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Designer Diary: Praga Caput Regni

Vladimir Suchy
Czech Republic
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Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Starting Point

For only the second time in my game design history — Last Will was the first — theme was the starting point for the design process for my latest game: Praga Caput Regni in this case, with the title being Latin for "Prague, capital of the Kingdom".

So how did the city of Prague become the focal point of this new game? Well, the seeds of it were probably sown when, as a schoolboy, I'd go on many walks in this beautiful and fascinating city with my best friend at that time. I was fortunate enough to be born in this exceptional city, and from a young age I wanted to find out as much as I could not just about its famous historical sights, but also its lesser known ones.

It was clear to me even then as a youngster that, especially when viewing the panoramas of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I absorbed its history on my regular walks through its streets and that had a great impact on me in my formative years, and those walks gave me many unforgettable memories and experiences that I look back on fondly even to this day.

From gallery of sucd
Prague's famous Charles Bridge and its gaming equivalent

In the intervening years since my childhood, inevitably the ups and downs of family and working life got in the way of my ability to explore the city as often as I did in my youth. However, my love of the city did not diminish, and I continued to learn more about the history of Prague from a wide variety of books that I read on the subject.

Board Game: League of Six
So when I started making games, it was no surprise that I was keen to introduce a historical element to the design process whenever I could. You can see this clearly in the first game of mine that was published, League of Six, a game set in 1430 about a group of wealthy Lusatian towns that banded together to defend their commercial interests and the stability of this region, which is situated in the present day on the borders of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic). While I often considered Czech history as a potential source of theme for my games over the years, the city of Prague (and its special history) has had to wait its turn.

After having finished designing Underwater Cities and its expansion, I was casting around for themes for my next game. I had an urge to design a historically themed game — my favorite type of game — and it suddenly occurred to me that it might finally be the right time to fulfill one of my dreams, that is to say, to design a strategic Eurogame based around my hometown: the royal city of Prague.

From that point on, some thoughts started rattling around my head about designing a game in which the main goal was to build up the medieval city of Prague during the period of the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378 CE), king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. This was a time when the city flourished and a great many of the iconic sights of today's Prague were constructed. I was intent on including as many of those real historical sights and buildings as I could in the game, places such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the Charles University to name a few, all of which you can still see today of course.

From gallery of sucd

From gallery of sucd
The Hunger Wall and its gaming equivalent

Mechanisms

The next step in the design process was trying to find a way to incorporate as many of those historical buildings and events from the Charles IV period into the game as possible through appropriate mechanisms. It was inevitable that I would have to make compromises as it wasn't possible to include everything!

As I write this, we are at the point where the game is very nearly finished and requires only minor tweaks to balance and the odd minor mechanism. However, even now, when I think of some lesser known historical sight in the city I think to myself, "Why didn't I include that square on the main board?" or "Why didn't I include this church?" But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn't include them all. While I did have some initial concerns about connecting this theme with more complex game mechanisms in a smooth and streamlined way, I also wanted to do the city justice by how it was represented in the game. In the end, I think I managed to fit a good selection of the most interesting parts of Prague into the game.

This historical era, one of the most famous periods in the history of both Prague and the Czech kingdom, provided a lot of rich design possibilities right from the outset. In 1346, the young and able Charles IV of the Luxembourg dynasty ascended to the throne and became King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. One of the first steps he took was to order the building of the New Town (Nové Město) next to the Old Town (Staré Město). During this period, he also initiated the construction of the famous Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and many of the buildings connected to the University of Prague, which was founded in 1348 and would eventually become known as the Charles University of Prague, one of the oldest universities in Europe. By the end of his reign, Prague had become one of the largest and most important cities in Europe.

Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Prototype components

The main goal of the game is, obviously, building. At the start of the design process, I tried to incorporate these historical elements into the fabric of the game. You can see this clearly on the game board where the Old Town and the New Town are separated by the King's Road (Královská Cesta). Players also help construct the City Walls, as well as the Hunger Wall (which was built during a famine in the 1360s and is reputed to have been ordered by Charles IV as a way of providing jobs and food to the affected citizens and their families), in addition to the aforementioned Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral.

One of the main mechanisms of the game involves players selecting an action to carry out in order to help with the construction of these locations. They do this by gaining resources and upgrading those actions. When I modeled out possible turns in my head, I tried to interconnect the mechanisms as much as possible through this core action-selection mechanism. My main aim when designing this central mechanism was to encourage players to not select the same action repeatedly so that they would have to combine different action choices to make their overall strategy succeed. Although the game's mechanisms seem very logically connected to me now, I found the mental exercise of keeping tabs of the possible permutations of players' actions to be one the most demanding challenges I have ever experienced while designing games.

