Zapotec in early 2019. March 31st was my last day of work that year, after which I took some time off so that I could focus on board games full time for a while. (This is still ongoing after over two years.)
I had just closed Merv, so I started playing around with some ideas for a new game. Following the theme from my two previous games, Ragusa and Merv, I was still thinking of some other way to use the "house placement" mechanism.
In this case, the idea was to have a map with house slots where each slot would have a few properties (e.g., type of building, neighborhood, etc.), and each turn you had constraints on which houses you would be able to place. Those same properties would also be relevant for endgame scoring.
The initial idea was about building a modern city in which each building slot had three properties: their type (residential, commercial, industrial), the neighborhood (with three on the map), and whether the building was next to a road, a railroad, or a water course. One of the first boards looked like this:
The action selection, at the time, was based on nine double-sided tiles, each one having one icon on each side, with the icons being the three types of buildings, the three neighborhoods, and the three resources.
Each player also had a player mat with nine houses sitting on the main grid at the start (covering all the "+1" spaces) and various discs covering the circles:
There would be a row of 5-7 tiles on the main board and one tile on each player mat. On your turn, you would flip the tile on your player mat (moving it from the left slot to the right slot), then get a tile from the main board and place it onto the left slot. Depending on where you took the tile from, you would gain or lose some coins (as indicated on the board).
You would then activate the two tiles:
• When activating a tile with a resource, you would gain that resource for each visible "+1" on the corresponding row, so if you already had built two houses from the "bricks" row, you would gain a total of 3 bricks.
• When activating a tile with a neighborhood shield, you would collect money along the corresponding column, so if you had built two houses in that neighborhood, you would gain three coins.
• When activating a tile with a building type, you would be able to build a house of that type (with each building type requiring a specific pair of resources), the house would go on the main board on a slot of the matching type and in the same neighborhood of the column from which you took the house.
Instead of placing a house, you could place one of your discs under one of your already built houses (thereby upgrading it) or place a disc on a special building slot on the map (with one for each main building aspect). The number of discs on those bigger building lots would determine how many points each house with the matching aspects would be worth at the end of the game for all players. For example, if at the end of the game, the wharf building had three discs, each house next to water would be worth 3 VP, while upgraded houses would count double. Removing discs from your board would also unlock various abilities that let you spend coins to activate various bonuses.
This initial prototype already had many of the ideas that would then become central to Zapotec, such as the resource grid, the house placement and costs, and some of the scoring principles.
The drafting of tiles, though, was not working very well as you often would end up taking the tiles you could afford rather than the ones you wanted, and especially at higher player counts, the tiles you needed might end up always being taken by some other player.
During that time I was able to playtest two or three times a week thanks to regular events with PlaytestUK and weekly tests with a few other designer friends at my place, with enough free time between them to let me iterate quickly and try new changes.
One of the first things that changed was swapping out tiles for cards. Each card would have both a resource and a building aspect, and players would have a hand of cards so that they could plan a few turns ahead instead of relying on which cards were available to draft on the next turn. Cards would also have a scoring multiplier that would apply to all of your buildings with a given feature.
Here is a picture from an actual playtest session:
In this version (from mid-April 2019), you would play a card in front of you, deciding which resource row to activate and which buildings you could build, either the type, the neighborhood, or whether it should be next to a railway, road or water. When placing the building, you would then get the tile from the same slot on the board, and place it on your player mat on the same slot from which you took the house. That tile then provided extra resources when collecting from the same row.
The card would also provide a score multiplier for your buildings with some other feature. For example, one card would let you build an office and score 1 VP for all your houses next to a river.
Upgrading a building by placing a disc underneath it would cost an additional coin over the cost of the building type, and now you would gain one of the tiles on the board that's tied to the type of building you boosted.
