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Archive for Alf Seegert

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Designer Diary: The Muse of Musée and How to Pronounce It!

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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Musée is a 30-minute card-laying game for 2-4 players from Eagle-Gryphon Games. Collect and curate fine art! Score by filling up and carefully theming your art museum!

First things first — how to pronounce the word "musée". The word is simply French for "museum" or "art gallery", but ask three French-speakers how to say it and you might get three different answers. As best I can tell, the word slinks slyly along a shadowy Gallic frontier, hiding in places English speakers fear to tread, shapeshifting sneakily between "me-ZAY", "moo-ZAY", "muh-ZAY" and "MEW-zay" – spoken example here and here. The official rules state that the player who utters the word "Musée" with the artsiest tone of voice gets to go first, so start practicing! (In belated but related news, my game Fantastiqa is pronounced "Fantastica", not "Fantastiqua".)

Musée has been in the works for well over three years, under various guises, themes, and names. It didn't begin as a museum game. Unlike most of my games, the muse of Musée appeared as "mechanisms first, theme later". For a long time I've admired card games with simple rules but complex and satisfying outcomes, classics like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities and Battle Line and Mike Fitzgerald's Mystery Rummy. I wanted a similarly engaging game, with equally novel mechanisms and a theme that created something beautiful as each of the sixty cards was played. I also wanted the game to play especially well with two players since I play most board and card games with just my wife.

The basic mechanism appeared through various encounters with a particular puzzle I found myself facing, either in shelving books at the library I worked at years ago, or in creating file names for photos I wanted to have appear in a certain order in a folder. If you have a large number of items that you need to put in order (say, books on a shelf) but you have access to only a random selection of a few at a time, where do you place each one you have?

I found that a satisfyingly tricky mechanism emerged if — unlike a book on a bookshelf — a card's position would remain fixed after it was placed, meaning that every card you played functioned as a "bet" on which cards could go in front of it or after it since space is limited and all must go in order no matter what. Requiring this commitment from the player proved nicely nail-bitey. I then added "counter-mechanisms" with benefits such as bonuses for placing cards with matching suits adjacent to one another, and for finishing a complete row before any other player does. I was surprised by just how engaging and tense this simple mechanism proved to be: Should I play this high card far to the right, or risk placing it elsewhere to score a tempting matching-suit bonus? Should I rush ahead and complete a full row before my opponent does and claim a big bonus, even if it means placing non-matching cards next to one another? And so on. I discovered that these rules produce a pleasurably painful tug-of-war with your emotions – each decision matters.

Originally I tried theming these mechanisms as a city-building game in which each card was a different color of building and players competed to build the most compelling and colorful cityscapes. Bonuses, earned by placing matching buildings adjacent to one another or by completing a full street, were represented by bustling pedestrians, parks, and other urban improvements. It worked okay, but I thought both the theme and the mechanisms could be richer.

It was after touring the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the "V&A") in 2013 that my wife and I realized that these game mechanisms would work perfectly with a theme of displaying art in a museum.

We first considered having different categories of museum objects like we saw at the V&A: teacups, dishes, furniture, etc. Later we decided to take advantage of the possibilities of library art and make all of the game's objects into paintings with various subcategories: landscapes, figures/persons, architecture, animals, and water. Some of the artists in Musée (e.g., J.M.W. Turner and William Blake) were on special exhibition on our museum tours in London, so I'm especially happy to see them appear in the game every time I play. Here are some examples of the LANDSCAPE cards in the game:

As you might well guess, I'm an especially big fan of #41 since it's the painting used on the box cover of Fantastiqa, and for the Highlands region and the "Wanderer" Adventurer.

Here is how the final game works: In Musée, you compete to fill your three-story art museum with the most valuable arrangement of famous paintings. Players receive bonuses for displaying paintings of matching theme (suit) next to each other in the same gallery, or by using connecting staircases (tokens), whose pattern changes each game. In a two-player game fifty cards are used: ten cards of each suit, with each number between 1 and 50 showing a unique painting. (Numbers go from 1-60 in three-player games. Four-player games use 1-50 and play as 2-vs-2 partnerships.)

You start with a hand of five cards (paintings). On your turn, you remove one painting from your hand and display it face-up in one of the three galleries (which have six spaces each) in your musée, then redraw. It's that simple. (And here's a helpful one-page rules summary in graphic form for those who prefer visual aids.)

The beauty is, of course, in the details. Namely, you may place this card anywhere, so long as the exhibit numbers of all paintings in the same gallery increase in numerical order from left to right. (Exhibit numbers increase in number chronologically for the most part, from the year 1400 through the early 20th century.) Just as important, you can also score valuable point bonuses based on how you position paintings in relation to one another:

• Adjacent paintings of the same theme in the same gallery score two bonus points.
• Matching paintings connected by a staircase score three points.
• The first player to fill a gallery with paintings scores four points.
• If you cannot display a painting, you cannot play any more cards for the rest of the game. The other players may keep playing until they can no longer display any paintings!

When no players can play any more cards, the game ends and you perform a final scoring. The first player to win two games is the final victor. That's it!

Although I think that fans of, say, Lost Cities and Battle Line would find Musée both familiar and appealing, Musée works quite a bit differently, in large part because of its spatial dynamics. To me, it feels a lot like my earlier games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury because the cards have identical inherent value.

Let me try to explain what I mean. In many games a "7" card is always worth more than a card with a number lower than that. In Fantastiqa it didn't work that way. Instead (say) the Spatula (Sword card) and the Cat (Tooth card) each have greater or lesser value depending entirely on what else is happening in the game. If you need to subdue a dragon, then the sword is very valuable; if you need to nibble through spiderwebs, teeth are great for that. But if you need to subdue a witch, these cards are no help at all! (You’d need a bucket of water instead...) The card values are thus all situational, but that doesn't make their use random because you can work to collect the cards that you need to fulfill specific quests you’ve acquired.

Likewise in The Road to Canterbury, all seven deadly sins begin as equally valuable to a pardoner who wants to pardon them for ready cash. But as the game progresses, Envy might become especially precious because a certain pilgrim enjoys committing sins of Envy so much. Players can capitalize on Envy's value by tempting this pilgrim to sin ever further, taking the risk that the pilgrim might die or that other players will beat them to the pardon. A pleasurable tension ensues as you work to make certain cards valuable through the playing of other cards.

Examples of the FIGURES/PERSONS suit

Musée follows this same model. The five different suits of art all begin equal but become more (or less) valuable depending entirely on where you play them in relation to one another. I tried to sidestep one of the big problems of suit-matching games by not flat-out requiring a match or meld to play a card; a player may play a card anywhere in their Musée so long as all cards in that gallery increase numerically from left to right. But once (say) a green (animal) card is in play, it becomes important to find ways to place other green cards next to it. And doing so entails risks: Each suit's numbers increase in fives — green is 5, 10, 15... while gray is 1, 6, 11... — so acquiring good bonuses means taking the risk of not being able to place other cards in the proper sequence.

