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Designer Diary: Souvlaki Wars - Greek Fast Food Was Never So Tasty!

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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Microbadge: Nemesis fanMicrobadge: Order of the Stick fanMicrobadge: Constantly thinking about game designMicrobadge: Parent of Two Boys and Two GirlsMicrobadge: Christian - Orthodox
Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
For as long as I remember I have been a gamer.

When I was very young I used to play with my brother's Playmobil figures (which he never saw again). By the time I was finishing elementary school, I was spending countless hours on my Gameboy. Then came a computer in the house and with it, video games. During senior high school I came across Magic: The Gathering and got instantly drawn to it. Fast forward to college and Magic was taking over most of my gaming time. Tournaments, drafts, trades, discussions on deck-building - the whole thing!

And then came the board games, a hobby that easily took over all of my free time.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, during all this time (from elementary school all the way up to college) there was one thing that I remember my mother always telling me: "You spend all of your time playing games. These things are not going to bring you any money, you know."

The reason I am writing this article was that... well... she was wrong.

Souvlaki Wars will be released in a few days, and it happens to be a game that I designed. (Luckily for me, though, my mother was right about most of the other things she warned me about in life)

Enough about me, though. What you are probably interested to know is what Souvlaki Wars is and how it came to be:

Part 1: From Idea to Game

A few months after I had started playing board games, I began to think about creating a game of my own. However, I didn't have that much experience and the whole thing seemed too difficult and too...impossible. So I dropped the idea.

The thought still lingered in my mind, though, and at some point I realized that if there were ever to be a chance of a game being published in Greece and sold primarily in this country, it would need to have a theme that was fun and that people here would relate to. And then it hit me: Souvlakia (the plural of souvlaki). For those of you who don't know, souvlaki is the most popular fast food in Greece. It is basically small pieces of meat grilled on a skewer. Sometimes it is served in a pita sandwich with garnishes and sauces. And it is delicious!

So I had my idea: a game in which players would be owners of souvlaki fast food restaurants!

As soon as I had the idea, the thought of a line of customers came into my mind: People ordering food and waiting in line for their order to be fulfilled. However, as time went by, they would get anxious and after a point they would get angry. This could easily be done with them being cards and rotating them 90 degrees. This way they could have three possible states: Normal, Anxious (rotated 90 degrees clockwise) and Angry (rotated 180 degrees).

The other thing that also came to me early in the design process was the win condition. I didn't want the players trying to gain just money, so I added Reputation to the mix. Each customer when served would increase both the player's money and reputation. This would work well with the line I had thought of earlier and the three states. If a customer was not served after three rounds, then he would leave the line and the player would lose double the reputation that he would have gained.

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
I had the concept of a line of customers waiting to be served, each with an order and an amount of money and reputation to give when served. But what would they order? I needed to find out what the game's "resources" were going to be. After some thought on the most popular foods ordered in a souvlaki restaurant, I decided to stick to four items: Souvlaki, Pita Gyros (or just Gyros, a popular pita sandwich filled with grilled meat that's sold everywhere that souvlakia is), French fries, and Soda. Each customer would have a combination of these items in his order, and the money and the reputation he would give would vary accordingly.

Okay, I was in good shape, but there were still many things missing. For example, how do the customers come into the game? Do the players select them somehow, or are they drawn randomly and placed in front of them? Here is a part where compromises needed to be made. You see, in reality a restaurant has a big supply of items to offer and the customers come in for food in a random and unknown order. When you see someone coming through the door, you don't know what he is going to order, but nine times out of ten, it is going to be something you can easily prepare for him.

However, this was a game, and players needed to be able to make choices and needed to manage their own resources. So, I decided that players would have a limited supply of the four offered food items, and they would choose the customers coming into their restaurant based on those items.

I now had to find a way for customers to appear and for players to select them and place them in their line. That's where my experience with Magic: The Gathering came to the rescue. Rochester draft was one of my favorite formats, and the more I was thinking about it, the more I realized it could easily be applied. Each round a number of customers would be drawn and the players would pick one in turn. The last player to choose would pick another, then the second to last and so on, up until the first player. It sounded fair and it was a simple solution. The only thing I didn't like was that the first player, in the end, did not have a choice. He was left with only one card and he would have to take it, regardless of whether he would be able to serve the customer. The solution to that was simple enough: The number of cards drawn each turn would be two times the number of players, plus one. Thus the last player to pick a customer would always have a choice between two cards. (I also thought of having the customer pick-up be optional, in case a player couldn’t serve any of the available customers, but in the end I decided against it.)

