spirits could have Presence in a land, which semi-fixed the problem and allowed for an interesting dynamic with Spirit-targeting powers, which used the rule "Can only target Spirits with whom you share a land" - you got this neat desire for everyone to set up camp with each other spirit, which in turn encouraged localized cooperation - but the limit still proved overly restrictive / unpleasant to learn with, so it got dropped.

Presence had Health. Invader damage could harm Spirit Presence, Dahan, or the land; the spirits chose in which order the damage was done. (This was instead of Blight destroying Spirit Presence.) This did lead to some interesting game (and possibly moral) decisions where Spirits would sacrifice themselves so that the Dahan could survive to fight back, or throw the Dahan under the bus to avoid being harmed themselves, but there was this problematic dynamic where the land tended to stay unblighted for a really long time because Spirits would take the hit first. Eventually this led to Presence not having health and instead being destroyed when Blight is added, which is much more thematic anyhow.

Presence was added the same way by all Spirits. I touched on this in the Powers entry - there were 3 standard power cards that all spirits got, which let them add Presence and Sacred Sites. Dropping those cards was intertwined with two other changes:

Sacred Sites were a distinct type of piece, rather than "a land with 2+ of your Presence". They had to be added where you had Presence, by using one of the standard starting powers and spending a modest chunk of Energy. (The prototype component for them was those little acrylic gemstones.) If you ever lost all your Presence in a land, the Sacred Site vanished. Your # of Sacred Sites controlled how many Card Plays per turn you got, while your Presence controlled how much Energy you got.

I dropped Sacred Sites sometime in 2013. I'd gotten feedback from one player to the effect of, "I feel like Sacred Sites should either be more deeply integrated - like each Spirit should get some special power/effect where they have one - or like they should just not be there." I nodded, practicing graceful acceptance of feedback I privately disagreed with - Sacred Sites were so integrated into the game there was no way to drop them, right? They acted as an origin constraint for Powers, controlled Plays/turn, and were deeply woven into the interesting decisions of "develop infrastructure vs. immediate counter-Invader action". And it wasn't like I was hearing this from lots of people; it was just one player. But later on, while considering how I could cut complexity, the comment came back to me. Pleasantly (and startlingly), the "2+ Presence = Sacred Site" for targeting Powers worked more or less flawlessly from the instant it was tried, and dropping the separate piece simplified or eliminated a whole bunch of rules. There were some follow-on challenges surrounding Card Plays, though:

There was a single Presence track. It gave you Energy, and perhaps Elements. After dropping Sacred Sites as a separate piece, the question arose: how do you get more Card Plays? I experimented: continuing to base it off the # of Sacred Sites (lands with 2+ Presence) you had in play; dual Presence tracks; a single Presence track having progressive improvements to each; etc. The dual-track version was most intuitive to players and offered the exciting prospect of choice in path of development for each Spirit, rather than just pace of development.

But Presence was still being added via a standard set of starting powers, and this in concert with dual Presence tracks created a bad dynamic: before, rushing infrastructure over short-term Invader repulsion would rocket you halfway up your Presence track in a few turns. That was fine; the lack of fighting vs. the Invaders meant they were also somewhat stronger. But with two shorter Presence tracks, you could rocket all the way up one or the other much faster, and the Invaders didn't gain that much ground via your inattention - each Presence placement was effectively twice as good. This problem could be avoided by nerfing both Presence tracks, but that made the arc of the game unsatisfying and more or less mandated rushing infrastructure. And the notional fix of "make Presence placement harder/more expensive" brought its own set of problems.

The fix for this came after PAX East 2014, when I realized I should drop the standard starting powers in favor of having 4 Unique Powers, for more spirit differentiation + fewer starting card choices. How to get Presence onto the board? "Just add one Presence/turn" was simple and functional, but wasn't fun; it felt very metronomic. Eventually I settled on the Growth system, which worked so well that it's pretty much overwritten my memories of other experiments.

