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Designer Diary: One Crisis, Two Diaries

Sotirios Tsantilas
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Board Game Designer
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Board Game: Crisis
Part I from Sotirios Tsantilas:

I should have kept real diaries. Crisis is not my first game, after all, so I should have known better. There comes a time when you want to write a designer's diary for your new game, and all the memories have gotten mixed in your head.

Crisis, Crisis, Crisis...well, I remember discussing a lot of stuff with Pantelis at a sunny Piraeus when the crisis broke up, the idea of an economic game, how pissed off we were with the politicians, adding things to the game little by little by taking ideas from the global situation — but is it possible to get things in order? Hmmmm, I may be able to take advantage of the oldest Crisis files in my computer. Yes, that's it. I will try to recreate the timeline of the designing through the dates of the files!

Let's see now where are we...

22-06-2011: Building Cards – Industry1.doc

Well, there are two files in my computer named "Bailout" and "Bailout Elutopia". That was originally the name of the game. They are dated to June 2011, so that's where the sunny Piraeus memories came from. Obviously, Pantelis and I started designing the game at that period. "Bailout Elutopia" includes the Oldstuff subfolder. I think we found the source.

In this subfolder is the oldest file of the game I managed to find: "Building Cards - Industry1". It is a collection of some level 1 industry companies. I can see they are not so different from the final prototype we used until the last couple of years.

From gallery of sot07

On the cards we have printed the minimum and maximum values that this company can produce to help us balance the game. Remember, guys, balance is everything. Also, there is a mysterious (L) and (F) on the production...

In the Oldstuff folder there are more Building type files, the Export Deals, the Specialists file, and most importantly the Player Board, dated 27-06-2011. In this file, other than some aspects that have survived until today's final version, there are long tables with numbers: (L) or (F) money and VPs. Our first concept was to divide the income produced by each company into two categories: Local (domestic) and Foreign. Hence, you had to keep your money in two separate vaults. That's because after the production phase came the taxation phase. According to your contribution to the state, you earned VPs, and if the income originated from abroad, you got more VPs. Thus, we had prepared long tables to assign VPs according to your taxation income. A really fiddly job.

From gallery of sot07

Thankfully, quite quickly we realized that we could incorporate the VPs in the production of the company, so we eliminated the taxation phase completely. The first player board file without taxation is dated 19-01-2012. Of course, until then the game had already been balanced in the previous version which, although fiddly, played really nicely, so we had to work on the mathematics of the game in order to make the new version as good as the previous one. Remember? Balance is everything...

From gallery of sot07
From gallery of sot07

From gallery of sot07


It's time for some heavy playtesting. We have prepared a file with tables in order to keep track of how players are doing in each round, so we can adjust the austerity plans, which is a very tricky part. As in real life, the derivative of the Situation Function is not constant. Hah, gotcha there!

I mean, when things start to go wrong, they go faster and faster, so it's not easy to set financial goals for each round because they don't follow a linear rule. The same holds for growth, too. That's why we had to monitor a player's progress round by round.

From gallery of sot07
(Does this table looks like Greek to you? That's because it is!)

In the meantime, every day something new was actually happening and most of the time it was really easy for us to find material to enrich the gameplay theme-wise. That was the time we thought about the Event and Influence cards. Politicians and economists throughout the globe did their best to provide us with so much material that we had to choose the more intriguing ones and discard the rest. This game was actually built on the theme.

Did I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name? Well, it really was.

Board Game: Crisis

01-02-2012: Bailout_rulebook.doc

First, we got rid of Elutopia. With the name of "Bailout" we participated in the 3rd Greek Guild's Game Design competition, and guess what: We won! Both Judges' and Peoples' Awards. Woo hoo!

After that, the road to success had opened before us, and after ONLY six years, publishers rushed to our doorsteps with amazing contracts — but enough with this success story, let's get back to the diary.

Board Game: Crisis

02-08-2012: Orion_cover.jpg

When the celebration was over, we thought it was a good time to move to the next level, with more professional artwork that would skyrocket us to the top of BGG's Hotness aaaaand a new extra cool sci-fi name: "Orion Inc."
Have I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name?

