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Designer Diary: The Somewhat Bizarre History of Trollhalla

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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Board Game Designer
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Board Game: Trollhalla
The game Trollhalla came about through the designer's momentary bewilderment in the canyonlands of Southern Utah, by way of the imagined ploddings of African elephants, courtesy of Viking pig-muppets and the seafaring inclinations of discontented bridge trolls. In this designer diary, designer Alf Seegert talks about Trollhalla's peculiar journey from conception to publication...

I suppose I should begin by telling you something about the game. Trollhalla is for 2-4 players (and plays genuinely very well with two), ages 8 and up. It plays in about an hour. Trollhalla is the spiritual successor to Bridge Troll, but has very different mechanisms and theme. It's also less complicated, and it has a glorious big game board and super-thick, high quality components and wonderful colorful artwork by Ryan Laukat. Zev from Z-Man Games really went all out on this one. My goal with Trollhalla was high simplexity: the offering of tactical/strategic engagement with relatively simple rules, which (I hope) will appeal to children and adults alike, both gamers and casual players.

Here is the description of Trollhalla from the back of the game box:

You and your hideous troll-friends have decided that it's time for a career change. You are tired of guarding bridges and shaking down weary travelers all for the sake of a few clinking coins! Tolls are down, bandits are up, and besides, living under your bridge is damp and uncomfortable – and breathing all that crumbling bridge mortar is taking a toll on your lungs...

It's time to venture forth and find some fresh sea air! In Trollhalla, you join forces with your fellow trolls to sail the seas in search of islands filled with pillage and plunder. Crunchy livestock, nervous monks, panicked princesses, piles of gold, and casks of grog await you! But watch out for Billy Goats – if you're not careful, they will knock parts of your precious stolen cargo out of your boat!

With so many goodies lying about on these islands, it feels like you've died and gone to troll heaven, or perhaps someplace even better – Trollhalla!
Unlikely as it might sound, my aquatic Viking troll game Trollhalla began seven years ago in a moment of hesitation on a snowy expanse of desert slickrock. My wife and I are avid hikers of the Colorado Plateau and were on a crisp winter hike to Double-O arch in Arches National Park (near Moab, Utah). Trails over slickrock are typically marked not by paths but by cairns – tall stacks of usually flat rocks – used as path markers. (Here in the western United States, cairns are also commonly used to mark alpine paths above the tree-line. Example here.) But cairn-marked trails can sometimes lead to confusion because it seems not everyone always agrees where the path should go! On this hike at one point we discovered not one but two cairns, heading in seemingly very different directions – and we had no idea which direction was right. But one of the cairns was substantially taller than the other and hence seemed to "carry more weight". Apparently following that taller cairn was the right choice, for we had no problems reaching our destination, but the encounter had gotten the geek in me thinking...

By this time I had tried my hand at several board game designs, including one that had come in second place at the 2004 Hippodice competition in Bochum, Germany (The Vapors of Delphi, which is, alas, as yet unpublished). Always keeping my eye out for new potential game mechanisms, I began to wonder whether a game about cairn-stacking might be viable and fun. I began by playing around with a chessboard and a stack of wooden discs. Before long, I had a little game in the works where travel between different villages was governed by a simple stacking mechanism. Players would vie to stack cairns in places where they wanted travel to happen, tallest stacks would dominate, and travel would be triggered by a combined random/player-controlled element.

I think I was also probably primed to use a stacking mechanism by encountering the use of stacked chips – although in a quite different implementation – in Steve Poelzing's very clever game Chobolo.

Board Game: Trollhalla

For no clear reason that I can remember, I was led to make my emerging game about elephants traveling village-to-village with empty baskets that would be filled with fruit on arrival. Not only did stacking happen on the paths, but on the elephants themselves. (I used little wooden elephant figurines at first, then plastic ones later. The elephants and cups in the photo above were made by playtester Sander Bol (cabol on BGG) in a prototype made from files I sent him.)

In my emerging prototype, I used 1" discs in four different colors to represent baskets belonging to each player. In each village smaller stacked discs represented bananas, pomegranates, passion fruits, coconuts, mangoes, and spoiled fruit (penalty points). I wanted to avoid a standard "majority of pieces in spaces" mechanism and instead tried a mechanism based on relative vertical placement: After traveling along the path containing the tallest stack of baskets (presumably full of grass or other tasty elephant treats), the active elephant would have the top basket on its back collect the top fruit in the destination village. The next highest basket would collect the next highest fruit, and so on. Players would strategize by redirecting elephants to different villages to each collect the most optimal fruits to add to their supply. (Bonuses were awarded for collecting a complete set in each color.) By placing baskets on paths, players would not only urge elephants in that direction but would also collect cards like Monkeys (to flip stacks of baskets upside down), Water Buffalo (to scatter baskets on a path), and Grasses (to weave an extra basket and perform one extra action).

Overall, I liked this new design and had good luck fine-tuning it, courtesy of my colleagues in the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah. Jonathan Degann, avid BGGer and the founder of the Journal of Boardgame Design, visited our Guild for one of our sessions and played TEMBO, as the game was then called. He was impressed by it and provided excellent suggestions for improvement and moral support. I submitted TEMBO (the Swahili word for "elephant") to that year's Hippodice competition, which had proved an increasingly promising venue for my designs. (I had since placed as a finalist for my prototype games Bridge Troll, Ziggurat, and Mont-Saint Michel.) In 2008, TEMBO came in third place and two major European publishers expressed strong interest in publishing it.

