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Interview: Fabio Lopiano, designer of Merv, Calimala and Ragusa, on Innovation in Game Design

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
[Editors note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in August 2021. —WEM]

Fabio Lopiano — designer of Merv, Calimala, and Ragusa — joins Neil of Diagonal Move to discuss innovation in game design.

DM: Hi, Fabio, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in game design?

FL: Hello, my name is Fabio Lopiano, and I am a board game designer. I've been playing board games for a long time, but I started designing games only a few years ago. I currently live in Milan, Italy, but in the last twenty years or so I've lived in several countries, moving every few years.

In 2013, I moved from Paris to London — I went there to work as a software engineer for Facebook — and while in London I joined the "London On Board" Meetup group, which is a huge boardgaming community that meets almost daily to play board games in various venues around the city. There I met a few game designers, and I began playtesting their games. After a while, I also tried designing a game of my own, which eventually became Calimala.

Board Game: Calimala

DM: Your games to date have a distinct thematic tendency towards building and trading within a historical setting. What is about that theme that interests you?

FL: I've always been interested in history, especially in less known aspects of it. I read almost exclusively non-fiction books, mostly about history, science, or economics, so sometimes I come across some interesting historical facts that are not particularly well known and I try to use them as a setting for my games.

For Calimala, my first ever game, this was a little different but not too much. Although the setting might not seem particularly original, I saw that while there are already many games about Florence and the Renaissance, none of them were about the actual economics behind it.

Florence's wealth sprang from the international wool trade, driven by the guild of Calimala. With the incredible wealth accumulated through trading, these Florentine families eventually turned into banks, providing financial services both at home and abroad. With so much money in their coffers, they also started competing for prestige by building churches and sponsoring artists, while at the same time trying to gain control of the city government by getting seats at the city council. (This is more or less what happens in the game as well.)

The story of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) was interesting for me because when at school I studied the Maritime Republics, it was not mentioned at all (although it was among the most important ones, along with Venice and Genoa). I suspect this was because at the time I was at school, Dubrovnik was still behind the Iron Curtain and hence almost erased from history books of the time.

When I came across the name Ragusa much, much later, I was curious as to why I had never heard of it, and after reading some more about it, I decided to set my next game there.

Likewise, I found the story of Merv fascinating. I was surprised to learn that this was once one of the greatest cities in the world, but few people today have even heard of it, again because most of the history we learn at school is so western-centric.

DM: Your games contain intricate layers of mechanisms, including some innovative elements. Can you tell us about how the action-selection mechanism in Calimala developed?

FL: My initial idea with Calimala was to come up with an action-selection mechanism that would make every game different so that it would not be possible to have a set of "standard openings", but also so that the possible strategies would change enough from game to game that players have to look at the board and find what the best strategy would be for the given board set-up.

In the first iterations, I had eight action tiles in a circle, and players would place their token between two tiles and take both actions. Eventually I added a ninth, fixed action in the middle and changed the circle into a three-by-three grid.

The design process was iterative and long; it took me almost two years, bringing the prototype for a playtest to a couple of monthly meetings. Eventually I introduced the triggering of actions for previous players that already had a token in a slot as a way to reduce downtime and keep everyone involved in every player's turn.

The biggest breakthrough was the scoring trigger because it killed two birds with a stone. I had two main problems at the time: one was that once there were too many discs on an action slot, the triggered actions could cascade out of control; the other was that I didn't have a good way to decide when to score the majorities in the various areas. The greatest idea was to use one issue to solve the other: As soon as the fourth disc is added to a stack, the bottom disc does not get to do the actions, but instead triggers a scoring for an area.

Finally, having the order in which the areas score randomly decided at set-up made the game infinitely more replayable since now your strategy does not depend only on the way the action tiles are set up, but also on the order in which the scoring tiles line up.

Board Game: Ragusa

DM: Ragusa, your second game, featured a spin on worker placement as players built the city's walls. Can you tell us more about how that game was designed?

FL: In Ragusa, I tried to push a few ideas from Calimala even further, with you now placing your token between three action tiles instead of two. I also tried to add more variety on the type of actions you can do and on ways to score victory points, so we have more resource management, set collection, wall building, market manipulation, etc.

All of this was informed by the theme, so I read about the history and economics of the city, and learned about the nearby silver mine, the oil and wine trade, the city walls and towers, etc. and I tried to incorporate as much as I could into the design, while keeping a certain consistency in how these aspects interacted with each other.

