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Designer Diary: Ettin, or Two Kens Are Better Than One

Ken Shannon
United States
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Board Game: Ettin
Comments that helped inspire Ettin:

• "Do you have a game that can include all eleven of us?"
• "I want to play a co-operative game, but they want to play competitively!"
• "Alex and Pat are new to gaming, so make sure the experts aren't too tough on them!"

I never thought all these issues could be addressed by a single game, but Ettin became that game.

Board Game: Ettin
All the bits

Design Principles

Most of the good designers I know take old ideas and make them feel new but still familiar. They look for elegance. I am in awe of them.

I am not one of those designers. Being dyslexic, my mind comes at things from different directions. I mean, you likely could not understand this blog without someone having edited it heavily. I can't design to elegance, refinement, or renewal easily. Instead I focus on something I want to see that does not yet exist. I like to design games that are "outside of the box", but that's not my goal. It's just the only place that makes sense.

In Tournament at Camelot and Tournament at Avalon, the person in last place gets the most toys, which means that experienced players can play with new players and not hold back. Camelot focuses on hand management and Avalon on alliances and diplomacy.

Maiden's Quest was a tabletop game that didn't require a table. We could play as a family in the car, in line at a theme park, or at a convention, and bring to life my daughter's dream of a medieval heroine dealing with her own problems and finding friends.

Board Game: Tournament at Camelot
Board Game: Tournament at Avalon
Board Game: Maiden's Quest

But Ettin was a huge concept — literally. At the start, I focused on a single goal:

• Can we make a game for eight or more players other than a social deduction game?

Eventually I added these goals as well:

• Can we make a game that is inclusive of even the most casual player but be more than a single concept "light game"?
• Can we make a game that provides an ally so that new players can have a veteran friend, someone to have their back?
• Can we make a game in which you co-operate with some players and compete against others?
• Can we make a game that expands its player count with more copies of itself and future expansions or standalones?

Inception and Early Game

I started by combining elements from some of my unfinished designs — a superhero "war game" with minis and a map, and a space-based drafting card game — and I made it a medieval fantasy game. The high player count was a challenge. If I made the game highly strategic and gave lots of choices to players, then turns took forever. When I blind tested the original design with four people, it rocked; when it went to eight, the players demanded their time back. It was a real problem. I needed nicer playtesters!

My son, also named Ken for your convenience, was blunt: "Simultaneous play is required for this." This sounds simple, but at the time it did not match the design. A complete redesign followed. It helped, but a lot was still missing and the game still took too long. Minis on a board had to be basically programmed, and it was hard for non-hardcore war gamers and board gamers to follow.

I shelved the game at this point.

Two Inspirational People Change It All

I personally prefer co-op games by a lot — so much so that I enjoy watching when good friends do anything complex together. That synergy when one person looks at the other and already knows what they are thinking? It happens to my wife and I daily.

When I was playing a game at a prototype con in 2014, I noticed two of my good friends who were running it talking and laughing. They were in that moment two peas in a pod — and that sparked an idea. I was going to make a game with teams of two. You'd always have a friend.

When the game was redesigned to accommodate an ally, the base design changed dramatically. I ran with it for 1-2 games, badly wanting it to work, and though it wasn't there yet, one thing stood out. We had a new gamer who had played only RPGs, and she loved having an ally to help with the rules. She got to enjoy it. In fact, she enjoyed it the most of any player. One player said that they loved the teaming, but doing so actually made the game take longer to play. Ken then suggested simplifying the core ideas, and at this point my son became a developer. Two-player teams were staying, and the name "Ettin" popped in my head as a working title.

Why Ettin?

Board Game Publisher: WizKids
The moment we went to two allies, it just was the name. An ettin is best known as a monster with two heads, but it also means any entity formed with equal control by two groups or heads of state. In this case, by two kingdoms. You are truly both independent and completely supportive of each other.

The key to winning most often comes from choosing how to divide your precious nation cards. The publisher WizKids added the "two against the world" subtitle, which is a fantastic tag line.

A Real Game

I redesigned the cards as troops, dropped the map boards to three locations between each set of players, and went to a draft between enemies, then allies to recruit the troops. Deployment became a secret, and the gameplay would be simultaneous to shorten the time as it also no longer required programming. The engineer in me developed an algorithm that allowed for easy generation of new units and abilities. This iteration worked out of the gate. My playtest group asked for more and ended up playing the prototype four times that night.

