Musings and Retrospectives

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

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Spirit Island Design Diary - Questions of Setting

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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The Kickstarter has wrapped up, quite successfully! Spirit-centric updates got so much enthusiasm that they ate up most of my writing time during the campaign, but enough folks have said they'd enjoy reading further Designer Diaries that I'll continue posting them from time to time.

I was going to look at boards, Presence/Sacred Sites, and an interesting thematic question: where is Spirit Island, anyway? But it turns out that each of those is an entire post in itself, so for now I'll just answer the last.

It's still about design, just thematic design rather than mechanical. (There'll be more in this vein when I post about the Dahan.)

So where is Spirit Island, anyway?

My intent has always been for there to be a wide range of plausible locations and time periods for Spirit Island, so that players could fight against a wide variety of historical Adversaries. Many colonizers were limited in where they expanded, or founded colonies only before/after a certain century. Basically, I wanted Spirit Island to be able to take on aspects of a wide variety of historical conflicts - partly for the aforementioned gameplay reasons, partly so that if someone really wants to feel like they're driving the Invaders out of a (real) land they have some cultural attachment to, they can.

This level of generalization / archetypicality is, of course, ludicrous. Peoples, flora, fauna, climate, and geology vary extensively from place to place in the world. Many plants we tend to think of as generically "tropical" started out in one corner of the world (and were often spread by colonizing Europeans!). A single person's clothing, a single plant, a single animal may be enough to localize to a specific place... but probably only for an expert. The average boardgamer isn't going to know.

And there were some things that could be done to make it a bit trickier: the plants and animals of Spirit Island are distinctive to it; even those the Dahan brought with them when they came to the island long ago have been transmuted by the Spirits to better fit in with the local ecosystem. (There's a Choice Event which presents the same option for the Invaders' imported species.) The Dahan language uses phoenemes that are commonly found across the globe. Where possible, I avoided obvious markers-of-place in the Dahan culture. And so forth.

But there are areas I couldn't help but make traces. The canonical island map has rain shadows mostly on the northwest side of high lands, implying frequent southeast winds. There are details of geology which might come out if I get to do an expansion with the Volcano spirit. Etc.

How big is Spirit Island?

It's not just the location that's deliberately ambiguous - the size of the island is, too! A single Dahan piece might represent one village, a few associated villages, or an entire clan. A Town piece might reprsent a literal single town, or a certain density of Towns scattered through that area. (Larger physical scales also imply a longer timescale to the game, and that the Spirits are that much more impressively powerful.)

Spirit Island is absolutely no smaller than Montserrat (40 square miles) and no bigger than Madagascar (225,000 square miles), and is more likely to be in the range of 400 - 40,000 square miles. (Within one order of magnitude of Viti Levu, the largest island in Fiji.) The presence of large apex predators implies that it's on the larger side of that range - but it could instead be close to a mainland or chain-of-islands terminating at a mainland, with the arrival of Ocean's Hungry Grasp a few hundred years ago keeping it more isolated than it would otherwise be.

This ambiguity is for similar reasons to the ambiguity of place: some Adversaries or Scenarios might make sense only if the scale of the island is vast, or small.

...and other such questions.

The commenter who asked about location also asked a few other questions:

What should we call it? Spirit Island? Dahan Island? The Island?

Spirits and Dahan alike mostly just call it 'the island', as they infrequently have cause to visit or refer to other ones these days. Shortly after the Dahan first arrived, they started calling it something that roughly translates to "the island of great spirits" or thereabouts (and before making that discovery they undoubtedly had chosen some other name for it entirely), but I expect that the more-formal name doesn't see much use now.

(We should probably just call it Spirit Island.)

Are there other islands with natives (Dahan or otherwise) and spirits?

There are other islands within travel distance of Spirit Island. Not easy travel distance, but the Dahan used to trade with them semi-frequently before Ocean's Hungry Grasp moved into the area, and even after that still managed an expedition every decade or so. (At least, before the Invaders showed up.) The Dahan have been semi-isolated for long enough to have their own distinct culture, though.