Examples of the WATER suit

For a long time I've wanted to design a game whose rules could fit literally on a single page, and finally I have one. What some people call "elegance" in a game I call "simplexity", which is the greatest amount of interesting complexity emerging from the simplest rules possible. Musée couldn't be simpler — each turn you play one card and draw one card — but there's a great deal of pleasurable anxiety involved in the commitments you make with every single card you play. Decisions are hard because there's more than one way to score; each card you play functions like a "bet" on what the future holds for you based on the risks you take. Because you can see your opponent's musée and only one unique card exists for each number, the ratio of known to unknown information is well-balanced, resulting in neither chaos nor analysis paralysis.

I should take a moment to mention just how happy I am with the finalized artwork in this game. Like my earlier co-design Cubist and my games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury, Musée uses library art, which Eagle-Gryphon Games licensed through Bridgeman Art Library. Designer Sean MacDonald and Eagle-Gryphon Games together did much to spur this movement towards fine art in games via Pastiche (thanks, Sean!), and I'm delighted they did. When you have full access to a vast art library, you can pick from the very best: DaVinci, Raphael, Caspar David Friedrich, Monet, Van Gogh, Franz Marc, and Klimt for starters!

More important to me as a designer are the benefits that library art brings to my actual game designing. One thing I especially like about working with Bridgeman Art Library is that often the artwork inspires mechanisms. For example, in Fantastiqa I wanted to transform deck-building mechanisms into something more embodied and spatial, with players not just purchasing cards from a supply but subduing strange creatures and fulfilling quests that required they actually go places. In so doing, I tried to follow the lead of fantasy writer Lord Dunsany from a century ago. For his classic collection The Book of Wonder he worked with artist Sidney Sime. Instead of asking Sime merely to illustrate his tales, he flipped the arrangement around and agreed to write stories based on a series of artworks that Sime would create himself. The result was a series of especially enchanting tales with such evocative titles as "The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator", "The Loot of Bombasharna", and "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him". By letting Sime's material images stir his imagination, Dunsany was kept from falling into a rut where stagnant mental patterns repeat themselves and each new creation looks just like the previous one.

On these lines, while working on Fantastiqa I stumbled upon a painting in the Bridgeman Library called "The Gentle Dragon", which showed a friendly green dragon wearing an apron and serving tea. The moment I saw it, I thought: Hey, that might be funny, a creature in your deck who doesn't curse you or mean you harm, but who is simply (in game terms) useless because he's too busy making tea to subdue other creatures or go on daring quests!

Existing artwork helped inspire mechanisms in Musée as well. It's an equally spatial game — I didn't want it to be "yet another" rummy or soulless set-collection game. In early incarnations of the game, the three rows of cards were separated by city streets. Each row was a "world unto itself". But once the theme was changed to fine art and I saw how different works of art looked together, I realized that each row could be treated as a separate floor of a museum, and that cards could connect with each other not just within the same gallery, but also between galleries via staircases. So I got rid of the boards I'd been using and substituted tokens that show staircases (connections) on one side and chandeliers (no connection) on the other. Their patterns change every game, adding a lot of variety. This simple change added enormous depth and challenge to gameplay and helped make what was already a fun game into (in my opinion) something genuinely special.

I'm especially fond of the ANIMAL suit

I'm fortunate to have such a great developer and publisher. Rick Soued and the others at Eagle-Gryphon Games are fantastic to work with, and I feel like they genuinely honor a designer's creative vision. Even if we don't always agree on every point at first, the final product is something we all feel good about. Musée is my fourth title with Eagle-Gryphon Games, counting the recently released game Cubist, my co-design with Steve Poelzing. The production on Musée turned out beautifully. Everything from the box to the cards themselves is top-notch. The cards are oversized — almost, but not quite Lost Cities sized at 100x70 mm, the same as the cards in Day & Night, which makes for easy sleeving — and they sport a nice linen finish. The gallery bonus Ccards are ultra-thick and each displays a different painting of Sunflowers from Vincent Van Gogh. Andrew Long did a fantastic job on the card design, as did Pixel Productions with the box and rules. As always, I'm grateful for the feedback of playtesters, including Jacovis here on BGG, Zach Johnson, and Patrick and Ian Whiting.

Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoy playing Musée!

Alf Seegert

With special appreciation to the illustrious Paco Garcia Jaen of G*M*S Magazine, whose earlier interview helped me shape this designer diary. I'm very happy I got to visit him as part of our trip to England in 2013.

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Sat Jan 10, 2015 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Rolling Out CUBIST

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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By Steven Poelzing and Alf Seegert

Steve: When my non-gamer co-workers discover that I design games — and I've finally been fortunate enough to have one published with my good friend Alf — they ask, "So what's the game about?" I'm sure you can easily envision that strange, skeptical, half-afraid look folks unfamiliar with Eurogames give you.

Well, here's roughly what I tell them:

* In CUBIST, you're a sculptor who is building art installations out of cubes.
* These cubes happen to be dice.
* The rules for building installations are very simple: Dice with identical values can be stacked, and dice with adjacent numbers can be played next to each other.
* You're competing with your friends to be the first person to build a particular installation.

But what good is an art installation if no one ever gets to see it? When you complete a sculpture, you gain some recognition, and you can use the fame associated with your installation to build one brick of a Museum of Modern Art. Not only is the museum huge, colorful, and a technical wonder, each die in the final museum gives you additional points at the end of the game.

Cubist — two-player set-up

You can also use your dice to recruit help from influential cubist artists, like Juan Gris. These artists allow you to modify the die you roll, or directly obtain that elusive "3" you're always hoping to roll.

And now that you've read that, you know that I rarely make it through such a speech without interruption or a non-sequitur.

CUBIST dice have squared corners to making stacking stable and easy

Steve: If you are curious how Alf and I know each other, here is the background. Alf and I have been friends for over nine years. I met him serendipitously while demoing one of my prototypes at Game Night Games, a great game store in Salt Lake City. He was playtesting one of his prototypes that very day. Bear in mind that the likelihood of our meeting like this is close to zero since neither of us really like to go out and do the hustling required to get strangers to play our games. We've been good friends since then. We always thought it would be fun to design a game together, but nothing ever came up that we both felt resonated with our different game design styles — but while we were eating lunch one day, Alf brought up a mechanism he was playing around with that was very loosely based off a game mechanism from one of my prototypes.

Alf: I thought that Steve's prototype was very smart, but I found the gameplay a little bit more involved than is my taste. My mantra is simplify, simplify, simplify, so "when in doubt, cut it out". In Steve's game your goal was to build mounds on a board that matched pre-given patterns on cards, but the actual process of placing these mounds felt a bit indirect and labor-intensive to me.

Steve: I have to interject that Alf has a great eye for streamlined game play. If you ever want to design a game with someone, look for a co-designer that can kindly but clearly communicate their opinions of what works and doesn't work.

Alf: Thanks, Steve. I had been playing with a handful of dice one day back in 2011 and thought it might be fun to treat the dice as something more than random number generators. What might be gained by harnessing the actual materiality of the dice themselves as a game mechanism? Before I knew it, I had the basic mechanisms: Roll two dice and combine them with earlier-played dice to build structures, following the simple rule of "identical numbers stack, adjacent numbers go side-by-side". I realized that patterns for these structures were needed and immediately thought of Steve's game and proposed a new hybrid game based on a combination of his game's pattern-matching and my own forays into "dice-building".