This experience left me excited to develop the game further. I wanted to add different nations, so the feel of the game was different each time. I also wanted events to hit each enemy pair to affect their play, again to add some chaos. To keep things simple for me, I used my game universe from the RPG I run and made distributed abilities differently for each nation. I layered their newly created nation decks so that more powerful cards were deeper, and I added powers to locations.

I don't normally think highly of much that I do, being super critical of myself as are most designers, but I felt great about this prototype. The playtesters kept playing it, and two copies got us games with as many as sixteen players, still having a blast. Ettin surpassed Camelot as the most requested of my games, and it ran in under an hour once everyone knew the game. This quickly became a new design goal: speed, size, allies. The big three.

Let's call this "Prototype 1.0" for now.

From gallery of Kitirat
Cards from prototype 1.0 (then called 0.2); each card had its own abilities, which was cool, but could slow things down

There were still problems. If you got behind, it was nearly impossible to catch up. A few strategies seemed to always win, and there still weren't any special nation abilities — but the game ran so smooth that I was sure I was almost there.

The Long Sorrow

In politics and science, there is a powerful set of principals. It is human nature to try to make things better. If you are 25% of the way towards the optimum solution, making a change is much more likely to make things better, but if you are at 90%, making a change is much more likely to make things worse.

And so came over a year of frustrations, pain, and grief, all found through trial and error. Nearly every change made the game worse. Game features that should increase agency slowed the game to a crawl. Nation abilities broke aspects of the game and unbalanced match-ups. There were lots of irritating "Oh, yeah, I forgot you had that" moments. In short, all the typical "strategy game" additions slowed the game down. Those slowdowns were exponential in Ettin as one person taking five minutes to change their strategy in response to your move meant that fifteen people sat there waiting. I shelved it again and worked on other games.

Then one day, a player at our game night asked, "Can we play the old Ettin prototype again?" They didn't want to playtest; they just wanted a game in which all ten people present could play. It was eye-opening. Vets teamed with new people, and everyone had a great time.

Now a year later, I went back to Prototype 1.0 with a new point of view. I realized all the "key" changes (mobility, strategy changes during deployment, nation special abilities, etc.) were not what made the game special. It was all the "other stuff". After that game night, Ken and I worked to remove anything extraneous and add only what was needed. No more changing the game; just perfecting what is already there.

In over 150 playtests from eleven different groups, players were catching on quicker and quicker. Even casual players had it down by the second game. We worked out kinks and addressed some lingering issues:

Adventures: Events had morphed into adventures, and with a bit of risk/chance (via dice) they became a kind of "catch up" mechanism. They also allowed for a more interesting distribution of abilities across nations.

Odd player count: The odd-player mechanism was solidified. We needed a mercenary board because if a single player played two unique nations, they almost always won. Perfect co-ordination of actions and access to the more powerful nation cards always gave that person too much of an advantage. Playing one nation, with only extra mercenaries, made it a greater challenge, so now if the odd player out does win, it's a big deal and people's expectations are better managed.

Nations' better cards: As a side effect of the odd player issue, we made a minor change to the card strength algorithm to give nation cards a slight power boost compared to mercenary units — after which we discovered that this change really improved the game. People quickly learned to hold back money in the skirmish phases to have it for the peacetime phases during which they could recruit their nation cards. This created a secondary strategy during drafting and made ruins (which get you deeper into your nation deck) matter that much more.

From gallery of Kitirat
Nation cards from when we first started working on the game again after the long sorrow; "The Risen" were originally undead humans from a long distant time that mimicked modern times

Protected locations: Protected locations prevent the attacker from attacking the location unless they meet a specific condition. These are a huge boon to game speed. If the attacker can meet the condition, the option is there; otherwise, they grant the attacker the ability to focus strategy on the other locations. In short, they limited choices enough to keep the game speed fast and always give one person a "woot!' moment. Either the attacker bypasses an otherwise "assumed safe" location, or a revealed protected location thwarts an overwhelming attack.

War?: At the end of the day, each battle comes down to something similar to the card game War: Add up numbers to see who wins. This made the game easier to understand for new players and limited decisions to mostly before, not during, battle. Terrify, dragon slayer, and ranged are the only in-battle effects, and they show up in mass only in later ages. This maximizes agency at the end of the game when it matters most.

