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Designer Diary: Alba Longa -or- How I Stumbled onto an Award-Winning Euro

Graeme Jahns
British Columbia
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Thank you for showing an interest in my game Alba Longa. Since I'll be talking about the history of the game and how it came about, I will often refer to Alba Longa as "The Great Pyramid", which is what the game was called before Quined Games and I changed the setting. While I think that Quined has chosen a strong setting that fits the game well, I will refer to the original title for chronological purposes.

The Great Pyramid started out as a personal challenge to design a Euro game using dice. In early 2007, I had been chatting with a friend of mine about the different Eurogames we preferred, and we came to the realization that none of those games involved dice. (Neither of us had played Yspahan at this point.) At the time we concluded that games with dice were "too random" for a Euro and therefore the strategic options around dice were limited or reduced. Obviously the conclusion was uneducated. Since then I've come to realize that my biggest problem with games using dice is not the dice themselves, but how the dice are being used.

So one day while commuting home on the bus, with a personal challenge in mind to create a Euro with dice, I started thinking: "What do my favourite Euros do?" They present multiple options to the player where, ideally, every choice is a good choice; this intensifies player tension around identifying the best choice at that specific time. With that realization, I integrated the dice into that framework: A player will roll the dice, each die will allow the player to perform a different action, and each of the different actions must be as compelling as possible.

To be honest, I can't remember how I made the leap to players controlling individual cities in ancient Egypt. Was there even a thought path or, all of a sudden, did I just think, "Hey, that's cool!" At the time I knew that there were many games set in ancient Egypt, if not too many already – though I had played precious few of them – but the concept had popped into my head and I decided to run with it.

One thing that bugs me a bit about games in general is the ubiquity of victory points. I get it, I understand their purpose, good games use them very well – heck, I'm even working on other designs that use victory points – but it bugs me sometimes because victory points are often very abstract. Sometimes I really want to have a tangible goal, and with that desire in mind, the goal of my game was born: Be the first player to build a pyramid – The Great Pyramid!

The prototype box cover along with a sample 3D ten-block pyramid hand constructed out of paper

I find it interesting that the dice system that exists in Alba Longa, which is perhaps best termed "Dice Drafting", hasn't changed much from the original concept: Each die is associated with one of the jobs in the city. One player rolls the dice, then chooses one of the dice. He may assign a number of peasants, up to the number shown on the die, at the job associated with the chosen die. The remaining dice are offered around the table. The next player may pass on the remaining dice or buy one die and likewise assign peasants to the chosen task, then pass the dice along, etc. until either all the dice are bought or each player has had a chance to either pass or buy one of the dice. Finally, all the dice are gathered and passed to the player to the left of the first roller and the process begins again.

This continues until all of the players have had a chance to roll the dice. Once the dice make it back to the first roller, he may roll the dice again, but now he has to pay to roll the dice. (The first roll was free.) Each time the players are given the opportunity to roll the dice, it gets more expensive to do so. As a result there is pressure on the players to assign their peasants as quickly as possible before they run out of money, and that means having to adapt your plans for the unexpected.

(As a side note, the way in which the dice-drafting system was built means that there is no limit to the number of players who can play the game. The only limiter is the additional time the game takes to play as more players are added, but with a little desire and ingenuity, someone could combine two games of Alba Longa and play a game with up to ten players!)

Right from the beginning I knew I didn't want to use the standard six-sided die. It's a fine die with a proud and noble heritage, but the difference between rolling a 6 and rolling 1 is gigantic, especially when I was planning for people to have city populations of 15 to 20 peasants. A good roll on a d6 would mean that you could assign a third of your peasants at once. Where's the challenge in that?

This brought me to the oft-neglected four-sided die, with which I have become quite fond. The difference between a 4 and a 1 is still large, but in the game context it doesn't feel overly large. The kicker about it all, though, is this: The first time we sat down to play the prototype, as I was explaining the game, my cousin said, "They even look like little pyramids!" She was absolutely right, but until that point I had no idea that the dice I had chosen fit so well into the theme!

Now I know a lot of you are thinking, "But your game is no longer The Great Pyramid. How do tetrahedral dice fit into the Alba Longa setting of ancient Italy?" And you would be right in asking. I'm going to leave this one as a surprise for when you get a chance to open the box (or at least see the pictures posted on BGG). I think you'll be pleased, I know I am.

