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Archive for Miguel Marqués

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Designer Diary: A Big (Bang) Challenge, and a New Hope for Antimatter!

Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
France
Caen
(from Valencia, Spain)
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My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
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My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
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Physics Laws as Game Rules

When I design games, I am always driven by a theme. In fact, when anything catches my interest (book, movie, visit, discussion...), I find myself thinking about what game could be created out of it! Of course, most of the time the idea doesn't go very far, but there are exceptions. My first two games, BASKETmind and Tetrarchia, came out of my two main hobbies, sports and history — and I have science as a third "hobby" (as I'm a nuclear physicist), so...

I have written a recent article for the Game & Puzzle Design journal with the title "Physics Laws as Game Rules" (PDF sample), and this diary will be some kind of summary. As a gamer/designer and physicist, I have always wondered about an apparent contradiction. On one hand, physicists look for simple patterns within complex environments, trying to derive from them laws that are few and simple. On the other hand, game designers try to abstract the events they want to recreate into few and simple rules. Logically, one should expect a lot of board games about physics since the abstraction work has already been done by nature in the form of laws that could be taken almost directly as rules for board games.

So why are (good) board games about physics so rare? How should one proceed in order to make a game from physics laws? Big*Bang was born from my attempt to answer these questions. And if you want to understand the title of this diary, you'll have to keep reading!

Simple Laws But Complex World

The laws that govern a given interaction between two bodies may be simple, but when several kinds of interaction combine, or more than two bodies fall within the interaction range, the interplay between these simple individual "recipes" becomes wonderfully complex.

Take Newton's law of gravitation, for example. A body of mass M attracts other bodies at a distance d inducing an acceleration proportional to M/d^2. This is very simple. Double the mass, double the acceleration; double the distance, quarter the acceleration. However, add other massive bodies, let them all move, and soon things become convoluted. Of course, since the forces are simple and have analytical form, even the most complex trajectories can be calculated using a computer, and thus be implemented in video games — but board games cannot benefit from this assistance.

A good example of a game that tried to use this simple law is Triplanetary. However, even by making it simpler (ignoring the mass dependence and discretizing the distance dependence to either 1 or "infinity"), tracking the movement of the spaceship units required the fiddly use of markers on a laminated map (left):




Even the most simple laws lead to a complex ensemble full of details, and the simulation of all those details should be left to video games. When dealing with those simple laws, board games must make an additional abstraction effort. The challenge for the designer is first pointing out the most characteristic law, then finding a rule that at the same time is simple and intuitive and that lets players feel as if the game pieces actually obey that law. Two good examples are Gauss (center) or Momentum (right). Even if they use plastic pieces and one simple rule, in Gauss players evoke their memories of science classroom with red and blue metal magnets clashing together and spreading away, and in Momentum they feel like they're manipulating a multiple Newton's cradle.

In the end, designing a game (that is fun to play) from a physics law — that translates into a simple rule and leads to gameplay evoking the physics — seems possible!

Gaming the Big Bang

I was looking for a physics case that was fascinating and simple...then I thought about the formation of our universe. No doubt there are simpler cases! However, if one makes the abstraction effort I mentioned above, it can be easily described in broad outline. The main stages of the process are sketched below (from 1 to 6). At some point, a huge explosion we have named "Big Bang" liberated all the energy in our universe, which from then on expanded and saw its temperature decrease to the present 3 K (-270ºC).




The energy from this explosion materialized into equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which then annihilated each other into energy again, following a deadly cycle which could be broken only by a tiny excess of matter. The origin of this slight excess, which is responsible for the matter that we see today and of which we are made, is not fully understood yet. After the first second, the surviving matter had taken the form of protons and neutrons (stage 1). Those two particles began to combine and in the very first minutes formed the lightest nuclei*, mostly Hydrogen and Helium (stage 2), but could go no further.

* An atom's nucleus is formed by a combination of protons (charge +1) and neutrons (charge 0), each element having a characteristic number of protons. The atom consists of its nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons (charge -1). The number of electrons in the cloud equals the number of protons in the nucleus, so that the atom is neutral.

The universe underwent a long and quiet period until electrons were slow enough for them to be captured by those light nuclei, forming the first atoms (stage 3). Then gravity took the lead, and the neutral atoms began to condense into clouds, which further condensed into stars (stage 4). Inside stars, Hydrogen fused again into Helium, and thanks to the strong gravitational fields three Helium nuclei could fuse into Carbon, going beyond the limit reached at the end of stage 2. From Carbon, fusion kept going until the formation of Iron, which can no longer sustain fusion reactions, then stars collapsed under their own gravity and exploded (stage 5).

The extreme violence of these explosions, known as "supernovae", created the environment needed to build up heavier nuclei on top of Iron and up to Uranium, then dispersed them into space. And then back to stage 4: Atoms condensed into clouds and new stars, but now those clouds contained most of the elements, and around these second generation stars there could be rocky planets on which life could develop (stage 6).

This complex process, spanning 14 billion years, can nevertheless be sketched in the six main stages above. What kind of game can be designed out of this? The space and time scales are too vast, the stages too diverse, the interactions governing them too different. I chose to focus on parts of the overall process. Until stage 4, there were only a few well-identified pieces, but a goal for the players had to be found.

