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Designer Diary: Steam Noir: Revolution, from Idea to Launch

Daniel Danzer
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Microbadge: Kubrick fanMicrobadge: Marcel Duchamp fanMicrobadge: Rules TranslatorMicrobadge: Marcel Duchamp fanMicrobadge: Buster Keaton fan
Board Game: Dark Empire: Revolution
The most popular question presented to game designers is "Do you start with a theme or with a certain mechanism in mind?" The standard answer is, of course, "It depends..."

The Spark

2011 was a year of protests and revolts from the students at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Occupy activists masking themselves as Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta to overthrown dictators in Northern Africa.

Two things about revolutionary movements always fascinate me: the inner conflicts between several factions and how these conflicts can strengthen the authorities, and the "Robespierre effect": Sometimes when a revolution ends with one faction becoming too omnipotent, this new power might not last too long...

From gallery of duchamp
These thoughts fermented at the back of my head for months when, on a grey November train ride, a couple of synapses suddenly made contact and I scribbled a few notes on a sheet of paper (at left). This first note already contained some core elements of the final game of Steam Noir: Revolution:

-----• One group per player and their secret subgoal winning condition.
-----• Several rounds with a trick-taking feel.
-----• Groups of the population gaining points after each round.
-----• Markers gained by the players, depending on how well they achieve their subgoals.
-----• The player with the most markers wins – except if you win by too much, in which case the player with the second most markers wins.

So ... is this starting from theme or mechanism? Well, this time some mechanisms from real life were literally crying out to become a game.

The First Step

So I picked up a copy of Hilko Drude's card game Tricky Bid as it consists of cards with values from 0 to 15 in five colors (and it's a great game, too!). I did some trial and error with these cards, typing one tentative rule after another. This usually helps to clarify thoughts and build structures. Or to cause contradiction, chaos and confusion. Or both.

In addition to the subgoals, a "final goal" came into being, one also randomly allocated at the beginning. The dictator interferes with the gameplay via a deck of "provocations": one of these cards, belonging to a single faction, is revealed at the start of each turn and this determines which of the five factions becomes the traitor for the following round. If this faction scores the most points, these points don't count for the revolution, but against it.

More and more elements came into my mind to create further interactivity: counter, hurlyburly and targeted traitor cards — a veritable flood of ideas! Reorganizing the scoring mechanisms, calculating all of the number permutations again and again, finding a way to treat hand management — sigh ... a laborious and fiddly task. So why not consider the background story instead? Okay — which Revolution would I like to have?

Doris (my wife and creative partner for everything) and I agreed that neither recent revolts nor historical revolutions would work, but in an "alternative retro-future" it would be wonderful to instigate a steampunk revolution!

When searching the web for pictures, I soon came across Steam Noir and Opus Anima by Felix Mertikat. I was stunned — flabbergasted that stuff as great as this really was created in Germany ... then I realized Felix lived in Ludwigsburg, "next door" to Stuttgart! And he was doing a "reading performance" of the first volume (with three more planned) of Steam Noir in our public library two weeks later!

From gallery of duchamp
The Contact

I attended the performance, and the part dealing with the development of Steam Noir was absolutely exciting. Felix presented a look behind the scenes, talking about designing a character and how the choice of a costume, a hairdo, a posture allows a character to come to life. Here was somebody who knew what he was talking about.

After the show I pitched my idea. Felix was all ears and allowed me to use his art for my prototype. Moreover, he could imagine being part of the final game project as the graphic artist if he liked the game! We parted without any fixed commitments, but I really felt that something significant had begun.

Winter Days

I developed the game further over the Christmas period. The values of the factions were reduced to 3-10, the "3" being played as a traitor that strengthens the faction by 3, but at the same time cancels one of the cards of this faction an opponent has already played. The "Chaos" cards also took shape: You replace the current "Pro regime" card with the next one from the pile, which is useful since these cards count as 5 negative points for this faction if it "wins" the trick. At this stage, a trick consisted of two cards per player and was played clockwise.

