For only the second time in my game design history — Last Will was the first — theme was the starting point for the design process for my latest game: Praga Caput Regni in this case, with the title being Latin for "Prague, capital of the Kingdom".
So how did the city of Prague become the focal point of this new game? Well, the seeds of it were probably sown when, as a schoolboy, I'd go on many walks in this beautiful and fascinating city with my best friend at that time. I was fortunate enough to be born in this exceptional city, and from a young age I wanted to find out as much as I could not just about its famous historical sights, but also its lesser known ones.
It was clear to me even then as a youngster that, especially when viewing the panoramas of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I absorbed its history on my regular walks through its streets and that had a great impact on me in my formative years, and those walks gave me many unforgettable memories and experiences that I look back on fondly even to this day.Prague's famous Charles Bridge and its gaming equivalent
In the intervening years since my childhood, inevitably the ups and downs of family and working life got in the way of my ability to explore the city as often as I did in my youth. However, my love of the city did not diminish, and I continued to learn more about the history of Prague from a wide variety of books that I read on the subject.
League of Six, a game set in 1430 about a group of wealthy Lusatian towns that banded together to defend their commercial interests and the stability of this region, which is situated in the present day on the borders of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic). While I often considered Czech history as a potential source of theme for my games over the years, the city of Prague (and its special history) has had to wait its turn.
After having finished designing Underwater Cities and its expansion, I was casting around for themes for my next game. I had an urge to design a historically themed game — my favorite type of game — and it suddenly occurred to me that it might finally be the right time to fulfill one of my dreams, that is to say, to design a strategic Eurogame based around my hometown: the royal city of Prague.
From that point on, some thoughts started rattling around my head about designing a game in which the main goal was to build up the medieval city of Prague during the period of the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378 CE), king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. This was a time when the city flourished and a great many of the iconic sights of today's Prague were constructed. I was intent on including as many of those real historical sights and buildings as I could in the game, places such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the Charles University to name a few, all of which you can still see today of course.The Hunger Wall and its gaming equivalent
The next step in the design process was trying to find a way to incorporate as many of those historical buildings and events from the Charles IV period into the game as possible through appropriate mechanisms. It was inevitable that I would have to make compromises as it wasn't possible to include everything!
As I write this, we are at the point where the game is very nearly finished and requires only minor tweaks to balance and the odd minor mechanism. However, even now, when I think of some lesser known historical sight in the city I think to myself, "Why didn't I include that square on the main board?" or "Why didn't I include this church?" But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn't include them all. While I did have some initial concerns about connecting this theme with more complex game mechanisms in a smooth and streamlined way, I also wanted to do the city justice by how it was represented in the game. In the end, I think I managed to fit a good selection of the most interesting parts of Prague into the game.
This historical era, one of the most famous periods in the history of both Prague and the Czech kingdom, provided a lot of rich design possibilities right from the outset. In 1346, the young and able Charles IV of the Luxembourg dynasty ascended to the throne and became King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. One of the first steps he took was to order the building of the New Town (Nové Město) next to the Old Town (Staré Město). During this period, he also initiated the construction of the famous Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and many of the buildings connected to the University of Prague, which was founded in 1348 and would eventually become known as the Charles University of Prague, one of the oldest universities in Europe. By the end of his reign, Prague had become one of the largest and most important cities in Europe.Prototype components
The main goal of the game is, obviously, building. At the start of the design process, I tried to incorporate these historical elements into the fabric of the game. You can see this clearly on the game board where the Old Town and the New Town are separated by the King's Road (Královská Cesta). Players also help construct the City Walls, as well as the Hunger Wall (which was built during a famine in the 1360s and is reputed to have been ordered by Charles IV as a way of providing jobs and food to the affected citizens and their families), in addition to the aforementioned Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral.
One of the main mechanisms of the game involves players selecting an action to carry out in order to help with the construction of these locations. They do this by gaining resources and upgrading those actions. When I modeled out possible turns in my head, I tried to interconnect the mechanisms as much as possible through this core action-selection mechanism. My main aim when designing this central mechanism was to encourage players to not select the same action repeatedly so that they would have to combine different action choices to make their overall strategy succeed. Although the game's mechanisms seem very logically connected to me now, I found the mental exercise of keeping tabs of the possible permutations of players' actions to be one the most demanding challenges I have ever experienced while designing games.
I like using dice in my games a lot, and they were the main component of the central mechanism in the first versions of the game. Players would roll three dice to choose their actions and the accompanying bonus actions. However, after testing this at home with my family I realized that this was not the best choice of mechanism to be at the center of this game. I tried several ways to adjust the dice mechanism so that it not only worked but was fun, yet I just wasn't happy with it; the dice were too random to base strategic decisions on.