That's about it! My next post will take a look at Fear and Victory.
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Thu Jun 22, 2017 5:00 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - the Island Boards

R. Eric Reuss
United States
Massachusetts
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I'm incredibly excited: the latest Kickstarter update says that Spirit Island has been printed and is on its way towards our shores! I'd been holding off on more designer diaries until the production issues were hammered out - now that that the games are in transit I feel like it's not too much of a tease to start these up again.

~

From the very beginning, the island has been divided into lands, where each land is "a distinct place". Invaders in one land aren't in another one; a Power used on a land affects only things which are there; range is measured in "# of lands distant"; etc.

But the earliest boards didn't look at all like the current ones.

The very first version was a hand-scrawled, non-modular island. While I had the notion that every land would eventually be a particular type of wilderness, the Invaders ignored terrain, expanding along arrows from one land to another.

This didn't work very well in solo experimentation - the arrows seemed super-busy and hard to parse. (I've since seen it done better, I think in Legends of Andor?) But that experimentation also led to the Explore-Build-Ravage system the Invaders use (more on that in another post), which in turn made it clear that terrain was important for more than just Spirit abilities.

The second board looked like this:

(A):
From gallery of darker


It's still a single island, but with a hex layout rather than organic hand-drawn lands. Messing around with this validated the basic Invader AI concepts, but the game scaling was a bit problematic.

At this point, I back-burnered the project for a while - I was daunted by its sheer scale, the prospect of how much stuff I'd need to create and playtest to do it justice as a strongly thematic game - none of my prior designs had involved so many asymmetric positions, loads of special powers, or much in the way of worldbuilding.

I pulled it back into focus in early 2012 after a conversation with Ted Vessenes, who was really enthusiastic about this Spirit Island idea. Enthusiasm from other people has always been a strong motivator for me, so I dusted off my notes, did a huge pile of brainstorming on "things that spirits might do", and came up with new maps:

(B):
From gallery of darker
(C):
From gallery of darker


(B) is the initial hex-based board draft from early 2012. I decided the best way to scale the game for more/fewer players was to scale the size of the island; plus, modular boards would allow for game-to-game variability. I went for a weird shape so the island wouldn't look like a square or a simple hexagon (few islands do), though with regular hex borders between boards so they could (in theory) interlock in lots of interesting ways.

(C) is the first board any playtesters ever used, at Intercon in March of 2012. I made the lands organic (though the boards themselves remain hex-based); it seemed more thematic and made it clearer that each area of contiguous terrain was one discrete location (rather than "3 hexes of forest"). There's very little coastline (which at this point had no mechanical function), 10 lands (of 5 different terrain types), and a "Spirit homeland" - that funny circle-flare land near the top. (The initial working title was Genius Loci, and each spirit was the Spirit Of A Place - the volcano, the river-source, the ancient copse - and that special land was The Place. Each Spirit would have its own board.)

Those tests proved incredibly valuable, both for lessons learned and for enthusiasm. One map-related lesson was that playtesters could not keep different types of rainforest conceptually distinct in their head - at least, not well enough to use them as different terrain types, so terrains would have to be a little more iconically distinctive and a little less realistic. On the enthusiasm front, people were not merely wanting to play again but dragging friends over and saying "come try this out!". That's unusual for a game in such a rough state, even with friends, and was a strong signal to keep working on this game.

(D):
From gallery of darker


(D) post-dates (C) by about a week, updating the board shape - the combinations with hexes just weren't working out as interestingly as I'd hoped; there were too many "not quite right" fits with insufficient contact between parts of the board. I fell back on my knowledge of tessellations and experimented with a bunch of triangle/square/hexagon variations, eventually settling on a rhombus with organically distorted edges that (since they tessellated) would interlock neatly. The (much expanded) ocean edge is deliberately different so you can't place it as an interior edge by accident. The tessellation also let me define a set of fixed boundary-points for lands, so that land borders on one board would never be touching/too close to land borders on an adjacent board, eliminating the "...are those lands touching by 1mm?" problem.

