Archive for Ignacy Trzewiczek
(Editor's note: This designer's diary reprints edited columns from designer Ignacy Trzewiczek that ran on BoardgameNews.com. —WEM)
Lunatic – from August 16, 2010
I rush into the house, toss my briefcase in the corner and run to my desk to get some sheets of paper. "Daddy, Daddy!" Lena's voice comes from the kitchen. The daughter pat-pats through the hallway and grabs hold of my leg. "Merry, take her!" I shout in the kitchen's direction and pass the kid to the mother. "How about a good afternoon?!" I hear. "I'm not here," I answer and rush into the kids' room. "Nina, give me the paint set, quick!" I utter and run into the bathroom to get some water. "Daddy, Daddy!" comes from the kitchen. "I'm not here!" I shout back. I pick up the paints, sheets of paper, a brush, water and get to the table. "Ignac!" Merry gets angry and now I'm going to get it. "I'm not here, don't talk to me," I answer, risking my life, and start to cover the paper with paint.
Have you seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Then you know what's going on – a nutter covering sheets of paper with drawings. Merry with the kid in her arms stands behind ready to hit me. "Give me three minutes and I'll say good afternoon. Now I'm not here, please," I say through my teeth and keep painting in blue, red and grey. One, two, three sheets of paper. They all fill up with notes, drawings, and arrows. "I live with a lunatic," Merry says and goes back to the kitchen. The daughter cries that daddy is back, she wants to go to daddy. Nina brings more sheets of paper. It takes me three minutes to fill up six of them. I spilled everything I had in my head, everything I came up with during a half-hour drive. I didn't waste a single idea. I managed to note down everything. Phew.
I get up, relieved. "Darling, I'm back! How's your day?" I shout in the kitchen's direction. The daughter runs to me with a squeal. There are six sheets of paper dirty with paint lying on the table. It's the groundwork for 51st State, a card game that will debut in Essen in 2010...
Judging a Prototype's Potential – from August 30, 2010
I have thirty cards. Each of them has a red watercolor on the top and a blue one on the bottom. Each has a name written in the middle. One is called Guardhouse, another Petrol Station, and another Bunker. I take all thirty of them and go to the board games club in Gliwice.
Asiok is the first one to arrive in the club.
"Come in, let me show you something," I say and take out the cards.
"A new prototype?" he asks
"A brand new one," I say and give both of us five cards each. "It's set in the Neuroshima universe, a post-war world with the mood from Mad Max. We're the leaders of some organization with the aim of expanding our power. Every turn we scan the horizon in search of interesting locations. There are three ways of making contact with a location. You can assault it to immediately get a lot of resources, or you can start collaborating to get a smaller amount of resources every turn. You can also incorporate it into your micro-country by building a road; in this case, you use that location to its full extent. Okay?"
Asiok looks at his five cards.
"Ignacy, these cards are blank." He shows me his cards marked with paint with names in the middle – like I never saw them before.
"Imagine that there's something there. Show me what you've got. There, you have a Petrol Station. If you assault it, you'll get lots of fuel at once. Or collaborate with them and get one fuel every turn. Or build a road there and you can start selling that fuel to me."
"Okay, I'm assaulting the station and take lots of fuel."
"And I have a Watchtower. I'm making a road connection."
"What does a Watchtower do?" Asiok asks.
"I have no idea to be honest. Let's say it defends you from attacks."
"Can you attack one another?"
"For the time being you can't. Keep playing. What's in your hand?"
"I'm placing Barracks, it'll give me soldiers. I'm making a road connection and it's now part of my country."
"Okay, I'm contacting a Pub, it'll give me one hit man every turn."
Five minutes later we run out of cards. I'm collaborating with a Pub and a Refinery. Asiok has Barracks, and has also assaulted a Petrol Station and an Arena. We have no idea what these cards do, but it's irrelevant at this stage. It's the potential that counts.
"And?" I ask, "Can you imagine how it's going to look in the future? Would you enjoy such game and its features?"
"If you make it well, there'll be lots of choices. Players will have plenty of potential moves."
"Did you have any vivid ideas? Did you feel you were assaulting and signing contracts, and that it has nice atmosphere and makes sense?"
"Yes, there's a potential here. Bring a new version next week."
I showed the game to a few other people that afternoon. I played with Sheva, Mst, Allchemik and Korzen. After playing weird, made-up matches with me, the latter two – to my amazement – took those 30 cards off me and played each other, also making up card functions as they went.
It was clear to see – 51st State had an idea. When someone asks me what this game is about, I won't have to say, "Well, it's a new kind of pick-up-and-delivery with a twist..." I won't have to say, "51st State is the 415th take on territory control mechanics, where the players fight for field advantage..." I won't be embarrassed by saying, "51st State is a game using deck-building mechanisms known from Dominion, but introducing a little twist..." It's not a boring, three hundredth variation on a popular theme. I made a game about which I can say something interesting in two sentences:
51st State is a game in which players look for locations and are able to make contact with each and every one of them in three different ways. You see an "Old Radio Station" and you invade it and steal their equipment, you start collaborating with them and use it in every turn, or you annex it and it becomes exclusively yours, indefinitely.
Two sentences sell the mood of the game. Two sentences tell about mechanisms and a multitude of choices and tactics. Two sentences show that it's a great piece of tangible storytelling fun.
That day I started believing in the potential of 51st State. I saw a vivid idea that works, that people played a card game where the cards had no rules on them – and yet they could imagine what was happening and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, too. It was a nice, playable idea. It was something new – not another Eurogame with cubes, not another Dominion clone. Something different. Assault a location, collaborate with it, or annex it to your territory.
One card – three colorful, strong storytelling outcomes.
Fun with Playtesting – from September 13, 2010
Browian, Grzech and I finally have the chance to meet and discuss 51st State, three weeks after they took the prototype. They live in Wroclaw, I live in Gliwice. With 200 km between us, the only contact normally comes courtesy of Skype – but thanks to Pionek, a convention for gamers, we can finally meet and play together.
"The Merchants are too powerful," starts Browarion. "They win all the time."
"It's possible. You got the deck for testing, didn't you? I never noticed it and perhaps you have found a way to win the game by using the Merchants." We sit down and play. "Take the Merchants," I say.
Browarion takes his Merchants. We play the three-player version. The Merchants come third.
"Let's do it again," says Browarion. Again we sit down and play. The Merchants come last. We play again. The Merchants come last for the third time in a row. I'm tempted to tease him, but Grzech beats me to it.
"I told you, but you wouldn't listen. Don't look at nations – look at players. When we played in Wroclaw, you didn't lose to the Merchants – you lost to me. I told you."
The match has been on for a good fifteen minutes now. Piotr has been moaning like a slaughtered calf for fourteen minutes.
"The Merchants are too weak. They can't do anything. The contracts are of no use to me – three spots and that's it. This needs to be changed."
"Stop moaning and play."
"But they are. Can't you see that?!"
"How many points do you have?"
"How many do I have?"
"So will you, please, stop moaning?"
"I'm being serious. Do you know how I struggle to get these 14 points?"
Another ten minutes pass like the whole of eternity since Piotr manages to fill every one of them with ten minutes of moaning.
"The Merchants are weak, what a joke. I have the contracts' spots blocked, and you're all over me."
"Stop moaning, concentrate on the game. I'm finishing in the next turn."
"I would finish, too, but with these stupid Merchants I stand no chance. Maybe with a fourth contract spot, or a universal resource instead of the stupid fuel? This would bring some commerce mood and I would stand a chance..."
We're done in the next ten minutes.
"How many points do you have?" I ask.
"36. And you?" he asks.
"36," I answer.
"See? I barely managed a draw!" he moans again.
"You have more cards left in hand, which means that you have won on the tie-breaker. Merchants won."
"Do you realize how tough that was? The Merchants are too weak, I'm telling you!"
After another series of tests I discard the "Baby Swift" card from the deck. The players have too few cards in hand to afford discarding two more for a victory point. Baby Swift is an unplayable, dead card. We play without it, and everything works well until the next rule change. Now the players have more cards in hand, so Baby Swift gets another chance. It comes back. We play subsequent matches and indeed, Baby Swift makes more sense now, even though it seems to be one of the weaker leaders. Players tend to put their money on Borgo or Greedy Pete, and Baby Swift is usually a second or third choice. I make notes and analyse everything, constantly monitoring which cards come into play and which ones are regularly ignored during the draft. It seems to me that Baby Swift walks a thin line between being popular and being unused. It's a little too weak to be a hit and slightly too strong to simply be discarded from the deck. It gets used sometimes.
