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Designer Diary: Völuspá, or How a Native American Sun God Became a Viking Thunder God

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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Microbadge: John Coltrane fanMicrobadge: CatholicMicrobadge: Copper GeeklisterMicrobadge: 2008 Secret Santa participantMicrobadge: Kachina fan
Board Game: Völuspá
As a game designer, I appreciate second chances, a chance to get the rules of my game right, a chance to get my game published by a reputable publisher. Thanks to White Goblin Games, Kachina has been reborn into the Viking universe as Völuspá, and I'm very proud of the result: better rules, better artwork, and new expansion tiles that raise the game to another level.

How It Began

Strange as it sounds, I always wanted to create a game with a kachina theme. My family took a road trip through the American Southwest when I was a kid, and I was fascinated at the various kachina dolls I saw in the stores. I got a witch kachina doll on the trip which I still have today. I went to college at the University of Arizona which is at the crossroads of several major cultures, including the Hopi and Navajo nations, both of which have kachinas.

I had a vision of a game with various kachinas on the board. It was as if I were watching other people play the game, and I had to figure out the rules just by watching. The elements I deduced were that the game was about dominating other kachinas in a line and scoring points based on that dominance. This was my seed idea.

Every tile would have a strength number to it. If you placed a tile with the highest strength number in a line, you scored the line. So far, so good, but the obvious question is why you would ever want a tile with a low number. Based on my vision of how the game played, it seemed like every tile was equally valuable if used correctly. Drawing upon the world of kachinas, I liked the idea there is no clearly dominant kachina. Every kachina can be powerful depending on the circumstances.

So, why would you want a tile with a low number? Because those tiles let you do special actions. It became clear that the way to make all tiles equally valuable is to have a trade-off between the strength number of the tile and the special action the tile lets you do. I decided early on that the two highest tile values (7 and 8) would have no special actions. Their high number would be valuable enough and it meant that the player would need to remember only six special actions. I wanted to keep the rule set as low as possible to make it a quick and accessible game.

Choosing the six special actions was not easy. I used the following principles to help me choose the special actions.

-----1. They needed to be simple and very different from each other. The description of a special action should fit easily on a player guide and not be confused with any of the other powers.

-----2. They needed to provide new ways for low-value tiles to score. For example, the Hummingbird tile could dominate any line if that line was bookended by Hummingbird tiles. The Wolf tile could get increasingly more powerful the more Wolf tiles in a line.

-----3. I also wanted there to be a link between the special action and their respective kachina. It made sense that other tiles would not want to be next to Ogre tiles. It made sense that a tile that could be played on top of another tile would be an Eagle tile.

-----4. I also wanted special actions that could be useful in combination with other powers. One of the best combinations in the game is to use a Koshari tile to weaken a particular line, then to follow on a next turn to place an Eagle tile on the same line.

-----5. I wanted the board to be well-populated with low-value tiles so that players would have many placement options. The Warrior tile accomplished this goal since a player uses the Warrior to grab a high point tile from the board and place his low-value Warrior tile in its place. Also, as Wolf tiles are played on the board, they fill up one line, but they open up new lines in the other direction.

Rise and Fall and Rise Again

Board Game: Kachina
Early playtest results were fantastic. Players enjoyed the simple rules, quick play time and high level of strategic play the game provided. The original rule set survived playtest after playtest with no changes. (Believe me, this feat hasn't been repeated by my other game designs!)

I decided to enter Kachina into the Kublacon Game Design Contest, a contest run every year at the Kublacon game convention in Burlingame, California. I had actually won the contest a couple years previously with my game Unearth, which has not yet been published. Kachina didn't win the contest, but it did receive an Honorable Mention. One of the judges liked my game so much, she wanted to keep her copy and show it to a friend of hers who was starting up a new board game company.

This was my big break. She showed my game to Bucephalus Games, a new board game company out of Seattle, and they loved it. They wanted to publish it right away. Just like that, I was a published game designer.

The climax of that experience was going to Gen Con 2009 with my wife (who surprised me with the trip) and seeing my game on sale at the Bucephalus Games booth. I got to sign copies of my game and I even saw Reiner Knizia buying a copy of my game.

Board Game: Kachina
No joke – here's the picture to prove it

Unfortunately, the storybook tale ended quickly. Bucephalus Games was highly leveraged with big print runs on games that never sold well in the marketplace. At one point, the company even asked for a Kachina expansion, which I created, but Bucephalus was already running on empty. After paying royalties for the first few quarters, Bucephalus stopped paying my royalties, promising to make good later. Eventually, they ceased all communication.

What next? For a while, I wasn't sure how to proceed, but during the good times with Bucephalus Games, I had received a nice email from White Goblin Games expressing appreciation of Kachina and wondering whether I had any other games it could publish. I didn't have anything ready at the time, but I kept the contact, just in case.

I'm an avid reader of BoardGameGeek (which my wife will attest), and I noticed one day that another game designer had gotten the rights to his game back from Bucephalus in order to publish the game another way. I thought, why couldn't I do that? Several certified letters later, I had gotten the rights to my game back.

I knew right away whom I wanted to contact. I let White Goblin Games know that Kachina was available again, and it agreed to publish the game. Given that Kachina is still in the marketplace, both White Goblin Games and I wanted to make sure the new game offered a unique experience. White Goblin wanted to give the game a new theme with new artwork, and I pushed to include the expansion in the box. We agreed and the effort to reimagine the game began.

Improvements to the Original Game

Okay, once I knew my game was going to be republished, the obvious question was whether I should change anything. The original game had its fans, so I didn't want to make any major changes – yet I wanted to make a few tweaks to improve the game.