For the resources that the players would have to manage (the four types of food), I remember spending a lot of time thinking of ways to implement them. Up to that point, most of the games I had played were by Fantasy Flight Games, so I was influenced a lot by that. I was imagining cardboard tokens of souvlakia and French fries, and in my mind they looked very cool. Unfortunately I could not think of a way to make use of them in the game. Cards could fill the role of the resources much nicer and probably a lot cheaper. However, even using cards, there were other things to consider. For example, would each card be a single food? It was nice and simple, but I kept thinking of scenarios in which a player would need a specific type of food and would not draw it. Moreover, a player would have to play many cards every round in order to serve all of his customers. That meant many cards in his hand each round and many cards in total in the food deck.

I started exploring the idea of having multiple types of food on every card, and the more I thought of this, the more I liked it. Not only that, but the cards could also have varied amount of foods on them. Some cards would have three items, other cards two, and a few cards would have only one. This variety would create nice tension during the game as each card could be used in many different ways and on top of that, the players would not need to keep too many cards in hand.

After doing a lot of math and writing down many different versions of the food deck (a process that took more time than you may think), I decided to have two cards for each combination of up to three items, including multiples of the same item. (For the four types of food I had chosen, that was 2 * 34 cards). I also liked the idea of having a card with all the four different food types, as well as a wild card that could be used for any single food you liked. Two copies for each of those two cards, and the food deck ended up consisting of 72 cards.

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
Board Game: Souvlaki Wars

The math for the food cards was not the only time-consuming process. I also had to create the customers and assign each one an order, that is, the food items that he would ask for. This time I didn't want to have all the possible combinations appear because some of them would be un-realistic. (For example, you don't often see someone go to a restaurant to buy four cans of soda.) So I sat down and wrote combinations of the food items that were likely to happen in real life, and I assigned to each of them a value in money and reputation. To make things more balanced, I used a rough guideline assigning values to each food item. A souvlaki, for example, would be worth 1 Euro and 1 reputation, but a can of soda just 1 Euro. Thus, a customer who ordered one souvlaki and one soda would give 2 Euros and 1 reputation when served. However, as I said, that was a rough guideline and there were cases where I changed the numbers a bit to add more variety.

Now, I had the customers ready. The players would draft them, put them in their line, then serve them.

But that wasn't enough.

You see, I didn't want the game to be "static" or to be the same every round. I wanted it to have a small level of unpredictability and make the players constantly adapt to new situations. Also, I wanted the game to have player interaction beyond just picking up a customer that someone else wanted. The way I decided to do all that was with events that would be played every round and would shake thing up. The catch was that they would be played AFTER players draft the new customers but BEFORE they have a chance to serve the goods. This way, a player would put new customers in his line and would calculate how to serve them, but by the time he would try to do so, many things could have changed: new customers would be added, others would be removed or would decide to change their order, food cards would need to be discarded, and so on. And since there was no way to know beforehand what was going to hit you, the name that I decided to use for these cards was "Unforeseen Events". However, while coming up with the idea was simple, implementing it and fine-tuning it was a different thing.

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
I thought of many different ways it could be done. There could be random events drawn each round. There could be an event deck for each player with different cards in it. There could be a single deck of events and everyone would draw from it. The cards could have a cost to play them or they could be free but with some limitations. I even thought of abandoning the food deck and having the food items appear in the event cards so that they would fill two purposes.

In the end, and after a lot of thinking, I decided to keep things simple. There would be a single deck of events and all players would draw from it. They would keep a hand of a few unforeseen events but they would be able to play only a single event each turn. This way, more interaction was added among the players while not adding too much complexity - and the possibilities that had appeared were endless since I could have all kinds of effects in these events. Some cards would damage other players, others would help those who played them, others would affect everyone on the table, etc. There was a lot of design space, and every time I thought of something new, I would write it down.

This was also a chance for the theme to shine - and believe me, it certainly did! Most of the time, I would first think of the card thematically, then I would try to translate it into game terms. Of course in some cases I thought of a nice effect first, but in general the theme was so well integrated that I never had any trouble "explaining" what the card represented. What I was aiming for were events common in real life that people could relate to. This would make them fun to play and immediately understood. In retrospect, these cards definitely ended up being the highlight of the game.

The last thing to consider was the "Upkeep" phase of the game. What would players do at the beginning of every round. What played a big part here was that I wanted variable powers for the players. So, I searched for different archetypes of souvlaki restaurant owners and tried to see how I could put them in the game and how they would be different from each other. In the end I decided that each player would pay an amount of money at the beginning of each round, for his operational costs. He would also have to pay to draw new food cards, representing the money he spent on his supplies, and he would be able to pay for advertising, increasing his reputation. All these, along with the initial money and reputation, would differ for each player according to the restaurant owner he chose. That meant that a lot of work would need to be done to balance them, but it was worth the effort.