In the meantime, Michał Oracz prepares another version of the prototype for me – new graphics from the illustrators came in. We can finally play with the original Baby Swift artwork that will appear in the final game. The graphics are insane. Another wave of matches and tests commences.
Baby Swift is the most popular leader in the game now. It's on the table every game. It's always the players' first choice.
I haven't changed a single rule. I changed only the graphics.
Testing games is crazy fun. You get tens of contradictory conclusions and pieces of information. Every tester tries to pull in his own direction. Each one has a different view. Each one expects from the game something different. One tester plays well, another one is not that good. One tester claims that a certain faction is powerful, another finds it the weakest. Testers from Wroclaw catch me on Skype in the evenings and ask me not to listen to testers from Opole because 51st State doesn't need negative interaction. Opole rings me and says that the players from Wroclaw are little girls, and Neuroshima is for big boys. Wroclaw writes that Opole is biased since they prefer war games there – and that the Merchants are too weak.
Game reports. Result files. Statistics. Opinions and claims. A continuous flow of information.
I sit and filter through it. I pick recurring remarks. I check and thoroughly analyze opinions which seem to appear on a regular basis.
And everything else...into the bin.
Heart on the Pitch – from September 27, 2010
Initially the prototype doesn't work. It's ugly and boring, and it crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn't crash. You are happy with it, after many weeks it's finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.
Stop – before you do that, you need to answer a question.
Before you send a prototype to a publisher, answer this question: Is my game the best game in the world? If the answer is "No", you can throw your prototype away. I'm being serious. If you yourself don't consider the game to be excellent, outstanding, the best in the world, then what are you counting on? Do you think others will? You don't love it, so what do you expect from others?
Every time I sat down to work on Stronghold, tinkering with rules, drawing boards, castles, in every moment, every afternoon, there was one thought in my mind: "Here comes Stronghold, the best board game in the world." I would create new Invader's actions, or design new Defender's actions and mutter: "Agricola, you are about to lose your crown, Stronghold is coming." Everything I did for the game, I did believing that I was creating the best board game in the world. I would sit awake at night wheeling and dealing how to make it even better, so it could beat Puerto Rico and other top games.
I'm a realist. I know that Stronghold won't ever reach #1 on the BGG charts. I knew it even when I was creating the game – but being realistic has nothing to do with it. When you design a game, you clench your teeth and do everything you can to create the best game on this planet. There is no other way. Your game will revolutionize the market, it'll get you both Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis together and your name will be the synonym of genius. That's all that matters to you.
And it's a bit like in a basketball match. When you face the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan on the pitch, you realistically estimate they'll win 96-72 or 101-78. But down in the changing room you believe in victory. You've trained to the limit, your team is tuned, your coach is good, and so you believe you can win. You have to believe you can defeat everybody. The game starts, you lose two quarters, and before halftime it becomes obvious that you've failed. But it doesn't matter. Training, heart on pitch, hope and strength matter.
Stronghold came out and didn't reach BGG's No. 1, and that was to be expected. But back then, when I was sitting up all night, creating it, preparing it for publication – I believed it was the best board game in the world. I believed that it was excellent, that people would love it, and that it was unlike any other released game – original, interesting, thrilling.
If you've finished working on your prototype and plan to send it to a publisher without being able to describe it as original, interesting and thrilling, without thinking that it's the best game in the world and it's going to BGG's top 10, then you take that game and bin it.
There are thousands of average games in the world. Publishers expect the best of the best and won't settle for less.
The Second Question – from October 11, 2010
Initially the prototype doesn't work. It's ugly, is boring and crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn't crash. You are happy with it, and after many weeks it's finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.
Stop. Before you do that, you need to answer two questions. The first one was covered previously – today it's time for the second one.
When your friends visit you, do they ask if they can play your game? Do your mates say, "Can we play your prototype today?" If they ask for it, everything is just fine – send it to a publisher. If you have to persuade them to play it, throw it away. It's not worth releasing.
A few weeks ago I came back from my holiday in Croatia, which I spent with friends and a big bunch of children. The friends are game fans, so we had a substantial number of board games in the car boot, along with swim fins, swim trunks and goggles. The friends brought Dominion and Small World, and I brought Neuroshima Hex, Galaxy Trucker, Doom, Tichu, Havana and the 51st State prototype.
Over the entire trip we had one game of Small World, one of Havana, five games of Tichu and over twenty games of 51st State. I didn't suggest playing 51st State once – I always waited for others to suggest it. I wanted to see how quickly they would get bored with the game, what its replayability was, how many games it would take for them to get fed up with it and play something else. I didn't suggest playing it once. And the game landed on the table more than twenty times...
During the last evening of the holiday Piotr came to our room. They had their stuff packed, their children in bed. And we also had our stuff packed, our children in bed. We were to go back to Poland at 7 a.m. the next morning, but for now it was 10 p.m. on the last evening of the holiday in Croatia.
"How about a round of 51st State?", Piotr asks.
"With pleasure," I say.
51st State is a winner, and I'm feeling good about it. We already had sensational titles with us – the board game elite – from Dominion and Small World to Havana and Galaxy Trucker. Yet in Croatia they all gathered dust. The game on the table was 51st State, time and again.
My answer to the question "When your friends visit you, do they ask if they can play your prototype?" is "Yes." Yes, I sent Small World back on the shelf. Yes, my 51st State made Dominion stay in a suitcase all holiday. Yes, due to my card game we played Havana only once throughout the entire holiday.
Yes, 51st State is ready to be released. The prototype has been tested – and even pitted against the giants, which it trapped on a shelf. If your prototype is not up to such a trial, don't send it to a publisher. Nobody is going to release a game worse than the ones already present on the market. You have to be better. You have to lock the giants in the cupboards. You have to make the competition retire early.
[This designer diary, possibly the most requested for reprinting, first appeared in Polish on Games Fanatic.pl, then in English as a thirteen-part series on BoardgameNews.com from July 4 to October 3, 2009. While BGG News (unlike BGN) limits diaries to a single post so that readers can more easily catch everything, this diary had to be spread over two posts as the BGG blog system can't handle posts more than 10,000 words long. Get yourself a drink and a snack before you dive in...—WEM]
#1 – The Founding of Stronghold
I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was in a pub, the Kredens, with the slowly developing gamers' circle in Gliwice, a city in southern Poland with a population of 200,000 and part of a metropolitan area with more than five million residents. Goor, Tiju and Bors were all new acquaintances, and I didn't know them very well at the time. As part of our "getting to know one another" efforts, I brought Neuroshima HEX! to one of those meetings. My new acquaintances looked at it, shook their heads and said, no, they'd rather play something else. They perceived the game as exceptionally uninteresting. Many months later they became great fans of the game, taking part in tournaments and regular matches – but back then, that first encounter with NS HEX had been extremely negative: Some tanks, some mutants, whatsgoin'on...? Let's play something else.
At the time I discussed NS HEX at length with the head of Rebel.pl, Piotr Katnik, who would argue as follows: "Trzewik, it's a great game, but its subject puts off a great majority of customers. No one will buy a game about mutants fighting gangsters, about future robots and some partisans. Convert it to wars of elves versus dwarves, make a new printing, and the sales will go up 300%."
Hardly anyone remembers such conversations now because Neuroshima HEX! is the biggest and best-known Polish game, but three years back the game had two distinct features: great reviews (reviewed by Pedrak and Folko; praised by Bazik and Pancho, among others) and practically no sales. It took many months of hard work promoting the game and traveling to visit conventions and organize demonstrations to finally bring boardgame fans around. Suddenly the sales soared, suddenly the print run sold out in no time, and we could start considering a reprint – but the beginning was terrible.
Our hard times with Neuroshima HEX! gave us a lot to think about. When you look at the shelves in a game store, what hits your eyes are boxes of Pirate's Cove (game with pirates!), Galaxy Trucker (game with space smugglers!), Ghost Stories (game with exorcists!) – games with such theme that you grab the box without even thinking about whether the mechanisms are innovative, whether the game comes from a recognized author, whether the price is $20 or $25. You look at the shelf, see a game about zombies, and automatically think: "Braaaaaains!"
I won't say that the subject matter of a game is most important, that it's more important than the mechanisms, but I have no doubt today that the two are equally important, that if you have two solid games with well-written rules, you'll pick the one with Formula 1 and not the one about goat grazing.
Somewhere around the beginning of 2008, when we knew we would be releasing Witchcraft that year, we sat down in Portal and discussed our plans for 2009. We decided we needed an interesting subject for a game, one that we believed in ourselves, one for which we could create cool rules, test it all nicely, and balance it all, too. But before this could happen, before we'd launch into creating cool rules, we'd have to find a good, interesting theme. I remember saying to Michał Oracz, "Listen, let's take a piece of paper and put down all the cool, colorful, adventurous themes we can. There are loads of games about Vikings and pirates. We need something similar, something associated with our childhood and things that used to fascinate us. Days Of Wonder does it this way and has an impressive list of games, from gladiators to Cleopatra to King Arthur's knights."
