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Designer Diary: Zapotec

Board Game: Zapotec
I started working on the game that would become Zapotec in early 2019. March 31st was my last day of work that year, after which I took some time off so that I could focus on board games full time for a while. (This is still ongoing after over two years.)

I had just closed Merv, so I started playing around with some ideas for a new game. Following the theme from my two previous games, Ragusa and Merv, I was still thinking of some other way to use the "house placement" mechanism.

In this case, the idea was to have a map with house slots where each slot would have a few properties (e.g., type of building, neighborhood, etc.), and each turn you had constraints on which houses you would be able to place. Those same properties would also be relevant for endgame scoring.

The initial idea was about building a modern city in which each building slot had three properties: their type (residential, commercial, industrial), the neighborhood (with three on the map), and whether the building was next to a road, a railroad, or a water course. One of the first boards looked like this:

From gallery of Fabio_

The action selection, at the time, was based on nine double-sided tiles, each one having one icon on each side, with the icons being the three types of buildings, the three neighborhoods, and the three resources.

Each player also had a player mat with nine houses sitting on the main grid at the start (covering all the "+1" spaces) and various discs covering the circles:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

There would be a row of 5-7 tiles on the main board and one tile on each player mat. On your turn, you would flip the tile on your player mat (moving it from the left slot to the right slot), then get a tile from the main board and place it onto the left slot. Depending on where you took the tile from, you would gain or lose some coins (as indicated on the board).

You would then activate the two tiles:

• When activating a tile with a resource, you would gain that resource for each visible "+1" on the corresponding row, so if you already had built two houses from the "bricks" row, you would gain a total of 3 bricks.
• When activating a tile with a neighborhood shield, you would collect money along the corresponding column, so if you had built two houses in that neighborhood, you would gain three coins.
• When activating a tile with a building type, you would be able to build a house of that type (with each building type requiring a specific pair of resources), the house would go on the main board on a slot of the matching type and in the same neighborhood of the column from which you took the house.

Instead of placing a house, you could place one of your discs under one of your already built houses (thereby upgrading it) or place a disc on a special building slot on the map (with one for each main building aspect). The number of discs on those bigger building lots would determine how many points each house with the matching aspects would be worth at the end of the game for all players. For example, if at the end of the game, the wharf building had three discs, each house next to water would be worth 3 VP, while upgraded houses would count double. Removing discs from your board would also unlock various abilities that let you spend coins to activate various bonuses.

This initial prototype already had many of the ideas that would then become central to Zapotec, such as the resource grid, the house placement and costs, and some of the scoring principles.

The drafting of tiles, though, was not working very well as you often would end up taking the tiles you could afford rather than the ones you wanted, and especially at higher player counts, the tiles you needed might end up always being taken by some other player.

During that time I was able to playtest two or three times a week thanks to regular events with PlaytestUK and weekly tests with a few other designer friends at my place, with enough free time between them to let me iterate quickly and try new changes.

One of the first things that changed was swapping out tiles for cards. Each card would have both a resource and a building aspect, and players would have a hand of cards so that they could plan a few turns ahead instead of relying on which cards were available to draft on the next turn. Cards would also have a scoring multiplier that would apply to all of your buildings with a given feature.

Here is a picture from an actual playtest session:

From gallery of Fabio_

In this version (from mid-April 2019), you would play a card in front of you, deciding which resource row to activate and which buildings you could build, either the type, the neighborhood, or whether it should be next to a railway, road or water. When placing the building, you would then get the tile from the same slot on the board, and place it on your player mat on the same slot from which you took the house. That tile then provided extra resources when collecting from the same row.

The card would also provide a score multiplier for your buildings with some other feature. For example, one card would let you build an office and score 1 VP for all your houses next to a river.

Upgrading a building by placing a disc underneath it would cost an additional coin over the cost of the building type, and now you would gain one of the tiles on the board that's tied to the type of building you boosted.