The inhabitants of various other islands believe in spirits, or gods, or both. When the Dahan's ancestors showed up, they were taken aback at the number and power of the Spirits in this place. And for now, that's all I'm saying on the matter. :-)

Are there any spirits back in Europe? What about the Americas? Asia?

The Invaders are roughly analagous to nations from our own history. They might believe in spirits, but probably in the context of God / angels / demons / witchcraft (unless they're an Adversary where Christianity hasn't taken hold), and they have about as much experience with the supernatural as people from our own history.

Some of the Fear / Event cards represent various reactions the Invaders have to realizing "Oh crud, these things the Dahan talk about actually exist!", and there's one Major Power (Manifest Incarnation) which is effectively a Spirit showing up in immense, undeniable power and burning into the Invaders' minds, "KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE: WE ARE REAL." (It does a lot of Fear.)

Basically, what else can you tell us about the world of Spirit Island?

Enough to (hopefully) be intriguing, not enough to dispel all mysteries.

(Sometimes I want to delay a reveal; sometimes I simply don't know an answer yet and don't want to pin one down before it's necessary.)
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Sat Oct 17, 2015 4:31 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Adversaries

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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On another forum, someone asked me about adversary design - the process of translating a nation’s real-world/alternate-world tactics into the mechanics of Spirit Island. It's an interesting question.

(For the unfamiliar: an Adversary is a specific Invader nation to fight against. Each one changes the game in different ways, and offers multiple levels of difficulty, starting at "a step up from the teaching game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have around a 1-in-3 chance of winning".)

Making an Adversary tends to involve the following:

1. Research on the country’s historical colonization efforts and society-at-large, with a particular eye towards “How were they distinct from other colonizers / countries of that time period?” If it’s a country that didn’t have much colonial activity in real history, “why not?” and “how is the alternate-history different?” are important to know, too. I may do this research myself (which is fun, but time-consuming) or get a precis / have a discussion with someone who has a deeper body of knowledge than my own.

2. Brainstorm possibilities for representing the distinctive items from #1 in game terms.

3. Find a core gameplay element (or pair of elements) to modify/subvert, changing up the game in interesting ways. Ideally, this is based off of the possibilities in #2, so that the core element reflects historical/alt-historical reality.

4. Experiment with different progressions to see which make for a good difficulty ramp. Make sure the core element from #3 appears early on in the progression. (Level 1 or Level 2.)

Example: England

Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (US, Australia) tended to have much greater immigration and population than most other nations’ colonies, and some of the reasons behind / consequences of that fact. Also, that Britain gave its colonies greater (though still limited) autonomy in self-governance: decisions could be made locally which in other countries' colonies might have required taking 6 months to consult the homeland.

Brainstorm: How to represent “more population”? How to represent the land grants given to indentured laborers? How to represent local self-governance? There were multiple possibilities for each; I listed a number out.

Core element: One idea looked particularly promising for shaking up play with a historically-inspired feel. Normally, Invaders only Build in lands which already have other Invaders in them (at least an Explorer). But “indentured laborers gaining land” could be represented by ignoring that restriction: lands bordering multiple Towns/Cities could Build even if unexplored, representing local laborers earning their plots (without much choice about where those plots are). Repelling Explorers to prevent Building is a core tactic of the game; this rule foils that tactic in areas of Invader strength.

I then chose several of England’s other effects to help support this core element: representing “more immigration” with an extra Build action means the indentured-laborers rule crops up more. Starting each board with two extra buildings makes the coastal regions vulnerable to it from the get-go. And so forth. Multiple Adversary designs might subvert the rule “Invaders only Build in lands where they already are”, but they’ll do so in different ways, and part of that difference is what other effects support the core modification.

...and from there, it’s been experimentation to figure out good orderings and testing to figure out if it all works.

But it doesn’t always happen in that order.

