In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.
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Designing Demokratia

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twenty-first of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

While designing Peoples: Migrations, I studied literature on the ancient civilizations but stopped when I reached the classical Greece. Nevertheless, the idea of designing a game rooted in an interesting theme had been with me for a while and why not Greece? Ever since Christina Regina: The Queen's Path, I wanted to try out a political game again and the first democracy would be an excellent theme for such a game: Demokratia

Initially, my thoughts went to games like The Republic of Rome, with its political offices and factions, as well as semi-cooperative building games like Between Two Cities. The idea was a game where the players play politicians, responsible for various areas of the city state.

* The archon may collect taxes and distribute them to the other players or keep for himself.
* The strateg may build an army to defend or seize the power himself.
* The architect may build buildings to increase other players' points (but ask for bribes for it).
* The magistrate may charge other players for corruption.
* Etc.

An intriguing idea was to have modular event cards chosen by the players themselves, that combined would tell a story that the players could act and react upon. Depending on their actions, they would get tokens that could be exchanged for gold, votes, monuments, orators and what not to build a victory point engine. Poor actions would bring the entire city of Athens down. I started to study the literature I had on Athens, including The Athenian Agora with its many detailed descriptions of Athenian buildings, and found inspiring images at

However, I couldn't really fit all this into simple and streamlined game mechanisms. Should all offices have to be occupied? How should they be balanced against each other? How should the event cards be interpreted? Why would I want to help other players exercise their offices?

Struggling with those questions, two other games came into my mind. One was Carolus Magnus, with its intriguing "control the controllers" mechanism. The other was the simple but powerful "build to increase value" mechanism of Acquire. The idea would be to let the players build score engines in two dimensions: first by erecting buildings in Athens of different colors and second by controlling the factions in the Boule that score for the different colors. To do both would take too long so the players would have to negotiate with each other. The offices would be turned into Monuments and the orators would remain but renamed to the Greek word of Rhetor as additional mechanisms with special powers for the players willing to invest in them. (How would I be able to resist a game with strategoi and Socrates?)

To create additional strategic paths, I added two more victory conditions to the standard one of getting all your tokens into the game: a majority in the Boule (an "Oligarchy" victory) and a majority in the city of Athens (a "Tyranny" victory). Thematically, they made sense as well as the democracy in Athens was constantly threatened by the oligarchs and the tyrants. With that decided, the work of detailing the mechanisms and the art could start.

Initially, I reused the six civilization areas from Peoples; Culture, Civics, Economy, Military, Religion and Science; and tried to link them to the various buildings of the Classical Athens. The Strategeion would increase the score of the military faction and so on. However, I soon came to realize that the military faction would have no particular ability that differed it from the other factions and that it didn't make much sense thematically either.

Another initial idea was that certain buildings would have certain effects on each other, similar to the computer game Ceasar. I also considered asking for permission to use the 3D images mentioned above to really bring the ancient atmosphere to the game. However, the idea of checking effects each time you place a tile felt clunky and not challenging enough as buildings could be placed anywhere.

Instead, I decided to let the city tiles form actual blocks and roads and to base the factions on the historical tribes of Athens instead of the imaginary political factions. The former was visually more appealing as a real city with streets and blocks would emerge in front of the players while the latter made the game more thematic as the historical purpose of the tribe system was to maintain the political balance in Athens. (The fact that the players try to overcome this balance to win the game is another story.) The colors of the buildings and the connections of the roads could serve as restrictions for tile placements and the buildings on the placed tiles rather than the adjacent tiles could affect the score for the different colors. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to abandon realism for function and design the buildings with simple symbols and clear symbols (encouraged by the elegant design of Glory to Rome).

Another seemingly minor change was the transition from an "influence the influencer" game to an "increase the satisfaction of your voters" game and later to an "increase the power of your voters" game. This is an example of how the theme makes a game mechanism easier - writing rules with two different majority concepts was a nightmare while increasing your influence with powerful factions makes more sense.

This was the last obstacle and the rest of the game design proceeded quickly. I wrote down the draft rules along the phases of Assembly (player negotiations), Vote (hidden votes), Athens (city building) and Boule (counting of votes and distribution of new citizens). Each citizen and city tile placed in Athens would increase the number of new citizens and each citizen in the Boule would determine who gets the new citizens. This created the tight decision between investing citizens in Athens (to increase the value of the tribe where you have the majority) and in the Boule (to claim majority in tribes with a high value and claim the new citizens).

A lot of tweaking and tuning was required to find the optimal balance of tiles and colors, where the main outcome was the introduction of black "negative" buildings to make tile placements more challenging and to reduce the endgame "inflation" in power. They also added a new dimension to the game, as the players now had more options to modify the power. With that, I had a tightly balanced game, where the players have many small and simple options for modifying it in their own favor - not unlike the challenges the real demagogues of Classical Athens must have had!

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