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Designer Diary: How The Outcast Heroes Came to Life and Why It Was So Difficult

Adam Kwapiński
Poland
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Board Game: The Outcast Heroes
The first thing I usually do when starting work on a new game — whether something designed to order with a strictly determined theme, or my own original idea — is preparing a specification of what the final product is supposed to be. I always start by trying to figure out what effect I want to achieve when the game reaches its final form.

The Outcast Heroes – a historical card game about the Polish underground fighting against Communism at the end of the World War II and beyond – was no exception. The setting was kind of imposed in this case; 2013 is the "Year of the Cursed Soldiers" in Poland, and the game was planned to be a huge part of the commemoration and celebrations organized by our co-publisher, Fundacja Niepodległości (The Foundation for Independence). Besides, from the very beginning co-designer Michał Sieńko and I, as well as our partners from the Foundation, knew well what criteria the game needed to meet.

I soon turned our initial assumptions into a more precise specification. The plan was to create a card game (with no other elements — which we managed to achieve apart from adding four wooden cubes) suitable for 2-4 players. What we have in the box now is 110 cards and simple rules that enable you to play with a full line-up in no more than an hour, even if the decision-making process in your gaming group is extremely slow.

These premises are pretty straightforward and would seemingly be easy to achieve — after all, hundreds of games meet these criteria — and in truth designing The Outcast Heroes wouldn't have been as difficult as it finally turned out to be if it hadn't been for the fact that from the start of Fabryka Gier Historycznych (Historical Games Factory) we have had certain goals to achieve with each new game released.

The idea is simple: We make games that tell history, games about something. We do not compromise in this respect. Whether that something is a worker’s life at a socialist factory, the experience of heading a noble family, or the role of a mythological god from ancient times, each time we design a game, we want the setting and the mechanisms to fit together. We don't want somebody to take Sigismundus Augustus and turn it into a game about governing an ant colony without touching the rules. Such an attitude results in all of the mechanisms we employ in our games being unique. Obviously not in the sense that you will never find them in other games – yes, we use good ideas that appear in other game releases, but only if they fit the atmosphere of our own designs. The rules of a new game are never just an upgraded version of what you could find in our older products. No way.

Board Game: The Outcast Heroes
From the combination of our approach as a publisher and the specifications I mentioned earlier emerged a set of requirements that soon turned out to be the biggest challenge to date in my game design experience. We had a huge piece of history to present which could easily become an inspiration for several Hollywood films — but all we had was 110 cards and sixty minutes of gameplay.

During the design process of The Outcast Heroes we created six (yes, six!) totally different games, and the only thing they had in common was the general theme and a component count of 110 cards. Everything else underwent such significant changes that now I probably wouldn't be able to recall all the previous versions of this game. In fact, only one idea related to the main mechanisms has stayed in the game since the beginning — and this idea also helped us solve the first serious problem we encountered while designing Heroes.

Our task was to create a game about a fight between underground guerilla troops and the illegal communist government installed in Poland after World War II, and we naturally had to put both sides of the conflict in the game. What seemed the most obvious solution was putting one player in charge of the Cursed Soldiers and the other in charge of the government, but the number of players became a problem; we were not designing a two-player game, and this solution was reasonable only for two players. Besides, who the hell would like to be on the communist side in such a clash?

Another solution was a cooperative game, with the government as an impersonal opponent represented by the game mechanism that the players competed against. It all sounded nice at first, but there was a significant problem: I do not really believe in co-ops. No matter how good a co-op game can be, I always have the feeling of playing solitaire with a couple of friends, with all the possible consequences of this fact (e.g., the well-known problem of the leader of a group, etc.). Moreover, competition in games is what I value most: I like tournaments, I like the emotions accompanying my attempts to defeat the opponents – and I did not want to strip The Outcast Heroes of this aspect.

The final solution evolved somehow from the basic premises of a cooperative game. On one hand, we placed the communist government in the position of an impersonal opponent that the players were supposed to defeat. On the other hand, we introduced competition between the players commanding their own units. This is how we took to the idea of missions aimed against the government in which the soldiers of different players could take part. It's a popular mechanism, and it fit our game perfectly.

That said, I knew this mechanism from other games, and I was aware of the serious problems it could cause. Most such games that I have played with a mechanism based on the difficulty level of a mission and the power of the cards assigned to that mission (soldiers in our case) have one of two problems: Either we play a game that is nearly 100% calculable (the soldiers' total power has to beat the difficulty level) or too random (just as above, but adding a random factor to the mission, e.g., rolling a die). Additionally, there is also a problem with granting victory points: Who is supposed to get them and how many? Are they assigned randomly or do they perhaps depend on the power of the soldiers each player sent on the mission? Honestly, answers to all these questions were giving me sleepless nights for long, long months.

