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This post is about a game I've invented called Bug, a two-player game on a hexagonal board in which you build shapes that then eat each other. The shapes that survive grow into different, larger shapes until one player runs out of space to grow (and thus wins).
You can find the rules toward the bottom of this post, but first I'll discuss the game's origin. It involves concepts I've not seen connected with game design, so maybe I have something new to say. Here goes:
Perceptual Binding, Identity, and Meaning in a New Sort of Polyomino Game
Bug was birthed from my belief that a class of polyomino games is waiting to be invented. There's no shortage of polyomino games already — here are more than one hundred — for at least two good reasons:
First, due to the variable way they fill space, polyominoes are champs at creating tactics.
Second, our brains handle polyominoes well. One key way we process spatial information is by dividing it into localized chunks and memorizing/operating on the chunks, e.g., Joseki in Go or Hex Templates or words in sentences.
Joseki — a local pattern in Go constituting a balanced position between the players
Polyominoes are particularly easy for us to handle this way, thanks to a phenomenon called perceptual binding. We automatically perceive certain spatial patterns, including polyominoes, as unified objects. When we perceive a pattern as an object, we can more easily remember it, distinguish it from others, and manipulate it in imagination. Try closing your eyes and rotating a polyomino in your mind, then try rotating some random, non-contiguous speckling of cells in your mind. Most people find rotating the speckling harder:
Thanks to perceptual binding, it's easier to mentally rotate the contiguous group of same-color cells (left) than the non-contiguous group (right)
Perceptual binding is a key reason polyominoes feel friendly to many people. Tetris would be harder if it were played with spackle-patterns instead of polyominoes.
Why Are Polyominoes Subject to Perceptual Binding?
The condition allowing the brain to bind a polyomino into a perceptual object is spatial contiguity of color. In life, regions of contiguous color in the visual field have a statistical tendency to be part of the same object, so our brains evolved to assume such regions belong to the same object. (Visual perception is Bayesian! — which is why camouflage is an effective defense.)
An owl and a tree, perceptually bound
Polyominoes are composed of contiguous, like-colored cells, so we see them as objects, in contrast to joseki, Hex templates, and other spatial patterns that appear in games.
That's probably why most polyomino games come with pre-built polyominoes. We perceive polyominoes as objects, so we create polyomino game pieces which ARE objects. Hence Blokus and Tetris.
A Missed Opportunity
Here's where I think the opportunity has been missed. I can imagine a class of games in which players build and modify polyominoes as they go, and the collective interplay of their changing shapes define the terms of a board-spanning geometrical conflict.
Go-Moku (above) and its many descendants (like Renju, Connect Four, Pente, Pentago, and Connect6) are indeed polyomino-building games, but they focus on trying to build one pre-chosen polyomino: a line segment. These games feel strategically limited to me, and considering how big the universe of polyominoes is, tactically limited, too. What if we could create a strategic game in which a wide range of polyominoes matter and interact (and different polyominoes matter depending on context)?
I think that would be swell, not only because the idea itself is cool (according to me, arbiter of cool), but because, thanks to perceptual binding, it offers a path to solving a sticky design problem.
Specified vs. Natural Powers
Consider Chess, Magic: The Gathering, and Go — three hall-of-fame games. Chess and Magic are generally more accessible than Go, but the reason isn't obvious. Go has the simplest rules of the three, after all.
Here's where I think the difference lies: Chess and Magic have rules that specify units of play with differing powers, while Go's rules don't. I'm referring to Chess' piece-powers and Magic's card-powers here. The pieces and cards have specified identities (the rules tell us what they are), and specified meanings (the rules tell us what they do). Because they're explicit, they act like big flashing arrows, pointing players toward tactics and strategy.
Go also has units of play with differing powers, such as the aforementioned joseki or the opening patterns called fuseki, but they're not explicit. These powers aren't in the rules; instead they're a natural property of gameplay. I call these natural powers. All good strategy games have them; they're just heuristics, but I'm calling them natural powers to highlight that their role in gameplay shares a key function with specified powers: They comprise a collection of tools, and figuring out how to use those tools offers a bunch of interacting puzzles that drive gameplay.
However, natural powers don't offer the guidance Chess' piece-powers or Magic's card-powers do because you must discover them before you can use them. You have to train yourself to see them, and after you do, they can be harder to remember because you perceive them as situations rather than things.
Does that mean game designers should always specify some powers? I hope not. Specified powers have their own problems: They add rules, they feel inelegant and often arbitrary (to me), and they tend to make a game feel opaque before you've memorized them.
Contemplating this, I've wondered whether I could create naturalish powers that needn't be specified individually, but which are nonetheless recognizable and thing-ish like specified powers are. Here's where polyominoes come in: Because they're perceptually bound, we see them as distinct things, which could have, with the right rules, distinct meanings.
So my goal is to create a polyomino-building game in which building a polyomino grants you a power particular to that polyomino, but I don't have to spell out the powers individually. I now have several designs that approach this idea from different angles, with varying success. Below I discuss three.
The first, Papagra, sort of embodies the idea, but not really.
The second, Carnivores, is one of my favorite games, but it has specified powers and doesn't meet the objective.
The third, Bug, which I'm presenting for the first time here, seems to succeed.
Papagra was my first polyomino game. The goal is to create pairs of groups of empty spaces with identical shapes – sort of negative polyominoes. (In Papagra the polyominoes are hexagonal, so they're called polyhexes.) The player who constructs the biggest pair first wins.
When you see a polyhex has formed or will form, it gives you a goal and a lens through which to see the rest of the board. The power of a polyhex is it gives you an opportunity to win by making a matching polyhex.
However, groups of empty spaces don't feel like "things" and they aren't as perceptually bound as normal polyhexes, so your brain can't handle them well. That defeats the purpose. Plus the "power" you get from building a polyhex doesn't feel much like one, not in the least because you don't own it and the other player can use it, too. In sum: blah.
After a long polyomino vacation, a notion rekindled my interest. I dreamt of adjacent polyominoes capturing each other. It was simple and intuitive, and it embodied a cool metaphor: The polyominoes would be like an ecosystem of creatures, eating each other and struggling for survival.
So I started building polyomino-capture games and hit on Carnivores, which the abstract games community on BoardGameGeek voted Best Combinatorial Game of 2015. In Carnivores, differently-shaped polyhexes eat each other according to a diagram around the board, called the Circle of Life, which includes all polyhexes size 4 or smaller:
Each polyhex can eat only one other polyhex, as indicated by the arrows in the Circle of Life; if an arrow points from polyhex A to polyhex B, then A can eat B when A and B are adjacent on the board.
Obviously, these powers are specified, but they're not arbitrary. The Carnivores are arranged on the Circle of Life according to how difficult they are to build. If I could say in the rules "Each Carnivore eats the Carnivore that's the next-easiest to build (and the easiest of all eats the hardest)", then the powers would be closer to what I'm looking for — but no one can "see" how hard it is to build a polyhex. It took major ergs just to figure out how to do the "hardness" calculations, which required constructing this nutty diagram:
As specified powers go, Carnivores' are cool: They're naturally ordered, they're a complete set, and the Circle of Life conveys them in a compact, easy-to-reference, pictorial way. Carnivores has twice the specified powers as Chess, but you don't have to look up the rules or puzzle over what they do because you just look and see as you play.
They're about as natural as specified powers get, and Carnivores remains one of my favorite games, but it didn't meet the objective, so I kept thinking.
I thought for two more years. Then one day I got stoned and Bug came to me. It's like Carnivores but with more natural powers: Each polyhex's power is to eat polyhexes of the same shape, so the shape implies the power.
Why didn't I just do this in the first place? Well, if nothing else happens after a polyhex eats an identically-shaped one, you can easily get infinite tit-for-tat eating cycles, including from the first turn when single stones eat each other recursively forever. I didn't know how to fix that in a way that felt right, but eventually I saw the way: After a polyhex eats, it should grow. Growth eliminates cycles and ensures the game will end. Bug fell right into place after that.
It has a chance to be my favorite of all my abstract games. It has the spark, and other features I like:
A natural win condition that doesn't require counting or calculation.
It's fundamentally strategic (you can't win locally), but there are lots of tactics and lots of signposts along the way (like securing an uncapturable shape or forcing your opponent to clear a bunch of your stones at once so that you have the placement freedom to make a strong counterattack).
It's finite (as each game is guaranteed to end).
Game-length is variable, which creates tension and variety.
Ties are impossible, but…
It's hard to prove which side has the theoretical win, and the game seems quite balanced for the two sides.
Thanks to some piece-cycling, you can play interesting games on small boards, but…
It scales well to larger boards as you gain experience.
It doesn't play like other games I know. (Carnivores is closest, but there are big differences and Carnivores itself is fairly unique.)
After much ado but without any further, the rules:
Bug is for two players and is played with white and black stones on any hexagonal tiling. I strongly recommend starting with the board pictured in the images below. (Here's a PDF – it prints on a regular sheet of paper, for full-size Go stones.) Once you've grown skilled, try this larger board.
1) A bug is a group of connected, same-color stones on the board. A single stone is also a bug.
2) The size of a bug is the number of stones it contains.
The board starts empty. Black begins the game by placing one black stone on any empty space. Then, starting with White, the players take turns. Each turn has three steps, taken in order: 1) Place, 2) Eat, 3) Grow
1) Place: You must place one stone of your color on an empty space such that the resulting bug isn't larger than the largest bug on the board (regardless of color) prior to placement. Example:
The placement on the far right is illegal as it would create a size-4 bug, larger than the largest bug on the board (size-3) prior to placement
2) Eat: All your bugs that are adjacent to one or more enemy bugs of the same shape (but not necessarily the same orientation) must eat (capture) those enemy bugs. Return eaten bugs to your opponent. Example:
Black's bug in the lower-left is adjacent to an identically shaped white bug; therefore, the black bug eats the white bug
Note that mirror-image bugs count as the same shape. For example, the black bug eats the white bug here (assuming it's Black's turn, which is the case in all examples here):
3) Grow: Increase the size of each of your bugs that ate by exactly 1 by placing a stone of your color on any empty space adjacent to each such bug. Example:
In this example, the black bug in the lower-left eats the white bug in the lower-right, then grows by 1 stone
If eating would unavoidably force a bug to grow by more than 1 through a merger with another bug of the same color, no eating occurs. Example:
Normally, the size-1 black bug would eat the size-1 white bug adjacent to it, but the black bug cannot grow without merging with another black bug after eating, so instead it doesn't eat
If, after growing, a bug is adjacent to an identically-shaped enemy bug, it must eat the enemy bug (and grow again) if possible, and so on. Example:
In this example, a size-1 black bug eats a size-1 white bug, then grows to size-2, then eats a size-2 white bug, then grows to size-3, all in one turn
End of the Game
The first player who CANNOT place a stone in the placement step WINS. That is, you win if you've filled the ecosystem with so many of your bugs that you can no longer expand.
In a former life I was a neurobiologist. A key lesson I carry from that life is that we don't see reality; we see whatever is evolutionarily useful for us to see. Consequently our "reality" is sculpted and contorted in a thousand ways of which we're mostly unaware.
