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Designer Diary: CVlizations, or How to CVlize a Game

Jan Zalewski
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CVlizations and my other game Andromeda (which I wrote about previously) are being published at the same time, but their stories are very different.

I started working on CVlizations a year after the latter one was almost done. It was the middle of 2014, and we were working very hard to have Andromeda ready to sell at Spiel 2014. We didn't make it, but looking back now, it was for the better. After that, I felt like starting a new project. I wanted to design something neat and simple — the benchmark: my non-gaming friends can play it — but with interesting interactions. I made a couple of prototypes following this rule: Make the prototype as soon as you can, then see what needs improving. I still think that's a good rule, but it wasn't working for me at that time. All the games I made ended up in the drawer or the trashcan. It was surprising to me how hard it is to design something simple that's actually good. I needed a breakthrough. I took a break, packed a bag, and went on vacation.

Break might be a strong word because after a couple of days my mind started searching for game ideas, but this time I was at the seaside, so I couldn’t test them! CVlizations was being developed in my head at the Baltic Sea beach. When I got back and started prototyping, I had many things already figured out. I had a feeling this might be something.

The Scariest Moment

I've designed games for a relatively short time, starting two-and-a-half years ago. I think I'm mostly fine with critique and other "unpleasant things" of this hobby, but there is still one moment that's terrifying for me. It's when the game you think and hope can be good is being tested for the first time. It's judgment day for the project. The more I test and design, the quicker I am able to see whether something is there or whether it's better to learn from mistakes, ditch the project, and move on.

So when I said earlier that I had a good feeling, I also felt fear. I had already gotten used to this new project because I was theorycrafting about it a lot. I really wished that the first test would go well — and it went amazingly well.

The mechanisms of CVlizations are based on the action cards. Each player picks two every turn, but the strength of the action depends on how many other players also picked that action. That was the main idea that I wanted to test, and it worked well from the very beginning. All the other parts needed a lot of work, but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Third Test, Second Success

The early part of designing is the most exciting for me. I can clearly see the progress and I have my head full of ideas, passion, and enthusiasm. My game was about rivaling tribes, there was a lot of humor, and I had a lot of energy to work on it. For chronological purposes it was August 2014.

At the third test session, something happened that still to this day feels somehow unreal for me. After playing, discussion and comments about the game, Filip Miłuński (author of CV and Head of Publishing at Granna) told me that he wanted to publish this game at Spiel 2015. At first I thought he was joking — it was only the third test! "It's already pretty good, and I trust that you can make it great. Develop it and we will publish it", he said to me at the end of our playtesting meeting.

Three of the action cards in CVlizations

Development Process

This is the moment when most designers in diaries tell you a story about how they changed cards or how they dealt with problems that occurred during testing. I won't do that. CVlizations was being developed steadily but surely. There was no big moment — just testing, balancing, improving, and even more testing. Six of the eight action cards are exactly the same as they were at the first test; that still amazes me.

On the other hand, the idea cards were changed a lot. I can't even say when I felt I got them right for the first time. For me, designing is maybe 10% creating new concepts and 90% testing and improving the old ones. You might think this sounds boring and ask yourself why I would write about this. The truth is that when I started to get into the hobby, diaries were one of my favorite lectures and I still didn't know how the development process really works. So dear reader, if you are getting into designing or thinking about it, this paragraph is for you...

One of the many tests at the Moonson Group meetup

When Is The Game Ready?

I just told you that the development phase is one of constant improvement. Let's get to the important question I hear a lot at playtester meetups: "When do you know that the game is ready to be published? How can I see that in my game?" I always reply with what I've heard in an interview with Gil Hova in the Ludology Podcast: "Never. There is always something I want to change."

Even now, when I'm writing this diary a month before the game goes to print, I think of how to change that one card so that it can be more fun for the players. But at some point you just need to say "Stop!", take a break, play some other games, then give your game a fresh look. For me that time was after four months of intensive work before Christmas 2014. I handed Filip the prototype and awaited an answer.

Visualization of the material in the Polish edition

CV Branding

After a month-and-a-half Filip told me that he thought the game was great and he wanted to publish it as CVlizations. The graphics would be done by Piotr Socha so that the graphic design would link to Filip's own CV.

I personally really liked the idea, but I knew that the title would get some critique. We had a lot of long talks about the card names, about the box cover, about the graphic design, but in the end he told me, "Jan, I know that you are very invested in this and you care a lot about your project. We do, too. Trust us, we know what we are doing." And so I did.

Now when I'm looking at the current interest in the game that far exceeds my expectations, seeing beautiful artwork by Piotr Socha and watching early reviews, I know that it was the right decision. I hope that you will try my game and have tons of fun. I assure you that there is no greater sight for a designer than seeing people smiling and having a blast playing his game...

The Baltic Sea — apparently the best place for me to design board games...
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