You gained points by winning both tricks and intermediate scorings – always in the form of tokens each worth 5 points – but this led to rather extreme final scores.

On the 13th of January, 2012, the four of us sat around the coffee table at Ludwigsburg – Felix, Doris, Verena and me – battling for power. We quickly realized which parts of the game needed to be improved and which were fine. Felix was already enthusiastic as the atmosphere and the style of the game perfectly matched the world of Steam Noir, with you mistrusting everyone else while pursuing your own secret goals. We also talked about possible publishers. It was clear from that point on that we both wanted to develop the game as a complete package.

Of course many of the game elements were still in a rough state. I took the game and the first draft of the rules with me to the annual gathering of board game designers at Bödefeld, Germany. Prototypes would not be tested there, I was sure about that, but having the cards with me in my room would allow me to ponder new ideas I might acquire during this inspiring event.

There are things that you don't like to remember, but I have to do my duty as a chronicler. Don't be afraid, it will not hurt. Not hurt you, that is.


That year at Bödefeld I was the new one. Andrea Meyer had invited me; we had known each other for some time, having talked and played games together at Nürnberg, Göttingen, Essen and Weilburg. The other participants mostly knew me, too. Game designers (and publishers) Friedemann Friese, Marcel-André Casasola Merkle, Andrea Meyer, Harald Mücke, Henning Poehl and Hans-Peter Stoll, Karsten Höser (publisher of Spielerei magazine), and Lothar Hemme, long-time editor at Ravensburger. André Beautemps, a reviewer at the German boardgame website H@ll9000, was on site from another boardgame event at the same location and he joined us every once in a while.

I was surprised when a playtest session with Friedemann's Fremde Federn took place on the first evening, but the night sessions, I learned, were a tradition. On Friday night we talked about our recent projects; I mentioned Steam Noir: Revolution, and on Saturday they persuaded me to bring the prototype to the game table.

From gallery of duchamp
The gaming group consisted of Lothar, Karsten, Andrea, Henning, Hans-Peter and Marcel-André, partly playing paired. (Wow, what an alliteration!) I told them that the game was at an early stage of development, but they reassured me and were quite curious to play the game. During the slightly chaotic session which followed they seemed to at least have some fun.

Then the game was over. The core idea appealed to them, as did the possibility of picking up a played card after each round. After that they pulled the game to pieces bit by bit: almost no meaningful decisions at all; therefore almost no influence on the course of the game; much too long and too complicated; turn order much too important (due to a huge advantage for the last player) to be unregulated; point tokens too highly valued; overall spread of the card values too wide; too chaotic gameplay; no control over your hand of cards; too many different special cards, and all much too destructive. The bottom line was ... actually, it wasn't even a game. Marcel said something like, "Well, you have a lot of work to do, eh?"

I experienced these moments as though sitting behind a veil. I recorded on a sheet of paper how my game was stripped bare. I knew how valuable all of this feedback and loads of constructive ideas were, but it hurt. Marcel suggested that I should first properly build up a basic system, shortening the course of one round as much as possible, then carefully add one element after the other. Yes, thanks.

Lothar had been quiet until that point. He sat there, impassive. I felt miserable and heard myself asking into the silence, "I would like to know what you think right now." He answered, slowly and deliberately, that in his opinion the game lacked one thing above all: the feeling of fighting together against the Emperor. Right now the players just used the Emperor in the form of the "pro regime" cards against one another, but the Emperor himself was powerless. He was not, as yet, an enemy.

It was close to midnight when I packed away my game and went to my room. If only these players would have been unqualified idiots, stupidly spouting nonsense! But they had been highly intelligent, virtually over-qualified, friendly people! That hurt even more ... as always, when your own shortcomings are exposed and you need to go and deal with them.

New Beginning

For the next few weeks I didn't want to have anything to do with the game. Finally, I wrote down a fair copy of the critique, collecting approaches for solutions (picture at right).