Perceptual binding is one of those contortions, and knowing about it offers fruitful avenues for thinking about game design, but this is just one example among many. I invite game designers to learn about the quirks of perception and to exploit them to make better games. I'm certain game design would improve if such knowledge was more widely dispersed.
Since this post is about spatial strategy games, I recommend this book about the quirks of visual perception to start — and since our biases aren't limited to spatial vision, I also recommend a study of more general cognitive biases. Here's a good starter list of such biases on Wikipedia. Behavioral economists have discovered a load of valuation and prediction biases waiting to be exploited in economic games.
In any case I hope you got something from this. I'm in love, resolutely, endlessly, pointlessly in love with combinatorial games. I've adored being witness to their quiet renaissance, and it's been the signal thrill of my intellectual life to take part in it. I'm greedy to contribute more. I'd be overjoyed if someone stumbled into this post and it helped them see a little of the beauty I see in these games.
Welcome to the Bamboozle Brothers' designer diary for their latest release Zombie Slam, published by Mercury Games. What terrifying twists and turns did this ghoulish game of quick reaction take before reaching its final, frightening form? Read on, dear gamer...if you dare!
Zombie Slam actually started off as a children's game, if you can believe that! Originally, we called it "Bertolt's Jungle Jam". For over twenty years, I've been performing my own children's show called "The Adventures of Bertolt". When Sen and I started to make games, I thought it would be neat to have a game set in the world of Bertolt that I could sell along with other merchandise at my shows, so we started with a quick reaction game as that mechanism seemed to match my audience and my character.
The brain fart that started it all
We wanted to add something new to this genre as there were already a few notable quick reaction games out when we first started designing "Jungle Jam" about ten years ago. Our twist was that we added audio cues. We wanted to take hand-eye coordination to the next level. Players would have to first hear the clue, process what that meant, locate the correct target visually, then quickly and accurately SLAM the target item! In the case of "Jungle Jam", we were calling out numbers, colors, and types of fruits, with players trying to squash the right things to make delicious jellied preserves!
When we first pitched the game to publishers, we had this grandiose idea that it would come with this big plastic Bertolt-shaped head. Players would press his trademark pith helmet to receive the next request! I distinctly remember our original sales sheet pointing out that this game would be easily transferred to another character or IP! As a proof-of-concept, we had our university roommate, Errol Elumir, make us a simple Flash-based program that would read out lines of random dialogue that formed the requests. We had to retitle the game to "Jam Slam" to avoid confusion with another quick reaction game that had come out around the same time we were pitching this one…
Oddly enough, Jay also had to change the name of his show from "Bertolt the Explorer" to "The Adventures of Bertolt" for similar reasons…
"Jam Slam" was a finalist in the Canadian Game Design Award in 2011. Maybe it was because we included these hilarious hand-shaped swatters we had people use to smack the target cards with? That wasn't enough, however, to get the game signed. While many enjoyed it and several took it for evaluation, the end result was a no. The key piece of feedback we received was that publishers felt that, though the game was good, it was too difficult for the proposed audience. Thus, we were left with a game that worked better for an older audience mixed with a family-friendly theme, suited to a younger audience. It was time to go back to the proverbial drawing board.
While mulling over our collective failure as game designers, Sen took to the forum we use to communicate and keep track of all our ideas and jokingly wrote, after seeing the success of titles like CMON's Zombicide, "Well, why don't we just make the game for adults and make it about zombies?" He was being flippant, but I felt like Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day:
"Pops, you're a genius!"
We busied ourselves converting the once kid-friendly game into an undead-friendly game and, quicker than you can say "Night of the Living Dead", "Jam Slam" became Zombie Slam. The best part of the conversion process is that we came up with new mechanisms due to the thematic switch!
The new, zombie-fied logo
Some of the conversion was simple: the different fruit became different pieces of survival gear; the jam jars you once filled with fruit became backpacks you hauled around with all the stuff you claimed. Easy-peasy. No big deal. Where the magic happened was when we started to let ourselves really play with this theme. What would you really need to do to survive the zombie apocalypse? What might make this world even deadlier than a jungle filled with fruit?
Well, first, we added hazards. At the start of each round, you are dealt out a hazard that you have to resolve by the end of the round. Hazards force you to use up some of your supplies to survive another day. But what if you failed to resolve the hazard? We didn't want player elimination, so we toyed with giving players health points — but that just led to the question of what happens when you eventually run out of health points?
This is yet another example of a lesson we seem to still be learning: Sometimes you just have to do the opposite of what you think you should do. We couldn't seem to design our way out of player elimination in this case, so...what exactly would happen not if, but when, a player died?
One of these players looks less dead than the other...
The key to the game's final design was understanding the goal for players who had now "died". If you were the only human living, then that was pretty simple — you won! But if everyone was a zombie, then there would need to be a way to grade just how zealous a zombie you were in your afterlife.
We developed the concept of human stragglers. You know, like Newt in Aliens? Those characters who are typically plot devices to make the main characters take needless risks and look heroic while doing it? These stragglers would be "attached" to a specific card on the table. If you slammed that card, you would also gain that straggler. As a human player, you would reduce your supply of cards by one for every straggler you had following you — and they persisted from round to round!
Save the stragglers! Or eat them...your choice
As a zombie player, you WANT to slam those cards, absorbing each straggler into your very own zombie horde! The zombie player with the biggest horde at the end of the game wins — but only if all players have become zombies. This worked, and we pushed towards more players becoming zombies by enforcing a simple rule: If you can't have a full backpack (four unique cards) at the end of a round, you turn into a zombie!
Everything was working, but still lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Zombie players were relegated to slamming cards that had stragglers attached to them. Our playtesters wanted to be able to actively turn the human players into zombies! Being good designers, we listened to our playtesters and came up with the idea that when a zombie player makes a backpack, they immediately shout "Zombie Slam!" and give an additional hazard card to a human player of their choice. This turned out to be the secret sauce!
Players now had more control as they could go for points by slamming cards with stragglers or they could go for cards that filled backpacks to try to make life harder for a human player. Everything seemed to be lurching along nicely now!
We paid homage to some of our favorite zombie films
We started pitching the game again and got immediate interest. We eventually signed with Mercury Games because they were committed to making Zombie Slam an app-assisted game, something we knew would be critical for the best possible play experience. To help with this, we suggested Eric Raue who is not only a seasoned app developer, but a fellow member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We had a strong working relationship with Eric and communicated well with him. It was great to be able to have someone programming the app who understands game design and who's played the game as well! Together with Mercury, we brainstormed ways to really utilize the power of the app.
In its original incarnation, there were only twelve lines of dialogue, repeated in different ways. We wanted to make the game world come alive with interesting characters and settings — more cinematic! To do that, we developed four locations for the game — the hospital, the store, the house, and the gas station — which lead to us designing in unique benefits to each location when using the app. The whole world was becoming more and more cohesive with each addition!
We then asked ourselves who the players really were. Now that we had access to an app with visuals, it felt odd to add another character who just barked instructions to the players, especially if that character could never turn into a zombie. After talking it over with Eric, we figured out how to give each player a character within the app, then have only those characters talk during the game if they're still human. This was all well and good, except it meant we were now creating dialogue for six characters instead of one and in four locations instead of none. Multiply these changes by the new play modes, and those paltry twelve lines of dialogue ballooned into over one thousand unique pieces of dialogue!
And to add to the confusion, there was the possibility that all the players could be zombies for a round or two. Who would then be making requests? Certainly not a zombie! Instead, we created a news reporter who takes over the storyline, narrating everything while making the requests.
We also paid homage to one of our favorite animated shows of all time
So while Jay was recording the dialogue in Vancouver, I was in my studio in London, composing the soundtrack and curating the sound effects. Not only is the dialogue for each location different, but the sound effects vary as well. For example, there are sounds of wheelchairs rolling and scalpels clattering in the hospital that you won't hear in the gas station. It's those little atmospheric touches that give players an enhanced experience that only the app can provide!
Eric was working to plug this all into the app while Paola Tuazon was providing the bulk of the art assets. Every day, something new was popping up from one of them or the publishers as we pushed towards the finish line. After that, we playtested the game with the app build before it was pushed to Google Play and the App Store. Add one last minute rule tweak to the game, and we could finally hit print on this one!
All in all, Zombie Slam was an amazing project to work on. We got to do a lot of cool stuff with dialogue and music, we got to work closely with Eric on creating a meaningful app, and we got to pay homage to some of our favorite zombie shows in that app. Jay and I learned a ton about game design and app integration on this one. You could almost say that we got more...braaaaiiiiinnnssssssss!!!
Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
(from Valencia, Spain)
My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
Physics Laws as Game Rules
When I design games, I am always driven by a theme. In fact, when anything catches my interest (book, movie, visit, discussion...), I find myself thinking about what game could be created out of it! Of course, most of the time the idea doesn't go very far, but there are exceptions. My first two games, BASKETmind and Tetrarchia, came out of my two main hobbies, sports and history — and I have science as a third "hobby" (as I'm a nuclear physicist), so...
I have written a recent article for the Game & Puzzle Design journal with the title "Physics Laws as Game Rules" (PDF sample), and this diary will be some kind of summary. As a gamer/designer and physicist, I have always wondered about an apparent contradiction. On one hand, physicists look for simple patterns within complex environments, trying to derive from them laws that are few and simple. On the other hand, game designers try to abstract the events they want to recreate into few and simple rules. Logically, one should expect a lot of board games about physics since the abstraction work has already been done by nature in the form of laws that could be taken almost directly as rules for board games.
So why are (good) board games about physics so rare? How should one proceed in order to make a game from physics laws? Big*Bang was born from my attempt to answer these questions. And if you want to understand the title of this diary, you'll have to keep reading!
Simple Laws But Complex World
The laws that govern a given interaction between two bodies may be simple, but when several kinds of interaction combine, or more than two bodies fall within the interaction range, the interplay between these simple individual "recipes" becomes wonderfully complex.
Take Newton's law of gravitation, for example. A body of mass M attracts other bodies at a distance d inducing an acceleration proportional to M/d^2. This is very simple. Double the mass, double the acceleration; double the distance, quarter the acceleration. However, add other massive bodies, let them all move, and soon things become convoluted. Of course, since the forces are simple and have analytical form, even the most complex trajectories can be calculated using a computer, and thus be implemented in video games — but board games cannot benefit from this assistance.
A good example of a game that tried to use this simple law is Triplanetary. However, even by making it simpler (ignoring the mass dependence and discretizing the distance dependence to either 1 or "infinity"), tracking the movement of the spaceship units required the fiddly use of markers on a laminated map (left):
Even the most simple laws lead to a complex ensemble full of details, and the simulation of all those details should be left to video games. When dealing with those simple laws, board games must make an additional abstraction effort. The challenge for the designer is first pointing out the most characteristic law, then finding a rule that at the same time is simple and intuitive and that lets players feel as if the game pieces actually obey that law. Two good examples are Gauss (center) or Momentum (right). Even if they use plastic pieces and one simple rule, in Gauss players evoke their memories of science classroom with red and blue metal magnets clashing together and spreading away, and in Momentum they feel like they're manipulating a multiple Newton's cradle.