A Race to Carbon?

Carbon has a relatively light nucleus, with six protons and six neutrons in its most abundant form, Carbon-12 (C12). If I wanted to design a game about the formation of Carbon, then protons and neutrons should be the natural game pieces. Those pieces appeared at stage 1, formed Hydrogen and Helium at stage 2, then waited until stage 4 to continue forming heavier systems. We can better understand why with the diagram on the right, in which we see all the nuclei that exist up to Carbon-12.

For each combination, the number of protons (red, top line) gives the element name (from 1 to 6: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron and Carbon), and the number of neutrons (blue, bottom line) defines its mass number (protons plus neutrons). For example, Lithium-8 has three protons and five neutrons.

Only some combinations are allowed, and just a few are stable (white cells). The rest are unstable because the equilibrium of "pieces" is too unbalanced, and after a given time they will undergo radioactive decay in search of balance by transforming a proton into a neutron (pink cells on the upper left) or a neutron into a proton (cyan cells on the lower right)*. The color shades correspond to the varying decay times — the darker they are, the shorter they are, with times ranging from millions of years to tenths of a second.

* This relatively simple type of decay, in which a neutron becomes a proton or vice-versa, is known as "beta decay". There are other types of radioactive decay (alpha, gamma, fission...), but they are not relevant for the case considered here.

At the end of stage 2, free neutrons had disappeared and most of the pieces were in the form of the most stable H1 and He4. The reason why the process stalled is displayed by the forbidden symbols in the diagram: none of their binary combinations (He2, Li5, Be8) are allowed. Due to this quirk of physics, Hydrogen and Helium had to wait a billion years until gravity could play a significant role inside stars, enabling the ignition of more complex reactions and, in particular, the one that fuses three He4 directly into one C12.

For the game, I could then use red and blue pieces on a hexagonal grid, and let the players fuse them into stacks following the patterns above. These were some potential game issues:

• Several combinations are unstable, so in addition to the fuse action there should be a decay action in which a proton/neutron in the pink/cyan stacks was replaced by a neutron/proton. It could be a random mechanism (as the real decay) using dice, or a voluntary choice of the players.

• Players should use the diagram above as an aid in their race to Carbon. They could fuse stacks to increase their size, then choose to follow the stable (white) diagonal or either of the two colored regions, then return to the diagonal via decays.

• Players would not be "red" and "blue"; they would need (and share) all the pieces.

• The quirk of physics leading to the triple fusion of He4 into C12 should be a key ingredient. Players could fuse two stacks along empty straight lines, or three adjacent stacks, and of course the result should be a valid known nucleus.

The components and mechanisms seemed clear, the aim of the players not so much. If the winner was the first player forming Carbon-12 and both players shared the same pieces, then the game could stall with players not wanting to do the next-to-last move. No player would want to fuse two He4 nuclei, enabling the opponent to add the third one.

I could instead award points for the formation of each element as an incentive for both players to contribute to the race, but this would require a detailed balance analysis to determine the optimal number of points per element, or I could make the game a cooperative one in which the players solve a puzzle and try to maximize the formation of Carbon stacks...

In any event, the diagram above was too convoluted to make an effective player aid. Even nuclear physicists would need to constantly refer back to the aid to check what can or cannot be done, and I was looking for a game, not homework! Further, the unstable combinations have decay times ranging from tenths of a second to millions of years (Be10), so I should establish a hierarchy. Moreover, from a practical point of view, moving stacks of up to twelve pieces and replacing pieces inside them would be cumbersome.

Even if the initial idea was good, the game boundaries clear, and the number of pieces small, this "Race to Carbon" was far from the simplicity and elegance of Gauss or Momentum. If I wanted to design the Big Bang for effect, I had to escape this frame.

A Race to Helium?

Returning to the timeline sketched above, using protons and neutrons as the game pieces was the best part of the previous idea, and the complexity of the nuclear chart up to Carbon-12 was the worst. So I kept the good idea, but limited it to stages 1 and 2 to create a race to build Helium-4, one of the most stable bricks in the universe and the precursor of Carbon.

The orange (lower left) region of the diagram above shows how simple the nuclear chart becomes; it contains only two game pieces and four composite stacks, with only one of them (H3) unstable. The player aid becomes trivial even for non-scientists: no more than two protons or neutrons per stack, and not only two of them alone. Players should fuse pieces up to He4, and the decay option would be open only for the neutron and H3, with a straightforward hierarchy (H3 decays more slowly).

This was conceptually closer to Gauss or Momentum, with stacks of at most four pieces. However, forming He4 would be relatively easy, so the aim of the game could not be being the first one to do so. Players could instead aim to make the most He4, sharing the red and blue pieces and keeping track of how many they created — but this could again lead to deadlocks as players would be disinclined to create H2 nuclei near existing ones since the opponent could fuse them into a He4 nucleus.

Player vs. Antiplayer!

I had found an appropriate framework for the game, but lacked a mechanism that generated competition and a clear aim for the players, mostly due to the fact that they shared the red and blue pieces. So what about incorporating other ingredients from the physical scenario as game pieces?