From gallery of duchamp
I started again, almost from scratch, following Marcel's advice and ditching all of the additional and special cards. I gave the Emperor his own deck. I experimented with several methods of organizing a single turn, and how a player can establish workable hand management. I playtested the game repeatedly, each time changing only a single rule, keeping records, refining and simplifying things over and over again. By the middle of March 2012 an elegant game with a clear concept lay on the table. The cards were played simultaneously now, and many things were similar to how the game is still played today. Everything worked.

It was just no fun.


That same month I attended the Game Designers' Symposium ("Spieleautorentagung") in Weilburg for the second time. One of the lectures, held by Frank Zurmühlen, was about how game designers do not actually develop games, but only provide stepping stones and set guidelines for letting a game evolve at the table as a playing experience. I thought, yes ... that's it! And this was precisely not yet the case with Steam Noir: Revolution.

So what do I do now?

Playtests in April

In mid-April 2012, Doris and I played the game twice with Felix and a couple of friends who had played the game previously. After a detailed discussion and an exchange of ideas, we changed something crucial. We removed the option of discarding one card (instead of playing one) to draw two new cards and we added the following rule instead: You must play a card, but at the end of the week (round) you may discard as many cards from your hand as you want. The game was immediately faster, clearer, lighter. We were all surprised by the significant effect of this minor change. Suddenly, the game started to breathe...

Step by step, change by change, it was as if the game became independent and learned how to "swim". It started to take its own path, outgrowing the plans I had in mind about how everything was supposed to work. It became something organic that I hadn't planned, flowing much more smoothly. The game was also not too strictly defined by the rules anymore; it emerged at the game table in the form of speculation, allegations, mistrust, laughter, looks, spontaneous comments, surprises. It was coming to life. More and more often emotions emerged matching the theme. All I had to do was free it from the ballast, constraints and constrictions that were still holding it back.


Then I was invited by the Zoch Verlag editorial staff to join their twelve-member playtest team for ten days at a Majorcan finca. During the playtest sessions it happened more than once that in my opinion a game seemed to be a total failure – its parts were totally unconnected, it was no fun, it was way too long – but one of the Zoch editors would say: "Maybe so, but this can all be changed. The core idea though is great. We will make it work!"

In these games, the author himself had not yet understood the core of the game, or at least had yet not trusted it. Back in Stuttgart I tried to look at my revolution game from a fresh perspective ... more kindly, more curiously. Taking care of the game instead of controlling it, I found small, but effective changes which delivered more elegance. The game breathed more and more freely.

From gallery of duchamp

Felix and I pondered how to proceed from here. If a publisher decided to produce the game, maybe it could be released alongside the publication of the third and fourth (and final) volume of the Steam Noir graphic novel in the middle of 2013. At the beginning of June 2012, I attended the Game Designer Convention in Göttingen, having arranged an appointment beforehand with the editor of our favorite publisher. I explained the game to him, we played for fifteen minutes, and he took the prototype away with him to think about it. A release of the game seemed to appear on the horizon.

Then, nothing happened. Development of the game had been put on the back burner until I followed up with the editor who had picked up the game. He replied that because a co-worker was absent, there was a bottleneck with the projects they had already started. There had been no playtesting of new prototypes since Göttingen. Now, it was almost September. For us, things were getting tight.

The Decision

Further playtesting gave us more and more experience, which led to us simplifying the game once again, particularly the card handling during gameplay.

Crowdfunding was again discussed. The first preliminary estimates from various game manufacturing companies some eight months earlier had demonstrated horrendous costs for each single game. Because of the small print run, the price for each copy was close to what you'd expect as the retail price tag in a shop! Special tools for the punched cardboard and the preparation for the printing process are expensive one-time costs, no matter how many copies are printed. But without the distribution channels, it would not make sense to produce a larger print run as we would end up being stuck with hundreds of games. So new questions arose: Would gameplay be possible with fewer cards? Would wooden discs be cheaper than punch-out cardboard tokens? How small should the box be for cheaper shipping? We requested additional estimates from the manufacturers. At last the costs looked reasonable, and we fixed our plans two weeks before Spiel 2012 in Essen: We wanted to self-publish by July 2013!