It was the beginning of 2008, so we didn't hurry as we knew we had a lot of time. We explored the childhood memories in our heads and wondered which of those could be converted into a board game, a game that would bring positive feelings just by standing on a shelf in a store.
"Stronghold!" I said one day as I entered the Portal office – "a stronghold." A few moments passed before Michał and Multidej got it, with me standing in the doorway, awaiting their reaction in suspense. Finally I saw in their eyes what I felt myself. That was it: Stronghold.
"Sounds good," admitted Michał.
"This can be done nicely," I thought. "We'll make a Westerplatte" – the peninsula in Gdansk where the Germans launched the invasion of Poland and World War II by sending thousands of troops against a Polish garrison holding only 182 soldiers, a garrison that still held off the attack for six days despite the lopsided numbers. Westerplatte is the first thing that children in Poland learn at school, and it is a huge symbol of courage and patriotism in our country. "The defenders are few, and they defend a stronghold, surrounded by enemy forces. The attacking player will have an unlimited number of forces, simply heaps of troops, so he doesn't care about losses. The defender has only a dozen or so on the walls, so every fallen man on the wall means carnage to him. And you know, siege engines and lots of them, catapults, ballistas, trebuchets, projectiles flying and smashing the walls, defenders pouring hot oil onto the enemy forces, but it won't be enough because there's just too many of them. A section of the wall gets knocked down by a catapult, and more forces are required there, but there are no more soldiers to send. The defender's lost three men, and he can't fully man the wall, there are gaps to be filled, and the invader storms relentlessly, another catapult's volley is launched, targeting the hospital in the castle..."
I stood there in the doorway, or maybe already inside, I don't remember. I know I was in that castle, I saw that encounter, I saw the swarm of attackers and those desperate defenders, that handful of soldiers, redirected from wall to wall by their commander, responding to a threat in one section, then going somewhere else because the invader broke through from the flanks, and the rear, and there and here... I felt the emotions. I imagined the evil consequences of the attackers' actions and the desperation of the defenders.
A castle siege. Catapults, cauldrons with oil, heroes fighting on the walls.
That was it. We had a theme.
The first publicity image for Stronghold
#2 - Through the Eyes of My Soul
The initial stage of a game design is extraordinary. I have no idea how other authors create games, how the process goes in the case of Knizia, Kramer or Faidutti. I know how I do it. It's a peculiar occurrence: I imagine people playing my game.
In the beginning I'm not worried about the mechanisms in the slightest. I don't make a draft for a nice bidding idea, nor do I take notes regarding an interesting way of drawing cards. I drive my car, listen to some nice music, and imagine people playing a game. I think about what emotions I want to achieve, I think about what I'd like them to be doing during the game. I imagine the whole match. Afterwards I will come up with rules, which will provide the sensations and emotions that I dreamt about.
How did the first images of Stronghold look? How did I imagine the game?
In the first part of this series I used the word "Westerplatte", and with good reason. This is how I imagined the game: Enormous invading forces on one side, and a few defenders on the other. A wave of faceless troops, a huge mass of soldiers on one side and a handful of soldiers supported by a few special characters on the other. On one side successive regiments of the attackers, on the other something similar to the Fellowship of the Ring, with a charismatic Aragorn, a brave Boromir, a wise Gandalf. I wanted a sense of inevitability of the castle falling, I wanted the attacking player to have an ominous smile on his face, to be certain that he'll eventually enter the castle, it's just a question of time. I wanted him to flood the walls, to build catapults and siege engines and thwart the desperate defender's efforts with a cruel satisfaction.
On the other side I imagined this defender, a player with four or five heroes on the walls who are helping the defender's troops persevere, who thanks to their unique skills enable the defenders to resist the enemy's pressure. I imagined the defending player declaring that Aragorn is now speaking in front of the troops, with every soldier on the wall now sporting a strength bonus +1, I imagined Boromir charging at a throng of enemies and taking out all of the invader's markers on one of the wall sections. I imagined the invader acknowledging that setback with a smile of contempt and whispering: "This is your last turn. You stood well, but now it's the end..."
In those initial, hastily imagined assumptions I wanted the defender to win by surviving ten turns, or lose if the invader breaks into the castle. Eventually this condition changed, but this was the approach in the beginning: A realized plan and the pressure of constant forces versus improvisation and the constant patching up of holes. Enormous invading forces against unique, powerful defenders, each having only a few ability points. Catapults smashing walls turn after turn, fighting on the walls, where ten invaders and two defenders fall – for the invader ten corpses is a piece of cake, whereas two fallen men for the defender puts him one step from defeat.
This imagining of a game is a fascinating adventure. It's a stage where everything is possible, a moment when I can paint the coolest scenes in my head and imagine that the game rules will manage to carry my dreams and make them come true. And that I'll be able to create game mechanisms that will provide the emotions and impressions I dream about. And that in a few months, when the players sit down to play the game, there will be that cruel smile on the face of the self-confident invader, and the defender's face will be of a courageous commander who has only a few soldiers, but who wouldn't surrender the castle for the world, a man who will bend over backwards to use every rule created by me to hold the castle until the tenth turn.
I went to Warsaw in December 2008 to meet my friends, and we played, had fun and discussed games. At some point a question was asked: "Trzewik, you know a lot of games. Listen, I'm looking for a game which doesn't place players in the same position. You know, whenever I buy a game, every player starts with exactly the same stuff, players pursue the same goal, to eventually learn who, considering the same starting position, did best. I'm looking for a different game. A game with different goals for different players, or with different starting points, I don't know, something that would make me feel that each person at the table implements a different tactic. What would you recommend?"
Poor me, what am I supposed to do? The guy takes me for an authority, flat out asks for advice, and I stare at him with a blank mind. "You know, I don't know. In StarCraft as far as I know the races are very differentiated. In our NS HEX the armies differ completely, too..."
It wasn't what he had hoped for. "But you know, it should really differ, not that one player has a different ability, but each of them plays differently. The board is their clashing spot, but their goals and the tools for achieving them are completely different."
I was looking at him, looking at the wall behind him. I was mentally browsing through all the boxes on the shelf in my house, and he was right. In those games the players have the same starting position, the same goal, and in the course of the game it comes out who achieved the goal more effectively. Eventually I recalled Stronghold. "You know, I don't know if there is such game, I can't recall any. But next year there will be one. I've been working on a game for some time now, a board game with a castle siege. The players there are in totally different situations, and have totally different tools to achieve different goals. It may be what you're looking for. And I can tell you that working on it until now I haven't realized how innovative this is. I've never noticed it."
Ever since that conversation I have consistently made sure to make the fun for both the Invader and the Defender differ as much as possible. Maybe this will be the feature that makes the game a success.
#3 - The Prinz Track
Peter Prinz entered the boardgame history books by creating Jenseits von Theben, later republished as Thebes, and giving us all a terrific design tool in the form of a time track around the game board. In his board game about archaeologists, the players take various actions which, depending on their type, take more or less time, and those actions are recorded on the time track. One player goes to Moscow, wasting four weeks in the process, while another stays in London, listening to lectures during that time and even managing to go to Paris. One player goes to Egypt, spending five weeks there and moving along the time track by a large number of fields, while in that same time another player will manage to do many short actions, jumping only one or two fields at a time. It's a great invention – and I stole it with pleasure. It's been with Stronghold right from the start.
In Prinz' game the players turn over cards and pick the one that interests them most, devoting a certain amount of time while keeping the card. In Stronghold there's even more stress put on time, making Prinz' time track work even better. Both the defender and the invader have all the options in front of them. They don't wait for a card to come, they don't assess its value. Everything on the table is available straight away, plain to see. The attacker has a whole range of actions: He may choose to build a catapult or train his soldiers, he may decide to move his troops out and attack the walls. It's up to him what he wants to do. He makes a decision, and one of the most important factors in this process is the answer to the question: "Do I have the time to do it?" Let's imagine the following situation:
The invader builds a catapult, which is a lengthy process; let's say forty time units. Now the defender has the ball, and he decides what to do: He may reinforce the walls twice in that time. He may start building a ballista. He may move to a section of the wall and even manage to train two soldiers. He decides, he has the choice. He decides to build a ballista, so the ball goes back to the attacker, who chooses to push, not giving the defender any time. He abandons the plan to build another siege engine and heads for the walls straight away. This takes him only two units of time, so the defender has now only one square on the time track for his use. He can do something short, simple, before the invader's turn starts again...
