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Designer Diary: Colony — A Strategy Game

Ted Alspach
United States
Louisville
Tennessee
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In the middle of 2015, Doug Garrett (of Garrett's Games and Geekiness) mentioned the Japanese game Age of Craft to me. He had just played it at his West Coast MeepleFest invitational (brought by Denis Begin and taught by Joe Huber), and while the players enjoyed it, it was difficult to play due to the small cards and the need to refer to a translated guide while playing. He suggested it might be something that Bézier Games should consider translating and publishing. I picked up a copy and found that it had a lot of really interesting elements, kind of a "Dominion meets Settlers" vibe, and that by itself it was pretty compelling, despite the components and language barrier. I found that the license was available and got to work on developing the game, discovering in the process that the core game could be used to create something really compelling and deeper than the published Japanese version.

At its core, Age of Craft is a dice-drafting game set in medieval times in which the dice faces are resources, and those very specific resources are used to purchase cards that provide various abilities, like producing more resources, exchanging resource types, and generating victory points. Players continue to obtain cards until they reached 20 points or a certain card type was used up, at which time the game ended. The game came with 29 different "random" cards, and each game you used only seven of them, so it had a ton of replayability built in.

There were a whole bunch of things I loved about Age of Craft:
• Dice as resources
• Dice drafting
• Tons of "random" cards (which we now call "variable")
• Engine building
• Seven different categories of cards

And those things were pretty much kept in the game, forming the core of what Colony turned into.

Retheming

The first thing I did when looking at the game was deciding whether we were going to keep the theme or not. I'm fine with medieval/renaissance-themed games — yes, there are tons of these, but for good reason as the setting is rich with opportunities for various game mechanisms — but I didn't want this game to blend in. Add to that the fact that Dominion, which shares some DNA with Age of Craft, was also set in this broad thematic space, and it felt as though it could really be better by having a different setting.

Post-apocalyptic near-future games haven't been particularly overused in the boardgame world, and the idea of rebuilding civilization after some sort of cataclysmic event was interesting, and as the rest of the game began to take shape around it, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate setting. Near-future technology is fun as it takes the things we know and twists them just slightly with a bit of science to show where we might be headed. It also left the door open for some really compelling thematic followups, like the in-the-works sequel/expansion which Shall Not Be Announced Yet.

Naming the game provided another challenge, but Colony stuck out for several reasons: First, it's not really been used by another mainstream hobby game, and second, that's essentially what the game is about" building up the best possible colony. Finally, it also provided a great jumping off point for follow-up titles.

Graphic Design

The graphic design on the original cards wasn't going to work for a number of reasons, so a great deal of effort was made to come up with a design that would work universally for all of the cards and be as functional as possible. The resulting design is evocative of the theme and super functional; you can spot the cost of cards to be purchased from across the table, the different kinds of cards are clearly colored (while this isn't important to gameplay, it's very useful for set-up), and the imagery used fits the theme and the mechanisms perfectly. The upgraded version of each card is framed in black instead of white, and the artwork between the 1.0 and 2.0 sides of the cards is tweaked just enough to be noticeable.

Once you've purchased a card, you add it to your tableau in front of you, and if you're short on space or just want to keep your tableau compact, you can stack cards up, displaying only the bottom part of each card, which shows both what the card does and the number of VPs on the card. It's a well-thought-out design that is incredibly elegant and flexible.

The best graphic design is the kind you don't think about; it just works, and our graphic designer achieved that with the Colony cards.

Custom Dice?

The first thought I had when playing the game, as a designer, was, "Whoa…this would be awesome with custom dice, with each face representing a different resource." I wasn't alone in this sentiment as playtesters, after or even during their first game, would also make the same comment. I tested this out and found that while it was an interesting concept and definitely enriched the theme, it made playability nosedive. The number one reason was because purchasing cards in Colony is done with exact resources: such as three 3s and two 2s. Changing those pips to three wood symbols and two food symbols made it significantly harder to both remember which resources you had in front of you, and also what each card cost. Add to that the fact that players have to learn the six new resources and what they look like, and you've got an extra layer of translation going on behind the scenes for virtually every action in the game. Games with custom dice took significantly longer to play and were more likely to result in missed options because players couldn't track what they could and couldn't do as easily.

There were other reasons why custom dice weren't appropriate for the game, and while I've seen comments from folks who haven't played yet mentioning it would be better with custom dice, they'll find out that once they play, the dice values fade into the background, and the focus is on how to use the resources they have most effectively and not on the resources themselves.

To summarize why there aren't custom dice in the game:

1) Our brains can track combinations of numbers much easier than combination of symbols, even if those symbols are meaningful.

2) There are several other ways that the dice are used besides resources, and one of the modifiers allows you to tweak the resources by one or two at a time.

3) Traditional dice patterns are amazingly clear to read from across the table versus any sort of symbol. Again, that probably has to do with our brains being conditioned to track numbers.