Finally, you could add a second disc to an already boosted building (turning it into a level-3 building) and at the same time add another disc to one of the nine main buildings on the left top corner of the board. These buildings will award a certain number of VP to each building with the given feature and even more VPs to boosted buildings of that type. (The slot in the top left corner, for example, awards each commercial building of level 1/2/3 with 1/2/4 VPs times the number of discs that have been placed on it at the end of the game.)
Dávid Turczi's place (as we both lived in London at the time). I tried his game Tawantinsuyu, then we played a game of Merv. (Although the main game was pretty much finalized by then, I was still working on the solo mode, and I was looking for some advice from the master.) At some point, Dávid half-jokingly said that if I ever made a game with a Mesoamerican theme, he would gladly show it to his friends at Board&Dice, so over the next few days, I did some research into whether I could somehow fit my city-building game into that setting.
I found the Zapotec civilization to be very well fitting because that civilization developed along three valleys around a central location. The three city neighborhoods naturally turned into the three valleys of Mitla, Etla, and Ocotlán; the three types of buildings turned into temples, villages, and corn fields, and instead of water/rail/roads I used three types of terrain: plains, forests, and hills, which emerged almost naturally from the setting.
Once I had those three specific types of buildings, it came naturally that each one would provide its own special resource: corn fields produce corn, temples produce priests, and villages produce trading opportunities (abstracted into gold).
The "capital" actions were then a way to spend these resources, so gold was now used to access trading tiles, which initially provided just some conversions, but which eventually evolved into more varied kinds of special abilities.
Corn was sacrificed in order to advance on a track, and priests were used, along with building resources, in order to build pyramids.
I changed the card play so that cards were reused; now cards played in a round would become the ones from which to draft in the next round. The cards were also played simultaneously, with the printed number determining the turn order for the round. The leftover card, after drafting, would become the scoring card for the next round, etc.
This new version introduced more tension between being early or late in turn order. Now if you are last in turn order, you will try to build houses that satisfy the scoring card for both the current round and the next round.
Also, by reusing cards, there's a good chance that the scoring cards for the last couple of rounds have already been used a few times, so they would have a bigger impact on scoring. Finally, players are presented with an interesting choice between whether to pick up a previously used card to play it again next round or leave it and possibly score from it.
I also tweaked the pyramid scoring to create an incentive to work together to build bigger pyramids. (Completed pyramids award way more points than incomplete ones, but you can build only one level per pyramid per turn.)
By early June 2019, I had a game that was in a good enough state, and I brought it to a playtesting session at Dávid's place. He kept the prototype so that he could bring it to a meet-up with Board&Dice a few days later.
I made another copy of the prototype, which I then brought to a lot of places. Around that time, I left my flat in London, spent a weekend in Melksham for a playtesting event, then while all my furniture was on a truck heading across Europe, I went on a trip to Germany where I stopped by, among other places, Göttingen for the big annual game designer meeting. Once settled in Milan, I went to a dozen or so gaming and playtesting events all over Italy between August and January, making more tweaks to the design here and there.
During that time I also received some great feedback from Board&Dice, which was happy to sign the game.
A few final tweaks were implemented: We removed one game round (going from six to five), introduced the palace (that counts as two houses for scoring purposes but doesn't provide resources), and started thinking about a few other ideas.
In February 2020, I flew to Warsaw for a week of full immersion with Board&Dice and a few other designers for their upcoming games. (We also playtested Tawantinsuyu, Tekhenu, Tabannusi, Origins, and Dark Ages with David, Daniele, Adam, and the lovely folks from Board&Dice.)
During that week, we finalized the last remaining details, improved the trade tiles, and introduced the ritual cards in order to provide even more variability in the game.
I am happy that the majority of the work on Zapotec was finalized before the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Even though the ongoing pandemic has certainly resulted in additional challenges, particularly when it comes to wider playtesting of the finished design, additional development, and the disruption to the global supply chain, I am happy knowing the game received all necessary attention and is, today, on its way to various worldwide warehouses for fulfillment and distribution.
