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Designer Diary: There and Not Back Again — The Lost Expedition to the City of Z

Peer Sylvester
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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!

Peer Sylvester

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Sat Dec 2, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Wir Sind Das Volk! or, The Long and Winding Road for German Unification

Peer Sylvester
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In 2007 I read an article about North Korea and thought how interesting it would be to design a war game without war: Two separate countries going their own way, and while not directly attacking each other, they would be engaged in a battle over which one is more successful, richer, happier — a no-war-wargame, so to speak. But it's difficult to reconstruct the history of North Korea because not much is known of it.

Then I thought of my own country, Germany, which was separated for more than four decades. This history of two Germanys fascinated me for several reasons: I grew up in the 1980s, and as a student I never felt East Germany was part of "my" country, the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a., West Germany). I knew that it used to be part of Germany. I knew of the border, of the wall, and of the end of WW2 that started it all, but I never felt any connection to it, so the Unification came not only as a surprise but also as a revelation. It went so fast and the transition was without violence and (nearly) without spite. I still choke up a bit when I recall the events of 1989.

I believe that the combination of all these elements became the inspiration for this game.

0%

I first called the game "BRD vs. DDR". It was clear to me that I would use a card-driven approach similar to Paths of Glory. I like the idea that you have to chose between using an event and using a number value for a standard action. To make sure the events happen roughly in the right order, I divided the game into four decades with each decade consisting of two rounds.

Here began two issues that are central to the game: First was choosing the events. This was quickly solved by a thorough research on the history of the GDR. The second issue was a structural one: I did not want the players to each have their own deck and hold the cards because players would not have a chance of pre-empting an upcoming event. For this reason, I decided that players would have only two cards in hand to ensure an element of surprise; the rest would be open. Thus, players take turns either choosing an open card or playing one from their hand. The round ends once all the open cards are gone. In this way, there is an element of pacing because it takes longer to finish a round when a player makes use of a card from his hand rather than take one that is open. It also forces players to ask themselves: Do I take an event that helps me, or do I remove one that helps my opponent?

Now that I had the mechanisms of card-drawing sorted out, the next step was to think about the variables or the things that can be changed with the cards. The obvious one was unrest. Too much unrest is not good. It didn't actually do much in the early prototypes, but now you get an early loss if you have too much of it. In the later stages, you are blocked from making investments in an area with unrest.

The second issue was the economy. For the economic system, I used a mechanism from an old game of mine: You build factories. They have the value of 1. If you connect two factories with a bit of infrastructure, both go up in value, so it's much better to have a network of factories than just single ones. Through the growth of factories, you can raise the standard of living in the area — and if your neighbor has a lower standard of living than you, then he experiences unrest. It is a way to fight your opponent without weapons but with luxuries. You make use of how contented your people are to fight against your opponent.

There is a catch, though: If the gap in the standard of living within your own country gets too wide, you experience unrest, too.

The last two things I added were prestige — how your country is perceived by the rest of the world, which is something that can be affected only by events — and "police power", something only the GDR uses, a way for the GDR to remove unrest markers by using the secret police and drumhead trials. The West has more trouble removing unrest because it is a state with human rights, freedom of speech, etc. However, they (should) gain unrest much more slowly as well.

80%

Apart from some smaller problems, the early prototypes were working quite well. I did take a short break as Twilight Struggle had recently come out and I wanted to make sure my game was different enough to continue, but I was overall happy with the design.

However, Richard Sivél, who eventually became a co-author of the finished game, remarked on how the game continued to be quite abstract, and he was right: The winner was always determined by the first player who fell behind in one of the many tracks, the one whose economy/unrest/prestige became much worse than the other player's. It was all relative: There was no good economy, as long as the other player's was better; there was also no critical unrest, as long as the other player was still slightly worse at keeping his citizens happy. There was an awful lot of counting as well. And in the 1980s, the events were such that the GDR's economy would always collapse, no matter how well it did before.

In other words, the design was a somewhat good game, but not a truthful simulation. Richard then put forward some suggestions, and we started working on the game together.


The Elusive Last 5%

I was working on this game on and off for perhaps four years before Richard started helping me. Since then three more years have passed, but we didn't work on it the whole time straight through — new ideas kept emerging between working on this game and working on our day jobs — but still, it was the longest and most intense phase of working on a single game in my life.