Drastic, Sweeping Changes

There were a few things about the original game that I didn't care for. The most prominent one was the mechanism in the game that prevented players from hoarding resources so that they could buy the cards they wanted on future turns. It was essentially a creative Settlers' robber mechanism, but due to its implementation, it could turn out to be incredibly frustrating: By saving up resources to buy the thing you really wanted, you were putting yourself at risk of losing many of those resources with a roll of the dice, thus scuttling your efforts and making you start over. It was frustrating instead of fun. At the same time, I realized that hoarding isn't a particularly engaging gameplay mechanism, so I came up with a warehouse card that everyone starts with that limits the number of stored resources to six in between turns. As all but one of the 30+ cards in the game can be purchased with six or fewer resources, it was functional but at the same time reduced the possibility of hoarding.

That change sparked another major addition to the game: unstable resources. Instead of all resources being storable, these resources must be used that turn, or they dissipate and aren't available anymore. All of the cards that produce resources produce unstable resources. In Colony, stable resources are represented by white dice, while unstable resources are represented by frosted dice.

That change resulted in yet another major addition to the game: upgradable cards. In Age of Craft, all cards were singled sided; in Colony, every card in the game can be upgraded to a better version of that card. For production cards, upgrading them results in producing stable resources instead of unstable ones. In order to upgrade, players must pay 1 2 3 4, and this allows them to flip a card over to its upgraded side. You can even upgrade the "Upgrade" card, reducing the cost for upgrades to 2 3 4. Upgrading the "Warehouse" gives you three more slots for resources, and most upgraded cards results in more VPs than the original side of the card.

Now that cards could be upgraded, it caused a dramatic overhaul of all of the cards in the game in functionality, cost, and VPs. The original Age of Craft game had some balance issues with some of the cards, and the cards from [Age of Craft that made it into Colony were almost all modified in some way in order to work well together. The balancing of cards in a game with such a large scope continued throughout playtesting, up until the second quarter of 2016.

As cards were modified, several of them were dropped, and many new ones were created. At one point in testing there were about fifty unique cards that were active, and this number was eventually winnowed down to 28 for the final version of the game.

In order to streamline the rules, each player's turn was divided into four phases, with the Activate phase being the time when players could use each of their cards (once per turn). This in turn resulted in the Construction card, which is a card that players can activate to build (purchase) new cards. Sometimes you'll have a turn in which you are saving up for a card you really want and don't purchase anything; if that happens, you get a CHIPI (Cybernetic Holder of Instant Production Income), which you can turn in on a future turn for a random unstable resource. If you upgrade "Construction" to version 2.0, you can purchase multiple cards in a single round, or if you decide not to, you get two CHIPIs.

In Age of Craft, players started with a single card, which they could discard at any time during the game for resources equal to the difference between their score and the leader's score. This provided a nice catch-up mechanism, but typically didn't affect the game otherwise. In Colony, I took this to a whole 'nother level by allowing the players to discard *any* card once per turn, again for the difference between their score and the leader's in stable resources. Because this can be done multiple times during a game, it's no longer simply a catch-up mechanism, but instead it's this extra strategic tool that you have to know when to use (or if to use) at just the right time. Of course, discarding a card takes away the VPs you had for that card, so you have to leverage to resources you'll receive to compensate (and then some) for that. As the leader, you want to be careful not to get too far ahead of your opponents, or you'll give them a whole bunch of additional resources near the end of the game just when they need it, possibly enabling them to catapult ahead of you to victory. This unique mechanism adds a layer of tension to the game for all players and makes the last several rounds of the game fraught with excitement.

Age of Craft didn't have a score track, relying on players to do the math for themselves and other players throughout the game, both for purposes of seeing who is winning, as well as what they can gain from discarding a card. Colony has a scoreboard, which in the first few rounds is pretty much unnecessary…until you start to see one player leading by 2 or 3 points, and then the pressure to discard or not is on.

Speaking of reaching the total number of VPs in order to win, Age of Craft could end in a tie, one in which "all players share the victory". Anyone who knows me knows I HATE that (which is probably why co-op games aren't high on my list of game types I enjoy), and I even created TieBreaker in 2011 to solve what I see is a blight on the boardgaming hobby. For colony, you can never end in a tie because once someone gets the VPs required to win, the game ends instantly. This can mean that players don't get the same number of turns…too bad! The starting conditions actually account for this, and in the 300+ recorded plays of the game in the last few months of playtesting, players 1-4 were almost exactly evenly split in terms of who won, with about 3% difference between them.

All of these (and many more) changes took place in the first few months of design and development, reshaping Colony into a totally different game from its ancestor.