Hidden between the Big Bang and stage 1 on the timeline above, there was a huge production of matter and antimatter in almost equal quantities, followed by a huge annihilation of both into light. The matter we see around us today comes from a tiny, still mysterious excess that survived. If I started the game before stage 1, then I could incorporate such ingredients as "antipieces".

Antiparticles have the same properties as their corresponding particles but the opposite charge. For example, antielectrons are positive and antiprotons negative, but those two particles can combine to form an anti-Hydrogen atom, with properties similar to a standard Hydrogen atom, or an antineutron plus an antiproton can form an anti-Hydrogen-2 nucleus.

The diagram on the right shows the mirrored antimatter images of the nuclear chart up to Helium-4. Again, the nuclei shown in the upper right region are classified by the protons (red, top arrow) and neutrons (blue, right arrow), while their antimatter counterparts shown in the bottom left region are classified by their antiprotons (black, bottom arrow) and antineutrons (grey, left arrow).

This solved the problem of sharing the pieces as one player would use red and blue pieces, while their opponent — the "antiplayer" — would use the black and grey ones. Each player now had a clear aim: Build the most He4*, and there was no longer a need to keep track of exact particle counts throughout the game since both He4 were now different.

* Antiparticles are usually noted with a bar on top, but I use the same symbol for both here, for simplicity.

Moreover, a law of physics provided a new ingredient that lead to lots of player interaction: annihilation. The original idea was based on a "quiet" construction of nuclei, but with these new pieces, players could now not only build their own nuclei in parallel, but also annihilate the opponent's! I could even make it more interesting by forcing the players to choose between these two options, leading to an interesting dilemma similar to that found in the game TZAAR: "Shall I make myself stronger or my opponent weaker?"

A Big (*) Bang!

I had finally found a suitable frame for the game (synthesis of Helium), its pieces (protons, neutrons and their antiparticles), mechanisms of play (fusion, annihilation and decay), and some ideas for its goal (such as building the most Helium). I had also introduced player interaction through matter/antimatter annihilation. However, unlike most games that involve capture, such annihilations resulted in the removal of both players' pieces, which had a somewhat self-defeating feel to it and didn't let players strengthen their own pieces or position. But since annihilation transforms each matter/antimatter pair into light, I could instead use this mechanism as a new aim: Produce the most light.

This allowed two paths to victory: a pacifist path that involved building the most Helium, and a bellicose path that involved annihilating matter/antimatter pairs into light. If each player concentrated on one path, however, the game would not be very fun or strategic and would lead to draws. This could be addressed by introducing a scale with which to compare the relative magnitude of each victory condition, but this would complicate matters and make the game confusing for players. Instead, I chose a third condition.

There is another victory condition that was easy for players to understand and that respected the laws of physics. The formation of Helium was followed by the formation of stars, and those were powered by the fusion of Hydrogen. At the endgame, after particles had disappeared through annihilation and others had fused into stacks, the board would look like clusters of nuclei. If we identified the clusters of each player as their stars, an interesting victory condition would be to form the star with the most Hydrogen fuel. Players should therefore fuse particles into Hydrogen, then Helium, and produce light by annihilating pairs, but at the same time keep some Hydrogen "alive" in some of the clusters that appear towards the end. This made the number of victory conditions odd, so ties would be unlikely.

What about the decay of unstable combinations? With respect to the Carbon-12 game idea, I was left with only two of them: each player's neutron and H3. To add more interaction, I could let players force the decay of the opponent's unstable stacks in order to disturb their plans. Since decay here means replacing a neutron with a proton, this option would be available only when protons would start leaving the board through annihilation. Therefore, the players themselves would regulate the decay "clock" (the timing and impact of decays) depending on how much annihilation they chose, making no two games play the same.

The turn sequence would be:

1. Either fuse a pair of your stacks or annihilate a pair stack/antistack.
2. Force a decay, if possible.

As with Gauss or Momentum, the game was abstract in the sense that it focused on simple concepts that evoke laws governing real processes, so was best played on a regular grid. However, it still had a strong theme, which might be lost on players if the board was a sterile grid. I opted for an evocative background image depicting the Cosmic Microwave Background of stage 3 in the timeline above. This image has been obtained with increasing resolution by the satellites COBE (1992), WMAP (2003) and Planck (2013):




The intermediate resolution of WMAP was a good compromise (left). It represents the oldest light in our universe, with darker (slightly cooler) areas corresponding to the concentration of matter due to fluctuations that gravity amplified to form the first galaxies. For the game grid, I chose an ellipsoidal hexagonal one to match the shape of the image. (For a detailed discussion on the shape and size of the grid, see here.) This left space in the corners of the board for simple player aids and the three victory conditions (see the prototype on the right).

I chose an unusual name — Big*Bang — with an asterisk that evokes the first explosion and the subsequent annihilation, and that sets the game apart from the whole series of games using "Big Bang" in their names. The rulebooks (in English, Spanish and French) are available for download at the game page on the nestorgames website. As usual with Néstor, the production of the game has been a very smooth and constructive process! And also as usual, the result is a very compact, light and beautiful edition:




The Link with Physics Laws

I started the diary with a discussion about gaming physics in general. With all the different compromises I have met in order to keep Big*Bang interesting as a game, has the link with physics been lost?

