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Designer Diary: The Way of the Quarrior

Mike Elliott
United States
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Quarriors was one of the more unusual episodes of game design in that making the game was the relatively easy part. Actually getting someone to pick the game up proved much more challenging. To really tell the story, I have to go back to how Eric Lang and I ended up joining together on a design project.

It started as a very unusual collaboration. Eric and I have been good friends since I met him shortly after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2005 and he gave me a few tips on freelancing. We have met up a number of times at gaming conventions and he has stayed over at my house a few times during his trips to Seattle. There was also that magical night, but I can't tell that story since my wife might read this diary. I have yet to visit him in Canada because, well, it's Canada and I have watched enough Ice Road Truckers to know I don't want to go there. I believe Eric lives near where most of the trucks crash, but I am not completely sure.

Over the years Eric and I have talked about possibly collaborating on a project, but both of us are fairly opinionated on game design and often that can be a catastrophe if you are not both on the same page. When I did the Thunderstone project for AEG in 2009, Eric had been working on a few ideas for deck-building style games as well and we started talking about various things that could be done with the deck-building mechanism. We hit on dice as a possible extension to the deck-building genre, and we were both fairly excited by the possibilities on what could be done; it seemed like this would be a great project to try out working together on. Eric scheduled a trip out to Seattle to work on it.

International Relations

I did a lot of preparation for the project. I took several courses on the Canadian language and by the time Eric arrived I was saying "Eh?" at the end of almost every sentence. I brushed up on Eric's design style by playing a few games of Senator and Frenzy to make sure I would be able to interact with his style. As a game designer, I have lots of various components around like small blocks, poker chips, and dice. I did not, however, have nearly enough different dice for this type of project, so I had to run over to the local game store, Blue Highway Games, and clean them out of different colors of six-sided dice, cubes and marble bags. Having cubes of each dice allowed us to make multiple prototype copies, which let us both work on playtesting and development after Eric went back to Canada. For the dice tray, I used bead trays that I got from Michael's craft store, which made great cases for the game. If you decide you do not like the tin the game comes in, I would recommend this as a play storage solution.

We spent the first day brainstorming various concepts. We wanted a more interactive game than Dominion or Thunderstone, and we wanted the diversity and high replay value of random setups. We toyed around with a couple of accumulation game patterns, but these were not particularly interactive. The basis was always going to be buying dice instead of cards, but it took a few iterations before we went back to the original bag cycling system. This emulates the concept of a deck fairly well since you are basically cycling dice with some dice staying in play for a little longer period of time. (For details on how to play, download the English rulebook (PDF) from WizKids.)

We had to limit the amount of information we could put on the dice, so the idea of having marker cards in the center fit fairly well. In the prototype, the center cards explained everything including the attack and defense values, so it was a little abstract to play since you were constantly referencing the center cards for every creature. The resource system was tied into the creature dice, so even if you bought a lot of creatures, there was still a chance you would not get a particular one out when you rolled it and might get more resources instead.

I realize that some players despise randomness, but those players probably don't play a lot of dice games anyway, so we figured we would go for an appropriate range of results for the players that actually like dice games and might buy this type of game. It is a common mistake to try to cater to every audience. If you are a hardcore player of Through the Ages (great game), Agricola (great game) or even some of the deck-building games (greatness varies widely), this might not be your type of game. Almost every die has a "1" result, which is typically one resource, and a "6" result, which is typically the strongest version of the creature or something simple like a two resource result on the basic dice. Most of the middle results are a range between these two ends. There are a number of effects that let you modify or reroll, but there is some element of randomness; similar to Texas Hold'em or Magic, the better player may get unlucky and lose a particular game, but in general, the players who can adapt to other players' strategies and make optimal purchases and activations will win more often.

We had a fairly good prototype ready about a month after Gen Con, and we did some loose pitches to a couple of companies but at that time of the year a lot of companies are focused on conventions. None of the early contacts were interested. Either the game did not fit what they were looking for or their calendar was filled and they were not looking for any new projects.

Enter the Geek

I went to BGG.CON in 2009 with the express purpose of trying to get more contacts within the game publishing community. I had met up with Derk Solko (of BGG fame) at PAX earlier in the year and chatted with him for the first time. Since then I seem to run into him everywhere. I explained to Derk that while I had worked for ten years on Magic and had done over two dozen games, including two of the current top three trading card games in Japan, that I was not particularly known in the U.S. or Europe. I explained that I was hoping to branch out into board games since I find them much more interesting to design that trading card games, mostly because I have done fourteen trading card games and was feeling I was being typecast. Thunderstone helped a little, but Thunderstone was still basically a trading card game engine at its heart and at the time it was still a new game with not a lot of attention. He gave me the pitch for BGG.CON and explained that it was a smaller con that was starting to gain momentum and was being attended by a number of larger publishers.