Example: Brandenburg-Prussia

This Adversary arose from a playtester request for an Adversary that made the game harder, but changed the basic dynamics of play as little as possible. I was initially a bit resistant - the whole point of Adversaries was to present a unique opponent requiring different strategies! After some conversation, though, it became clear that testers usually reached “desire for increased difficulty” before reaching “desire for increased variety in strategy-space”, so they won me over.

In this case, I started with step #3 - find a core gameplay element - because I had a particular mechanical purpose in mind. The boost that least changes the core strategies of the game is speed - the Invaders would simply come faster, more accelerated. ("Start the board with more Invaders" changes dynamics even less, but doesn't work well as a core element; I'll talk more about this below.) As the design evolved, simplicity also became a core consideration: Brandenburg has no additional rules to remember; all of its changes are performed during setup. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play - there’s a big flag icon on some Invader cards that tells you, "go do that thing".)

From the core gameplay element, I went back to #1, and looked for a nation of the era which had a reputation (either past or contemporary) for speed / ruthless efficiency / a certain driven focus. Prussia seemed to fit the bill, so I read up on it a bit, and found that one King of Brandenburg (a partial predecessor) had had colonial ambitions, but had been blocked from pursuing them by a number of fundamental factors: lack of navy/coast access, low population due to war, etc. In some cases I came up with plausible alternate-history changes to mitigate these factors, in others I handwaved. (This was before Paul created a unified alternate history of Europe.)

Ranges of Threat

One requirement of an Adversary is that it make the game harder. On the face of it, this looks trivial; the game has many levers to pull. Just make some Invader action/stat/behavior nastier, and you're done.

But it's not quite that simple. For starters, it's pretty easy to flat-out make the game too hard. As well, there are several important ranges to consider:

Range of player skill - some things that add difficulty for beginning players won't make the game appreciably harder for more experienced players, because the experienced players are already avoiding the circumstances you've made nastier. For instance, the single effect of "Cities have +3 Health and do +3 Damage" might be problematic for newer players, but more experienced players will simply never allow a new City to be built, and will gain overall board control swiftly enough to dig for Major Powers and handle the starting Cities before that rule has overmuch impact. You can get around this with synergies between Adversary abilities: if some other effect were "whenever there are two Explorers in a land, they turn into a City", Cities will threaten much more often! It's fine if an Adversary's Level 1 effect doesn't impact really good players much, so long as later effects make it relevant when they're playing at an appropriate difficulty level.

Range of time over the game. Both Invaders and Spirits increase in effectiveness over the course of the game - the Spirits a bit every turn, the Invaders in larger steps as they hit new Stages in the invader deck. You can envision it as a pair of upwards-sloping curves, each competing to rise higher than each other. Different changes alter the Invaders' power-curve at different points. For a simple example, consider "add more Invader buildings during setup". This makes the opening-game much harder, but doesn't provide much ongoing bonus to threats: the Invaders aren't adding any greater quantity of units over time, nor are their units more problematic to the Spirits. By turn 5-8, those extra buildings will either have caused an early Spirit loss, or will have mostly faded to the status of "juicy targets". On the other end of the spectrum, consider "When Exploring, Stage III Invader cards add a Town in addition to the normal Explorer." This is brutal in late-game, but has no impact whatsoever until the middle of Turn 7.

(Digression: Adversary tempo interacts interestingly with Spirit development speed. Some spirits by nature are very fast out of the gate, others crest in midgame, still others are weak early yet phenomenal in endgame. But Growth choices affect development speed: players choose whether (and how) to push long-term growth vs. short-term board control. It's obvious that different Adversary abilities make certain Powers more/less desirable, but subtler is that different Adversary abilities make certain *tempo* choices more/less desirable.)