You know, Pantelis is a crazy Trekkie, like me, so we immediately agreed on the new name and theme. In this form, we developed the game even more, tweaking some numbers and expanding the Events and Influence Cards.

15-10-2012: orion_rulebook.pdf

The first rulebook of the "Orion Inc." version. The game is pretty much as we know it today, but without difficulty levels.

28-01-2013: snd_retheme.doc

What the heck is that?? I don't even remember discussing, much less writing it. Wow! Radiation poisoning...drifters...zombies????

Okay, let's not talk about that ever again.

Board Game Publisher: LudiCreations
17-09-2013: It's an email

From LudiCreations!

Finally, the game is going to be published! Helloooooo, LudiCreations! This is not the first contact between me and LudiCreations, but it is the first time where the name of Crisis is referred to. Everybody seems to be happy with it and with the dieselpunk re-theme, too, that was decided a few months later.

31-12-2013: crisis_1.vmod

I can't believe the date! Get a life, man! It is New Year's Eve, and I'm writing the first Vassal module of the game. I hope it was just a copy-paste, rename, or something else. I can't really believe it...

03-01-2014: allages.doc

Last changes to the game. We changed the numbers of Export Contracts and the way they come out. This way we maximize the possibility of getting almost every combination.

09-01-2014: Board3.pdf

For the first time we introduce difficulty levels.

28-11-2015: Crisis_rules_EN_000.2 orion_rulebook.pdf

The first semi-official rulebook of the game under the supervision of LudiCreations.

The last year was a frenzy of spreadsheets, playtesting, corrections, etc. Believe me, you don't wanna know.
But, the result of this six-year odyssey is the board game named Crisis. I hope you'll enjoy it!


Board Game: Crisis
Banker employee tiles
Part II from Pantelis Bouboulis:

I. Development

In mid-June, during the summer of 2010, the Greek financial crisis was just starting to show its jaws, although few could anticipate its deep and catastrophic impact on Greek society over the following years. A few months ago, following a large period of political inactivity, the Greek government was forced to sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its partners in the EU and the I.M.F. As a result, Greece had pledged to implement reforms — such as a 30% decrease of salaries in the public sector, the increase of taxes, and a large number of privatizations — in return for a big loan that would keep the country from totally collapsing and shaking the troubled EU economy. As it is well known by now, the first MoU triggered a deep recession of the Greek economy leading to very high unemployment and a new debt crisis. Seven years later, the situation doesn't appear brighter.

It was in this political turmoil where the idea of the board game Crisis was inspired. I was thinking that it would be interesting to simulate a real economy in crisis, one in which players (playing the role of investors) are trying to save the country following an austerity plan (such as the one enforced by the MoU). That summer day, during a meeting for coffee with my dear friend Sotiris (an experienced board-game designer), I unfolded these ideas (rather crude at that time) and asked for his opinion. Sotiris was thrilled and soon after we began shaping the mechanism of the game, which we agreed to make as realistic as possible. Our main idea was that the investors would buy companies and services (taking advantage of the privatizations), hire local employees, produce goods, and finally earn money, while at the same time paying their taxes to the state.

We wanted these taxes to be very important for the survival of the economy as they represented state's income. In any real economy, if the state's income is low, then the financial situation worsens and this had to be reflected in the entire game. Furthermore, to link the game with the Greek memorandum era, we decided to add specific budget goals, i.e., at the end of each round the total amount of taxes gathered by the state should be greater than a specific number. In order to implement this philosophy we employed a financial-status indicator bar on the board, which actually represents the total tax revenues. If the total amount of taxes gathered is greater than the required goal, then the indicator moves forward, as the financial situation improves. On the other hand, if the players don't pay as many taxes as they should, then the indicator moves toward zero. If it drops below zero, then the country is declared bankrupt and all players lose.

