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Designer Diary: GodZ, or Making the Makers

Diego Cerreti
Italy
Rome
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Board Game: GodZ
"A god game, with tiles."

It sounded at the same time as a lot and a lack of information, but that was, in a few words, the publisher's request.

Red Glove was planning to release a new game set in the universe of Super Fantasy and asked their lead designer Marco Valtriani to start a project about it. I really love the genre, and he knows it, so I was glad when he asked me to design the game with him. To be precise, I think I answered "yes" even before listening to the end of the question.

A god game! Wow. Marco and I were really excited. We got a lot of freedom from the publisher about the system of the game and only a few boundaries: price category, target, product line, and some restrictions about components. "A god game, with tiles", as I said before.

So we had a lot of power to do a lot of things, but as you know, with great power comes great responsibility — and ours were really great: Design the first new game for Red Glove's Strategy Line, a game with a high recall to some wonderful video games all of us played and loved in our young age such as Populous and Black & White; what's more, design my first game as a "real" game designer.

I was a little scared. Marco and I had worked on different titles for some time, but this would be my first game to be published and on the shelves. I was not totally new to game design, and Marco is quite a good life net, but hey, it still was going to be my first game released.

Despite the good synergy between us, our first weeks of work were leading us to a point that did not satisfy our idea of a "god game"; we had focused on the "tile placement" part, the building of the world by the hand of gods, with a lot of effects coming from the land tiles you placed. Sure, we had the potential for a tactical game, but it was so cold and so "not divine" that we decided to make a breakthrough: we called Red Glove CEO Federico Dumas and said, "We need more than tiles to make the players feel like gods. We have some ideas..."

Asking for more components was a bit risky, but we had made some calculations and were pretty sure we were still in the right price category.

"Okay", said Federico.

Bingo.

Our work began once again, but this time with something more than just "a lot of power" — we had more components and the blessing to realize a game that would be more complex and deep.

The first thought was how to make the players feel that they were acting like gods. In many games, the player is a god over the board, moving men with his hand, building things, and making wars. We needed something more, something more similar to the games I mentioned before, a world to build in which the little men spread on the land are expendable pawns of a greater plan, the player's plan, the Great Plan of Glory and Divinity. So we had to make it possible to think about great plans without limiting the players too much; after all, they are gods and need the power to influence the world in an important way, but they are competing with each other, so they cannot do everything, or the competition would be an Olympic brawl.

We needed a way to regulate the actions without frustrating the idea of being a god, and this way came from a system Marco exploited in a prototype, one of the prototypes he made "just to test how this thing works". Initially the system was a pyramid of actions in which each turn the player had fewer choices, but more powerful actions to perform.

From gallery of Dy979
The first action system: A pawn starts at top and descends as you perform actions; the more actions you take,
the fewer points you score when you're finished


We liked the idea of the pyramid, but performing a set of given actions didn't fit the capacity of a god, so we choose a line: the farther you go on the line, the more powerful the special actions you can perform. It was clearly better, but we needed a drawback, which was already on the table before us: the farther you go on the road, the fewer points you can score.

It's all your choice, it’s all about your plan as a god, the Great Plan of Glory and Divinity. And the plan is all about becoming the first (and maybe the only) god of those insignificant praying creatures and their little napkin of land. It's not so much but it's more than the other gods own, and that's enough. We didn't think, even for a minute, of creating a collaborative game as talking with other gods about saving humanity from itself is definitely not the fun part of a god's life.

We decided immediately to avoid any kind of randomness while performing actions. Come on — you're a god! It would be like you needing to roll a die to take that glass of Coke on the table in front of you. (Sometimes things go wrong on even the most straightforward of actions — that's why gamers have the "no food-no drink on the gaming table" rule — but thankfully a Great Plan of Glory and Divinity cannot be ruined by a believer who instead of "You're all my children and I love you all" understands something like "Burn all those damned witches".)

So far you are a god that can perform actions with a 100% rate of success, but which kind of actions? And how many?

Obviously the first thing we thought of was how to do the basics: Lead the lives of humans, our believers. So we made the first line of actions: Bring to life new followers, move them around, have them unleash holy wars, ransack settlements, and raise villages named after our great name in order to work for our Great Plan of Glory and Divinity. How to determine how many actions are available for a player? At which cost can you move your believers? We decided to include resources, with each linked to one of the five kinds of territory on the map, and each linked to a specific action. It's easy to remember, and it helps to create the "what you see is what you get" approach that we wanted to put in the game.

