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Designer Diary: The Muse of Musée and How to Pronounce It!

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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Board Game: Musée
Musée is a 30-minute card-laying game for 2-4 players from Eagle-Gryphon Games. Collect and curate fine art! Score by filling up and carefully theming your art museum!

First things first — how to pronounce the word "musée". The word is simply French for "museum" or "art gallery", but ask three French-speakers how to say it and you might get three different answers. As best I can tell, the word slinks slyly along a shadowy Gallic frontier, hiding in places English speakers fear to tread, shapeshifting sneakily between "me-ZAY", "moo-ZAY", "muh-ZAY" and "MEW-zay" – spoken example here and here. The official rules state that the player who utters the word "Musée" with the artsiest tone of voice gets to go first, so start practicing! (In belated but related news, my game Fantastiqa is pronounced "Fantastica", not "Fantastiqua".)

Musée has been in the works for well over three years, under various guises, themes, and names. It didn't begin as a museum game. Unlike most of my games, the muse of Musée appeared as "mechanisms first, theme later". For a long time I've admired card games with simple rules but complex and satisfying outcomes, classics like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities and Battle Line and Mike Fitzgerald's Mystery Rummy. I wanted a similarly engaging game, with equally novel mechanisms and a theme that created something beautiful as each of the sixty cards was played. I also wanted the game to play especially well with two players since I play most board and card games with just my wife.

The basic mechanism appeared through various encounters with a particular puzzle I found myself facing, either in shelving books at the library I worked at years ago, or in creating file names for photos I wanted to have appear in a certain order in a folder. If you have a large number of items that you need to put in order (say, books on a shelf) but you have access to only a random selection of a few at a time, where do you place each one you have?

I found that a satisfyingly tricky mechanism emerged if — unlike a book on a bookshelf — a card's position would remain fixed after it was placed, meaning that every card you played functioned as a "bet" on which cards could go in front of it or after it since space is limited and all must go in order no matter what. Requiring this commitment from the player proved nicely nail-bitey. I then added "counter-mechanisms" with benefits such as bonuses for placing cards with matching suits adjacent to one another, and for finishing a complete row before any other player does. I was surprised by just how engaging and tense this simple mechanism proved to be: Should I play this high card far to the right, or risk placing it elsewhere to score a tempting matching-suit bonus? Should I rush ahead and complete a full row before my opponent does and claim a big bonus, even if it means placing non-matching cards next to one another? And so on. I discovered that these rules produce a pleasurably painful tug-of-war with your emotions – each decision matters.

Originally I tried theming these mechanisms as a city-building game in which each card was a different color of building and players competed to build the most compelling and colorful cityscapes. Bonuses, earned by placing matching buildings adjacent to one another or by completing a full street, were represented by bustling pedestrians, parks, and other urban improvements. It worked okay, but I thought both the theme and the mechanisms could be richer.

It was after touring the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the "V&A") in 2013 that my wife and I realized that these game mechanisms would work perfectly with a theme of displaying art in a museum.

External image

We first considered having different categories of museum objects like we saw at the V&A: teacups, dishes, furniture, etc. Later we decided to take advantage of the possibilities of library art and make all of the game's objects into paintings with various subcategories: landscapes, figures/persons, architecture, animals, and water. Some of the artists in Musée (e.g., J.M.W. Turner and William Blake) were on special exhibition on our museum tours in London, so I'm especially happy to see them appear in the game every time I play. Here are some examples of the LANDSCAPE cards in the game:

Board Game: Musée

As you might well guess, I'm an especially big fan of #41 since it's the painting used on the box cover of Fantastiqa, and for the Highlands region and the "Wanderer" Adventurer.