This revision also introduced setup iconography: #1 and #2 in white boxes for starting Invader territories, brown discs for Dahan, red discs for Presence, stars for Sacred Sites (which were a separate type of piece back then). I used #1 and #2 rather than any iconography because I was still experimenting heavily with what an appropriate starting complement of Invaders was.

I waffled back and forth over whether to craft the board tessellations so that you could flip the boards over and use Side B (offset by half a board-width) with Side A for more variety - I eventually decided against it because it made the edges look too regular / non-natural. As things turned out, I'm doubly glad I did this, because the thematic maps (on the reverse side) really shouldn't be mixed play-wise or graphically with the balanced maps on the front.

(E):
From gallery of darker


(E) is from a month or two later. It drops from 5 terrains to 4, and with that from 10 lands to 8. I came to this decision reluctantly, as 10 lands allowed for more nuance in the positional maneuverings - carving out defended areas that the Invaders couldn't Explore into. But 5 terrains was just too high-variance, and it took too long on average before a given terrain got revisited (if it did at all). But the core dynamic was still there... and as it turned out, the thematic side let me play around with 9-10 lands per board again, so all's well that ends well.

This is the last revision with the Spirit Land - the next iteration dropped it, and with it a host of special-case rules and possibilities for stalled games:

(F):
From gallery of darker
(G):
From gallery of darker


(F) is from later that month. Between dropping the Spirit Land and going from 10 lands to 8, piece overflow happened a lot less often.

(At this point, I had my first child, and my design pace slowed waaaaay down.)

(G) is from 2013, several iterations later, which were mostly about updating iconography. All lands now have numbers, both so they can be referenced by setup instructions / Adversary effects / events, and also so that lands can be unambiguously referenced. Invader pieces are shown explicitly rather than implied. It's also tilted, as that allowed for fitting a slightly larger map on an 8.5"x11" piece of paper. Note the exterior tic-lines around the 3 land-based edges; those are the possible points where lands can have boundaries.

There were many iterations after that, but little change in their general appearance - the further exploration was more about board topology, and what sorts of boards work well or poorly for interesting and balanced gameplay. For instance, the board shown in (G) got cut because land #4 is adjacent to every other land on the board (and at least one off of it). This was a small problem because you could block off the Invaders from lands 6 and 7 by keeping just that one land clear, and a bigger problem because Spirits could set up a Sacred Site in it and have range-1-from-Sacred-Site access to more than an entire board. Other trials found that having variance in the number of coastal lands made a noticeable difference to gameplay, particularly after the "Invaders Explore from Ocean" rule was introduced.

Finally, we have the (almost) production versions. For the balanced sides of the boards, the graphic designer decided to stick with a textured look (albeit with professionally commissioned textures rather than my off-the-shelf slapdashery) and a stitched-border motif to make it feel like a map the Dahan might use:

From gallery of darker


(The black lines on the Wetlands are a texture artifact of that particular proofing file; they aren't in the later proofs I looked at.)

The rulebook gives standard ways to combine the balanced boards for 2p/3p/4p play, but if you want to (and you don't mind a bit of change in game difficulty) you can mix it up and fit them together however you like. (Rules of thumb: the more edges connecting between boards, the harder the game. The more coastal cul-de-sacs with few land connections, the harder the game. The more inland cul-de-sacs, the easier the game.)

For the thematic side of the boards, Greater than Games commissioned a large artwork map of the entire island, with a more graphical / satellite's-eye-view style:

From gallery of darker


The terrain types are still distinct, but not so blazingly different, and there's some shading into each other (though not so much that you can't tell which terrain type each land is). There's a bit of variation in what a given terrain looks like - see the Sands at top left vs. the one at bottom right - and some ornamentation that doesn't affect gameplay, like the river through land #1 and the picture of A Spread of Rampant Green in land #5.

...and that brings us up to now! The boards are one of the things I'm most looking forward to about playing with a final-printed version of the game - paper boards curl, and slide over each other so easily; having boards that actually bump up against one another will be lovely. :-)
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Tue May 30, 2017 2:38 am
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