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Designer Diary: Quarantine – A Hospital Game from Conception to Delivery

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Board Game: Quarantine
Like most good stories, this one begins in a hospital. After my cord was cut and a few years passed, I find myself about to see my first published game, Quarantine, hit the market. I'll share here a little bit about how the game went from idea to published game.

Quarantine began with a mechanism, not a theme. The idea was to allow players to build a structure, each tile of which represented some enhanced ability or special function. A player should be able to control which abilities he would possess and his spatial arrangement, but the players' opponents would have some control over which of those abilities would be available to them.

Players would need to build carefully so as to be less susceptible to the control that their opponents exerted over their structure. Putting your two most important tiles next to each other should be a bad idea because it would be too easy to lose control of both of them at the same time – but at the same time some tiles would require interesting spatial relationships in order to function to their fullest, or even at all. To me this sounded like an intriguing game, so I set out to design it.

Having come up with an idea for the core mechanism, I set out to find a theme. I'm very attached to the idea of great integration between theme and mechanisms. As board gamers, we enter into a new world created for us by the designers of the games we play. I find it so much easier to do so when there is no jarring disconnect between the actions we are taking and the reasons why, within that world, we are taking them. So for me, one of my preferred design methodologies is to come up with an innovative mechanism, find a theme to mesh perfectly with that mechanism, then flesh out the rest of the game by allowing the theme to drive the subsidiary mechanisms. I hope this approach helps me reach my goal of designing Eurogames with incredible theme/mechanism integration.

So I set out to find a setting in which it made sense to be building something that you were likely to lose access to parts of. Almost immediately a quarantined area came to mind, which lead to the idea of building a hospital. Very quickly a bunch of other things fell into place. A hospital needs incoming patients, who need to be cured, but only if the right rooms are available, etc, etc.

From gallery of manchuwok

The early versions of Quarantine used big, clear plastic cubes to show which areas of each hospital were under quarantine

Like many designers I know, I find that the first 80% of a game is really quite easy. I used my hospital theme to drive some additional mechanisms, which in turn drove the specifics of the theme in a wonderful symbiotic relationship that lead to a very thematic Eurogame – but the design was still only 80% of the way there, and what I have since learned from designers smarter and more experienced than me is that the last 20% takes more than 80% of the time.

The Game Artisans of Canada

From gallery of manchuwok
It was about this time, in 2011, that I had the opportunity to join a group of designers called the Game Artisans of Canada. These guys (and gals) are a collection of over thirty game designers located all across Canada. We discuss the game industry, hash out game design theory, and collaborate on projects together in a fashion that I believe to be unparalleled anywhere in the world. I can easily say that it has been my interactions with this group that has increased my design abilities many-fold. Through playtesting Quarantine with the local chapter, I was able to identify several flaws in the design that were subsequently ironed out. I've greatly appreciated the input and connections I've received through the Game Artisans, and hope the input I've given back has been valuable. Everyone, stay tuned to see what comes from this group. It's going to be amazing.

From gallery of manchuwok

So to get my design to where I thought it needed to be, I playtested. And playtested. And playtested. New designers (myself included not too long ago) often underestimate how much work is really required to get your game from 80% done to a publishable state. Not only is the first 80% the easy part, it's also the fun part. The development required to get your game ready to pitch to a publisher is simply hard work. I playtested with as many groups as I could get access to. Learning how to improve a game based on playtesting feedback is also a skill I began to develop during this period. Playtesters give a lot of feedback, and it's up to the designer to foster the right kind of feedback and to interpret that feedback in a way that will lead to a better game.

Designing Quarantine was part of my process of learning to be a late prototyper. Prototyping too early is usually a waste of time. A designer can become too attached to his prototype and not be as willing as he needs to be to make the kind of changes that may be required. Of course if he is willing to make the necessary changes, then he simply wasted his efforts with a nice prototype that needs to be completely thrown out.

I try to design as much of a game in my head as possible. A game might develop for many months in my head before I go anywhere else with it. Often then I'll discuss the idea with other designers, making changes to the idea as I go. Only then will I put the idea to paper, and usually it is literally on scrap pieces of paper. Only after the game has reached a certain state will I put any effort at all into the prototype components. Even at this stage though, the prototype may go through many iterations before publisher submission, as you can see in the image at left. Quarantine has been in development since 2009, so it has spent a lot of time at each of these various stages.

Simplicity and Elegance

Initially Quarantine used a dynamic economic system whereby the amount of money a player would receive depended on the number of treatment rooms of that color amongst all the players. If you were the only one who could cure a certain type of disease, it only made sense that you could charge a premium for this. The system worked reasonably well, but it was a little too fiddly for my taste. Players had to collect and maintain money. There's nothing wrong with this inherently, but I sensed that in Quarantine there was an opportunity for simplification.