Because of how these actions interlocked, though, I could no longer have a completely random set-up; otherwise the game balance would go out of control and some spots could randomly be much stronger than others, so I had to go with a fixed map.

On the other hand, the game has a certain chaotic aspect as small variations in the order in which the first few houses are built will have huge repercussions on the way the mid-to-end game will develop, not only because actions will trigger differently, but also because the house placement rules make it so that houses built in previous rounds affect where new houses can be built.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Your most recent published game is Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road. In Merv, the available actions vary based both on the position of workers on a grid and on the positioning of a protective barrier built by players (thematically the city walls). Was this mechanism a natural extension of those in your earlier games, and can you tell us more about what inspired the design?

FL: Merv had a very long and complex evolution, and I tried many different mechanisms before finding the current ones.

This was a theme-first game, so to speak, so I had some elements that were present from the beginning, such as caravans coming through the city with goods, building the walls, and defending from Mongol attacks. I also wanted to have a few mosques and libraries. (Merv was an important learning center at the time, and some important scholars of that time studied there.)

I didn't want to have some turns in which you collect resources and some turns in which you spend them. Instead I wanted a certain amount of resources to become available each turn, with players having to find ways to spend them efficiently. The type and number of resources that players gain depends on how cleverly they placed their buildings on the grid.

Initially I had this idea of a caravan walking through the streets and dropping resources that players would then use on their turn. This was a bit fiddly and went through many, many iterations. You can think of the current mechanism as a much more abstracted version of that: When you select a row or column with your meeple, it is as if you were guiding a caravan through that road, and the caravan leaves a matching resource on every house it stops by.

DM: Your games to date feature consequences from your actions for other players in the form of the ability to use their locations or generate resources out of turn order. What is it about this interaction that interests you?

FL: I like games that are very interactive as long as they don't have much conflict or "take that" elements. This leaves lots of room for positive interaction, which is one of my favorite concepts in board games.
This forces players to care about what everyone is doing at the table and provides interesting choices. On one hand, you have to make sure that a certain action you take will benefit yourself more than your opponents; on the other hand, you may look into ways to adapt your strategy in order to benefit more from what the other players are doing.

This also means that you can't simply pick a strategy at the start of the game and follow through with it until the end because you have to be flexible and adapt to what all the other players are doing.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Given the interactive nature of your games, how did you adapt them to lower player counts?

FL: My first two games were aimed at a high player count — I prefer to play both Calimala and Ragusa with five players — and they all rely heavily on actions having side effects on other players.

The two-player version of Ragusa simply introduces a couple of "power-houses" per player that act slightly differently and try to solve multiple problems with a single solution.

When you place a power-house, you trigger all the actions for yourself (regardless of who owns the houses in that hex), so even if your opponent has already placed three houses on a space, by placing a power-house there you get four activations and your opponent gets none. This stops players from over-specialization and makes it not too bad to enter a space later in the game.

Moreover, power-houses are in a third color and must be placed along the city walls, thus breaking the wall sequences. (Without them, players could just place towers on each other's houses and potentially get both the maximum amount of points for the longest wall.)

Finally, they also add extra tension because there can be only a single power-house on each hex, so it introduces a game of chicken in which if you wait to place a power-house you might get more activations from it, but if you wait too long, your opponent could place theirs before you do.

Being such an interactive game, though, the solo version of Ragusa simulates a three-player game and introduces two automas to better deliver the full game experience in which each house placement activates every other player's houses.

The trick of "reserving" the automas' house slots at the start of the game makes sure that each opponent follows a sensible strategy. (Each automa card has a sequence of three house placement that make sense with each other, e.g. first place a vineyard, then make some wine, finally get some goods at the market, possibly paying with that wine.) Because the cards are shuffled back after each house placement, as a player you know that eventually your adversary will do those actions, but you are not quite sure of when exactly, so you have to adapt your strategy accordingly.

In the two-player version of Merv (as well as in the solo version) a third color is thrown in the mix that is controlled by both players. (The first player chooses the row or column, the other player chooses which house to build.) This makes turn order also extremely important for two players, and turn-order player manipulation is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. You don't want to be last in turn order because your opponent will likely place the neutral meeple to block the row or column that you would like to use instead. Moreover, the extra neutral houses placed provide more opportunities to both players for possible rows to activate and for houses to defend, in order to gain more influence.

Then the solo version mimics the two-player version, with one automa controlling the main opponent and both players (you and the automa) having shared control of the third, neutral color.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Do you face challenges in developing and playtesting games that are relatively complex? If so, can you describe them?

