Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in April 2021. —WEM
Nigel Buckle, designer of Omega Centauri, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his career in game design and his 2021 dual-box release: Imperium.
DM: Hi, Nigel, many thanks for joining us today. You've been a game designer for a number of years. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer and about the early years of your career?
NB: I've been playing games for as long as I can remember — and back then there was far less choice, so if a game didn't suit my tastes, I'd come up with "house rules" to change it. Actually designing games grew from that. Of course having an idea for a game is the easy bit; turning it into a playable game others want to play is more challenging, and then actually getting it published is a whole different story.
DM: Your most well-known game is Omega Centauri, a sci-fi take on civilization building. Can you tell us about that design?
NB: Omega Centauri is my second published design. I've always enjoyed space 4X computer games, but the board game versions were all rather long and often ended at the point you researched all the cool stuff, so I decided to design a space empire game that plays in a shorter time and has a far flatter technology tree so that you can get to use the tech you research. To get the playtime down, a major part of Omega Centauri is deterministic combat; you can work out what the result of a conflict will be before fighting.
DM: Your latest games — the twin set of Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends — also have a civilization-building theme, this time centered around the civilizations of ancient history and myth. What is it about civilization building as a theme that inspires you?
NB: I have an interest in ancient history — and when I played Dominion back in 2008 I thought the mechanic of actually building a deck as you played was amazing. I was not so gripped by the theme or the rest of the game, though. I decided to try designing my own deck builder and to give it a civilization theme, so making each deck very asymmetric. Of course that is far easier to say than actually do — it's taken over a decade!
DM: Civilization-based games tend to focus upon the civilizations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Carthage, Egypt, for example). Imperium casts its net wider than this to include the civilizations of the Americas and Asia. How did you decide upon which civilizations to include? Were there any that you wanted to include but couldn't?
NB: My original design had four civilizations (Rome vs. Carthage and Greeks vs. Persia), and you played them in pairs as a two-player game. As I developed the game, it turned into a multiplayer game and I added more. To add a civilization, I researched its history, then thought about what mechanics would represent this civilization and at the same time give a new strategic puzzle for the players to solve.
I wanted each civilization to be unique, and moving beyond the Mediterranean Sea is certainly one way to do that. Furthermore there is a timeline in Imperium; the earlier a civilization comes in history, the more likely it will become an empire first in the game, so Egypt is the earliest civilization and thus has the fewest nation cards and most development cards. The Vikings, on the other hand, are the latest and never actually become an empire at all in the game.
The civilizations we've included all fit into the timeline — rise of Egypt around 3000 BCE through to the failed Viking invasion of Britain, 1066 CE — apart from the mythical civilizations, of course. I'm sure we could design more if publisher Osprey Games wanted us to.
DM: How closely do the play styles of the civilizations in Imperium reflect historical characteristics of the societies depicted?
NB: Obviously there are limitations. Each deck is around 23 cards, which restricts what aspects you can feature. However, we have tried to give each civilization a unique deck and link it to the history of that civilization. For example, with the Olmecs you'll find giant stone heads, step pyramids, stone masks, and cacao all coming together in a deck unlike any other. The Scythians are nomadic, and we've tried to represent that lifestyle in their deck. I think playing these two civilizations will feel very different — and for that reason we recommend players look through their deck before playing as a strategy that works for one civilization may well not work for another.
DM: You also include Atlantean and Arthurian legend in the game. What was the reason for extending the scope outside of a purely historical theme?
NB: Atlantis came about because we wanted to offer the players the challenge of a civilization that starts as an empire. This means, in our timeline, this civilization had to come before Egypt! That was a challenge, so we settled on a legendary early empire instead, which certainly offered more creative freedom. After some initial playtesting, it was clear some sort of personal trash pile — the "history" pile, even though Atlantis is not exactly historical — was needed and a twist beyond "start as an empire" was also needed to make them interesting. This was solved by replacing their history with a sunken pile and having the mechanic that Atlantis sinks its regions with some of the cards in its deck.
The development team at Osprey decided to divide the civilizations into two boxes rather than release a large game or remove half of the designed decks. There was some discussion over what split made the most sense, and eventually they settled on Classics and Legends. The problem was, at that point, the only "legend" we had was Atlantis, with a hint of legend with the Minoans and their Labyrinth.
So we set about designing two more mythical civilizations: the Arthurians and the Utopians. Being free of history meant we could push the design further than we had done with Atlantis. For example, the Arthurian deck introduces knights and questing and not wanting to continually cycle your deck. The end of the nation deck for the Arthurians means you are fighting Gwaith Camlan (The Battle of Camlann) and that's far from ideal. When playing the Arthurian deck, you want to complete your quests and find the Graal before that final battle starts.
