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Designer Diary: Five Tribes, Part 1

bruno cathala
st pierre en faucigny
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Board Game Designer
Microbadge: Five Tribes fanMicrobadge: Mr. Jack fanMicrobadge: Mow fanMicrobadge: Geek RegularMicrobadge: Kanagawa fan
Video Game Publisher: Days of Wonder
In Q4 2014, Five Tribes will start appearing on game store shelves worldwide. I am often asked to talk about the game creation process, so I decided to take this opportunity to try to lay out on paper, as closely as I could in an admittedly long journal entry, the entire thought process that led to the creation of such a game, writing things down in the exact order in which they occurred in my head — and perhaps most importantly, going beyond explanations that I would qualify as purely mechanical and attempting to share my deepest personal motivations and the reasons behind each of my choices vis-à-vis the gaming experience that I sought to create this game.

1. How it all began

In January 2014, with the opening of TricTrac's pages to contributors of all kinds, I wrote a first article on how to engineer fun and encapsulate it in cardboard. That article dealt with a subject that is dear to my heart: the intimate relationship between playful fun and frustration. So I have to admit I found it quite funny and ironic, after taking a step back, to come to realize that it is again a personal frustration that was for me the trigger for designing Five Tribes. Let me explain...

I have now been a game designer for almost twelve years as my first game got published in October 2002, and my work has been revolving around games exclusively since April 2004 (following the sudden disappearance of the "real" job I had until then in a military-industrial complex).

I consider myself very fortunate among game designers: Up to this point, every single year has seen several of my games published. Believe me, I measure every day the opportunity and luck I've had, and I dread the day when my own desires may no longer be in tune with those of game publishers and players worldwide.

So I'm one of the happy few, yet a sense of frustration has been slowly building up inside me in recent years for in spite of these multiple yearly publications of new games, and despite garnering some real critical success among the public, my royalties have never quite followed suit and given me financial serenity or independence. So, in parallel with the development of my own creations, I am required to work as a game developer — sometimes going as far as supervising the actual manufacturing of some titles — on behalf of different publishers for games designed by other authors.

This work is exciting and brings me a reassuring economic stability, but it has a counterpart: It is time consuming. In fact, when I am commissioned to work on a "big" game for a given game publisher, it requires a profound intellectual immersion on my part in this subject. Immersion that prevents me from having the time to develop a project of the same magnitude for myself. As former manager of French TV Channel TF1 Patrick Le Lay would have said, "all my available human brain time" is completely absorbed by the task at hand.

Board Game: The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet
Board Game: Sobek
Board Game: Noah
Board Game: SOS Titanic
Board Game: Okiya
So, in the middle of this process that is as time-consuming as it is exciting, I let the pressure off by designing "small", "fun little" games — lots of them. Note that I do not mean "small" in a pejorative way; I mean "small" in regards to the time it requires to create, develop, and playtest such short little games. And thus were born The Little Prince, Noah, Sobek, Okiya, SOS Titanic, etc... Let me be clear: I love each of these games and do not disavow them in any way.

Worse, sometimes while doing this, I take mental note, in a corner of my head or in one of my notebooks, of an overall architecture or design idea for a beefier game, one that would require more work. And I keep it for later when I'll have time. And then I get mad and frustrated when I see another very successful game based exactly on this idea come to market, nipping my own design in the bud. This is, for example, how I caught a severe case of the blues when Trajan came out more than a year ago, for I had put on paper all the architecture of a game based on exactly the same mechanisms for initiating different actions. The exact same game, basically!

This is how little by little over the years this frustration, born out of my own lack of time for my personal involvement in larger projects, has grown, boosted by the feeling sometimes that I had been outdone yet again on a great game design idea I had had.

This frustration, and the brain turmoil that accompanied it, grew and grew — until it erupted in late 2012.

