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Designer Diary: Americanizing Terra into America

Ted Alspach
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Tennessee
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Microbadge: Castles of Mad King Ludwig fanMicrobadge: Castles of Mad King Ludwig fanMicrobadge: Bézier Games fanMicrobadge: Whistle Mountain fanMicrobadge: Maglev Metro fan
From gallery of toulouse
Background: Publishing Terra

In early 2015, Bézier Games, Inc. decided to publish the English version of Friedemann Friese's Terra. This was an easy decision once we found out it was available as I was a fan of Friedemann's Fauna (which was an SdJ nominee in 2009). While Fauna was focused on animals, Terra covered geography and history, two subjects I'm much more interested in than random animals (although I really liked Fauna despite that).

In Terra, players are asked three questions. One of them is always a location that corresponds to a region on the giant map of the world that makes up most of the game board. The other two questions are two of three possible categories: a year, a length, or some other number, which are all represented by segmented bars along the bottom of the game board. Each card has a full color photo on it, and the cards have a map/explorer feel to them. When it's your turn, you place a cube on the answer you think you know best from any of the three questions. Turns continue until you run out of cubes or decide to pass. (Answering incorrectly loses that cube for the next round, so you don't want to shotgun the board with cubes, or you'll be at a disadvantage in future rounds.) After everyone has passed, the answers are revealed and players score points: 7 points for a correct answer, and 3 points for an answer adjacent to the correct answer. The rules are essentially the same as in Fauna, with a few tweaks to simplify scoring.

Both games are sort of a cross between the variety of topics in Trivial Pursuit and the "get as close as you can" mechanism in Wits & Wagers, but the oversized board, full-color images on the cards, and additional mechanisms really set them apart.

From gallery of toulouse
So it's late spring 2015, and Bézier Games wants the English version of Terra out by Spiel 2015. Not a lot of time, though by using a German printer (piggybacking with other foreign publishers who were doing their own localization of Terra) it saved shipping time, which gave us an extra month to get the game ready. Initially, I figured we'd do a straight translation of the rules, cards, box, and the little text on the game board, and *boom* we'd have an English version ready to go.

Then reality set in. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that doesn't use the metric system, and all of the length answers on the cards (and the board) were in metric. Kilometers, millimeters, centimeters, whatevermeters — that just wasn't going to work in the U.S. While most game players can do some of that basic math to figure out the inches, miles, feet, yards, etc. relative to metric values, it's a pain simply because we don't think in metric, so playing would be a chore. Weirdly, pretty much all other English-speaking countries do use the metric system, though, so if we switched to good-ole imperial, they wouldn't be able to play (and they really *can't* do the math because they never need to convert unless they are dealing with Americans). The compromise was to make the board double-sided, with imperial on one side and metric on the other, and to have both imperial and metric units on the cards. Just that was a tremendous amount of work.

After starting the laborious process of adding imperial measurements to the cards, it was apparent that the English translation wasn't going to cut it; the translation was most likely done by a European who had an excellent command of the English language, but it was clear that English was not their native language. The phrasing was off, there were odd words and colloquialisms, and it was a little challenging to read, so every card, the entire rulebook, and the box were redone to make them more English-friendly.

Board Game: Terra
During *that* process, we realized that while the game covered worldwide geography, many of the topics were things of little or no interest to most Americans, like soccer, various international organizations, and several other topics that were a result of either German or European familiarity that just didn't work for Americans. The U.S. is about 90% of the English boardgame market, so again, these things had to be fixed. In this case, it meant that we had to come up with dozens of new cards to replace the topics that didn't work.

Finally, there was the board. The German board (and the one used for all other languages) was very 8th-grade textbook-looking, which works great for Europeans who don't have a negative view of educational games. In the U.S., though, saying that your game is fun "and educational, too!" pretty much means that no one will even look at it. This isn't because Americans don't want to learn about things, but because there are so many crappy educational "games" made all the time that the word, when applied to games, has a different, mostly negative connotation. Thus, we hired an artist to redo the game board in a satellite-imagery style.

From gallery of toulouse
The game did (barely) make it out for Spiel even with all the additional work that had to be done.