This led to me having a new experience as a game designer. In my previous games, I've started by determining the main mechanism, then building other mechanisms around it. I sometimes had to adjust the central mechanism a bit, but generally it stayed fundamentally similar to how I first envisaged it. Realizing that my central mechanism didn't work as I wanted it to was something new that I had to deal with. I decided to keep the secondary mechanisms, but come up with a completely different core mechanism.
In the end, I decided to use a mechanism I had come up with years ago in which tiles with two actions on them are inserted into a central wheel. There are also bonuses on the wheel itself so that you get to take the bonus when you select an action tile. From the action tile itself, you choose one of the two actions indicated on it.The first version of the action crane
I refined this mechanism to work in the context of this specific game, and it eventually turned out to be the most suitable central mechanism for Praga. From a design point of view, I thankfully managed to find a way around the initial design challenge of having to completely change the central mechanism without having to majorly change the secondary mechanisms.
I felt good about the change of the central mechanism at this point, but it still needed some refining. I reduced the number of possible main actions to seven and experimented with them on the wheel. I came up with different bonus actions for each slot on the wheel connected to the secondary mechanisms of the game. This led to players having to choose from a veritable smorgasbord of actions, each of which provided different bonuses depending on its location on the wheel.
Also, the bonuses on the wheel, which thematically became the wheel of a builder's crane, get increasingly more advantageous as they travel round. In more detail, when the tiles start out on the wheel, a player has to pay more resources to get the more frequently used action tiles that end up back at the start of the wheel more often, but as the action tiles move round the wheel, the bonuses to take them get better until a player eventually decides they are just too good to pass up. At this point, I was really happy with how this core mechanism worked.Final design of the action crane
The next thing I had to deal with was reducing the amount of time it took to take a turn. I didn't want it to be too long. I tried reducing it by simplifying the main actions and the complexity of the bonus actions. Initially the variety of bonus actions was too wide, which led to analysis paralysis and slowed the game down.
Following discussion with playtesters, I decided to get rid of the main action that allowed players to move on the cathedral or wall tracks and turn that into a bonus action you get when constructing certain wall tiles, thereby reducing the number of main actions to six. This turned out to be the final number of actions in the game. These discussions also led to the decision to simplify how it was possible to get an additional movement on the cathedral and wall tracks — by spending two white windows — which sped up the flow of the game considerably.
Numerous playtest games helped to balance the design. Through those tests, it became clear that it was necessary to strengthen the "upgrade actions" action. (I settled upon a bonus of advancing on the University track to provide additional motivation to do this action.) The production tracks also needed strengthening as there were other ways to gain resources without actually moving on these tracks, so I made the benefits of going up this track more enticing and together with the large endgame scoring bonuses possible at the end of them, this turned the "production" strategy into a viable one.
One of the things I'm really pleased about with Praga is that the number of players playing the game doesn't affect the flow of the game too much. Apart from the starting set-up, there was little need to adjust the game according to the number of players.Graphic development of houses
There are a LOT of hex tiles in this game, too, and balancing these to ensure that none of them were too powerful was a demanding part of the design process.
The increasing popularity of solo modes in games (especially in this time of COVID-19) was a motivating factor for me to include this in the game as well. I carried out a lot of testing during lockdown periods at home, so I played solo a lot, which helped me hone the game and this particular mode. This didn't replace playing games with playtesters and getting their feedback, but it was definitely a useful supplement to that process in these difficult times. I have noticed recently that solo players tend to prefer modes in which they have a "dummy" opponent. However, I still tried to make the simulated opponent as realistic as possible and less of a dummy! The rules for this version of the solo game will be published through our website at the same time as the game.
In the end, I'm very happy with how Praga Caput Regni has turned out. In my opinion, it is the most complex game I have ever created, and I believe it is a worthy successor to Underwater Cities.
P.S. Thanks to Mike Poole for the language corrections.Old Town Hall with the inscription "PRAGA CAPUT REGNI"
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Archive for Vladimir Suchy
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19 Sep 2019
Underwater Cities, I was gratified by the players' positive reaction to the game, which was the first product of our new little game company, Delicious Games.
Seeing the positive reception and reading players' various opinions soon inspired me to create an expansion that would respond to fans' thoughts on the game and bring new possibilities. Because Underwater Cities is already a complex game with a long playing time, I avoided a sprawling expansion that would make the game more complex and longer. Instead, the expansion — Underwater Cities: New Discoveries — is made of several independent modules that add a variety of aspects to the game, such as greater variability, asymmetric starting conditions, and more interaction.
Some aspects of the expansion tie into ideas I had during the playtesting of the original game. I had left these out because they would make the game more complex and longer, such as the race to connect to particular metropolises or the asymmetric assistant powers, two ideas that we had tried in some of our earlier playtests.