Steve: Alf and I met for lunch fairly regularly, and he brought a bag of dice, told me the mechanisms, and asked whether I wanted to co-design. I thought he was being overly generous with the offer because I didn't think the pattern-building mechanism I proposed was either proprietary, or warranted such a gesture. It turns out that I've always wanted to make a game with Alf to simplify my designs and hopefully add a little of the complexity I enjoy to his designs. It was actually easy to say yes after I told him that I would attempt the co-design with no strings attached.

A game in progress, with installation cards at the bottom of the image;
players build dice sculptures on individual boards and collectively construct the Modern Art Museum at center

Close up of the installations in progress

Alf: I've had a half-dozen games published so far. CUBIST turned out to be my first published co-design and I couldn't be happier about it. I think the combined elements turned into a tasty Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Steve: To my recollection, the first rendition of the game was building castles in the clouds. It had a whimsical feeling, and the majority of the action occurred in front of a single player. I think in those early days, we had three agenda items for the game.

1. Seek balance in a dice-based game and make sure that meaningful choices could still occur.
2. Figure out how to make the game more interactive.
3. Find a consistent theme for all parts of the game.

Balance is tough in a dice-driven game, so we looked at all the dice games on the market and realized that we needed the elements that allow a player to either re-roll or modify dice.

Next, we had to decide what happens when one player completes a structure (later called an installation). The issue was that when an installation is completed, everyone else working on the installations would have works in progress that couldn't be used. To prevent run-away leaders, we thought that the game required a central playing board on which a player could donate dice from dismantled structures for actions to modify die rolls. We used this a long time and changed it only when we settled on our theme. As it turns out, this additional mechanism spiced up the game in unexpected ways.

Alf: I liked the hard decisions that arise this way since I could donate dice at any time, not just when my opponent completed an installation. Should I use these dice for further building, or for purchasing special actions?

Steve: I think we struggled with how to make the game interactive. The central playing board was semi-interactive when we decided that other players should be able to bump you off of spaces. Neither of us liked dice just occupying an action for a nebulous future play.

Alf: The decision that your dice could be bumped off the special actions if another player had equal or greater dice values added some tension, but it still didn't feel complete.

Steve: We tried a bunch of cool ideas that fit the theme of castles in the sky, but Alf's axiom of keeping the rules simple, the choices important, and the theme integrated allowed us to cycle through these mechanisms quickly. We had visited the idea of using dice to build a common structure a couple of times, but it never seemed to click, and we couldn't figure out an elegant way to allow a player to build in the central structure.

Alf: Although it was tricky to work out at first, Steve was super smart for insisting on this "final tier" for this design, the central structure. As designer Mike Compton once pointed out to me, Eurogames often have three tiers in which you first "do A" (perform actions) in order to "collect B" (gather resources) with the goal being to "claim C" (victory points). Tiers A and B for CUBIST were pretty clear from the outset, and originally tier B was combined with C, but Steve was right to insist on an independent C aspect of the game. As it turned out, you now A) roll and place dice to B) create sculptures (and score some points). However, these sculptures also C) reward players with special dice used to collectively build a central structure (the Modern Art Museum), which awards further victory points and creates interesting tensions with other players.

Museum cards: Each die a player contributes to building the Museum scores 2 points

Steve: Originally, dice in the central structure were one point each. Our publisher, Rick Soued from Gryphon Games, proposed that these dice should be worth two points. I've played it both ways many times, and what appears to be a minor point adjustment completely changes player motivations in a positive way.

CUBIST co-designer Steve Poelzing (l) playing with Michael Entz and Tara Poelzing

Alf: The central structure also offered a timer for the game. When the Museum is completed, the game ends. It's a fun and rewarding mechanism for multiple reasons. (A secondary end-game finish is when a player completes five sculptures.)

Steve: The two endgame conditions creates a nice tension. Should I complete this really complicated structure worth a lot of points, or a simple structure to complete the museum? I think it works in CUBIST because the points collected from installations are hidden after the installation has been claimed and used. Instead of focusing on who has the most points all the time, you really only know whether a player is in a position to end the game.

Alf: The catch for us this whole time was theme. As a rule, I begin with a theme, and the mechanisms emerge organically from that – or I encounter something material like a painting, rock cairn, story, etc., and go "there's a game there! as I did with Fantastiqa, Trollhalla, and The Road to Canterbury respectively. In the case of CUBIST, the mechanisms all came first, and I'm just not used to thinking in that direction!

Steve: I, too, prefer theme to mechanisms, and this was a very different experience. We were sitting in the University's cafeteria playtesting as usual, and I don't know who said it first, but we started making puns on cubes, and I think that's when I flippantly suggested that we should make the game a cubism game.

Alf: Both of us are university professors, but neither of us are art historians or experts in visual art. (Steve is in biomedical engineering, and I teach literature, film, and video games.) But we both find cubism fascinating. It also seemed to work well for a game made of cubes! In case it's useful, here’s a definition of cubism from Wikipedia:

Cubism is an early-20th-century avant-garde art movement pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, joined by Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris that revolutionized European painting and sculpture, and inspired related movements in music, literature and architecture. Cubism has been considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century. The term is broadly used in association with a wide variety of art produced in Paris (Montmartre, Montparnasse and Puteaux) during the 1910s and extending through the 1920s. Variants such as Futurism and Constructivism developed in other countries.

A primary influence that led to Cubism was the representation of three-dimensional form in the late works of Paul Cézanne, which were displayed in a retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne. In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.

A handful of artist cards: Kazimir Malevich, Franz Marc, Olga Rozanova, and Roger de La Fresnaye

Steve: A cubist theme for the game resonated with us for a few reasons. First, all the elements came immediately into focus. The central playing board was broken up into randomized cards for the artists. I think this increases replay value and offers another non-die based chance element. The things we were competing to build became cubist installations, and we decided that the central edifice should be a museum of modern art because who doesn't like having a building named after them?

Also, the installations gave us a clean way of awarding points and giving some choices of getting dice either into the central Museum, or using the dice to complete another installation for even more points. Last but not least, both Alf and I hold our friend and publisher Rick Soued of Eagle/Gryphon Games in high esteem. We both knew of Sean MacDonald's well-deserved success with Gryphon Games' Pastiche, and we thought that another art-based game might be attractive to Rick. So we decided to keep the cubist theme, but we didn't approach Rick yet, because we still had a lot of work to do to balance the game.

Alf: I'd had wonderful experiences with Gryphon Games with my games The Road to Canterbury and Fantastiqa, so I hoped Rick would say yes to our co-design. We were both happy when he wrote us back saying that he liked CUBIST very much!

Steve: Once we had the theme, balance was pretty easy. We came up with many formulas for assigning points to each installation. In the end, I think we played it enough that we had a sense of what each structure should be worth and how many "museum dice" it should have. Even for the cards that don't strictly follow any known formula anymore, I feel good about the oddly scored cards because it makes player choices even more difficult. Do I compete for this oddly valuable card knowing that it's really easy to build and I might not get it, or do I focus on this other card to speed up my production?

Alf: Yeah. The web series Extra Credits did an episode on this principle called "Perfect Imbalance". If games are too well balanced, then sometimes it can feel like it doesn't really matter what you do or (just as bad) static strategies emerge. As I see it, one of the biggest signifiers of success in a game design is player desire. Does a card come up that makes players all go "Ooooh! I want that!!!"? If so, prepare for heavy player engagement and competition. Perfect balance might sometimes undermine that.

