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Archive for Rafał Cywicki

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Designer Diary: Alcatraz: Maximum Security, or How to Make a Good Expansion

Rafał Cywicki
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Introduction: The escape was worth it

Awesome game.
Forbidden Island for bastards.
A wonderfully evil game.

Our escape from the famous prison of Alcatraz exceeded our expectations. All copies of Alcatraz: The Scapegoat – which I co-designed with Krzysztof Cywicki and Krzysztof Hanusz – sold during the Spiel 2011 fair in Essen. (After the second day of the fair, our publisher hugged us tightly with tears in his eyes, which was nice...and a bit weird.) The first printing sold out within two months, and we've had two foreign licenses so far: Z-Man Games/Filosofia in North America and Mosigra in Russia. (Half of the world will be able to play our game!)

In such situations, a game designer feels that what he does makes sense. We felt all this satisfaction thanks to you, our players. Thank you, guys – we owe you one.

And after such a success, it was not strange that we were asked questions like "When will you make an expansion?", "What are you going to include in the expansion?", and "Will you add a fifth player?" So we started thinking: What is necessary to make a good expansion for a board game?

Welcome to Alcatraz, Tony.
Make yourself at home.
1. Make the impossible possible

An expansion should provide players with completely new opportunities. Period.

In the case of Alcatraz, we felt that the most restrictive thing in the game was the number of players, especially if you keep in mind that you can't just add a set of wooden cubes and more cardboard to bump up the player count. Why? Alcatraz is great for three and four players because the way that rewards are distributed hits this sensitive spot between cooperation and rivalry, and the Scapegoat always has enough resources to finally break even. For four players the balance is optimal, while the presence of a fifth player would simply destroy it. Tasks would become too easy (as more actions could be spent in one round), the Scapegoat's actions would become absurdly futile (as it would be much harder to stop four players), any cooperation would turn out unprofitable (as the reward for those who help is worth less if more people can get it). Introducing another Scapegoat would bring the situation to the opposite extreme: Tasks would simply be impossible to complete.

We tested a few variants for five players and we felt as if we were playing a totally different game. We knew that we had to come up with a new solution.

This is how the idea of the Sucker was born – a new role designed especially for the five-player variant. This is the most thankless and punishing position in the whole game. It's something like being the Scapegoat without all the benefits of it (extra actions, blackmail cards, etc.), but it turns out to solve all the problems. Each player will have to be the Sucker at some point, so the new rule is fair. And the situation, although rather unpleasant, is controllable. All you need is good planning.

2. Listen to your players

...and the reviewers as good feedback means a good expansion.
Alcatraz was criticized for random rewards for cooperators and criticized even more severely for allowing a situation in which the sequence of letters drawn was so unfortunate that the game was becoming impossible to win.

When we were working on the basic version, we focused so much on the gameplay itself that the question of its fairness became less important. Sometimes we even looked at Alcatraz as a social experiment, a game of negotiations. It didn't matter who would win; it mattered how much backstabbing it would involve. It turned out that other people played it differently.

The expansion addresses this issue in two ways. First, we included an alternative set-up version with a shorter task deck. Second, we gave the players the opportunity to manipulate the task deck in one of the new locations. This changed the game completely. You are no longer victims of the task deck. Quite the opposite – it is your weapon now.

3. Offer something new for the experienced players, and make the game harder[/b]

Who buys expansions for games? The people who enjoyed the basic version, who know it well and want more. I'm pretty sure that you would be disappointed if your game became easier with the expansion than it was without it.

This is why we introduced sentence cards. They enable more experienced players to find new strategies. They make your negotiations tougher, increase the number of factors you have to take into consideration, and make more complex strategies much more valuable. Each sentence card provides the player with a unique power, changing his playing style. And at the same time these powers are most useful when you are the Scapegoat – so in fact they make the game harder, not easier.

Sample sentence cards

4. Balance, balance, balance

There is a temptation to say: "We can ease up with balancing the expansion as only a few players will get it, after all." A huge mistake IMHO. Those players who get the expansion will be the most balance-sensitive ones.

In Alcatraz we scrupulously calculated the ratio of guards to locations. Adding new locations naturally required adding new guards – and we did that by introducing the Chief of Security (read more below). However, more locations also means longer distances to cover. The longest route takes 4-5 actions, which makes (oh goodness!) two rounds of walking and doing nothing more. This is why one of the new locations makes moving around the prison easier. To be honest, at first we had a more spectacular rule for it in mind, but keeping the balance was more important. (And we hope that the first idea will not be wasted, after all.)