In the end, designing a game (that is fun to play) from a physics law — that translates into a simple rule and leads to gameplay evoking the physics — seems possible!
Gaming the Big Bang
I was looking for a physics case that was fascinating and simple...then I thought about the formation of our universe. No doubt there are simpler cases! However, if one makes the abstraction effort I mentioned above, it can be easily described in broad outline. The main stages of the process are sketched below (from 1 to 6). At some point, a huge explosion we have named "Big Bang" liberated all the energy in our universe, which from then on expanded and saw its temperature decrease to the present 3 K (-270ºC).
The energy from this explosion materialized into equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which then annihilated each other into energy again, following a deadly cycle which could be broken only by a tiny excess of matter. The origin of this slight excess, which is responsible for the matter that we see today and of which we are made, is not fully understood yet. After the first second, the surviving matter had taken the form of protons and neutrons (stage 1). Those two particles began to combine and in the very first minutes formed the lightest nuclei*, mostly Hydrogen and Helium (stage 2), but could go no further.
* An atom's nucleus is formed by a combination of protons (charge +1) and neutrons (charge 0), each element having a characteristic number of protons. The atom consists of its nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons (charge -1). The number of electrons in the cloud equals the number of protons in the nucleus, so that the atom is neutral.
The universe underwent a long and quiet period until electrons were slow enough for them to be captured by those light nuclei, forming the first atoms (stage 3). Then gravity took the lead, and the neutral atoms began to condense into clouds, which further condensed into stars (stage 4). Inside stars, Hydrogen fused again into Helium, and thanks to the strong gravitational fields three Helium nuclei could fuse into Carbon, going beyond the limit reached at the end of stage 2. From Carbon, fusion kept going until the formation of Iron, which can no longer sustain fusion reactions, then stars collapsed under their own gravity and exploded (stage 5).
The extreme violence of these explosions, known as "supernovae", created the environment needed to build up heavier nuclei on top of Iron and up to Uranium, then dispersed them into space. And then back to stage 4: Atoms condensed into clouds and new stars, but now those clouds contained most of the elements, and around these second generation stars there could be rocky planets on which life could develop (stage 6).
This complex process, spanning 14 billion years, can nevertheless be sketched in the six main stages above. What kind of game can be designed out of this? The space and time scales are too vast, the stages too diverse, the interactions governing them too different. I chose to focus on parts of the overall process. Until stage 4, there were only a few well-identified pieces, but a goal for the players had to be found.
A Race to Carbon?
Carbon has a relatively light nucleus, with six protons and six neutrons in its most abundant form, Carbon-12 (C12). If I wanted to design a game about the formation of Carbon, then protons and neutrons should be the natural game pieces. Those pieces appeared at stage 1, formed Hydrogen and Helium at stage 2, then waited until stage 4 to continue forming heavier systems. We can better understand why with the diagram on the right, in which we see all the nuclei that exist up to Carbon-12.
For each combination, the number of protons (red, top line) gives the element name (from 1 to 6: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron and Carbon), and the number of neutrons (blue, bottom line) defines its mass number (protons plus neutrons). For example, Lithium-8 has three protons and five neutrons.
Only some combinations are allowed, and just a few are stable (white cells). The rest are unstable because the equilibrium of "pieces" is too unbalanced, and after a given time they will undergo radioactive decay in search of balance by transforming a proton into a neutron (pink cells on the upper left) or a neutron into a proton (cyan cells on the lower right)*. The color shades correspond to the varying decay times — the darker they are, the shorter they are, with times ranging from millions of years to tenths of a second.
* This relatively simple type of decay, in which a neutron becomes a proton or vice-versa, is known as "beta decay". There are other types of radioactive decay (alpha, gamma, fission...), but they are not relevant for the case considered here.
At the end of stage 2, free neutrons had disappeared and most of the pieces were in the form of the most stable H1 and He4. The reason why the process stalled is displayed by the forbidden symbols in the diagram: none of their binary combinations (He2, Li5, Be8) are allowed. Due to this quirk of physics, Hydrogen and Helium had to wait a billion years until gravity could play a significant role inside stars, enabling the ignition of more complex reactions and, in particular, the one that fuses three He4 directly into one C12.
For the game, I could then use red and blue pieces on a hexagonal grid, and let the players fuse them into stacks following the patterns above. These were some potential game issues:
• Several combinations are unstable, so in addition to the fuse action there should be a decay action in which a proton/neutron in the pink/cyan stacks was replaced by a neutron/proton. It could be a random mechanism (as the real decay) using dice, or a voluntary choice of the players.
• Players should use the diagram above as an aid in their race to Carbon. They could fuse stacks to increase their size, then choose to follow the stable (white) diagonal or either of the two colored regions, then return to the diagonal via decays.
• Players would not be "red" and "blue"; they would need (and share) all the pieces.
• The quirk of physics leading to the triple fusion of He4 into C12 should be a key ingredient. Players could fuse two stacks along empty straight lines, or three adjacent stacks, and of course the result should be a valid known nucleus.
The components and mechanisms seemed clear, the aim of the players not so much. If the winner was the first player forming Carbon-12 and both players shared the same pieces, then the game could stall with players not wanting to do the next-to-last move. No player would want to fuse two He4 nuclei, enabling the opponent to add the third one.
I could instead award points for the formation of each element as an incentive for both players to contribute to the race, but this would require a detailed balance analysis to determine the optimal number of points per element, or I could make the game a cooperative one in which the players solve a puzzle and try to maximize the formation of Carbon stacks...
In any event, the diagram above was too convoluted to make an effective player aid. Even nuclear physicists would need to constantly refer back to the aid to check what can or cannot be done, and I was looking for a game, not homework! Further, the unstable combinations have decay times ranging from tenths of a second to millions of years (Be10), so I should establish a hierarchy. Moreover, from a practical point of view, moving stacks of up to twelve pieces and replacing pieces inside them would be cumbersome.
Even if the initial idea was good, the game boundaries clear, and the number of pieces small, this "Race to Carbon" was far from the simplicity and elegance of Gauss or Momentum. If I wanted to design the Big Bang for effect, I had to escape this frame.
A Race to Helium?
Returning to the timeline sketched above, using protons and neutrons as the game pieces was the best part of the previous idea, and the complexity of the nuclear chart up to Carbon-12 was the worst. So I kept the good idea, but limited it to stages 1 and 2 to create a race to build Helium-4, one of the most stable bricks in the universe and the precursor of Carbon.
The orange (lower left) region of the diagram above shows how simple the nuclear chart becomes; it contains only two game pieces and four composite stacks, with only one of them (H3) unstable. The player aid becomes trivial even for non-scientists: no more than two protons or neutrons per stack, and not only two of them alone. Players should fuse pieces up to He4, and the decay option would be open only for the neutron and H3, with a straightforward hierarchy (H3 decays more slowly).
This was conceptually closer to Gauss or Momentum, with stacks of at most four pieces. However, forming He4 would be relatively easy, so the aim of the game could not be being the first one to do so. Players could instead aim to make the most He4, sharing the red and blue pieces and keeping track of how many they created — but this could again lead to deadlocks as players would be disinclined to create H2 nuclei near existing ones since the opponent could fuse them into a He4 nucleus.
Player vs. Antiplayer!
I had found an appropriate framework for the game, but lacked a mechanism that generated competition and a clear aim for the players, mostly due to the fact that they shared the red and blue pieces. So what about incorporating other ingredients from the physical scenario as game pieces?
Hidden between the Big Bang and stage 1 on the timeline above, there was a huge production of matter and antimatter in almost equal quantities, followed by a huge annihilation of both into light. The matter we see around us today comes from a tiny, still mysterious excess that survived. If I started the game before stage 1, then I could incorporate such ingredients as "antipieces".
Antiparticles have the same properties as their corresponding particles but the opposite charge. For example, antielectrons are positive and antiprotons negative, but those two particles can combine to form an anti-Hydrogen atom, with properties similar to a standard Hydrogen atom, or an antineutron plus an antiproton can form an anti-Hydrogen-2 nucleus.
The diagram on the right shows the mirrored antimatter images of the nuclear chart up to Helium-4. Again, the nuclei shown in the upper right region are classified by the protons (red, top arrow) and neutrons (blue, right arrow), while their antimatter counterparts shown in the bottom left region are classified by their antiprotons (black, bottom arrow) and antineutrons (grey, left arrow).
This solved the problem of sharing the pieces as one player would use red and blue pieces, while their opponent — the "antiplayer" — would use the black and grey ones. Each player now had a clear aim: Build the most He4*, and there was no longer a need to keep track of exact particle counts throughout the game since both He4 were now different.
* Antiparticles are usually noted with a bar on top, but I use the same symbol for both here, for simplicity.
Moreover, a law of physics provided a new ingredient that lead to lots of player interaction: annihilation. The original idea was based on a "quiet" construction of nuclei, but with these new pieces, players could now not only build their own nuclei in parallel, but also annihilate the opponent's! I could even make it more interesting by forcing the players to choose between these two options, leading to an interesting dilemma similar to that found in the game TZAAR: "Shall I make myself stronger or my opponent weaker?"
A Big (*) Bang!
I had finally found a suitable frame for the game (synthesis of Helium), its pieces (protons, neutrons and their antiparticles), mechanisms of play (fusion, annihilation and decay), and some ideas for its goal (such as building the most Helium). I had also introduced player interaction through matter/antimatter annihilation. However, unlike most games that involve capture, such annihilations resulted in the removal of both players' pieces, which had a somewhat self-defeating feel to it and didn't let players strengthen their own pieces or position. But since annihilation transforms each matter/antimatter pair into light, I could instead use this mechanism as a new aim: Produce the most light.
This allowed two paths to victory: a pacifist path that involved building the most Helium, and a bellicose path that involved annihilating matter/antimatter pairs into light. If each player concentrated on one path, however, the game would not be very fun or strategic and would lead to draws. This could be addressed by introducing a scale with which to compare the relative magnitude of each victory condition, but this would complicate matters and make the game confusing for players. Instead, I chose a third condition.
There is another victory condition that was easy for players to understand and that respected the laws of physics. The formation of Helium was followed by the formation of stars, and those were powered by the fusion of Hydrogen. At the endgame, after particles had disappeared through annihilation and others had fused into stacks, the board would look like clusters of nuclei. If we identified the clusters of each player as their stars, an interesting victory condition would be to form the star with the most Hydrogen fuel. Players should therefore fuse particles into Hydrogen, then Helium, and produce light by annihilating pairs, but at the same time keep some Hydrogen "alive" in some of the clusters that appear towards the end. This made the number of victory conditions odd, so ties would be unlikely.
What about the decay of unstable combinations? With respect to the Carbon-12 game idea, I was left with only two of them: each player's neutron and H3. To add more interaction, I could let players force the decay of the opponent's unstable stacks in order to disturb their plans. Since decay here means replacing a neutron with a proton, this option would be available only when protons would start leaving the board through annihilation. Therefore, the players themselves would regulate the decay "clock" (the timing and impact of decays) depending on how much annihilation they chose, making no two games play the same.
