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Designer Diary: Milestones

Ralf zur Linde
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Board Game: Milestones
The idea for the game Milestones came to me during a stay on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where the entire network of roads bears tightly-packed, white-yellow mile markers typical of the islands in the area. These are not relics of bygone days, but rather an essential tool for navigating the island, even today in the times of TomTom and GPS. Virtually every rural mailing address is specified by an appropriate milestone.

It is probably due to my selective perception that I discovered similar milestones in my native Germany only afterward. Here, from time to time, you'll spot a milestone hiding in the high bushes, often disintegrated beyond recognition. The reason for this is that the local milestones – if not restored due to some work in the area – are very old and have long since ceased to be relevant for navigation. On the larger trade by-ways, though, the milestones that have been in place in this country since the 17th century are important benchmarks for the division of different areas and the planning of day trips. In a similar way, the postal mile markers have also played an important role – and all of this goes back to the Romans and the Greeks, who in ancient times used stones to mark distances on their streets.

From the perspective of a game author, the division of land by milestones makes for an exciting topological subject to be broken down into a game – but my initial focus was not one in which you'd develop stretches of land and road networks that both divide and connect different areas, but rather the planning process for the erection of the actual milestones. I wanted to know how the construction materials – the stone and wood – were acquired, how workers were organized, how funds flowed to pay for everything, and so on, while having all of it depicted in the game in some manner. The nature of the repetitive sequences of numerically-ascending milestones at the proper distances should be the driving force for these procurements. And so the idea developed for cards with up to four numerically consecutive procurement actions. The illustration below shows two such cards, which can be viewed separately or combined to create a longer ascending sequence of numbers.

Board Game: Milestones

The first test I undertook was with these "card rows". Each player was able to create his own card row and move his pawn steadily from left to right, with the pawn beginning again at the left after reaching the right edge. Each player could change or enlarge his personal card row, but only so long as the ascending sequence of numbers was kept. To make this climbing concept possible without overly restricting the players, I increased the number limit to 100.

This range turned out to be far too broad, as my friend Stefan Dorra showed me in the course of development after I had created samples of my idea. Stefan had the important idea of making the range of number spaces much narrower – only up to 8 – while giving players freedom on other levels. He also reduced the number of elements on cards so that each card had only two game elements with two numbers (instead of four). Our initial tests with this stripped-down material so clearly demonstrated a positive effect that we decided to keep working on a trial basis with the idea of a personal card row. The newly designed cards now looked like this:

Board Game: Milestones

As before, each player would move with his pawn from left to right on this row to acquire items or actions. We would collect sand, stone, wood, money, etc. – and so it was now time to solve the topological problem of creating a game board that would then be studded with milestones for dedicated roadways. For this purpose, we created a large game board composed of many triangular units. On the corresponding lines the road pieces would be placed, while the intersection points were reserved for the placement of the milestones (the heart of our game). As you can see, the first game board had qualitatively different regions, with a river crossing the countryside. The reason for these different textures was the idea that construction costs would differ depending on the terrain, while certain areas would be off-limits entirely.

Board Game: Milestones

We realized quickly that building suitable card rows would be demanding and complex enough for the overall feel of the game, so we decided to minimize the level of complexity in the game board. This realization proved even more true when it turned out that our time-evaluation mechanism was not catchy enough and always proved to depend too much on established paths, milestones and houses. Thus, we first removed the river, then the different land types, then kept searching for as simple an evaluation mechanism as possible in order to keep the focus on the card rows being the heart of game play.

We eventually found this simplicity in the direct and obvious way of placing values on the board.

Board Game: Milestones

A milestone was now worth as many points as the value of the space on which it was established. So simple! With this approach, players could also quickly evaluate the value of houses and markets built, namely the sum of the visible values at either end of the road segment.

Although we viewed the board with a high level of satisfaction, we weren't entirely happy with the feeling of the game as a whole. This was due to the card rows supplying us with the needed resources, but the spending of those resources being fairly uncontrolled – that is, we were using the raw materials to build milestones, houses and markets whenever we desired. It was only after a long search that we had the breakthrough idea for the game, that being to transform the card row into a circular course, or rondel. This change gave us the opportunity to structure various kinds of construction, trade and monetary actions with the formerly separate card row now exclusively devoted to the procurement of raw materials. Thus, the card row in the upper half of the roundabout would be a display in which you acquire raw materials that you would then spend in the lower half to create structures. Equally important in this development was the introduction of the castle space (shown below at left).