The huge matter-antimatter clash occurred in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and only later did Helium start forming, while in the game both processes occur simultaneously. Furthermore, our universe seems to consist mostly of matter only, while the game has equal amounts of matter and antimatter.

So is the game totally science fiction? Maybe not. We assume that only one of matter or antimatter could survive the initial annihilation, and since we live in a matter world, we assume that only matter did. But what if the rapid expansion that followed the Big Bang pushed antimatter-dominated regions far enough away from matter-dominated ones?

In that case, annihilation would have halted due to the physical separation of both populations, and the universe would also contain antimatter galaxies. However, since the chemistry of antimatter is identical, those galaxies would look exactly like matter ones. Our only chance to spot them would be their collision with a matter galaxy, through the gigantic annihilation flash that would follow. In fact space missions are searching for the characteristic signals of such a clash, or for antinuclei produced in "antistars", but no evidence has been found yet. Leaving this hypothetical matter-antimatter coexistence aside, what about the other physics laws?

The spirit of the primordial nucleosynthesis is captured reasonably well. The first fusion step is H2, the only stack of height 2. By forming H2, players shield against annihilation by the more abundant individual pieces while threatening the formation of the opponent's H2 nearby, and prepare the way to Helium. (On the right you can see a He4 stack surrounded by a neutron, an antiproton and two antineutrons.) Depending on the annihilation rate chosen, neutrons start disappearing sooner or later, adding angst to the race since you may end up with proton-dominated regions that, without neutrons, will be doomed fusion-wise. However, the third victory condition I introduced gives sense to these Hydrogen areas, too, since they represent the future: a first generation of stars that will generate the ingredients of life, followed by the next generations that will live long enough to witness it.

These simplifications allow only the spirit to be captured, but this was the intended goal. Some add-ons could make the physics more explicit, but once a critical balance between complexity, playability, and theme has been met, adding rules should be avoided. One can still propose variants, though, e.g., electric repulsion could be incorporated by allowing the fusion of stacks with protons only if they are adjacent, or the formation of Carbon-12 could be introduced as an automatic victory condition if a player succeeds in linking three Helium-4 stacks.

Big*Bang is by no means an exact simulation of any part of the Big Bang process. However, at the end of the game, players will have followed the key stages that shaped the first minutes of our universe, the physical laws that guided them, and — from the final board position — even imagine the next steps that followed.

Conclusion

This diary started with a question: Why are (good) board games about physics so rare? Closely mimicking physical laws is not enough to make a good game; this is where mere simulations differ from games. For example, even though the pieces in Triplanetary give the impression of moving as real spaceships would, the result is somewhat fiddly in its implementation. Gauss and Momentum, on the other hand, are examples in which the simulation and the game work well; these games evoke souvenirs from a science classroom when played.

The design of Big*Bang illustrates well the process that takes us from the physics to the game. The physics case was too vast, letting us explore the parts of it that exhibit "simple patterns", the possible pieces and rules that would translate them, and the games that they would make. Sometimes the physical process itself is not well-suited for an interesting game, sometimes clear rules lack a competitive and fun dimension. I reached a dead end first with a game about the "Race to Carbon", then another one with a "Race to Helium".

In the end, it was the introduction of antimatter that solved the playability issues — quite unexpectedly, to be honest — to make Big*Bang work well as a game. In this sense, the game design process mimics the scientific method: trying things that mostly lead to dead ends but that sometimes lead to a happy end. Answering our original question, maybe dead ends are more common in games about physics because the laws are what they are. We cannot tweak them beyond reality as we may do with rules from other themes, and sometimes the laws do not lend themselves to make a game work, however they are implemented.

Maybe good games about physics are rare because the laws of physics are not made for interesting gameplay, but for making our world work!

Miguel Marqués

P.S.: You may want to check my other designer diaries, about BASKETmind and Tetrarchia. These three first games complete the trilogy of my hobbies: sports, history and science!
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Designer Diary: Tetrarchia, or The Four Swords of Rome

Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
France
Caen
(from Valencia, Spain)
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My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
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My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
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By the end of the III century BC, the Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus was nicknamed "The Sword of Rome" for his exploits in the wars against the Gauls and the Carthaginians.

Five centuries later, by the end of the III century AD, the times of the old Republic are too far away and the now Roman Empire seems doomed. Enemies cross the borders, rebellion spreads over its provinces, and when an Emperor has both the courage and ability to face the threats, usurpers take his place in Rome, increasing the chaos. The Emperor Diocletian sees only one revolutionary way out: Share the divine power with trusted colleagues. In a few years he forms an Imperial College with Maximian, Constantius and Galerius, leading to the first Tetrarchy. Now the swords of Rome are four, and they are going to fall without mercy over their enemies...

This is the fascinating story that pushed me to design Tetrarchia!

The Idea

This game was born from the overlap of several passions:

1) After playing Gardens of Mars (from nestorgames), I was amazed about how much can be done with so little. A board that can be rolled up, plastic discs, laser-cut meeples, some dice...and that's all. No cards, no tables, no box! Only components that are wear-proof in a format compact and light that can be taken anywhere. I fixed this component limit as an objective for my next design.

