David Spada. I am an Italian game designer and the creator of Tabannusi: Builders of Ur, together with Daniele Tascini. Before beginning my journey as a game designer, I used to be a cook and a programmer, but then I fell in love with the world of game design and left my job to take a plunge into darkness.
In Italy, we have a beautiful community of game designers who are always helping each other in the best possible environment. There are great teachers and professionals, like Carlo Rossi, Paolo Mori, Martino Chiacchiera, Walter Obert, and the aforementioned Daniele Tascini — so many great minds always ready and willing to help, and they created this huge nursery (so to speak) in which other designers can grow and learn. Everybody wants to be a designer in Italy, mostly because of this, and I have to say thank you to all of them and to the biggest Italian game designer conventions circuit: IDEAG.
Tabannusi had its humble beginnings in 2018. I had signed my first contract for a card game (7: The Sins), and while playing around with the components for Daniele's Marco Polo and having a huge crush on Nippon (a game by the great designer duo Sentiero/Soledade), I created this pretty light game with six city actions (inspired by Marco Polo), 18 dice in total, and a meeple moving around in a mancala-type pattern.
In 2019, the game grew quite a bit and became a racing game of sorts, with the basic mechanism you see today in Tabannusi: pick a die, perform an action, and move to the next location based on the value of the die.
That design I took to IDEAG. I already knew Daniele from previous IDEAG events and gathered enough courage to ask him to play the game because he's quite good at designing dice-drafting games, you know. We talked a bit about the game and came to the mutual conclusion that we could create something great together, starting from the game structure I already had.
Over the next few months, we talked via Discord and created a basic version of the game, having already established a general theme. (It is important for Daniele's games to have a historical theme and for the title to begin with the letter T.) The initial working title was "Tizqar", although we knew that it was not going to be the final one. (Not long after, the game received the theme of ancient Ur and the name Tabannusi.)
We wanted the various game elements to be all connected, with each set-up creating different dynamics and tactical decisions to drive game play. At the same time, we knew that strategic planning had to matter and be rewarded.
The image above shows the first prototype we seriously tested. It was 2019, and I remember the smile on the playtesters as they were playing — the best prize a designer can ask for — although we knew the game would still need a looot of work.
For reference, the main differences between the early prototypes and the now-published game are:
• Players had only one action per turn and no variable actions.
• Projects were built in three steps instead of two — First step: lay down a project. Second step: turn the project around and go up on the track. Third step: build. You were building far less than today, and there was no reliance on the actions taken by other players.
• Going all-in on a single color was the only thing to do at the time. (The victory points went up to 7!)
• Boats were personal.
• You needed to create a level 3 building before being able to buy a level 3 boat.
• The ziggurat district was completely different, with a track on which you could build houses.
• Gardens had no owners.
• The maximum building size was 4.
Daniele and I met on several occasions (he lives about two hours from me), and we tested the game a lot together with Federico Pierlorenzi (co-designer of Trismegistus), Fabio Lopiano (designer of Zapotec), Dávid Turczi (co-designer of Tekhenu), and designer-to-be Andrea Robbiani, as well as some Spanish, English, Emirati, Saudi, Israeli, and German playtesters, not to mention, of course, the Board&Dice team. We want to thank all these people and the Tabletop Simulator team who gave us the opportunity to meet and test with people of different cultures.
Most of the early playtesting took place on Tabletop Simulator, which is, in my opinion, a crucial tool for both designers and publishers nowadays. Daniele and I talked a lot about how the electronic platform sped up the testing and prototyping process. We estimate that the game could easily have needed triple the amount of time to finish without the use of TTS.
Even though this version worked smoothly, some playtesters didn't like how the boats functioned. We redesigned them to better fit the expected target audience.
While I was on a trip with my girlfriend in Valle d'Aosta (cows, castles, and a looot of cheese), I used to stay up until 4:00 a.m. talking with Daniele, Andrea, and Federico while they were playtesting. I could watch their plays from my cellphone while they were sharing their screen via Discord.
We felt that the ziggurat district was too disconnected from the rest of the game and created a system which would add more value to the dynamics without being only an alternative strategy, which it was at that time, but something that could emphasize the aspects of the game and its variability.
The game was tested a lot. I believe we tested it about three hundred times before the design was finalized. Still, I will always play it with pleasure, which is quite rare for me with heavily tested games. (I hope other players will like it as much as we do, but you never know.)
Despite everything, you are not (mainly) creating games for yourself, but for your audience and to put smiles on their faces. A game has to (at least try to) leave an impression on the people playing it, either a better mood or a different perspective. In this game, we tried to emphasize collaboration and the need to help one another to reach various goals successfully...without losing the game in the process, of course.
"Games satisfy two very deep and contradictory social urges in us: one to be close together, the other to compete with each other." - Alex Randolph
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