So the first version of The Great Pyramid had six jobs: Soldiers, Merchants, Quarry Workers, Task Masters, Priests, and Farmers. This being Egypt I knew that I wanted to break the game down into two seasons: a flooding season in which the Nile is flooded so that no farmers can be assigned, but it's prime time to build your pyramid, and a harvest season in which building is not nearly as important as gathering food to feed your people.

Prototype artwork of a bazaar

Money is used to buy dice and assign peasants. Assign your peasants to the bazaar to bring in new coin.

Prototype artwork of the Quarry and Task Master jobs

Four Quarry Workers are needed to make one pyramid block and add it to your pyramid under the watch of a Task Master.

Weather plays havoc with your harvests. Some years the weather is wet and the harvest is great, but other years it's dry as a bone and food is hard to come by – but over the course of the year priests can be used to worship the gods, and if you manage to please them, they'll upgrade your harvest.

Prototype artwork of the Dry, Moderate, and Wet weather cards;
the temple where priests are assigned;
and farmers fields on the Nile river

Soldiering is for the common good of all players. Each player contributes soldiers to protect Egypt from her many enemies, not unlike protecting the realm from the Wildlings in A Game of Thrones. The player who contributes the most is given a bonus and the player who contributes the least is penalized. I thought this would work well, until one player informed me that if he was already losing the game he had no motivation to protect the realm. Sure he'd get hit the hardest by the barbarian horde, but everyone else would as well, and he felt this was his best chance to catch up. Hmm, that's not right...

I stumbled along with the game trying to modify the soldier rules so that everyone would have motivation to protect the realm, and finally I played a game with my cousin – sibling to the one who made the dice epiphany, so maybe they've earned a free copy? – and he said, "This is great, but I really want to be able to attack someone!" And with that, the course of the game changed.

Who knew such an innocent little phrase could bring about such difficulties? Several times I thought of reverting back to the battles of common cause, but in the end I'm glad I didn't. In retrospect I feel that my cousin's comment may have brought about one of the reasons the game received a designer's award, and even more so one of the reasons it's being published now.

Now, I enjoy playing many different types of games, but I'm primarily a Euro player. As such, there are several guidelines I knew I needed to consider when adding a direct conflict mechanism to what is primarily a Eurogame:

1. No player elimination. If you're going to sit down for a 90-minute game, you don't want people getting kicked out of the experience. It's way too frustrating. That being said you can be eliminated from Alba Longa, but if you are, it's your own fault. I'm not going to protect you from yourself.

2. The endgame needs to be tight. A game in which a player is so far behind that he has no chance of winning because of an attack is almost as bad as a game in which a player is eliminated. I needed to make sure that players could recover quickly from attacks.

After deciding to go down the path of direct conflict, what followed was a period of about six months in which the same playtest group and I played the game week after week as I tried to find a compelling direct conflict mechanism that didn't eliminate players and still allowed them to be competitive following attacks.

Along the way the rest of the game got refined and streamlined. The number of blocks you needed to build a pyramid dropped from 14 to 10. The number of peasants needed to build one block was dropped from four to two, and the Task Master job was dropped altogether, among other changes. This served to bring the game down from what was originally a long three-hour experience to a much more enjoyable two hours or less.

Prototype components used to build a 10 block pyramid

But there was still no solution to the direct conflict mechanism. I had tried various approaches of allowing players to steal resources or kill off another player's peasants, and while all of it was neat in its own way, it made the experience frustrating for the players on the losing end of the attack. Though the highly offensive players – well, just the same player week after week – rarely, if ever, won the game, they were taking the fun out of it for everyone else. This was not good.

Prototype artwork of the Soldier task, and the possible gains from a victorious battle

Eventually I got some new eyes on the game – we were playing the prototype on a group vacation in Cuba! – and we got to talking about other possible solutions. What we came up with is what I call "sabotage". What changed was that when you attacked another player instead of taking resources or killing their peasants, you could sabotage their upcoming plans, preventing them from gaining as many resources as they otherwise would – worker unplacement, if you will. The player psychology is nicer. When you take something away from a player, he gets frustrated because he's worked hard to get it; when you prevent a player from gaining as much as he otherwise would, it's still frustrating but to a lesser degree.

By the fall of 2008 the game had been in development for about a year and a half. Things were working well, and changes were slowing down. (Having a new baby certainly influenced this as well.) At this point my wife says to me, "Graeme, you've made a good game. Do something with it! I don't want it to just sit around." It was just the push I needed. I'm good at starting projects, taking them so far, then abandoning them, so with this last little push I promised to do something with the game.