The turn sequence would be:
1. Either fuse a pair of your stacks or annihilate a pair stack/antistack.
2. Force a decay, if possible.
As with Gauss or Momentum, the game was abstract in the sense that it focused on simple concepts that evoke laws governing real processes, so was best played on a regular grid. However, it still had a strong theme, which might be lost on players if the board was a sterile grid. I opted for an evocative background image depicting the Cosmic Microwave Background of stage 3 in the timeline above. This image has been obtained with increasing resolution by the satellites COBE (1992), WMAP (2003) and Planck (2013):
The intermediate resolution of WMAP was a good compromise (left). It represents the oldest light in our universe, with darker (slightly cooler) areas corresponding to the concentration of matter due to fluctuations that gravity amplified to form the first galaxies. For the game grid, I chose an ellipsoidal hexagonal one to match the shape of the image. (For a detailed discussion on the shape and size of the grid, see here.) This left space in the corners of the board for simple player aids and the three victory conditions (see the prototype on the right).
I chose an unusual name — Big*Bang — with an asterisk that evokes the first explosion and the subsequent annihilation, and that sets the game apart from the whole series of games using "Big Bang" in their names. The rulebooks (in English, Spanish and French) are available for download at the game page on the nestorgames website. As usual with Néstor, the production of the game has been a very smooth and constructive process! And also as usual, the result is a very compact, light and beautiful edition:
The Link with Physics Laws
I started the diary with a discussion about gaming physics in general. With all the different compromises I have met in order to keep Big*Bang interesting as a game, has the link with physics been lost?
The huge matter-antimatter clash occurred in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and only later did Helium start forming, while in the game both processes occur simultaneously. Furthermore, our universe seems to consist mostly of matter only, while the game has equal amounts of matter and antimatter.
So is the game totally science fiction? Maybe not. We assume that only one of matter or antimatter could survive the initial annihilation, and since we live in a matter world, we assume that only matter did. But what if the rapid expansion that followed the Big Bang pushed antimatter-dominated regions far enough away from matter-dominated ones?
In that case, annihilation would have halted due to the physical separation of both populations, and the universe would also contain antimatter galaxies. However, since the chemistry of antimatter is identical, those galaxies would look exactly like matter ones. Our only chance to spot them would be their collision with a matter galaxy, through the gigantic annihilation flash that would follow. In fact space missions are searching for the characteristic signals of such a clash, or for antinuclei produced in "antistars", but no evidence has been found yet. Leaving this hypothetical matter-antimatter coexistence aside, what about the other physics laws?
The spirit of the primordial nucleosynthesis is captured reasonably well. The first fusion step is H2, the only stack of height 2. By forming H2, players shield against annihilation by the more abundant individual pieces while threatening the formation of the opponent's H2 nearby, and prepare the way to Helium. (On the right you can see a He4 stack surrounded by a neutron, an antiproton and two antineutrons.) Depending on the annihilation rate chosen, neutrons start disappearing sooner or later, adding angst to the race since you may end up with proton-dominated regions that, without neutrons, will be doomed fusion-wise. However, the third victory condition I introduced gives sense to these Hydrogen areas, too, since they represent the future: a first generation of stars that will generate the ingredients of life, followed by the next generations that will live long enough to witness it.
These simplifications allow only the spirit to be captured, but this was the intended goal. Some add-ons could make the physics more explicit, but once a critical balance between complexity, playability, and theme has been met, adding rules should be avoided. One can still propose variants, though, e.g., electric repulsion could be incorporated by allowing the fusion of stacks with protons only if they are adjacent, or the formation of Carbon-12 could be introduced as an automatic victory condition if a player succeeds in linking three Helium-4 stacks.
Big*Bang is by no means an exact simulation of any part of the Big Bang process. However, at the end of the game, players will have followed the key stages that shaped the first minutes of our universe, the physical laws that guided them, and — from the final board position — even imagine the next steps that followed.
This diary started with a question: Why are (good) board games about physics so rare? Closely mimicking physical laws is not enough to make a good game; this is where mere simulations differ from games. For example, even though the pieces in Triplanetary give the impression of moving as real spaceships would, the result is somewhat fiddly in its implementation. Gauss and Momentum, on the other hand, are examples in which the simulation and the game work well; these games evoke souvenirs from a science classroom when played.
The design of Big*Bang illustrates well the process that takes us from the physics to the game. The physics case was too vast, letting us explore the parts of it that exhibit "simple patterns", the possible pieces and rules that would translate them, and the games that they would make. Sometimes the physical process itself is not well-suited for an interesting game, sometimes clear rules lack a competitive and fun dimension. I reached a dead end first with a game about the "Race to Carbon", then another one with a "Race to Helium".
In the end, it was the introduction of antimatter that solved the playability issues — quite unexpectedly, to be honest — to make Big*Bang work well as a game. In this sense, the game design process mimics the scientific method: trying things that mostly lead to dead ends but that sometimes lead to a happy end. Answering our original question, maybe dead ends are more common in games about physics because the laws are what they are. We cannot tweak them beyond reality as we may do with rules from other themes, and sometimes the laws do not lend themselves to make a game work, however they are implemented.
Maybe good games about physics are rare because the laws of physics are not made for interesting gameplay, but for making our world work!
P.S.: You may want to check my other designer diaries, about BASKETmind and Tetrarchia. These three first games complete the trilogy of my hobbies: sports, history and science!
Normally I don't know exactly where my ideas come from, but in this case it's easy to pinpoint: David Grann's book The Lost City of Z. In this book, he retraces (sometimes literally) the steps of the adventurer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett was a seasoned adventurer in his time who was obsessed with finding El Dorado, a mystical city in the Brazilian rainforest that he just called "Z". Contrary to most expeditions in his time, he believed in small teams, so in 1925 he ventured into the "green hell" together with his son Jack and his son's friend Raleigh Rimmel and was never seen again.
Because Fawcett was a well-known figure of his time, his disappearance made major headlines and many expeditions tried to find him, but to no avail. Suffice to say, this is a very captivating story, and Grann's re-telling and re-visiting of the story is superb. It's one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books!
Running an Expedition — The Development of the Mechanisms
Even while reading the book, I thought of creating a game about the expedition. This story is great for a game because the theme is not often used, and it makes for great storytelling as well as potentially interesting and hard decisions. For me, the theme was a re-telling of the expedition, and since there was only one expedition, the logical step was to make the game cooperative.
In my "snippets of loose ideas" (a word doc with short one-sentence game ideas), one entry read "cooperative game with 6 nimmt! - mechanic", and I thought this would be a perfect fit. After all, "quarterbacking" can be a problem in cooperative games, and this mechanism gave me the chance of reducing that aspect somewhat: Everybody would play cards at the same time, then they would be added in numerical order. You can't discuss card play in this phase, so as a result: No quarterbacking!
Then once all the cards are in the row, they would resolve in the right order and there would be decisions to make. At this point, the "leader" could still make all decisions on their own should the group want to avoid the dominant player problem, but this was a decision left up to each group. (I hold the opinion that a cooperative game should offer some direct cooperation among the players, so I didn't want to get rid of this element completely.)
In playtests, though, it became clear that the "all at once" mechanism didn't work as I thought it would. Looking at all the other players' cards was too time-consuming, but without seeing these cards, you would have too little information on which to base your own cardplay, so I changed to the current rule in which all cards are played one after another. But you probably didn't want to play your whole hand (so that you can possibly deal with bad cards), so what do we do about that? If you could discard them, the game would be too easy to win, but if you use all the cards anyway, then playing them one after another doesn't make sense as they would be arranged in numerical order anyway.
In the end, I came up with two distinct card play sessions for each hand. In the first half, you play two cards one by one, then all played cards are arranged in numerical order and their actions resolved. In the second half, you play the other two cards in your hand one by one, but the cards stay in the order that they were played. This worked well.
Laying out a path in the jungle (Photo: Elijah Weerts)
Living an Expedition — The Thematic Elements
The problem with a game like this is that you need to develop the cards before you can even playtest the game; you can't use generic stuff to test out the mechanism first, so I had to think first what I needed. The biggest problem in the jungle is food. Food is surprisingly scarce if you don't know where to find it, so one of the variables would be food. Health would be another one — an obvious choice. A third one was ammunition, something that would allow you to kill big predators, but this would be very limited. (One thing I learned from the book: You can also heat bullets to burn away hookworms that are under the skin.)
Of course you don't advance on the expedition automatically, but only if you encounter a certain symbol that was on roughly one-third of the cards in my prototype and that was nearly always optional with the requirement that you give away food, ammo, or health.
The thematic element was embodied in the cards, which I wanted to represent the dangers of the jungle, so I researched. A lot. All animals and all other things happening in the game can happen in real life, even if some dangers are somewhat exaggerated; a thunderstorm is more dangerous than an anaconda, but, yeah, it's a game, and an anaconda is way cooler.
One important part of the original expedition, both in the book and in real life, are the tribes that inhabit the rainforest. Fawcett somewhat relied on friendly tribes and encountered hostile ones as well. Since this game is set in the real world, the game would be about real people, so I worked hard to not be ignorant: I researched all tribes in the area that Fawcett visited, and they are all in the game depicted with their own names. Thus, you will encounter the Hi´aito´ihi or the Awa, just like Fawcett might have. They all give you choices and will often (but not always) help you, if you give them gifts or help.
In general, I thought of the encounters and dangers and tried to imagine what would or could happen, then translated that into icons. Sometimes I had to include an additional icon or not offer as many choices as I would have liked for balancing reasons or to make the game more interesting, but for most cards I can tell you pretty much what happens there (and it makes me happy when I see that other people can as well).
Leaving Base Camp — Publishing "Fawcett"
I showed "Fawcett", as my prototype was named, to Osprey Games in 2015, and by chance the first person I showed it to had just read a book about Fawcett! He was immediately hooked and Osprey quickly decided to publish it.
I was asked whether I would like a "Tintin-style graphic design", and as a fan of Hergé I said yes. That's how Garen Ewing came on board, and he did a fantastic job! Every graphic I got, I savored and I showed them to every one of my friends who cared. Really, really nice!
I mean, just look at that artwork! (Photo: Scott Silsbe)
I also have to give Osprey credit where credit is due as they came up with the solitaire rules — I just played three hands — and they had the idea for head-to-head play, which we developed together. They put in a lot of balancing and playtesting time, so I felt a little bad for insisting on things like "Poisonous frog" instead of "Venomous frog" or for changing the color of the anaconda way after deadline to better match the real ones.
We changed the setting slightly to make it more interesting for people not familiar with the original expedition. Instead of playing Fawcett himself, you now play a set of adventurers following in his footsteps, retracing The Lost Expedition, as it were. Your goal is to reach El Dorado instead of just resurfacing from the jungle. This is less historic, but it makes for a more motivating theme.
The end result, I'm not too humble to say, is stellar! I really like how this game turned out, and I hope you do, too!