We introduced a new system to simulate the different economies of the East and West. Better yet, we tried out a lot of alternatives for the Eastern economy before settling on the one we have now. In the current game, the Eastern player has to get his hands on Western currencies by using events. If he doesn't, his factories slowly lose value, which may cause him to lose his standard of living. We also introduced "socialists" — people who want Socialism to succeed and help against unrest — although they are very limited. I don't want to get into all the details, but while the basic variables and the core gameplay are still there, all these changes allowed Wir sind das Volk! to reflect a proper simulation.

The Last 5%

This leaves us with playtesting of which we've done a lot — and I mean A LOT. See, the thing is that in King of Siam, a rule change did not affect the balance much. Here, a small change could tip the scale dramatically; a change in the basic cost or a change in the order of certain end-of-decade-events turned the tides.

We also had to be conscious that in the event of the East winning, was it because of better play or is the game unbalanced? Or was it the luck of certain cards showing up? We joked how every time Richard won, he would claim the game is balanced and every time I won he would claim my side had an advantage. It took us quite some time to finally declare the game balanced, but that being said, we notice that absolute beginners tend to lose more with the Western side. Perhaps it requires more advanced planning to balance building up a stable country AND causing unrest in the East via events. But with more experience, both sides win and lose about the same.

Finished

The game is finished, and we are both very, very happy with it. It's the most complex and the most thematic game I've ever designed, and I poured more work into it than any other prototype I have so far. Luckily it wasn't for naught. I still enjoy playing Wir sind das Volk! and I still discover new things. (Once I nearly won by an alternative "Sudden Death", which we both thought was just a hypothetical possibility.) I can't wait to finally hold a proper copy in my hand!

Peer Sylvester

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Fri Sep 26, 2014 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Have Painting, Will Design Taschkent

Peer Sylvester
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The Challenge

In 2011 Spielmaterial.de, a retailer of boardgame tokens (or better THE retailer of boardgame tokens), launched its second boardgame design competition. The goal was to design a game using these pieces:

-----• Glass tokens in three colors
-----• Five discs in various colors
-----• Wooden cubes in the same colors
-----• A die
-----• The "runner" token from Candamir in all the player colors

I wanted to participate but there was a tiny problem: The pieces didn't spark any inspiration as they were too universal – which was somewhat funny as I didn't participate in the previous competition because the pieces were from Giganten and I didn't want to design a game about oil, so they were not universal enough. Anyway, I got my pieces and put them on my desk.

As chance would have it, a friend of mine rented a house outside of Berlin and invited my family and me over for a visit. In that house hangs a painting of a scene from central Asia that shows a caravan with camels on the botton and several areas with huts. I was immediately struck by how close this painting came to an actual boardgame map: There was topology, there was an "action track" (the caravan), there was a theme! I asked a friend to copy the painting for me (picture below) and decided that I would use this painting as the basis for my game! If the pieces are fixed and the game map is fixed, it will be a challenge to make a game out of it!

Well, the theme was soon established: A caravan in central Asia? The silk road! A theme that I always wanted to make a game about anyway. The main trading post between the caravans travelling on the silk road was Taschkent (which today lies in Uzbekistan). I did some research on the topic and used some of it later (for the good cards and IIRC for some of the action cards that you can purchas).

The Game

The basics were established pretty quickly:

-----• The caravan should be used as an action track: You have two actions each turn, one using the upper board, the other using the caravan (with the runner). The caravan gives you stuff, mainly the goods you trade. (It was fitting that some camels and the cart had the same color as the glass tokens.)

-----• The upper board gives you trading options, i.e. the huts. Here you sell the goods. For that you need to place merchants (i.e. the cubes) and sell goods to the huts. Each hut will take only one good of each color and you receive more money if there is less of your good sold in that region already. Your disc is your own hut that you can place to sell goods there.

-----• The cost of moving along the caravan and for placing merchants depends on the number of players already there.

-----• The die should be used in a way so that everyone is affected the same. (That was my idea from the beginning, the only thing I established before seeing the painting-board-thingy.) Now the die is used to determine the end of a round: All players take their actions twice around the table. Whether there will be another round of actions depends on the die, with at most two additional rounds. Afterwards everyone who has placed a merchant can sell goods.

The board of my prototype, based on a painting, which pretty much looked like this, minus the icons

The Problems

After one game against myself, I nearly gave up because the main mechanism didn't work – but I had a good idea of how to tweak the prices and add aditional options and suddenly everything worked out fine. Another problem was that I didn't use the relative position of the regions, i.e. how they relate to each other. I used a graphic element in the painting to introduce trade routes which you can place between regions, allowing you to use a merchant in one region to sell in another (which can be useful if the neighboring region is empty and cheap to place merchants in).