I like using dice in my games a lot, and they were the main component of the central mechanism in the first versions of the game. Players would roll three dice to choose their actions and the accompanying bonus actions. However, after testing this at home with my family I realized that this was not the best choice of mechanism to be at the center of this game. I tried several ways to adjust the dice mechanism so that it not only worked but was fun, yet I just wasn't happy with it; the dice were too random to base strategic decisions on.

This led to me having a new experience as a game designer. In my previous games, I've started by determining the main mechanism, then building other mechanisms around it. I sometimes had to adjust the central mechanism a bit, but generally it stayed fundamentally similar to how I first envisaged it. Realizing that my central mechanism didn't work as I wanted it to was something new that I had to deal with. I decided to keep the secondary mechanisms, but come up with a completely different core mechanism.

In the end, I decided to use a mechanism I had come up with years ago in which tiles with two actions on them are inserted into a central wheel. There are also bonuses on the wheel itself so that you get to take the bonus when you select an action tile. From the action tile itself, you choose one of the two actions indicated on it.

From gallery of sucd
The first version of the action crane

I refined this mechanism to work in the context of this specific game, and it eventually turned out to be the most suitable central mechanism for Praga. From a design point of view, I thankfully managed to find a way around the initial design challenge of having to completely change the central mechanism without having to majorly change the secondary mechanisms.

Further Development

I felt good about the change of the central mechanism at this point, but it still needed some refining. I reduced the number of possible main actions to seven and experimented with them on the wheel. I came up with different bonus actions for each slot on the wheel connected to the secondary mechanisms of the game. This led to players having to choose from a veritable smorgasbord of actions, each of which provided different bonuses depending on its location on the wheel.

Also, the bonuses on the wheel, which thematically became the wheel of a builder's crane, get increasingly more advantageous as they travel round. In more detail, when the tiles start out on the wheel, a player has to pay more resources to get the more frequently used action tiles that end up back at the start of the wheel more often, but as the action tiles move round the wheel, the bonuses to take them get better until a player eventually decides they are just too good to pass up. At this point, I was really happy with how this core mechanism worked.

Board Game: Praga Caput Regni
Final design of the action crane

The next thing I had to deal with was reducing the amount of time it took to take a turn. I didn't want it to be too long. I tried reducing it by simplifying the main actions and the complexity of the bonus actions. Initially the variety of bonus actions was too wide, which led to analysis paralysis and slowed the game down.

Following discussion with playtesters, I decided to get rid of the main action that allowed players to move on the cathedral or wall tracks and turn that into a bonus action you get when constructing certain wall tiles, thereby reducing the number of main actions to six. This turned out to be the final number of actions in the game. These discussions also led to the decision to simplify how it was possible to get an additional movement on the cathedral and wall tracks — by spending two white windows — which sped up the flow of the game considerably.

Numerous playtest games helped to balance the design. Through those tests, it became clear that it was necessary to strengthen the "upgrade actions" action. (I settled upon a bonus of advancing on the University track to provide additional motivation to do this action.) The production tracks also needed strengthening as there were other ways to gain resources without actually moving on these tracks, so I made the benefits of going up this track more enticing and together with the large endgame scoring bonuses possible at the end of them, this turned the "production" strategy into a viable one.

One of the things I'm really pleased about with Praga is that the number of players playing the game doesn't affect the flow of the game too much. Apart from the starting set-up, there was little need to adjust the game according to the number of players.

From gallery of sucd
Graphic development of houses

There are a LOT of hex tiles in this game, too, and balancing these to ensure that none of them were too powerful was a demanding part of the design process.

The increasing popularity of solo modes in games (especially in this time of COVID-19) was a motivating factor for me to include this in the game as well. I carried out a lot of testing during lockdown periods at home, so I played solo a lot, which helped me hone the game and this particular mode. This didn't replace playing games with playtesters and getting their feedback, but it was definitely a useful supplement to that process in these difficult times. I have noticed recently that solo players tend to prefer modes in which they have a "dummy" opponent. However, I still tried to make the simulated opponent as realistic as possible and less of a dummy! The rules for this version of the solo game will be published through our website at the same time as the game.

In the end, I'm very happy with how Praga Caput Regni has turned out. In my opinion, it is the most complex game I have ever created, and I believe it is a worthy successor to Underwater Cities.

Vladimír Suchý

P.S. Thanks to Mike Poole for the language corrections.

From gallery of sucd
Old Town Hall with the inscription "PRAGA CAPUT REGNI"
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