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Designer Diary: Rattus Cartus

Åse and Henrik Berg
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Board Game: Rattus Cartus
In September 2010, we received an email from White Goblin Games, the publisher of our game Rattus. One of its employees, Bart Nijssen, had been thinking about various ideas for Rattus expansions and variants, among which was an idea for a card game. The idea was to have each player build his own kingdom through cards that represent buildings and people, while using rat cards to infect the other players with plague. Apart from that, not many details were worked out, but we started with those ideas and tried to find good mechanisms that could work well with the theme.

At this time, the card game 7 Wonders had just been published. This was a game we enjoyed very much, and the drafting mechanism works nicely in that game. So after trying to move the Rattus card game in various directions, we soon had a card-drafting game in which building cards and population cards were passed around the table, with each player taking cards that he needed to expand his own little kingdom. At some point, one of the players would not find any cards that he wanted among those being drafted; the round would end at this point, and the player prior to the one who triggered this would have a plague outbreak in his kingdom. Thus, players would have to consider thoroughly on each turn whether or not to take a card from the draft: If taking a card, they obviously received the benefits of that card – but they also ran the risk of having a plague outbreak if the next player chose to end the round.

From gallery of aseoghenrik
Cards from the first prototype:
population/rat cards at top, buildings below
We developed this idea in much detail, including lots of different buildings with different abilities, and made a prototype that we brought to a local Norwegian board game gathering. The game worked well, but we were not completely happy with it. We felt it was an okay game, but not a great game – and as game designers, we don't think it's a good idea to publish a game that we just like but do not love. After all, if we just think the game is okay, how can we expect other players to enjoy it?

So we tried to come up with ways to improve our game, but soon agreed that we had reached a dead end and that if we wanted to make a better game, we would have to make fundamental changes to our design.

After this, nothing happed with the game for quite a few months. We thought about it occasionally and scribbled down a few notes in our game-design notebook, but none of the ideas made it through to actual playtesting. We don't remember much about most of these ideas, and we don't even understand the meaning of many of the notes anymore – but on one page in the notebook, the first seeds of what was to become Rattus Cartus suddenly appear.

At some point, we had moved the kingdom buildings from the individual players to a generally available pool of buildings that the players could use. The players used population cards (of the six classes) to bid for the ability to use the different buildings; we also had a rat population card that could be used as a joker. The buildings started to look like the buildings in the final game; for example, the farm allows you to draw new cards, we had a monastery that allows you to get rid of rats, and so on. In addition to these special abilities, the players scored influence points in the given class, and at the end of the game, these influence points determined the winner – but as in the final version of the game, players with too many rats were killed by the plague and could not win.

Now, we had a game we really enjoyed, with tension, interesting decisions, interaction between the players, and lots of variability. It was not perfect yet as the first version had some problems, but we thought it had great potential if we were able to develop it further. The main issues we focused on for the next few months were these:

• How should the rat limit at the end of the game be determined? In the first version, we simply had a hidden card with a number, from 6 to 14. Also, we had a witch building which allowed the players to look at some of the rat limit cards not in play. This system worked, but we were not completely happy with it. You could be lucky with the witch, for example, seeing the 6 card, the 7 card and the 8 card, and therefore know that the card in play was at least a 9, which would allow you to accumulate eight rats with no risk. On the other hand, you could have bad luck, see the 8, 10, and 11 cards, and from this still know almost nothing about the card that was in play. To avoid this problem, we replaced the single rat limit card with, initially, a number of face-down rat tokens with values 1, 2 or 3, then later with the nun symbols printed on the population cards in the final version. In both cases, whenever you look at one of the tokens/cards, you always get some useful information out of it. Finally, in order to get the distribution of rat limits somewhat more even, we doubled the number of cards with 4 and 0 nuns on them.

From gallery of aseoghenrik
An early prototype with the influence scoring track at left
and various cards – rat limit, rat/joker, population and buildings – at right
• How do the players accumulate rats? Initially, we had special rat cards, which were used like joker cards but forced the player to take rats when using them. We tried both having these rat cards shuffled together with the population cards and having them in a separate pile, with players choosing whether to draw a rat card or a regular population card when drawing cards. The problem with the first approach was that players had little control over how many rats they played: If they happened to draw a lot of rat cards, they were more or less forced to take high risks and play many rat cards, but if they drew few rat cards, they might not be able to play as many rats as they wanted to. The problem with the second approach was that is was a bit more complicated. So at one point we simply decided to remove the rat cards altogether, and instead allow the players to use any population card as a rat card – that is, any population card can be used as a joker – but when choosing to do this, the player has to take a rat token.

• In parallel with all of this, we created and tested lots and lots of building card ideas, a little more than one hundred different buildings in all. Around half of these ideas were discarded soon after testing them, while 40-50 different buildings were kept for further testing. Of these, twelve of the most basic buildings were chosen to be included in the base game, while the rest have been put aside and may be used in a future expansion.

• In addition, lots of other, smaller decisions were being made along the way. For example:

-----• Should the players keep their rat tokens hidden? (Decision: Yes)

-----• Should each use of a rat card give the player one rat with value 1, or should he draw a rat with a random number? (Decision: always value 1)

-----• Should there be some supply phase between the rounds? (Initially, we drew new cards each round; later on we added the supply symbols to the buildings to allow the players different choices each round.)

-----• Should we have a hand card limit? (In the end we decided to let the Chivalry buildings do the work instead since they will punish players with many hand cards.)

So finally, after two quite different games, lots of dead end ideas, several months with no activity, and several months of tweaking the final idea, we had ended up with the game we named Rattus Cartus, a game we were very happy with indeed. It shares some details with the Rattus board game, like (obviously) the thematic setting, the six different classes, and the risk of being infected with the plague – while on the other hand it is a completely new game, with a whole different feel. It has less direct confrontation than the board game and offers in our opinion more tactical depth. It has become our favorite Rattus game; even though we have been working on it for several months, we still very much enjoy playing it.

As we are writing this, Alexandre Roche is working on the artwork for the cards. What we have seen so far looks very promising, and we look forward to seeing, holding and even playing with the final printed version in October 2012!

Åse and Henrik Berg
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Subscribe sub options Fri Aug 17, 2012 6:30 am
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