2) I am a fan of games, but most of all of history. I read a lot about military conflicts, and I play wargames. I felt like introducing the genre in nestorgames, since I think their format would be perfect for light wargames. I have several very different ideas for some wars; I only needed to pick one to start with...

3) I play solitaire often, for lack of time and/or players, and I have found that cooperative games are a fun alternative to the more traditional solitaire games. I started with Pandemic, then Ghost Stories, and finally Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I love the fire-spreading mechanism of the latter; you can always be surprised because it is not deterministic at all, but following a strategy you can limit the surprises and end up controlling it. I needed a period in which threats spread in an unpredictable way.

4) My passion for Commands & Colors: Ancients, the game I play the most, has shifted my history interests from Classical Greece to Rome. First the Republic, then the Empire...and finally the Late Empire. When I started reading about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, I felt that all these passions fitted together!

First Steps

The random mechanism to spread revolts required two levels of threats, which I defined as Unrest (gray disc) and Revolt (black). I also needed two coordinates per space that would be obtained by rolling dice, which I immediately identified with Regions and Provinces. In order to distinguish both coordinate dice I chose a thematic solution: a Roman die and a normal one. I tried to find six regions (with Roman numerals) holding each six provinces (decimal numerals), around the central region Italia. I had to distort the Late Roman Empire maps I found (more on that below), made a very rough sketch, and started to play!

The players would handle the four Emperors, and on their turn they would first spend action (Imperivm) points to fight for Rome, then roll the dice to propagate threats on the coordinates obtained. In Flash Point there is "only" the fire-related threat; here the revolt in the provinces would be completed by Barbarian armies that would try to reach Rome. The aim of the game would be to protect the Empire borders (those of the six outer regions) before half of the provinces revolted or Rome fell.

Several items played several roles. The numbers on the provinces gave me their coordinates within the region, but by ordering them in some way they could also give me the path the Barbarian armies would follow through that region. The dice that gave me the coordinates could also give me the combat results: the Roman die for the Roman, the decimal die for the Barbarian. Making them white and black, respectively, made this function become even more explicit.

The final touch to add strategy to combat was the ideas of support (discs that add to the result of the die) and of combined attack (other Emperors/Barbarians connected to the battle multiplying the result x2). With neither tables nor complex calculations, a single roll of two dice solves battles, with a touch of uncertainty and, more importantly, the promotion of cooperation. After all, in many situations it is impossible to defeat a Barbarian army on your own, and that requires careful team planning because armies are a threat that moves from turn to turn.




The Map

The map had to be A4 size (nestorgames) and hold six regions around Italia with six provinces each (of 15mm diameter). Therefore, the "real" maps (above) could not be used. First, I had to remove Britannia from the Empire because its border would have been too far north and some oriental conquests that pushed that border too far east. Then I had to distort some regions: Hispania smaller than Gallia, push the Danube up to leave more room for Illyricvm and Graecia, compress the Turkish peninsula...

Once the frame had been defined (below left), I chose among the historical provinces those that were better known (as there were far more than 42), though I had to move some and make up others. The nature of the links connecting provinces was an easy issue as it was given by the geography (some are "broken" and cost twice to cross), and this is an advantage when you design real world conflicts! Finally, I had to find a border/threat for each region. For Gallia, it allowed me to take Britannia back to the board, but I had a problem with the Iberian peninsula...




I considered adding an exception for Hispania and saying that region (like Italia) had no border/threat, but it was a blow to my quest of elegance and simplicity — then history came to my rescue! It turns out that at that time they had included the most western African province, Mavretania Tingitana (modern Morocco), into Hispania in order to better answer to threats coming from that area. Problem solved: Africa would end between modern Morocco and Algeria, and Hispania had its border!




The rest was "easy": Play with the colors, textures, contrasts...up to the final touch of using the die symbols for the region/province numerals because as soon as you roll the dice, you see the province they refer to.

All in all, I am very proud of the map! If you scroll back to the top of the diary, you'll see the final map stretched to fit on top of the real one. I wanted the game to be language independent, so from the start I chose Latin names for everything, even the title! The rulebooks are available (for the moment) in English, Spanish and French.

The Capitals

I added a final touch of history to the map by drawing the Tetrarchic capitals. Although Rome continued to be the nominal capital of the entire Roman Empire, the Tetrarchs based themselves in other cities closer to the borders, mainly intended as headquarters for the defense of the Empire against the most immediate and menacing threats:

-----() Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier) was the capital of Constantius, the western Caesar, near the strategic Rhine border (province Germania Inferior).

-----() Mediolanum (modern Milan) was the capital of Maximian, the western Augustus, in charge of Italia and Africa (province Cisalpina).

-----() Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica) was the capital of Galerius, the eastern Caesar, on the critical Danube border (province Pannonia Inferior).

-----() Nicomedia (modern Izmit) was the capital of Diocletian, the eastern Augustus, a base against invasion from the Balkans and Persia (province Bithynia).

In the game they play their historical role, a base to reach the borders more rapidly and a support against revolts and Barbarian armies. And without adding specific powers to each Emperor figure, they give them a historical flavor.