In our games, we often employ mechanisms from other titles — even if they do not convince us completely — then we break them down into the smallest constituent parts and try to improve them, get rid of what we find irritating, or add new elements. It sometimes happens that so few elements of the initial borrowing stay in the game that it's hard to spot any similarities.

In The Outcast Heroes, we introduced two key changes that gave the game its final form. The first problem we successfully dealt with was the distribution of victory points. None of the methods we tried at first was satisfactory. Sometimes during the tests we encountered an absurd situation in which the players preferred to do nothing rather than send their soldiers on a mission that would give points to somebody else.

The solution came accidentally, when I was wondering how to distinguish the soldiers that belonged to particular players. (At that time the soldier cards didn't have different colors.) I came up with the idea that each of the four sides of a mission card should be marked with a different color corresponding to one player and that's where the soldiers should be placed. At that moment I was just one step from introducing various action zones around a mission card, which is what we did in the end. Now a player who sends a soldier to a mission must decide in which of the four zones to place him. Each zone gives a different bonus, and three of the zones are limited to one soldier only, but they can take over another soldier's function. (This is what the solders' leadership level is for.) Specifically, we created the Strike Force, Command, Recon and Liaison zones, thus solving the problem of how to distribute points – it's now a bonus for the player controlling the Command zone – and giving much more depth to the game thanks to the choice each player has to make when assigning soldiers to a mission.

Board Game: The Outcast Heroes

Another problem, which affected the gameplay to a much bigger extent, resulted from the mechanism of resolving a mission. Solutions from other games simply failed. Adding a significant element of randomness that would decide the success of a mission was totally out of question; our game was based on choices, so why should a key moment of the gameplay involve rolling a die or drawing a random card? Unfortunately, the other option – summing up the power levels of all soldiers taking part in a mission – did not work well either, as it was too predictable and too easy to count.

We tried to add more depth in various ways, such as differing levels of success in a mission connected to the bad things happening to our soldiers, but the effect was satisfactory only on paper, not when playing. We tested this solution a lot, and these values were always badly scaled. The missions either turned out to be too easy or ended in too many soldiers being killed or arrested while the players could do nothing about it. After a dozen attempts, it turned out that these numbers simply couldn't be set at a level that would bring us an expected effect. If everyone could see them, the players were able to calculate the optimal move in a given situation. We needed a mechanism that would introduce an element of uncertainty but at the same time wouldn't rely solely on luck.

Some time ago, when I was running game design workshops and analyzing different levels of randomness in games, I realized that something must lie in between totally random mechanisms and those devoid of this element. I called it a "quasi-random" solution. The most typical example of such a mechanism is some secret action simultaneously undertaken by all players. This category includes, for example, blind bidding or orders that are revealed only after all players have made their decisions, and it introduces what in my opinion is the biggest advantage of randomness in games – the element of uncertainty and risk-taking – while at the same time still being based 100% on the players' choices. Add to this the psychological aspect of bluffing, and it makes the gameplay even deeper.

This turned out to be the mechanism that we were looking for in The Outcast Heroes, and this is how the order cards finally entered the game. They are based on a simple mechanism: Each type of order modifies a soldier's strength and at the same time it determines the damages we can suffer. The higher the modifier, the worse the fate of the soldier. This perfectly fits the theme of a game about courage and sacrifice, and the "Withdraw!" order is icing on the cake here. This card makes a soldier return to your hand immediately; the player doesn't suffer any consequences, but (as you might expect) the soldier's strength doesn't count against the difficulty level of a mission. This introduces an element of uncertainty and bluff. On one hand, we want to take part in missions as this gives us points, while on the other hand, we need to spare our soldiers as only this guarantees effectiveness in later stages of the game.

Board Game: The Outcast Heroes
Sample order cards

All of the problems presented above are a small part of several months of hard work on this really small game, and I've showed only a sample of what we managed to put into this little box from the point of view of both the theme and the rules. When you give Heroes a chance, you'll get much more: You may free your soldiers from prison, attack trains carrying important documents, or kidnap representatives of the communist government. And this government won't remain idle; during the game your soldiers may get arrested, be brutally interrogated by the communists, or even die.

The atmosphere of the times right after the War and the uneven fight entered into by this group of people can be felt in every single element of the game. This game equals months of our efforts to make sure that each mechanism works exactly as it's supposed to. After all, in a small game even a single mistake can spoil everything. Have we managed to avoid mistakes in the design? You should judge it yourselves. Feel invited to give it a try...

Adam Kwapiński
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