Steve: When we were happy with the game, and since we both knew Rick professionally, we sent the game off. The work didn't stop there, though. Rick playtested the game with single-minded purpose. He and his team found the rough spots and made excellent suggestions for smoothing them out. We already mentioned changes to final scoring. He also indicated which artist cards he thought were excellent and "not paying their way". What I thought was equally important was his feedback concerning the parameters for actually printing a board game. How many cards fit on a sheet? How much does all this art cost? When we had specific parameters to work with, such as the number of cards on a print sheet, it became fairly obvious which cards to keep and discard.

Alf: I thought we'd cut everything that could be cut, but there was still one rule that playtesters occasionally growled about — and they were right to do so! We took it out, leaving a cleaner game. (Thank you, playtesters!) In the finalizing stages we were also fortunate to have the excellent graphic design skills of Han Zou combine with the first-rate logo design of Adam McIver to make the boards and box look brilliant and cohesive with a cubist theme. And of course, we have the gracious backers on Kickstarter to thank for making this game possible in the first place!

Most of all, big thanks to Steve – one of the most creative, funny, intelligent, and wonderful human beings I know – for our working on this game together. It's an honor!

Steve: I had the opportunity to meet our game for the first time at Origins 2014. Many of the great people I played with told me how much they liked the final look of the game, the components, and the gameplay. It's satisfying to see gamers cheer when they roll the one number they've waited two rounds for. Even better was watching the "aha" moment when one player asked me, "Can I do this, then this, and this to complete two installations in one round?" Watching emergent play is perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences for me as a designer.

I have to say, I'm rather proud of this team effort. It was a joy working with Alf on a game because I've always admired his game design skills. More importantly, I think he's one of those rare quality individuals who can speak intelligently and with great tact. Rick and the rest of the crew at Gryphon Games have been tremendous assets in this endeavor. It's a joy to work with professionals who know their industry and can concisely and considerately make a case for changing something. Thank you all!

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Wed Sep 17, 2014 3:55 pm
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Designer Diary: A Wanderer's Way into the Wild, Weird World of Fantastiqa

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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I still wonder when it first began – but I knew something peculiar was cooking when, during my attempt to flip a pancake fixing yesterday's breakfast, my spatula cut right through not only the pancake, but the skillet. And the stove. It's still stuck there, for all I know, awaiting a culinary King Arthur to pull it free and claim kitchen kingship. But I haven't been back to check, you see, because the doorbell just rang. Nobody was there, but I did find this strange rucksack and a very curious note...

If you're anything like me, you find the reality of virtual places so palpable that you feel weirdly, profoundly nostalgic for places you've never actually been:

Dictionopolis. Prydain. Otherwhere. The Secret Door Behind the Lonely Mountain. The Ruins of Cair Paravel. Perelandra. Andelain, Revelstone, Soaring Woodhelven, Melenkurion Skyweir. Dimrill Dale, Lothlorien. Ryhope Wood. Earthsea. Barsoom. Magrathea.

For me, merely incanting the names of these places evokes enchantment. (Seriously, read them out loud – the magic won't work otherwise.)

"The City of Never" from The Book of Wonder (image credit)
The portals into Faerie likewise creak open when I hear delicious story titles like "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth", "The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator", "The Loot of Bombasharna", or "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him". These particular titles come from tales by Lord Dunsany, who in 1912 – exactly one hundred years ago – was spiking the taproots of twentieth-century fantasy with a wickedly potent elixir in his Book of Wonder. I've been tapping and lapping at the roots of neighboring trees, and gathering their leaves, for decades it seems. But without quite realizing what I really wanted, I found myself yearning to inhabit all that weirdness and wonder, not just read about it...

They say that when the student is ready, the master appears. It was my childhood (and lifelong) friend Jason Cook who introduced me to the games that let me inhabit such imaginary worlds "beyond the fields we know". Before long I found myself cloaked and armed, descending into Tombs of Horror, Vaults of Drow, and Twisty Mazes of Little Passages, All Alike. I jingled my keys to the Dark Tower, brandished my Talisman, filled my pocket full of Zorkmids, and wielded my pixelly arrow to slay the monstrous dragons of yore and Adventure. (Monstrous? The dragons produced by Atari in 1979 looked uncannily like ducks. And what, who, when, or where, is "yore"?)

When I wasn't evading real-life adversaries, I was muttering spells at fantastical foes. (My favorite incantation was "Take That, You Fiend!" – Tunnels and Trolls' vastly more evocative rendition of the bone-dry "Magic Missile" spell from D&D.) If not that, I was coding a fully playable, mainframe computer version of Milton Bradley's board game Dark Tower for the school computer, letting imaginations fill what ASCII characters couldn't quite make fully present.

Why do I tell you all this? Because Fantastiqa began right there, but it took me thirty years to figure that out.

The bewitching brew produced by three decades of percolation was a very good thing. I didn't know the first thing about game design in the 1980s, and if I'd tried to make my own fantasy adventure game then, it would likely have become a monstrous menagerie of charts and dice, with all the fantastical charm of a spreadsheet.

I think that the two most important influences on the streamlining of my designs came from playing computer games and Euro-style board games. Both seek to immerse the player in the game itself by simplifying the player's experience of the rules. Computer games (usually) put the mechanisms "under the hood" so you don't have to deal with the charts and dice on a conscious level. I journeyed from Ultima to Neverwinter to Morrowind to Oblivion (with brief stopovers in Tyria and Azeroth) blissfully ignorant of any terrain-based movement modifiers, dexterity bonuses to armor class, or penalties to hit based on obscured sightlines. Having done that, I doubt I now could ever return to the meticulous logistics of most pen-and-paper RPGs.

So when I encounter a board game that waxes nostalgic for these clunky devices by implementing them, I feel a part of me wither inside: I want the fantasy, I want the charm, I want the adventure – but I emphatically do not want the bookkeeping. But neither do I want to play a random dicefest like Talisman again, however charmingly presented.

In short, my goal became to design precisely the sort of fantasy adventure game I wanted to play, and I started with these three criteria:

-----1. Fast-paced, fun, strategic Euro-style mechanisms.
-----2. No dice.
-----3. No charts.

Okay, one more:

-----4. More trolls!

My first three published games all aimed at "high simplexity": simple rules with interesting, tough decisions and complex interactions. This worked pretty well for Trollhalla and The Road to Canterbury, I think. (Although I feel much affection for my warty first game, Bridge Troll, it succumbs to precisely the sort of over-complication I lament in the paragraph above.) When I played Dominion, Ascension, and other smart deck-building games, I finally discovered an approach that would fulfill the top three requirements above. It seemed to me that building one's deck was a perfect way to emulate "leveling up" in a role-playing game. Instead of consulting charts and modifiers, your character's powers would grow organically as you add cards to your deck.

But for my game I also wanted the pleasure of journeying across a fantastical landscape. For all the intricacy and brilliance of deck-building games (or their venerable ancestor, Magic: The Gathering), I never got the sense that I was "going" anywhere or doing anything other than trading in cards for other cards. So my goal became to add an immersive "sense of place" in my own game with these four extra requirements:

-----1. Combine board game adventuring with deck-building mechanisms. The cards you can acquire would depend on your Adventurer's location on the board, not just on your "purchasing power". As you journey around the board, you would defeat creatures which would be added to your deck.