Prinz' track seems to have been created especially for Stronghold. The emotions the players feel when deciding on the next step have to be enormous. Do you take a short, weak action and stay in play all the time, or freeze, declare something big and powerful, but give up active playing for a long time and observe how the opponent romps around the board taking action after action? Achieving this took only giving the players an interesting, differentiated selection of available actions, then looking at how they rack their brains, how they change tactics, how they take the risk of starting a lengthy action, condemning themselves to helplessly observing how the opponent freely gets ready to defeat them.
What's more, rather than every player having one pawn which moves on the time track, as in Thebes, I took that pawn and broke it into several pawns – one for each character in Stronghold. After all, the defender has a few characters, and each of them can take special actions: The sorcerer can cast various spells, the officer can do several things on the wall, etc.
The whole thing was starting to take the shape of an epic novel, and to see the course of the game all you need to do is close your eyes for a moment. The sorcerer decides to cast a powerful spell, so his pawn moves eight squares on the time track. The castle defender will be without his support for a long time, but after those eight "hours" have passed the invading forces will be screwed. The priest in the hospital decides to heal four wounded, which will take him four "hours". The officer in that time runs along the walls solving problems using the simplest, cheapest means. The invader's pawns have also spread across the whole time track. The engineer devoted himself to the construction of a siege tower and has disappeared for ten "hours", the warrior throws himself onto the wall and consistently cuts down the defender's weakest soldiers, devoting one "hour" to each of them...
You can see the passing of time. You can see the men spread across the battle, busy with their actions, you can see the efforts of both sides to encompass and contain the confusion of battle. You can see the invader trying to take advantage of the "eight hour absence" of the enemy sorcerer. You can see the defender's officer, now realizing that he has to do everything possible to hold the castle, using even the smallest game rules to survive those bloody eight "hours", in the absence of the sorcerer, who's busy with his spell.
I saw it all with the eyes of my imagination, and I knew it would work brilliantly.
And then I added some more plot and emotions to the track. I painted part of it black, marking it as night. During the night the invader received a +1 strength bonus to all his units. The frightened defenders knew that when the time markers reached the dark squares, the attack would commence. They knew that only five, then four, then three hours separated them from nightfall... I gave them a reward, too, a hope with the coming of daybreak. With a new day, all defending forces would get a strength bonus, their fatigue would drop, the wounded would heal faster. A new day, a new hope, a new strength.
The Prinz track seemed to be an invention which in a ridiculously simple way would turn the whole game into an epic tale.
Obviously, it didn't.
The first sign of trouble appeared when I was playing Bruno Faidutti and Jef Gontier's Red November. Faidutti, like me, fell in love with the Thebes' time path, and like me he wanted to use it in his game. I played Red November four times and every time there were problems with the Prinz track. The players didn't get who can do what and when, how many actions they can take, when they should stop, whose turn it is. Something disturbingly inconceivable was happening. The excellent working of the Prinz track in Thebes somehow wasn't convincing in Faidutti's game. It got in the way and forced the players to read the manual again to make sure what was allowed and what wasn't.
A while later one of the very first Stronghold prototypes was ready to play. I was playing with Salou, the owner of the shop "U Zyrafy" in Gliwice. We were sitting with the first version of the board in front of us, lots of pawns, notes. The characters had their actions written down, we started playing.
It hung quickly and it happened like this:
The officer took an action and moved four squares. The sorcerer took an action and moved six squares. The priest... I didn't want him to take an action just yet, so the priest didn't move. But it's his turn now. But I didn't need him to take any action. But it's his turn now, so he had to do something. But I didn't want to...
A quick patch was created. A player could say "pass" and that character's pawn would move on the track towards the nearest character. This seemed to work.
It didn't. After ten minutes we agreed that the game wasn't supposed to look like this, that Prinz' wonderful track was shaky in Stronghold. The game turned into constant "passes" because very often a character didn't need to take an action.
Many months of imagining the course of the game, of making notes, sketching rules – all based on Prinz' track. It seemed I could pack it up and bin it.
I was crushed.
Game authors' drawers are full of various, more-or-less interesting ideas for games. Their bins are full of excellent mechanisms, which didn't seem to work in any way. I know something about it...
#4 - Hourglasses
The Prinz track didn't meet my expectations and it seemed that Stronghold would be paralyzed for weeks. Salou and I were playing the second or third round, and we could clearly see that the time track was not working, with no possible patches working either.
Luckily the solution took only a moment's thought from my opponent: "Why do the pawns move around on the time line? It only causes problems. When I take an action, I'll give you a few points. You'll spend them whenever you want, done." Sometimes finding solution happens like this: Someone has to convince you of their idea. You have a plan in your head, you're used to it, you're attached to it, and you only reluctantly listen to the opinions of others. And sometimes someone says two words, and you know immediately that they're right. You finish the sentence with them – as happened in this case. In one moment I understood that Salou was 100% right. Moving the pawns along the time track caused unnecessary confusion. There had to be another way of implementing the passage of time. I rolled up the prototype. "I'll think it over. We'll play next week – with points."
A week passed, and we played again, with this game working much better than the time track. And so the Hourglasses were born. Prinz' track was soon forgotten, pushed back into Thebes, where it works so well. The details and specific solutions have changed at different stages of the game, but the basic, fundamental rule of Hourglasses has stayed unaltered. And although tens of game elements would fail, the Hourglasses never did. They worked incredibly simply and that's why they were so effective. The attacking player would declare his actions and, depending on their type and number, hand over a certain number of Hourglasses to the defender, who in turn would spend them on his actions. This is how it should be. The Invader has the initiative; he is the one deciding how many actions to take. Nothing limits him, and everything is in his hands. The Invader has the grim satisfaction of deciding the defender's fate, which is exactly how I wanted the game to work. He can build catapults and ballistas and give the defender ten Hourglasses with which to develop a defensive strategy, or he can say "pass" and give him no points at all. The Defender can do only as much as the Invader allows him, taking as many actions as the number of Hourglasses he receives. Desperation is his state.
One of the wishes, one of the images of the game I had in the first weeks of work on Stronghold was thus implemented on the rules' level. The Invader was confident in his actions, he did what he wanted, he had the initiative. The Defender was in, well, defense. He depended on the attackers, he prayed for every Hourglass, prayed for every moment of time that would allow him to prepare the stronghold's defenses. I could now concentrate on the next batch of problems to solve...
#5 - Playing with Pillars
I remember how I learned many years ago, that one of my favourite fantasy book authors, Feliks W. Kres, does not read any fantasy literature. None. He's not interested in what others write; he doesn't like the style and has no intention to start reading it.
In our gaming field Reiner Knizia gave me a similar shock. I learned from Jacek Nowak's great article, printed in Swiat Gier Planszowych (Board Games' World), that Doctor Knizia doesn't play other authors' games. While Machina (Machine) and Zombiaki (Zombies) were created exactly like Kres' books, meaning that I had no other board game experience at the time, Witchcraft and Stronghold are titles created by a conscious Trzewik, an author with some gaming experience who knows many solutions used in games, an author who is able to find ready solutions in other games and implement them in his own prototype in order to achieve a particular result.
I already wrote about being influenced by Prinz' track, and now we'll throw in the craftsmen cards from The Pillars of the Earth. I tried to borrow those, too, and use them in Stronghold as a tool in the Invader's hands. The player attacking the castle needs to take various actions. Some are standard, like building a machine, resource collecting, or troop movement. Some are special, like sending a saboteur or calling in reinforcements.
This division of actions quickly brought The Pillars of the Earth to my mind, as that game includes craftsmen cards, with players picking a few standard ones and adding two special ones as well. It seemed like an interesting trail. I created eight standard cards and a bunch of special cards, so let's go to battle. Among the standard ones were "resources collection", "machine construction", "moving forces to walls", and "assault on the walls"; among the special ones were such nasty toys as "poisoned water" and "fury on the walls". From those eight the player would pick five at random, adding one special one, and this would comprise his deck of actions for that turn. He would know what he could do by looking at his deck. Advantages? It was quick. Simple. The deck told the player straight out which actions he could take in his turn.
There was some randomness, but it was potentially interesting. You know, sometimes he would be without machine construction, sometimes without resources. His life wouldn't be easy. He'd have to pick his way, wheeling and dealing how to best use the cards he just picked and how to secure himself from an unlucky future draw. The theory was very tempting as we'd be forcing the player to plan for the future – "I need a lot of wood to start some serious machine building from the third turn on" – rather than allowing him to create short term plans: "In the next turn I'm going to collect wood and construct a catapult."