Board Game: Milestones

The function of the castle is more vital than it might seem at first glance because it creates a wonderful dilemma for players between on the one hand briskly circling the roundabout and on the other slowly cultivating and stockpiling goods. Those who move quickly may build more than the other players, but they might run short on time to collect the raw materials to build as much as they want. Whoever moves too slowly on the roundabout, however, will collect many raw materials but be in danger of coming to the lucrative spots on the board too late.

We were now very happy with Milestones, and our tests proved consistently popular with players. In the course of further development, we therefore focused only on the fine-tuning. We fixed the precise ending of the game, created small bonus chips that helped cement a thematic connection between the shared game board and each player's individual rondel, and started to look for a publisher that would have an interest in publishing Milestones.

We were fortunate that eggertspiele was able to come to a publishing agreement so quickly after the first games. Just one year earlier, we had a wonderful collaboration with the graphic artist Klemens Franz (on our game Pergamon), and Klemens was brought on board this time, too. Here's one of his first sketches for the individual player rondel along with the final look.

Board Game: Milestones

The final version of the rondel shows what high value comes from having a coherent look and graphics that support the game system. The drawbridge in front of the castle depicts in the simplest way that a player must stop at the castle while moving. The legend banner explains symbolically all the possible moves in each space. And the numerous details provided around the buildings create an atmosphere that emphasizes the planning needed for the establishment of the milestones and road network. We thank Klemens Franz for his unerring touch as well as Viktor Schulz, who has overseen the development process and put his stamp on the editorial look of Milestones – which from the initial idea to the publication of the game took about two years. Another milestone...

Ralf zur Linde
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Tue Aug 14, 2012 5:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Eselsbrücke – "So This Donkey Walked into a Bar on a Bridge..."

Ralf zur Linde
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Board Game: Eselsbrücke
People have always been enchanted by mnemonics as they help us memorize things that might otherwise be forgotten. If you look closely at what mnemonics are, you realize that they are often nothing more than short stories – and the more outrageous, funny or bizarre these stores are, the better we can remember them. Some stories will never be forgotten and will be carried with us for a lifetime.

Game designers tend to monitor their environment for things that can be turned into board games, and sometime in 2007 the idea came to me to capture the essence of mnemonics – that is, mini-stories – in something exciting and fun for the game table. The aim was to have players invent in the first stage of the game their own mini-stories, preferably in an exciting way so that other players would be able to remember the stories in the second stage, with some time passing between the two stages. What could more challenging than to take everyday objects that at first have nothing to do with one another, then wrap them together in mini-stories!

From gallery of W Eric Martin


And so I started drawing images that I then pasted onto small cardboard tiles. The resulting 120 image tiles would be placed face-down at the edge of the table. On a player's turn, he would reveal two image tiles, then tell a mini-story about the two objects that would ideally allow players to recall the two images as a cohesive unit later in the game. If, for example, the player revealed tiles showing "stool" and "beer bottle", he might invent the following mini-story:

Quote:
In my youth, we had an infamous dare in which we'd challenge someone to hold a beer bottle steady in one hand for ten minutes while standing on a stool balanced on only one leg. Few survived that dare as they'd drink the beer first, then could hardly stand on the stool using both legs.
The two tiles "stool" and "beer bottle" would then be placed face-down in separate stacks in the middle of the table. After 20-30 tiles were placed into each of these stacks, the first part of the game would end and no more stories would be added to the players' bulging memories. Now would begin the resolution stage of the game. On a turn, a player would reveal a tile from either of the two stacks, then would have to name the second matching tile still hidden in the other stack. So if you revealed "stool", you'd have to say "beer bottle", earning a victory point chip if you did and losing one if you goofed.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


The basic concept of the game was already quite apparent, but somehow it felt too light and trivial. All the players who tested the game found the resolution stage incredibly easy as the previously told story had anchored "stool" and "beer bottle" firmly in their memories. It's hard for a player to forgot a mnemonic, and weeks or even months later we were able to recall mnemonics created during a game. For this reason, the game idea disappeared into the drawer.

More than a year later, now in 2009, I dug out the prototype and showed it to my friend Stefan Dorra, with whom I had once again begun to develop games. Stefan was as excited by the mnemonic/mini-story foundation as I was, so we decided to work on the game more. Stefan also quickly realized that the way players resolved the two stacks in the second half of the game was much too simple. While I had never considered anything other than players revealing two tiles at once, Stefan thought that players should instead reveal three tiles. I was skeptical of the idea and had doubts that players would be able to remember everything, but I learned a lesson. While the difficulty of the game did increase, players were still able to name the missing tiles in most cases – but not always, and that's the way it should be. The right mix of fun and challenge seemed to be in place.