We pushed this idea of not wanting to cycle your deck even further with the Utopians. When you play this civilization, every time you empty your draw pile you have to add an unrest to your hand — and unrest is bad, a junk card that scores -2 victory points. The Utopians have only a starting deck, so no private market of cards at all. Instead you have two double-sided journey cards representing your journey to the mythical city of Shangri-La. The Utopians are totally different in play style and goals from all the other civilizations in Imperium.
DM: Mechanically, Imperium is a deck-building game with both hand management and tableau-building elements. From a design perspective, how did this combination of mechanics evolve into the game we see today? Natural evolution or deliberate early design choice?
NB: My original design of a deck builder included a draft rather than tableau building — but as soon as I tried this out with players beyond my usual playgroup, it was clear the game was too difficult to learn. You had to know what you were doing to draft sensibly so that aspect was dropped and tableau building added.
Tableau destruction (either by opponents or yourself for the powerful fame cards) was added after I'd pitched the game to some publishers and the feedback was that the tableau needed to be more dynamic.
DM: There are sixteen civilizations across Imperium: Legends and Classics, each of which can be played multiplayer and solo. Can you describe the process of developing so many playable factions and modes?
NB: A secret to game design is using spreadsheets for tracking the results of playtests — which cards get played, which cards are ignored, what are the scores — but also for tracking the various decks and what the latest card text is.
I started with four civilizations and they became the baseline; any new civilization was played against the original four initially and adjusted as necessary.
The solo game included in the boxes came later. I had a solo mode for testing as I do not like inflicting prototypes on my playtesters when I know things are not working; I much prefer to think they work and my testers prove me wrong. My solo mode was fairly rudimentary. It worked for testing, but I certainly didn't give the same experience as you get playing against a human opponent.
When Dávid Turczi joined me as co-designer, looking at the solo game was one of his first priorities. David has an approach to solo game design: The game needs to work as a multiplayer game first, then you identify what aspects of your opponents actions matter to you and try to replicate that feeling in a simple-to-manage solo BOT.
DM: With the design challenges of a multi-factional, card-based game in mind, how did you find the design, developing, and publication process for Imperium as whole?
NB: It has been a very long road. My original concept is rather different to what has been published by Osprey. In the beginning I had no thought about publishing the game; I was designing a deck builder as a challenge to myself and to play with my regular gaming group. It's only after showing the game to others and the positive feedback I received led me to try to get it published.
That proved rather challenging as my initial pitches were unsuccessful, although I did get some helpful feedback. Eventually NSKN (now Board&Dice) signed the game in 2014. They had a full schedule, so it was not due to be published for a few years, which gave me time to make more changes and add more civilizations. They also brought Dávid Turczi on board.
They intended to Kickstart the game in 2018, but unfortunately the project did not get a good start and the campaign was cancelled. They gave the rights back to me and generously included the art they had commissioned for it and also agreed that Dávid could continue to work on the game with me in his own time.
We showed the game to Osprey, and they loved it and the art, so agreed to publish the game and keep the art and, in fact, added a whole lot more.Evolution of a civilization from prototype to finished design (image: Nigel Buckle)
DM: The civilizations in Imperium are available across two separately available boxes: Classic and Legends. Can you describe the differences between the two boxes and what players should keep in mind if they can purchase only one?
NB: Both boxes are the same game; they share the same rulebook. The differences are the mix of civilizations in each box and the common market cards. The two can be combined at a basic level by just taking civilizations from both and playing them. You can also mix and match the common cards from either box, too, for more variety.
All the civilizations are very different, so picking a box that includes the civilizations that appeal to you is a good start. The civilizations also vary in complexity, and we have included a difficulty rating for each civilization in the rules and the higher difficulty civilizations are definitely harder to play.
The Legends box has more of the complicated civilizations, so players seeking a more challenging game may want to start there. On the other hand, if you are less experienced with deck-building games or want an easier version to teach new players, then Classics is probably a better starting point.
DM: You've clearly had some success in designing an historical game. Do you have any advice for new designers looking to embark on an historically-themed game design?
NB: Research your history first, and have a vision about how you want to represent that history in your game and what role you are expecting the players to take. Then think about mechanics that will best reflect that vision. Otherwise you run the risk of people commenting your theme feels pasted on.
DM: One final question: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline?
NB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with Dávid. I am proud of the game we've produced between us, and I think it is better for our joint involvement. We work so well together that we're repeating the process, but nothing is at a point where I can say very much. I'm sure news about the next Turczi/Buckle game will be forthcoming when the publisher is ready to make an announcement. (Editor's note: That collaboration would be Voidfall, which publisher Mindclash Games announced in early May 2021. —WEM)
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