The Nestorgames Edition

The design process had been extremely fast: I started drawing maps freehand in June 2015, and by September 2015 the game was ready! I was lucky enough that all the different ideas fit from the start; everything worked as I had expected or better. The couple of things that hindered the game flow were solved with the help of my brother Fernando, who has the ability to "see" through game designs. As I said, one of the precursor ideas was fitting the nestorgames format, so contacting Néstor was the natural next step.




For a moment I was tempted to try more "traditional" publishers in order to have a box, mounted map, miniatures...but very soon I realized that the game would be much better with a case, a rollable board, and meeples, my original idea. So I contacted Néstor, and (as with my BASKETmind) he surprised me again! Very professional, respectful of the design, always fast to suggest ideas. Sometimes we forget how globalization has changed our lives: being thousands of km away, an e-mail, a picture taken with the phone, a search on google...and a new idea replaces a problem.

For the Emperors, we chose a Roman silhouette inspired by the statue of the tetrarchs above, with cylindrical helmets. As you can see, the Roman meeples look great. (I know I'm subjective...) They are cute, you can spot them very easily on the board, and they give the game a lot of character. I like them more than the Greek and Roman miniatures I had bought for the prototypes (see above, left-center)!




The printed map looks great, too. It is the first time I take a freehand drawing so far, going through a computer vector drawing (that I already had) and finally aging it with Photoshop. It is also the first game map I've seen on a mouse pad, and all the players have loved it!

Fight for Rome!

I hope this diary has given you an overall view of the game, of the why behind some design choices, and also the will to try it! It has nothing to do with my first design, BASKETmind, except for the format. The latter was exclusively two players, face to face, sports themed... Tetrarchia can be played solitaire or with 2-4 players, is cooperative, has a historical theme, and plays in about 30 minutes. I am very happy with the result, it has become the game I play the most (alone or with others), and the nestorgames edition has exceeded all my expectations.

The set-up has four parameters that can take three values each, depending on the difficulty you wish, so you can define up to 81 different challenges! The game also includes five official variants that twist the gameplay, especially the last one — "The Great" — that moves sooner in time the historical facts that followed the Tetrarchy (the rivalries that ended it to the hands of Constantine the Great), adding a competitive aspect that hinders cooperation.

And the design process is not over. We have already an expansion that will introduce a new and redoubtable enemy (Gothic Army), a new obstacle (Pirates) to block naval movement, and a fifth colleague (Dux) to help the Emperors. I am even thinking of a different game for three players set 150 years later, not cooperative at all, that will use the same components, but it will take longer to develop...

Thanks for reading, and I hope some of you will enjoy the game!

Miguel Marqués

P.S. #1 For those who don't know, Constantine the Great was the son of Constantius, the "Red Emperor" in this game.

P.S. #2 You can find some strategy tips here or here.
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Sat May 7, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Do You Want to Play Basketball? Play BASKETmind

Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
France
Caen
(from Valencia, Spain)
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My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
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My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
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This is a summary of why and how I designed BASKETmind back in 1981, how the game has evolved over time, how I made the most recent prototype, and how things changed during the production process that has lead to its publication by nestorgames in April 2012. I only hope that if I publish a second game it will take less than thirty years!

The title of this diary says "Play" because there are a lot of league management basketball games, but few about playing the game itself, and I found those few either too simple or too fiddly. That's why I thought that, after thirty years, there was still an opportunity for my game to get published.

The Idea

In 1981, when I was 13, I began playing games, mainly wargames, and designing games of my own about WWII battles I could not find (Okinawa) or those that did not exist (a hypothetical Nazi invasion of Iceland), but then I began to think about sport simulations. I started with tennis, but it was too simple for a game, then soccer and handball, but the shots were hard to simulate: The goal was several hexes wide – yes, I only knew wargames! – and the scoring probability depended on both distance and angle.

And then I thought about basketball: The basket is just one hex, and the scoring probability depends only on the distance! So back in 1981 I began drawing hex mats on paper (if only I had thought about the circle alternative...), checking the right court size, and playtesting some rules. The size of the board was dictated by one fact: I wanted shots beside the basket to be missed only on a 1, and beyond the three-point arc to be scored only on a 6. Yes, at that time to me die=d6!

The First Prototypes

The first board was a full basketball court, drawn almost freehand, and mounted on a thick wooden base. The players were pawns, but soon I wanted to introduce players of different heights, so I glued different discs below the pawns. The ball was beside the pawns, however, so the hexes had to be bigger to hold pawn and ball, and it was not visually appealing. I added toothpicks to the pawn heads and a hole to the ball.


Unfortunately, I didn't keep the very first board and players; I offered them to the first friend that played the game with me. Everything was resolved with dice: shots, dribbles, passes, blocks, rebounds, steals... (We were used to dice at that time since we played Risk!) Passes and shots could only go through straight lines of hexes, but this limited action a lot, especially shots, since there were only three lines of shot to be defended. (The three-point arc was drawn only until 60 degrees from the center.) Therefore I extended shots to any hex, always missing on a 1 beside the basket and on one unit more every extra hex away; just beyond the three-point arc, shots were missed on a 1-5.


