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Designer Diary: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis, or Blowing Up the World, One Card at a Time

Asger Harding Granerud
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Early Flamme Rouge prototype
My name is Asger Sams Granerud and with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, we are the designers of 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. We want to share the journey of our game from idea, through development, into a game that you can now get your hands on! We hope you will enjoy the read...

What You Will Experience Playing 13 Days

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a 45-minute game for two players highlighting USA vs. USSR during the most dangerous tipping point of the Cold War. Players take the role of either President Kennedy or Khrushchev. You have to navigate the crisis by prioritizing your superpower's influence across many different agendas. You want to push hard to gain prestige and exit the crisis as the perceived winner. But there is a catch as there always is: The harder an agenda is pushed, the closer you get to triggering global nuclear war which will lose you the game!

13 Hours: Driving Home from Essen

It was Monday, October 27, 2013, somewhere close to midnight. The massive board game fair in Essen, Germany had just finished, and the road trip back to Copenhagen was well under way. Sitting in the car were three tired aspiring game designers: me, Daniel (my co-designer) and a shared friend. Daniel also happens to be the guy who introduced me to Twilight Struggle a few years back. Unfortunately, we rarely get to play that brilliant game due to time constraints, which is doubly a shame as the game also improves with repeated play. It is not an easy game to pick up, but it offers a rich experience when you do. Though tired after a long week of talking about little other than games, we started discussing design ideas. The prolonged drive revealed that we had both had the same basic idea: How can we imitate the core experience of Twilight Struggle in a readily accessible package, lasting less than an hour?

The rest of the trip was used to flesh out this idea, and several design goals were locked in place before reaching Copenhagen later that night. The game had to be short and intense, with a constant threat of losing. We settled on the Cuban Missile Crisis as this was probably the highest profiled conflict of the entire Cold War. It also happened to be short and intense, which perfectly suited our narrative. We wanted to retain the constant agony of choosing between lots of lesser evils that Twilight Struggle does so well through its card-driven dilemmas.

13 Days: Building the Game

Almost half a year passed before Daniel and I managed to sit down and design the game. It was our first ever co-design process, so lots of things had to be learned from scratch. We discovered over time that we have different skill sets and experiences, but aligned goals and preferences. If you can find a co-designer like that, I can't recommend it enough!

Very early prototype drafts of the game board...

DEFCON track...

...and agenda cards

The following design sessions are almost a blur for me. So many things happened so quickly, and the exact chronology escapes me because most of them fell into place within a very short timespan. We wanted to work in multiples of 13 where possible, so we ended up deciding that the game should have 13 turns. Moreover there are 13 Agendas, and 39 Strategy Cards divided into 13 USA, 13 USSR, and 13 Neutral cards.

We actually ended up cutting some corners for the sake of gameplay and accessibility. The better game must win over dogmas when they collide! As a result, the 13 turns became 12 turns and a special Aftermath turn. Twelve was easier to divide into three rounds of 4, which lead to a hand size of five cards. (The fifth card isn't played but is fed into the 13th Aftermath turn.) One small thematic decision ends up having lots of unforeseen ripple effects. My experience a couple of designs later is that simply locking in a few aspects early on is a great way to get started. Assuming you are capable of killing your darlings, it is easy enough to change such dogmas at a later stage!

By this time we knew we would be using the dual nature of event cards from Twilight Struggle (i.e., the card-driven games or CDGs). All cards would be divided into three alignments (USA, USSR and Neutral), and each card would have the option of being played either for a basic Command (value 1-3) or for a unique Event that broke the core rules in different ways. If you played an opponent's event, he could get some benefit, despite it not even being his turn. What makes this experience work so well in Twilight Struggle is the fact that every play of a card is a dilemma. Their dual nature, and sometimes detrimental effects, means you often feel like you're doing an impossible balancing act. Often the winner ends up being the person timing card play to minimize negatives. It sounds simple but really isn't! Compared to TS we reduced the hand size and forced all cards to be played one way or another, ensuring that this core dilemma hits you from the first card in your first hand!

The first *pretty* prototype we created when our own test had confirmed the potential of the design and we needed outside playtesting

The scoring mechanism is central to any game. We wanted the entire feeling to be evocative of the tension from both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Twilight Struggle. Unfortunately we had few turns to achieve this since we also wanted a game playable in 45 minutes. This meant we couldn't rely on reshuffling the deck and having the same scoring cards surface several times as that would require too many turns to be feasible in a short game or such a small deck that it would hamper replayability. We therefore made three distinctive choices:

-----A) Each player picks a secret Agenda for the round, creating a partial bluffing game.
-----B) All scoring was based on pushing ahead on either Influencing specific Battlegrounds or Dominating DEFCON Tracks.
-----C) If your DEFCON Tracks are pushed too far, you risk losing the game immediately by triggering global nuclear war.

To make matters worse, the DEFCON tracks automatically escalate each round towards an end-game crescendo, and the Command action (the bread and butter of the gameplay) further escalates DEFCON. If you make small "non-threatening" Command actions, DEFCON stays put; if you make big heavy handed actions, the DEFCON track responds with equally wild swings. This can be beneficial if you rapidly need to deflate the DEFCON tracks, but more often it will be dangerous.