Interaction Between Players

I'm not a take-that kind of player. Targeted take-that mechanisms rub me the wrong way, both as the recipient (oh, that sucks) and the disseminator (now I feel a little bad about picking on you, even if you were the leader). Age of Craft had a bunch of attack and defend cards, and I definitely struggled to see whether they would have a place in Colony. I know some Euro-minded individuals felt the same way I did, and that any sort of attack cards would be a huge turn-off for them.

But the Age of Craft attack and defend cards were pretty clever as they were, and I made it a mission of mine to see what could be done to make them less "mean" and more like a reasonable strategic path. Attack cards in Colony are all about the attacker getting resources. However, some of the defensive cards in the game result in the defender getting resources, too…resulting in a little game of chicken as attack and defense cards are purchased. The powerful attack cards have some downsides — for instance, each time you use an un-upgraded "Pirate", you might lose it — and the defensive cards are relatively inexpensive…but they can derail a player's strategy, which is often more important than just taking a single resource from the opponent. The cost of attacking is simply the resources needed for the card as well as the missed opportunity of purchasing something else, so those cards, if you purchase them, have drawbacks as well.

And then there's trading. Some players love this, others not so much. In Age of Craft, players could always trade on every turn. For trade-minded players, this made the game incredibly long as negotiations and assessments of players' resources and game position added A/P that sucked the fun out of the game. In Colony, you can trade only if you have a card that gives you that ability, and only one trade per card is allowed. Further, everyone is incentivized to trade with you because there's usually a benefit for them in the trade, like a free resource.

If these kinds of interactivity interest you, there are a bunch of attack, defensive, and trading cards to add to the game; if not, there are plenty of cards you can put in the game in their place. It really does allow you to customize the game exactly to your group's liking.

Combos

I love it when you discover different aspects of a game that work well together. There are two, three, and four card combos throughout Colony just waiting to be discovered. As the game was developed, we discovered some combos that are truly awesome and incredibly satisfying to pull off. Some cards were tweaked to avoid being too powerful, but at the same time, if you're able to pull off a combo of cards every turn for a few turns in a row, you'll have your opponents wincing (haha) when it's your turn as they frantically scramble to figure out how to offset your devastating moves.

It's really hard not to list my favorite combos here — really hard — but I'm not going to because discovering them yourself is incredibly satisfying. Argh!

The Insert

With a game like Colony, which has dozens of cards to pick from each game, you need some form of organization for them. The first comparison most people will go to is Dominion, which has a similar number of cards and, at first glance, a very nice insert — unless, that is, you're a gamer who wants to keep their cards clean and in good shape, and you use sleeves. Then the Dominion insert fails miserably and makes a lot of gamers very sad.

The Colony insert went through seven iterations in design and prototyping, resulting in what is likely the best, most functional insert available in any game. Not only can you store both unsleeved and sleeved cards, but the cardboard label insert is used as a cover for three hidden pockets that hold score markers, CHIPIs, and dice, and that label insert snaps into place in the plastic insert to keep those items from moving around when the box gets turned sideways or jostled around. Just close the lid and the contents are securely held in place until the next time you play.

The Set-up App, and the Awesome Meta Rule

With all the variable cards in the game — you play with seven types, and there are 28 types from which to choose — you might not be sure which set to pick. The rules have a great starting set, and three additional tested sets for different types of players. Instead of having a deck of random cards to determine which cards to choose (you’re *so* much more sophisticated than that, right?), there’s a free Colony set-up app for iOS and Android phones and tablets that provides a random set of cards for each game. You can also specify which cards you want to see more often, all the time, or not at all, even while providing you with one card of each type (or not…that's an option in the app as well).




If you play multiple games of Colony in a row (and you very well might want to do just that), there's a special meta-rule you need to follow. The players who *didn't* win each pick one variable card to get rid of and a new one to replace it with. This way, the player who won by taking advantage of a card (or combo of multiple cards) has to find a new way to play next game, and each of the other players gets to pick a card they really like or that suits their particular play style.

An Honest-to-Goodness Strategy Dice Game

In general, I really like games in which you can plan out what you want to do based on where you start a game, or how things start to evolve around you. Each game of Colony starts you off in a different potential direction, and you have to evaluate what your options are each turn in the midst of planning your long-term goals, all the while being aware of what each of your opponents are doing.

Colony redefines how dice are used in games, with a randomized starting point for each turn — the active player rolls three dice, then they are drafted around the table — instead of the dice determining what you can do. The dice are merely a gentle nudge in one direction or another, but what you do with them — whether you store them, modify them, or use what you have to purchase something as you get them — is up to you. It allows for both short- and long-term strategic planning, as well as a pivot when you find yourself with a set of resources that could provide you with an alternative strategic direction as necessary.

Colony fills the void of a deep, strategy game with dice as a central part of it. The more you play, the more you discover additional nuances and combos that are really satisfying to pull off. I can't wait until everyone starts to get their hands on Colony when it is released at SPIEL 2016!

Ted Alspach
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Subscribe sub options Tue Sep 27, 2016 1:00 pm
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