From gallery of Dy979

In the image above, you can see the four tracks that are the main element of the game system. We tuned them a lot through playtesting, but the mechanism has remained much the same. The topmost track is the one used to score points, and it becomes less and less powerful as you go forward; the other three tracks allow you to perform actions — with the Avatar, with believers, and by building villages — and they become more and more powerful as you proceed to the right. During the game, you have to choose: Go to the right one step and perform an action that's stronger than the previous one, or go back to the first space and score points? Stronger actions, fewer points, and vice-versa.

So we have resources for building villages, which may be a part of a different strategy, and that line of actions goes below the followers' line of actions because after the faith coming from the desert, here comes the building materials from the mountain.

Okay, we have men and villages. That's not enough to be a god, don't you think? A powerful avatar — that's what a real god needs to make the Great Plan of Glory and Divinity work. So the third line of actions is an entire line of actions for the avatar, the right hand of god on the planet Scuffland, a hand made to harvest resources and (every so often) splat people hindering your plan. To feed the avatar, you need huge amounts of meat, which come from the wood tiles.

In the end we had the seas to improve the movement of our followers and our avatar and the swamps to take contact with the dead people's souls so that the god can collect Glory Points — something very useful if you want to become the most prayed-to god of the planet, something humans also know as victory points.

From gallery of Dy979
GodZ in action (pic from Gioconomicon.net)

Then we added a Miracle Phase to perform all the things an ancient god is supposed to do: make new lands arise from the Great Void, create life from nothing, move his believers with his mighty hand, burn their cities, and ruin their life (because of the Great Plan of Glory and, well, you know).

During development, we also decided some features of the game: the resources do not stack, so players "reset" them at the end of the turn; during each turn, which represents a large amount of time, like a lustrum, you will use what your believers stored in the previous turn. This allows a player to start thinking and making choices gradually: He begins planning for the next turn, then he becomes more and more skilled and is able to foresee what will happen in order to plan accordingly.

Also, resources are set at the end of each player's turn and are not immediately influenced by an opponent's action. There's a lot of interaction, but the killing of believers by other players will not reduce the resources of a player in the next turn; a good plan cannot be completely destroyed by an attack.

We designed the game as a wide open space of possibilities. There are a lot of small, tactical actions, without great restrictions, that must be combined into a greater strategy, as it was in the video games we were being inspired by.

As there's no uncertainty in the actions, we needed some, somewhere. To avoid long calculations and speculations about the endgame, we put a bit of luck in some parts of the scoring system: You'll receive some fixed points for controlling regions and praying with your believers and some semi-random points from making war and from believers killed by avatars. War tiles can give you 2-4 points when you kill some opponent's believer or village, and the tiles from avatars grant 1-2 points. (You receive them when an opponent smashes your followers with an avatar.) Usually, the non-random points account for two-thirds of the total, giving a lot of control to players without spoiling the thrilling endgame that a battle between gods deserves.

All of the game takes place over hexagonal tiles. Initially we tried to use square tiles to give a more friendly feeling to the players — I admit that I like things to be easy to do, more than worrying over the choice of what to do — but there is a reason that hexagons are the conventional choice for tactical games on a map, and since we had broken enough conventional rules for just one board game, we came back to the dear old hexagonal tiles and all they will mean for the life (and death) on Scuffland.

To create a richer situation, once GodZ was running on its own legs, we "dressed" it with some jewels like special tiles, special miracles for each different god, and special powers for every different avatar.

From gallery of Dy979
Avatars (image from Andrea Ligabue's GodZ review)

All of those things came with the setting of the game world, which is the same as the successful Red Glove series of hack 'n' slash games, the Super Fantasy series. We like inserting homages to other games (and movies and books, especially Marco), so we added some easter eggs into the setting, starting with the names of the avatars. The names of the gods on the other were born just for fun and remained the same as a sort of wager against the epicness of what the gods are doing in the game, something not totally new in the Super Fantasy world, as Ugly Snouts were the first set of enemies Marco made for his very first prototype.

And that's all, folks. A new world is growing, and it's waiting for you to be shaped the way you like. Are you ready to become one of the mighty GodZ?

Diego Cerreti
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