2. For him, it all started on a dark night...

Overall, my working time is organized as follows: From Saturday to Friday, I work on various projects in which I am involved, usually a dozen in parallel, all at varying levels of progress: Updating and prototyping (files and other components), file validation before printing, rules writing and editing, image sourcing for other projects, various and varied coordination with authors / illustrators / publishers / manufacturers connected to these projects (Skype is my friend) ... then Friday night, off to Annecy for an evening of gaming in "The Lair", an aptly-named brewery in the city center.

There, each Friday night, players of all stripes meet. It begins with a drink (or four or twelve, it depends), telling bullshit (here, the degree of stupidity varies with the number of glasses), eating together (do not ask for the duck salad with no salad but french fries, just say a "Cathala" instead), and after a coffee, it's time for games until one in the morning. It's in this small, cozy cocoon that I've had the opportunity to assemble a team of always enthusiastic playtesters ready to validate my projects from the past week.

Late December 2012, a Friday morning: Lots of work... Too much of it. I badly want, no, need a break!

For the past few days I have been thinking about my old project stifled by Trajan again. I want to use Awélé's system of sowing for...something else. The night that just ended was a sleepless one, so I began to run a game in my head, a game for two (I swear, it's not on purpose):

• Some tiles, laid in a square. Say nine tiles.
• On these tiles, some pawns of three different colors, randomly placed three to a tile.
• On your turn, you empty a tile and drop its pawns on adjacent tiles, one at a time, without backing up on your move. (Still following, at the back of the class?)
• For a movement to be valid, there must be already be at least one pawn of the same color as your last pawn on the final tile you end your move on. Much easier to explain with an illustrated example than it reads!
• On that final tile, you grab all the pawns matching the color of the last pawn you dropped (so a minimum of two).
• The game ends when no more moves are possible. Each captured pawn is worth as many victory points as the number of pawns of that color still on some tiles.

That's... That's all. I "mentally" played a few virtual games in my head throughout the night, and since they felt fun, the next morning when I got to my office, before moving onto heavier stuff, I really wanted badly to revisit my nocturnal thoughts to validate these ideas.

For the nine tiles, no need to look too far. A few beer coasters from my own personal collection should do, flipped face down so as to offer a neutral background color.

For pawns? Piece of cake ... I have a stock of cute and colorful wooden dino-meeples. They come from an incomplete box set of the first version of Evo — a great game ... Philippe, if you read me ... you know how big a fan I am of this one — purchased for €1 in a garage sale just to scavenge cardboard and wooden pawns for prototypes.

Once set up, all this stuff looks cute and makes me want to play. The tiny dinos give a semblance of theme that is useless at this point, but that just enhances the thing. I play against myself. No, I'm not schizophrenic!

And neither am I ;-)

This game feels right: It's simple, seems rather clever, and even though playing alone necessarily lacks pizzazz, I feel there is enough to do something with. Already from the get go, the system works well, so I want to add a little variety to the game. I decide to give a specific effect to each tile in the game: The player who empties a tile at the end of his traveling MUST apply the effect of that tile. Fun + replayability.

At this stage, here's what it looks like on my computer. (Yes, I use PowerPoint rather than Photoshop, showing my age and laziness, no doubt):

From gallery of Bruno des Montagnes

So on that Friday night, it's with this minimalist prototype in my pocket that I head out to "The Lair", and there, over drinks, five or six plays follow in rapid succession.

My morning hunches are confirmed: The game is quick (5-10 minutes), intense, and with an evil twist that is far from displeasing me.

In short, there is probably still some development to do, for even more variety in the tiles' effects and to ensure, for example, that there is not a game-breaking advantage for any of the two players, but these are details for the most part, easily solvable. By the end of the evening, I'm confident that I have a game that is already done, by and large, and showable to a game publisher.

Except that...I stay awake all night because once again it's a game for two, which I like a lot already, but that does not fill my need to work for myself on a project of larger scope! And I've got a nagging feeling this little game engine that could might be the foundation for a much beefier, more ambitious project.

In short, the ideal jumping board for a different, bigger and bolder adventure...

(Editor's note: Bruno Cathala plans to continue this diary in installments on the Five Tribes game page on BGG. Five Tribes will be published by Days of Wonder in Q4 2014. —WEM)
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