There were a number of the larger companies at BGG.CON that year like Mayfair and Z-Man. Unfortunately, many of the larger companies have very full calendars, get hundreds of submissions a year, and are often looking for very specific types of games to produce. As I mentioned before, my games in Japan have done very well, but back in 2009 Thunderstone was just coming out and I had very little recognition in the United States. Not many people know who the designers were on the various Magic sets I had worked on, and trading card experience did not carry a lot of weight with most companies. They would talk to me, but it was very low key and some were willing only to listen to a quick pitch and not a demo. Eric Lang, on the other hand, had much higher name recognition from his successes with the A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulu boxed card games, and his Chaos in the Old World game was just starting to hit big. In Europe, very few people even know me from Magic and Thunderstone was not localized yet, so in 2009 I had almost zero name recognition in Europe.

Sample cards in the prototype

Derk was nice enough to introduce me to the head of one of the European game companies that was attending the event. I talked with him for a while and gave him the quick pitch on Quarriors. He seemed interested and grabbed another member of his company to get a demo. We walked over to the side area where they were setting up to take some pictures. Scott Alden, who many of you on the site know as the co-founder Aldie, was sitting at the back of a very large circular table off to the side waiting. We sat down at the other end of the table and I started going over the rules and setting up the game. Scott was not paying that much attention initially but perked up when we started playing and rolling dice. Scott gradually slid seats around the table until by the third turn of the game he was sitting directly next to one of the company players and was reading all of the creature and spell abilities and asking questions on the dice abilities. This was not lost on the company head, who asked Scott if this was a game he would buy if it was published. It turns out that Scott is a fan of dice games and he instantly said, "Yes, I would buy this." That convinced the European company to take the game back and work on some of the obvious obstacles like pricing and sourcing that are a major issue with dice games.

We looked briefly at a higher end model with printed dice. Eric had made a dice sticker template and I paid my older son to sticker a set using blank white 16mm dice cubes. (Don't let anyone tell you that having kids around is not great.) Since these were just printed on a normal printer, there was a big problem with smearing, which led me and others to believe that there would probably be an issue with the dice wearing off if we went that route, and the cost issues on these turned out to be pretty ridiculous. Suffice to say, although the graphic version was beautiful, it was fairly clear we were looking at symbols on etched dice with one color ink.

After walking away fairly happy from BGG.CON, the project stalled a little. Sourcing custom dice was a problem and the cost of goods required that we reconfigure the product to reduce the number of dice as much as possible. The amount of dice required dropped dramatically once we went to the multiple cards per die model. By using the same set of stats for multiple dice and varying the abilities, cost, and score value on the marker cards, we were able to get several creatures out of each die, while still leaving room for easy expansion possibilities for additional variant creatures and spells. The symbol system was a fairly nice innovation for this system as it allowed us to make creatures with varying powers – or even vanilla creatures that did not use the symbols and were cheaper to play than the more complicated variants. Utilizing this allowed us to drop the number of dice while increasing the number of effects we were able to put in the base set. But the sourcing issues still proved to be a challenge, and I ended up taking the game back around July 2010. I brought the game along to Gen Con in August.

I had been working with WizKids on a licensed game for Star Trek called Star Trek: Fleet Captains. In 2010 the publisher had early samples of the miniatures at Gen Con, and I swung by the booth several times to look at those and talk with the WizKids staff. I talked with Justin Ziran of WizKids/NECA, who I had worked with previously at Wizards of the Coast and briefly at WizKids when it was based in Seattle. I explained that I had brought along a game that might have some interest to WizKids. Justin was not originally that excited when I mentioned it was a dice game involving custom dice, but we sat down and played a game and his reaction changed immediately to excitement. He discussed it with the rest of the WizKids staff and they requested that we play a game that night with some of the representatives from a distributor. We sat down at the hotel bar and played a game and by the end of the game we had an agreement with WizKids to take the game, with the standard caveat that they had to be able to make the cost of goods work. I was much more optimistic with WizKids since between WizKids and NECA, they produced a lot of plastic. WizKids was in fact able to solve most of the cost of goods issues and the project got a green light.

Game Play

Dice require resources to power them up as a gravity function to slow down the players who roll a lot of creature faces early. By forcing them to commit resources to bring the creatures out, it allows the other players who might have rolled more resources early to be in a position to hit their stride later in the game, and it has not been uncommon at all to see dramatic leader changes in games.

The size of the dice ended up at 14mm, which is slightly smaller than the size of regular dice, which are often 16mm. When I worked at WizKids, I did a game called Halo ActionClix where we put the values of the Clix dial on the marker card so that players could reference them without having to pick up the figures. On Quarriors, the dice faces are also available on the cards for reference. Although it is not a complete solution for players who might have difficulty seeing small print (since the cards are in the center of the table), it does allow a player to pick up the card and look at what you get on the die if there are readability issues or if they don't want to lean across the table to try to read another player's dice.

Image from Origins 2011

The decision to make the game 2-4 players instead of 2-5 or 2-6 was also mostly a costing issue. If you play a game with more players, you need more starting dice and more available dice in each group. When you are trying to keep the price point down, choices like having five dice in a group versus six or seven dice have a big impact on the final cost of goods of the product, and we were pretty much forced to cut it down to four players – and even with that we could not give any extra basic resource (Quiddity) dice and only a couple of extra Apprentice dice, although in only a few setups will you buy Apprentice dice or basic resource dice anyway.