Fifty new cards have been added to spice up the game for players who have already played it a lot. I designed them to be usable in all variants of the expansion and in the base game. None of the cards are dependent on a particular module as I didn't want players to have to add or remove cards when they added or subtracted the different modules. Some cards are designed to make certain actions more attractive. For example, there are cards that interact with the always-available action slot and cards that make laboratories stronger.
New cards can be found in every deck, including the special cards and the three-credit special cards deck. Some of these special cards were inspired by thoughts from Underwater Cities fan Henrik Larsson.
Assistants and Asymmetric Start
As I have already mentioned, the expansion gives players the chance to have different assistants. First, we tested various assistants with different actions. This led to the idea that every assistant would also have a second ability.
I combined the idea of strengthening the assistants with the idea of more-individualized starting conditions in which players start with some resources and structures. Players can now choose their starting conditions from a hand of set-up cards. This variant — getting more during set-up — makes it possible to shorten the game by one round without diminishing the interesting decisions. And it does not really prolong the time you spend choosing assistants and starting cards at the beginning of the game.
I added ten green metropolises as an interactive element, replacing the randomness of drawing blue metropolises in the base game. In this variant, blue metropolises are not placed on the player board. Instead, blue and green metropolises are placed by the game board, and players choose their metropolis when they connect to it.
The positive reception this received during playtesting gave me the idea of using green metropolises on new player boards. These were designed with the idea that every board would be dramatically different and would require a different style of play. The new boards have a partially altered network structure and especially different starting metropolises, as shown below. On top of that, every player gets to choose metropolises to place on their boards.
Some players were asking for new brown metropolises. These turned out to be troublesome to develop because nearly every game element is already scored by a special card. Adding similar scoring mechanisms to brown metropolises would give a random advantage to players who received a metropolis matching one of the available special cards, so in the end the tested brown metropolis was not added.Prototype, with the final version being a three-layer game board
The idea here was to add more interactive elements to the game. By building on certain areas of their player boards, players make discoveries, which they can add to the museum. Essentially, it's a race to build on certain spaces of your board. It's similar to the original "government contracts" idea — build something faster than the other players — although that was much more open-ended than a race to build on specific sites on your board. The module adds more strategy to your choices of where to build.
The original idea was based on an area-control mechanism in the museum, but that didn't work as well, so I replaced it with a race mechanism, giving higher bonuses to players who make a certain discovery earlier.Test and final version of the Museum•••
shared my thoughts on Eurogames and game design, saying that I develop the mechanisms first, and the theme grows as I explore the mechanisms during development — but Monster Baby Rescue! was quite different.
First came the theme. Inspired by playing with my daughters, I decided to make a family game that also had the potential to work as a filler for players who like more challenging games. The original idea was a game about caring for household pets, and that was what I worked with during development. In the prototype, it was rescue dogs and rescue cats, with players finding stray pets they must care for. They clean them up and buy them toys and beds. That version of the game is where I started using the time track mechanism and created the majority of the cards that allow one to care for pets, bathe them, and make them happy.
Gameplay is quick and simple. (The decisions aren't simple, but the gameplay is.) The player chooses a tile from a row of tiles that cost various amounts of time. Tiles slide in to fill the empty slot, thus becoming cheaper, and a new tile is dealt to the most expensive slot. The player pays for the chosen tile by advancing a certain number of spaces on the time track. The player farthest behind has used up the least time so far, and thus is the next one to play.
The chosen tiles are scored at the end of the game according to multiple criteria, while during the game, players can compete to fulfill various tasks — and because the tasks differ in each game, the relative values of the tiles will also differ in each game.Time track: final prototype and earlier prototype
There weren't any major changes after the first prototype. After the initial testing, I adjusted the costs, which were initially 1-2-3, when players told me that the cheapest cards were too advantageous. I replaced this with 2-3-4 so that the ratio between cheap cards and medium-cost cards was 2:3 instead of 1:2. There weren't any other substantial changes. I adjusted the scoring system and made it variable from game to game.
Because every player could have a different pet, it seemed logical that they would have different abilities or different goals — but when we tried it out, completing individual goals did not lead to interesting situations or interesting strategies. Instead, it just added more components and rules without improving gameplay.
Before deciding to publish this as a Delicious Games title, we decided to re-theme the game. Recently, there have been several cat-themed games, so we decided to use a fantasy theme, with the idea that various fantastical creatures have suddenly appeared in our world and the players need to take care of the babies.Prototype and final prototype
During the course of changing the theme and making the graphics, something occurred that I don't recall happening in any of my other games: I adjusted some mechanisms based on the game's new look.
The pet toys — represented by ball icons — were changed to diamonds (based on the assumption that dragons and other fantasy beasts like diamonds). This led to the idea of enlivening the appearance of the diamonds by representing them as a component instead of a tile. This allowed us to use a new scoring mechanism, adding diamonds to a tile to unlock its points (because the baby monsters like to decorate their playgrounds and sleeping places).