5. An occasion to have a look at old ideas

Expansions provide a great opportunity to have a look at the ideas you abandoned when designing the basic game. Two years ago in 2010, at the very beginning of our work on Alcatraz, we had a great innovative idea: patrol routes for the guards. The whole gameplay was intended to have a deep sense of "being in the right place at the right time" (time management). However, moving all the guards around the board would be too boring, so we dropped this idea.

But we decided to create one special guard: the Chief. He moves each round according to a simple algorithm, and he's a real tough guy, blocking the locations where he currently is and raising the alarm in adjacent rooms, too. His presence introduces an element that we previously decided to omit – planning for the future. Now the Chief blocks some locations, but in a while he will block some other ones. It's also worth mentioning that one of the new locations serves this one purpose – to alter his route.

Another tough son-of-a-gun on the Rock

6. Leave some material for more

You have to know when to stop and close the expansion. You will always have more ideas than you'll have room and need for – it's easy to go over the top, to upset the balance, to undertest the game.

To be honest, we still have one really huge idea left to be used in Alcatraz and it's really, really good – but it's an idea for a completely different expansion. Moreover, it doesn't really address all the problems mentioned above. It changes Alcatraz by 90º and makes it a different game – we didn't want to do this.

Okay, I'll let you in on the secret. It will be another aspect of loyalty, a secret one this time. Let's say that one of the prisoners actually doesn't want to escape at all...

Enough. We hope that we will have a chance to show you this idea in practice in the future, but this depends solely on you – whether you will be interested in Alcatraz as much as you have been so far.

7. Official certificate of a good expansion

One playtester hit the nail on the head with only one sentence about expansions: "I wouldn't like to play this game without it." Amen, bro.
I recently played Alcatraz without the expansion and I was unsatisfied. I wasn't able to enjoy this game as much as I used to. Maximum Security makes Alcatraz a far better game, with new solutions, strategies, challenges... The game seems different, incomplete without them.

You know, I have to admit that I always rate my own games 10 on BGG. I know that it's immodest, some may even say unfair, but this represents my "fatherly" feelings about them, my pride, so to say. That said, I will have to make an exception for Alcatraz – as soon as the expansion is released, I will change the rating to 8 and give a 10 to Maximum Security. It deserves that.

Rafał Cywicki

Sample blackmail cards
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Sat Oct 6, 2012 2:03 pm
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Designer’s Diary: 1984: Animal Farm, or Fascist Pigs from Outer Space

Rafał Cywicki
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I'll be honest with you – I don't remember when exactly we came up with the idea of 1984: Animal Farm, although I think it might have been during some game of Cosmic Encounter. CE is one of the favorite games in our game design team, and we play it every time we are fed up with our own projects. We adore it for a few things: playing around the rules, variable powers, temporary alliances and – above all – negotiations. Yeah, the idea must have appeared when we were playing Cosmic, during the Alliance Phase (when you invite your allies to join you). Someone probably said something like: "What if we made a whole game about making alliances?"

You and What Army?

The basic mechanisms of 1984: Animal Farm haven't changed since the first prototype – maybe because it is so simple that it can be summed up in one sentence: "Form an alliance stronger than your opponents". The strength of your alliance is determined by the number of agents in a region. There are five regions, and each offers influence in a different animal faction. The number of influence tokens that players collect is also affected by the number of their agents. Players need different influences in different stages of the game, while the agents' mobility is limited.

This may be just because we are truly evil human beings, but though we hadn't determined the winning conditions – thereby giving us nothing to really argue for – even in that first prototype there were already emotional debates and friendly but bitter rivalry.

Simple rules were forcing interaction and planning, creating a framework for negotiations. It's easy to calculate that even when three players take part in the game, one person can't do much alone. Now imagine five people playing. It becomes essential to place your agents appropriately, to be invited to alliances at every front.

The next step was creating special abilities for resources, with each one affecting the rules in a different way. This enables someone to choose a strategy according to the player's tastes in addition to creating natural replayability; all you have to do is modify the special actions. So far over thirty rules have been created and tested, but since you use only ten of them during the game, the play changes completely each time.