Editor's note of a self-promotional nature: Zapotec is available for purchase via the BGG Store. —WEM
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archive for Fabio Lopiano
Designer Diary: Zapotec
18 Jan 2022
Tue Jan 18, 2022 1:00 pm
- [+] Dice rolls
Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road is my next board game, due out on November 26, 2020 from Osprey Games.
I began work on this game about three years ago, in the middle of 2017. Initially it was a generic city-building game in which players would collect resources every round, spend them in order to build houses and, at the same time, defend those houses from hordes of barbarians threatening to attack the city every few rounds; when I started doing research about where to actually set the game, I stumbled upon the story of Merv.
Merv, the Largest City in the World
I was reading a book about the Silk Road and was surprised to learn that, about one thousand years ago, Merv, now in modern day Turkmenistan, used to be the largest city in the world with well over one million inhabitants.
Thanks to its access to fresh water in what otherwise was a vast desert in central Asia, Merv was an important stop for all caravans traveling between China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It soon became a large economic and cultural center, with several mosques, markets, libraries, and schools with famous philosophers and mathematicians teaching there.
Sadly its fortune didn't last long, with Mongols raiding it in the 13th century, killing almost seven hundred thousand people, and destroying the dam that brought water to the city. The city never fully recovered and struggled as a small town for a few more centuries until it slowly disappeared — only to be rediscovered by archaeologists a few decades ago.
Interestingly, Merv had a rectangular shape, with tall walls running all around it, which seemed to fit nicely for a board game.
The First Prototype
The first time I tried a prototype with this setting was at one of the Playtest UK meet-ups in September 2017. At the time (and for quite a while), the game was centered around a dice-drafting mechanism, and the first board looked like this:
The general idea was that on your turn you would draft a die, place it on the leftmost available slot of the matching row, and collect money indicated on that slot. (Money could be used to change the number on a die.) Moreover, dice values from 2 to 5 would let you place a house on a matching slot on the city map, while 6s let you take a special action and 1s were wild.
One concept present from the beginning is that players would not take some actions to gain resources, then other actions to spend those resources and convert them into victory points. Instead resources would be available relatively easily through a caravan walking around and dropping cubes on all the houses that were built along the way so that on each turn players could mostly focus on how to spend them effectively.
When the Mongols Attack
Another idea present for a long time was that of the Mongols slowly gathering outside the walls, then eventually attacking the city, so players had to spend resources to defend their houses but didn't know exactly when the Mongols would strike. (The timing of this was linked to which dice were not drafted.)
I struggled a lot with the dice-drafting mechanism, which ended up being too restrictive on what players could do in their turn while at the same time having too many side effects on when and where the Mongols would attack, so I eventually dropped it and tried some other avenue.
For a while, I switched to cards: Each player had a hand of cards that decided which way the caravan moved and which kind of resources it dropped. On their turn, the players would play one card and the caravan would drop cubes of the given type on all the houses along its path, then the current player would spend those cubes to build or activate houses.
For every card played, a Mongol meeple was then placed along the wall where the caravan passed by, and when the whole row filled up, the Mongols would attack on that side. (Players could place their own soldiers along those walls to defend their houses behind it.)
From this point in the design, most of the building types would survive until the published game: the library provided scrolls for special abilities, the market stall provided various kinds of goods for set collection purposes, and the palace provided endgame victory points.
I was still not happy about how to trigger the Mongol attacks. One major problem was that players would forget to place the Mongol meeple at the end of their turn, then notice after a couple of turns that some Mongols were missing and had to trace back through their moves to see where they should have been placed.
An interesting solution I tried was to drop the meeples and instead picture the Mongols on the back of each card so that after a card was played, the card itself was placed on a slot along one of the walls. When that side of wall was full, the Mongols would attack. For a while, I had the game over two boards: a square board with the city and the mongols along its walls, and a second board with all the various building types and building actions.
