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Designer Diary: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
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:

From gallery of Fabio_

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 gallery of Fabio_

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:

From gallery of Fabio_

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.

From gallery of Fabio_

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:

From gallery of Fabio_

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.

IdeaG 2019

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.

From gallery of Fabio_

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).

From gallery of Fabio_

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.

Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

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...

Fabio Lopiano
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