Range of Spirits facing the Adversary. Some Spirits will be stronger and some weaker against a given Adversary; there's no getting around that. But it's still important to keep in mind that a variety of different play-styles and power combinations will be going up against an Adversary, and try to keep any of them from being flatly useless. For instance, England's indentured-laborers rule would have been simpler if it said "Invaders Build even in lands without Invaders" - none of this checking-adjacent-buildings stuff. But in addition to being less thematic, this would have been bad design: Explorer-control powers would become irrelevant to the game. Instead, they're relegated from "central strategy" to "niche effect" - very useful if you manage to mostly-clear an area... but you have to work for it.

Types of colonization (or, Why you probably won’t see Spain anytime soon)

Very roughly speaking, there were three broad categories of European colonies:

1. Colonization-and-immigration. Lots of people sent over to live in a new land - perhaps for its resources, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps as a societal pressure-valve. One iconic example is Britain colonizing North America.

2. Conquest-and-subjugation. Some immigration, but not nearly as much as #1. Instead, the colonials subjugated the local inhabitants to demand tribute / enslave them / require work from them. One iconic example is Spain's conquistadors, and the encomienda/repartimiento systems in Latin America.

3. Factory-and-trade. Relatively low immigration, usually to a single coastal city intended to act as point-of-presence for the nation’s trade in the region. This required good relations with the local leader - perhaps through gifts or diplomacy, perhaps by backing one leader/tribe/faction (to the detriment of others) or by simply outright installing a local ruler. One iconic example is the Portuguese trade colonies chaining out to the East Indies.

The core mechanics of Spirit Island represent #1: colonization-and-immigration-type colonies. But not all exploring countries performed that type of colonization! So there are some historical powers that you won't see, at least for now. (I'm confident the game could be extended to Conquest Adversaries. Trade Adversaries are trickier, but I have some ideas.)

This limitation is actually one of the motivations for the alternate-history of Europe: to have more potential colonizing powers (especially type #1) than we actually saw historically. I'd originally planned on not going into too much detail, for fear of having just enough knowledge to metaphorically hang myself with, but Paul at Greater Than Games loves history, and has come up with a great split off our own past that serves the game really well and makes for an interesting contemplation of how just a few things shaking out differently might have changed the course of Europe!

(And he even made it compatible with the alternate Brandenburg-Prussia! :-)
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Thu Oct 1, 2015 3:46 pm
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Powers

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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From gallery of darker

A prototype Minor Power card

From gallery of darker

A prototype Major Power card

From gallery of darker

A prototype Spirit panel,
with innate Power at lower right

(You can see something closer to
actual Power Cards / Spirit panels
in this forum thread.)

If you haven't played Spirit Island: Powers are what the Spirits use to act within the game. There are Power Cards (cards in your hand) and Innate Powers (printed on your Spirit’s play panel). Power Cards cost Energy to play, and you’re limited in how many you can use each turn. Innate Powers don’t have either of those restrictions - but are only triggered on turns that you’ve played certain combinations of Elements on your Power Cards (those things along the left-hand side).

Each Spirit starts with four unique Power Cards. More can be gained as the game goes on, from the Minor Power and Major Power decks. Major Powers are very potent, but have high Energy costs, and to gain one you have to Forget (lose forever) a Power you already know.

~ ~ ~

The core concept of Power Cards has existed from the beginning. Innate Powers - and Elements themselves - were conceived of alongside them, but absent from initial prototypes to make sure the underlying systems of the game worked before layering other pieces atop them.

The major areas of mechanical evolution have been:

Power Speed

The very first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like 8 phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to 6, which went something like:
1. Buffs to other Spirits
2. Defense Powers
3. First Invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty things to Invaders
5. Do other sort of nasty things to Invaders
6. Second Invader action

By the time I got it in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was only relevant in the second half of the game. (The Invader deck had 2 cards of each terrain. The first time through, the Invaders acted once per turn at #3. After you reshuffled, they acted at #3 *and* #6.)

It didn’t take many playtests to find the split between #1 and #2 terribly awkward, so I condensed Powers down to “Fast” (before Invaders) and “Slow” (after Invaders). Phase #6 was eliminated, replaced by the 2-terrain Stage III Invader cards.