My Worst Friend, My Favorite Enemy

After a few games, our farm met the bottleneck of optimal strategies. Players who specialized in particular regions simply wouldn't give them up. Sometimes the alliances that formed were much stronger than we wanted them to be. We had to look for a way to encourage players to expand their territories, to set them at variance and at the same time connect them by common interests.

This is how we came up with the idea of revolution cards. In terms of the game, a revolution is a task related to two neighboring players. Even though they share the task, the situation is not that peaceful because completing a task requires an odd number of resources, and the same types of resources may be required for different tasks.

This uncomfortable interdependence affects negotiations and completely changes the players' viewpoint: "I could go for A together with Chris, but he also needs A for a revolution with Beth, so I will go with Michael, who doesn't need A for anything." This is how Animal Farm has distilled the "worst" features of negotiating in a game: broken promises, doubly loyalty, blackmail, intimidation. And did I mention that revolutions change during the game?

Non-final images from artist Igor Myszkiewicz

Chaos of Negotiations Ends with Balance

Once again we discovered that players provide the best method of balancing a game when all our sessions ended with very similar results and someone winning only by a hair's breadth. Hiding the score helped a bit – just as, for example, Small World is based on the concept of hidden score – but it was still tough to make a mark. "Destabilizing" the rules of scoring turned out to be necessary.

The first solution to the problem was introducing the Political Moods cards. They add new rules of scoring, rewarding various activities in the game. At first we wanted them to be permanent, but our publishers from Kuźnia Gier suggested the idea of a timeline containing three moods cards and counting down to their "expiry date". It quickly turned out that adapting to the changeable moods was a good way to win.

The second idea was a result of another observation: Identical rewards for successful revolutions for both players made the game extremely "stiff". If you had a conciliatory neighbor, it was easy to persuade him to enter permanent cooperation – which was an obvious benefit when compared to the rest of the players, who were usually conflicted. This is why we decided to reward revolutions in pendular swings: one round with one player, the next round with another player. The tension grew even more.

Orwell and Totalitarian Animals

After we published the game's BGG profile, obvious questions appeared regarding the references to the books. Now we want to make things clear, once and for all.

You have just read how political (in the worst meaning of this word) the game is going to be. It's not hard to guess that we thought it should be touching the theme of totalitarianism: "I do so many bad things in the game, I should play a bad character." We quickly agreed that world domination was a great topic; after all, ruling the world is a game worth the candle. When we were testing AF, we intentionally took the roles of dictators during a few games and the feeling of "dividing and conquering" appeared; after play we even joked about experiencing some kind of a "Yalta feeling".

The problem was that authentic historical events seemed too "heavy" for the game. For a while we were thinking about evil masterminds from comic books or James Bond movies, but these themes have been used many times – so when I suggested animal politics, an obvious chain of associations brought us to Animal Farm.

Orwell's books are popular in Poland (where we come from) mostly due to the way they deconstruct totalitarian regimes. We used to read them at school, they proudly stand on the shelves in our rooms, they inspire us even today. Yes, this is what they are for the game – an inspiration. And no, we do not own any copyrights. As far as we managed to learn, in Poland the copyrights for Orwell's works are now in the public domain. Even if the situation is different in our distributors' countries we would like to highlight the fact that we do not make use of the exact content of the books. The game is supposed to be their creative reinterpretation, reflect their atmosphere, and let you feel like "a pig in a uniform". Orwell is an inspiration for us on the same level as the comic book Maus or 20th-century satirical cartoons.

A Game for Very Bad People

There is one question left: Will I like the fight for supremacy on the global animal farm?

As our previous release, Alcatraz: The Scapegoat, Animal Farm is definitely not a game for everyone. If you like sitting silently at the table, thinking for a long time, and calculating the cleverest way to victory, there is a chance you will hate our game. On the global farm everything happens over the table and it happens pretty loudly, too: You set the opponents on one another, you form and break alliances, and you pretend to be losing even if you're not.

When you sit down to play Animal Farm keep in mind that sometimes one game of AF provides more negative interaction than a whole night spent playing other titles. After intensive testing sessions, we sometimes had hoarse voices and killer instincts burning in our eyes.

However, if you are a bit of a Machiavellian manipulator, if you sometimes feel like a "healthy sociopath", or you just hate (in a good sense) your friends, feel invited to visit our booth in Essen where the game will officially premiere.