As it turned out, TEMBO didn't find a European publisher, and I'm still not clear exactly why not (though one publisher had two other pick-up-and-deliver games in the works and didn't feel comfortable making yet another one that year). Another reason might be the coincidental announcement of Ystari's game Bombay at a time while TEMBO was still being evaluated. At first, I was very pained by the visual similarity between Bombay and TEMBO (which I take as pure coincidence) although the games played very differently. As it turned out, however, I find the timing serendipitous because it forced me to pursue new (and for me, better) directions for this game.

I decided to see whether Z-Man Games might be interested. In 2009, Zev Shlasinger had released my game Bridge Troll, my first published game design. When I approached Zev with TEMBO he played it and said he liked it. "But," he said, "you said it might work with trolls. Let's try that." So I did. I had been toying with a nautical Viking theme for TEMBO and a terrestrial troll theme for it (not to mention several other ideas), and ultimately put these two ideas together: Viking Trolls! I suspect I must have been deeply deranged from childhood by the Muppet Show clip with Viking Pigs pillaging a village to the tune of The Village People's "In the Navy."

As a result, the elephants in TEMBO became Viking longships. The stacks of baskets became each player's individual trolls. Although I was proud of TEMBO, I found this new theme much more fun! And here was an opportunity to move away from the abstraction of colored discs and instead include more of Ryan Laukat's delightful artwork by using tiles instead. (Ryan, a fellow member of the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah, did the whimsical art for my game Bridge Troll, and he has been the artist for many excellent designers, including Reiner Knizia; he also did the art for several cards in Dominion and its expansions.)

The fruits from TEMBO were transformed into the sorts of plunder that Viking trolls would relish pillaging: panicked princesses, mortified monks, frightened pigs and peasants, piles of gold and casks of grog. The Monkey, Grass, and Water Buffalo action cards became Weather Gods: Wind, Sun, and Storm Gods respectively. (My use of weather here was inspired by Mike Compton (compman on BGG) from his suggestion that I use a weather theme in Bridge Troll to justify the varying number of travelers each turn.) Instead of a generic player board for stacking collected fruit, Ryan and I devised individualized boat-boards on which to stack tiles.

Board Game: Trollhalla

Because of the changed theme and use of tiles, I had to change some of the spatial implementation of the other pieces. I kept the cairn-stacking mechanism in place at sea, where trolls "scout" for plundering destinations and the highest stack in a sea lane dictates the direction that an adjacent ship will travel. But stacking trolls on top of one another on ships themselves was unwieldy and didn't look right, so I instead had players seat trolls in ships in order from front to back. Likewise, plunder tiles on islands are arranged in order so that when plundered, the westmost troll in a ship claims the westmost tile on an island, and so on. The rules are pretty much functionally identical with the original stacking mechanic in TEMBO, only "horizontalized".

My favorite rules-transfer was inspired by Zev. I had a rule variant in TEMBO, a sort of "shoot the moon" effect, in which a player who piles up a bunch of spoiled fruit (each one a penalty) would actually score a big bonus if he collected a complete set. (Thematically, I had the player use all that spoiled fruit to make a distillery and sell alcohol!) In Trollhalla, the Billy Goat becomes the penalty tile. If you collect one, he goes crazy and kicks out one other tile from your cargo – always a tile in your largest set, which threatens your ability to score bonuses from completed sets. But just as in Bridge Troll – where the Billy Goats can actually help you if used properly – in Trollhalla a player who collects a complete set of Billy Goats now has a petting zoo and scores a whopping 25-point bonus.

Board Game: Trollhalla

Now I just needed a new title. The epic Viking aspect of the theme to me suggested Valhalla, the grand hall in Asgard for valiant slain Viking warriors. As I saw it, the big new island-filled game board and plunder tiles in turn suggested "heaven for trolls", and as a result offered a nifty portmanteau word. In the same way that Lewis Carroll used "galumph" (galloping in triumph) and "vorpal" (voracious and purple) in the poem "Jabberwocky", I now had trolls and Valhalla: Trollhalla. (Later I discovered that actually I didn't originate this term. Ken St. Andre, designer of the role-playing game Tunnels & Trolls, is the longtime holder of the domain, his official T&T fansite. Thankfully, Ken – noble Troll god of Trollhalla that he is – graciously decided to spin this connection into a win-win for both of us rather than be upset about it.)

Zev gave this new theme and title a thumbs-up and I continued to develop Trollhalla through 2010. Ryan began on the artwork and aimed for a more "epic" feel in comparison with Bridge Troll. (The cover and the board are each quite a sight to behold.) The artwork still remains whimsical, however: the characters in the plunder tiles all stare out wide-eyed in terror, while the Billy Goat glares and the cow stares stoically ahead, seemingly resigned to its fate...

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In finalizing the game I received helpful feedback from the Guild – and unexpected assistance from a fellow BGGer I had never met before, Paul Incao (pincao on BGG). Paul had posted a comment on BGG asking how my proposed expansion for Bridge Troll was coming along and I had written him back. Before long we had a flourishing correspondence, and he ultimately became a dedicated playtester and major contributor to the final game, not to mention a good friend – and thanks to a suggestion made by his daughters, we now have a female troll in the game as well! This encounter, of course, is yet another reason why BoardGameGeek is so wonderful for connecting people through board games.

Trollhalla is scheduled for release in late February/early March 2011 by Z-Man Games, and I hope that players enjoy the game as much as I did designing it!

Alf Seegert

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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