The Beginnings of an Idea
Sometimes mindless boredom is a good thing. In October 2015, I was attending a Protospiel event in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I wasn't planning to go until Saturday since I had to work all day Friday, but after work I decided to stop by and say hi to a few people.
Six hours later I was sitting around with fellow designers Keith Matejka and Ed Marriott, just chatting and half falling asleep. A random blank token was sitting on the table, and I grabbed it and started mindlessly flipping it off the edge of the table, eventually aiming for a cup that was sitting across the table. I remember saying, "You may not realize it, but this will be a great game." I'm sure they thought I was joking. In reality, that flippin' token would consume my thoughts for over a year.
I had a 45-minute drive home that night, so I thought about what the game could be. It had to be more than just flipping a token at a cup. I had started on a game several months earlier that was called "Flip Ships", but that idea never went anywhere. The previous idea had nothing to do with flipping tokens, but I decided this was as good a place to start as any, so this would be the new Flip Ships and I'd scrap the other game. I started with the theme of sci-fi spaceships attacking something. I thought it would be cool to have different levels of ships that could be upgraded or added to your fleet, and you would flip and land on different cards in order to get those upgrades.
The next day at Protospiel, I walked in and grabbed some of the blank components available from Game Crafter, and scribbled ships on discs and cards on which to land. The cards were scattered around the table and said things like "+1 ship", "upgrade a ship", and...I think that's about it. I didn't know what the game was, but I grabbed a few people and asked them to try it out. "Just shoot at that stuff. Let's say the first person to earn all their ships, then land on this tile wins", I said as I threw a tile on the table. I was winging it. All I knew is that I wanted to flip discs at stuff because that was fun.
Normally I wouldn't pull other people into a design so early (before there's even a game), but I was at Protospiel, so what the heck...might as well see whether people think the flipping is fun. I made a few adjustments during the game, including adding a cup to the table since that was fun to shoot at the night before. I didn't know what it was for, but hey, just shoot at that too if you want. That was all the direction I gave, and people started playing. And they had fun. And people started coming over to watch. And they wanted to join in. And that's why this idea consumed my thoughts for so long. Even before it was a game, people were enjoying it. I also knew that this couldn't be just another dexterity game. It needed to be different. Dexterity games aren't normally the types of games I play, so I knew that this had to appeal to non-dexterity game players. It needed to be more than just flicking discs at stuff.
Finding the Game
For the next two months, I thought about this idea constantly. I knew a great game was in there, and I just had to find it — but I couldn't. I built several large contraptions to shoot at, with different areas to land on and land in, but other than the basic fun of flipping the discs, the game was not there. It was frustrating.
We ended up going to northern Wisconsin to visit my wife's family over New Year's weekend at the end of 2015. It's about a four-hour drive, and on the way home I told myself that I had to figure this game out on the drive. It had been bothering me for too long, and I made it my goal to figure it out before I got home — and it worked. I remember the thoughts coming all at once while I was driving: "What if it's like Space Invaders?" "But cooperative?" "You're trying to defend your home planet by flipping discs while waves of ships are attacking you." I couldn't wait to get home and start making cards. My wife probably couldn't wait either because I'm sure I babbled on and on about it for the rest of the drive.
The first version of the game worked surprisingly well. I got too excited and made too many enemy ship powers and speed types, so I had to quickly scale all that back to make it more accessible, but the game was instantly fun and had a great tension.
Okay, so now that we're at day 1 of having an actual game, let's take a quick commercial break so that I can tell you how Flip Ships works in its final form.
As I just said, Flip Ships is sort of a cooperative Space Invaders game that uses the dexterity element of flipping discs at things.
Based on the player count and the difficulty level chosen, you deal out a certain number of cards from the enemy ship deck. These are the ships that will attack you and that you have to destroy. Ten are dealt out to start the game (with five columns of ships in two rows), and behind these cards you set up the mothership. The mothership is a 3D piece that you must also destroy (by landing in it) in order to win. Remember the cup?
On your turn, you take all of your active ships (discs) and flip them one at a time at the enemies or the mothership. Once all players have taken a turn, the enemies that weren't destroyed all move forward based on their speed value. You then refill the back two rows with ships, so you could potentially have up to twenty ships coming at you at once. Once an enemy has moved down past the fourth row, it has attacked your planet and will deal damage based on the attack value on the card. The card is then shuffled back into the deck, so it will cycle through and attack again, forcing you to destroy every enemy ship.
The thing that makes the game more interesting and the cooperation more exciting is that every player ship has a special ability. These are shown on cards randomly dealt out at the beginning of the game, so you always have a different mix of abilities. Some of the enemy cards also have abilities, so there are constant discussions about what the best course of action is. Some ships are slower but deal more damage, some are faster, some shield adjacent cards from attack, some need two hits to destroy, etc. Players make decisions based on the current game state and their special abilities rather than just mindlessly flipping discs.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled designer diary…
Your Regularly Scheduled Designer Diary
For the next few months, I streamlined a few of the card types, but the game remained mostly unchanged for a long time. Overall I was happy with the game, but there was always something nagging at the back of my mind. It wasn't a 10 for me (probably an 8), so I knew that I could do better. I just couldn't figure out how to do that. There wasn't anything that I disliked exactly; it was just a feeling of something being a little off. When I tried to pinpoint things, I could see two main issues: The game lasted a little too long for the type of game it was, and there could be a big imbalance in the number of ships players earned depending on how good they were at the game.
In the 11th hour, it hit me, and that one major change late in development fixed both of my problems. Through the entire life of the game, some of the enemy cards had icons on them, and if you destroyed those enemies, you would earn new ships or upgrades for your personal fleet. The problem with them was two-fold. If in your random assortment of cards in the deck, you got a lot of those upgrade cards, the game would be easy; if you didn't, it would be hard. In addition, if you were good at the game, you would hit those cards and level up faster, making it even easier, while if you were new to the game, you were in big trouble. I had tried fixes for this issue before, but nothing I was happy with, so I had gone back to the standard rules that were at least working, but now I decided that those icons had to go. I didn't have a solution in hand, and I knew it would be a lot of work to change a major component of the game this late, but I knew it had to be done.
I went through a couple of new versions quickly, and they all had their merits, but like the previous rule they didn't feel right despite working fine. When I came up with what ended up being the final rule, I knew immediately that it was the way to go. Now it seems so obvious that I should have had it that way all along. The way it works now is that the players get ships added to their fleet as reinforcements as the team takes damage. Thus, as the enemy ships attack you and do damage, there are triggers along the way that add new ships to your fleet. This balances the game out nicely because if you're doing well with the ships you have, you won't get reinforcements, thus increasing the tension. If you're doing poorly, you'll get extra ships that should help you stay afloat. This system provides the perfect balance of tension, with you feeling like you're on the edge of losing, but always with a chance to pull out the win.
One other change I made late in development was the overall structure of each round. The way it works now is that each player flips all of their ships, then resolves them before the next player takes their turn. For most of the design process, a player would flip one ship at a time, then the next player would flip one ship, and so on. Once all ships were flipped, they were all resolved. This method had some merits, but overall it made the game drag on too long, and it made resolving all of the special abilities at once confusing.
My goal was to have a game that was accessible to non-gamers, and having everything resolve at once would trip up even seasoned gamers. It had to change. Each player flipping and resolving all of their ships keeps the game moving along, and it makes the special abilities fun and interesting, but not overwhelming. With that final change, I was finally completely happy with the game. I made new pieces for my prototype and sketched out how everything would lay out in its final form.
Components and Art
Up until this point, I had tried to keep all of the components minimalist and cheap. The board along the side of the play area was just a few cards, for example. That's why the "moon spaces" are the size of a tarot-sized card. My plan was to have an Onitama-type box, with the box bottom being the mothership.
All of this sounded great in theory, but as I got close to the finish line, I realized that a lot of those things were kind of annoying in actual play. The cards would slide around all the time, which messed up the spacing of everything. I knew it would bump the cost up a bit, but I decided that a puzzle-locking board covering the whole side of the play area was the way to go. This would also allow for one big piece of art and a nicer overall experience for the player. Having Renegade as the publisher, I knew this wouldn't be an issue since they're all about making a game and its components the best they can be.
With the game complete, we could start on art. I usually handle the art direction on my games these days, and from early on I had wanted Kwanchai Moriya to do the art. From the first time I saw his cover for Catacombs, I had been keeping an eye on his work. Looking at his website showed me that he had a very diverse style, and all of those styles were great. Most of the work he had done on board games had a very stylized digital look (like Catacombs or Kodama), but I saw on his website that he also had lots of portraits painted in this funky acrylic style. I thought that would be cool in a game, so I contacted him. I was nervous that the style would maybe be a slight mismatch to the light and fun gameplay of Flip Ships, but I had a picture in my head of what I wanted, and I thought it was worth a shot. I wanted something different, something that jumped off the shelf. Flip Ships was a different kind of game, and I wanted it to look unique, too.
What can I say? Kwanchai nailed it, and then some. I wanted the cover to be a little weird, and I kept telling him that our version of space is funky. His final product is even better than I could have imagined. The graphic design team of Jeanne Torres and Anita Osburn did a great job, too. From the beginning I had been saying that I wanted an ambigram for the logo, but I didn't think anyone would be able to come up with something that was an ambigram, was still legible, and fit the sci-fi theme without detracting from the cover. Again, they nailed it. As always, working with team Renegade has been awesome.
The Final Product
One of the things I love about Flip Ships is that people tell me that they don't like dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That's what I was going for. It crosses that barrier for people. Since it's a cooperative game, it's more about the communication between players, the cheering and groaning based on the shots, and the ever-rising tension that the encroaching enemies bring. I like to think of it as a cooperative game with a dexterity element more than just a cooperative dexterity game. I've even had people tell me that they don't like cooperative games or dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That makes all of the work worth it.
It took a lot of time and attention, but Flip Ships did end up becoming a 10 for me by the time I finished designing it. It is a game that we pull out in any situation, and it's always a hit. Lunch-time gaming, family get-togethers, game store events, conventions — Flip Ships is a game I'm very proud of, and it all started because someone left a random token on a table and I was too tired to play a real game.
Now I need to get going. All this Flip Ships talk gave me an idea…
Juliana & Ariel
Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment is a 60-90 minute cooperative game in which 2-8 players solve puzzles, crack codes, and find hidden clues to thwart a mad scientist's plot to turn them into werewolves.
After playing our first escape room, we were instantly hooked. We loved challenging our brains, immersing ourselves in a narrative, and working cooperatively with our team — but of course, we have always loved at-home game nights, too. We wanted to host an "escape room" at home, but at the time, we could find nothing on the market that would allow us to do that. This was truly surprising as we knew there had to be a lot of crossover between the escape room enthusiast community and tabletop gamers.
Neither of us had ever designed a game before (unless you count "BOOM!", an economics lesson in the guise of a [terrible] game that Juliana made in sixth grade), but we were both incredibly passionate about escape rooms and tabletop games, so we decided to try our hand at combining the two. We had both worked as writers in the film and television industry previously and were eager to bring that sense of narrative and drama to a game.
