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Designer Diary: Establishing the 51st State

Board Game: 51st State
(Editor's note: This designer's diary reprints edited columns from designer Ignacy Trzewiczek that ran on —WEM)

Lunatic – from August 16, 2010

I rush into the house, toss my briefcase in the corner and run to my desk to get some sheets of paper. "Daddy, Daddy!" Lena's voice comes from the kitchen. The daughter pat-pats through the hallway and grabs hold of my leg. "Merry, take her!" I shout in the kitchen's direction and pass the kid to the mother. "How about a good afternoon?!" I hear. "I'm not here," I answer and rush into the kids' room. "Nina, give me the paint set, quick!" I utter and run into the bathroom to get some water. "Daddy, Daddy!" comes from the kitchen. "I'm not here!" I shout back. I pick up the paints, sheets of paper, a brush, water and get to the table. "Ignac!" Merry gets angry and now I'm going to get it. "I'm not here, don't talk to me," I answer, risking my life, and start to cover the paper with paint.

Have you seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Then you know what's going on – a nutter covering sheets of paper with drawings. Merry with the kid in her arms stands behind ready to hit me. "Give me three minutes and I'll say good afternoon. Now I'm not here, please," I say through my teeth and keep painting in blue, red and grey. One, two, three sheets of paper. They all fill up with notes, drawings, and arrows. "I live with a lunatic," Merry says and goes back to the kitchen. The daughter cries that daddy is back, she wants to go to daddy. Nina brings more sheets of paper. It takes me three minutes to fill up six of them. I spilled everything I had in my head, everything I came up with during a half-hour drive. I didn't waste a single idea. I managed to note down everything. Phew.

I get up, relieved. "Darling, I'm back! How's your day?" I shout in the kitchen's direction. The daughter runs to me with a squeal. There are six sheets of paper dirty with paint lying on the table. It's the groundwork for 51st State, a card game that will debut in Essen in 2010...


Judging a Prototype's Potential – from August 30, 2010

I have thirty cards. Each of them has a red watercolor on the top and a blue one on the bottom. Each has a name written in the middle. One is called Guardhouse, another Petrol Station, and another Bunker. I take all thirty of them and go to the board games club in Gliwice.


Asiok is the first one to arrive in the club.

"Come in, let me show you something," I say and take out the cards.

"A new prototype?" he asks

"A brand new one," I say and give both of us five cards each. "It's set in the Neuroshima universe, a post-war world with the mood from Mad Max. We're the leaders of some organization with the aim of expanding our power. Every turn we scan the horizon in search of interesting locations. There are three ways of making contact with a location. You can assault it to immediately get a lot of resources, or you can start collaborating to get a smaller amount of resources every turn. You can also incorporate it into your micro-country by building a road; in this case, you use that location to its full extent. Okay?"


Asiok looks at his five cards.

"Ignacy, these cards are blank." He shows me his cards marked with paint with names in the middle – like I never saw them before.

"Imagine that there's something there. Show me what you've got. There, you have a Petrol Station. If you assault it, you'll get lots of fuel at once. Or collaborate with them and get one fuel every turn. Or build a road there and you can start selling that fuel to me."

"Okay, I'm assaulting the station and take lots of fuel."

"And I have a Watchtower. I'm making a road connection."

"What does a Watchtower do?" Asiok asks.

"I have no idea to be honest. Let's say it defends you from attacks."

"Can you attack one another?"

"For the time being you can't. Keep playing. What's in your hand?"

"I'm placing Barracks, it'll give me soldiers. I'm making a road connection and it's now part of my country."

"Okay, I'm contacting a Pub, it'll give me one hit man every turn."

Five minutes later we run out of cards. I'm collaborating with a Pub and a Refinery. Asiok has Barracks, and has also assaulted a Petrol Station and an Arena. We have no idea what these cards do, but it's irrelevant at this stage. It's the potential that counts.

"And?" I ask, "Can you imagine how it's going to look in the future? Would you enjoy such game and its features?"

"If you make it well, there'll be lots of choices. Players will have plenty of potential moves."

"Did you have any vivid ideas? Did you feel you were assaulting and signing contracts, and that it has nice atmosphere and makes sense?"

"Yes, there's a potential here. Bring a new version next week."


I showed the game to a few other people that afternoon. I played with Sheva, Mst, Allchemik and Korzen. After playing weird, made-up matches with me, the latter two – to my amazement – took those 30 cards off me and played each other, also making up card functions as they went.