Eric and I did not have much input on the flavor, but I put my foot down on the naming. I insisted it have some sort of silly name like Agricola so that there would be no question if the game succeeded that it was on the basis of the game and not the name. If the game did poorly, well, hey, it had a goofy name. I suggested maybe modifying the title of some 1979 cult film like maybe Qualien or something like that, but they did not want to go that direction.

Dice Mean Options, Right?

We tried a number of different methods of game play before settling on the final version. For those variant aficionados, here are a few of the different options we worked with:

No Pile Depletion: The rule that the game ends when four piles run out is mostly there as a control against the occasional game which usually occurs when players draft similar dice patterns and the board is fairly offensively oriented. Usually there are spells that can break this pattern up, but players often tend to undervalue the spells early on as a means of forcing through creature scoring when an aggressive pattern occurs. This typically occurs only in games with four or more players, but when it does, it can occasionally extend the game time from 20 to 30 minutes to almost an hour. This is not particularly long for a four-player game, but since it often involves low scoring and repetitive turns if players cannot find a way to break out, we decided to add the four creature pile depletion rule. Four piles tended to be the best option number to keep the play length at around the standard 30-minute target, but feel free to play five piles or remove the rule if you feel your games are being constrained by the pile depletion game end rule. I occasionally use the rule for a tactical play if I am winning and the scoring is slowing down. If the game is close to the four pile depletion rule, I will often try to buy out the piles to win.

Perpetual Bag: In this version, you put all of your dice back into the bag every time instead of creating a used pile. It is much more random since you can buy a good die and never draw it if you get unlucky, or alternately, you can draw the same set of dice every time. Having the discard pile allows for a lot more interactions and more consistency, but this is an interesting variant. This variant is not particularly well supported in the final version as many things interact with the used piles, but it was one of the versions we tested for a while.

Multiple Buy: In this version, you could buy multiple dice instead of being restricted to one die. It created some interesting decisions, and it makes the spell dice much more exciting in two- and three-player games. It created a little too much decision paralysis and it required more dice to be available for purchase, which fought against the cost of goods issue. If you play this variant, you might need to increase the number of dice in each pile if you play with four players. Allowing two dice to be bought per turn is a simple interesting variant. You can expect we will do more things that let you buy additional dice as effects on creatures and spells. This was cut strictly from a rule simplicity standpoint and to keep decision paralysis down a bit.

Five/six Players: There is a lot more downtime with more than four players and you can get situations where the game can stall. For five or six players, you will need to combine two copies of the game and you would need to implement either a zone of attack method, such as the player following you does not attack your creatures, or play teams with teammates (sitting across) not attacking each other and able to share spells and glory totals. The main drawback is the longer games, requirement for more dice, and in some cases you might have longer periods between scoring. Often with new players they will tend to buy only creatures and not spells, and in larger games the spells can be very powerful in helping to score.

Solo Play: We never discussed this much during the design or playtesting. I have recently been playing around with solo play options, but have not hit one that I am comfortable pitching as a possible official variant yet. Since the game play for Quarriors is so fast, the solo option is not as critical as it would be if it was an hour-long game where you might have difficulty getting time commitments from players.

Longer Games: You can, of course, vary the number of Glory Points required to win the game to make for a longer game. As with the 5-6 player option, you might need to combine sets if you are playing a long game with 3-4 players or you will potentially run out of dice in many stacks, or you can play the game ends when five or six creature stacks have been depleted, or just remove the depletion rule completely.

Pick 6: In this variant, you draw more than six dice, then typically throw the extras into your discard, although you could throw them into the bag in a similar variant. I usually played this version by drawing eight dice and throwing two away to discard. It evens out your draws a little and lets you get combos a little more often, but it can sometimes take players a while to figure out what to keep, so it does add some decision paralysis in exchange for cutting down the randomness a little.

The Mulligan: In this version you are allowed one free reroll of one die. It was an interesting option, but it made the reroll effects on the regular dice like Apprentice less special and it added to the length of turns. This is another option that cuts down a bit on randomness at the expense of producing the occasional decision paralysis. In case you were wondering, I hate decision paralysis with a passion since several of the players I play with analyze every possible option. I prefer to limit games to a reasonable number of choices in a turn and Quarriors already had the activation versus purchase analysis among other strategic choices.

• Other: I suspect more variants will come as this type of game is very much a toolkit game. Richard Launius (of Arkham Horror fame) made a very nice variant for Thunderstone that I have played a number of times and enjoy. I am sure that readers will come up with some exciting options, and of course Eric and I will add a few wrinkles to the game through expansions as well.

For the record, I don’t really have anything against Canada (and have been there many times) and there was no magical night with Eric. I was just trying to spice up what would otherwise be a relatively boring back story for most readers. Game design is not one of the most exciting fields to describe to others and ranks only a few steps above describing the adventures of your D&D characters. However, on the plus side, as a game designer you do get to play a lot of games, and occasionally you hit on some that other people like to play as well.

Mike Elliott

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