Here is how the final game works: In Musée, you compete to fill your three-story art museum with the most valuable arrangement of famous paintings. Players receive bonuses for displaying paintings of matching theme (suit) next to each other in the same gallery, or by using connecting staircases (tokens), whose pattern changes each game. In a two-player game fifty cards are used: ten cards of each suit, with each number between 1 and 50 showing a unique painting. (Numbers go from 1-60 in three-player games. Four-player games use 1-50 and play as 2-vs-2 partnerships.)

You start with a hand of five cards (paintings). On your turn, you remove one painting from your hand and display it face-up in one of the three galleries (which have six spaces each) in your musée, then redraw. It's that simple. (And here's a helpful one-page rules summary in graphic form for those who prefer visual aids.)

Board Game: Musée

The beauty is, of course, in the details. Namely, you may place this card anywhere, so long as the exhibit numbers of all paintings in the same gallery increase in numerical order from left to right. (Exhibit numbers increase in number chronologically for the most part, from the year 1400 through the early 20th century.) Just as important, you can also score valuable point bonuses based on how you position paintings in relation to one another:

• Adjacent paintings of the same theme in the same gallery score two bonus points.
• Matching paintings connected by a staircase score three points.
• The first player to fill a gallery with paintings scores four points.
• If you cannot display a painting, you cannot play any more cards for the rest of the game. The other players may keep playing until they can no longer display any paintings!

When no players can play any more cards, the game ends and you perform a final scoring. The first player to win two games is the final victor. That's it!

Although I think that fans of, say, Lost Cities and Battle Line would find Musée both familiar and appealing, Musée works quite a bit differently, in large part because of its spatial dynamics. To me, it feels a lot like my earlier games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury because the cards have identical inherent value.

Let me try to explain what I mean. In many games a "7" card is always worth more than a card with a number lower than that. In Fantastiqa it didn't work that way. Instead (say) the Spatula (Sword card) and the Cat (Tooth card) each have greater or lesser value depending entirely on what else is happening in the game. If you need to subdue a dragon, then the sword is very valuable; if you need to nibble through spiderwebs, teeth are great for that. But if you need to subdue a witch, these cards are no help at all! (You’d need a bucket of water instead...) The card values are thus all situational, but that doesn't make their use random because you can work to collect the cards that you need to fulfill specific quests you’ve acquired.

Likewise in The Road to Canterbury, all seven deadly sins begin as equally valuable to a pardoner who wants to pardon them for ready cash. But as the game progresses, Envy might become especially precious because a certain pilgrim enjoys committing sins of Envy so much. Players can capitalize on Envy's value by tempting this pilgrim to sin ever further, taking the risk that the pilgrim might die or that other players will beat them to the pardon. A pleasurable tension ensues as you work to make certain cards valuable through the playing of other cards.

Board Game: Musée
Examples of the FIGURES/PERSONS suit

Musée follows this same model. The five different suits of art all begin equal but become more (or less) valuable depending entirely on where you play them in relation to one another. I tried to sidestep one of the big problems of suit-matching games by not flat-out requiring a match or meld to play a card; a player may play a card anywhere in their Musée so long as all cards in that gallery increase numerically from left to right. But once (say) a green (animal) card is in play, it becomes important to find ways to place other green cards next to it. And doing so entails risks: Each suit's numbers increase in fives — green is 5, 10, 15... while gray is 1, 6, 11... — so acquiring good bonuses means taking the risk of not being able to place other cards in the proper sequence.

Board Game: Musée
Examples of the WATER suit

For a long time I've wanted to design a game whose rules could fit literally on a single page, and finally I have one. What some people call "elegance" in a game I call "simplexity", which is the greatest amount of interesting complexity emerging from the simplest rules possible. Musée couldn't be simpler — each turn you play one card and draw one card — but there's a great deal of pleasurable anxiety involved in the commitments you make with every single card you play. Decisions are hard because there's more than one way to score; each card you play functions like a "bet" on what the future holds for you based on the risks you take. Because you can see your opponent's musée and only one unique card exists for each number, the ratio of known to unknown information is well-balanced, resulting in neither chaos nor analysis paralysis.