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars

If you've read any book or article on game design, you probably know that the most important thing to do is to playtest. And not only when you have the full game ready, but even as you design it, you should try to test new ideas on their own (playing small parts of your game) before moving to the big picture.

However, as this was my first attempt at game design (and I had not yet read any books or articles on the topic), I ended up doing the exact opposite! Up to that point every aspect of the game was either in my head or in pages of a notebook that I used to carry with me. (In fact, most of the game design process took place inside metro stations, train wagons or bus stops.) So I bought blank cards and started writing down cards in order to build my first prototype. When it was ready, I started "playing" my game (on my own) to see whether all that I had imagined all that time actually worked.

And to my surprise, it did!

To tell you the truth, I was afraid that many things out of all that I had thought of would not work and would need to be changed. Luckily, the game played out pretty much the way I had imagined. Sure, the need for some changes and tweaks was apparent, but the "look and feel" of the game I had in mind was right there. I could see the line, I could see customers being served, events changing the players' plans, etc. It was right there! And even though a lot of work still needed to be done, I knew I was on the right track!

One of the things that become apparent with those first tests was that the players weren't feeling any pressure. Almost all of the time, I would select customers I knew I could serve so it was rare for one of them to get anxious or angry. Something needed to be done about that lack of tension and the solution came from the theme itself: Telephone orders! Since they are extremely common in all souvlaki fast food restaurants, I had wanted from the start to implement them in the game. This problem gave me the perfect opportunity: After the players drafted two customers, they would each draw one more card from the top of the deck to represent a telephone order they had just received.

The first tests with this solution worked perfectly. Not only did this add just the right amount of unpredictability, it also opened new design space. I could now differentiate the customers in two categories - "regular" and telephone orders - allowing me to design even more "Unforeseen Events" cards around them!

The next step was to test the game with friends. I showed them the prototype, we played a few games, and their response was more than positive! They liked it very much and thought that it was up there with many published games. Still, they commented on some cards and made suggestions, and a lot of them were implemented.

Even a lot of the jokes exchanged while playing gave fruit to new ideas and new mechanisms. For example, I remember playing with a friend and his wife, and when she served a customer, giving him more items than he had ordered, she proudly said "The rest are on the house!" That clicked something inside me and made me realize that I could put it in the game. From that moment on, whenever someone served a customer and played cards with more food items than the ones his customer requested, those items would be considered "on the house" and the player would receive +1 Reputation!

Even though more playtesting was made to the game in the following months, due to other commitments (getting married and all) after a while I sort of abandoned it. Luckily for me, though, fate had other plans. Around the end of 2009 the Greek Guild here on BGG (the largest - and most active - regional guild by far) announced a game design contest. Initially I had thought of taking part with a new game, but weeks passed and I couldn't find time to work on it, so I was left with Souvlaki Wars, which was basically ready. The day before the competition I printed out cards that I made on Word (until then the game was still on hand-written cards) with only the necessary text / numbers on them. With no artwork (save for icons for the food items), with no box (I had the game in a plastic bag), and with wooden markers from other games I went to the competition.

When I arrived, I remember that the first thing that crossed my mind was, "What the heck am I doing here?" You see, everyone else had worked a lot on their prototypes. They had high-quality components, with beautifully illustrated cards and boards, and some of them had even constructed boxes and printed rulebooks. I was sure I had no chance at winning but at least I would get to show my game to other people and get more feedback. However, as the day progressed and people were playing it, they were all telling me that they had a lot of fun and that they liked it a lot. (Also, almost all of them told me that the game had made them hungry and that they wanted to go out and buy souvlakia.) When the time of the voting came at the end of the day, I couldn't believe my eyes. Souvlaki Wars had won first place in the "Best Game" category! (Of course. to no one's surprise it flopped at the "Best artwork/presentation" category...)

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
Board Game: Souvlaki Wars
Board Game: Souvlaki Wars

Part 2: From Design to Publication

That so many people had liked the game gave me a lot of confidence that it was indeed good enough to see print. Having only friends and family tell you that a design is good is not enough because most times they will be biased - but when total strangers enjoy a game and praise it, you are indeed on to something.

That's why right from the next day I started looking into ways to have the game published. One of them was to try to publish it myself. I found out some costs, made inquiries as to how the whole thing works, and realized that the distribution alone was much more work than I could handle on my own (and with a normal day job taking 8-10 hours of my day). So finding a publisher looked to be the only way. The first and most obvious choice was Kaissa Chess & Games since they are by far the largest board game publisher in Greece. Before knocking their door, though, I wanted to build a decent prototype, something that would look like a finished product to give them an idea of how the game would look if they printed it. In order to do that, I needed to find someone to do a few illustrations and someone to help me design the layout of the cards.

