Sandstorm LLC, had bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia and seemed interested in seeing more work from me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia, another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box and have roughly the same number of components, but a higher level of complexity.
A comment by one of my regular playtesters, Jon Spinner, came back to me — something about "a card game and a board game that interface at one end". I don't remember the exact words he used, but it got me thinking about the self-published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica's central card-drafting mechanism could be combined with an area-control board game, similar to Hibernia.Sample cards from Armorica
I came up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula in which players drafted a card every turn to build up a card display that gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica), as well as movement points and new units for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board, requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards. Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanism created the need for dynamic expansion each turn and prevented players from just playing defensively, serving the same function as the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way.
The resulting game was a little larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the design off to Sandstorm for playtesting anyway. When I went to the GAMA Trade Show for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me they liked my new design and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at Gen Con, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.
I took advantage of being at Gen Con already and showed the new game to some folks from a much larger publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after some subsequent interaction with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it were dice-based instead of card-based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different game. That version got me all the way to a meeting with the publisher's actual decision-maker at next year's Gen Con, but he ultimately passed on it.
That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game Lost Empires, which will be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021; however, that is a story for another designer diary.
Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game. The two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game.
Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them between three different types of meeples: units that let you keep cards when they were in particular territories, units that scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3 VP. This change added a significant new decision point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.
In 2013, my friend Cedric was working for a French company called MyWitty Games that used a novel crowdfunding approach. I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting in which the unit types became humans, dwarves, and ogres. The movement mechanism was also changed to use movement actions that would move a group of pieces at once instead of having movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change differentiated the design even further from the dice-based version.
However, MyWitty also went out of business before we got to the point of signing a contract. I pitched the game to Evil Hat Productions in 2014, but they passed on it in favor of Kaiju Incorporated.
A Home at Last
Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaëtan Beaujannot started representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement as I am not a great salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to the San Francisco Bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the game at that meeting, but I don't remember precisely what the changes were.
Gaetan began pitching the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another large publisher that had expressed strong interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In particular, I developed an alternative card deck that used a different pattern of icons across each card to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card ever provided multiple types of meeple; in the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple types, and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My playtesters seemed to like this new deck better, so it became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was unhappy with some of this publisher's plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.
IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting developed from African history and mythology.
I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism, or ancient Egypt. The rest of the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There are very few games about ancient Africa.
How to Design Games about Africa
However, I am a professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina's 2005 satiric essay "How to Write About Africa", which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa: "In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country... Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions."
I knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture, and era in African history; IELLO wanted the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between history and mythology, like the Trojan War.
Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara Empire was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the interlacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation by the Abachwezi dynasty of kings. According to folklore, these kings had magical powers and introduced important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were supposed to have become angered by their people's disobedience and disappeared into the great lakes. Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda.
The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming. Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures. According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to the region. Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to population increases, more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished over cattle and grazing land.
However, some historians also suggest that ancient Central Africans used a traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara Empire may have been one in which more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by traditional practices that limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fit well with the mechanisms of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of units from combat.
Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire let me create a very evocative backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the mechanisms, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined mechanisms of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some needed artistic license.
Miguel Coimbra, meanwhile, had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the game. Cheetah-centaurs aren't a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are part-human, part-animal creatures in African folklore, and there are many varieties of sentient animals across several African mythologies. I used "master animal", a term applying to sentient mythological animals I found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls these pieces "cheetah-centaurs" — or "chetaurs" — anyway.
I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players depict armies of female warriors. I don't have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors or leaders in the region of the Kitara Empire, but there are documented traditions of women as warriors, war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).
I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanisms at IELLO's request. They wanted a new alternative deck that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet another pattern of icons, that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an expansion.
IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat mechanism so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips; a player can keep only one chip per turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provides a better chance of drawing a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, added a new tactical consideration, and made the scoring elements in the game more diverse.
Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the U.S. were great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game and consulted me in regard to all the decision-making about the game's production. Gaëtan was also active during the game's development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game. (I don't really speak French, sadly.) I was also very impressed by how IELLO adapted to lockdown and was able to keep to its timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That it's able to release this game in 2020 is a testament to how well its team works.
Any published game is a team effort, reflecting the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaëtan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it.
Eric B. Vogel
Doyle, S. (2006). From Kitara to the Lost Counties: Genealogy, Land and Legitimacy in the Kingdom of Bunyoro, Western Uganda, Social Identities, 12:4, 457-470, DOI: 10.1080/13504630600823684
Ford, C. (1999) The Hero with an African Face. New York. Bantam.
Kaur, M. (2017). Mother of Nations and Kali's Daughters: An Empirical Study on Amazon Dahomey Warriors and Indian Queen Warriors. Military Science Review / Hadtudományi Szemle, 10(4), 126–141.
Moreira Ribeiro, O., Torres Moreira, F. A. & Pimenta, S. (2019). Nzinga Mbandi: from story to myth. Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, 11(1). https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.7559/citarj.v11i1.594
Nwanna, C. (2012). Dialectics of African Feminism. Matatu: Journal for African Culture & Society, 40(1), 275–283. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1163/18757421-040001019
Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.
Uzoigwe, G.N. (2012). Bunyoro-Kitara Revisited: A Reevaluation of the Decline and Diminishment of an African Kingdom. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 48(1) 16–34.
Wainaina, B. (2005). How to write about Africa. Granta, 92, 91.
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