The number one complaint about the original game? Too many Ogres (which are now Trolls in Völuspá). I love how an Ogre can be used defensively to prevent other players from playing in a certain area of the board, but after 50+ plays of my own game, I had to admit players were right – there are too many Ogres. So, in Völuspá, I've reduced the number from 8 to 6 and added more of the low-value tiles. Both changes should help open up the board and prevent player frustration.

One of the holes of the original game is that you cannot get an Eagle (Dragon in Völuspá) tile if you didn't draw one. You can use a Warrior tile to take every other tile, but the original rules didn't allow you to take an Eagle since I was worried about player confusion. If a player uses a Warrior to take an Eagle which is on top of another tile, would players think they should get two tiles instead of one? But over time, I've realized that this is a silly fear. Players can handle the idea of discarding the tile underneath the Eagle tile if they take the Eagle tile. So, in Völuspá, you can use a Skadi to take a Dragon, and that can make a big difference since the Dragon is a very useful tile.

I still love the original game, but I would always choose to play the game with the expansion now. All of my playtesters agree; the game was fun before, but the expansion makes it awesome! (Okay, so maybe I'm biased.)

Expansion Work

How does one create an expansion for a game? It's not an easy task. Here are some of the principles I used:

-----1. It has to be desirable. I set out to create an expansion that every Völuspá player would want to play with all the time. I'm talking about an expansion like Pandemic: On the Brink or Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals. It needs to have tiles that make people say "COOL!" The expansion has the Hel tile which kills off a tile. That's COOL!

-----2. It has to feel like part of the original game. There were all kinds of things I could have done with the expansion, but I wanted the new tiles to feel like they could have been part of the original game. The Sea Serpent tile adds a new clever way to score. The Jotunn lets you bump a tile out of the way.

-----3. It cannot make the game feel overly long. The problem with adding more tiles is that it makes the game longer. Anyone who's played Carcassonne with all of its expansions knows what I mean. At a certain point, the game breaks down under the weight of too many tiles. I addressed this problem in two ways. One tile, Hermod, immediately lets you play another tile and thus, it doesn't add any more turns to the game. Another tile, Hel, is really powerful, but each player gets only one, adding only one more turn to the game.

-----4. The new tiles have to work well together. This expansion accomplishes this goal well. I don't want to give away too many strategies, but you can use the Hermod tile to extend the reach of the Sea Serpent tile. The new tiles also work well with the existing tiles. Jotunn, for example, can be used to bump tiles next to Loki for big plays.

-----5. It needs to allow for more planning. One of the complaints of the original game was that the game was too tactical and not strategic enough. Giving each player one Hel tile adds a new level of strategy to the game as you figure out the best time to use it. The Sea Serpent tile can lead to some of the biggest point plays in the game yet, but those big plays require more planning to pull off.

With these principles in mind, I tried out a myriad different new tile ideas. Some tiles were dramatic failures. I experimented with a tile that let you discard it and draft a new tile from a small set of available tiles. It was like doubling your hand size, which was WAY too much to keep in your head. Other tiles were merely okay. I passed on a tile that gave you +1 point whenever you scored a line. Somehow that felt obvious and not all that exciting. I kept pushing until I had four new tiles that all excited me.

In the end, the new tiles all shared a common trait of opening up new spatial strategies for the game. Two of the new tiles could modify the game board in interesting new ways. Another tile tended to stretch out the playing area into long spidery lines, which helped open up play for all types of tiles. Another tile let you play multiple tiles at once, letting a player remake an area of the board in one fellow swoop. By opening up new spatial strategies, I felt like I countered the effect of adding more tiles to the game.

Bring on the Vikings!

One of the first things White Goblin Games suggested when they agreed to publish my game is that I should consider a new theme – Viking mythology. Great idea! I researched all of the major characters of Viking mythology, looking for good matches with the existing game mechanisms.

What made this theme even better was when I found out that the super-talented board game artist Pierô would be illustrating my game. Wow! I love his work on Ghost Stories, among many other games. Pierre said he was inspired by the original artwork by Andy Hopp in how all the characters had dramatic head shots. I'm sure you'll agree that Pierre has brought the characters in my game to life with his amazing artwork.

As the title of my diary describes, some characters changed dramatically from Kachina to Völuspá. I needed a strong character that could stand up to the many other tiles with special powers. In Völuspá, I chose Thor, the Norse god of thunder to take the place of the Native American sun god, replacing one powerful force of nature for another. Thor obviously comes with a huge history and players would expect that he would be one of the most potent tiles in the game, second only to Odin, his father.

Board Game: Völuspá

Other characters didn't change at all. As it turns out, Fenrir, the wolf son of Loki, plays a big part in Norse mythology, so naturally I chose a Wolf to take the place of a Wolf from the original game.

Board Game: Völuspá

One of the most popular characters from the original game was the Koshari character. In Hopi festivals, the role of the koshari kachina is to mock the other kachinas, to bring the powerful down a notch. I definitely needed to find a trickster character in Norse mythology and I happened upon Loki, who traditionally upended the other Norse gods with his plots. A player who plays a Loki on the board may upend your plots, too.

Board Game: Völuspá

Here's a sneak peek at one of the new expansion tiles. As I mentioned earlier, the expansion has a tile that lets you kill another tile on the board. Naturally, I gravitated toward the Norse goddess of death, Hel, whom Pierre has given a decidedly seductive and sinister appearance. After you use her power, you turn the tile over to reveal a wasteland on the back.

Board Game: Völuspá

I will be attending Spiel in Essen, Germany for the first time in October 2012. It will be a great sight to see Völuspá being sold at the White Goblin Games booth, a new beginning for a game I thought was lost just a few years ago. The game feels alive again, and I'm already thinking of new ways the story could continue.

Scott Caputo
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