A year or so ago, I looked into dropping the Fast/Slow distinction entirely, making everything Fast. On a mechanical level, this would have worked; it would even have streamlined the game some, and satisfied those testers who disliked having their plans messed with by Events. But it was a huge hit on theme: the Spirits are supposed to by-and-large be slower than the Invaders, scrambling to anticipate and react in time. Making everything Fast removed that. It also lowered Power diversity, gutted one very popular Spirit concept, and removed a particular type of planning that I (and many of the game’s fans) especially liked about it.

(Making everything Slow would have eliminated entire categories of defense cards, or required awkward carry-over-to-the-next-turn effects. It was a non-starter.)

So I decided that the Slow/Fast split ought to stay, but worked on developing Blitz: a simple scenario that lets players play with entirely-fast Spirits, either to explore the difference in feel, or if they just prefer that mode of play.

(This possibility was another reason to go the way I did: making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)


Power Cards used to be able to have more than one of an Element: two Fire and one Plant, for instance.

This turned out to be a bad idea.

First of all, counting seems to be much easier on the brain than adding, even when the addition is “one plus one plus two plus one”. Playtesters had a substantially harder time adding up their elements than counting them up.

And with no more than one of an Element on each card, “number of card plays per turn” is a general ceiling on how many elements of any type a Spirit can have. This allows for much easier calibration of innate powers: if an innate triggers off of 4 water, I know it can’t be hit without playing 4 cards. (Modulo any Elements on the spirit’s Presence track and a few co-op effects.)

The full evolution of Elements and how spirits use them is a post unto itself.

What sorts of Powers are there?

Early versions of the game included many effects that are no longer present. There were a whole mess of different types of effect-tokens that could be put onto the board. There were divination effects, which let you peek at what the Invaders were going to do next. There were multi-turn Powers that ramped up for each turn you kept them in play.

All of these ended up being dropped or deferred for one reason or another - usually complexity, though a few just never ended up working well, and learning what the Invaders will do ahead of time turns out to be too much information: it makes things un-fun.

Energy scaling

Energy values used to be about 3x what they currently are, with costs running up into the high 20s. There was a long Energy track on the Spirit mats to accomodate this, with “+50” and “+100” spots.

Someone at a local testing meetup suggested lowering the granularity on all Energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant - the fine granularity meant I could base a Power’s effects entirely off of its theme, then cost it very precisely - but the advantages were so huge that I eventually took the advice, and oi, I’m glad I did. Slashing costs by a factor of 3 (and then lowering them all by 1 Energy, to make each play more intrinsically powerful and permit very-low-Energy lots-of-small-Power strategies) dropped the range to 0-9, which is great for card layout, easy for addition (especially since most numbers are 0 or 1), and permits using “coins” for Energy instead of a space-eating, too-easy-to-bump track.

Major Powers

The first versions of Major Powers didn’t grant Elements, and flatly required certain Elements to play at all. Both of these were un-fun and got winnowed out by testing; the idea of "if you have certain elements, the Power does more" was a replacement for requiring the Elements in the first place that worked about a hundred times better.

The cost for gaining a Major Power fluctuated a number of times. At one point or another, you had to:
* Pay Energy;
* Destroy one of your Sacred Sites (back when Sacred Sites were a separate piece);
* Destroy your Presence;
* (and other things I can no longer remember)

The solution of Forgetting cards actually came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something which permanently removed Power Cards from circulation. Partly because every once in a while, someone got a Minor Power draw where all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances); partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of Powers in late-game, esecially if they didn’t have many card-plays. Forgetting another Power to get a Major Power addressed both issues, and also worked well thematically: gaining a Major Power is a big step up for most Spirits, and it made sense they’d have to lose a little bit of who they were in order to become a being incorporating this new, massive thing.

(One of the side themes of the game is “How will you change in the face of adversity?”)