I still wasn't confident enough in the game to start presenting it to publishers, so I looked at various design competitions. The next competition coming up was the Concours International de Créateurs de Jeux de Société in France, so I decided to enter, despite the fact that I had playtested the latest combat rules only two or three times.

The competition has several stages. In the first stage you submit what's basically a sell sheet, the game rules, and a document outlining three sample rounds of play. From the list of entries they shortlist no more than 50 prototypes. After the prototypes, they select a list of no more than 12 finalists, and finally they award no more than four winners. My goal upon entry was to make it to the round of 50 prototypes because at that round they promise feedback on every prototype played. I was really hoping for constructive external feedback.

An image of the prototype sent to the design competition

The competition deadline was the middle of February 2009, with the promise of information on the prototype round in April. After a difficult two-month wait, I received an email over the long Easter weekend asking for a prototype! I was over the moon – I had already reached my goal! I excitedly boxed up a prototype and waited for the end of July for the announcement of the finalists.

When the end of July rolled around I expected an email thanking me for my entry, but I hadn't been selected as one of the competitions finalists. Instead, I got an email telling me that The Great Pyramid had been selected as one of the competition's twelve finalists. It was so completely unexpected that I couldn't contain my excitement! Even though it was only another month and a half until they decided on the winners – the shortest wait in the competition – it was by far the hardest.

Another side note: At this point I finally got a chance to play Yspahan. (Good game!) I find it interesting that both Yspahan and Alba Longa use a form of dice drafting as one of the core game mechanisms – different in execution, but both dice drafting nonetheless – but they were developed completely independently!

At this point I got in touch with my friend Rob Bartel and he invited me to join "The Game Artisans of Canada", a group of Canadian board game designers and artists working together to improve each other's game designs. As much as my friends love playing games, none of them are designers, so it can be hard to get into an in-depth discussion on game design. The Game Artisans filled that gap completely. They are such a great resource for game design that I don't think I could go back to designing without them; it would be such a vacuum. If you're interested in other games designed by The Game Artisans of Canada, check out this list.

On Monday, September 7th, 2009, we received a phone call at 6:30 in the morning. As the parent of a one-year-old that was still sleeping, I was not about to wake up and answer the phone. My wife didn't recognize the number, but she decided to listen and see whether they'd leave a message. Once she heard that I had been chosen as one of the four winners, neither of us were going to go back to sleep. Nothing like giving yourself an excuse to plan a trip to France!

The first evidence I have that the direct conflict mechanism influenced this decision is that the competition judges reviewed the game as follows:

The Great Pyramid est d'une richesse stratégique étonnante mais parvient à rendre l'ensemble des mécanismes limpides au premier tour de jeu. Les choix proposés aux joueurs sont nombreux et offrent une interaction belliqueuse trop rare dans ce type de jeu.

Which roughly translates to: "The Great Pyramid has a surprising number of strategies, while managing to present the game simply from the very first turn. The choices presented to the player are numerous, and offers a conflict interaction all too rare in this type of game."

Despite having won the award, development on the game continued. With the help of The Game Artisans, I focused on a few areas of the game that were still sources of player frustration, which meant goodbye to the farming die.

Fast forward to February 2011 when I received a GeekMail from Arno Quispel of Quined Games, asking whether I'd be able to send him the rules; a few days later he asked for the prototype. And while other publishers had looked at it for months and months, Quined decided not a week later that The Great Pyramid was for them!

What followed was a flurry of activity. While some would say the theme of the game has changed, I would say not so much the theme as the setting. For all intents and purposes the game is still the same. You are still assigning peasants to the exact same jobs: Soldiers, Merchants, Quarry Workers, Priests and Farmers. The only difference is that you're building monuments in ancient Italy instead of a pyramid in ancient Egypt.

In addition Arno asked whether the combat mechanism could change. He liked that players were able to attack each other – again, thanks for the idea, cousin! – but the existing mechanism produced too many stalemates. At the time all players would secretly choose one other city to attack, then reveal the choices. After that each player would take all of the peasants he assigned to Soldiers into his hands and secretly split them up into two groups: one group to attack the city previously chosen, and the other to stay and defend your city. Even though players could work together to try to break through an opponent's defences, most people played cautiously, which meant most attacks bounced off and nothing happened.

So after a busy spring polishing off rules and having the game get infused by wonderful artwork by Hans Janssen, the game is ready to go, and I'm excited for all of you to give it a try.