No such luck. The system didn't work. The attacker would get his cards and not plan anything, but just do what the cards dictated. The randomness was extreme. When the number of standard cards was reduced, the randomness would disappear, but the game would become boring (through the small choice of actions). When the variety of cards was increased, the game would become more interesting because it gave more possibilities of play, but it would also become extremely random. We took the actions that we had drawn, not what we had planned. We didn't make decisions. Fate decided what we got and what we played.
Transforming the craftsmen cards into action cards in Stronghold didn't work. The idea of using six standard cards and a few special action cards didn't provide what we had expected. No planning was possible, and there was no satisfaction in the multitude of available actions. With an aching heart I packed the cards into an "Archive" folder and started thinking about another solution. Completely unexpectedly I then invented something that became one of the main engines of Stronghold's mechanisms. And it wasn't borrowed from any other game. Well, maybe slightly...
#6 - Choices Appear
The action cards inspired by the craftsmen cards from The Pillars of the Earth wouldn't work in Stronghold, so they went to the archive and I started from scratch. I took a sheet of paper and listed all available actions. I listed the resources, the catapult, the siege engine, saboteurs, the siege... I looked at the resources and thought: "Okay, the player can go and collect resources."
I was one step from a cool solution, but I didn't know it then. The idea was approaching slowly, gracefully. So it took a good few seconds before I drew four squares next to the "Resources" list, each of them with a pointer and an hourglass. Thus, if a player wants to get a resource, he'll put a soldier on that square, and the Defender will receive an Hourglass, which as I explained previously, is a point to spend on castle defense. If the player wants two resources, he'll put two soldiers on the squares and the Defender will receive two Hourglasses... Such a simple thing. The player devotes as many of his troops as he wants and gets exactly that many resources, giving the Defender that many Hourglasses by doing so.
The good idea was close, literally round the corner.
I drew three squares and colored them red, blue and white. The first represented a troll with strength 3, the second represented an orc with strength 2, and the third stood for a goblin with strength 1. (The good idea was already sitting next to me and letting itself be noted.) If the player devotes a troll and sends it to the forest, he'll get three resources; if he sends an orc, he'll get two resources; and a goblin will bring back only one piece of wood. "This is good," I thought.
This idea surprised me a lot. It was good because it generated choices. It forced the Invader to make decisions. The player had to think whether to devote his best warrior (a troll) to get lots of wood, while at the same time giving the defender only one Hourglass, or send a weak fighter (a goblin) and receive only one piece of wood. He could send three weak goblins to get three pieces of wood, but at the same time he's giving the defender three Hourglasses.
The set-up is apparently just about resources – supposedly nothing that important – but it's quite a lot to consider. This idea nicely exposed and supported the primary foundation of Stronghold: The Invader has the initiative and decides how much the Defender is allowed to do. The attacking player may send a troll to the forest, get a lot of wood, and the Defender gets only one Hourglass, one action point to prepare the castle defense. The attacking player may instead send three goblins to the forest. He'll get lots of wood, and he'll save the troll (who'll be available to march for the walls), but the Defender will get three Hourglasses. Three Hourglasses is plenty; you can build a hot oil cauldron. The attacker may decide to send one goblin to the forest. He'll have one piece of wood, almost nothing, but the Defender doesn't get much either.
Nay, the invader may say pass and send no one. The defender receives no Hourglass points for defense. The initiative is on the Invader's side. Choices and decisions. The Defender's desperation. I was heading in the right direction. I followed this trail...
#7 - Invaders' Camp
The rule I created for gathering resources seemed very interesting. I followed that trail and planned all of the Invader's actions, each of them in various versions, on a big sheet of paper. Examples? The catapult could be built by devoting one troll, or two orcs, or three goblins. Siege tower? Built by two trolls, three orcs or six goblins. One of them would get inside and start to sabotage the Defender, while the rest would die when attempting to break into the castle.
There were choices at every stage of the Invader's game. At every stage the player had to decide whether to lose a good warrior on construction so that the Defender would suffer from the lack of Hourglasses, or to build using those weaklings, the goblins; the Defender would get lots of Hourglasses, but I'd be able to throw a unit of trolls on the walls. It'll be eventful.
We played two or three short games and the solution worked. Salou, my Stronghold co-player since the beginning who was helping me test the game, would choose and decide in which turn and at what stage he'd devote trolls or goblins; he plotted and decided. The game wasn't working yet – it was a big makeshift tent, a big construction site with dirt in the air – but this element, the idea of devoting different troops to generate various numbers of Hourglasses, was. I was heading in the right direction.
After a few games I started playing with the plot. I was trying to cook up a way to give this resource idea plot potential, aside from giving it elegant mechanisms. The artillerymen appeared on the sheet. The player could train an orc to become an artilleryman. There was no choice here. Trolls and goblins are too stupid to be trained. I added shamans' rituals, for which only goblins could be sacrificed; orcs and trolls would refuse to give their blood for the rituals.
These little flavors forced Salou to plan his moves better. He had to watch the numbers of goblins sent to the forest, lest he have no one left to ritually murder. He had to put aside those orcs trained into artillerymen. I didn't add any new rules. Everything was based on one sentence – "To take an action, place a certain number of troop markers on the board and give the opponent an equal number of Hourglasses" – but this one sentence provided huge possibilities. It forced decision-making in every moment of a turn.
I won't hide it; I'm obsessed with decisions. I've been making games for many years. This obsession has been with me since 2001, ever since we started designing the role-playing game Neuroshima together with Michał Oracz. We had analyzed tens of role-playing games, then we created Neuroshima's character creation system – a mighty tool, which became the game's success and gave the players lots of fun.
I know that board game fans don't necessarily have any interest in role-playing games, so fear not, I won't bore you. I'll just state a few numbers. When a player creates a character in Neuroshima, he has the choice of 12 different races, with three features in each of them. That's 36 options. Then he picks one of 26 professions, with one of the two special features in each of them. That makes for 52 options multiplied by 36 options. Then he picks one of five specializations...
Obsession with choices. Decisions. To make the player sit and conceive. The sheet with the listed Invader's actions was slowly turning into an attacking troops' camp. Soldiers could be sent to a nearby forest to provide resources. Siege engines were built in workshops. The most capable warriors, who could tip the balance in the Invader's favor, were trained in tents. Spies, saboteurs and artillerymen were all leaving the tents. Next to them, in a chapel, a shaman kept goblins in cages for the purpose of dark rituals. In the center was the commander's tent, full of maps and plans. March out, and wall assault orders were given there.
Stronghold was coming to life step by step. Dreams and visions were being forged into reality.
#8 - Thanks
The playtesters – if they're lucky – will see their names mentioned toward the end of the manual. Small print. Somewhere next to the copyrights. Nobody reads that. It's bloody unjust.
To start producing a game you need a man who invents it, and people who will test it. Before it reaches the stores, countless rounds have to be played, boring, limping, frustrating rounds, which – let's be honest – are a waste of time for the tester. The guy could play Race for the Galaxy. He could play Neuroshima HEX. He could play Tikal. But he won't. For one-and-a-half hours he'll be wrangling with real time rules and sitting over a scribbled board that will change three times in the course of a round. Instead of the components, he'll have pieces of paper, three versions of the game rules, sheets with rules from previous prototype versions that are being reworked with new, as yet unwritten, rules. And if he does manage to win and has the chance to feel a tiny fraction of satisfaction, he'll always hear: "Yeah, the game is unbalanced. I need to weaken the effect of your actions..." It's a terrible job, but there wouldn't be games without testers.
So if this journal is supposed to be a report on game creation, on how Stronghold came into being – and a more-or-less useful pointer for other authors – I need to mention the people who agreed to play Stronghold with me, people who have devoted many hours to poring over the disjointed, malfunctioning game; getting bored; and seeing how I constantly make up the rules. I can't imagine how I could start working on a game without someone who would sit with me, patiently playing and indulgently suffering all inconveniences; without someone who will flood me with genius ideas at every stage, someone who won't pull the game in his own direction, but will settle for observing how the game hangs and breaks – while waiting for my moves, my patches. It's a job for a saint.
As far as Stronghold is concerned, the biggest acknowledgement goes to Salou, the guy who played many rounds of this worst, most unrewarding state of the game: when it didn't exist, didn't work, when I would come to him with some fragments of rules and ask him to play. We played many rounds and talked a lot. His influence was great, for although I rejected many of his conclusions and ideas, I also took many remarks to heart and tried implementing them in the game. My name will be on the box, yet many ideas contained within Stronghold are not of my authorship. I think it's the case with every game. Well, let me at least make a nod toward all those friends who had devoted their time, and pay them some respect.