Besides the obvious thematic flavor, the different thematic goals allowed us to simplify the set-up of the game for different player counts. Instead of blocking out options, or varying the available buildings and employees for different player counts, we simply set different budget goals. Thus, although fewer players have all the options available, they also have tighter goals to accomplish. This has the additional advantage that the game plays differently for various player counts (thus increasing replayability).

The first few months of the development we used paper money (similar to that used in Monopoly) for all purchases and tax payments. Each time a player sold goods, we computed the respective taxes (using a simple algorithm), which the player gave to the state, and moved the financial status indicator respectively. As you can understand, this was a tedious mechanism involving a lot of algebraic operations (which posed no problem to Sotiris and me, however, as we are both mathematicians).

Sotiris suggested replacing this mechanism with a simpler one using victory points. Thus, whenever a player sold goods, they gained money together with victory points. In a nutshell, we pre-computed the respective taxes and replaced them with victory points. For example, in the first version whenever a chemical unit was sold, the player earned 6 credits, then paid 3 of them to the state (taxation). In the new version, the player gains 3 credits and 2 victory points (which represent the player's contribution to the state's revenues). Of course this wasn't as simple as I describe it here as we had to convert the money to victory points in such a way that it was reasonable and didn't mess up the rest of the game. However, it is interesting to keep in mind that whenever you gain victory points in the game, this is because you are paying taxes! Don't you wish that taxation was that fun in real life, too?

During this period, we decided to call the game "Bailout", inspired by the famous term that dominated the news all around 2010-2012. Sotiris never liked it, but since he couldn't find anything better, he settled until the mechanism was finalized.

Board Game: Crisis
Various employee tiles
Another important issue was to find a hiring mechanism for the employees and a way for each company to benefit from specialized ones. I wanted the game to reflect that if you hire highly specialized people, then the company will flourish. Sotiris liked the idea, and we decided to incorporate this into the game. Thus, we came up with different employee types (workers, farmers, engineers, bankers), the modifier mechanism, and the employee's area, which is actually one of the most crowded areas of the game (as you probably have realized if you have played). We decided each employee would have a specific modifier that reflects the employee's specialties. Thus, highly skilled engineers might give a +3 boost in your company instead of the +1 you get by employing the average engineer. Of course not all employees need to be highly skilled as any factory requires a workforce for the "menial" tasks. This is why each company has slots for various types of employees (ranging from unskilled workers to highly specialized engineers and bankers).

Aside from the local employees, we added two more employee-related actions: the Temp-Employee and the Foreign Employees. These were added to ensure that all types of employees will be present in each round, although with a +1 modifier. As the economy is in crisis, no reasonable highly specialized people are expected to come and work. In many playtests during those early days (mainly between Sotiris and me) we experienced a phenomenon in which available companies required engineers to work, but no engineer was present in the employees section. Although this was not a major problem, it could seriously hurt the strategy of a player. Sotiris (having experience from the other board games that he designed) always felt that the players shouldn't get frustrated with the game if they were to love it.

Board Game: Crisis
Sample company cards
Every economy that wants to flourish must take care of its export deficit. In the game, this is represented by losing VPs when you import goods (since currency is leaving the country) and gaining VPs when you export goods (or equivalently paying taxes). Initially we thought about leaving the exports free, which means that each player could export as many goods as they liked (provided that a manager was present in the Imports section). However, later we decided to add a more competitive mechanism that would incorporate some kind of risk (meaning that it's possible to produce chemicals and not be able to sell them). We came up with the deal-acquiring mechanism after a lot of playtesting. The basic idea is that the needs of the global market are time-varying. Thus, we placed different deals (now called export contracts) in each round, ensuring that there is a higher probability to export units of the primary production (e.g., food, minerals) than those of the secondary (chemicals, industrials) or tertiary production (machines). Furthermore, we added a first-in-first-out queue so that players with similar production chains would compete for a spot. Hence, the commitment to industrial production might be risky, but it may also lead to significant profit.

Aside from the traditional legal exporting action, we decided to also include a black market. This action represents outlaw exports that are conducted without taxes. Hence, although the player might gain significantly more money, no VPs are gained since no taxes are paid. The idea for this kind of business came from the tax-evasion problems that we have been facing the last decades in Greece. Although a lot of people became quite rich by not paying any taxes to the state, Greece's economy suffers from these practices.

