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Designer Diary and Game Overview: Arboretum, or Losing (and Finding) Yourself Amongst the Trees

Dan Cassar
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Oreland
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Microbadge: Arboretum fanMicrobadge: Cavemen FanMicrobadge: The Blood of an Englishman - JackMicrobadge: Analysis Paralysis is in my blood!Microbadge: Maltese Falcon fan
Board Game: Arboretum
"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them — that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." —Lao Tzu

I was sitting on the grass on a glorious spring day among stunning magnolias and cherry blossoms. A man with long, gray hair stood with his feet set wide, knees bent, his jaw set. He held a long bow. His face was serene and his eyes never veering from his target as he lifted the bow slowly over his head, then brought it down, drawing the arrow with a smooth, seemingly effortless motion. With a sudden shout, he sent the arrow on its way, and it lodged itself into the target and the hay bale behind it with a thwack. I noticed that even as the audience applauded, his face was unmoved. It took a moment for him to step out of his archery stance to address the people around him. He was demonstrating the art of kyudo — what's sometimes called "zen archery" — a meditative practice that focuses on an idea that if one is in harmony with the world, one cannot help but achieve a true aim. Hitting the target is almost incidental. It becomes a natural consequence of being fully present.

From gallery of maltezefalkon

Morris Arboretum

It was 2011. I was with my pregnant wife at the Japanese festival that takes place at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum. We had recently completed the trip of a lifetime from Beijing to Mumbai over nine months, and now we had started a new life in a new city, with the birth of our son just weeks away. After the demonstration, we began walking through the park, along wide paths, rolling lawns stretching out to either side. We were chatting, enjoying ourselves, talking about what lies ahead. We didn't have a destination in mind. We stopped beside a pond, watching the ducks squabble over something in the water. Of course with a baby on the way, we couldn't help talking about the future, and yet we were fully present, following a meandering path through the arboretum, just taking it all in.

Of course, we didn't just decide one day to take a nine-month excursion through Asia. Doing it successfully took two years of planning and cooperation. When we met, I asked Erin: Do you want to live in India? Absolutely, she had said. That's when I knew she was right for me. She didn't blink an eye. We had a vision: We wanted to see everything there was to see in the world. So we started early on, she and I, planning. We knew we'd need to quit our jobs. We knew we'd have to be careful with our money, but in the end, we were able to make it happen. I don't know if either one of us knew what to expect, but we knew that it was a journey we wanted to take.

We began in China, arriving in Beijing with only a general idea of what we wanted to see. Thrust into a new world where we did not speak the language, having little more than a Lonely Planet to guide us, we learned over time that the life of a traveler is one of near constant uncertainty. We never knew where we were going to be the following week; we would find lodging when we arrived. Getting something to eat sometimes amounted to pointing at something on a menu with no idea what we would get. Over the course of the trip, we had to learn to let go. We had to be prepared, but allow things to happen. We had to think ahead, but always allow for the unexpected detour. Living presently, being mindful of our surroundings, listening hard, being quick to laugh, willing to compromise — these were our survival skills as we made our way through Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and, yes, eventually, we made our way to India.

From gallery of maltezefalkon

Erin and Dan at the Taj Mahal

But we decided to return home and now we were ready to embark on a new kind of journey. Perhaps fittingly, we had been playing Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities every night for weeks. Both of us loved the card play, the sense of give and take that it had as you tried to simultaneously advance your own goals while having to remain cognizant at all times of what your opponent was doing. And as we walked through the Morris Arboretum, this game was definitely on my mind. That night I thought to myself about how "Arboretum" would make a great name for a game, and that one takes a journey through an arboretum just as one might take a journey to some exotic location.

The ascending values of the cards in Lost Cities represent progress along a path toward an ultimate goal. When preparing for an expedition to some forgotten temple, one prepares, prepares, prepares, and then strikes out. I wanted to use Knizia's ingenious metaphor and adapt it to a different kind of travel. In Knizia's game, players start small and work their way up, hoping that they have enough resources to make it worthwhile. Wandering through a botanical garden is a different experience altogether. One starts at one point and ends up in another. There is a sense of progress, of moving forward, but it's not defined until the end. In Arboretum, players start in the middle and work their way outward. The paths they're creating grow organically, slowly building outwards, discovering new colors and new directions at each step of the way. Maybe this path is a short stroll through the maples; maybe we've been through that way before on the way to a stand of cassia trees. We might not know where we're going until we get there.