Or so I thought. In the first test game with real players it was quickly determined that a) the game worked but b) the endgame was boring and the huts quickly fill up.

So I used the to-this-point-useless clown in the painting as an opportunity to place new (neutral) huts on the board. I also introduced probably the most important concept: You don't just get money, but can also choose to buy cards. In the end you need sets of cards to score points. I always like games that make you choose between doing something for victory (i.e. the cards) or doing something for money so that you can get better later.

Here I also added one of my favorite rules from other games: The player with the least amount of money loses automatically. Now, you have trickier decisions between trading for money and trading for cards, especially in the final round.

The following test game went very, very well. The only criticism was that one player didn't like this auto-lose rule (and joked that I might lose the competition because of it). So I started a small poll in the forums on Spielbox: Do players generally like or generally dislike a rule like that? In the end, most were in favor (about two-thirds) if the players have control over this auto-lose condition (which they do). I kept it.

The published game board

The Competition

After the usual tweaking and proofreading and what-have-you, I submitted the game to the competition. The review time was extended because they had so many applicants, but after a couple of months Harald Mücke (the owner of Spielmaterial) sent me an email saying that I was something like a runner-up (so I didn't win) but he did want to publish the game in 2012 under his own Mücke Spiele label. Would that be okay with me, or did I want to try another publisher first? I have a soft spot for small publishers, so we made a contract. I asked for a good graphic artist and to my joy Harald hired Klemens Franz, who did a superb job and even helped me with testing and tweaking the two-player variant. His style closely resembled that of the original, but at the same time he increased the "usability" – which is important because the options are many.

Sorry for that, but...

Let me close by saying that Taschkent is a fun game. (Of course I'm saying that! I'm the author! Pffft!) But there is more than meets the eye in the first rounds; the options of the trade routes and the neutral huts are usually discovered later in the game, so if you play a round in Essen and think placing the merchants is all there is – think again! It's not...

Regards,
Peer Sylvester

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Designer Diary: The Founding of Singapore // Game Preview

Peer Sylvester
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Some people might not like long introductions, so let's start right away. Singapore was founded on three principles:

-----1. Merchants received land from the British goverment for free, but they had to develop those lots – which cost them money and saved money for Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. In game terms: The player with the fewest points distributes the lots for all players. That's a nice catch-up mechanism rooted in theme. I can't say no to that!

-----2. If you need money, go to the Triad, which was akin to the Mafia or the Yakuza. They do bad things, but they might help you. In game terms: Origally I planned that you get loans from the Triad, but I quickly abandoned the idea. Now some buildings are illegal and these buildings offer actions that you can't refuse, like getting or trading opium or stealing money.

-----3. The third principle originally was a different idea for a different game. Singapore materialized only when I had the idea to fuse the two ideas together. It's a simple idea: A building either provides very basic things or allows you to change X into Y and Z. You (usually) get more, but you have to change first. This idea was loosely insprired by a print-and-play game called Factories.

I have to admit that for someone who loves to design games, I don't have much time to spend designing games, so I usually work in a long "theoretical phase" in which I try to think through as many elements as possible in advance before creating a prototype.

Singapore was different. After having set out the three principles I thought of only three more minor details: Instead of income, you receive money whenever you reach a certain number of victory points (VPs); when you use another player's building, he receives a VP (I later learned that this was apparently inspired by Caylus, which I haven't played in a very long time); and whenever you need money, you must trade in VPs.

Then I just designed the buildings, creating a bucketful at a time, and playtested against myself to see what was useful and what wasn't. After only a few turns, it became apparent which buildings needed amending and which were good. It helped that beforehand I had thought out the basic goods – money, VPs, bricks, textiles, tea and opium – and placed a value on the latter four: Brick and textile are worth the same; tea is pricier but offers more reward; opium lets you take special actions that are not possible with the rest, but is illegal.

Now what I still needed was a system that would allow players to participate in illegal activities, while rising up from time to time to punish them. Doing illegal things should be risky, but not too risky or else nobody would do it. At the same time, taking illegal actions shouldn't be too easy or else there is no tension. Plus I don't like mechanisms that require special rules but are used only once in a game. (I'm looking at you, dice in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects!) I came up with a bag: Every time you do something illegal, you draw a chip. If the chip is black, you place it in front of you. If the chip is blue, the player with the largest sum of black chips and opium cubes must pay for all of them. Thus, the more illegal activities you do, the riskier your situation gets. One black chip or opium cube is no problem; you're unlikely to get caught and even if you are, you won't have to pay much. Playing the kingpin, however, can cost you a significant amount of money – or even worse victory points, if you happen to be short on cash.