Starting Powers

For a very long time, Presence was not added via Growth. (There was no Growth, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Spirits had 3 unique powers, and 3 Standard Starting Powers. Two of the Standard Powers added Presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a Sacred Site) in different ways; one let you send dreams to the Dahan telling them to move.

At PAX East 2014, I played a number of nicely thematic-feeling games, and somewhere in there I looked at Spirit Island and said: “these Powers are diluting the unique feel of each Spirit”. I’d previously considered giving each Spirit unique Presence-adding Powers, but felt that was asking for trouble: not every Spirit wants really distinctive ways of getting Presence on the board, and designing the game such that I had to come up with two interesting and thematic Presence-adding Power Cards for every Spirit seemed like asking for trouble.

But after wracking my brain for a while, I came up with a different plan: give each Spirit a unique power for their relationship with the Dahan, and don’t add Presence with Powers at all. Instead, roll that and the things covered by “Seeking” (an old mechanic for reclaiming used Power Cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called “Growth" - the organic processes which didn't involve a Spirit using special powers, just... growing, living, changing. Each spirit could have different Growth choices, and while the atomic pieces of those options could be very simple (“Add a Presence at Range 1”), the way they were grouped could, I thought, let different Spirits feel appropriately different, and offer strategic choice in how they progress. (And indeed, it does.)

It took roughly 6 months for the major side-effects of this change to ahake out, and over a year for me to get as good a handle on Growth as I’d had on the previous system - but the benefits have been fantastic: Spirits’ starting powers are entirely unique. Spirits need fewer card-plays (since they used to need an average of 1/turn for Presence placement), which makes early game decisions more manageable for new players - as does having fewer Powers overall (which also benefits later-game hand size). It's removed certain Presence-spamming openings, which makes it easier to predict/design around a spirit’s rough power-level at any point in the game. It allows Growth design to influence how a Spirit spreads, and feels while spreading. And...

How Power Cards are gained

…in the old Seeking model, Spirits only gained a new Power Card when they Reclaimed all of their spent Power Cards. (Which cost some amount of Energy at end-of-turn.) The shift to Growth decoupled “Reclaim Powers” from “Gain a Power Card”, which permitted a much greater diversity of tempo-feeling among Spirits. Many still kept one Growth option with the two of them together - it’s a good dynamic, especially for beginning players (since if you dig yourself into the hole of “I’m playing so many Power Cards that I have to Reclaim every turn”, it automatically self-corrects by giving you more Power Cards) - but even those could include other options for gaining Power Cards, and some spirits separated the two things entirely.

As Always

Comments and questions are welcome, as are suggestions for any aspects of the design, concept, or game world that you'd like to hear about.

(Also let me know if you'd rather see narrower scope and more drilldown, fewer or more details, etc. - there have been so many changes and lessons that it's difficult to put it all into narrative form.)
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Fri Sep 25, 2015 4:24 am
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Beginnings

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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Board Game: Spirit Island
In Spirit Island you play nature Spirits driving off Invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan - the first humans to arrive here, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well - but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental power in order to prevail. It's a medium-heavy, "gamer's-game" co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play, with simultaneous turns for minimal player downtime.

This Design Diary discusses the initial idea and my design goals, and was first published just before the Kickstarter. Now that Spirit Island is being released - it will be available at GenCon 2017 - I've updated this post to reflect the time that's passed, and added links at the end to later Design Diaries focusing on particular areas of the game.

Creating Spirit Island has been a long road: I started serious work on it in winter of 2012... and my first son was born 5 months later, which caused development to stretch out over a much longer timeframe than it otherwise would have taken. I think the game ended up better for it, as it gave me time to mull on certain things that I might otherwise have handled more hastily. Something to remember for the future, perhaps.

But now, finally, it's here!

The Idea

One question that crops up a fair bit is, "how did you think of the theme?".

There was a moment during a colonization action (of what game, I can no longer recall - Goa? Navegador? Endeavor?) where my focus on the game elements cracked and fell away, replaced by the thought, "I wonder how ticked off the locals are about this new colony of foreigners. Well, we'll never know, because this game has *entirely abstracted away* the people who already lived there. Damn, that's rude." Maybe I shared the thought, maybe people laughed, and we got back to the game.