And so probably from the very first day I started writing down ideas in my notebook for this game, the general mechanisms were set: I wanted the players to each grow a garden by laying cards adjacent to one another to form paths represented by numerically ascending series of cards. But by itself, this didn't create a fun game. It was just not interesting enough. I tried many different ways to make it work, including having players all contribute to the same arboretum, having hidden goals, and representing visitors as their own cards in the deck.

From gallery of maltezefalkon

Members of the NYC-Playtest group playing an early prototype of Arboretum

One particular part of the game that I was constantly adjusting was hand size. When it was too large, the cards in hand felt unnecessary, and when I shrunk it down to a size where it became a real constraint, play felt random. I came to recognize that this was the part of the game that was missing, and quickly from that insight, I hit on the idea that it could become part of the scoring mechanism. Suddenly, it fell into place. Each phase of the game felt tense: which cards to draw, which card to play, and which card to discard.

But one final pattern emerged in playtesting that I felt needed to be solved: ones and eights. Ones were almost always being laid down and eights almost always held back. For a game where every other decision felt appropriately uncertain and situational, this was something I felt compelled to address. The "one cancels the eight" rule felt like it completed the scoring system.

From gallery of maltezefalkon

The version of the game that I submitted to Z-Man

At the end of the year, I went to the first Metatopia, the game design festival held in northern New Jersey. There I met Zev Shlasinger and showed him Arboretum. The following year, at the second Metatopia, he told me that Z-Man Games had decided to publish it. I am in awe of the spectacular art that it has been given. I'm so very proud of this game, and I am delighted to be able to share it with all of you.

So remember to think ahead, but be prepared to change directions. We never know where our lives will take us, but if we follow our hearts, the path will be made clear.

Dan Cassar

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Sample arboretum layout by WEM


•••


Arboretum gameplay overview by W. Eric Martin:

While Cassar gave some hints at the gameplay of Arboretum in the write-up above, I thought I'd present a more detailed overview of how to play the game, which I've played five times so far on a press copy from Z-Man Games. The short description is that the Lost Cities DNA comes through strongly in the feel of the game, the dynamic tension of extending a path versus keeping cards in hand for strength later versus giving up what opponents need. The games feel similar in those areas, but Arboretum is its own design.

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Fri Mar 20, 2015 7:45 pm
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Designer Diary: The Evolution of Cavemen

Dan Cassar
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Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
When I was 8, my grandfather taught me to play chess. He patiently explained the moves and taught me the beginner's basic, v-shaped opening, then proceeded to mercilessly defeat me, game after game. He was a very good chess player; he told me he had learned in the Navy from a Grandmaster, and as a result, I don't think I ever lasted more than two dozen turns against him – but I didn't mind. I loved the challenge of it. I was fascinated with how simple the rules were, yet how many things I had to think about.

The next year, my older brother taught me to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: a game about telling a story, with neither winners nor losers, with no board. Around that same time, Pac-Man fever was spreading across the country. I came of age during a time when the definition of what a game is was rapidly changing.

Since then I have tried every type of game that I can get my hands on. I've come to believe passionately that games are a unique, individual artistic medium that can delight and intrigue us in ways comparable to the great works of drama, music and sculpture. A game is a cultural phenomenon like no other. Sure, they can be mindless diversions, but they can be so much more than that, too. They can be interactive narratives: entertaining, beautiful, even meaningful. They're uniquely powerful vehicles for conveying metaphor and subtlety by presenting dynamic, interactive systems and inviting you to experience them. I want to make games that are at once deep, elegant and relevant, games that are about something, but are still fun to play.

Cavemen: The Quest for Fire started as a game about evolution. At the end of 2007 I had been reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and realized that while I thought I had understood the basic ideas behind the theory, I didn't realize just how transformative and far-reaching the idea truly was. It also became obvious why evolution is such a popular theme for games. At its core, natural selection is governed by a very simple set of rules that combine in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. I wanted to create a game that allowed the player to gradually evolve an organism over generations, mutating and crossbreeding with the other creatures in the world. Cards seemed like a perfect fit for this kind of game, as they would allow me to present a wide range of different kinds of traits to combine, and their distribution was inherently unpredictable.

