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Designer Diary: Expedition: Congo River 1884

José Antonio Rivero
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
Gran Canaria- Canary Islands
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Expedition: Congo River 1884 is the first of my games to be published, so I think it deserves a little diary of "how it was done". The idea of the game began to spin around my mind the first week of March, 2010, but I would say that its genesis goes back at least a year prior to that. I have done some "psycho-retrospective analysis" to determine the origin and found these causes: The eternal call of Africa, the Tarzan movies, Out of Africa, the attraction of new territory, the stories of famous explorers (including Richard Burton, Henry Stanley and "Dr. Livingstone, I presume") – watching old maps with unknown areas of the African continent being blank, and reading novels like Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa by Jules Verne, Vindens Son by Henning Mankell, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad also left a seed.

But the main thing that led me to design this game was that despite being such a fascinating theme, not a single board game on the topic interested me. The most attractive game to me – the one most in line with what I was looking for – was Avalon Hill's Source of the Nile, but it was very old (published in 1978), with an awkward board, little chrome, and a precarious and highly complex design. So in frustration I thought, if there isn't a game that satisfies me, then I'll have to design it!

This is the moment when my neurons began to work on this project. I already had the theme – an exploration game in Africa – fine, but where in Africa in particular? Well, what about the search for the source of the Nile? Great! I made an outline, designed mechanisms and short rules, made a simple prototype, and tested it. The result was so poor that I had as little encouragement to continue looking for the source of the Nile as did many explorers in the mid-nineteenth century!

Soon afterwards what came to mind was the famous movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and the wonderful Katharine Hepburn. The image at once idyllic and pitiable of their journey in a rickety steamer across the beautiful landscapes of the river shore gave me an idea: Why not an affair with explorers on a steamboat up the river?

Said and done, I took a map of Africa and looked for long navigable rivers other than the Nile, with ones pentrating the jungle being best. The first place that captured my attention was the Zambezi River, with its exotic-sounding name. I did a little sketch on a map, marked waypoints back and forth, but I discarded it for two reasons: (1) neither the shape of the river nor the territory it covered was very attractive, and (2) Mozambique at the river's mouth and Rhodesia (now Zambia) did not give much play value as not many colonial powers were in confrontation there.

First gameboard prototype featuring the Zambezi river

Then I laid my eyes on the splendid Congo River, also known as Zaire River, which is the second largest river in Africa after the Nile and which runs the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon. That would be "my river" where I would be able to develop the game. It was then that troubled memories of a boat trip in the movie The African Queen and the steamer voyage in the novel Heart of Darkness came to mind, and Marlow's controversial trip in a steamer in search of a hidden colonial station was the seed that provided further ideas for the structure of the game. The idea: A group of characters, adventurers and officials of different nationalities embark on a trip into the depths of Africa and make a series of stops in search of several stations scattered along the Congo River.

Since this would be their first trip into unexplored regions and the mapping of the time was limited, secret, and little updated – Google Earth not yet existing, of course – the passengers would not know for sure what they would find, thus the scene would implicitly have a sense of mystery and adventure.

The selection of the date for the game's setting and the number of nationalities in question was an important factor to define as the game itself was designed to cover neither the sad and calamitous history of the Belgian Congo, nor the establishment of colonies by the various European countries. I chose the year 1884, one year before the Berlin conference in 1885 that declared which parts of Africa would be controlled by the great colonial empires of the time. The initial name I gave the game was "Colonial", and empires with interests in the area were France, Britain, Germany and Belgium. Later I added other nationalities that would be present to a lesser extent and in symbolic form: Portugal, Netherlands, Spain (being Spanish I could not leave it out), Austria, etc.

At this stage, I started searching for documentation, reading everything that evoked colonial travels and adventures in the area; I searched intensively for images; and when I had collected enough information, I created the first prototype.

I found a Portuguese map of the Congo River from 1883 which served well as the basis for the game board. Initially I had 15 stops along the river to the remote village of Kindu; although the river continues far beyond this, that distance was enough for game purposes.

In the late nineteenth century the religious world wanted to travel to Africa for missionary vocation; the secular and scientific world, the desire to know; the military, the desire to conquer; and the literary world, by the desire for new adventures. I concluded that the passengers were going to find four different types of stations: missions, hospitals, barracks, and villages – and in some stops only jungle.

The aim was that at each station one of the passengers of the ship would remain there in charge of it, based on their professional skills combined with the influence of their nationality, so the characters are missionaries, anthropologists, doctors, soldiers and explorers. Each station has a flag, and affinity to the country largely determines the possibility of staying in command of it. Each character has a default value according to his profession and nationality. I incorporated many characters to have a great variety in the game, including a greater number of the British and French for historical reasons. (After all, they split between them most of the continent.)