It stuck with me, though, because so many Euros have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game which portrayed the opposite point of view - that of being the subject of colonialism, trying to fight it off - could be interesting, and perhaps... highlight? lampoon?... the prevalence of eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.

In retrospect, I could have gone an entirely different route: find a specific colonial-vs-anticolonial struggle to try and model, going down a path that has led to, eg, King of Siam or Volko Ruhnke's COIN series. Instead, my brain flew off down the path of a conflict that never was, but which could stand in for struggles against different colonial powers throughout history.

Like many of my early ideas, this proved trickier than I first anticipated, but worthwhile in the long run.

Initial Design Goals

...and did I hit them?

Once I'd fleshed out the initial idea and started in on design, I had four primary goals branching off from the core-goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that...
1 ...was as thematically evocative as strong 'experience' games like Arkham Horror.
2 ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay.
3 ...and a playtime of roughly 2 hours.
4 ...which wasn't susceptible to the alpha-player problem.

Let's look at each of those: thematically evocative as strong 'experience' games like Arkham Horror.

Making a game involves constant tradeoffs. Any time you add, change, or drop something, you ask yourself: "does this serve elegance?", "does this serve balance?", "does this serve excitement?", "does this serve theme?", etc. When the answers differ, you prioritize, and what you're willing to trade for what-else influences the feel of the game you end up designing.

Historically, my natural tendency has been towards a Euro-ish aesthetic. But this theme cried out to be strongly served, and I wanted to stretch myself as a designer, so I made it an explicit goal to give thematic considerations a more prominent voice in my decision-making - and (once I got to the point of pitching) to make sure I felt that whomever published it was going to do justice to the game's theme in art and components.

How strongly theme comes through in any game is at least somewhat subjective, so whether I succeeded at this goal is something each player will have to judge for themselves. Personally, I'm very happy with where the game ended up.

...with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay.

Because of the tensions discussed above, high priority on "thematic" can sometimes lead to games that aren't especially high on meaningful choice. Play may offer an awesome ride, or result in a very intricate series of thematic things happening, but I like thought in my games: I want my tactics to matter, my strategy to be useful (or, perhaps, flawed), and to have the control to enact meaningful tactical and strategic choices.

Also: there are a *lot* of lighter cooperative games out there. Many are great on meaningful choice, but are fundamentally scoped to be smaller, shorter, more casual games, and I found myself wanting a more of a "gamer's-game" co-op.

On this count, I'm confident I succeeded. There are core tactics and strategies to master, as well as variations and divergences for individual Spirits or against particular Adversaries. There's a great deal of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.

...a playtime of roughly 2 hours.

My target was "long enough to feel really significant, but short enough to fit into a game evening / not need a whole afternoon blocked off".

The play-time of a game is something that's notoriously difficult to specify accurately: length varies with player experience, and often with player count, and some playgroups are just way faster/slower than others. The industry standard seems to be "assume the players know the game" - ie, first plays will tend to run longer than listed. During playtesting, I polled a bunch of groups, and found a (very!) rough clustering near an average:
* 1p: 45 minutes
* 2p: 75 minutes
* 3p: 105 minutes
* 4p: 135 minutes

I was pretty surprised that game-length scaled up roughly linearly with player count, since all players act simultaneously! But once I started paying attention, I realized the difference wasn't in the mechanical play - it was in the discussion. With more players, the "discuss plans" portion of the game became both more engaging (more people to talk with) and longer (more options). Any player is allowed to call a halt to the planning and start resolution, so discussion didn't tend to go uselessly long; even longer games had the feel of "it took a while, but we were engaged the whole time".

(A few convention games did end up with a split between very fast-paced and very slow-paced players, and the fast-paced players didn't feel OK invoking the "done deciding now" rule with strangers at the table - but those were, happily, the rare exception rather than the rule.)