I began to work on the idea, but quickly decided I didn't like not being able to see my creature in front of me. My organism felt like a collection of traits, instead of a living thing that was changing, so I changed the game to be about humans with different traits. I figured that since human traits such as being smart or fast didn't need to be reflected in the way that those humans looked, it was easier to imagine that human changing based on other cards it combined with. And naturally, since I still wanted to focus on the most basic interactions between the organisms, it made sense that these weren't sophisticated, modern people. These were cavemen, whose job it was to hunt, eat, and make other little cavemen.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Cards from one of the earliest prototypes of the game

At first, it made sense to have lots of different kinds of cavemen with different attributes, but then how would I show how these traits combine in their offspring? I needed to put the characteristics themselves on their own cards, and it didn't make sense to separate inherent traits from the person they belonged to, tools, ideas, and technologies were easy to represent on their own. I jotted down a quick list of caveman "inventions": fire, the wheel, the spear, the bow and arrow. The concept of a mini-civilization game is a sort of holy grail amongst game designers, and an idea about primitive humans building the first societies emerged. By focusing just on this very early civilization, each small advancement can open up huge new possibilities. You can see civilization itself is an evolutionary adaptation, and each new advancement allows the tribe to change how it makes its way in the world. Technology changes the rules.

Of course, there's no story without conflict, and the central conflict here is the tribe trying to survive. At the time, steampunk was everywhere and along with it, a resurgence of interest in pulp. Steampunk applies a postmodern fantasy lens to the Victorian setting, with the steam engine replacing the magic wand. Drawing on classics like Marvel Comics' Ka-zar and other works like Clan of the Cave Bear, The Land of the Lost and a host of other influences, it seemed like the time was right to explore a similar kind of setting: stonepunk, a fantasy world set in a prehistoric age. In this context, civilization is the killer technology and the Tyrannosaurus is the perfect antagonist, representing the dangerous world in which that early man lives. After all, every heroic fantasy needs dragons to slay.

By the middle of 2008, I had something that looked very much like the final version of the game, and I felt that it accomplished my design goals. I wanted to blend Euro-game elegance with something a bit more "Ameri-crunch", meaning I wanted a strong theme, a dose of randomness, and the definite possibility of loss, without going so far as to have players being eliminated for the game. I wanted drafting to be the central mechanism because at that point I had never played a game that used it in that way. I thought keeping the information public – which I first saw in the Rochester draft format for Magic: The Gathering – would lead to opportunistic play, which I felt was a great way to simulate how early humans must have managed to survive. Finally, one thing I also knew I wanted in this game was a true narrative arc: a beginning, a middle and an end. For this reason, there could be no victory points and no second place. Like a checkmate, the invention of fire is a fitting and decisive end to the story I'm trying to tell.

I took my game to the New York City Board Game Designers Playtest Group. There I met a number of talented and successful designers including Eric Zimmerman, Gil Hova, Josh DeBonis, Mark Salzwedel and Michael Keller. With their help and encouragement I focused on just the core ideas and over countless playtests over the course of an entire year, managed to strip away the last remaining layers of complexity. But there was still an important part of the game that had to be perfected: the set of inventions. Without properly balancing that set of choices, the entire auction system could not work correctly, so while I was happy with the way the game was played, I knew it wasn't done yet.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Cards and other bits from the prototype I submitted to the Rio Grande Game Design Contest in 2009

In 2009, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and spend eight months traveling through Asia. It was a life-changing experience, living out of our backpacks and meeting all sorts of interesting people along the way. On that trip, we played Cavemen with anyone we could convince to play. We played in a car in the deserts of Rajasthan, on a train to Mumbai, on a boat in Indonesia, in a hotel in the Mekong Delta, and by candlelight during a power outage in Nepal. I must have designed over a hundred different inventions for this game during that trip, but the final twenty that I chose to include in the core game were playtested thoroughly for their variety, their ability to combine in multiple ways, and their balance.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Playing Cavemen by candlelight during one of the routine power outages in Pharping, Nepal

When I returned home near the end of 2009, I found out about the Rio Grande Games Design contest. I won the New York competition against some impressive games, then went on to be one of four games selected for publication by Jay Tummelson. Some time later, when I first saw the art for the game, I was absolutely floored. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I couldn't be happier with the job that Rio Grande did making the game truly stand out. (Editor's note: In the video below, publisher Jay Tummelson explains how the artists created the look of this game. —WEM)

Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Final card art from the game

Cavemen premiered at Spiel 2012 and should be making its way to retail stores soon, so be sure to check it out. I can only hope other people get as much out of playing the game as I got out of making it!

Dan Cassar

(For more updates and information about the game, check out my blog.)

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6 Comments
Mon Dec 3, 2012 6:30 am
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