But Stefan then realized another problem, namely the lack of interaction. This problem was solved in a major breakthrough due to one additional mechanism, namely the common resolution of the mnemonics. Now all players other than the one who created the mnemonic would have to resolve it!

To make this happen, the storyteller would distribute the three tiles to the other players in clockwise order, with each player receiving one tile and keeping it secret from others. The players, some of whom had a piece of information about the story, would have to name a tile held by another player. Thanks to this breakthrough, we shifted from one player resolving a story to everyone doing it. This new system was wonderfully interactive because the distribution of tiles across the table had the effect of creating partnerships among the players. Getting other players to work together in a joint effort to recreate a tale placed a lot of responsibility on the storyteller, so to reward the successful remembering of a story, we decided the storyteller would receive an additional victory point chip.

The last major problem to be solved on the way to a finished game involved the rigidity of play. The game still had a strict separation between the two halves of play, with mnemonics being created in the first half, then resolved in the second half. Then the game ended. Thus, it was imperative that the two halves merge with one another in some way. This cross-penetration was achieved by overlapping the two actions – creating and resolving – starting in the third round of play. Starting in this round, a player would do two things on his turn: 1) Build a new mnemonic and 2) Resolve the oldest mnemonic he had created. Using this structure, we determined that the playing time should be seven rounds, with rounds 1 and 2 being devoted to mnemonic creation (building the "three-stack" of tiles), rounds 3-5 involving both creation and resolution, and rounds 6 and 7 resolving the final two series of mnemonics. Since we kept noticing that players still resolved the mnemonics all too easily, we decided to raise the stakes. Thus, while the first two rounds would still involve the creation of three-tile mnemonics, in the next two rounds players had to create stories with four images and in the final round with five images.

To track the seven rounds and the actions in each of them, we used a round marker set on a game board in the center of the table. Then we realized that the scoring system we had been using, one that tracked the successes and failures of players during mnemonic resolution, could be incorporated into this round tracker as the victory point chips were of little practical use. Now every player was represented by a pawn on a linear scoring track, a track that was an ugly scrawl to begin with but quickly beautified. Whoever was able to resolve a mnemonic would move his pawn ahead two spaces, while the one who had told the story would advance one space. Whoever got the story wrong would fall back one space.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


It was now Autumn 2009, and after numerous tests we were extremely pleased with our game, so we brought Eselsbrücke – that being the German word for "mnemonics", the literal translation of which is "donkey bridge" – to Spiel 2009 in Essen, Germany to show to Thorsten Gimmler from Schmidt Spiele. Thorsten liked the basic idea of the game, and we were delighted when a few weeks later he offered a licensing agreement for the game.

Nevertheless, the game at that time had not reached its final form. Many other tests had shown that all too often players forgot to advance and move back their pawns on the scoring track. This was due to the enormous amount of emotion coming from players due to wacky stories and the thrilling moments when a mnemonic was resolved. It was clear that the scoring had to braided into the game play so that it would happen without players even noticing.

So we did further editorial work on the game and devised a new and much more practical scoring system. As a result, the game board and pawns disappeared and the image tiles themselves become the score indicator. This new scoring mechanism is far more clever: When a player names an image tile held by an opponent, that opponent hands over the tile and the player adds that tile to his stack of VPs on the table. Anyone who messes up a story resolution has to discard one or more tiles. To reward the storyteller, a newly introduced image tile is placed on his stack whenever a story is resolved correctly by the other players.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
This additional tile represents a victory point for the storyteller, but it also serves a second function. If a player has to give up chips due to an incorrect guess – with the penalty for mistakes rising from one tile to seven as the game progresses – he can now stop handing in chips after discarding a Stop Tile from his stack. (If he must lose five tiles, for example, and a Stop Tile is the third tile down in his stack, then he loses only three tiles.) Thanks to this bonus, Stop Tiles are extremely popular in the final game, and they inspire players to create really inventive mnemonics so that others can remember them with ease. To make it easy for players to stack their tiles between rounds and help them recall which stack is for which mnemonic and how many tiles must be paid for a false memory, we introduced a new player board to track all this information.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The final version of the player board, showing stacks of tiles from completed stories to be distributed on future turns


In the many other tests that followed, the only changes to the rules came from special cases that occasionally occur, such as a player needing to name the last tile in a mnemonic while holding that tile in hand. Thus, our main focus for the final phase in 2010 was the graphical implementation for the game, and thankfully Schmidt was able to get Michael Menzel to handle the design and artwork. Schmidt had also decided to include 180 tiles in the game – 50% more than were in the prototype – so there was much to do, but eventually we did have 180 images with no duplication.