-----2. Create spatial dynamics. Because the location of your Adventurer would determine the types of cards you can draw and where you can complete Quests, you'd need to consider not just which cards to subdue, but which to forgo, so as to end your turn in the best region for your next turn.

-----3. Offer variable set-up. The Region tiles and the wooden Statues (where you draw Artifact cards, Beast cards, and Quest cards) would change positions on the board each time you set up the game, ensuring high replayability. See the back of the box below for an example of how the board might be set up.

Finally, to ensure an atmospheric "sense of place" I wanted to....

-----4. Implement thematic, funny, and expressly "place-based" Quests. Here's an example of how you might fulfill a challenging 4-point Quest in the Highlands – Headbutt the Billy Goats of Mount Baranzababble. You'd need to subdue two Spider cards and commit them to the Quest (using their webs as sticky ropes to scale the daunting mountain). You'd also need to commit some Billy Goat cards and probably use a helmet of your own (to do the actual headbutting). Of course, none of these cards are going to do you any good unless you journey to the Highlands Region on the board and complete the Quest there on your turn – and unless you can subdue the creatures between here and there, you'll be out of luck!

Finally, for card-acquisition mechanisms, I wanted the pleasure of building an army of monsters like you do in the (brilliant) computer games King's Bounty and Heroes of Might & Magic, but I didn't want to use dice for battles and I didn't want to keep track of complicated interactions between creatures. To solve this problem, instead of looking to dice and RPG mechanisms, I looked to ecology and food chains. Trophic (that is, feeding) levels in an ecosystem are circular: Producers (plants) are eaten by primary consumers (herbivores) which are in turn eaten by secondary consumers (carnivores). Carnivores like to think they are "on top" when, in fact, they in turn get "eaten" – broken down by decomposers (bacteria and fungi). These decomposers create soil and nutrients which are taken up by producers, and the system loops back around on itself. Nobody occupies the "top" position because no such position exists to occupy.

I applied this concept to my game by making each card have value only in relation to other cards, instead of an absolute value. I didn't want combat resolved in a way such that a 10 card beats a 9, and beats an 8, and a 7, etc. So I created a "Circle of Subduing" (see image below) in which each card has one unique ability and one unique vulnerability. (Although referencing this "Circle of Subduing" can be strategically useful in deciding which Creatures to subdue, you don't have to use it as a "reference chart" as each Creature card is marked with all necessary information.) Each card defeats exactly one other card, and each card is defeated by exactly one other card. The arrangement works like a big game of rock-paper-scissors, but without the randomness of simultaneous play, and without the chaos of multiple interactions for each symbol. Though I attribute this application of ecology to my background in environmental philosophy, it just as likely comes from a bizarre but oddly compelling song from one of my favorite films, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 version, not the disastrous remake).

Finally, as with The Road to Canterbury, I wanted my fantasy game to inform and be informed by my academic research. (I'm a Professor of English at the University of Utah.) This past year I have been designing a fun course on "Weird Tales and Fantastic Fiction" that I will be teaching in the fall of 2012. (Texts include Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, and films like Andrew Leman's silent 2005 version of The Call of Cthulhu, the original Cat People and Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.) Because one overarching sense of the fantastic is "an irruption of the impossible into the everyday", I wanted to implement that sense into my game. So I devised a light-hearted story in which the players find that their everyday, household things – like spatulas, candles, and toothbrushes – begin to act in uncanny ways as a fantastic world begins to leak into this one...

When you find yourself transported into the otherworldly landscape of Fantastiqa, your spatula becomes sharp as a sword, your candle ignites things like a blowtorch, and your toothbrush wields the power of a magic wand. In this way, the impossible leaks into the everyday world, and the everyday world leaks into the impossible. You begin your adventures in Fantastiqa with nine mundane items, a dog, a magical Artifact, and a Starting Quest. You must make careful use of these starting cards to subdue strange creatures on the board and thereby build up your deck, making it powerful enough to subdue more powerful creatures that appear and to fulfill Quests for victory points.

The graphical design in Fantastiqa is deliberately designed to harness the split between "the everyday" (the mundanely practical, and eminently "readable" symbols on the cards) and "the fantastical" (the high art paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Waterhouse, Rackham, Goya, and others), so if it feels weird to encounter a Goya masterpiece next to a functional double-broom icon, that's on purpose. One major impulse of the fantastic comes through German Romanticism and its awe in sublime, mist-shrouded mountainscapes. For that reason, I chose as the cover of the game – and for one of the region tiles and one of the Adventurers – Caspar David Friedrich's iconic and stunning 1818 painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

Fantastiqa turned out to be quite a bit more than I had hoped for: a streamlined, fine-art fantasy adventure that melds deck building with a board, combining tough decisions and complex interactions, playable in about an hour. If Fantastiqa seems like "a cross between Dominion and Talisman" (as one Italian game blog conjectured), please go right ahead and think that – though that's only part of the story, and Fantastiqa doesn't really feel like either of them. It's a mix of Euro-style game mechanisms – deck-building, set collection, hand management, point-to-point movement on a board, and press-your-luck mechanisms – all steeped in a world of fantastical adventure. The core rules are geared toward players ages 12 and up, but I've added a set of simplified rules on the back page of the rulebook to help those new to games or those playing with children.

I'm very pleased at how Gryphon Games has refined Fantastiqa in preparation for publication. It's my fourth game, and my biggest and most ambitious game yet, with a thick game box sturdy enough to stand on; a hefty game board; two card supply boards; six beautiful region tiles covered with fine-art landscapes; six specially designed wooden statues of the Artifact Tower, Beast Bazaar and Quest Chest; gorgeous Adventurer placards, standees and cards; and a bevy of bizarre Beasts, curious Creatures, and arcane Artifacts – over 240 cards in all. I'm delighted that Gryphon has decided to produce Fantastiqa with the same high-quality specifications as its recent games Zong Shi, Pastiche, and my own The Road to Canterbury.

Fantastiqa has now launched on Kickstarter! Gryphon Games is offering Kickstarter-exclusive bonuses for all backers, plus the first two expansions: Special Delivery Quests and the Treasure Hunt. You can watch preview videos, read the rulebook, and find much more information at the official website:

Thank you for reading my Designer Diary. I hope you will enjoy wandering the wild, weird world of Fantastiqa as much as I do!

Alf Seegert
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Thu Jun 21, 2012 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: A Game Designer’s Peculiar Pilgrimage along The Road to Canterbury

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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I have always been fascinated by religious history, theology, and heresy. And for some reason I seem to enjoy taking the side of the heretic (even if I don't agree). I still think that Pelagius had a good point about free will despite anything Augustine might have insisted. In my view Marcion is underrated. And the legend that Saint Nicholas smacked Bishop Arius full-on in the face makes me pity the poor heretic. (Bad Santa!) I'm still surprised that Saint Francis' lavish expression of kinship with nature only resulted in stigmata and not, say, a literal crucifixion for charges of pantheism – for which I'm happy. The Cathars were not so fortunate.

As a college professor (literature, not theology), I often find myself discovering intriguing things like these which often end up not only in the classroom or in an article, but also in a board game design – or at least in an attempted board game design.