Salou? At some point you could give three marching orders in the game. For many years to come, I will remember Silent's face when he lost in Stronghold on the first (!!) turn. Salou rode in the castle like a speeding battle car. After that round you could give only two orders. At some point the defender got only as many Hourglasses as the Invader generated. Well, I will remember my frustration for a long time after Salou said "pass", didn't generate any Hourglasses, and walked into the castle. After that round, the defender got two Hourglasses, even if the Invader did nothing.
Silent? He co-authored the catapults rule. You need to know it's one of the most climatic rules in the game. We sat in MDK and debated because the catapult rules didn't work the way I wanted, the machines were either too powerful or too weak. A minute or two of conversation, and bang, there's the solution. Silent didn't make the catapults; Silent is the catapults.
Obi? He fixed the character rules because they were limping. He played, waited an hour, then walked to me with a ready set of Officer and Warrior rules. Simple as that. They got into the game unchanged. They were perfect.
Michał Oracz and Multi, two people from Portal, put a countless number of ideas into the game. It's hard to mention them. Testers' remarks, their whining, their indications, information, that they have no chance, that their opponent is too strong... Tens of notes, ticked results, checking which round the game finished in.
I tried just now to remember whether I forgot anyone. (It's possible.) There were 25 people taking part in testing Stronghold. I didn't send out the prototype around Poland; it wasn't tested "theoretically", "allegedly", or quickly by people I don't know. I was there during each game. I was observing how they play, looking at their reactions. I saw how they learned the rules, how they used the game's potential, how they used strategies to try to surprise and defeat the opponent. And I listened. I kept listening to what they were saying. I put emotions aside, averaged out the opinions, and checked whether they were repeated. If they were recurring, I corrected the rule in question as suggested.
Therefore I'd like to thank all those people for devoting a few hundred hours of their time to me, sitting and playing with me a game which wasn't that cool at the time. Thanks to their sacrifice Stronghold was created. And it's a cool game today...
#9 - Crowded Walls
In one of the first parts of this series I mentioned how I had initially imagined Stronghold: On the Invader's side a wave of armies, a faceless line of opponents; on the walls a few defenders, an extraordinary bunch, gifted with various qualities. My dream was to have The Fellowship of the Ring defend the castle. That's how we started the testing. There were pawns on the walls marked "Hero", "Officer", "Sorcerer", and I worried that it wasn't enough as I still had a "Scout" and "Engineer" in my mind. Each of them received a unique ability, which enabled the Defender to resist the Invader:
-----• The Hero would kill the opponent's strongest unit on a given wall section.
-----• The Officer could make a speech and increase the strength of the troops on a given wall section.
-----• The Sorcerer could cast a spell to strengthen a given fragment of the wall.
-----• The Priest could heal the wounded.
-----• The Scout destroyed siege engines.
-----• The Engineer repaired destroyed walls and built oil cauldrons.
A wave of armies would approach from the Invader's side, would flood the walls trying to break through, to defeat the handful of soldiers standing on the battlements, fighting for the future of the castle. There were heroes among them. There's trouble somewhere, so the Defender sends the Officer there. The Officer says his Speech and the troops resist the Invader. There's trouble somewhere else, the Hero rushes in, drops a troll and things look better from then on. There are wounded somewhere, the player sends the Priest and the boys are again ready to fight. And so forth, and so on.
The player has twelve sections of the wall, and he has four or five heroes and has to manage somehow. This was the initial concept. It looked good – at least until we started playing. There were heroes' pawns standing on the walls, next to ordinary soldiers, and it was crowded.
Soon it became clear that the crowd was unnecessary. Moving those pawns along the walls was arduous, costly (a lot of wasted Hourglasses were spent walking alongside walls), and in many instances completely useless. Instead of concentrating on which actions to take, I was concentrating on where to move a pawn, where it should stand, and how much it will cost me. The cost of moving a hero was so high that it practically wasn't worth it. When I reduced the cost of running on the walls a question became relevant: "Why represent where they actually stand, if moving somewhere else costs next to nothing?"
It was malfunctioning. If the Engineer stood on the left side of the stronghold, the Invader would use the catapult to attack the right side. It wasn't worth it for the Engineer to run that distance to repair the wall. The Priest would run along the walls to heal people, while he should be in a hospital doing it there. Similarly the Sorcerer – why run if he could repair any section with his magic...?
I did a mini test, a tiny tryout. Unfortunately for the concept of heroes running along the walls, the trial was successful. I drew a hospital, a Sorcerer's tower, a workshop on the board, inside the walls. For two Hourglasses you could heal in the hospital, for four Hourglasses you could magically strengthen the wall from the Sorcerer's tower; you could build oil cauldrons in the workshop. I had the available actions, I had the variety of actions, and I didn't need to wrangle pawns running on the walls.
Unfortunately for the Fellowship of the Ring, it all worked rather well. Maybe I didn't like that step too much, maybe I was stepping off the path I had imagined and dreamt of, but I knew I was heading the right direction, whether I liked it or not. A serious work on the revolution inside the walls had begun...
#10 - Cleaning the Castle
The concept of heroes running alongside walls, solving ongoing problems, started to wobble. It was troublesome, inconvenient, and most importantly the experimental alternative solution – placing central locations in the stronghold – worked elegantly and ably.
Clearly, this was a point where I had to give up my initial vision and apply a more practical, elegant and simple solution. I started cleaning the castle. In the hospital building I drew spaces for three wounded soldiers. If more soldiers than that are wounded in a round, the hospital will not manage to treat them all, and these soldiers will die. Plotwise it was interesting, heavy; rulewise, simple, perfect – only three spots. You may put three markers there and not one more. When the Priest ran along the walls earlier, there was no possibility to introduce such a rule. Thanks to the concept change, it became possible.
It looked good on the Sorcerer's side, too. Previously he could only strengthen a section of the wall, but since I had a few square centimetres of the board, not only did I draw a beautiful tower, but also a few spells from which to choose. The Sorcerer would sit in the tower and could cast this spell, or that one or... The player had a choice. As you know, I'm obsessed with choices. I liked the choice.
I followed this trail and added more options to the workshop, too. Previously the Engineer could rebuild the wall; now it turned out he could also build an oil cauldron, put a ballista in the tower... The player would choose which action to take and... it happened. I knew there was no going back to the heroes concept, that the original idea was going right into the archive.
Making a few buildings inside the castle available for the player, where he can take various interesting actions, is a far better solution than my romantic ideas involving Gandalf running alongside the walls. Moreover, the further it went, the better it looked. Next to every action I drew spaces for the Hourglasses which the player would get from the Invader. Building a ballista took four Hourglasses, an oil cauldron took three. One spell cost two Hourglasses, another took four. The player had a range of possibilities, a small town full of buildings and possibilities to explore. There were choices, decisions; there was room for a castle defense plan.
During one of the first test games an event happened which buried the initial idea and made the castle locations win the battle to stay in Stronghold for good. At some point Salou generated five Hourglasses for me. I spent three building an oil cauldron, and the remaining two went to the Sorcerer's tower, where he started preparing a spell. I didn't have enough Hourglasses to finish it, so I just left those two there. "Can you do that?" Salou asked. "Of course, the guy is preparing a spell," I answered. "As you can see, he hasn't finished yet, but he will. You can be certain of that." I beamed.
Plotwise it was wonderful – epic, colourful, vivid. During the game the Hourglasses went to different buildings and represented the crews working like ants on building and creating whatever they could. The player had under his nose whatever was happening in the castle. You could see builders constructing a ballista here, a Sorcerer working on a spell there. Here I put another Hourglass and phew, he's finished, I have a ballista; there I still need to wait, I need two more Hourglasses, to have the Sorcerer finish...
I knew there was still a lot ahead of me, many weeks of creating actions that could be taken by the castle crew. I knew there would be the whole fun with balancing it all, and tens of details that will come out of this fun. Nevertheless I could proudly say: "This is ready. This will be in Stronghold. It works. Now we only need to polish it."
These rules meant breaking with the original vision. They were an initially painful, but inevitable step into the unknown. They were created because the original assumptions didn't work, and forcing them into the game would break it. I could pass up, I could throw an idea over board and go look for another one. I could be wrong, but I think it's important not to be bound to one thing, to have an open mind and always look for better solutions.
In any case, I won't fool you. Although I introduced the buildings, actions and Hourglasses to the castle, I left a trace of the original vision, a romantic touch from the very first picture of Stronghold. Aragorn and Boromir would still fight on the walls. There was their place, on the walls – not in the buildings inside the castle...