Board Game: Eselsbrücke


Over the summer of 2010, we received about a half-dozen new images each week for review, and once again we realized how excellent Michael is, for not only are the pictures clear and meaningful, but they also play a part in the creation of a mini-story. The tile for "Autumn", for example, shows not only the brown leaves you'd expect, but also a walker whose leashed dog is being carried away by the wind; the tile for "gap-toothed" shows a victorious boxer who would be better off wearing a mouth guard in future fights. These "primed" illustrations help players to create mnemonics more spontaneously.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


In closing, I'd like to offer special thanks not only to Thorsten Gimmler for his outstanding editorial work, but also to Michael Menzel for the particularly accomplished drawings.

Ralf zur Linde

(This diary was translated from the German by BGG News editor W. Eric Martin, with assistance from my conveniently German exchange student, Bahar Mahzari. I take responsibility for any mistakes added to the diary. Any improvements, too. —WEM)
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Fri Feb 25, 2011 7:04 pm
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Designer Diary: Digging Through the History of Pergamon

Ralf zur Linde
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Board Game: Pergamon
The roots of Pergamon go back to the year 2004. That summer, I visited a number of Greek islands as well as parts of the Turkish west coast. My travels also brought me to the city of Bergama in present-day Turkey. Here stood the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, which, though once splendid, had suffered greatly from disrepair, erosion, and grave robbery over the centuries. In the 19th century, Pergamon became one of the most significant excavation sites in the world.

My travel guide took me immediately to the center of the erstwhile archeological action. I found myself on a dry plateau, surrounded by crumbled walls and remnants of stone columns, as well as small excavations. Nothing was whole – nor was it when Pergamon was first made archeologically accessible and excavated. The archeologists of 130 years ago found nothing more than fragments that had to be pieced together again in painstaking effort before they could be exhibited at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Here lies the source for one of the basic mechanisms of Pergamon the game. When I had returned home, I told my friend Stefan Dorra about my plan to create a game with the title of "Pergamon". Stefan, having been to Pergamon before, was immediately sold on the idea. And so we knew right from the start that the players would assume the roles of Pergamon's archeologists and that they would excavate broken fragments in the course of the game. It was also clear that the finds would be illustrated on square tiles. However, instead of showing complete objects on the tiles, we needed to find a way to depict them in their broken state. The rather obvious solution was to split the objects down the middle and to place the two halves on the opposing ends of a tile. In this way, a tile with a whole vase became a tile with two vase fragments.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


And so the method and modality, that is the core, of Pergamon was born. The most interesting gimmick was that now the fragments on the right-hand side could be furnished with a number in large font for the century (from 1 to 5 B.C.), while the left-hand side fragment received a number for the decade (from 00 to 99). In this way, piecing together the tiles rendered complete vases, with each having a different age.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


Since we were quite pleased with this jigsawing and judged it to be easily translatable to age evaluations, we decided, after some cultural-historical research, on three further finds, split them graphically as we had done the vase, and thus produced more tiles with fragmented pieces.

Apart from the vase we now had the bracelet, the jug, and the mask. Indeed, these four objects are among the most frequently excavated finds at Pergamon. In order to further force the jigsaw mechanism and to make it more challenging at the same time, we then mixed the halves of the different objects on the tiles. Now we had tiles that, for instance, had half a vase on the left-hand side, but half a mask on the right- hand side.

Furthermore, to facilitate distinction, we used different color schemes for each object type. Thus, we produced sixty different tiles which could be fitted together in a horizontal line. This was also when the in-game term "collection" was born. A collection was not only characterized by the correct matching of adjacent tiles, but also by the easily discernible value of the collection, as well as the immediate determination of each object's age.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


This exemplary collection has a value of 8 (1+5+2), the oldest piece being a vase from the year 558 B.C. The publisher eggertspiele later commissioned the illustrator Klemenz Franz with Pergamon's design. His final realization of the sixty tiles is not only beautiful, but also adds a functional level: in the final game, the tiles are not merely square, but jagged. This complements the broken and fragmented character of the objects and markedly stabilizes the fitting of the tiles in the final game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


The evaluation mechanism was – as described above – plainly self-evident and logic dictated its relocation to the renowned Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which famously exhibited the finds and collections of the Pergamon archeologists at the time.