Rafał Cywicki
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Thu Sep 20, 2012 7:00 am
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Designer Diary: Of Goats and Alcatraz

Rafał Cywicki
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Cooperative games are usually created when people bored with negative interaction start making their own board games. Alcatraz: The Scapegoat was created when people who love negative interaction decided to make a cooperative game. Nice to meet you – we are the authors of Alcatraz, and we would like to tell you a few words about our game.

"Previously on Alcatraz: The Scapegoat" – Wait, a Goat?

If you haven't heard of our game before, here is a short summary:

The players are prisoners planning an escape from the most famous prison in the world. But the plan has one weak point – it assumes that one prisoner will stay in as the eponymous scapegoat. Which one? The most useless one in the end.

What do you do not to be the scapegoat? You fingerpoint the victim, you lie, you manipulate and betray. And if you are chosen to be the scapegoat – you upset plans, steal items, blackmail other players and inform the guards.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

The Scapegoat – an Open Traitor

The scapegoat is the most innovative mechanism in the rules of Alcatraz. It is responsible for non-standard game dynamics, loads of negative interaction, and a whole spectrum of emotions that the players may experience, from the joy of triumph through a feeling of being used and betrayed, up to anger and the thirst for revenge.

During the game, you vote for the scapegoat each round. The current scapegoat also takes part in the voting and – somewhat importantly – is the one who breaks ties. The voting is an equivalent of planning made in the yard in the "Prison Break" series. This is also the time when the action doesn't take place on the board anymore; it takes place above the board in the form of: "You can trust me", "I have a plan, but I won't say it aloud because the scapegoat will hear", and "If you choose me, I will play a blackmail card".

The scapegoat is a euphemism for the loser who isn't a part of the plan in a given round. If the group carries out a task bringing them closer to escaping, the scapegoat stays where he was (and doesn't get a reward). This is why you usually do everything not to become that goat.
The goat, of course, will try to prevent the rest of the group from carrying out tasks by stealing items, playing blackmail cards, and moving guards.

But the scapegoat doesn't want to screw up completely. There will be another vote in a while, right? And the most useless prisoner will be chosen – or the most harmless one.

Don't Harm Others If You Don't Benefit

Thanks to the special dynamics mentioned above, the game play is unique:

• The scapegoat harms others, but only to the extent that it makes somebody else a better candidate for the goat.
• The players carry out tasks, but nobody wants to be obsolete in the end.

That second aspect in particular can create some fascinating cases. The following situation happened during one of the first test sessions: One player had all the items and met all the conditions required for completing a task, but he said, "I won't do this. If I sacrifice all my resources, I will become the Scapegoat soon." After these words were said, we knew that what we did was good (or rather bad – but in a good way).

Another situation: The whole team gathered together, collected their items, and according to some engaging plan, delivered a set required to complete a task to one player. It was enough to spend an action to complete the task. What did he do? He took the items and waited until the next round. Why risk becoming the goat? Pure evil – and genius.

But the number of instances of such behavior is limited. It's not certain that anyone will escape. If the last guard enters the board, the plan fails and everybody loses, including the current scapegoat, so it's important to cooperate and carry out the plan, while keeping the risk in mind.

The Goat Blackmails

The idea behind Blackmail cards is as old as the concept of our game. After all, they are a perfect evil addition to an evil game.

Each Blackmail card is a one-time ability that may be activated by the scapegoat. It always involves negative effects, sometimes powerful enought to slow down the entire team for a round; usually playing one card is enough to upset the whole task. But more often it serves the purpose of threatening other players: "Don't choose me as the scapegoat, or I will play it." And it goes so every round until somebody goes to the Chapel and cancels the card or until the players decide that the blackmailer is too impudent and make him the scapegoat anyway, accepting the risk connected with this. In such situations, it often turns out that the blackmailer isn't really that keen to carry out his threats.

In order to get a card, you must go to the Warden's office and spend an action. Doing so is easy most of the time, depending on the arrangement of locations and the number of guards, but you spend precious actions without getting closer to victory. And what if all the players have Blackmail cards? Everyone threatens everyone instead of completing tasks – and the time is ticking out quickly...

Consistent Scapegoat

When we played with the team of Kuźnia Gier publishing house, one drawback of the game was pointed out: The players may just have it in for one person and choose this person as the scapegoat every round. Against all logic, just don't let him escape. We've never played any games this way, but there are many different people in this world...

The solution we suggested is to give extra actions to the scapegoat if the same player is chosen more than once in a row. Later, we also came to the conclusion that this mechanism helps to forgive the mistakes of weaker players. It stayed in the final version.