This was the prototype I tried in the Playtest UK area of UK Games Expo in 2018:
Back to the Drawing Board
I was still unsatisfied with the game, which looked overly complicated, so I went back to the drawing board and started from scratch.
I designed an almost completely different game, much lighter in weight and without all the complications from the previous iterations. This version of the game still features a 5x5 grid, but this time the city starts with all the building tiles in it, and players claim tiles by placing houses on them. A row of caravan cards brings various goods, and players draft them in order to score points.
The core mechanism is this: Each round, players place their meeple along one side of the city, then from left to right along that wall they place a new house (or activate an existing one) on that row (or column) and move their meeple onto one of the caravan cards, reserving that card for drafting. Each card has a building type on it, and you can reserve a card only with the same building type as the tile you activated that turn.
Finally, going from left to right along the row of cards, each player takes the card they reserved and one of the still unclaimed ones, then moves their meeple to the rearmost open spot of the queue for the next side of the city. Thus, if you reserve an early card, you will have better choices for your second card, but you will move last next turn.
This was basically another game altogether, almost in antithesis to the previous iterations, but it created an interesting tension in the way the turn order was handled. As different as it was, though, some core ideas of the previous iterations were still present:
Since pretty much the beginning of the design, on your turn you would place or activate a building (of various kinds), then have a certain amount of resources available to spend on that building. If the building were a library, for example, you could spend a number of different color cubes in order to get a matching number of scrolls. If the building were a market stall, you could spend cubes in order to gain trading goods, and so on. Moreover, the placement of your buildings would affect your resource income in the upcoming turns.
In this streamlined version, the actual resource collection was abstracted away, but the core idea was still there: If I place or activate a library, I then claim a library card (with a scroll on it), and at the end of the game I will score victory points for sets of different scrolls. If instead I activate a market stall, I claim a card with trading goods and score points for various combinations of them.
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
A piece of feedback I received during a playtest at SPIEL '18 was that the core mechanism was really cool and provided interesting choices and crunchy decisions, but that it needed a meatier game around it — so I took the advice and tried to integrate the new mechanisms into the original game, coming up with this:
At the beginning of the game, all the building tiles are placed randomly in the city. (Each tile has a different combination of type and color, and each color corresponds to a type of resource.) The game proceeds in three rounds, each round has four turns, and each turn is played along one side of the city.
On a turn, each player moves their meeple (starting from the head of the queue) into one of five slots along that side, then picks a building tile on the matching column (or row). If the tile is empty, they place one of their houses on that tile; otherwise they use the house that is already there. Then they collect resources from all tiles in that column that have a house of that player color on them. (Each tile provides one type of resource, based on the tile color.)
Finally, depending on the building that they activated, they perform the action for that building: If they activate a library, they can buy scrolls (with sets of different scrolls providing special abilities); if they activate a trading post, they can expand their trading post network, then acquire goods from the connected cities; if they activate a mosque, they can spend resources in order to advance on the mosque track, gaining various bonuses along the way, etc.
All these actions cost resources. and as the game proceeds and the city fills up with houses, you collect more and more resources so these actions become more powerful.
A twist was that you could choose to activate an existing house of a different player and collect resources from all houses of that player in that row. Since slots are exclusive, I tried various ways to compensate the original owner (who would not be able to reactivate the row on that turn) and finally settled on the owner getting a resource from the activated house (but not from the whole row), yet also getting possibly additional resources for houses that had been upgraded. (Upgraded houses provide more or better resources.)
An interesting effect of this change is that now if you build a strong row with four or five of your houses, then it becomes a juicy target for other players to use, making jousting for turn order even more important, so I added another currency (camels) that you can spend at the end of the turn in order to advance in the queue for next turn. Camels are a closed economy, with camels you spend to advance in turn order going to the players you skipped.
Things were coming together pretty nicely, and in January 2019 I brought the prototype to the national meeting of Italian game designers in Parma (IdeaG) where I got good feedback from a few seasoned designers.