#11 - Victory Points
I could go on and on about the victory points. Working on this part of the rules took me a huge amount of time as I devoted more strength and energy to them than I could ever have anticipated. I suspect this stems from the fact that I approached the matter from the wrong angle. I suspect that the masters of the genre do it differently, do it better, smarter, and that if Kramer or Lehmann read this here article, they would gasp and shout: "Young man, you've chosen a terribly long way to get to your destination!" Maybe.
Or maybe not? Maybe the victory points are a piece of heavy toil, and we don't even realize how much effort this part of the rules costs the authors. I don't know myself. During the first Stronghold matches, when the players sat down to play, they would hear: "You are the Invader; if you break into the castle, you've won. You are the Defender; if you can defend for ten turns, you've won." The game was about breaking into the castle, so the rules were pretty straightforward.
This idea didn't pass the reality check though. I remember that in one of the first matches, Maciek Janik managed to defend the castle until turn 9, and only then did he fall. "You've lost," said his opponent. I was watching the game intently, and while you could say a lot about it, you couldn't say that Maciek had lost. He had fought like a lion. He had defended the castle like a demon. He was all over the place, surprising me with the way he would use the first, original rule outlines to keep the castle. He stood his ground until the bloody turn 9. He deserved a bit more than the cynical and blunt "You've lost". The victory conditions required modifying.
I introduced the gradual victory: Entering the castle in turn 8 meant a draw. Entering it in turn 7 meant the Invader's victory, and entering in turn 6 and earlier meant a crushing victory. On the other hand, entering in turn 9 meant the Defender's victory, and entering in turn 10 meant a crushing victory for the Defender. Such graduation seemed interesting. The Defender saw that he had to hold out until the 10th turn to win big; that he had to hold out until the 7th turn to avoid a crushing victory for the Invader; that he had to hold out until turn 8 to draw. He had a reason to fight for one more turn, one more...
A few days later I improved the mechanisms and introduced victory points. The Invader would start the game with 12 points and give one point to the defender after each turn. By turn six the point score was 6:6 and every subsequent turn meant even bigger victory for the Defender. I liked this mechanism an awful lot. It was like a ticking clock – the Invader could see how his Victory Points disappeared with each turn, he could see that he had to hurry for otherwise the victory would slip from his hands. It looked sensational. Excitement guaranteed.
At some point I added a plot by turning the Victory Points into Glory Points and happily telling the players that the GP represent how the battle would be reported in the chronicles. The analysts are prepared for the castle to fall, ready to write twelve volumes on the victorious Invader's army. Unfortunately, after each turn it turns out that the analysts instead note how bravely the Defenders fought, how they stood on the walls, heads held high, how with each passing day the Invader's army could not break the castle defences. Yes, what the players fought for was how they would be remembered by history. It sounded convincing.
The reality check was for me very surprising, as usual – this time, the role of a blacksmith hammer, which hit me in the head, was taken by Michał Oracz. In the sixth turn of one of the beta games he stopped playing. "Okay, since I failed to enter the castle, I'm not playing anymore." I was in shock. I didn't understand. "Why should I play? To learn whether I simply lost or lost utterly? No point. I can't win anymore, so I'm not playing." I stood there in the middle of the office and couldn't believe it. But what about the Defender, why are you taking the right to taste the victory away from him? "I'm not playing a game that I can't win anymore." Unfortunately, Michał was serious. "Besides, I don't like the fact that I'm losing points. It can't be like that. Let the Defender gain points, but don't make me lose them. It can't be that a player loses points."
Great. Just great. I had no idea how many loonies like that there are, how many will leave the table after seeing there are no chances to win. I knew, though, that Michał was giving a clear sign: There is a bug in the game, and it needs changing. I didn't agree with him on disappearing points – it's a question of taste. I considered this rule to be flexible, showing nicely that the winner feels the victory slipping from his hands, and I didn't intend to introduce any changes to this mechanism. What was worse was this surrendering of the game. This was a problem. It was a content-related allegation, it was a fact – if a player has no chances of winning, why should he play? Michał was right.
It was Multidej who saved the day. One day he brought a table to the Office. "These are the goals, and the players can receive additional victory points for achieving the goals. This way even in those later turns the Invader has additional means of earning some points." The table looked insane: If the Invader breaks into the castle, he receives 1 VP; if he builds four machines, he receives 1 VP; if he kills at least ten defenders, he receives 1 VP; and so on. There was a similar table for the Defender: 1 VP for defeating three trolls, 1 VP for setting three traps, etc.
This concept created a clear sign for the Invader: In turn 7 you're building your fourth catapult, man, you're killing the tenth defender, you're breaking into the castle screaming and smiling. You're winning! Glorious deeds have improved the mechanisms and added another bucket of atmosphere to the game. The analysts gave the Invader Glory Points for the fact that his siege was legendary due to the number of siege machines or due to the number of killed defenders... Yes, the Invader now has something to be remembered for, as does the Defender.
There was still a problem with turns 8 and 9, however, under the disappearing points' mechanism. If, for instance, the score on turn 8 is 7:5 for the Defender, it's incredibly difficult for the Invader to earn enough glorious deeds to win. Luckily the solution was found quickly: The Invader would receive +1 victory point for every wall section he manages to break in the castle. Now in the situation above, don't fret – just raise a mass assault and break through three wall sections simultaneously, with groans, moans, screams and begging from the Defender's side. You earn +3 points for breaking in at several wall sections and there you go, the score is 7:8, you've won...
"It's okay" Michał acknowledged. Sure, it was okay, I could see it with my naked eye. The mechanism of time running out and tipping the scales in the defender's favor were successfully instilled, and at the same time the Invader was given the chance to win, even in the last, 10th turn – although admittedly, he would have to practically raze the castle to the ground. He had a reason to stay at the table and play. Mission accomplished.
Everything was rolling nicely. Glorious deeds, disappearing points, the whole thing had tons of atmosphere, plenty of story potential and it worked pretty well. I would constantly change things here and there, improve, substitute goals to achieve, the system was being polished in subsequent matches and step by step it headed towards its final shape.
Prototype game board showing VPs that can be lost by the defender
And then I had a brainwave, and a revolution came – I got rid of the Defender's goals. I introduced a Royal Council into the castle. The Council had the right to assemble and take dramatic decisions, perhaps by starting to negotiate with the Invader. The Defender receives three Hourglasses of time, but loses Glory Points since such negotiations are a disgrace. The Council could decide to open the dungeon gates inside the castle; the Defender would receive two soldier cubes to fight with, but would also lose a Glory Point since having prisoners on the walls is a disgrace. The Council could decide to send tables, chairs, all of the furniture to the carpenter to save the castle. The Carpenter receives four hourglasses, but the castle is vandalized, and the analysts write this down, costing the Defender Glory Points...
Today, after many, many months of polishing these rules I can say mission accomplished. The Invader starts the game with nine Glory Points. He could have had ten to match the number of turns, but no, the analysts have taken one, right at the start. They wrote that the castle crew did not open the gates. They showed courage and prowess by taking the battle. The score at the start is therefore 9:1 for the Invader. The Invader has four different goals that he can accomplish to earn four Glory Points: he can smash the castle walls, he can attack with trolls, he can complete glorious deeds. The Defender, on the other hand, doesn't gain; he tries to preserve, he has to endure. He has four Glory Points inside his Royal Council. If the council doesn't gather, the Defender doesn't lose them. Sadly, the fight will be tough, and the council will surely gather. The question is how many times, how many of those four points will the Defender be able to keep until the end of the game.
Finally, there is the third pool of points: The Invader receives three Glory Points for breaking into the castle, plus one Glory Point for every captured wall section. The Defender receives one Glory Point for the banner, a banner held by two soldiers in the middle of the castle who don't fight. They don't rush to the walls to rescue, but hold what's dearest to every soldier: the banner. If the Defender keeps them from fighting and makes do without them, if he can afford to keep two "idle" soldiers in the middle of the courtyard with the banner, he will receive one Glory Point at the end of each turn from the sixth turn on. I don't have to add that by the sixth turn the Defender is so screwed that keeping soldiers with a banner in the middle of the courtyard borders on suicide. Then again, everyone tries to keep them still and make them hold the banner as long as possible. It's the castle banner after all. A sacred thing...
(This designer diary concludes here.)
[Part two of Trzewik's massive designer diary for Stronghold, originally published in thirteen parts on BGN and divided into two on BGG only due to the size limit on blog posts. Check out the first part here if you haven't already. Now, to wrap up this tale... —WEM]
#12 - Replayability
March 2009, Gliwice, a boardgame convention: I sit with Nataniel and Widlak from the Rebel.pl store, and we play Stronghold. They're testing. They're assessing. They'll tell me what they think. They'll say whether there's potential in here. They'll say whether it's worth putting a lot of cash into this game. After all, they work for the biggest games store in Poland, and they have a good perspective.