So, for instance, consider the weird theoretical and game-like dilemmas that emerge from the following mix of history and theology: the Roman Emperor Constantine, who issued the revolutionary "Edict of Milan" that finally tolerated Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, was himself only baptized at the very end of his life. As I understand it, even though he was (ostensibly?) a true believer, his theological interpretation of baptism was that it washed away one's past sins only. It thus stood to reason that to get as much bang for the buck as possible (so to speak) you would wait as long as possible before "taking the plunge" (or the sprinkle? I'm not sure whether immersion was en vogue in Constantine's day or not).

As an aspiring game designer I encountered such facts as an intriguing dilemma, much like the mechanism in a board game. The idea of someone's seeking to fool God through the calculatedly deferred timing of a holy sacrament screamed "press your luck" as a basic mechanism. Thematically, it also invited satiric humor in a Monty Pythonesque vein. Imagine a game where the goal would be to play an early Christian who secretly wishes to indulge in the most sin and debauchery as possible before being finally baptized – and then dying in the good graces of God and the Church, thereby winning the game!

To quote Homer (Simpson, not the blind Greek poet): "Sacrilicious!"

The risk, of course, would be that while performing such perfidies you might get carried away and actually DIE before your baptism and last rites could be performed. Hmm....this combination of theme and mechanisms seemed like a fascinating potential game design.

But of course, it didn't work. Not for me, anyway. I'm no fan of player elimination, so the notion of having each player BE one of these debauched Roman faux Christian elites created too many problems. I then tried to have players each represent an entire family, and thus have multiple personas to douse in sin before having them doused in the waters of baptism and then safely buried. But it just didn't quite come together for me in figuring out how to kill everybody off without reprising 13 Dead End Drive in 4th century Italy. So I tried to think of logically similar circumstances, and before long, it came: the figure of the medieval Pardoner shone forth in a deranged epiphany, a naughty Virgil guiding me through the dark forest of game design into a Hell of fictive corruption....

Oh, wait, that's Dante. We're supposed to be doing Chaucer! And besides that, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I tell you anything about my friend the Pardoner, I first need to say a little something about Chaucer's fourteenth-century literary masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.

As you might already know, in The Canterbury Tales, a company of medieval pilgrims journeys together from the Tabard Inn at the outskirts of London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, entertaining each other with stories along the way. Some of these tales are incredibly bawdy (and very funny). Many challenge existing social hierarchies and expose the hypocrisy of those who supposedly represent God and the church.

Chaucer makes his Pardoner into an especially striking figure of such religious hypocrisy. In the Prologue to "The Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner's motto is "Radix malorum est cupiditas," or "Greed is the root of all evil." But he is himself the greediest member of the entire company! He brings with him a vast supply of false relics and an array of counterfeit indulgences or pardons (certificates that reduce the amount of time suffered in Purgatory as a consequence of one's sins). The Pardoner goes on to tell a tale about the deadly consequences of greed. In doing so, he hopes that the company of pilgrims will seek him afterwards and offer coins in exchange for the forgiveness he falsely promises through his relics and indulgences!

Somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, my "naughty Constantine game" underwent its own baptism and ultimately emerged sparkling in fresh guise as The Road to Canterbury. It might be just because I love Chaucer so much. In any case, in this new game, the same "press your luck" mechanism was in play, but instead of having players play the ones seeking sin and salvation, I instead let players play the ones providing the very means of temptation – and its forgiveness! (I should mention that before I ever got to this point, I had simply worked with the Pardoner as a free agent who would pardon a bunch of sinful old Italian men in my proto-design The Pardoners of Padua – and I do like the alliteration with the "P" – but the call to literary pilgrimage proved too tempting to resist.)

The premise of my new game became this: As you travel together with pilgrims along the road to Canterbury, you sell indulgences delivering pilgrims from the eternal penalties brought on by the Seven Deadly Sins. But to succeed as a pardoner, you will need to do more than just sell forged pardons for quick cash. To keep your services in demand, you will actually need to lead these pilgrims into temptation yourself! Perhaps some phony relics might help? There is one big catch. The Seven Deadly Sins live up to their name: each sin that a pilgrim commits brings Death one step nearer, and a dead pilgrim pays no pardoners!*

To help you get a better sense of what an unpleasant – but fascinating – character the Pardoner is, read this selection from Chaucer's "Pardoner's Prologue" in The Canterbury Tales (which is a modern translation of the Middle English by J.U. Nicolson):

"Masters," quoth he, "in churches, when I preach,
I am at pains that all shall hear my speech,
And ring it out as roundly as a bell,
For I know all by heart the thing I tell.
My theme is always one, and ever was:
Radix malorum est cupiditas.'
First I announce the place whence I have come,
And then I show my pardons, all and some.
Our liege-lord's seal on my patent perfect,
I show that first, my safety to protect,
And then no man's so bold, no priest nor clerk,
As to disturb me in Christ's holy work;
And after that my tales I marshal all.
Indulgences of pope and cardinal,
Of patriarch and bishop, these I do
Show, and in Latin speak some words, a few,
To spice therewith a bit my sermoning
And stir men to devotion, marvelling.
Then show I forth my hollow crystal-stones,
Which are crammed full of rags, aye, and of bones...
By this fraud have I won me, year by year,
A hundred marks, since I've been pardoner...
Of avarice and of all such wickedness
Is all my preaching, thus to make them free
With offered pence, the which pence come to me.
For my intent is only pence to win,
And not at all for punishment of sin."

Using such an irreverent character as the premise for a board game made me happy. As you can probably tell from the descriptions above and my sympathy for heretics, I enjoy making games where players get to play the "bad guys." In my prior two published game designs – Bridge Troll and Trollhalla, both from Z-Man Games – the players take on the role of hideous, nasty trolls who either guard bridges waiting to extort (and eat) passersby, or who plunder and pillage helpless islanders and livestock, Viking-style.

I suppose that the motivating allure I find in designing such games is much the same that I find as a film lover, reader, and in teaching film and literature. As I see it, one of the great powers of storytelling – or more generally, of play – is being able to fictively experience the world or perform as someone or something very much unlike oneself in "actual life." I really like how C.S. Lewis expresses this power of the virtual in An Experiment in Criticism:

Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible or inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic or merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all. [...] My own eyes are not enough for me. The man who is contented to be only himself and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books, very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee. More gladly still would I perceive the olfactory worlds charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog...

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.

Yes, C.S. Lewis is of course praising the powers of literature here, high literature at that – not board games. And I suppose that my sense of playful deviancy-via-virtuality is more Oscar Wilde than C.S. Lewis. But I understand games and stories as both inhabiting the same continuum of fictional play. Some are more rules-based, others more story-based. Like many designers, I like mixing both. I guess I see the trolls and pardoners in my games much like the characters in online role playing games, except that instead of pixels the players get to use cardboard avatars – and hopefully as a result they find a way to play as something quite UNLIKE the person they encounter in the mirror every day.