Nation difficulty: By nature, some nations can be harder to pick up than others. We found this became more of a feature than a bug. By giving the easier nations to new players, you improved their incorporation into play. By making the harder nations have more choices, we gave the game a slight replay learning curve, which meant that vets felt like vets and replay was more fun. You felt more powerful going into your next game.

From gallery of Kitirat
An early Joymore (Human Knights) mat with cards during an Ettin playtest; Joymore along with the Dwarves, Orcs, and Dommorians (Giants) are the easiest nations to play

After these changes and some math tweaks, the game ran under an hour and had what I was looking for. Nations felt different. There was variety and strategy, and it was still pretty easy to pick up. I had a game I felt was ready to show off! Let's call this Prototype 2.0.

From gallery of Kitirat
An Ettin playtest with (from top left going clockwise) Ken (my son, now 16), Rob Yates, Gary Cox, Disembodied Arm 1, Sprite, water in bottle, water outside bottle, Coke, Disembodied Arm 2, Me

Finding the Right Partner

Ettin quickly drew attention at the first game show I brought it to, attracting six offers. Unfortunately, I didn't consider the match-making as much as I should have with the first publisher I selected; they wanted to turn it into more of a strategy game and follow some of the development paths I had already tried.

Eventually, I got the rights back, and with many lessons learned, I signed it with WizKids, after which it will have taken approximately a year to get into print, mostly due to personal illness on my part. Ultimately, the changes to the game mechanisms were minimal. We started to have familiar fights about single players, etc., but they actively asked, tried it out, and understood why we made many of the decisions we did, while still giving suggestions that improved the game, in some cases massively. They did wonders with the art (which amounts to over two hundred pieces), and the graphic design was incredible.

From gallery of Kitirat

My bane as a dyslexic, the rulebook, was taken seriously, and this rulebook is leaps and bounds ahead of previous work. I am personally thrilled. While the box was cut from sixteen to eight players to make it more accessible and affordable, the game still easily combines with multiple copies to hit 16, 24, or even more players. My goal is to hit 100+ players at a convention at least once. I hope you all help me make that a reality!

End Product (Features)

As you can see, many of the game's features came from those two initial goals:
• Eight or more players (with eight per box)
• Having an ally

From those two goals, most of what makes the game unique came to be:
• Playing time of approximately an hour
• Simultaneous play
• Quick elimination of bad choices (through Protection and Stealth Defenses)

These came from not wanting people sitting around waiting. If thirty people are playing, one person taking ten minutes to figure out how to adjust their strategy on the fly is a fast track to failure. Having a large player count game that can scale to super large requires constant engagement and quick narrowing of choices for players.

• Co-operative and competitive
• Casual player friendly/vet teaming
• Deeply strategic, while still allowing new players to pick it up quickly
• "War" battle resolution, with limited choices after cards are revealed

All of these came from inclusive two-player teaming. With a vet or heavier gamer on your team, even people new to games completely can get into it by the end of the first age and definitely by the second time they play it — and during playtesting, most were excited to try out again to do better.

Board Game: Ettin
Daemons of the Void

• Individual nations with unique feel but no unique abilities, each with different difficulties.
• Comeback "adventures" and lots of them
• Nation and merc cost variance with a strong algorithm for card creation
• Dragons and terrifying units

These come in to balance the game and simultaneously grant new experiences each time you play. The game has eight nations, over one hundred merc cards, 36 adventures, and a huge combination of different allies and enemy combinations, which gives the game extremely high replayability — something critical in a 8+ player game.

Playing with Two, Three, or Nine or More

To play with 9+ players requires two copies of the game, but the game scales up as high as you have space to play. We playtested games with 16 to 32 players many times. Playing three-player games allows one player to go against two others, and the two-player game effectively cuts out the middleman and has both players draw from the merc deck instead of an ally. This creates an intense one-on-one in under thirty minutes.

The two-player game took some time to realize, and it wasn't until the odd-player addition that two-player games went from a slog with two nations each to a lightning fast game that was worth playing for a completely different experience, one of those "we have only a short time before everyone shows up" games that's also ideal for two-player late-night square offs.


I hope you enjoy the game, partly so that I can selfishly see one or both sister games (code-named "Shadow Sea" and "Frostfire") realized, but mainly to help foster in a new era of 8+ player board games being more than a collection of (admittedly fun) social deduction games. Let's include more proper board and card games and diversify our options in that design space!

Ken Shannon

From gallery of Kitirat
"Shadow Sea" playtest cards
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