Nataniel is complaining about the catapults hitting with six, Widlak is commenting, the game runs in a cheerful atmosphere. "The catapults definitely need to change. I'm worried about replayability, the invader has this board with actions: catapult construction, ritual, dispatch, after a number of matches it's going to be a pain. Otherwise it's okay, this may become a hit," says Nataniel after the match.
Phew... I wasn't worried about replayability. I've been fascinated for years with the idea of the "plots" used in FFG's A Game of Thrones. Players use one special card from the plot deck, and this card changes a piece of the rules for that turn. Everyone receives more gold, for instance, or duels become more lethal, or no duels are allowed, etc.
I had similar plans regarding Stronghold, so a few days later I brought two sets of cards to the office, one for the Invader, one for the Defender. Each of them would draw three cards before the game, and they could use them anytime during the game, each time changing the game itself. "Poisoned water" in the castle caused the hospital to stop working. "Riots in the barracks" meant all the goblins in the Invader's camp were killed. I feel – I've always felt – that I'm strong plotwise. These cards showed the life inside both players' camps, events which were unexpected and demolished strategies and plans. Exactly.
The cards introduced chaos. They changed a serious, static strategy game into mutual incident swapping right out of a card game. A game about siege planning, a game about planning a castle defence, a serious game – and then bang, a card from the sky and your hospital is out. Bang, and a bleak fear falls on the men on the walls, and a few soldiers have to be sent back to the barracks... A discord. A dissonance. Wrong fairy tale.
This screwing each other up with cards didn't fit the game at all. Plotwise it was interesting, plotwise it gave the game a kick because it told about events in the castle and the enemy camp in a colorful manner, but in terms of game mechanisms it was artificial, awkward. If that was supposed to be a means to ensure replayability, well...it was bad. I took the cards home.
A new day, a new idea. The same set of cards. The same rule of each player drawing three of them, but with one change: You don't keep the cards in hand; instead they lay face-up on the table. The opponent sees what's up your sleeve. He can prepare, he can expect that at some point you may play one of them and slap him. Plotwise? Much weaker, for how do you explain that the castle Defender knows a "Fire in the Chapel" is about to come? Mechanism-wise it was a bit better, with no sudden bangs, but instead something you can prepare for.
And Stronghold-wise? In the case of this particular board game?
Another failure. The players would paralyze each other with cards. Instead of thinking Stronghold-like, as in previous games – building cauldrons and catapults, preparing for the fight – they would wheel and deal to defend themselves from the cards. Stronghold slipped into the background. The main course was trying to screw up the opponent with an event card. We're not going to play this way. I took the cards home.
A new day, a new idea. A new set of cards, specifically one set of cards instead of two. Instead of cards designed to screw up the other player, I now had a set of Events with a capital E. "Mighty Downpour" – the archers in the castle can't shoot; what's more, the roads have softened up and troop movement toward the castle costs an Hourglass more. These plot events affected both players, and plotwise it was splendid. The world around the castle has come alive: black clouds would gather above and the sun would shine through, armies of mercenaries would wander around, and a sound of distant earthquakes could be heard. Rule-wise it was good enough in the way that it didn't boil down to hitting the other player like in a card game. The events were huge – epic! – thwarting both players' plans.
And how did it affect Stronghold? Better than all previous solutions. Good enough for us to grind the game with these rules for over two weeks. Eventually, tired of the whole card mess, we gave it up.
Big events turned the game upside-down and made the whole work on game balancing worthless. Three months of balancing the speed of troop movement together with the archers' firing effectiveness on the walls went down in the mud as soon as we drew the "downpour" card. When we weakened the events so that they were interesting plotwise but without too big of an effect on the rules, we questioned why we bothered with them in the first place; they didn't ensure replayability at all because their effect on the game was minor. It was bad either way.
Days and weeks passed, with tens of versions and types of event cards created – they'll make a mighty interesting showcase one day – and we in the office felt that the cards were malfunctioning, that they were artificial. These cards were beside the game, beside its basic engine. I threw the cards away. Brain restart. I'm looking for a new idea. It's a day-to-day routine when working on a board game. Restart and again from scratch... Restart and again from scratch...
#13 - Replayability Replayed
I believe that every game has at its core a rule representing the concept of the whole game, a philosophy which can be presented in one or two sentences. Tens of lesser rules are built around it to enrich the fun. Citadels? "On your turn you're building a district; additionally you're using your character's special ability." Samurai? "On your turn you're positioning the troop tiles on the board, fighting for an advantage around the towns." Settlers of Catan? "On your turn, you roll dice to see whether you gained resources, then you trade them and use them to build roads, settlements and towns."
In Stronghold such a sentence would probably be: "On your turn you assign your troops to take actions like machine construction and troop training. Depending on the number of assigned troops, your opponent receives an equal number of action points for his defensive actions." The event cards I had tried to use to strengthen replayability were an addition to the actual game, not its integral part. I had to ensure replayability on the core level, the game's main part – not by using an extension. I'd wheeled and dealed. The solution was born eventually by damn accident.
The Invader's actions, as I've said before, were written down on a sheet with the Resources field, the Machine Construction field, the Rituals field, etc. This sheet annoyed me for various reasons, such as when a rule changed, because I then had to hand copy the whole sheet. Or a new rule would appear, so I had to rework the whole thing to make it fit the sheet. Or beta testers would whine that once a phase (e.g., Machine Construction) was completed, it couldn't be marked.
So I finally waved the A4 sheet, which was supposed to represent the Invader's camp, and split it into separate cards: the Resources card, the Machine Construction card, the Training card, the Rituals card, and the Dispatch card. This change allowed me to make quick modifications based on what came out of test matches, and the cards were much clearer for the players at the same time. They had six cards in front of them and could tick one as completed after each phase. It worked.
And then bang! A revelation came. I had the Machine Construction card together with a Catapult and Ladders in front of me: "Hmm, maybe I should do another, alternative card, with a Trebuchet and a Ballista...?" I looked at other phases like Training and Rituals. If I made the effort, I could think of more additional options for each of them. Then, before a Stronghold match, a player would draw one card for every phase. One time he would draw Catapults, another time it would be a Trebuchet. One time Saboteurs, another time Marksmen. One time Blood Stones, another time Possession. A different match every time.
Multidej was the first person to hear this new idea. He listened and immediately got enthusiastic about it. "It's like there are different commanders and engineers in the game. Their profiles could be drawn on the side, such as some bloodthirsty shaman with his murderous rituals, or a different shaman – the tactics master – with completely different rituals on another card... These cards could be given a human face to show there are different commanders with different ideas for war..."
Oh, yes, Multidej fell in love with this idea straight away. And I fell in love with his vision of different people representing different concepts and attack philosophies. You draw an engineer who believes that the castle should be taken by building trebuchets, or one who likes to build ballistas. Superb. Arduous fun had begun...
Phase one, resources. I took coloured pencils and went wild. I drew a lake on one card, a thick forest on another, a forest and quarries on yet another. It would represent the setting for the siege, one time by the lake, another time in the forests... Each card would give different resources, one time a player would have lots of wood, another time a bit of wood and stones, or lots of wood and food. This set-up would determine the whole course of the game.
Similarly the second phase, War machines, was changed. Ballistas, Trebuchets and Ladders were added to the already existing Catapult. The work took long weeks. I created seven different options for one of the phases, seven different war machines, seven types of training, rituals, seven different dispatch types. I divided them into basic and special. Basic, like the Catapult or the Saboteurs, would appear on three out of five Invader's cards. Special ones, like the Trebuchet or the Quartermaster, would appear on only one card. Those additional options appeared gradually. Their numbers were increasing. One time the testers were playing with a battering ram, another time with a siege tower. At one point someone moaned: "C'mon, I didn't draw any Saboteurs. How am I supposed to win?!"
Separate matches started to differ significantly from one another. There was a moment, sometime in early June, when at last I started hearing what I had wanted to hear for long months: "Shit, unlucky. I made a few mistakes in this match. I would play it differently now, and I really want to play again."
I smiled and said, "But you do know that each phase has five different cards, so you're sure to have a completely different set next time? Today there was no siege tower, there were no saboteurs, no bloodstones in the game. There are seven different machines, seven different equipment types, seven types of training in the game... There's a lot for you to learn; you need to learn how to play with the Towers, the Ballistas, how to use the Battering Ram... You will be making mistakes in many coming matches, before you learn it all."
Eyes wide open. Dreamy face. A question: When's the rematch? I had worked for that for seven long, tough months. I was in heaven.
Stronghold demo table at Spiel 2009