The game had to have a werewolf theme because we first met playing the game Werewolf, and it is still one of our all-time faves. Plus, we needed a narrative that didn't involve the players physically being locked in a room, but that would instead focus on unlocking something. Being poisoned by a mad scientist who has the antidote locked away made perfect sense.
We set about figuring out how to shove all our favorite things from an escape room into a box. We wanted a wide variety of puzzles that would let different people shine at different moments and include unexpected reveals, fun surprises, and physical interactions.
We wrote down a list of every sort of puzzle we had ever encountered in an escape room as well as ones we just thought would be fun. This was the start of our "puzzle compendium", which we are still adding to today. (It now has hundreds of ideas.) We then went through to pick out which puzzles would fit in the box, serve the theme, and (most importantly) be fun! As much as possible, we strived to have puzzles that would lead to an "A-ha!" moment, that glorious second when the solution clicks in and you solve the puzzle, rather than tasks that you have to plow through to get the answer.
We get frustrated very quickly when we encounter bottlenecks in escape rooms. Everyone standing around watching one person solve something is less than fun, so when we were creating our map for how the game would flow, we made sure that there would always be multiple things that need solving throughout the game. The game starts with a number of puzzles, and as you work through them, you unlock gates that give you access to more puzzles. This generally keeps a good flow to the game where it's not an overwhelming amount of information but there is still enough for everyone to feel involved.
Additionally, we wanted each puzzle's answer to be used at least once if not more in the form of meta puzzles. This would ensure that only groups who had correctly solved the initial puzzles could move on.
After we had mapped out and written everything, we set about creating a prototype. The first one was an Amazon box with papers glued on top. Ariel is proficient in Photoshop, so she created the early designs while Juliana focused on sourcing and costing out the various elements. Ariel's husband even got involved, drilling holes into the tins in his metal shop, literally bleeding for our work!
This game was truly made in playtesting. Our first group to go through took over two hours, even with generous hints along the way. It was WAY too hard! Over the course of playtesting, we watched carefully and worked hard to take out anything that was overly frustrating. We asked ourselves, "When do people stop having fun, and how can we fix that?" Of the hundreds of groups that we have seen, no two groups solve the box in the same way and we continue to be surprised, so we had to learn which problems were outliers and which ones affected the majority of groups.
Additionally, we learned hard lessons like "people don't read". If you just tell them something, they will likely ignore it. If, however, you cue them into it with design and repetition, they are more likely to pay attention. Simple things like having the border on all the puzzle papers match and be distinct from the border on the answer sheet made a big difference.
We tweaked puzzles endlessly, added puzzles, and killed puzzles we adored. (We learned the hard way that us loving a certain kind of puzzle does not mean everyone else loves it, too.) Because of the interwoven nature of the design and the meta-puzzles, making one small change would often reverberate throughout multiple portions of the game, so there was a lot of redesigning.
Massive playtesting also helped us eliminate leaps of logic. Just because something made sense to us and felt well clued, we had to eliminate or change it if it was not making sense to the majority of players.
Preparing for and running a Kickstarter is a job unto itself. We did crazy amounts of research — the blogs of Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe were particularly enlightening — and work before and during the campaign.
Once we came to a point where our playtesters were consistently having an awesome time with the game, we sent it out into the world for reviews. We reached out to reviewers two months before launching so that they would have plenty of time to play and produce a review that could post on day one of our campaign. As first-time creators, we knew we would need the stamp of approval from known personalities in order for our project to succeed. While we'd heard that 3-4 reviews would be sufficient, we ultimately ended up getting sixteen and are grateful for all the audience that brought to our page.
We also focused a ton of attention on PR. We had a budget of $0 for marketing the game, so ads were out of the question. Reaching out to any outlet we could think of that might cover an escape room or a tabletop game, we made sure to personalize every single inquiry and specify exactly why their audience would be excited to learn about our game.
All of our hard work truly paid off when our Kickstarter funded in just fourteen hours. Ultimately, we raised over $135,000 with more than two thousand backers. We had clearly found an idea whose time had come.
After the Kickstarter, we took numerous meetings with toy and game companies. We received several offers and ultimately signed with Mattel. Their games team is so smart, passionate, and all-around awesome that we couldn't be happier to have found a home there — and having manufactured the first three thousand boxes independently, we also couldn't be more thrilled to have them take over so that we can get back to our favorite thing: designing more escape room games!
Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel
It All Starts with an Idea…
We are Martino Chiacchiera and Remo Conzadori, two Italian game designers who met nine years ago on Inventori di Giochi.it, an Italian game designer website created by Paolo Mori. We have both designed various games released from many companies around the world (with many others on the way), and since we live in different cities, we developed this game mostly talking through the PC.
Since the dawning of our collaboration, we have had a habit of throwing ideas at one another via mail and hoping a worthy project would eventually show up. One morning Remo wrote the following message on our chat: "I would modernize online mahjong. It's simple and works well for SdJ "
The idea was to make a game resembling mahjong in which players take turns picking up things from the table, following some constraints imposed by the position of the elements on the board. We both agreed on what the goal of the game was going to be: a simple set collection. We then started brainstorming, and finally Martino came up with this structure, which has remained the same since the beginning.
A shared game board in which you take tiles on the top, after which tiles below become available
…Which Excites and Inspires New Ideas…
The first issue was about how much information players should have. Should all the tiles be face down? And if so, should they show partial information on the back? Or maybe all the tiles should be face up?
A middle ground was the solution. After some testing, we decided that all the tiles should start face down, with each tile being revealed as soon as no other tile on top of it. This eliminated an excess of information (and the risk of analysis paralysis), but still provided enough choices for our target audience (family game). (This rule resembles the way you unlock and reveal new cards in 7 Wonders Duel, which hadn't been released at that time.)
At the same time, in order to inspire us in the development of the rules, we also discussed the setting. The first proposal was an iceberg from which to pick up pieces, perhaps with Inuit and typical Greenland resources, but immediately we opted for a giant ziggurat and a more archaeological theme. In the end, we came up with Atlantis and the plundering of its riches; that's the theme we submitted to White Goblin Games along with our prototype.
From the North Pole to South America, then deep down in the Ocean
…But Ideas Are Just a Multiplier of Execution
This took the longest part of the game development. What do players do with the tiles they take? It was clear to us that they had to combine the tiles with one another to create a reason for the players' choices. The first step was to divide the tiles into shapes and colors that could be grouped into sets to score points.
In order to move quickly, the first prototypes were very ugly!
This division by color and shape suggested that we could add constraints based on the characteristics of the tiles. At first, the colors imposed a limit on the players, with them being forced to take a different color tile from the last one they took. This restriction wasn't much fun, though, and we figured out a solution only after the next steps...
We iterated the game a lot, implementing many different rules. As an example, one day we added this stupid rule: "You cannot look at the tiles you have already taken. If you collect identical tiles, you'll score negative points for them at the end of the game." Suddenly there was a memory aspect and negative scoring for being forgetful. The rule worked fine but wasn't fun and definitely wasn't what we were trying to achieve. We rapidly removed this limitation to experiment with other possibilities.
After spending a lot of time and effort, we came up with the easiest rule ever: "No restrictions at all. Take whatever face-up tile you want." Sometimes less is more!
How do players score points? Somewhere along the line, we tried to use the tiles to form poker sets, and these sets would eventually score points depending on the sets created by the opponents; we tested this and many other variations of this idea. Short story: They didn't work.
In retrospect, the final solution was simple. Players would score points at the end of the game for collecting sets of tiles with the same image — which is a simple and linear goal.
However, each tile has not only a shape (relic), but also a color! Each time you take a tile, its color makes you perform a special effect! Here was the twist we were looking for!
The last part of the development was focused on finding the right special effects, balancing them, and keeping them simple. It's hard to make things smooth, and we put a lot of effort into removing oddities and exceptions.
For an idea of how the game design process works, I'll note that within the first twenty emails and a few chat sessions, we had almost 90% of the game. To fix things and to balance the special effects, we needed another one hundred emails, phone calls, chats, many hours running large groups of playtesting, etc. This is to say that having a good idea is relatively easy, while making it a presentable prototype requires work, commitment, and experience.
The Value of an Idea Lies in How You Use It
The game was completed two months before SPIEL '17; during its development, many publishers had tried the game and were interested in the project. Thus, instead of waiting and presenting the game at the fair, we decided to start submitting the game to a publisher. We had different options and offerings; after some personal evaluations, we decided to contact White Goblin Games first. They responded immediately, and in a few weeks they confirmed they were going to produce the game! This process was faster than usual; the main reason is probably that, to our great pleasure, the game was convincing in its entirety and no major changes or heavy development were required.
We would like to thank Jonny, Jeroen, and their crew at WGG; the illustrator Denis Martynets who did a wonderful job; and all our patient playtesters! We hope you'll enjoy playing Ali Baba!
Calimala is a Euro-style game in which players are members of the guild of merchants in foreign cloth, in Florence, around the 13th century.
The game has a few twists on the classic worker placement genre. The main idea is to have nine main actions in a three-by-three grid, randomly arranged at the beginning of the game. These spaces are connected by "streets", and players take turns placing one of their workers on a street and executing both actions. Since the actions are placed randomly, the possible pairs of actions available change from game to game.
These actions allow players to collect basic materials (wood, bricks and marble); use them to build workshops, ships and trade houses; produce cloth and deliver it to various cities; contribute materials for the construction and decoration of churches; etc.
Another aspect of the game is that workers (discs) are always added and never retrieved: Players have a fixed number of workers (15 with three players, 12 with four, 10 with five), and when placed on an action space, they stack on top of each other. Whenever one disc is placed on a stack, all discs in that stack perform the two actions in order from top to bottom (so extra actions can be triggered in other players' turns).
When the fourth disc is placed on a stack, only the top three discs are activated, while the bottom disc is "promoted" into the city council, triggering a scoring. The city council has 15 seats that are filled in order when workers are promoted (i.e., when stacks grow to more than three discs). Each seat has a scoring tile (assigned randomly at the beginning of the game) that determines which category to score (e.g., most contributions to a given church, most deliveries to a given city). Majority scoring is used for all categories, awarding 3, 2 and 1 victory points to the first, second, and third player respectively.
Where to place your early workers becomes an important decision because if well placed, they will be reactivated by other players two more times.
Seats in the city council also break ties, so when choosing an action space where to place a disc, players have to be careful about which scoring can trigger it and how the balance in the city council will change.
At the beginning of the game, each player receives two scoring cards and secretly picks one that will be revealed at the end of the game and that will score for 5/3/1 points. Each player thus knows of one city or building that will score again at the end (the card they picked), and one that will not score (the card that they discarded).
The game is very tight, and players have to choose what to focus on, especially since with more players it's not really possible to participate in all categories, and these scoring cards add tension, as well as the possibility of bluffing (with people trying to guess other players' scoring cards).
What follows is the story of how I designed this game.
Calimala is my first board game design, although I've been regularly playing board games for more than fifteen years.
When I moved to the UK in 2013, I joined London on Board, a board games club with a few thousand members, with daily meet-ups in various locations around the city. There I met a few game designers and somehow I got the design bug and I started thinking about making a board game of my own.