Finally, you could add a second disc to an already boosted building (turning it into a level-3 building) and at the same time add another disc to one of the nine main buildings on the left top corner of the board. These buildings will award a certain number of VP to each building with the given feature and even more VPs to boosted buildings of that type. (The slot in the top left corner, for example, awards each commercial building of level 1/2/3 with 1/2/4 VPs times the number of discs that have been placed on it at the end of the game.)

Board Game Publisher: Board&Dice
In early May 2019, I went to a playtest session at Dávid Turczi's place (as we both lived in London at the time). I tried his game Tawantinsuyu, then we played a game of Merv. (Although the main game was pretty much finalized by then, I was still working on the solo mode, and I was looking for some advice from the master.) At some point, Dávid half-jokingly said that if I ever made a game with a Mesoamerican theme, he would gladly show it to his friends at Board&Dice, so over the next few days, I did some research into whether I could somehow fit my city-building game into that setting.

I found the Zapotec civilization to be very well fitting because that civilization developed along three valleys around a central location. The three city neighborhoods naturally turned into the three valleys of Mitla, Etla, and Ocotlán; the three types of buildings turned into temples, villages, and corn fields, and instead of water/rail/roads I used three types of terrain: plains, forests, and hills, which emerged almost naturally from the setting.

Once I had those three specific types of buildings, it came naturally that each one would provide its own special resource: corn fields produce corn, temples produce priests, and villages produce trading opportunities (abstracted into gold).

The "capital" actions were then a way to spend these resources, so gold was now used to access trading tiles, which initially provided just some conversions, but which eventually evolved into more varied kinds of special abilities.

Corn was sacrificed in order to advance on a track, and priests were used, along with building resources, in order to build pyramids.

From gallery of Fabio_

I changed the card play so that cards were reused; now cards played in a round would become the ones from which to draft in the next round. The cards were also played simultaneously, with the printed number determining the turn order for the round. The leftover card, after drafting, would become the scoring card for the next round, etc.

This new version introduced more tension between being early or late in turn order. Now if you are last in turn order, you will try to build houses that satisfy the scoring card for both the current round and the next round.

Also, by reusing cards, there's a good chance that the scoring cards for the last couple of rounds have already been used a few times, so they would have a bigger impact on scoring. Finally, players are presented with an interesting choice between whether to pick up a previously used card to play it again next round or leave it and possibly score from it.

I also tweaked the pyramid scoring to create an incentive to work together to build bigger pyramids. (Completed pyramids award way more points than incomplete ones, but you can build only one level per pyramid per turn.)

By early June 2019, I had a game that was in a good enough state, and I brought it to a playtesting session at Dávid's place. He kept the prototype so that he could bring it to a meet-up with Board&Dice a few days later.

I made another copy of the prototype, which I then brought to a lot of places. Around that time, I left my flat in London, spent a weekend in Melksham for a playtesting event, then while all my furniture was on a truck heading across Europe, I went on a trip to Germany where I stopped by, among other places, Göttingen for the big annual game designer meeting. Once settled in Milan, I went to a dozen or so gaming and playtesting events all over Italy between August and January, making more tweaks to the design here and there.

During that time I also received some great feedback from Board&Dice, which was happy to sign the game.

A few final tweaks were implemented: We removed one game round (going from six to five), introduced the palace (that counts as two houses for scoring purposes but doesn't provide resources), and started thinking about a few other ideas.

In February 2020, I flew to Warsaw for a week of full immersion with Board&Dice and a few other designers for their upcoming games. (We also playtested Tawantinsuyu, Tekhenu, Tabannusi, Origins, and Dark Ages with David, Daniele, Adam, and the lovely folks from Board&Dice.)

During that week, we finalized the last remaining details, improved the trade tiles, and introduced the ritual cards in order to provide even more variability in the game.

From gallery of Fabio_

I am happy that the majority of the work on Zapotec was finalized before the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Even though the ongoing pandemic has certainly resulted in additional challenges, particularly when it comes to wider playtesting of the finished design, additional development, and the disruption to the global supply chain, I am happy knowing the game received all necessary attention and is, today, on its way to various worldwide warehouses for fulfillment and distribution.

Fabio Lopiano

Editor's note of a self-promotional nature: Zapotec is available for purchase via the BGG Store. —WEM
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