I see The Road to Canterbury as the third title in my "trilogy of villainy." (Heh, collect all three!) It works both as a continuation and as a departure from my earlier games Bridge Troll and Trollhalla. With Bridge Troll I was aiming to do as a game (in a "lite" homage) what John Gardner did as a novel with Grendel (a novel that takes the narrative point of view of the monster in Beowulf). Both Neil Gaiman's and Terry Pratchett's independently crafted "Troll Bridge" stories likewise do brilliant work making you see things from the troll's point of view. (What ARE your opportunities, really, if your big choices in life are whether to eat or extort a passing traveler who wants to cross your bridge?) And remember the vicious Cave Troll in Moria in Tolkien's (or Jackson's) The Fellowship of the Ring? Director Peter Jackson actually felt bad for him, and imagined this poor troll was always mistreated by the Orcs and that his Troll-mum was waiting for him at home, cookies and milk awaiting, but after a very nasty encounter with terrible elves, dwarves, and men, he somehow never makes it back....

I likewise felt kind of bad for my bridge trolls' limited options for upward mobility, and thus decided to send them to Trollhalla, where these trolls could happily abandon their bridges for the promise of plunder. (From what I've heard in response so far, players really enjoy the trollish "value system" involved, and express snorts of displeasure at nasty Billy Goats and grunts of glee over the pillaging of pigs and peasants.)

In The Road to Canterbury, however, my goal was not so much to actually see things from the Pardoner's perspective – for he IS a despicable hypocrite and victimizer for whom I feel little sympathy – but to instead just have fun in playing somebody so UTTERLY corrupt that few of us could imagine being like that in real life. Or so I hope, anyway....

Okay, I've spent A LOT of time explaining the development of my theme here. But I've taken enough of your time already. Instead of now diving into a discussion of the actual game play and mechanisms, let me urge you instead to watch the Road to Canterbury promotional video which debuted on Kickstarter on April 15, 2011. It does a wonderful job of SHOWING such things instead of my TELLING them!

But do let me wrap up by saying that Gryphon Games has been wonderful to work with on this game. I'm grateful that Rick Soued and everyone else at Gryphon really seems to enjoy the quirkiness and fun of The Road to Canterbury, and I'm happy that their vision for the game only made it better. The game's production follows the high standards set by Gryphon's recent game Pastiche, by Sean MacDonald, my compatriot in the Board Game Designer's Guild of Utah. (Let me take a moment to thank the BGDG at large for their helpful feedback during this game's development!)

All the art and components contribute to the theme and atmosphere: the game board is taken directly from Hieronymus Bosch's tabletop painting The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (when I first encountered this painting a few years ago I said to myself, "I MUST make a game to play on this tabletop!"). The art for the Pilgrims and the Pardoner are from the earliest illustrated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and I shouldn't forget to mention that players get little cloth bags in which to store their ill-gotten gains. In short, I'm delighted at where The Road to Canterbury will finally take those who play it!

Gryphon Games is using Kickstarter for its launch of The Road to Canterbury and needs Pardoners – I mean, partners! – to ensure that this quirky title will actually be published and to give an idea of just how many copies to print. Tempting collectible incentives are available! (*Cackle*) I hope you can join in. Thanks for all your support!

Alf Seegert

*If you're having trouble imagining what my conception of Chaucer's Pardoner looks and acts like, close your eyes and brew up a really strong cup of tea. Collaborate: hold a séance and summon the genius of the late great Douglas Adams for company (or you might also contact writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, who still dwell in the land of the living). In any case: together, envision a brilliant new British comedy series: Black Adder Begs your Pardon. Or somesuch. Notify Rowan Atkinson! If you know Black Adder at all, then you are already aware that in the British-televised world of corruption, smarm, and deceit there is no more delightful figure than the craven and opportunistic, cackle-happy Edmund Blackadder. It's for these reasons that I would "get medieval" – in rather more the BBC's than Quentin Tarantino's sense – and cast Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder as the deliciously wicked figure of the Pardoner from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales...
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Fri Apr 15, 2011 6:45 pm
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Designer Diary: The Somewhat Bizarre History of Trollhalla

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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The game Trollhalla came about through the designer's momentary bewilderment in the canyonlands of Southern Utah, by way of the imagined ploddings of African elephants, courtesy of Viking pig-muppets and the seafaring inclinations of discontented bridge trolls. In this designer diary, designer Alf Seegert talks about Trollhalla's peculiar journey from conception to publication...

I suppose I should begin by telling you something about the game. Trollhalla is for 2-4 players (and plays genuinely very well with two), ages 8 and up. It plays in about an hour. Trollhalla is the spiritual successor to Bridge Troll, but has very different mechanisms and theme. It's also less complicated, and it has a glorious big game board and super-thick, high quality components and wonderful colorful artwork by Ryan Laukat. Zev from Z-Man Games really went all out on this one. My goal with Trollhalla was high simplexity: the offering of tactical/strategic engagement with relatively simple rules, which (I hope) will appeal to children and adults alike, both gamers and casual players.

Here is the description of Trollhalla from the back of the game box:

You and your hideous troll-friends have decided that it's time for a career change. You are tired of guarding bridges and shaking down weary travelers all for the sake of a few clinking coins! Tolls are down, bandits are up, and besides, living under your bridge is damp and uncomfortable – and breathing all that crumbling bridge mortar is taking a toll on your lungs...

It's time to venture forth and find some fresh sea air! In Trollhalla, you join forces with your fellow trolls to sail the seas in search of islands filled with pillage and plunder. Crunchy livestock, nervous monks, panicked princesses, piles of gold, and casks of grog await you! But watch out for Billy Goats – if you're not careful, they will knock parts of your precious stolen cargo out of your boat!

With so many goodies lying about on these islands, it feels like you've died and gone to troll heaven, or perhaps someplace even better – Trollhalla!

Unlikely as it might sound, my aquatic Viking troll game Trollhalla began seven years ago in a moment of hesitation on a snowy expanse of desert slickrock. My wife and I are avid hikers of the Colorado Plateau and were on a crisp winter hike to Double-O arch in Arches National Park (near Moab, Utah). Trails over slickrock are typically marked not by paths but by cairns – tall stacks of usually flat rocks – used as path markers. (Here in the western United States, cairns are also commonly used to mark alpine paths above the tree-line. Example here.) But cairn-marked trails can sometimes lead to confusion because it seems not everyone always agrees where the path should go! On this hike at one point we discovered not one but two cairns, heading in seemingly very different directions – and we had no idea which direction was right. But one of the cairns was substantially taller than the other and hence seemed to "carry more weight". Apparently following that taller cairn was the right choice, for we had no problems reaching our destination, but the encounter had gotten the geek in me thinking...

By this time I had tried my hand at several board game designs, including one that had come in second place at the 2004 Hippodice competition in Bochum, Germany (The Vapors of Delphi, which is, alas, as yet unpublished). Always keeping my eye out for new potential game mechanisms, I began to wonder whether a game about cairn-stacking might be viable and fun. I began by playing around with a chessboard and a stack of wooden discs. Before long, I had a little game in the works where travel between different villages was governed by a simple stacking mechanism. Players would vie to stack cairns in places where they wanted travel to happen, tallest stacks would dominate, and travel would be triggered by a combined random/player-controlled element.

I think I was also probably primed to use a stacking mechanism by encountering the use of stacked chips – although in a quite different implementation – in Steve Poelzing's very clever game Chobolo.