Rapid Prototyping

Ahead of the first design session, we agreed that we should be playing the game by the end of the evening. This forced us to do quick and dirty prototyping, knowing full well that all we had to test was the bare bones core mechanisms. No chrome, no nothing. We used a deck of playing cards to simulate the basic Command action, drew some different locations on an A4, and started pushing cubes around. By the end of that first evening two things were clear: 1) there was a worthwhile game to pursue and 2) testing further without the tension of the events was futile.

Thus, the ambition for the next design session was created. We had to make and test different events. We deliberately made more than we needed and removed some along the way, adding others. The events added the asymmetry and dilemmas we were hoping for, and experiencing the agony involved in deciding which cards to play when was a clear indicator we were on to something. You have only twelve cards to play during the entire game, so each decision is important. By that session, we were pretty sure that this game wasn't just interesting to us, but also relevant for a larger audience waiting to scratch that Twilight Struggle itch!

For the design interested people reading this, there are two things I really can't recommend enough:

I) Get yourself a design partner. Actually, any creative endeavor in life I've participated in benefits if you have someone you can throw ideas up against. An internet forum is a poor man's alternative as it can never be as responsive or involved as a co-designer who knows the ins-and-outs of the project as well as you do. Testing the core game also becomes much easier (assuming it isn't min. 3+ players). If you find the right person to co-operate with, I can't see any negatives to working in pairs!

II) Rapid prototyping. Try to play your game as quickly as possible. Find out whether your core idea has the spark to be interesting. Don't think about it; try it. Forget about balancing, artwork and UI. Instead try to define what you consider to be the core mechanisms, and test whether they are fun at all. Satisfaction from playing games is more psychology than mechanisms, and you have to be much more talented than I am to figure that out from the sketch board, so try it!

13 Months: Pitching and Developing the Game

Obviously that was just the game design. The development took much longer. Even though the core game hardly shifted from the design established in March 2014, the cards were continuously tweaked and the user interface was updated to make testing with outsiders more feasible. We physically kept track on each card, making marks on how often they were played for Events vs. Command as well as looking out for an opponent's willingness to play the card or delay it for the Aftermath. This proved to be immensely valuable as it allowed us to continuously monitor which cards were fine and which needed tweaking or removal. Taking notes on the physical prototype is another lesson we've brought to our later designs.

All events were tied to a historical event from the period, and short texts setting the mood were added. Card effects were aligned to fit the new event, and lots of streamlining happened.

The biggest design "problem" that pursued us throughout the project was how to handle the secret Agendas and the scoring mechanism. We've tried more than five different variants as we wanted to find a version that ensured the bluffing didn't become blind guessing. We needed enough revealed information to create informed choices, without giving away so much that it was meaningless. Some of our variants became pure guessing, others became almost full information, and naturally we wanted the sweet spot in-between.

Playtesting from different stages of development of the game

Thankfully a fast-paced two-player game is very easy to playtest when you're co-designing. Daniel and I could easily play a game in 30 minutes or less, and we thus managed to get many tests done. Obviously we also had to find external playtesters. We brought the game to two local conventions as well as several gaming groups. Finally, members of the Nordic Game Artisans also tested it and eventually gave it their seal of approval.

13 Days has received the Nordic Game Artisans seal of approval

Around that time, we started preparing for Spiel 2014 and contacting publishers to set up appointments. We brought a couple of other games as well, but knew that this game would likely require a niche publisher. Hence, we targeted our pitches at a much smaller group. One of them was Jolly Roger Games, which unfortunately wasn't attending Spiel. On the plus side, JRG's Jim Dietz wanted to review the game anyway and asked for rules and other relevant files. He consulted none other than Jason Matthews, co-designer of Twilight Struggle, and with his glowing endorsement proceeded. We sent a copy and his testing started, but he quickly asked that we reserve the game for him to decide by year's end!

We still ended up bringing the game to Spiel and pitching it to a few select publishers, with all involved parties being informed of the current situation, just in case. Thankfully Jim was impressed by the blind testing he had been doing himself, and after some consideration ended up pushing the big red button!

Prototypes assembled and packed for Spiel 2014

Final Thoughts

Both Daniel and I are really proud of the game we've designed and developed for you. Obviously it isn't a perfect realistic simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 45 minutes, but we do feel it simulates core elements of it very well. Each player has to participate in several interconnected subgames: both a poker bluffing game of trying to mask which agendas are really important to them while uncovering your opponent's and a real world chess game of applying political, military and media influence across the globe. The conflict is constantly escalating and even though you don't want to slow down, you will often find yourself backpedaling to avoid the threat of global nuclear war. Finally, the stressful choices available to each president are effectively mirrored by the dilemmas forced upon you each round in which all cards must be put to use one way or another — even the bad ones.

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis turned out exactly as hoped, providing a great introductory political conflict game. The classic fans of the genre in general, and Twilight Struggle in particular, will find a meaty filler. Meanwhile, newcomers will find an accessible introduction as the bluffing, the luck of the draw, and a capped scoring ensures that you're never too far behind to make a comeback — and even if you fail, you can always rewrite history in another 45 minutes!

If you're interested in hearing much more about the game, read our Sidekicking blog on BGG, which includes a series of mini-designer diaries (MDD) written while the Kickstarter was running in 2015 that delve into the nitty-gritty details of the design process!

At the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany, with the first printed copy. Look at that footprint!
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