Thus, there was no significant development time needed for the evaluation system. The museum was simply subdivided into 24 spaces, on which the players' collections are exhibited for the audience. A collection with a value of 8 is therefore placed on space #8; a collection with a value of 20 is placed on space #20, and so forth. The collections of higher value attract more audience interest than the ones further back in the museum, on the lower spaces. This is shown in the game's four evaluation turns (out of 12 total turns) by indicating that more or fewer visitors are interested in one collection or another. As the museum plan shows, a collection on space #8 has exactly two visitors, a collection on space #20 a grand total of five visitors, and so on.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


It should be noted that in the course of the game the value of the collections decreases over time. On the one hand, the audience loses interest in a collection after it has been exhibited for a while; on the other hand, new collections making it into the museum decrease the value of already existing ones. Thus, collections constantly lose value during the course of the game, making it a common occurrence that even a collection that started with a value of 20 will eventually leave the museum altogether. Ideally, however, such a collection has brought its player a lot of audience interest during the four evaluation turns.

Much more than over the evaluation at the museum, we had to rack our brains over the excavation mechanism. There were two essential components important to us. On the one hand, we wanted to include research funds, as those were paid from the German treasury at the time of the archeological development and, thus, would help make the game even more realistic. On the other hand, we wanted the depth of the layers of earth, and consequently the age of the excavated fragments, to play a role.

Early on it became clear that the provided research funds should not be specified too precisely in order to force the players to take risks of their own. For that reason, two face-down research funds cards are laid out at the beginning of each turn. The precise value of the two cards thus remain unknown. The back of a research funds card, however, gives clues as to its value. Cards with a small moneybag contain research funds with a value of 1-4, while cards with a large money chest contain funds with a value of 5-8. If, for example, at the beginning of a turn a moneybag and a money chest were shown, the actual amount of research funds ranges between 6 and 12.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


In the beginning, there was only one track on which the players could place their figure (and only one in the game, incidentally) to indicate the amount of money they wanted to apply for in the current turn. This was quite fascinating actually, since the players – after placing their figures and revealing the funds cards – had to divide the actual amount among themselves. The players who had been modest and applied for a small amount received their research funds first. Only afterwards did the players who had applied for more money receive their funds step-by-step. Sometimes, when the available amount of money was insufficient, these greedy players were left empty-handed.

Still, this money-acquisition mechanism did not implement our second wish for shallow and deep layers of earth. We knew that at the beginning of each of the 12 turns, along with the new research funds that had to be provided, new finds had to enter the game, too. Since we had 60 manufactured tiles and the game was to last those 12 turns exactly – each turn reflecting one month of the year 1878, which was the main excavation year in Pergamon – we decided to introduce five tiles to the game in each turn. After a while, we came up with the idea of placing those five tiles that came into play each turn into the five layers of earth, ordered by their age. Along with the higher costs for excavations in the deeper layers, the introduction of those layers allowed us to allocate a sort of "digging concession".

From gallery of W Eric Martin


From this development stage of the game onwards, a player who wanted to excavate finds in layer "V" needed an accompanying digging concession "V". Fortunately, we had already completed our track for the application for research funds! Because now all we needed to do was to neatly distribute the various digging concessions on this track. When a player placed his figure on the track now, he was not only applying for more or less research funds, but at the same time securing a digging concession for particular layers of earth.

From gallery of W Eric Martin


By now it was 2008. Only now were we satisfied with the entire structure of Pergamon. In this structure, five new finds were placed in five layers of earth in each of 12 turns. Following this, digging concessions were acquired while research funds were pocketed at more or less risk, then finds were excavated and finally fitted together in a way that would attract as large an audience as possible at a later exhibition at the museum. Only now did we start testing the game extensively in a number of game groups. In this test phase, a few further bits and pieces were added (e.g., the storage costs for objects and collections not exhibited at the museum).

Our testing ended it 2009. By that time, five years had passed. Only then did we introduce the game to Peter Eggert from eggertspiele. He was immediately convinced of the quality of the interacting mechanisms and started testing the game extensively himself. A few more, yet essential editorial improvements were made, so that Pergamon could be published a further 1.5 years later in February 2011.

Stefan and I wish to thank eggertspiele for its outstanding editorial work, as well as Klemens Franz for his imaginative and atmospheric design.

Ralf zur Linde

Board Game: Pergamon
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Thu Feb 17, 2011 6:30 am
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