In particular, Flaminia Brasini provided very insightful ideas: The game I tested in Parma was pretty good, but it lacked tension. The "Mongol attack" wasn't really there, having been abstracted away as a majority scoring for soldiers at the end of each round. In a way, players could do what they wanted, without having to worry too much about what the game could throw at them; what was lacking was the tension between what players "wanted" to do and what they "had" to do.
So the Mongols came back, with a vengeance. They would attack at the end of each round, and players who couldn't defend their houses would lose them. This was probably a bit too harsh, and I changed it so that they would attack at the end of the second and third rounds. (The game lasts only three rounds, where each round is played along the four sides of the city.) By the end of the second round, most houses would be defended and those that were raided could still be rebuilt during the final round.
As an extra incentive for defending houses, I introduced an end round scoring so that houses still standing after the raid would be worth victory points.
Defending houses soon became an important part of the game. You could defend houses by building walls around the city, and each piece of wall would defend the two houses immediately behind it (which might belong to different players). Moreover, a house is defended only if it has walls on both sides, e.g., an house in the top left quarter of the city needs a wall on its north side and a wall on its west side. While walls provide a permanent defense, you could still play a soldier on your house to defend it for a single attack, i.e., when the mongols attack, the soldier is killed but the house is saved.
Finally, you could still pay a ransom in order to defend a house, so if an orange house is attacked, you could save it by paying an orange cube.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest
In the first few months of 2019, I managed to average almost three playtests a week between the Playtest UK meet-ups and meetings with other designers. One idea that slowly developed during this time was that defending other players' houses should provide some kind of benefit, so I eventually introduced a "civic" track on which you advance as you build walls. (You advance one step for each of your houses behind that wall, and two steps for houses owned by other players).
Advancing on that track gives access to scoring opportunities, such as the ability to fulfill high-value contracts or to acquire different types of spices. This means that if you are pursuing a strategy based on fulfilling contracts (which require combinations of scrolls and trading goods) or on collecting spices (which are acquired at the caravansary buildings), you also have to build walls and possibly defend other players' houses in order to advance more quickly on the track.
On the other hand, if you are focusing on some other strategy, such as advancing on the mosques track or sending your people to the palace for end round scoring, you might get someone else to build a wall around your houses instead.
I kept tuning and playtesting, with smaller and smaller changes every time, until the game almost converged into what it is today.
The Road to Publication
A dear friend of mine who was in my regular playtest group joined Osprey Games as a developer and took my prototype with him. The people at Osprey really liked it, and at the end of June 2019 — on my last day in the UK before moving back to Italy — I signed a publishing contract with them. We kept fine-tuning the game for a few more months and also came up with a challenging solo mode.
I had a very good relationship with the developers at Osprey Games. They kept me involved on the small tweaks and adjustments that improved the game in various ways, and I kept bringing the game to various gatherings for further playtesting until I was really happy with the way it played.
Finally, Ian O'Toole did an amazing job in illustrating the game with very vibrant and colorful art that brings the magnificent city of Merv to its original glory.
I now look forward to its release in late November 2020, although, sadly, this time I won't be able to play it with the public in the halls of SPIEL...
Tue Nov 24, 2020 1:00 pm
- [+] Dice rolls
Designer Diary: Calimala
16 Nov 2017
Calimala is a Euro-style game in which players are members of the guild of merchants in foreign cloth, in Florence, around the 13th century.
The game has a few twists on the classic worker placement genre. The main idea is to have nine main actions in a three-by-three grid, randomly arranged at the beginning of the game. These spaces are connected by "streets", and players take turns placing one of their workers on a street and executing both actions. Since the actions are placed randomly, the possible pairs of actions available change from game to game.
These actions allow players to collect basic materials (wood, bricks and marble); use them to build workshops, ships and trade houses; produce cloth and deliver it to various cities; contribute materials for the construction and decoration of churches; etc.