In addition to not liking special one-shot rules, I wanted to avoid worker placement because at the time I did not like most of them (except Stone Age), because they often felt a bit like work, and because I was terrible at them. Yeah, that was probably the kicker. In the end, I adopted a worker-run-around mechanism, with one "worker" running up to three spaces and using up to three buildings. Three is a magic number because in my book it's the best compromise between having enough options and having too many options, which bogs down the game.

Buildings from my notebook, with arrows indicating new lots that can be occupied. Sorry, I don't have any prototype here for pictures.

That was where the game stood after about five games against myself. Now, if you like to read stories about failure and scrapping a game system and how difficult it is to get things working, you have to look elsewhere. I have rarely designed a game that went so smoothly from the start. Not perfect, mind you, as some buildings needed to change and others needed to be added (especially buildings that do more than just change goods). Also, I had to figure out the right ratio between black and blue chips in the bag and solve all of the other details (prices, turn order, etc.), but the game as a whole worked from the start.

Funny thing – one of my friends posted a positive description of the prototype on his blog and a few days later I recieved an email from White Goblin Games, wanting to playtest the game. I had to decline, as it was not ready...

But of course when it was finished, WGG was the first place I sent the game and they quickly decided to publish it, for which I'm quite happy becuase it's nice to work with them.

Regards,
Peer

P.S. Okay, I did find one old and ugly picture of a part of the prototype. Go nuts:


•••

Game preview, by W. Eric Martin

Peer has laid out most of the game, but let's fill in details so that you have a better idea of how to play. Your goal in Singapore is to end the game with more points than anyone else, and the game ends when you don't have enough buildings in the deck to lay out the required number (player count plus one) at the start of a round.

Players start the game with one worker, lot markers, and £5. The six land tiles are laid out in some arrangement around the starting tile, which features four buildings, four adjacent lots costing £0, and the shore. (Think of the starting tile as the post that Stamford Raffles established at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.) Each land tile has six lots, with each lot costing £1, £2 or £4.

Players separate the buildings into three numbered piles, shuffle each pile, then stack them so that certain buildings come out first, followed by other buildings, and so on. Before the start of regular rounds, each player builds one building next to the starting tile or another building built earlier, paying any lot cost, if required. All of the starting tiles are connected by streets, and each time a player places a building on the board, he places one street to connect it to an existing building. A player can purchase any number of additional streets on his turn, with each street costing £1.

Each round, the player with the fewest points reveals buildings from the piles, then gives each player (including himself) ownership of one free lot that is adjacent to an existing building. Then this player, followed in turn clockwise by other players, takes his turn: He chooses one of the buildings on display, pays for the lot assigned to him by that round's starting player, places the building and its street, then moves his worker up to three spaces, staying on the streets and using 0-3 of the buildings to which the worker travels that turn. (The last player in the round can choose to spend £1 to purchase the face-up building tile on the deck instead of the two on display.)

Starting tile (lower right of the grid) and three of the six land tiles a couple of turns into the game

As Peer explained above, these buildings give you resources or allow you to exchange resources, VPs and money for other such items. Sometimes you must trade specific types of goods, sometimes identical goods, and sometimes anything. Some buildings allow exchanges in either direction (any four resources for £6 or vice versa), while others are one-way transactions (exchange three identical resources and £5 for 12 VPs).

Each round you must put a building into play, even if you're forced to sell VPs for money (1 VP gets you £2) to cover the lot cost. You're not forced to take actions with your worker (or workers, should you take the building action that gives you a second fieldhand), but if you take no actions, you're not really playing the game, are you?

Roughly one-third of the buildings are black market locations that give you opium, give you money, allow for much better trades than you get elsewhere, or put that opium to work to earn lots of legit resources, money or VPs. As Peer explained, you pull a chip from a bag each time that you build or use a black market location. Pull one of the 16 black chips, and you place it before you; pull one of the two white chips, and the player(s) with the largest sum of opium cubes and black chips pays £1 for each, then loses half his opium and returns all his black chips to the bag. The sinner has reformed his ways – at least momentarily.


Money seems incredibly tight, with movement being restricted unless you build additional streets and the lot choice often being out of your hands, but each time that you land on or pass one of the seals on the scoreboard, you receive £5 from the bank. Consider it a good citizen reward from Sir Raffles, who wants you to keep working hard to transform his island. Make him proud, citizen!
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Tue Aug 16, 2011 8:44 am
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