The turns, score and statistics were written on a sheet. (We were used to that, too.) We tracked even the individual player scores, and number of fouls. There were two replacements with poorer abilities that could enter play when important players were close to their fifth foul, or that did when one player was eliminated. Everything was resolved with a d6, but forwards got a bonus for shots.

One thing hard to implement was counterattacks as players needed two movement values: one for the normal sequence of play and a bigger one for movement from one half of the court to the other. And before the five players came back, attacks were quite easy with such a low density: hard to both cover the perimeter and block a drive to the basket with only two or three players!

Despite these difficulties, I organized tournaments with friends and my brother, and everyone loved them! Matches looked a lot like real ones, with teams exhausting possession when leading, forcing attacks on players with four fouls, decisive shots on the last turn... Luck played a role but not a huge one: the final game was often my brother against me, and I think I won all of them! The games were long enough to reward good play (looking for better shooting positions) over lucky rolls, and we were used to long games at that time (Risk again).

A few years later I got my first computer and drew the board with a program, added colors to the court and key – but then I left to the University and the game found a quiet place inside a drawer. A few years ago I came back to the boardgame hobby and discovered a lot of new games, with more elegant mechanisms than just throwing dice, that lasted less than an hour now that we are always in a hurry, with beautiful components... and I wondered about that basketball game in a drawer, which by the way I had already named BASKETmind. (I played Mastermind in the 1980s...) Could I adapt it to the present generation of board games?

The Mechanisms

The guidelines to follow were to make the game simpler, shorter and prettier! And with fewer rolls...

1) Shots: The only die roll I could not suppress was the one for shots. Players would still miss on a 1 beside the basket and 1 extra unit every extra hex away. This was the core idea of the game from the start. I added two new ingredients: Forwards use a d8 (no need of bonus), and the shot can be taken from any hex around the player, that being the Zone of Control or ZoC. (No bonus needed for easy shots either.)

2) Counterattacks: If transitions from half to half were hard to simulate, why not throw them away? The board was reduced to a half court, which in addition could be expanded and lead to bigger hexes/players. A playtest try (with circles!):


I was afraid that setting up the players at the end of every ball possession would slow down the game, but it did not; it was much faster than counterattacks.

3) Passes: There should be lines of pass but not too restrictive. I had added some "hex diagonals" to the straight lines, but they were quite complex. And then I thought about straight lines only – but from ZoC to ZoC! Passes are easy to perform but still not easy to survey for the defender. Before, any defender along the line could try to roll for interception, but I replaced this roll with one-player-only secret activation.

4) Dribbles: And this activation mechanism could be applied to dribbles at the same time! If the ball handler goes through the activated player's ZoC, the dribble fails. The failing probability was 1/6 and now is 1/5, avoiding one roll (or more). The activation mechanism is definitely modern as it adds a bluffing aspect to the game.

5) Blocks: I replaced the block roll, too. If the shooter secretly chooses the shot hex, then the defender can choose the hex(es) he will block! This is another bluffing element and very realistic. The defender marks the blocking hex(es), then the shooter places the ball for a shot. Fouls are therefore easily introduced: If you block the shooter hex but he can still shoot, you committed a foul.


6) Rebounds and Free Throws: After a rebound in the earlier version, the game continued. Offensive rebounds ended often in a slam dunk, or with all the attacker players having to leave the key, and defensive rebounds started a complicated transition. Now the team getting the rebound re-starts possession, period. Free throws were performed as in real games, with rebounds, etc. Now you just roll the die, without re-setting up players, and miss on a 1-2.

7) Press: When one team was leading and was playing long possessions, the other team could try to steal the ball always with the same probabilities: 1-2 foul, 6 steal. Now I use the secret block mechanism to try to steal the ball. One more roll avoided, one more bluffing element added! And when the ball handler is cornered it is easier to steal. The lower foul probability is compensated by the fact that you lose the activation of those players, so your team gets quite exposed after pressing.

8) Replacements: The counting of individual fouls was realistic but complicated the game, and if one wanted to play a shorter game the foul limit would have been re-scaled. And there was a "center" replacement and a "guard/forward" one, so one player could use three centers by the end of a game. The easiest solution was to eliminate foul counting, and thus eliminate replacements. Special players can still be introduced, see below.

The Components

I wanted them simple/cheap, functional and pretty, and then I found these plastic checkers' pieces:


For about €1 I had the twelve discs per color needed (six for centers, four for forwards, one for guard, and one spare), and they were indented! The ball, a wooden cylinder, would be easily carried with the ball handler. The discs were big enough to get the player movement, shooting and ball abilities printed on them. They are not hard to remember, but the discs being indented, I could add a label below the player and introduce variant players with new abilities that could balance the game against beginners or add variety for experts.


When I first thought about replacing the rolling-dice-for-everything mechanism with secret activation, I used "benches" and screens. It looked good, but it slowed down the game play and made the design incompatible with the nestorgames format. I was trying other publishers, too, but thinking about how to make the game suitable for nestorgames I realized that the dice already in the game could be used to activate players and blocks by just covering them with your hand! Bye, screens...