Going Public

In an act of shameless self-promotion I ran around the fair for four-and-a-half days with a red sign on my chest saying "Steam Noir Revolution! 2013". I met dozens of game designers, editors, gamers from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.! I talked to many people, pitching the basics of the game, showing the Steam Noir graphic novel by Felix, asking about the idea of crowdfunding ... and everybody said: "Great idea!"

After Essen our plans took shape. Creating the crowdfunding campaign was almost as much work as developing the game. We needed a blog, the game had to be submitted and presented on BGG, and there were multiple tasks that had to be assigned to Doris, Felix, Verena and myself. Felix drew new prototype cards, telling little stories from the revolution on many of them. We even printed 2,500 flyers. We were ready to go.

At the "Süddeutsche Spielemesse Stuttgart" at the end of November 2012 some playtest sessions with experienced gamers revealed winning strategies by playing an "extreme Emperor" strategy from the start of the game. Two youngsters played the game with me three times in a row, and in the third game we deleted the rule that the Emperor also gets additional points; the gameplay improved immediately.

From gallery of duchamp
From gallery of duchamp

Once again I had to recalculate the card values to come up with the best way to balance the Emperor cards. The problem was that the Emperor had to be strong enough at the center of the table, but not too strong when his cards go into the scoring pile! To accomplish this I introduced (after testing several values) a "5+" card for four players to increase the emperor's value during play, but not in the final scoring.

At the same time I submitted Steam Noir: Revolution to the well-known Hippodice Game Designer Award. This competition has been held since 1989, and people like Uwe Rosenberg or Stefan Dorra won the award or had games shortlisted twenty years ago. I had no high hopes, but having the game shortlisted would be fantastic! If not, no big deal.

Before Christmas, I translated the rules into English as best as I could and sent a PDF print-and-play set to 25 gamers in Germany, the U.S., Scotland, England, Belgium and Spain. Many remarks, notes, ideas, and questions followed. We added a score track, and this minor addition (without any new rules) made another interesting core of the game visible: The open score vs. the hidden score. It's great to see the open part of the scoring and to then collect the same amount as tokens secretly for your own faction, with those being added only at the showdown. Most of the time, though, you support somebody else's faction to get these tokens...

Board Game: Dark Empire: Revolution
From gallery of duchamp


Now, the preparations for the crowdfunding campaign became the central activity. We decided to use the best known platform in Germany, startnext, which has had almost 650 successful projects with funding of 3.5 million Euros. Also, the platform works internationally and is totally free – even for starters.

At the Nürnberg Toy Fair, the game was played several times at the Game Café. I also realized that quite a number of people had heard about the project and were interested in the whole crowdfunding thing, which is still rather new for board games in Germany.

Then, Karsten Höser, who already knew the first version of the game from Bödefeld, told me that the game was one of nine shortlisted for the Hippodice Award from 150 submitted designs. What's more, the jury would meet at the same time that we planned to start our funding on startnext: March 8. This were great news! We shifted the start date by a week and awaited the outcome of the jury meeting. In the end, Steam Noir: Revolution placed second in the 2013 Hippodice game design competition!

The weeks before the launch were full: editing videos, creating subtitles, translating the whole crowdfunding page into English, and so on. Finally, everything was ready to launch.

At March 13, 2013, the second part of the adventure started, and within four days we reached our basic funding goal. Hopefully, people who are interested in the game will understand that this sum is not enough to fund a large print run so that everybody can get it later via the usual distribution, but that the only way to assuredly get it is through the crowdfunding page itself (and possibly through a small number of retailers who have supported us there). A higher total does not mean any stretch goals, but "only" more games sent directly to more gamers!

The third part of the adventure starts after the campaign ends and we set off on a well-prepared race for production within the schedule we fixed with our manufacturer from the deadline until the arrival of the games at Stuttgart.

Daniel Danzer

Board Game: Dark Empire: Revolution
From gallery of duchamp
Initial drawing and final art
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