For no clear reason that I can remember, I was led to make my emerging game about elephants traveling village-to-village with empty baskets that would be filled with fruit on arrival. Not only did stacking happen on the paths, but on the elephants themselves. (I used little wooden elephant figurines at first, then plastic ones later. The elephants and cups in the photo above were made by playtester Sander Bol (cabol on BGG) in a prototype made from files I sent him.)

In my emerging prototype, I used 1" discs in four different colors to represent baskets belonging to each player. In each village smaller stacked discs represented bananas, pomegranates, passion fruits, coconuts, mangoes, and spoiled fruit (penalty points). I wanted to avoid a standard "majority of pieces in spaces" mechanism and instead tried a mechanism based on relative vertical placement: After traveling along the path containing the tallest stack of baskets (presumably full of grass or other tasty elephant treats), the active elephant would have the top basket on its back collect the top fruit in the destination village. The next highest basket would collect the next highest fruit, and so on. Players would strategize by redirecting elephants to different villages to each collect the most optimal fruits to add to their supply. (Bonuses were awarded for collecting a complete set in each color.) By placing baskets on paths, players would not only urge elephants in that direction but would also collect cards like Monkeys (to flip stacks of baskets upside down), Water Buffalo (to scatter baskets on a path), and Grasses (to weave an extra basket and perform one extra action).

Overall, I liked this new design and had good luck fine-tuning it, courtesy of my colleagues in the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah. Jonathan Degann, avid BGGer and the founder of the Journal of Boardgame Design, visited our Guild for one of our sessions and played TEMBO, as the game was then called. He was impressed by it and provided excellent suggestions for improvement and moral support. I submitted TEMBO (the Swahili word for "elephant") to that year's Hippodice competition, which had proved an increasingly promising venue for my designs. (I had since placed as a finalist for my prototype games Bridge Troll, Ziggurat, and Mont-Saint Michel.) In 2008, TEMBO came in third place and two major European publishers expressed strong interest in publishing it.

As it turned out, TEMBO didn't find a European publisher, and I'm still not clear exactly why not (though one publisher had two other pick-up-and-deliver games in the works and didn't feel comfortable making yet another one that year). Another reason might be the coincidental announcement of Ystari's game Bombay at a time while TEMBO was still being evaluated. At first, I was very pained by the visual similarity between Bombay and TEMBO (which I take as pure coincidence) although the games played very differently. As it turned out, however, I find the timing serendipitous because it forced me to pursue new (and for me, better) directions for this game.

I decided to see whether Z-Man Games might be interested. In 2009, Zev Shlasinger had released my game Bridge Troll, my first published game design. When I approached Zev with TEMBO he played it and said he liked it. "But," he said, "you said it might work with trolls. Let's try that." So I did. I had been toying with a nautical Viking theme for TEMBO and a terrestrial troll theme for it (not to mention several other ideas), and ultimately put these two ideas together: Viking Trolls! I suspect I must have been deeply deranged from childhood by the Muppet Show clip with Viking Pigs pillaging a village to the tune of The Village People's "In the Navy."

As a result, the elephants in TEMBO became Viking longships. The stacks of baskets became each player's individual trolls. Although I was proud of TEMBO, I found this new theme much more fun! And here was an opportunity to move away from the abstraction of colored discs and instead include more of Ryan Laukat's delightful artwork by using tiles instead. (Ryan, a fellow member of the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah, did the whimsical art for my game Bridge Troll, and he has been the artist for many excellent designers, including Reiner Knizia; he also did the art for several cards in Dominion and its expansions.)

The fruits from TEMBO were transformed into the sorts of plunder that Viking trolls would relish pillaging: panicked princesses, mortified monks, frightened pigs and peasants, piles of gold and casks of grog. The Monkey, Grass, and Water Buffalo action cards became Weather Gods: Wind, Sun, and Storm Gods respectively. (My use of weather here was inspired by Mike Compton (compman on BGG) from his suggestion that I use a weather theme in Bridge Troll to justify the varying number of travelers each turn.) Instead of a generic player board for stacking collected fruit, Ryan and I devised individualized boat-boards on which to stack tiles.

Because of the changed theme and use of tiles, I had to change some of the spatial implementation of the other pieces. I kept the cairn-stacking mechanism in place at sea, where trolls "scout" for plundering destinations and the highest stack in a sea lane dictates the direction that an adjacent ship will travel. But stacking trolls on top of one another on ships themselves was unwieldy and didn't look right, so I instead had players seat trolls in ships in order from front to back. Likewise, plunder tiles on islands are arranged in order so that when plundered, the westmost troll in a ship claims the westmost tile on an island, and so on. The rules are pretty much functionally identical with the original stacking mechanic in TEMBO, only "horizontalized".

My favorite rules-transfer was inspired by Zev. I had a rule variant in TEMBO, a sort of "shoot the moon" effect, in which a player who piles up a bunch of spoiled fruit (each one a penalty) would actually score a big bonus if he collected a complete set. (Thematically, I had the player use all that spoiled fruit to make a distillery and sell alcohol!) In Trollhalla, the Billy Goat becomes the penalty tile. If you collect one, he goes crazy and kicks out one other tile from your cargo – always a tile in your largest set, which threatens your ability to score bonuses from completed sets. But just as in Bridge Troll – where the Billy Goats can actually help you if used properly – in Trollhalla a player who collects a complete set of Billy Goats now has a petting zoo and scores a whopping 25-point bonus.

Now I just needed a new title. The epic Viking aspect of the theme to me suggested Valhalla, the grand hall in Asgard for valiant slain Viking warriors. As I saw it, the big new island-filled game board and plunder tiles in turn suggested "heaven for trolls", and as a result offered a nifty portmanteau word. In the same way that Lewis Carroll used "galumph" (galloping in triumph) and "vorpal" (voracious and purple) in the poem "Jabberwocky", I now had trolls and Valhalla: Trollhalla. (Later I discovered that actually I didn't originate this term. Ken St. Andre, designer of the role-playing game Tunnels & Trolls, is the longtime holder of the domain, his official T&T fansite. Thankfully, Ken – noble Troll god of Trollhalla that he is – graciously decided to spin this connection into a win-win for both of us rather than be upset about it.)

Zev gave this new theme and title a thumbs-up and I continued to develop Trollhalla through 2010. Ryan began on the artwork and aimed for a more "epic" feel in comparison with Bridge Troll. (The cover and the board are each quite a sight to behold.) The artwork still remains whimsical, however: the characters in the plunder tiles all stare out wide-eyed in terror, while the Billy Goat glares and the cow stares stoically ahead, seemingly resigned to its fate...

In finalizing the game I received helpful feedback from the Guild – and unexpected assistance from a fellow BGGer I had never met before, Paul Incao (pincao on BGG). Paul had posted a comment on BGG asking how my proposed expansion for Bridge Troll was coming along and I had written him back. Before long we had a flourishing correspondence, and he ultimately became a dedicated playtester and major contributor to the final game, not to mention a good friend – and thanks to a suggestion made by his daughters, we now have a female troll in the game as well! This encounter, of course, is yet another reason why BoardGameGeek is so wonderful for connecting people through board games.

Trollhalla is scheduled for release in late February/early March 2011 by Z-Man Games, and I hope that players enjoy the game as much as I did designing it!

Alf Seegert

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Tue Feb 15, 2011 6:36 am
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