Also the scapegoat's "vote and a half" may sound strange, but this inequality makes it easier to change the scapegoat with four participants in play. Only two people need to agree to choose a new goat, with one of those being the current scapegoat.


Guards play two roles in the game:

• They make it harder to use rooms (and, consequently, to escape) depending on their number in a particular location.
• They work like the clock in the game; a new guard appears on the board each round, and the arrival of the 20th guard announces the last round of the game.

An interesting thing about putting the "clock" on the board and not outside as a track of some kind is that the game becomes naturally more difficult with each round: One guard in a room doesn't change anything; two guards make the most important actions more time-consuming; three guards make them impossible; and four block the location completely.

However, the players also have ways of coping with guards. By spending one action, they may start a riot and draw a guard from an adjacent location to their room. They may release a false announcement through a radio and move two guards to a different place. And if they have enough cash, they can just bribe a guard.

Abstract Alcatraz

On a high level of abstraction, the game mechanisms look like that:

• I, the player, want to be the one who escapes, so I have to be indispensable for the team or too dangerous to be left alone – every single round.
• If I am the Scapegoat, I do everything to prevent completing a task. And then everything not to be chosen again in the next round.
• We, the team, want to escape, but every single person has to earn his place in the escaping party. If we all delay things for too long, we all lose.

The question is, will only one person lose, or will the whole group lose? As for the idea that everyone escapes – that's out of the question.

Atmosphere of the Game

Nobody in Alcatraz wore orange jumpsuits, but we like them. We had to sacrifice a few historical facts for the sake of the atmosphere. As in the movies, if there is a choice between "cool" and "realistic", the choice is obvious. Without doubt accusations about not being historical will appear, but that's okay as long as you like the game.

That said, there's another reason why we avoided strict realism. The first prototype was prepared based on real photos of Alcatraz, which were in sepia or black-and-white. It was so gloomy! Very, very gloomy. Maybe even too gloomy for a prison game. Just imagine the abandoned post-industrial interiors of a ruined prison. Such a scenery makes you feel much more serious about everything you do.

We decided on a different look – serious, but not too serious; even a bit comic-like. Hey, it's only a game.

Why Should You Play Alcatraz?

We've played Ghost Stories, Pandemic, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. The first two games gave us the most fun while we were learning the rules. Later on, only the player who knows the game best really has fun, and this person simply tells the rest how to spend their actions in the most effective way. In "traitor games" like the second two, suspicions are quite fun, and the moment when you point your finger at the traitor – brilliant. But this happens once, maybe twice per game.

Alcatraz is different. Here everyone thinks independently and cares only about themselves. If you think for someone else, you do it only to predict their movements, and you point fingers every turn.

Alcatraz is not a clone of any of the games mentioned above. It has its own unique mechanism (the Scapegoat) that you won't find anywhere else, so it's worth at least giving it a try.

We have to warn you though: Alcatraz is not for everyone. In this game you will certainly get cheated a few times and you should lie quite often as well. If you are a rather peaceful player or a group altruist, remember that the others will use you. When you play Alcatraz, the person who is your friend in one round will turn into an enemy in the next one. If you want to be effective, you cannot take offense easily or have a grudge against other players; you have to be flexible and choose your companions according to what's happening on the board. Sometimes this will mean that you have to cooperate with a person who lied to you, robbed you, and took your reward for completing a task.

With that said, we recomend you try the game. We won't be upset if you don't like it, but we will be very pleased if you find Machiavellian instincts within yourself... devil

"Enjoy your visit. Hope to see you again soon!"

About Us

Alcatraz was created by three Polish guys: brothers Rafał Cywicki and Krzysztof Cywicki and their long-time best friend, Krzysztof Hanusz.

We love games. In school we were those guys who stayed after class to play Moce Albionu. On holidays we played chess and lots of RPGs. Then we discovered modern board games and got addicted.

Together we created Kingpin, which debuted at Spiel in 2009. At that same time, the first concept of Alcatraz appeared. For a few years now, we have been meeting regularly at least once a week to work on new stuff.

We have different tastes, methods of work and education backgrounds (a sociologist, an IT specialist, a psychologist), but we all love board games full of interaction, emotions and specific atmosphere – and we think we managed to put all these features into Alcatraz.
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Tue Oct 4, 2011 6:30 am
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