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Designer Diary: The Evolution of Cavemen

Dan Cassar
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Oreland
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Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
When I was 8, my grandfather taught me to play chess. He patiently explained the moves and taught me the beginner's basic, v-shaped opening, then proceeded to mercilessly defeat me, game after game. He was a very good chess player; he told me he had learned in the Navy from a Grandmaster, and as a result, I don't think I ever lasted more than two dozen turns against him – but I didn't mind. I loved the challenge of it. I was fascinated with how simple the rules were, yet how many things I had to think about.

The next year, my older brother taught me to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: a game about telling a story, with neither winners nor losers, with no board. Around that same time, Pac-Man fever was spreading across the country. I came of age during a time when the definition of what a game is was rapidly changing.

Since then I have tried every type of game that I can get my hands on. I've come to believe passionately that games are a unique, individual artistic medium that can delight and intrigue us in ways comparable to the great works of drama, music and sculpture. A game is a cultural phenomenon like no other. Sure, they can be mindless diversions, but they can be so much more than that, too. They can be interactive narratives: entertaining, beautiful, even meaningful. They're uniquely powerful vehicles for conveying metaphor and subtlety by presenting dynamic, interactive systems and inviting you to experience them. I want to make games that are at once deep, elegant and relevant, games that are about something, but are still fun to play.

Cavemen: The Quest for Fire started as a game about evolution. At the end of 2007 I had been reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and realized that while I thought I had understood the basic ideas behind the theory, I didn't realize just how transformative and far-reaching the idea truly was. It also became obvious why evolution is such a popular theme for games. At its core, natural selection is governed by a very simple set of rules that combine in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. I wanted to create a game that allowed the player to gradually evolve an organism over generations, mutating and crossbreeding with the other creatures in the world. Cards seemed like a perfect fit for this kind of game, as they would allow me to present a wide range of different kinds of traits to combine, and their distribution was inherently unpredictable.

I began to work on the idea, but quickly decided I didn't like not being able to see my creature in front of me. My organism felt like a collection of traits, instead of a living thing that was changing, so I changed the game to be about humans with different traits. I figured that since human traits such as being smart or fast didn't need to be reflected in the way that those humans looked, it was easier to imagine that human changing based on other cards it combined with. And naturally, since I still wanted to focus on the most basic interactions between the organisms, it made sense that these weren't sophisticated, modern people. These were cavemen, whose job it was to hunt, eat, and make other little cavemen.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Cards from one of the earliest prototypes of the game

At first, it made sense to have lots of different kinds of cavemen with different attributes, but then how would I show how these traits combine in their offspring? I needed to put the characteristics themselves on their own cards, and it didn't make sense to separate inherent traits from the person they belonged to, tools, ideas, and technologies were easy to represent on their own. I jotted down a quick list of caveman "inventions": fire, the wheel, the spear, the bow and arrow. The concept of a mini-civilization game is a sort of holy grail amongst game designers, and an idea about primitive humans building the first societies emerged. By focusing just on this very early civilization, each small advancement can open up huge new possibilities. You can see civilization itself is an evolutionary adaptation, and each new advancement allows the tribe to change how it makes its way in the world. Technology changes the rules.

Of course, there's no story without conflict, and the central conflict here is the tribe trying to survive. At the time, steampunk was everywhere and along with it, a resurgence of interest in pulp. Steampunk applies a postmodern fantasy lens to the Victorian setting, with the steam engine replacing the magic wand. Drawing on classics like Marvel Comics' Ka-zar and other works like Clan of the Cave Bear, The Land of the Lost and a host of other influences, it seemed like the time was right to explore a similar kind of setting: stonepunk, a fantasy world set in a prehistoric age. In this context, civilization is the killer technology and the Tyrannosaurus is the perfect antagonist, representing the dangerous world in which that early man lives. After all, every heroic fantasy needs dragons to slay.

By the middle of 2008, I had something that looked very much like the final version of the game, and I felt that it accomplished my design goals. I wanted to blend Euro-game elegance with something a bit more "Ameri-crunch", meaning I wanted a strong theme, a dose of randomness, and the definite possibility of loss, without going so far as to have players being eliminated for the game. I wanted drafting to be the central mechanism because at that point I had never played a game that used it in that way. I thought keeping the information public – which I first saw in the Rochester draft format for Magic: The Gathering – would lead to opportunistic play, which I felt was a great way to simulate how early humans must have managed to survive. Finally, one thing I also knew I wanted in this game was a true narrative arc: a beginning, a middle and an end. For this reason, there could be no victory points and no second place. Like a checkmate, the invention of fire is a fitting and decisive end to the story I'm trying to tell.

I took my game to the New York City Board Game Designers Playtest Group. There I met a number of talented and successful designers including Eric Zimmerman, Gil Hova, Josh DeBonis, Mark Salzwedel and Michael Keller. With their help and encouragement I focused on just the core ideas and over countless playtests over the course of an entire year, managed to strip away the last remaining layers of complexity. But there was still an important part of the game that had to be perfected: the set of inventions. Without properly balancing that set of choices, the entire auction system could not work correctly, so while I was happy with the way the game was played, I knew it wasn't done yet.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Cards and other bits from the prototype I submitted to the Rio Grande Game Design Contest in 2009

In 2009, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and spend eight months traveling through Asia. It was a life-changing experience, living out of our backpacks and meeting all sorts of interesting people along the way. On that trip, we played Cavemen with anyone we could convince to play. We played in a car in the deserts of Rajasthan, on a train to Mumbai, on a boat in Indonesia, in a hotel in the Mekong Delta, and by candlelight during a power outage in Nepal. I must have designed over a hundred different inventions for this game during that trip, but the final twenty that I chose to include in the core game were playtested thoroughly for their variety, their ability to combine in multiple ways, and their balance.

From gallery of maltezefalkon
Playing Cavemen by candlelight during one of the routine power outages in Pharping, Nepal

When I returned home near the end of 2009, I found out about the Rio Grande Games Design contest. I won the New York competition against some impressive games, then went on to be one of four games selected for publication by Jay Tummelson. Some time later, when I first saw the art for the game, I was absolutely floored. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I couldn't be happier with the job that Rio Grande did making the game truly stand out. (Editor's note: In the video below, publisher Jay Tummelson explains how the artists created the look of this game. —WEM)

Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Board Game: Cavemen: The Quest for Fire
Final card art from the game

Cavemen premiered at Spiel 2012 and should be making its way to retail stores soon, so be sure to check it out. I can only hope other people get as much out of playing the game as I got out of making it!

Dan Cassar

(For more updates and information about the game, check out my blog.)

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