Up to this point, the game was a collection of solid rules that emulated a real-life economy under crisis, plus some standard board game actions (first player, etc.). However, we wanted to add a spicy twist into the game. Real life situations in Greece became a source of inspiration once again. Regularly in a global economy minor events can shift the economic status. The Event cards were designed to emulate these kinds of effects. Examples are:

• Emergency taxes (out of the blue); this is becoming a daily routine...
• Being downgraded by international agencies
• Corrupt politicians
• Scientists leaving the country
• Strikes and riots
• Real estate taxes

In addition to these "minor" events, we added the influence cards to emulate the real fact that every businessman needs connections within the government to succeed. Not surprisingly, many of them originate from (but are not limited to) the Greek situation as well.

• Corrupt union leaders
• Politicians that are sponsored by investors
• Loans given without proper assessment

II. The Greek Guild's Contest

During the last months of 2012, we decided that the game was almost complete and decided to show it to our friends in the Greek Guild of BoardGameGeek. A lot of those guys were enthusiastic about the game and helped us a lot in the final stages of development with their ideas and their long and many playtests. Many of them are still eagerly waiting for the published edition.

During this time the game was called "Bailout" (yes, Sotiris was still struggling to find a name that he liked) and the hypothetical country in crisis was called "Elutopia" (from the names "Hellas" and "Utopia"). With this name the game took part in the 3rd Greek Board Game Contest, where it won both the reviewers and public awards. The following photo is from a playtest during the competition when the public had the chance to play all games. The guy explaining the game is Sotiris, while I was enjoying my cheeseburger.

Board Game: Crisis

Of course, during this stage we didn't have any artwork at all. The game was printed on white papers and we had colored cubes to represent the materials. You can also see the printed money and the small employee cards. There was some amateur artwork involved with the buildings and the event cards that was done by me and Sotiris. It is worth noting that the game that won second place in that contest was Among the Stars...

III. The Orion Era

One morning after the contest, I had a call from Sotiris. This was perhaps the hundredth time that we had contacted each other to discuss the name of the game (although we didn't have any publisher yet). Sotiris had the epiphany to give a sci-fi theme to the game and rename it "Orion Inc". The storyline was that a planet (Valdor) that belonged to a large federation (Galactic Consortium) had financial problems and the federation had devised an austerity plan to save its economy. Being a dedicated Trekkie myself, I was happy with the idea (although I think that I was happier that Sotiris had finally found a name that he liked). We had a good friend draw us some sci-fi themed cards and uploaded both the photos and the rulebook to BoardGameGeek, where the game entered the "Hotness" list.

Board Game: Crisis
Board Game: Crisis
Board Game: Crisis

This is the storyline that we devised back then:

Valdor is a prosperous planet of the Orion Arm that's inhabited by a developing humanoid race. During the last century, the Valdorians have made vast technological and economic progress. Valdor, located relatively far from the economic center of the Galaxy, has asked to become a member of the Galactic Consortium, a large economic union of numerous races occupying the greater portion of the Sagittarius Arm, closer to the galactic center. But it is necessary in order to be accepted into the community to achieve certain difficult economic goals during a tight time frame consisting of seven years. Now it's Valdor's time to shine...or not? Corruption has begun to poison the members of the High Council, while other races would be more than happy to see their effort fail…
IV. LudiCreations

After about a year, we learned that LudiCreations was interested in publishing the game. They had seen the game in Greece and liked it a lot. Of course we were more than happy to have them handle its publication.

More than that, they embraced the game and enriched it with their own vision. The game was renamed Crisis and received a dieselpunk sci-fi theme. The LudiCreations team worked hard not only on the illustrations, but also to rearrange the board and the company cards in order to enhance the playing experience. Also, they were kind enough to allow us to take part in all production phases, asking our opinions on all matters. Now, we are very excited to have an actual hard copy of Crisis in our hands!

Board Game: Crisis
Crisis at SPIEL 2016
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