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Designer Diary: Elysium, or The Path of Heroes

Brett J. Gilbert
United Kingdom
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Professor Evil and the Citadel of Time — Funforge / Passport Games
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World."

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

While it is often true that a game goes through many iterations during its development from initial idea to final publication, neither of us have designed a game that has come from such unexpected beginnings.

Our journey to the summit of Mount Olympus began in early 2013, when we made the first prototype: A fantasy adventure game with characters, equipment, and a large world full of enemies to explore, at the heart of which was a system of colored dice that represented the abilities of your character. This was, for both of us, our first exploration of such a design, but armed with what we believed was a strong "hook" of using dice as fuel for our action-point system, we enthusiastically prepared the board and hundreds of cards needed for the first playtest. Our enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. The game was a bit of a mess and really didn't work at all.

Our beautiful custom dice!

Fortunately our effort, and the endurance of our playtesters, was not entirely in vain: Everyone seemed to like the dice! And so, dice in hand, we went back to the drawing board and tried again, deliberately stepping back from the ambitious narrative of that first prototype. Thus began the long design phase during which we looked for ways to incorporate the dice into many different games — inevitably failing much more often than we succeeded!

A city of adventure? Maybe not

One of the first design directions we tried was to scale back the scope of our heroes' adventures and confine the action to a single city in which players had to fight off, amongst other more domestic duties, hordes of rampaging monsters. Here we began to introduce cards that players could purchase by using their dice to pay for them. While this design certainly improved upon the first game, it simply felt too limited and created neither adventure nor a fun experience. And so we decided to jettison the adventuring motif, and look elsewhere for a thematic landscape into which to inject our carefully crafted dice.

The next iteration represented a major shift: We moved the action to Ancient Rome and cast our players as powerful individuals trying to manipulate the Senate. There was a game board of connected regions in which players could build their influence, harvest resources, and construct buildings. Crucially, players used a combination of cards and our trusty custom dice to take these actions. Every citizen or building had an acquisition cost that players had to meet using the dice in their "pool", either by matching the colors of the dice or the symbols rolled.

Italy as you've never seen it before

A few example cards from an early iteration of the Roman game

We iterated our way through a number of further versions of this same concept, but the combination of the cards and the board's geography never truly seemed to fit. It felt as if there were simply too many disconnected elements and ideas, none of which were genuinely original!

After a flash of inspiration — or was it, at this stage in the process, desperation? — we changed the game completely in its next iteration, moving to a sci-fi world in which players were building and operating a machine consisting of conveyor belts that could be customized with new parts, all of which needed to be activated using the dice. According to our hazy memories of this prototype, it seemed like fun — and eventually became an entirely different game, one that might yet be published! — but was quickly scrapped as a vehicle for our dice, for reasons now sadly lost to history. (Sidebar: We really should keep better playtesting notes!)

And so our increasingly epic quest to find a home for our dice continued, but began to feel increasingly doomed. After eight complete redesigns, and eight frustrating attempts to make the dice work, we were almost ready to give up. But as in all great legends, our persistence was eventually rewarded...

The ninth prototype was when we finally hit on the core structure that would eventually be realized in Elysium. Pulling together many of the disparate threads and concepts from our litany of prototypes, we focused our sights on a game built purely around cards and dice. We gave each card two things: an ability (many of which remain unchanged in the published game) and an acquisition cost (a "cost" represented by colors and symbols that had to be matched by a player's dice) — and, returning to a familiar antiquity, populated the game with the merchants, craftsmen, scholars, senators and soldiers of Ancient Rome.

Importantly, we introduced what would turned out to be the magic ingredient, something we called "promoting". The idea was that once you hired your recruits, and they had done their work for you, you would pay to give them a nice retirement. When you promoted cards into "houses" you would lose their abilities, but you would score points for the sets of cards in your houses at the end of the game.

These prototype card designs begin to reveal the shape of the things to come

Incredibly, this one version contained — all at once! — a combination of several vital changes that all took the game in the right direction: The cards were organized into different "families" and had abilities that matched other members of the same family; and players had to discard one die each turn, a key decision with a huge impact on what cards players could choose as each round progressed.

And there it was: A real game — and a good one! Here was the game that was and is Elysium's direct heir. Our dice had taken us on a very long journey, but had at last reached their destination.

(Or so we thought! We leave it to our friends at Space Cowboys to share the details of the true fate of our beloved dice in a separate diary...)

With the core concepts of the game in place, we begun to tune-up our newly built machinery, constantly creating new cards and pruning back any older ones that proved less than interesting. We added "Senators", a set of special cards that were available every round and that provided income and a new turn order. Later, as playtesting continued, we removed Level 4 cards from the families as they turned out to be too expensive to promote, even if they had better powers.

Playtesting at the inaugural Nine Worlds Geekfest in August 2013

By this time we had designed six families, only five of which would be in play in any game. Each family was deliberately built around a different functional idea, but the last key design decision was to realize that the game system would be both more elegant and more robust if we rationalized all of the families so that they shared the same deep structure.

We knew that some powers, such as cards that give you additional gold or VP when you take a card of the same family, should exist in all families. But we also began to see how to build other connections — both structural and functional — that could span all of the families. These ideas tied the whole game together and revealed to us the "big picture" of what we had already designed, helping us to further refine the powers of the families and to build new ones.

The final design of the prototype cards

The jump from six to eight families happened very late in the game's development. Being able to boost the number of possible combinations from six to 56 was enormously attractive, but with Spiel 2013 fast approaching, those final two families perhaps didn't get the playtesting they deserved. Of course, we had no idea how the game would be received by the publishers we were hoping to pitch it to, but we knew that much more development work lay ahead, either for us or for any prospective publisher.

With our flights booked and our meetings scheduled, we were ready to present our prototype — rechristened "Aurum et Gloriam" (Gold and Glory) — to publishers in Essen, including Space Cowboys.

Our cards — and the very same dice that had survived from the earliest prototype! — were finally on the table. What happened next is a whole other story...

Brett J. Gilbert & Matthew Dunstan
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