Aside from being better suited for nestorgames, the game play became easier and faster. You had to remove the screen every turn, and "imagine" the shooter's ZoC on the bench for the block, which was hard for some players; now you just uncover a die: the d6 to choose the activated player (1-5) and the d8 to choose the hex around the ball handler (1-7). The score sheet was replaced by a panel, with two turn markers and two score wheels, with a special d6 (numbered 0-5) to count tens of points:


No more need to photocopy sheets or look for pens! The panel has a block of fifty turns, and you can choose to play a quick fifty-turn game or four quarters of fifty – the 200 turns that we played in the 1980s! I took advantage of my computer skills to make a pretty board, with the key colored in order to remind players that attackers cannot stop inside, and with the two semicircles (decoration only) in light blue. I mounted the board on two thick cardboard panels that fold at the center. All the components would fit in a very small box.

The Game Play

Finally, the game became simpler, shorter and prettier...and with fewer rolls! But does it play better? I have been playtesting it intermittently in these recent years, and it feels (1) much more modern and up-to-date, and (2) much closer to basketball. The only problem with the activation system that I have found is that it makes solo play impossible, even with a split personality! I use to playtest solo a lot, but once I introduced activation I needed help from my brother, nephew, and brother-in-law.

Shorter games may rely a bit on luck, but this is something I do not mind when I play games now. Anyway, better play is still rewarded; I played against my nephew, letting him use all the variant players, and I beat him easily. In order to get an idea of how close it is to real basketball, check the examples of play at the end of the rulebook (zipped PDF); you will see many spectacular actions!


That is exactly what I wanted: Allow as many "real" actions as possible through few and simple rules. For example, there is no specific rule for screens, but they ARE in the game. (See "Example C" in the rulebook.)

Publication and Production: Nestorgames

And to conclude this diary, here is the final product!


The game entered the nestorgames continuous abstract game design contest with the prototype described above, and in only three weeks it got the 100 thumbs it needed to get published! I was happy about that, of course, but mainly about the interaction I had with so many users on BGG that like both board games and basketball, and the support of many "virtual" friends who I have met over the past years here.

The last step before entering Néstor's contest was making the rules available so that people could find out whether they liked the game or not. That was a lot of work! The rules had always seemed simple to me because I was always there to explain them, but organizing them, making everything explicit, adding the rules that would avoid people playing the game "not as intended"... And in order to get more support I created the rulebook in English AND Spanish, so I had to correct/change/add things in both at the same time!

Some users were very important during these last steps. The first one was kduke, who encouraged me to go ahead and tried several U.S. publishers for me, and GeoMan, who built the first prototype I didn't build myself and through his playtesting comments encouraged many Greek boardgamers/basketballers to give the "final push".

I cannot say much about game production compromises because this was only my first experience, but it was a great one. I don't know how common it is on the game industry, but Néstor (n_r_a) from nestorgames has always listened and respected my opinion on the changes that had to be introduced. And most of them, though imposed by production constraints, have made the game look better!

1) The player symbols: The nestorgames format makes the scale of the board and players a bit smaller, so the small hex/die numbers were hard to read. Néstor came up with the symbol idea, which I like much more!

2) The circle grid: The new move symbols were circles, and then it made more sense to use a circle grid instead of the hexagonal one. I had used both through the years, and we liked the look of the result.

3) The score panel and team colors: Néstor proposed the hollow frames for the score, and since the background is black, a black team was not a good choice. I had used black/white in order to give the game a "classic", chess-like feel, but those bright red and blue are much more attractive!

4) Number of dice and markers: During production we realized that I had been using more pieces than needed! Not a problem for a prototype, but we found out that six gray markers – red is used for a team – and two dice were enough.

5) The variant players: Having the variant player labels below the pieces is not very "durable" as they wear out if the pieces are not indented. When Néstor decided to make separate pieces, we thought that proposing them as an expansion was a better idea. Indeed they are not needed at all; the hundreds of games I have played through the years have never used variant players! I used them only for some sample turns to see how the game would change. The game has enough variety without them, but if some want to change, balance teams, play the pre-game of drafting the players, etc., then they are available as an expansion.

6) The rulebook: The rules have not changed, but they are much clearer now. That's why I have deleted the files I had posted on BGG; now the official rulebooks are available only at the nestorgames site. The links have been added on the BASKETmind game page. Note that I have added a summary at the end that makes clear many things that can be forgotten during a first play. I am also working on a French version of the rules...

Happy End

Hopefully I don't design games for a living, only to have fun. I like games and I like creating things, but most of the time I have created alternative pieces, variants or scenarios for existing games. And believe me, creating a game from scratch is a completely different beast!

If I have to keep one thing from these thirty years, it will be the memories of the Basketball World Cups I organized with my friends in the 1980s – that and the interactions I had with the BGG users and Néstor. And the feeling that "something has been completed" when I see the game at nestorgames. Well, that makes three things to keep!

Next time I open a game and think "But why did they do it that way?", I'll remember the compromises I had to meet with BASKETmind and be more understanding... Thanks for reading, and I hope some of you will enjoy the game!

Miguel Marqués
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15 Comments
Sat May 5, 2012 4:55 pm
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