The game board was designed to hold the tiles in rows, which led to the idea that it made sense to award points for completed rows.Final prototype of the game board
Underwater Cities: New Discoveries and Monster Baby Rescue! will debut at SPIEL '19, and Rio Grande Games has licensed both titles for release.
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15 Oct 2018
March 2018 interview, Kuba Šotola opened by asking Katka from Delicious Games and me about the theme of our upcoming release, Underwater Cities. The question started me thinking about theme vs. mechanisms in game design and about what I focus on first. I've come to realize that it really depends on the game — and sometimes they both come first!
The mechanisms are the essence of a Eurogame. As a player, that's what I'm looking for — innovative mechanisms. The theme is less important. For example, when I'm playing my favorite game, Castles of Burgundy, I know I'm building something in Burgundy, but that's about it. Of course I also appreciate games like Amun-Re or Terraforming Mars with mechanisms that nicely tie in with their strong themes.
Even though I play games mostly for their mechanisms, as a designer, I often develop theme and mechanisms simultaneously.
Shipyard. I started with the action-selection mechanism — the idea that some actions would be chosen frequently, but you could get paid for choosing actions no one else had used recently. As soon as I had that mechanism outlined, I decided on the theme of shipbuilding, then each individual action was designed around that.
One action gets you smokestacks or sails for moving your ship. (I liked the idea of setting the game in that slice of history when both sailing ships and steamships were viable.) Another action gets you a canal for your shakedown cruise. Another action gets you crew. Everything, except the core mechanism, was designed around that theme.
20th Century. I had this idea for an auction game with two different methods of payment, and I knew I wanted to make a game about ecological principles — about the tradeoffs we have made between economic and ecological prosperity. I ended up with a game that has multiple auctions in which you pay with the science or money your economy produces, but you also might have to "pay" by taking on garbage or pollution. The theme worked really well with the mechanism that interested me.
Theme can inspire game design, but you have to be sure it doesn't tie your hands. During development, you might discover that you need to alter a mechanism to make the game better. It's hard to make that change if it goes against the theme. For example, in a historical setting, it could be difficult to explain why the farmer should collect taxes from the nobility, even when you know that mechanically the game needs that rule.
Of course, some themes are more flexible than others. In a fantasy setting, you can find a way to justify anything.
Last Will. You've inherited a nice sum of money from your rich uncle. Whoever can spend it the fastest will get a huge fortune. Some people play the game just for that experience.
The same theme is in the movie Brewster's Millions, which I didn't see until I read the Last Will reviews that mentioned it. I didn't get the theme from the movie. I was actually trying to make an economy-building game in reverse. The idea of a game in which you try to get rid of your resources goes hand-in-hand with the theme of Last Will — and once I had that solid theme, I could build all the mechanisms around it.
Last Will started out as a pure card game, by the way. The worker placement mechanisms came in later.
Pulsar 2849 started out as a historical game about noble families in a period of coup d'état.
The playtesters' response wasn't as positive as I would have liked, but they agreed that the dice-drafting mechanism was good, so I revised the design. This time the game was set in the Early Middle Ages in Great Britain. The prototype required a lot of material, and I discovered that it would probably be too expensive to produce, so I revised the game again.
The third revision was still built around the idea of choosing stronger or weaker dice and receiving balancing compensation. Most of the supporting mechanisms were inherited from previous versions, but I added a traveling component that inspired my revised theme. Now the game was about English merchants visiting villages.
These revisions took about five years, and finally I had a game good enough to license to Czech Games Edition. They liked it, but their playtesters weren't keen on the medieval setting.
So we made some changes. England became a huge star cluster, the merchants became interstellar energy corporations, and those villages off the beaten path became pulsars. Sören Meding gave the game beautiful futuristic artwork, and we were suddenly in the year 2849.
And it works! Those mechanisms didn't care if they were in medieval England or a 29th Century star cluster, but I don't think the theme feels "pasted on". You know you're building something in Burgundy — I mean, in space.Testing of Underwater Cities
Underwater Cities is another game I've been working on for a long time. Like Last Will, the game is based on a design idea — worker placement where the available actions are always changing. I played around with lots of mechanisms inspired by this idea, and finally I settled on one in which the actions don't change, but you have the ability to augment them with cards, so an action that might be somewhat weak could become really good if you combine it with the right card from your hand.
For most of the game's development, the cards were the workers, and I was thinking of it as a "card placement" game.
Once I had the core mechanism, I looked for a theme to build around. I liked the idea of building cities under the sea — you don't see a lot of games like that — and that theme led to all the domes and tunnels and kelp farms that you need to support an underwater economy.
I ended up with 220 cards, each unique, each related to the theme of settlement on the wet frontier. Milan Vavroň's artwork has brought the theme to life, and we're coming out with it at SPIEL '18.
(Diary translated by Jason A. Holt)
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