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Designer Diary: Fields of Green, or If You Build It, It Will Come...

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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Back in 2012, Among the Stars was published by Artipia Games. It was a card-drafting game with a sci-fi theme in which players tried to build space stations. It ended up going very well, having a big reprint a couple of years later, localized versions in various parts of the world, as well as a co-publication with Stronghold Games. It also gave birth to various expansions that added numerous new things to the game.

Since that time, Konstantinos Kokkinis (the president of Artipia Games and a close friend) kept telling me how cool it would be to have a game with the mechanisms of Among the Stars, but with a farming theme: "Wouldn't it be cool to have these square cards represent fields in a farm?"

This wasn't a one-time suggestion. Every few months he would pose the same question but always with a "half-joking-half-serious" attitude. My reaction was always the same: "Meh."

You see, I've always been a huge sci-fi fan. Although I'd play farming games and I'd enjoy them, I would never place them (theme-wise) above sci-fi. "Why would someone want to play the same game with farms over space stations?" was my way of thinking. (Boy, was I wrong!)

Come early 2016. I was at the offices of Artipia Games and we were discussing options for the company's main game at SPIEL 2016. Once again, the farming-themed Among the Stars game was mentioned, but this time it was different. It wasn't mentioned as a half-joke; this time it was 100% serious. I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled with the idea. I tried to offer alternatives. I listed reasons against it. But the tide wasn't turning. Everyone else was agreeing it was a great fit and that it would be really popular.

With a heavy heart I agreed to work on it. Luckily, the plan wasn't for me to do everything on my own. Konstantinos (who was super-excited with the whole idea) would help with the adaptation and we would share design credits. He was already writing down various ideas and suggestions on how the game would be.

Our first task was simple: How would this game differ from Among the Stars? Yes, it would be based on that game and would have many similarities, but one thing I definitely didn't want was to just have a retheme. This game should be able to stand on its own and offer a different experience to the players. Someone could easily own both in their collection and not have to choose over which one is better.

One of the first things we discussed with Konstantinos was the introduction of a new type of abilities. In Among the Stars, we had immediate ones (their effect was applied when you built them) and delayed (their effect was applied at the end of the game). In this game, we could introduce end-of-round abilities. The theme allowed for recurring abilities as they would be part of the harvest season so that fit perfectly.

Regarding the card types, after some discussions we settled on having four types instead of five: fields, animals, buildings, and "miscellaneous" (basically, whatever else we could think of that didn't fit in the previous categories).

Since we were changing things in the game, it was a great chance to address some of the complaints we had heard about Among the Stars. Many players said that although it was very enjoyable, they were worried a bit about the set-up time, especially when including many of the expansions. With "Among the Farms" (our initial nickname for the project), we knew we had to make set-up as easy as possible and in such a way that additional content from future expansions would not take more time. During a brainstorming session, Konstantinos suggested we do what New Dawn was doing. This was a game designed by him in which each card type was in a separate pile and players could choose what exactly to draw. It made sense to apply the same logic in our new game. Instead of drawing six cards from the same deck, there would be four piles and players would draw their new cards in any way they wanted.

Another change we discussed was getting rid of the scoring track. We thought it would speed up the game not to have to adjust your marker every round and just focus on the cards you play. Scoring would be easily done at the end using a scoring pad. What we weren't realizing at that point, though, was how hard it would be to have immediate effects in the game that would not grant you points. Since scoring would happen at the end, they had to have different effects.

We also had to take a look at the game's resources. Money would remain, but energy had to change as it didn't make much sense on a farm. It was, however, easy to change. Making it water, something much needed on a farm, made perfect sense, so we went with that. We also explored the possibility of additional resources. There would be many different types of plants, there were many animals — we had many options on what to do. In the end, to keep things simple, we settled on just using one more resource: food. This would be the product of the fields, and it would be used by the animals. In short, fields would require water and animals would require food.

That's where it started to become more and more apparent that the game would offer a different experience than Among the Stars. This was now turning into an engine game. You have water towers that produce water. You plant fields, and you use your water on them to produce food. You use that food on your animals in order to make money. And then, you use your buildings to turn money into victory points (VP). That's also when I became very excited with the project. Here was the chance to create something new and different; I could explore design space I couldn't in the original game and that was great!

The final thing we added that would change the game even more (compared to its predecessor) was a series of tracks. Instead of having the players gain a fixed amount of resources each round, there would be tracks indicating what they would get. Card abilities and players' actions would advance their pawns on the tracks, making them gain more resources as well as VP at the end of the game.

Up to that point, most of the above was mainly in discussions as we hadn't tried all those ideas yet. It was time to build a prototype and see how it played. I started making some simple cards to see whether everything was working. Suddenly, a ton of other details that we hadn't thought of became apparent — but that's what playtesting is for, right?

The signs from the first playtests were very positive. Most of what we had thought of was working. Maybe an adjustment would be required here and there, but for the most part, the game was turning out very nice. The exception to that was the tracks. While everyone commented on how they differentiated the game from Among the Stars, the impact they had was not that great — and sometimes people ignored them altogether. In other cases, a player would focus on them, lagging behind on the development of their farm. The rest of the time, people would be doing roughly the same things. Although it sounded like a good idea, it ended up not being fun, so I knew they had to be changed. Some other ideas were explored, but they made the game more complicated. The harvest abilities were already requiring more from the players (thinking-wise), so we didn't want to make things even more perplexing.

At one point I thought of tiles that the players would place on top of their locations, with these tiles having an ongoing ability. For example, you could increase the range of a water tower or the production of a field. I made a few of them and tried them out, and they were really interesting. They couldn't all have ongoing abilities, but that wasn't too much of a problem. On top of that, the theme was very nice; they would be equipment that you use to improve your farm.

With the main "skeleton" of the game in place, it was now time to take a more detailed look at the card abilities. That's where the studying started. You see, in most of my games, I want the abilities to be theme-driven. In this one, I didn't want to take abilities from Among the Stars and rename them, nor did I want to just stick names to cards randomly. Of course, my knowledge on all things agricultural was quite limited which meant only one thing: Internet to the rescue! I started reading a lot about growing fields, taking care of livestock, and running a farm. My goal wasn't to make a 100% realistic simulation, but I did want the abilities to be tied to the cards' theme.

The process went like this: What field could I use? How about "X"? Okay, let's see how X is grown. Many articles later I would hopefully read something that I could "translate" into game terms and make an ability for the card that would be interesting and fun. In the end, not only did the abilities turn out more thematic, I also learned a lot about farming (to the annoyance of my friends to whom I would randomly say something that I had read about).

All this time, the playtesting would continue. Abilities would change, new ones would be tried, even small changes in the core rules were tried when needed. Luckily, the general consensus was very positive and it showed me that I was on the right track. In the end, the feedback from the players helped a lot to shape the game to its final form.

Unfortunately, despite his involvement in the initial brainstorming sessions, Konstantinos wasn't able to participate a lot afterwards, so he decided it was best that I be credited as the sole designer. I thank him a lot for that, especially considering it was his idea that started everything!

After a long process, the game is now ready. It has been produced and is about to make its debut at SPIEL 2016. So far, the reception it has gotten has been very positive, both during its Kickstarter campaign and here on BGG. It turns out that the farming theme is actually very popular. Konstantinos was right to suggest it!

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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