I should take a moment to mention just how happy I am with the finalized artwork in this game. Like my earlier co-design Cubist and my games Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury, Musée uses library art, which Eagle-Gryphon Games licensed through Bridgeman Art Library. Designer Sean MacDonald and Eagle-Gryphon Games together did much to spur this movement towards fine art in games via Pastiche (thanks, Sean!), and I'm delighted they did. When you have full access to a vast art library, you can pick from the very best: DaVinci, Raphael, Caspar David Friedrich, Monet, Van Gogh, Franz Marc, and Klimt for starters!

More important to me as a designer are the benefits that library art brings to my actual game designing. One thing I especially like about working with Bridgeman Art Library is that often the artwork inspires mechanisms. For example, in Fantastiqa I wanted to transform deck-building mechanisms into something more embodied and spatial, with players not just purchasing cards from a supply but subduing strange creatures and fulfilling quests that required they actually go places. In so doing, I tried to follow the lead of fantasy writer Lord Dunsany from a century ago. For his classic collection The Book of Wonder he worked with artist Sidney Sime. Instead of asking Sime merely to illustrate his tales, he flipped the arrangement around and agreed to write stories based on a series of artworks that Sime would create himself. The result was a series of especially enchanting tales with such evocative titles as "The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator", "The Loot of Bombasharna", and "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him". By letting Sime's material images stir his imagination, Dunsany was kept from falling into a rut where stagnant mental patterns repeat themselves and each new creation looks just like the previous one.

On these lines, while working on Fantastiqa I stumbled upon a painting in the Bridgeman Library called "The Gentle Dragon", which showed a friendly green dragon wearing an apron and serving tea. The moment I saw it, I thought: Hey, that might be funny, a creature in your deck who doesn't curse you or mean you harm, but who is simply (in game terms) useless because he's too busy making tea to subdue other creatures or go on daring quests!

Existing artwork helped inspire mechanisms in Musée as well. It's an equally spatial game — I didn't want it to be "yet another" rummy or soulless set-collection game. In early incarnations of the game, the three rows of cards were separated by city streets. Each row was a "world unto itself". But once the theme was changed to fine art and I saw how different works of art looked together, I realized that each row could be treated as a separate floor of a museum, and that cards could connect with each other not just within the same gallery, but also between galleries via staircases. So I got rid of the boards I'd been using and substituted tokens that show staircases (connections) on one side and chandeliers (no connection) on the other. Their patterns change every game, adding a lot of variety. This simple change added enormous depth and challenge to gameplay and helped make what was already a fun game into (in my opinion) something genuinely special.

Board Game: Musée
I'm especially fond of the ANIMAL suit

I'm fortunate to have such a great developer and publisher. Rick Soued and the others at Eagle-Gryphon Games are fantastic to work with, and I feel like they genuinely honor a designer's creative vision. Even if we don't always agree on every point at first, the final product is something we all feel good about. Musée is my fourth title with Eagle-Gryphon Games, counting the recently released game Cubist, my co-design with Steve Poelzing. The production on Musée turned out beautifully. Everything from the box to the cards themselves is top-notch. The cards are oversized — almost, but not quite Lost Cities sized at 100x70 mm, the same as the cards in Day & Night, which makes for easy sleeving — and they sport a nice linen finish. The gallery bonus Ccards are ultra-thick and each displays a different painting of Sunflowers from Vincent Van Gogh. Andrew Long did a fantastic job on the card design, as did Pixel Productions with the box and rules. As always, I'm grateful for the feedback of playtesters, including Jacovis here on BGG, Zach Johnson, and Patrick and Ian Whiting.

Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoy playing Musée!

Alf Seegert

With special appreciation to the illustrious Paco Garcia Jaen of G*M*S Magazine, whose earlier interview helped me shape this designer diary. I'm very happy I got to visit him as part of our trip to England in 2013.

Board Game: Musée
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