During all of these changes, I kept wishing that there were more topics about things I was interested in, but then I realized that Terra just wouldn't work for most of those topics because the majority of them would have location answers based in the U.S., and they wouldn't be spread around the world evenly. Furthermore, while Terra's "year" answer track ranged from 5000 B.C. to the present day, most of the things on my want list took place in the last few hundred years.

America Is Conceived

By the time Spiel 2015 rolled around, I had already pinged Friedemann to ask whether I could do a new game based on Terra, but focused instead on America. Friedemann and HUCH! & friends (the German publisher that owns the rights to Terra) agreed, and I set to work. The first thing I did was write up all of the things I wanted this game to have that Terra didn't. Here's my initial list:

• Focus on America; all locations will be in the U.S. or in Mexico/Canada.
• Just two tracks: year and number. Every card will have the same three categories of questions.
• The location "regions" would be states, though some might be combined where it makes sense.
• The year track will be detailed for the last fifty years, then grouped in larger and larger increments to the B.C.s.
• The cards will fall into the following five categories: Entertainment, History & Politics, Geography, Technology & Science, and Games & Sports.
• The player to the right of the player with the box chooses a category, then the player with the box thumbs through the box to find a category card that matches it, moving all cards in front of that one to the back of the box. The player who found the card reads first.

As I look at this list now, the general direction was there, but pretty much every item above was tweaked at least a little. Here's how that happened:

From gallery of toulouse
• Focus on America; all locations will be in the U.S. or in Mexico/Canada. Well, Mexico and Canada went out pretty fast. (Americans don't know Mexican states at all and tend to have a very limited knowledge of Canadian provinces and territories.) On top of that, Canada is so freakin' huge it would have been two-thirds of the board. Because there's one ocean on each side of the U.S., each of which is adjacent to a whole lot of states, oceans went out as being an area to place a cube.

• Just two tracks: year and number. Every card will have the same three categories of questions. This is the only item from the original list that was solid from the start. In fact, this allowed me to change the design of the cards from Terra's to the three-column design in America, which allowed me to use labels for each column (State, Year, Number) right on the card box, so the questions didn't have to use those terms, thereby allowing the question text to be larger and more succinct. This set-up also prevented the need to have metric or imperial measurements on the board as the card asks specifically for a measurement type (which is usually imperial, due to the nature of the game), and you just answer with a number of that measurement.

The location "regions" would be states, though some might be combined where it makes sense. It didn't make sense to combine the smaller northeastern states where a lot happens and leave the bigger western states as single answers, so every state — regardless of size — was a possible answer for the location question. That decision allowed me to simply put "state" on the box in the column below the state question, so you know that the first (leftmost) question is always a state. The only problem that created was that the District of Columbia, where the city of Washington D.C. is located, is not a state, and a lot of historical stuff has happened there. In the end, the call was made to avoid questions for which D.C. was the answer. (Most of them were pretty obvious anyway.) Finally, what to do about Alaska and Hawaii, which have no adjacencies? Well, I made them adjacent to each other, and nothing else, for gameplay purposes.

The year track will be detailed for the last fifty years, then grouped in larger and larger increments to the B.C.s. Well, this sort of worked that way. The year track consists of five-year intervals from now until 1950 (sixty years, I was close), then gradually increases to 25-year intervals by 1700, then it makes a big jump to 1492, which is as far back as we go. (Sorry, native Americans!)

From gallery of toulouse
The cards will fall into the following five categories: Entertainment, History & Politics, Geography, Technology & Science, and Games & Sports. Close. The categories don't really matter (see below), but there are an even number of cards in the following five categories:

—
Entertainment (movies, television, music, books)
—
History & Geography (combined these two)

—
Products, Inventions, and Technology

—
Games, Sports, and Fun Activities

—
Food & Restaurants

Food turned out to be one of the most fun categories to include because there's so much stuff that originated in the U.S. or that was made popular by America. I had to be pretty creative with some of the location questions to avoid clumping in California, New York, and Illinois for all topics, but in the end there's a really nice variety of locations for the topics.

From gallery of toulouse
The player to the right of the player with the box chooses a category, then the player with the box thumbs through the box to find a category card that matches it, moving all cards in front of that one to the back of the box. This was a good idea in my head, but in practice it was difficult and confusing to players. This evolved until it ended up with the player with the box choosing which *side* of the box from which to read, and then the player to his left answers first, meaning the player who chose the question goes last at the table. Not quite I cut, you choose, but close!