First game draft: annotations without order, after initial brainstorming

The selection of the number of stations and flags, along with the random initial placement system, was studied to give the game replay value. As the game stands, it is practically impossible – or at least very unlikely – to repeat a similar situation from one game play to another.

Initially, I wanted each player to take control of all characters belonging to a certain country, but this idea severely limited the strategic possibilities and overall uncertainty of how the game would play out. I even thought that each player would take his own boat, but with this set-up players would not always meet on the way along the river. Despite the situation being somewhat less logical, I decided that the best thing would be for all passengers to travel in the same boat, with each player's hand containing characters of various nationalities to create more options and more surprises.

Given this set-up, I had to find a mechanism that would help compensate for handicaps in certain professions or nationalities, to make it possible a priori for any player to choose to control any station even if he did not have the best candidate for it, as long as he had enough help to support him. Onto the scene came the so-called auxiliary cards. The auxiliaries are assistants who support a particular character by adding value (points) to the cards, thus providing a special touch to the game in the bidding, which would make it unclear who would control each station and put the players on edge each turn.

Image search (primarily through the Internet) was one of the most pleasing aspects of the research, but also the most demanding and time-consuming. Postcards, old photos, portraits, prints, vintage posters – all were useful. These materials served for use in the prototype, but also were a source of inspiration for special actions and ideas that added more atmosphere to the theme. Searching for uniforms was what took the longest time as I wanted a different one for each character according to his nationality. (It's a pity this look couldn't be carried out in the final illustration of the game as it would be too expensive.) In addition, each character would have his own name.

Special cards in the prototype

I like to say that the special cards in the game – nine at first, and fifteen in the final game – are the salt and pepper of the design as they provide the seasoning of unexpected events, which are very likely to happen during an African expedition. These events can turn a situation around, and their interactivity pleased many people. Although I wanted the main engine of the game to remain in the cards, the outcomes of some special cards required a die – but to do something different while reducing the randomness as much as possible, I chose to incorporate a four-sided die.

Returning to the mechanisms and fundamentals of the game, my goal for the playing time was 60-90 minutes, an ideal time in my opinion as I'd prefer that players leave wanting more rather than be saturated with a game that ran too long. With this in mind, I rejected a return trip down the river. After all, during that time many passengers went to Africa with the idea of staying – although many perished in the attempt!

I had a hunch that Congo River (aka Colonial) was going to be a winner because in my first testing I saw a good game with lots of potential to be released. When I needed playtesters, I created a special announcement, written as it might have been back in 1884, similar to that world-famous advertisement attributed to Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was looking for men for his South Pole expedition.

Daktari from Spain was the first to volunteer for mapping and art design of the game components. His help has been invaluable as the design of the cards and the board, done almost in a professional way, created a really attractive and interesting game.

Volunteers to test the game came from Spain and abroad. All were properly trained to undertake the adventure of testing; nevertheless some of them, as with so many explorers in Africa, were lost on the way and I never heard from them again! But fortunately most of them (now listed in the credits) returned with hopeful news: They liked the game. Of course there were some nuances to fix, mainly through the addition of more cards – new aids such as interpreters and servants that gave more play in the bids, and the inclusion of so-called non-belligerent passengers. But the main line of the game was correct and worked well with the proper balance and a high level of satisfaction.

Once the game was ripe and ready to be presented to society, I began to submit proposals to various publishers in early August 2010: ABACUSSPIELE first, then Hans in Glück and the third was the charm: White Goblin Games. It was a stroke of luck; they loved the idea and asked me for a finished prototype. I prepared for them a "de luxe" version and they liked it. After several weeks, the expected contract arrived, awaiting a signature and permission to publish.

The rest has been a long wait while White Goblin found an illustrator for the game. Alexandre Roche was selected, one of the good ones, and time passed while he prepared and polished the final artwork. It was a wonderful experience to see the whole process from sketches to the lovely final artwork.

I'm especially thankful to White Goblin's Jonny de Vries as he asked my opinion for every important decision concerning the game's art design. Jonny made a small contribution to the game through the presence of a hippopotamus in the river, which was a clever and funny way to break ties for bidding. Another idea that I found unique in the world of board games was a contest in which participants could win the inclusion of their name on one of the character cards (54 names in total).

Now I invite you to participate in this exciting African adventure and enjoy it!

José Antonio Rivero Nuez

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