City board for the blue/Alba Longa player

Without spelling out all of the rules, here is an overview of the jobs within the game:

Barracks to assign Soldiers
Soldiers are the first job to resolve at the end of the season. Players secretly choose a city to attack, then everyone reveals their choice. No longer do you need to split your forces; now all of a player's Soldiers fully contribute to both attack and defence. Then players secretly choose one of their Hero cards to play. Hero cards are valued 0 through 4, and the card value gets added to your Soldiers. Aside from the 0, a played Hero card can't be used again until all of a player's Hero cards have been used. You can still work together with other players to overcome another player's defences. With no defensive penalty for attacking other players, combat is much more interesting.

If an attack succeeds, then the attacking player executes 1-4 sabotage depending on how much stronger the attack was compared to the defence. Sabotage removes a player's worker from its assigned task and sends it home. Thus, when the sabotaged task is finally resolved, fewer workers will be there, making the job less effective for the attacked player.

Bazaar to assign Merchants
Merchants are assigned to generate money. Players can generate up to three coins from assigning merchants in a diminishing returns system. During the peasant assignment phase of the season the money spent on the dice is split among several money pots in the centre of the table. After the bank gets its due, players take the money from the remaining pots in order from most to least assigned Merchants.

Quarry to assign Workers
Quarry Workers are used to build monuments. Every two workers construct one monument. Putting an odd number of workers in the quarry may be inefficient as the extra worker can't save up his work, but he makes good sabotage fodder.

Temple to assign Priests
Priests are handled a little differently than everything else. The job of the priests is to increase the city's Worship Level over the course of an entire year, meaning both seasons. The Worship that is collected in the Growing Season is built upon in the Harvest Season. The final Worship Level is used to help upgrade the city's Harvest. In addition, extra Worship can be used to ask the gods for additional blessings, which will come as additional Wheat, Coins, or a Monument.

Fields for Farmers
Finally Farmers are used to bring in Wheat. The amount of Wheat that each farmer harvests is influenced by the weather. Each year is subject to either Dry, Moderate, or Wet weather over the course of the year, and in Alba Longa, the wetter the better. In addition, if you managed to collect enough Worship, you can upgrade your harvest even more!

Food is needed to feed your existing populace, and extra food can be saved for the following years – especially if that dry season is coming! – or it can be spent to attract new peasants to your city. Harvesting Wheat is very important; if you're short on food, Peasants will leave your city. If you don't have any food to feed your people, everyone will leave. This is the only way you can get eliminated from the game. Don't forget that even though you need to build ten Monuments to win the game, you also need to increase the population of your city from eight Peasants to 16.

The backs of the weather cards from left to right: Wet, Moderate, and Dry

The base game is more or less the version of the game that won the design competition, with a few tweaks. If all of that isn't enough for you however, the game comes with three variants. The variants can be added individually or combined. Personally I like adding all of them in!

The variant "A Job Well Done" continues the concept of awarding players for area majority in the different jobs. The player with the most Merchants is already awarded the largest pot of money, but now all the other jobs get a bonus as well.

• The player with the most Soldiers can move one of his used Hero cards back into his unused pile before combat begins.

• The player with the most Quarry Workers gets an upgrade to his Housing Track. In the base game, once a player has 12 Peasants he's awarded with a free Peasant assignment at the beginning of the Season. Another is awarded at 16, and another at 20 – 16 Peasants isn't a ceiling, just a victory condition – but with a Housing Track upgrade it takes fewer peasants to get to those precious free assignment locations.

• The player with the most Priests is able to get the blessings from the gods cheaper than anyone else.

• The player with most Farmers is awarded bonus Wheat.

The variant "Spoils of War" lets players capture each other's workers in combat. If you attack a player who has at least as many Monuments as you and you win, not only do you sabotage that player, but the peasant(s) that you sabotage immediately "migrate" to your city for current Season. There's nothing like building a Monument using Peasants from another player's city! At the end of the Season the captured Peasants return to their home city.

Finally, the "Assisi" variant introduces a neutral city. If you're not a big fan of attacking the other players, you can attack Assisi to give you bonuses: Money, Wheat, or Peasants to be captured.

The city board for Assisi

Thanks to my cousin for suggesting I allow direct conflict, and thanks to my wife for encouraging me to do something with the game. Thanks to my play testers and The Game Artisans for always being willing to play the game again and again. Thanks to Hans for all of the wonderful artwork, and thanks to Quined Games for taking a chance on the game.

Now you know the history behind Alba Longa, né The Great Pyramid, and you've got a snapshot into the game itself. If you've read all the way to the end, thank you very much! I hope you enjoyed the read, and I hope you enjoy the game when you get a chance to play it.

Graeme Jahns
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