Bonus points to me for coming up with a system to allow all the cards to be used once, with no repeats until all of the cards have been seen: After a card is scored, it is removed from the box and placed directly behind the "center" divider card. This works out so that the card you placed there will have its other side come out to the box end eventually. It's a slick system that seems very obvious in hindsight. <pats self>

Content Creation

Once the system was in place, it was time to create the cards. America ships with 168 double-sided cards, which (I'll do the math for you) is 336 topics, or 1008 questions — each of which needed to be thought of, written, formatted, researched, and tested. Games like America are very much dependent on the content of their cards, so a tremendous amount of time went into figuring out the topics and the questions/answers within those topics. After coming up with the 336 topics, I hired several writers to help research and write the questions and answers. In order to make that work, I had to develop a style sheet that listed all of the criteria, such as the questions being only so many words long, that every question and answer had to be focused on the U.S. (not just locations), and how long the "factoids" that appear on each card have to be — then I edited every single one of those, tested them, and had the cards proofed. Whew!

From gallery of toulouse
Solving the "I Dunno" Dilemma

During playtesting, one thing that I noticed — and this is true in Terra and Fauna, too — was that players were very involved in topics which most of them knew something about it, but that level of interest dropped considerable when they didn't know (or have any idea about) a topic or some of the questions. It's not fun to not know something, and random guesses can work in America, but they aren't that satisfying. Of course, there's no way to ensure that everyone who plays will know something about every topic. However, the way America works, you can always leech points from other players by placing next to their (likely correct) answers — but sometimes it seems like nobody at the table knows the answer to a question. Thus, what I refer to as the "don't pass" line (from craps) was born.

In addition to the standard answer spots, players can also place their cubes on the "No Exact" or "No Exact or Adjacent" spots, with a set each for States, Locations, and Numbers. If players get the feeling that no one knows an answer (maybe they haven't placed on that answer bar yet, or everyone is whining that they don't know anything about it), they can place a cube on one of these spots, and if they're right, they get points! Like all other spots on the game board, only one player can place on each of them, so there's some tension as to when to place (if at all) on those spots. It makes topics that otherwise would be an "it doesn't matter, none of us know that" into a fun little bluffing thing where you might place a cube out on a spot and state, "I remember that from a PBS special" when you really have no idea, then watch others pile up around you, then when everyone has used up their cubes, plop one down on the "No Exact or Adjacent" to scoop up a quick 7-point score.

These new spots underscore that there's a really solid game engine under the glossy trivia hood, which gamers will appreciate, and non-gamers will enjoy without realizing why.

Board Game: America
Finalizing America for publication

One of the other concerns regarding the game was the price. America is a trivia game, and most trivia games are $25 games that are dropped off at non-gaming stores by the pallet around the holidays, hoping to score big and then be forgotten. (I'm sure they don't hope to be forgotten, but they usually are.) The goal for America has always been a little different; the idea is to redefine what a trivia game can be for Americans, with fun, engaging questions that are combined with elegant gameplay. I don't want America to be forgotten after a holiday blitz, but instead to be a game that can be pulled out time and again. The way the card replenishment system works, players will get more than fifty games out of it without ever seeing the same card twice — that's a lot of replayability.

But with an oversized game board, wood pieces (even though they are cubes, they're big, chunky cubes), and a ton of full-color cards, there's no way America could have bargain-bin pricing. It ended up at $45, which is still more than I would like it to be at, but the quality of the components and the gameplay make it a great deal (and if you do the math, that's less than 90¢ per game).

All sorts of other tweaks were made to the game during development, including adding a little icon behind the state question that indicates whether the answer is east or west of the Mississippi River (which just so happens to divide the country almost equally in terms of number of states, even though the amount of land on the west side is much greater than that on the east side).

There are a bunch of fun little in-jokes on several cards, a very meta card with the topic of "America the game", and the cube colors are red, white, and blue (as well as silver, black and light blue). And if you and your friends can handle it, you can also play with the "back" of the game board where the state names are blank...

America will be available at Gen Con 2016, and shortly thereafter in stores everywhere!
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