The basic concept was some variant on the worker placement mechanism in which the available action spaces would change from game to game. The players would then have to come up with a different strategy on each new game.
This is probably the only thing that survived from that inception to the published game.
The idea was to have the action spaces on eight cards in a three-by-three grid (with a hole in the middle). Players would then place a worker between two cards and take both actions. The optimal sequence of actions to achieve the various goals would therefore change from game to game.
The first prototype was just eight handwritten cards, some workers (gray cubes), and a bunch of colored discs.
On your turn, you could either place some cubes on a space between two cards (equal to how many cubes were already there) and take the actions on the cards, or collect all the cubes between two cards. This allowed a continuous flow of play (with no need to collect your workers at the end of a round). The actions on the card would provide discs or convert discs into other discs or into victory points.
It was very boring and uninteresting, but it showed some promise, so one evening I brought it to a Playtest UK meet-up where I played it with a few other designers and where it fell apart very quickly.
After more iterations, I started thinking about a theme and, maybe not too originally, I went for medieval Florence.
The game was still card-based then, with the eight basic cards providing materials like wood and clay or allowing you to hire specialists, along with a set of advanced buildings (more cards) in construction that required those materials.
Players would take actions to contribute materials to the advanced cards, e.g., by taking the "clay" action, I would put a cube of my player color to a clay slot in the building. Once a building was complete, players who contributed to it would score points and the complete building would go into play. (There was some kind of rotation mechanism in which action cards would move in and out, and each new building would enter that rotation.)
This still had several problems, but it's the origin of the buildings in Calimala (like the Cathedral and the other churches).
At this point I took a step back and started studying a bit more in detail the historical period when these buildings were built. There are several Eurogames set in medieval Florence, but none of them really tries to be historically accurate: There were no princes in Florence, and the Medici didn't really trade in spices...
I wondered who built these great churches and why, and I found out about the guild of Calimala.
In the Middle Ages, Florence was a mercantile republic, and the various trades were organized in guilds, whose elder members would take turns ruling the city. The most powerful among these guilds was the guild of Calimala. This was the guild of traders in foreign cloth; during the late middle ages, they were buying rough woolen cloth from all over Europe (England, France, the Flandres, etc.), bringing it back to Florence where they would refine and dye it, then selling it back for a much higher price.
They were producing very high quality cloth, in colors that were not otherwise available in other places. The members of this guild quickly became extremely wealthy, and moving all that gold across Europe and back to Florence was not practical, so they ended up establishing a more permanent presence in the major trading centers where they held their business, keeping the gold there and instead using letters of change to move money, giving birth to the first banks.
Incidentally they also started lending this money to various kings, financing the wars between England and France in that period. (The first bankruptcy happened when the king of England defaulted on his debts.) At home they would then use the money to build palaces and churches and sponsor art works (which would eventually lead to the Renaissance).
The Medici were among the most influential families within the Calimala guild, and within a couple of generations they managed to take full control of the city. (Lorenzo il Magnifico was never formally a prince or a ruler, but with his influence he controlled the majority of the city council.)
Back to the Drawing Board
This research provided some new ideas for elements to add to the game. I decided to focus on the cloth production and the trade network.
I started working on a proper board, with streets connecting thirteen different action spaces, each street with three spots for workers. I didn't come up with the idea of triggering previous players when stacking discs until quite late in the game development; players didn't even need discs in different colors at the time as each street had three slots and by placing in the second or third slot, players would get a better action. More specifically, placing the second or third disc you would do some actions two or three times, while some other actions would be more cost effective.
This allowed for doing more stuff with fewer discs. As the game proceeded, actions became more powerful so that four players with just twelve rounds could be able to complete buildings and fulfill cloth demands from cities.
I had one more building material (stone) and various actions that eventually went away. Each player had an artist meeple, for example, that would move around the city, with an action to move the artist and another action to make an artwork (with a certain number of slots for artwork in each neighborhood of the city).
A "recruiter" action would let you hire an employee (i.e., a card that could be used once at any time matching one of the twelve other basic actions), while a "prestige" action would let you draw a bonus card for endgame scoring.
The scoring was different at the time: Points were awarded right away when delivering a cube to a slot, and extra points were awarded on completions or at the end of the game.
Needless to say, all this was very complicated and playtests revealed many issues, especially with the random placement of action tiles. It was sometimes extremely tedious to do even simple things (collect one marble, then move the artist somewhere with a free slot, finally take the artwork action, etc.). Also, having an artist meeple on the board in addition to the actual workers confused players.
I needed to streamline and simplify; I cut the number of actions down to nine (on a three-by-three grid), and various actions went in and out until I settled on the final ones.
I also simplified the scoring, using majority scoring everywhere. (When an area was completed, points were awarded to the players who contributed the most.) Even artworks were gone, although they eventually came back at a later stage; I instead kept the "recruiter" action that provided an action card to play at any time.
Majority scoring is tricky to get right. Two important design decisions are about when to trigger the scoring and how to handle ties. Some games do scoring at the end of specific turns, but that didn't really fit with the game. I wanted the scoring to happen in a more flexible way because depending on how the action tiles are set up at the beginning of play, some areas might fill up faster than others.
Another important decision is about how to handle ties (more on this later).
I also had another issue: Having fewer action spaces meant fewer slots available to place discs, so I had to revisit the idea of having at most three workers per pair of actions. Instead of having a fixed number of slots, I introduced the idea of placing workers in a stack; in order to keep the stack from growing too much, when the fourth disc was placed on a stack, the bottom disc was removed.
Initially I placed that disc as a "statue" in one of the four quarters of the board (to commemorate the career of the worker who just retired). Each quarter of the board would then trigger the scoring for one category: port cities, trade cities, buildings, and most artwork. Each category would score at most four times per game.
Another concept introduced around this time was that of triggering other players' actions when placing discs. In the initial iterations, when players placed their second or third disc on a slot, they would carry out both actions two or three times in a row. (This helped in maintaining a high number of total actions per game so that there would be enough to make progress on all fronts.) This had a drawback, though, as lots of things could change between one player's turn and their next turn (e.g., in a four-player game, the other three players towards the end of the game could take a total of 18 actions).
That's when I had the idea to invert the flow; now when a player placed a disc on a stack, each disc is activated in order from top to bottom and the owner of each disc performs the actions. The total number of actions per space doesn't change. What's more, the first player to place a disc on a spot will now benefit from three pairs of actions, spread over time. This greatly improved the flow of the game, and players were engaged on everyone's turn.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest!
Something that came up with more playtests was that players tried to place their discs so that other players could benefit less from their moves, e.g., playing a build action when the owner of the previous discs didn't have enough building materials to benefit from it.
My first attempt to compensate for that was to introduce a "Feld" track, that is, a track used to break ties in scoring; whenever a player couldn't perform an action, they would advance on that track. This maybe overcompensated as players then tried to advance on that track by setting themselves up to not be able to take actions.
With more tweaks and lots of playtesting, I fixed a few problems at once:
I removed the recruiter action; instead players would gain an action card whenever their worker was not able to perform their action. (So that the total number of actions per player didn't change, the action card would let them do another action at any other time.)
I replaced the recruiter action with the "artwork" action (and the "stone" resource with "marble") and added extra slots for artwork in the buildings.
Then I introduced the city council. Now when the fourth disc is added to a slot, the eldest worker (at the bottom of the stack) is promoted to the city council and triggers a scoring. (Scoring tiles are randomly placed during setup in the city council.) In case of a tie, the city council decides the winner (the player with most seats). All this tied together very nicely and made thematic sense.
Playtesting was extremely useful, and every week I would come back home with a new problem and a deadline to solve it before the next playtest session. Slowly but surely, a few more tweaks were introduced over time, such as the white discs which when placed perform each action twice, but are not triggered again later and the scoring cards (which add some more uncertainty, provide a longer term goal during the game, and allow a player to keep contributing to areas that already scored, which was sometime an issue in the last rounds).
By the end of mid-2015, I was quite happy with the game: It played smoothly and within 75 minutes, even with five players. (The total number of discs doesn't change much between player counts: between 45 and 50.)
The game had undergone several playtest sessions, and I was now focusing on writing the rules, including going through a few "blind playtests" (where players learn the game from the rules and play without me, while I watch in silence and take notes). After a few iterations, the rules were clear enough.
In October 2015, almost by chance, I heard about the Hippodice competition when another designer from my playtest group mentioned it in conversation.
I checked online, and I thought that it could be a good way to do some actual blind playtests: Hippodice is a board game club in Germany, and every year they organize a competition for new designers where they play some prototypes for a few months and at the end, in the summer, they provide feedback to the authors.
So I applied (that was just a couple of days before the deadline) and sent the rules, and after a few weeks they asked for a prototype.
The winner is decided by a jury made mostly by German publishers, and every year one or two games among the finalists get usually published. I didn't really think I had a chance, and I was mostly interested in the feedback from the players, so when in March 2016 I got a quick message from a German email address telling me that my game won the competition, I thought it was some kind of joke from one of my fellow designers, moreso because it said that six publishers were interested and they couldn't agree on who should take my prototype, so they asked if I had a preference.
In the following days, a few publishers contacted me directly, and only then was I assured that this was not an elaborate prank. I quickly made a couple of prototypes and mailed them.
Eventually I signed a publishing contract with ADC Blackfire; Uli Blennemann (their main developer, who is also owner of Spielworxx) was very excited about the game and eager to publish it in time for SPIEL '17. Harald Lieske worked on the art, Uli kept me in the loop during the development, and I was able to provide input and feedback.
The game was well received at SPIEL. ADC Blackfire had a large booth with several tables, and Calimala was played constantly on at least six tables at a time during the whole fair. I had the chance to play it a few times with various people, and it was a lot of fun!
R. Eric Reuss
[Editor's note: Designer R. Eric Reuss submitted this designer diary prior to Gen Con 50, but given the shortness of supply at the time, I decided to hold off on publishing it until the game would be available again. Greater Than Games' Mara Johannes-Graham tells me that "Spirit Island is slated to be back in stock late November/early December", so for those still interested in learning more about the game, here you go! —WEM]
Spirit Island is a fully cooperative game in which you play spirits of nature who are driving off the invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan — the first humans to arrive, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well — but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental powers in order to prevail. It's a complex, strategic co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play.
Turns are simultaneous: All spirits grow, extending their reach and abilities, then you play power cards that will (eventually) affect the island. Fast powers resolve, then the invaders act, then slow powers resolve. Players lose if the island is overrun with blight, if a spirit is completely destroyed, or after twelve turns. At first, winning requires obliterating every last invader — which is extremely hard — but the more you terrify them, the easier victory becomes.
Creating Spirit Island has been a long road — over five years! I'll tell the story of its conception first, with a quick sketch of the arc it went through, then drill down into some individual areas of design.
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 which 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. 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 Eurogames have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game that portrayed the opposite point of view — that of being the subject of colonialism and trying to fight it off — could be interesting, and perhaps...highlight? lampoon?...the prevalence of Eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.
In retrospect, I could have taken an entirely different route: Find a specific colonial vs. anti-colonial struggle to try to model, going down a path that has led to, e.g., King of Siam and 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.