FL: Yes, most of the "work" around designing board games lies in playtesting. Each playtest session will uncover some problems and maybe help with finding some solutions.

There are different types of playtests (and playtesters), and it is important to know what type of playtesting is needed at a given time. At the beginning of the design process, I usually playtest with some trusted groups of designers. We expect to play very bad games and keep an eye on things that don't work that could be improved or that show promise, etc.

If the game manages to survive several iterations with these groups, then I start playtesting it with regular players, i.e., not other game designers. Two very important types of playtests are with "new" players (i.e., those who haven't played that game before) and with "experienced" players (i.e., those who have already played an earlier version of the game).

The first ones are harder. It is important to make sure that when players try your game for the first time, they have a good experience, good enough that they will want to play the game again in the future. You want to do this kind of test with games that are in a good-enough state, and this is a great way to find rules that are not too intuitive or find that some things are too hard (or even too easy), etc.

The playtests with experienced players, on the other hand, are important to make sure that when players play the same game multiple times, they still find something new and interesting to do and don't get bored after a while. These are also useful for tweaks and balancing fixes.

As the complexity of the games increases, these playtests become harder, and depending on what I am trying to find out with a given playtest, I might intervene in different ways during play. For example, if I am testing how the first few rounds work out, or if some rules are intuitive, etc., I try to observe without interfering. But if I want to test some particular situation that might happen in the mid-to-late game, I can nudge players here and there, or suggest some moves in the early game so as to more easily reach the particular situation I want to test.

In the last couple of years, most playtesting moved to Tabletop Simulator, where things have become much harder and the timing has become unreliable. (Some activities are quicker, while others are much slower, so it is very difficult to gauge what the actual length of a game would be on an real table.) It is also difficult to understand what players are experiencing while they play due to a lack of non-verbal communication. Things are now slowly returning to normal, so live playtests are finally coming back.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: When seeking a publisher, are there unique challenges facing games that innovate or are aimed at the "heavier" end of the gaming spectrum?

FL: Innovation is an important aspect in games nowadays, and each game should bring something new to distinguish it from the thousands of other games being published in a given year. But, along with innovation, some familiarity is also necessary. A game with too many new concepts will be hard to receive for most players, so it's important to mix one or two innovative ideas with some other familiar things so that players are not overwhelmed.

Heavier games require a much longer period of time than light games from signing to publication. This is partly due to the extra development time because playtests tend to be longer, hence harder to organize, and they tend to raise lots of small issues that are harder to fix, especially if the game has lots of interconnected parts in which a small change somewhere could have unintended consequences somewhere else. Also the various pre-production tasks involved, like art, components, rulebook, etc., will require a bit longer.

But more importantly, many publishers tend to have a few fixed slots in their pipelines for bigger games and more flexibility for smaller ones, so while a lighter game could be published about twelve months after signing a contract, a medium game could require at least eighteen months, and a heavier game could easily take more than two or three years.

DM: Can you tell us anything about the games you are working on currently?

FL: Yes, I do have a few games lined up for the next couple of years. Zapotec will come out in November 2021 from Board&Dice. It is a medium-weight Eurogame with simple rules and an interesting engine-building aspect.

I am also working on "Autobahn", a new game I co-designed with Nestore Mangone (who also co-designed games like Newton and Darwin's Journey) about the construction of the German highway system. It is a slightly heavier economical game that will be on Kickstarter early in 2022 with Alley Cat Games and is expected to be ready for SPIEL '22.

Lately I have also been working with Mandela F. Grandon (designer of Glasgow and Overstocked) on a couple of other games, one of which is scheduled for SPIEL '23, but it hasn't been announced yet.

So, yeah, I'm trying to keep a schedule of one game per year for now.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Do you have any advice for new designers interested in creating games that layer multiple mechanisms?

FL: I guess one piece of advice would be not to be afraid to remove cool things.

In most of my games, I start with a couple of initial mechanism ideas, I then keep changing things around, adding and removing things, mostly driven by playtests. I tend to alternate between expansion phases, where I might add lots of parts, and contraction phases, when I try to remove redundancies and possibly replace two things with a new one, ideally solving two different problems with a single solution.

Eventually, when things start really clicking together, I find out that pretty much all the mechanisms that were there in the initial versions are now completely gone. They were important to provide a framework around which to build the rest of the structure, but once the game starts to work, they might not be that necessary anymore, so do not try to keep them anyway if they don't really contribute to make the game better.
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