Daniel Skjold Pedersen
13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a two-player microgame with tough decisions released in early 2017 by Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games.
When the big brother to 13 Minutes — 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — was released in 2016, Asger and I wrote a 13-chapter long designer diary. In that spirit, this piece will be 13 short, almost anecdotal stories of what 13 Minutes is and how it came to be.
1. What is 13 Minutes?
The 13-second pitch is that 13 Minutes is Love Letter meets 13 Days.
2. No, really, what is 13 Minutes?
The slightly longer story is that it is a two-player microgame set at the height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the game, you want to flex your superpower muscle and dominate battlegrounds, but — and there is a but — if you push your agenda too far you may trigger nuclear war, so be careful.
And did I say that you play only five cards per game, so each decision matters a lot?
3. Sitting by a pool
When 13 Days was funded on Kickstarter back in July 2015, I was vacationing in Italy. I celebrated by the poolside, but not with a glass of red wine as you would expect. In my hand I had 13 blank cards and 13 red and blue cubes and a pen.
Half an hour later, I had figured out how to translate the 13 Days experience into a microgame setting and sketched the basic cards for the first prototype of 13 Minutes.
Designing the easy 80 percent
4. Why 13 Minutes?
The idea of making a microgame version of a political card-driven game had been buzzing in the heads of both Asger and I for some time back then. We like to push game genres into new territories. 13 Days did just that as a 45-minute distillation of some of the nail-biting and tense moments from epic political games like Twilight Struggle.
13 Minutes is pushing that genre quite a bit more. We wanted to see whether it would float.
Stakes are high in 13 Minutes, which is no different from in 13 Days. The game is all about brinkmanship. It is a balancing act of cunning play and a tug-of-war of brute force.
You want to dominate battlegrounds to gain prestige, but each time you add influence to a battleground, you draw that card closer to your side of the table. Doing so is great because at the end of the game cards on your side will be all yours if no one dominates — but then again it is not great at all because all cards have a colored DEFCON symbol. If you end the game with three of the same color, you have triggered nuclear war and lost the game.
6. First origin
I use my notes app on the phone all the time, and a lot of that is for game-related stuff. For me it is a useful tool to get thoughts out of my head, but coincidentally it also allows me to track the first note I have for 13 Minutes. It goes:
13 Days with only 13 cards (and cubes). 5 US, 5 USSR and 3 neutral.
Played cards become battlegrounds.
Command: Add influence — move card closer to your zone. Remove influence — move card away from your zone.
Suspense: Endgame reveal — you may trigger nuclear war!
And then some more stuff that didn't end up in the game.
An early prototype when events were all symbols
7. Why so obsessed with the number 13?
As any designer can tell you, working under constraints often brings creativity. We set up constraints for ourselves all the time. Sometimes arbitrary ones (e.g., what if you couldn't talk?), but most often from experience (e.g., is that rule necessary?) or production concerns (e.g., we need to limit the components to one deck of cards).
With 13 Minutes, the framework was integral to the core idea. How could a microgame in the world of 13 Days ever have anything other than 13 cards as well as 13 cubes for each player?
8. Building a political world map
The "map" in 13 Minutes is an abstraction, but an important one that serves two main purposes.
First, it underlines the global nature of the crisis. In the beginning there is only Cuba — one battleground on the table. As you play cards and take actions, those cards become new battlegrounds. Though Cuba is still the most important battleground (as it's worth double prestige points), you learn that your resources are limited and will have to pick your fights with care.
9. A living DEFCON track
Second, the "map" is an evolving DEFCON track. Controlling cards left and right is not a problem until you consider the implications.
You are walking a tightrope. Too strong actions in one area may tip you over and be the final push to nuclear war.
10. How Cuba was born
Looking at the game now, one would think that the Cuba card — the sole face-down card — was introduced to the game by flipping a card to hide information. Actually, what happened was the reverse.
In the beginning, all cards were played face down to hide their DEFCON color. It was sort of a memory game inside the game that was totally unnecessary. Losses due to nuclear war would come at a higher rate in those early playtests, and players did not appreciate the lack of control. The obvious solution was to play cards face up, and thus Cuba was born to retain some uncertainty.
Note all the face-down cards on the table; Cuba is everywhere and nowhere
11. The devil is in the detail
What I am most proud about in the game are two details that enhance the core experience of brinkmanship.
I) The player who dominates the most military (orange) DEFCON cards at the end of the game gains 1 extra prestige. It is a little reward worth going for — but the deck contains one extra orange card, so the odds of going broke on DEFCON is considerably higher. Value and risk go hand in hand.
II) The Cuba battleground awards you 2 prestige, making it another reward you should fight for — but then Cuba will likely go into your sphere of influence and push you to play a more cautious game. Here again, value and risk go hand in hand.
12. So did we push it too far?
The first reviews suggest no. This is both pleasing and upsetting:
• Pleasing obviously because we want to make games for an audience that is larger than two.
• Upsetting because a part of me wanted to cross over that threshold. At least all this has sparked a new project that used to be a standing joke with us: 13 Seconds.
13. How to play
Are you tired of reading rulebooks? Dan King, also known as the Game Boy Geek, has done a most excellent "Rules School" video. I point all new players towards his instructions.
Have fun with the game!
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
The evolution of a cover; I am responsible only for the leftmost one...