By the time I'd fleshed out the initial idea, I had four primary goals branching off from the core goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that:
• ...was as thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror,
• ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay,
• ...and a playtime of roughly two hours,
• ...that wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking.
I'll revisit these goals later on.
Initial Design, a.k.a. Before Parenthood
Initial non-modular board concept
I knew I wanted the spirits to feel extremely different from each other, but without needing a huge set of customized rules for each one, so my core mechanical underpinnings had to support a wide variety of thematic elements, strategies, and styles-of-play. Daunting! But the enthusiasm of Ted Vessenes, a friend and fellow game designer, got me rolling. (Ted has been an incredible help with development throughout.) I brainstormed pages worth of "how could a spirit of nature, myth or legend act against humans it didn't want hanging around?", and where I saw frequently-repeated commonalities, I grouped them as areas under which to build pillars of mechanical support. The most-repeated concept was some variation of "hit them in the face", thus damage came to be.
I blasted through early versions which nobody else ever saw and put together a prototype to bring to a local con. Its reception was much, much better than I'd expected, given how rough the game was, and that it omitted several bits that I didn't want to introduce until the core-systems bedrock they'd be built upoon had settled down. There weren't even individual spirits yet; starting uniqueness was simulated by giving each player two random cards from the minor power deck.
I iterated rapidly through June and brought my prototype to Origins 2012. Christopher Badell of Greater Than Games happened to wander through the UnPub area where I'd set up and was super-enthusiastic about Spirit Island's potential; he said he hoped I found a good publisher for it, whether that proved to be >G or some other company. I took that as a good sign and came home feeling great!
But at that point, Spirit Island had to wait as my wife and I had our first child.
The Slow Years
Being a parent is awesome, but takes a lot of time and energy, particularly at first. We're fortunate enough to have family nearby, which got us back to having occasional free time + energy more quickly than some of our friends with kids, but even so, my pace of development slowed way down. While this was occasionally frustrating, in hindsight I think the metaphorical slow-cooker was good for the game: It made time for gradual revelations about core structures that might not have developed if I'd been blitzing along at speed.
I brought Spirit Island to pitch at Origins 2013 and did indeed end up signing with Greater Than Games. We began weekly development calls the following January, and in October 2014 unleashed a horde of >G's playtesters on it...because my wife and I were expecting our second child in January 2015! Those three months were intense and produced many worthwhile changes, and I handed off a set of notionally-final files to >G shortly after the New Year. (It was unclear when they'd Kickstart the game, and whether I'd be able to be involved.)
Then I took another hiatus to welcome another tiny human into the world.
Version 3 of the game board
By July 2015, I again had a bit of time and energy, and I slowly started to address the feedback that had built up over the prior six months. Greater Than Games ran a Kickstarter in September, which went well. Most stretch goals were already developed and simply needed economies of scale to include, but one — a third adversary for the core game — was genuinely new. October through December 2015 again turned into rapid-iteration testing, both designing the new adversary and handling a bunch of updates to spirits and power cards based on a more thorough understanding of the game.
I handed off actual-final files at the end of 2015, and aside from an insane frenzy of proofing in Aug.-Nov. 2016 and some eProofing look-overs in March 2017, that was it for me.
Those Design Goals...
How did they pan out?
...as 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 whoever 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 it 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 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 huge amount of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.
...a playtime of roughly two 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 playing 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", i.e., 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 okay 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? Having "45-135 minutes" isn't 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 games — 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, the game comes in slightly 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 an alpha-player/quarterbacking
A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the alpha player, that is, the one player (who is more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) who tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a difficulty 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 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, resolution of mechanisms, and "Hey, could you grab me a drink?" — just not what you were going to do on your turn.
This rule destroyed the alpha effect. 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. Perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule for 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 whatever they liked, but couldn't show each other the power cards they were going to play, and they played these cards face down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage the 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 this was a bad idea, so I warily changed the rule to "you can show people your cards" and "play them face up"...
...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way toward 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. By mid-game, for example, each spirit might be playing three 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. (This 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 rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn", it comes only in the form of specific requests, e.g., 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 some resistance, albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!
Now to cover some individual areas of design, with these sections being taken or condensed from individual entries in my "Musings and Retrospectives" blog on BGG. You'll find many more such areas covered there.
Powers (original post)
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 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 they're triggered only on turns that you've played certain combinations of elements on your power cards (those things running down the left-hand side).
A prototype minor power card
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" ( that is, lose forever) a power you already know.
The core concept of power cards has existed from the beginning of the design. Innate powers — and the elements themselves — were conceived of alongside them, but absent from the 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:
The first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like eight phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to six, which went something like:
1. Buffs to other spirits
2. Defense powers
3. First invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty thing to invaders
5. Do another sort of nasty thing to invaders
6. Second invader action
By the time I got the design in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was relevant only in the second half of the game. (The invader deck had two 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 two-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 would have been 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 as making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)
A prototype major power card
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, 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 four water, I know it can't be hit without playing four cards. (Modulo any elements on the spirit's presence track and a few co-op effects.)
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 additional 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, making things un-fun.
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 accommodate this, with "+50" and "+100" spots.
Someone at a local testing meet-up suggested lowering the granularity on all energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant as 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 three (then lowering them all by one 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, eases the need 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.
The first versions of major powers didn't grant elements, and flatly required certain elements to play at all. Both these things proved un-fun and were replaced by "if you have certain elements, the power does more", which worked about a hundred times better.
The cost for gaining a major power shifted many 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 you already had came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something that permanently removed power cards from circulation, partly because every once in a while, someone got a minor power draw in which all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances), and partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of powers in the late game, especially 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?")
A prototype spirit panel with innate power at lower right
For a long time, spirits had three unique powers and three standard starting powers. Two of the standard powers added presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a sacred site) in different ways, and 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 standard 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 mechanism for reclaiming used power cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called "growth", i.e., 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 six months for the major side-effects of this change to shake 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 one/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 gained a new power card only when they reclaimed all of their spent power cards (which cost some 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 among spirits. Many still kept one growth option with the two of them together, and 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 spirits could now have other options for gaining power cards, and some spirits separated doing so from reclaiming entirely.
Adversaries (original post)
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 learning game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have maybe a 50-50 shot 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.)
English everywhere (image: Erkki Lepre)
Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (U.S., 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 six 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 build only 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 build only 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.
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, so 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 set-up. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play since 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, while 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, so 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", then 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, and 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 set-up". 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 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 since 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 mechanisms 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...)
The Dahan (original post)
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
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, while also wanting to ensure that it wasn't a caricature of "island primitives" or "noble savages". 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, e.g., 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 since 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 (and never in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly two hundred pieces of art, 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 fetishized 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:
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.
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.
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.
4. It shouldn't sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
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.
6. It shouldn't be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a prominent regional location.
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 eight 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 whether this 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"
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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"
• Thematically, this would be a completely different game, not Spirit Island!
• 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.
• Many of the mechanisms spirits use don't work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: presence, energy, elements, powers, growth, and more.
• Mechanisms 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 don'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.
• 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
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, e.g., 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 did only one 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.
Not precisely a Dahan mechanism 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 the game's 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 (i.e., not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go as 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.
Thieves entered the dark while unaware city guards were waiting impatiently for the end of their duty, not knowing how many things would change for the Empire by the time this night was done.
Hello, my name is Sławek Stępień, and I am the designer of Age of Thieves, an adventure and strategy board game released by Galakta in 2016. Following the game's success, 2017 will see the first expansion called Masters of Disguise along with base games published in German, French, and Spanish. However, you can learn a lot about such things from the official materials; in this short article, I wish to focus on my work on the expansion itself.
The expansion was being developed even before the base game was ready. A very thankful subject, flexible mechanisms, and many possibilities to create interesting solutions resulted in new ideas flooding my head every time I playtested Age of Thieves. More often than not, the question was not how to enrich the gameplay or how to expand a given element of the game, but rather what to choose from the things we already had so that the game would not be overburdened, but more exciting. Everyone who knew the base game well was tempted to add lots of elements to it, so the fact that some people were able to say "Stop!" and keep things in balance turned out to be a true blessing. Certain ideas returned to the drawer to wait for their time, while others were chosen to be highlighted.
The actual work on the first expansion started in January 2017, about two months after the game's premiere. The game's warm welcome and very positive reviews motivated me and the Galakta development team to get to work immediately. The first thing to be decided was the main theme of the expansion. We exchanged tons of ideas, but finally settled with one: If the game is about thieves, stealing, burglaries and such, we should focus even more and expand upon this. A few weeks later, the basics of the Masters of Disguise expansion were set. This way we could return to the streets of Hadria to prove once again that no doors are locked and no treasure safe.
We also wished players to experience even more deeply the vibrant, yet somewhat dark setting of Age of Thieves. Hadria is so much more than the magnificent Emperors' Jewel and the city guard patrolling the streets. Hadria is full of people from various walks of life: law enforcers, women both pious and base, wealthy nobles and stinking poor, artisans and merchants, but most of all, masters of thievery with their unique personalities and motivations.
Therefore, Masters of Disguise introduces two new characters: Julien, Disturbed Actor, who is able to adjust his strategy to every situation, and Delilah, Humble Scavenger, a woman who can make a strange contraption even from rubbish. These characters could not be more different; the actor feels right at home improvising on the stage, while for the scavenger, garbage dumps and gutters offer a plethora of opportunities. When Julien basks in glory of his talent, Delilah is shunned and avoided, left to her cursed traps and mechanisms. Both hale from completely different worlds, yet they are connected to the city where everyone can find their place as long as they are capable and resourceful.
Another new concept we focused on was the burglary. You can enrich the game by using two new game modes: Palace and City Burglaries. With two specialized decks and dedicated burglary mechanisms, every session will be even more strategic and engaging. Additionally, all cards are full of flavor text, making your Hadria adventure both epic and fun.
A third thing worth mentioning here is the Sewers Deck. No longer will you easily "teleport" yourself around the city every time you enter the sewers. From now on, you must be willing to take certain risks as the Undercity is dangerous even for the most cunning of thieves.
Finally, we chose to expand upon the main idea of the game, to change the goal and the gameplay itself, thus enabling players to experience Age of Thieves on a completely new level. In order to do this, we created the first scenario, an alternative game mode giving players a chance to focus on different kinds of tasks — tasks perhaps not as spectacular as stealing the Emperors' Jewel, but no less rewarding and exciting. I am sure that after the Night of Broken Shutters scenario featured in Masters of Disguise that utilizes completely new game components, such as Burglary Markers, many other scenarios will follow, so that every thief will get a chance to use their abilities in many creative ways. Experienced players in particular should think of scenarios as new fields on which to test their wits and knowledge of the game.
To sum up, I just can't wait to lay my hands on the final box of Masters of Disguise. I hope that those past months full of brainstorms and testing will result in a product that will appease your rogue appetites as much as it does mine.
[Editor's note: My apologies to Sławek for not publishing this designer diary prior to SPIEL '17; I ran out of time before I ran out of things to do. —WEM]
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