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Designer Diary: An Illustrated Journey through Theomachie

Jakub Wasilewski
Poland
Lublin
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designer
Dreams can come true and the story of my friends and me, the design team behind Theomachie, proves it. After a successful crowdfunding campaign on Spieleschmiede, an expanded German edition of Teomachia (originally available only in Polish), will be out really soon – in fact, it will premiere at Spiel 2013!

But Theomachie took a lot of attempts and a lot of work to get right. Over three years, there were numerous versions and prototypes. I'd like to share small bits of the game's history with you today and give you some idea of the game's evolution from a two-player poker-with-extensions game to the complex deck-building/bluffing/strategy crossover it is now.


The game started as an answer to a simple question: What happens if you take Texas Hold'em Poker, and add an actual fantasy game on top of it? The first idea was a mechanical one; instead of a static ranking like poker has (with straights, flushes, etc. in a rigid order), we made this part dynamic: Each player has a deck, and each card in the deck requires a specific layout of cards on the table and gives you strength in battle if you're able to fulfill the requirements.

This version had only two types of cards: attack cards, which went into player decks, and power cards, which were put in a shared deck and were dealt onto the table to determine which attacks were allowed. At this point, the power cards we used were just standard playing cards in three suits, ace through seven. While there was a draft-like mechanism, we didn't add any deck-building yet. Even the "battle between gods" flavor was missing – the game was codenamed "Mageclash" and was flavored as a generic duel between two mages. (An unusual topic for games, right?) The hand size was two, which clearly shows how much Theomachie was influenced by Texas Hold'em in those early days.


The first prototype proved the idea was fun and had potential, but it was very rough around the edges. The actual resolution of battles involved a lot of math as the attack cards were complicated. At the same time, the actual gameplay prior to the battle (which was then almost identical to betting in Texas Hold'em) was pretty dry.

For the second version, we introduced effect cards – cards that would affect the game before the eventual showdown at the end of each round. This change required us to bump the hand size up to four cards. In the meantime, the power cards were changed to give them some proper flavor, with the flavorless playing card suits being replaced by three spheres: stagnation, change and destruction. We also simplified the attack cards a bit to remove the heavy math from the game.

All of those changes proved to be steps in the right direction. The effect cards gave players something to do during betting, and the new power cards provided some direction to the design, but we still felt there was more fun to be had. At this time, we also started looking for an original setting for the game.


Somewhere during this stage, the idea of a battle between gods appeared. It turned out to be a natural fit for the game; the chips players used for betting became your followers, the cards in hand their prayers, and the attacks divine powers used to help your followers defeat other gods' believers in the battle.

As is often the case in game design, what happened first was mechanisms determining the flavor, but as soon as it was in place, the flavor started suggesting new mechanisms. When chips changed from being abstract poker-like tokens to representing actual people, a new avenue of card design opened. Instead of using only simple numeric values, we were now able to make attacks that killed your enemies' followers, enhanced your own, or allowed you to move them between different zones. This proved to be the spice that the battle mechanism needed. By adding those more interesting approaches, the simple "+X" attacks could be simplified even further, which made the gameplay smoother and easier to follow.

Unchanging decks drafted at the beginning of the game proved to be a little boring in longer games; once you learned what's in your opponent's deck, much of the excitement was gone. To avoid this, the deck-building component was added, making decks evolve throughout the game. This proved to be an excellent idea, and Theomachie became quite an interesting mix: On one hand, it was a poker-inspired bluffing and probability assessment game, while on the other a deck-building game focusing on the quality of your cards. Those two components were intertwined as winning hands helped to improve your deck, and a good deck allowed you to win even more hands.

Power cards changed from using the three spheres to a two-dimensional approach: Each had an element (fire, water, etc.) and an aspect (chaos or order). The reason to do this was mainly mechanical (allowing us more variety in card design), but it also served the flavor well; each element was bound to one aspect of human life (body, mind, soul, emotion) and this has impacted the feeling of each type of cards heavily.


Each of these changes made "Pantheon" (as the game was called at the time) richer and more interesting. At this point, the game was fun, replayable and smooth, but there was still one big change to come. This time, the driving force behind the changes was the "god against god" flavor. It seemed like a complete waste to have a game about gods without actually featuring them in the game! We definitely wanted to have the deities represented somehow through game mechanisms, along with myths and legends from their respective mythologies.

Since each player impersonated a god, it felt natural to give each player a deity card with some additional skills. We settled on a set of two characteristics: a skill that gave you an advantage in the game itself, and a condition which you had to try to fulfill in order to get miracle tokens. The miracle tokens in turn fueled myth cards, which represented heroes, artifacts and events related to the Greek, Celtic, Sumerian and Nordic mythologies.

It took a lot of iteration to get this right. Since the god component was added at a late stage of the design, it felt tacked-on for a while; the early versions felt like you were playing two different games in one. We kept scaling back the mechanisms and their impact until the deity cards and their powers started feeling like a natural part of the game.

This is the version published as Teomachia in Poland, where it received praise from many reviewers for the original approach to mechanisms and gameplay. However, most reviewers had some reservations about the production quality; as this was only the second game published by the Historical Games Factory, there were some issues. This edition of the game was also two-player only, which limited our audience considerably.


Finally, we arrive at the upcoming German edition. Approached by Spieleschmiede, a crowdfunding platform, we decided that this was a good way to try to reach a new market. It took a month of hard work and came with a lot of stress inherent to any crowdfunding effort, but in the end, we succeeded, with the game funded at 113% of what we needed to publish it.

With more than three years passing since the game's birth and one year from the first Polish edition, we had time to take a step back and learn from how players responded to the game, and this learning process resulted in many adjustments broadening the game's appeal. The most important change was allowing multiplayer play. We have also rebalanced the game yet again, and we're working hard to make sure that all of the technical shortcomings of the first edition (like a hard-to-grasp rulebook or the lack of reference cards) will never happen again. Spieleschmiede itself had an influence; as a result of comments from backers, a no-elimination variant was introduced to allow everybody to stay a part of the fun until the game comes to an end.

Will this be the last thing for Theomachie? Certainly not! We are still teeming with ideas, ranging from simple cards to entire new mechanisms that could be layered on top.

But first things first – Theomachie will premiere at Spiel 2013 in Essen. Since you've reached the end of this article, it seems that you have enjoyed reading about how the game was designed, but why stop there? We hope you will come to Essen to experience the result first-hand!

Jakub Wasilewski

Cover of the first Polish edition, 2012
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