Given those numbers, what to put on the box? "45-135 minutes" isn't actually an especially useful time-range for someone browsing games in a store; it implies a lot of chaos that isn't there. But 105 minutes - the average of 2/3/4-player - is the mean of "90-120 minutes", and "90-120 minutes" also accurately signals the rough weight / complexity-level of the game, so that's what we went with.

I judge this one a reasonable success. On average, it comes in a little faster than I'd originally aimed at, but the game still has a great arc and feels awesome, so I'm satisfied.

...wasn't susceptible to the alpha-player problem.

A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the Alpha Player - where one player (more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a problem with the player (or playgroup), a game's rules can absolutely make the tendency more or less prevalent, and more or less of a problem when it crops up.

The very first iterations of Spirit Island had a rule which limited communication. The players were Spirits of wildly diverse elements, after all, so they weren't allowed to discuss plans in any language shared at the start of play. They could use evocative noises and gestures/pantomime, and language was fine for things like rules questions, mechanics resolution, and "hey, could you grab me a drink?" - just not what you were going to do on your turn.

This destroyed the alpha problem. Players could readily communicate simple concepts like "I'm going to hurt this land bad" or "I'm scared by this cluster of Invaders over here", but the type of specific directive involved in alpha-ing just couldn't be gotten across. And perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule, how it felt thematic and encouraged roleplaying. But... the other playtesters all hated it. For many people playing co-ops, much of the fun is puzzling through a problem together with friends, and excising the alpha-player problem had taken that out along with it.

I took a fallback position: players could discuss however they liked, but couldn't actually show each other the Power Cards they were going to play, and played them face-down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage emergence of alphas, because you wouldn't have the information to be able to plan someone else's turn for them. This worked well, but playing Power Cards face-down meant people had to constantly look at what they'd played, trying to remember details of their Powers to ensure they hadn't made a mistake. It became clear that it was just a bad idea, so I warily changed it to "play face-up" and "you can show people your cards"...

...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way towards discouraging alpha behavior, both because each player has enough to do with their own position that they don't meddle out of boredom, and because - especially in larger games - there's simply enough going on that keeping track of every detail of what every player is doing is too much for one human brain to easily hold. E.g.: by mid-game, each Spirit might be playing 3 Power Cards (from a selection of 5-7) and perhaps triggering an innate power or two. Holding the choices in your head for your 3-4 powers isn't hard. But holding the choices in your head for the 8-16 powers being used by everyone at the table is really hard, and in practice discourages strong alpha behavior. (It also makes solo testing something of a bear. I can run two-spirit games by myself pretty comfortably, but I slow *way* down as soon as I start simulating three players.)

I've seen weak alpha-ing crop up from time to time, but only in the form of specific requests, rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn": an experienced player asks a less experienced player to please use a particular Power this turn, or an experienced player suggests a different target for a Power the less experienced player has chosen. It's barely over the border from "good, healthy cooperation".

So I didn't manage the complete immunity I was shooting for, but did manage strong resistance - albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!

Additional Posts

Here are some later Design Diaries I've done, drilling down into specific areas of the game. I'll keep this list updated with links as I write more:

1. Powers - how Spirits affect the world
2. Adversaries - specific Invaders, and how I make them
3. Setting - where is Spirit Island, anyway?
4. The Island Boards - many iterations of gameplay-affecting geometry
5. Presence and Sacred Sites - changes over the years
6. Fear and Victory - in this game, Fear is a good thing
7. The Dahan (native islanders) - your human neighbors

Potential Future Posts

Here are a few other areas where I might talk about design progression / challenges / history. If I do one, I'll move it to the list above:

* The Invaders, and how they act
* Events
* Blight
* Spirits

I'm also happy to answer general questions about the game - though if you think the answers might be of wider interest, it might be best to post them in the Spirit Island forums.

(If you have a rules question, check out the searchable online FAQ!)
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Tue Sep 22, 2015 3:03 pm
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