For the first part I had someone in mind and decided to try it out. Some years ago in a magazine I used to read, there was a comic strip at the end which I enjoyed a lot. Many years later, while drifting inside BGG, I found that the artist of that strip was a user here (username: markador) and that he was into board games as well. Thus, when the need for an illustrator came up, he was the first person who came in my mind. I sent him a Geekmail and explained what I wanted. Panayiotis Lyris (aka markador) was very friendly and immediately accepted my offer. We decided that he would draw a cover for the game first and the artwork for a couple of cards to use as samples, which I could use to try to sell my game to publishers.

When he sent me the first drafts, I was amazed! He had done an excellent job and his sketches captured exactly the feeling that I wanted my game to give! When he sent me the final versions, I was speechless. I immediately knew that with that artwork the game would definitely be published, it would become a hit, and that the art would be something that would play a big role in its success. It was only a matter of who would publish it and when.

(A note to publishers: If you need an illustrator for one of your games, try contacting Panayotis. He is an excellent artist; I had no problems working with him and I will be more than happy to do it again in the future. You can see more samples of his work in deviantart or you can send him a Geekmail here on BGG. By the way, he doesn't know that I am writing this...)

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars

For the graphic design I turned to Dimitris Vasiadis, a friend of mine who was also a member of the Greek Guild (username: Base the Bass) and had also participated in the design contest. In fact, he had won in the category "Best artwork/presentation", so he knew his business. Dimitris took Panayotis' artwork, then designed the layout of the cards we would use for the prototype. He also did a very good job and I would like to thank him both for what he did at that time and for later while working on the final product.

So with a nice-looking prototype in hand, I approached the publisher and told him about my game. He liked the theme and we arranged a meeting so that we could play. When we did, it was obvious that everyone on the table was having a good time. And truly enough, a few days later I got a call, we scheduled another meeting, and I was told we had a deal!

You can imagine my joy at that moment! I couldn't be happier! However, closing the deal was only the beginning. There was a ton of things that needed to be done. First of all: Additional playtesting. A word to the wise: No matter how much you have playtested your game (or you think you have playtested it) there is always the need for more. Test it, test it some more, test it again, and then test it twice to be sure, before doing all that again. Test it with experienced players, test it with new players, test it with friends, and test it with strangers. You need to get as much feedback as possible and from as many sources as possible. Be careful, though: While you should take all of the opinions into consideration, you will be the judge of which ones actually need to be implemented.

And you need to fight with yourself sometimes. When I had gone to the publisher, I was under the impression that the game was almost finished. However, after many playtest sessions, it was obvious that various changes needed to be made. Not so much to the core of the game - that remained mostly intact - but mainly to the cards' abilities and the various costs. The only change to the mechanisms at that point had to do with the states of the customers. It was apparent that letting them have three states (normal, anxious and angry) was too much as it was rare for a player to have a customer leave due to not being served - and that meant no real pressure. Thus, only two states remained: normal and anxious. Now the effects of the Unforeseen Events were more serious, and the players had to play carefully in order to avoid losing customers.

A lot of work also needed to be done with the artwork and the graphic design. There were countless emails exchanged between the three of us involved, various versions tried, and many hours spent to get a result that was as good as possible. In the end I am proud of all that work and believe it paid off.

So here you have it! Souvlaki Wars: A fun card game for the whole family that puts the players in the shoes of Greek fast food restaurant owners. In a few days, the game will hit the shelves in the Greek market and right after that it will make its international debut at Spiel 2011. If you like what you read above, be sure to drop by our booth (4-308). I will be there all four days demoing the game and answering any questions you may have.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Vangelis Bagiartakis

Board Game: Souvlaki Wars

I'd like to thank a few people not mentioned in the article above who helped a lot during the creation of Souvlaki Wars. First and foremost my wife Evangelia who encouraged me a lot before going to the contest and who later put up with all the late hours I was pulling in order to have the game ready. Secondly, Konstantinos Kokkinis and his wife Santra who were the first playtesters. They encouraged me and gave me valuable feedback - if not for them, I may not have moved forward with the game. (Be sure to check Konstantinos's game Drum Roll, which will also appear at Spiel 2011.) A big thank you also goes to Manos Velivassakis, who had the idea for the design contest. Without it I don't know whether the game would be where it is now. Last but not least, a big thank you to all the members of the Greek Guild for all of their support during the last months! Thank you, guys! It meant a lot to me.
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