It was clear to see – 51st State had an idea. When someone asks me what this game is about, I won't have to say, "Well, it's a new kind of pick-up-and-delivery with a twist..." I won't have to say, "51st State is the 415th take on territory control mechanics, where the players fight for field advantage..." I won't be embarrassed by saying, "51st State is a game using deck-building mechanisms known from Dominion, but introducing a little twist..." It's not a boring, three hundredth variation on a popular theme. I made a game about which I can say something interesting in two sentences:

51st State is a game in which players look for locations and are able to make contact with each and every one of them in three different ways. You see an "Old Radio Station" and you invade it and steal their equipment, you start collaborating with them and use it in every turn, or you annex it and it becomes exclusively yours, indefinitely.
Two sentences sell the mood of the game. Two sentences tell about mechanisms and a multitude of choices and tactics. Two sentences show that it's a great piece of tangible storytelling fun.

That day I started believing in the potential of 51st State. I saw a vivid idea that works, that people played a card game where the cards had no rules on them – and yet they could imagine what was happening and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, too. It was a nice, playable idea. It was something new – not another Eurogame with cubes, not another Dominion clone. Something different. Assault a location, collaborate with it, or annex it to your territory.

One card – three colorful, strong storytelling outcomes.


Fun with Playtesting – from September 13, 2010

Browian, Grzech and I finally have the chance to meet and discuss 51st State, three weeks after they took the prototype. They live in Wroclaw, I live in Gliwice. With 200 km between us, the only contact normally comes courtesy of Skype – but thanks to Pionek, a convention for gamers, we can finally meet and play together.

"The Merchants are too powerful," starts Browarion. "They win all the time."

"It's possible. You got the deck for testing, didn't you? I never noticed it and perhaps you have found a way to win the game by using the Merchants." We sit down and play. "Take the Merchants," I say.

Browarion takes his Merchants. We play the three-player version. The Merchants come third.

"Let's do it again," says Browarion. Again we sit down and play. The Merchants come last. We play again. The Merchants come last for the third time in a row. I'm tempted to tease him, but Grzech beats me to it.

"I told you, but you wouldn't listen. Don't look at nations – look at players. When we played in Wroclaw, you didn't lose to the Merchants – you lost to me. I told you."


The match has been on for a good fifteen minutes now. Piotr has been moaning like a slaughtered calf for fourteen minutes.

"The Merchants are too weak. They can't do anything. The contracts are of no use to me – three spots and that's it. This needs to be changed."

"Stop moaning and play."

"But they are. Can't you see that?!"

"How many points do you have?"


"How many do I have?"


"So will you, please, stop moaning?"

"I'm being serious. Do you know how I struggle to get these 14 points?"

Another ten minutes pass like the whole of eternity since Piotr manages to fill every one of them with ten minutes of moaning.

"The Merchants are weak, what a joke. I have the contracts' spots blocked, and you're all over me."

"Stop moaning, concentrate on the game. I'm finishing in the next turn."

"I would finish, too, but with these stupid Merchants I stand no chance. Maybe with a fourth contract spot, or a universal resource instead of the stupid fuel? This would bring some commerce mood and I would stand a chance..."

We're done in the next ten minutes.

"How many points do you have?" I ask.

"36. And you?" he asks.

"36," I answer.

"See? I barely managed a draw!" he moans again.

"You have more cards left in hand, which means that you have won on the tie-breaker. Merchants won."

"Do you realize how tough that was? The Merchants are too weak, I'm telling you!"


After another series of tests I discard the "Baby Swift" card from the deck. The players have too few cards in hand to afford discarding two more for a victory point. Baby Swift is an unplayable, dead card. We play without it, and everything works well until the next rule change. Now the players have more cards in hand, so Baby Swift gets another chance. It comes back. We play subsequent matches and indeed, Baby Swift makes more sense now, even though it seems to be one of the weaker leaders. Players tend to put their money on Borgo or Greedy Pete, and Baby Swift is usually a second or third choice. I make notes and analyse everything, constantly monitoring which cards come into play and which ones are regularly ignored during the draft. It seems to me that Baby Swift walks a thin line between being popular and being unused. It's a little too weak to be a hit and slightly too strong to simply be discarded from the deck. It gets used sometimes.

In the meantime, Michał Oracz prepares another version of the prototype for me – new graphics from the illustrators came in. We can finally play with the original Baby Swift artwork that will appear in the final game. The graphics are insane. Another wave of matches and tests commences.

Baby Swift is the most popular leader in the game now. It's on the table every game. It's always the players' first choice.

I haven't changed a single rule. I changed only the graphics.


Testing games is crazy fun. You get tens of contradictory conclusions and pieces of information. Every tester tries to pull in his own direction. Each one has a different view. Each one expects from the game something different. One tester plays well, another one is not that good. One tester claims that a certain faction is powerful, another finds it the weakest. Testers from Wroclaw catch me on Skype in the evenings and ask me not to listen to testers from Opole because 51st State doesn't need negative interaction. Opole rings me and says that the players from Wroclaw are little girls, and Neuroshima is for big boys. Wroclaw writes that Opole is biased since they prefer war games there – and that the Merchants are too weak.