Another aspect of the game is that workers (discs) are always added and never retrieved: Players have a fixed number of workers (15 with three players, 12 with four, 10 with five), and when placed on an action space, they stack on top of each other. Whenever one disc is placed on a stack, all discs in that stack perform the two actions in order from top to bottom (so extra actions can be triggered in other players' turns).
When the fourth disc is placed on a stack, only the top three discs are activated, while the bottom disc is "promoted" into the city council, triggering a scoring. The city council has 15 seats that are filled in order when workers are promoted (i.e., when stacks grow to more than three discs). Each seat has a scoring tile (assigned randomly at the beginning of the game) that determines which category to score (e.g., most contributions to a given church, most deliveries to a given city). Majority scoring is used for all categories, awarding 3, 2 and 1 victory points to the first, second, and third player respectively.
Where to place your early workers becomes an important decision because if well placed, they will be reactivated by other players two more times.
Seats in the city council also break ties, so when choosing an action space where to place a disc, players have to be careful about which scoring can trigger it and how the balance in the city council will change.
At the beginning of the game, each player receives two scoring cards and secretly picks one that will be revealed at the end of the game and that will score for 5/3/1 points. Each player thus knows of one city or building that will score again at the end (the card they picked), and one that will not score (the card that they discarded).
The game is very tight, and players have to choose what to focus on, especially since with more players it's not really possible to participate in all categories, and these scoring cards add tension, as well as the possibility of bluffing (with people trying to guess other players' scoring cards).
What follows is the story of how I designed this game.
Calimala is my first board game design, although I've been regularly playing board games for more than fifteen years.
When I moved to the UK in 2013, I joined London on Board, a board games club with a few thousand members, with daily meet-ups in various locations around the city. There I met a few game designers and somehow I got the design bug and I started thinking about making a board game of my own.
The basic concept was some variant on the worker placement mechanism in which the available action spaces would change from game to game. The players would then have to come up with a different strategy on each new game.
This is probably the only thing that survived from that inception to the published game.
The idea was to have the action spaces on eight cards in a three-by-three grid (with a hole in the middle). Players would then place a worker between two cards and take both actions. The optimal sequence of actions to achieve the various goals would therefore change from game to game.
The first prototype was just eight handwritten cards, some workers (gray cubes), and a bunch of colored discs.
On your turn, you could either place some cubes on a space between two cards (equal to how many cubes were already there) and take the actions on the cards, or collect all the cubes between two cards. This allowed a continuous flow of play (with no need to collect your workers at the end of a round). The actions on the card would provide discs or convert discs into other discs or into victory points.
It was very boring and uninteresting, but it showed some promise, so one evening I brought it to a Playtest UK meet-up where I played it with a few other designers and where it fell apart very quickly.
After more iterations, I started thinking about a theme and, maybe not too originally, I went for medieval Florence.
The game was still card-based then, with the eight basic cards providing materials like wood and clay or allowing you to hire specialists, along with a set of advanced buildings (more cards) in construction that required those materials.
Players would take actions to contribute materials to the advanced cards, e.g., by taking the "clay" action, I would put a cube of my player color to a clay slot in the building. Once a building was complete, players who contributed to it would score points and the complete building would go into play. (There was some kind of rotation mechanism in which action cards would move in and out, and each new building would enter that rotation.)
This still had several problems, but it's the origin of the buildings in Calimala (like the Cathedral and the other churches).
At this point I took a step back and started studying a bit more in detail the historical period when these buildings were built. There are several Eurogames set in medieval Florence, but none of them really tries to be historically accurate: There were no princes in Florence, and the Medici didn't really trade in spices...
I wondered who built these great churches and why, and I found out about the guild of Calimala.
In the Middle Ages, Florence was a mercantile republic, and the various trades were organized in guilds, whose elder members would take turns ruling the city. The most powerful among these guilds was the guild of Calimala. This was the guild of traders in foreign cloth; during the late middle ages, they were buying rough woolen cloth from all over Europe (England, France, the Flandres, etc.), bringing it back to Florence where they would refine and dye it, then selling it back for a much higher price.