Board Game: Quarantine

In this prototype patients are lined up and occupy treatment rooms; when cured, they represent currency

Wolfgang Kramer has long been an inspiration for my game design philosophies, and I ended up following some of his advice: the fewer and simpler the rules, the better! I removed money from the game completely. When you cure patients you simply keep the cubes, which now can serve as currency for purchasing new tiles for your hospital. Since cured patients are worth points at the end of the game, this creates an interesting dynamic: Spending cubes makes you lose points, but you are gaining additional abilities and efficiencies for your hospital that could allow you to gain even more points than you lost. This is a tense balance.

It's these kinds of simplifications, tense decisions, and elegant solutions that I hope will come to be seen as the hallmarks of my designs.

Price Drafting

Now that money was gone, the next big question was: How will players acquire the tiles using their cubes? In addition to the four colors of treatment rooms, I designed sixteen special tiles that players would be able to add to their hospitals. They are roughly equal in quality, but I actually did not design them to be perfectly balanced. What I wanted was for the players themselves to assess them and assign their own values to them.
Board Game: Quarantine
As a group explores the game over many plays, I want this understanding of the individual tile values to evolve – and depending on the selection of tiles in play, players need to understand how the value of each tile changes. After many iterations of various ideas, this is the final solution:

A player may set any price for any of the special tiles by placing at least two of his cubes of any color combination on top of one of the tile stacks. However, his purchase will be completed only if any tiles remain in the stack on his NEXT turn. This means that all of the other players have one chance to buy the tile for that exact price before the player who set the price gets his tile. This makes correct pricing critical. If you want a tile for your hospital, you should price it such that the other players cannot or do not wish to purchase it for that price.

The publisher came up with a great name for this mechanism: price drafting. It was a mechanism that I developed over a long period, after much trial and error. After the game had been signed, I learned that a similar mechanism had been used by both Richard Breese and Reiner Knizia. I was a bit disappointed to learn that this novel mechanism wasn't as novel as I had thought, but I was also happy to find myself in such great company. This type of parallel development is not that uncommon I have found.

Mercury Games

Video Game Publisher: Mercury Games
It was during the Gathering of Friends that I got a call from Kevin Nesbitt, co-founder of new publisher Mercury Games. I knew Kevin had recently left Stronghold Games and was impressed with his work there as well as his development work on Container, and was therefore happy to hear that Mercury Games was interested in Quarantine. Some fellow members of the Game Artisans of Canada were present with a bunch of prototypes and sell sheets, and Quarantine had caught the eye of Kevin and Richard "Doc" Diosi, the other co-founder of Mercury. I quickly mailed them a prototype, and after they had played it a bunch with some of the other members of their team, they were excited to sign Quarantine as the first title to be released under their new label. I got the call telling me they wanted to go ahead right in the middle of an all-day playtesting session with the Game Artisans. I felt like Mercury would really be able to do the game justice.

Working with Mercury Games has been great. They developed Quarantine even a little further than where I had brought it to. One of their improvements to the game was reducing the number of tiles initially available in the tile market. For most of its life, Quarantine let players choose from any of the sixteen special tiles in every single game; later on, I reduced that number to twelve. The guys at Mercury made the fantastic suggestion of selecting only eight random special tiles for each game. Now it is extremely likely that every game will have a different set of tiles available as thousands of different combinations are possible. We modified the endgame conditions to match the change, and Quarantine was tighter and stronger than ever before.

Board Game: Quarantine
It's great when publishers are able to step forward with relevant and appropriate developments. As designers we can sometimes become so inured to the way we've chosen to do things that we're missing a few obvious improvements. Mercury found some other things that helped tighten up the game even further.


It's always fun seeing art being applied to the bare prototypes one has worked on for so long, so it was great to hear that Michael Christopher (aka Dathkadan) would be doing the art for Quarantine. I knew of him mostly for his famous redesign of the art for Merchant of Venus. He did a great job at putting a ton of details into every tile in the game. Each special tile is unique, and all the relevant details help to enhance the theme/mechanism integration. Form over function is a big blunder in game graphic design, so Michael also ensured that these beautiful tiles were also eminently playable. All of the icons I developed to help players remember the function of the special tiles are present, with several enhancements.

At the bottom of this diary, you can see a sample hospital layout after the artwork was completed (with the before image being posted halfway down this page).


One of my goals was to leave the game open to the players. Heavy-handed games that push me into playing a certain way just annoy me. In Quarantine I hope players will feel like they are able to try a lot of different and creative things. Tiles combo together in interesting ways, and actions can be taken at any time on your turn: before, after, or even during your four patient pulls. I have seen quite a few surprising moves during gameplay and hope that players will find a lot of room to explore inside this framework.

Designing and developing Quarantine has been a lot of fun, but I believe the job of the designer does not stop there. Since BoardGameGeek has always been my community and has been instrumental in the development of my love of gaming and game designing, I will be happy to stick around to help promote the game and answer any and all questions about it.

I hope you all enjoy playing the game as much as I enjoyed designing it.

Mark Klassen

Tl;dr: Play Quarantine!

Board Game: Quarantine
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