Game reports. Result files. Statistics. Opinions and claims. A continuous flow of information.

I sit and filter through it. I pick recurring remarks. I check and thoroughly analyze opinions which seem to appear on a regular basis.

And everything else...into the bin.


Heart on the Pitch – from September 27, 2010

Initially the prototype doesn't work. It's ugly and boring, and it crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn't crash. You are happy with it, after many weeks it's finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.

Stop – before you do that, you need to answer a question.

Before you send a prototype to a publisher, answer this question: Is my game the best game in the world? If the answer is "No", you can throw your prototype away. I'm being serious. If you yourself don't consider the game to be excellent, outstanding, the best in the world, then what are you counting on? Do you think others will? You don't love it, so what do you expect from others?

Every time I sat down to work on Stronghold, tinkering with rules, drawing boards, castles, in every moment, every afternoon, there was one thought in my mind: "Here comes Stronghold, the best board game in the world." I would create new Invader's actions, or design new Defender's actions and mutter: "Agricola, you are about to lose your crown, Stronghold is coming." Everything I did for the game, I did believing that I was creating the best board game in the world. I would sit awake at night wheeling and dealing how to make it even better, so it could beat Puerto Rico and other top games.

I'm a realist. I know that Stronghold won't ever reach #1 on the BGG charts. I knew it even when I was creating the game – but being realistic has nothing to do with it. When you design a game, you clench your teeth and do everything you can to create the best game on this planet. There is no other way. Your game will revolutionize the market, it'll get you both Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis together and your name will be the synonym of genius. That's all that matters to you.

And it's a bit like in a basketball match. When you face the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan on the pitch, you realistically estimate they'll win 96-72 or 101-78. But down in the changing room you believe in victory. You've trained to the limit, your team is tuned, your coach is good, and so you believe you can win. You have to believe you can defeat everybody. The game starts, you lose two quarters, and before halftime it becomes obvious that you've failed. But it doesn't matter. Training, heart on pitch, hope and strength matter.

Stronghold came out and didn't reach BGG's No. 1, and that was to be expected. But back then, when I was sitting up all night, creating it, preparing it for publication – I believed it was the best board game in the world. I believed that it was excellent, that people would love it, and that it was unlike any other released game – original, interesting, thrilling.

If you've finished working on your prototype and plan to send it to a publisher without being able to describe it as original, interesting and thrilling, without thinking that it's the best game in the world and it's going to BGG's top 10, then you take that game and bin it.

There are thousands of average games in the world. Publishers expect the best of the best and won't settle for less.


The Second Question – from October 11, 2010

Initially the prototype doesn't work. It's ugly, is boring and crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn't crash. You are happy with it, and after many weeks it's finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.

Stop. Before you do that, you need to answer two questions. The first one was covered previously – today it's time for the second one.

When your friends visit you, do they ask if they can play your game? Do your mates say, "Can we play your prototype today?" If they ask for it, everything is just fine – send it to a publisher. If you have to persuade them to play it, throw it away. It's not worth releasing.

A few weeks ago I came back from my holiday in Croatia, which I spent with friends and a big bunch of children. The friends are game fans, so we had a substantial number of board games in the car boot, along with swim fins, swim trunks and goggles. The friends brought Dominion and Small World, and I brought Neuroshima Hex, Galaxy Trucker, Doom, Tichu, Havana and the 51st State prototype.

Over the entire trip we had one game of Small World, one of Havana, five games of Tichu and over twenty games of 51st State. I didn't suggest playing 51st State once – I always waited for others to suggest it. I wanted to see how quickly they would get bored with the game, what its replayability was, how many games it would take for them to get fed up with it and play something else. I didn't suggest playing it once. And the game landed on the table more than twenty times...

During the last evening of the holiday Piotr came to our room. They had their stuff packed, their children in bed. And we also had our stuff packed, our children in bed. We were to go back to Poland at 7 a.m. the next morning, but for now it was 10 p.m. on the last evening of the holiday in Croatia.

"How about a round of 51st State?", Piotr asks.

"With pleasure," I say.

51st State is a winner, and I'm feeling good about it. We already had sensational titles with us – the board game elite – from Dominion and Small World to Havana and Galaxy Trucker. Yet in Croatia they all gathered dust. The game on the table was 51st State, time and again.

My answer to the question "When your friends visit you, do they ask if they can play your prototype?" is "Yes." Yes, I sent Small World back on the shelf. Yes, my 51st State made Dominion stay in a suitcase all holiday. Yes, due to my card game we played Havana only once throughout the entire holiday.

Yes, 51st State is ready to be released. The prototype has been tested – and even pitted against the giants, which it trapped on a shelf. If your prototype is not up to such a trial, don't send it to a publisher. Nobody is going to release a game worse than the ones already present on the market. You have to be better. You have to lock the giants in the cupboards. You have to make the competition retire early.
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