They were producing very high quality cloth, in colors that were not otherwise available in other places. The members of this guild quickly became extremely wealthy, and moving all that gold across Europe and back to Florence was not practical, so they ended up establishing a more permanent presence in the major trading centers where they held their business, keeping the gold there and instead using letters of change to move money, giving birth to the first banks.
Incidentally they also started lending this money to various kings, financing the wars between England and France in that period. (The first bankruptcy happened when the king of England defaulted on his debts.) At home they would then use the money to build palaces and churches and sponsor art works (which would eventually lead to the Renaissance).
The Medici were among the most influential families within the Calimala guild, and within a couple of generations they managed to take full control of the city. (Lorenzo il Magnifico was never formally a prince or a ruler, but with his influence he controlled the majority of the city council.)
Back to the Drawing Board
This research provided some new ideas for elements to add to the game. I decided to focus on the cloth production and the trade network.
I started working on a proper board, with streets connecting thirteen different action spaces, each street with three spots for workers. I didn't come up with the idea of triggering previous players when stacking discs until quite late in the game development; players didn't even need discs in different colors at the time as each street had three slots and by placing in the second or third slot, players would get a better action. More specifically, placing the second or third disc you would do some actions two or three times, while some other actions would be more cost effective.
This allowed for doing more stuff with fewer discs. As the game proceeded, actions became more powerful so that four players with just twelve rounds could be able to complete buildings and fulfill cloth demands from cities.
I had one more building material (stone) and various actions that eventually went away. Each player had an artist meeple, for example, that would move around the city, with an action to move the artist and another action to make an artwork (with a certain number of slots for artwork in each neighborhood of the city).
A "recruiter" action would let you hire an employee (i.e., a card that could be used once at any time matching one of the twelve other basic actions), while a "prestige" action would let you draw a bonus card for endgame scoring.
The scoring was different at the time: Points were awarded right away when delivering a cube to a slot, and extra points were awarded on completions or at the end of the game.
Needless to say, all this was very complicated and playtests revealed many issues, especially with the random placement of action tiles. It was sometimes extremely tedious to do even simple things (collect one marble, then move the artist somewhere with a free slot, finally take the artwork action, etc.). Also, having an artist meeple on the board in addition to the actual workers confused players.
I needed to streamline and simplify; I cut the number of actions down to nine (on a three-by-three grid), and various actions went in and out until I settled on the final ones.
I also simplified the scoring, using majority scoring everywhere. (When an area was completed, points were awarded to the players who contributed the most.) Even artworks were gone, although they eventually came back at a later stage; I instead kept the "recruiter" action that provided an action card to play at any time.
Majority scoring is tricky to get right. Two important design decisions are about when to trigger the scoring and how to handle ties. Some games do scoring at the end of specific turns, but that didn't really fit with the game. I wanted the scoring to happen in a more flexible way because depending on how the action tiles are set up at the beginning of play, some areas might fill up faster than others.
Another important decision is about how to handle ties (more on this later).
I also had another issue: Having fewer action spaces meant fewer slots available to place discs, so I had to revisit the idea of having at most three workers per pair of actions. Instead of having a fixed number of slots, I introduced the idea of placing workers in a stack; in order to keep the stack from growing too much, when the fourth disc was placed on a stack, the bottom disc was removed.
Initially I placed that disc as a "statue" in one of the four quarters of the board (to commemorate the career of the worker who just retired). Each quarter of the board would then trigger the scoring for one category: port cities, trade cities, buildings, and most artwork. Each category would score at most four times per game.
Another concept introduced around this time was that of triggering other players' actions when placing discs. In the initial iterations, when players placed their second or third disc on a slot, they would carry out both actions two or three times in a row. (This helped in maintaining a high number of total actions per game so that there would be enough to make progress on all fronts.) This had a drawback, though, as lots of things could change between one player's turn and their next turn (e.g., in a four-player game, the other three players towards the end of the game could take a total of 18 actions).
That's when I had the idea to invert the flow; now when a player placed a disc on a stack, each disc is activated in order from top to bottom and the owner of each disc performs the actions. The total number of actions per space doesn't change. What's more, the first player to place a disc on a spot will now benefit from three pairs of actions, spread over time. This greatly improved the flow of the game, and players were engaged on everyone's turn.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest!
Something that came up with more playtests was that players tried to place their discs so that other players could benefit less from their moves, e.g., playing a build action when the owner of the previous discs didn't have enough building materials to benefit from it.
My first attempt to compensate for that was to introduce a "Feld" track, that is, a track used to break ties in scoring; whenever a player couldn't perform an action, they would advance on that track. This maybe overcompensated as players then tried to advance on that track by setting themselves up to not be able to take actions.
With more tweaks and lots of playtesting, I fixed a few problems at once:
I removed the recruiter action; instead players would gain an action card whenever their worker was not able to perform their action. (So that the total number of actions per player didn't change, the action card would let them do another action at any other time.)
I replaced the recruiter action with the "artwork" action (and the "stone" resource with "marble") and added extra slots for artwork in the buildings.
Then I introduced the city council. Now when the fourth disc is added to a slot, the eldest worker (at the bottom of the stack) is promoted to the city council and triggers a scoring. (Scoring tiles are randomly placed during setup in the city council.) In case of a tie, the city council decides the winner (the player with most seats). All this tied together very nicely and made thematic sense.
Playtesting was extremely useful, and every week I would come back home with a new problem and a deadline to solve it before the next playtest session. Slowly but surely, a few more tweaks were introduced over time, such as the white discs which when placed perform each action twice, but are not triggered again later and the scoring cards (which add some more uncertainty, provide a longer term goal during the game, and allow a player to keep contributing to areas that already scored, which was sometime an issue in the last rounds).
By the end of mid-2015, I was quite happy with the game: It played smoothly and within 75 minutes, even with five players. (The total number of discs doesn't change much between player counts: between 45 and 50.)
The game had undergone several playtest sessions, and I was now focusing on writing the rules, including going through a few "blind playtests" (where players learn the game from the rules and play without me, while I watch in silence and take notes). After a few iterations, the rules were clear enough.
In October 2015, almost by chance, I heard about the Hippodice competition when another designer from my playtest group mentioned it in conversation.
I checked online, and I thought that it could be a good way to do some actual blind playtests: Hippodice is a board game club in Germany, and every year they organize a competition for new designers where they play some prototypes for a few months and at the end, in the summer, they provide feedback to the authors.
So I applied (that was just a couple of days before the deadline) and sent the rules, and after a few weeks they asked for a prototype.
The winner is decided by a jury made mostly by German publishers, and every year one or two games among the finalists get usually published. I didn't really think I had a chance, and I was mostly interested in the feedback from the players, so when in March 2016 I got a quick message from a German email address telling me that my game won the competition, I thought it was some kind of joke from one of my fellow designers, moreso because it said that six publishers were interested and they couldn't agree on who should take my prototype, so they asked if I had a preference.
In the following days, a few publishers contacted me directly, and only then was I assured that this was not an elaborate prank. I quickly made a couple of prototypes and mailed them.
Eventually I signed a publishing contract with ADC Blackfire; Uli Blennemann (their main developer, who is also owner of Spielworxx) was very excited about the game and eager to publish it in time for SPIEL '17. Harald Lieske worked on the art, Uli kept me in the loop during the development, and I was able to provide input and feedback.
The game was well received at SPIEL. ADC Blackfire had a large booth with several tables, and Calimala was played constantly on at least six tables at a time during the whole fair. I had the chance to play it a few times with various people, and it was a lot of fun!
Thu Nov 16, 2017 1:05 pm
- [+] Dice rolls