The inspiration for Claim started with a love of trick-taking games and a sadness that there are very, very few for two players. My family traditionally has played a lot of card games, and trick-taking games are my personal favorite of the classic card game genre. Oh Hell! is my personal favorite because I love the bidding, but Euchre is also a family staple. Sadly, neither of these are functional for two players without clumsy variants.
Thus, the quest to make Claim was born, driven by a want of a two-player trick-taking game — but there was something else underneath that. Creating a new trick-taking game is almost a rite of passage for a game designer. It is a design space that has centuries of development behind it. A trick-taking game offers a unique challenge that differs from most other designs because when you design a trick-taking game it's not only a new design, but it is also an homage to the genre and its history.
Like any modern trick-taking game, Claim was inspired in part by another trick-taking game. Classics like Wizard and Sluff Off! are rooted in Oh Hell! and other bidding games. Clubs and Diamonds were developed to fill the spiritual gaps between Spades and Hearts. Haggis and Tichu derive from climbing games like Big 2. (You may direct your arguments on whether climbing games are trick-taking games in the comments below.) Trick-taking games are designed to be a heartfelt love letter to the genre, all while trying to make your own mark in the busy design space. I wanted to do the same: Give homage to trick-takers past (and in this case, mostly forgotten) while bringing an update to the modern age.
For Claim, the mechanical inspiration was the Whist series of games, specifically German Whist, which has a unique twist in that the game is played in two phases: 1) You play "tricks" to draft a hand of cards for the second phase, then 2) you play your drafted cards, with the player who collected the most tricks winning. This is a cool mechanism, but has its flaws. The first phase can feel a bit boring. You aren't playing to win tricks, but rather cards, and you get no immediate excitement from doing so. In the second phase, it's possible to know who the winner is before the round starts based on which cards were collected in the first phase. These two problems meant the game could be very hit or miss.
I wanted more from this game. It was clever, but not robust enough for a satisfying play every time. From playing this game, and my journey through trick-taking games in general, I wanted to take what I thought was fun and build a whole new game around it.
The theme came first. The original name of the game was "King of the Kingdom", which was later switched to Claim by publisher White Goblin Games. The idea was that the King had died, so now you were trying to win the throne. I pictured two candidates vying for control and influence for the throne. The game would be played in two phases: First, you draft followers from one of the five different factions in order to fight for you. Then, in the second phase, you go head-to-head with the other player with the followers you've acquired.
That had a nice flow, giving a thematic anchor to the game on which I could build. This theme led to a unique winning condition. Most trick-taking games require you to win a certain number of tricks, or simply the most. I wanted which cards you won to matter; the game wasn't just about winning tricks, but which tricks.
From that idea, I decided that the game would have five factions. At the end of the game, each player would have a pile of cards that they'd won in tricks, but the total number of tricks wouldn't matter; what would matter are the factions themselves, specifically the number of cards you have in each faction. If you have the most, you win that faction's influence. Win the influence of three of the five factions, and you have won the quest to claim that throne.
Those parts of the game came together quickly. The theme felt right, and the win condition felt unique. One of the issues with the original game of German Whist is that the best strategy tended to be to dominate in a single suit, then run with it. That was no longer the case in Claim. You needed to do well in several suits to win. It was a lovely twist that bucked the norm of trick-takers.
The game was pretty fun at this point. The fact that you needed to have majority in three out of five factions was already cool, giving an almost "area control" feel over the game. It felt like you were doing more than just collecting cards. But I wanted these five factions to feel unique, so I decided to play around with special powers and that's when things would really get turned on their head — and the most development time came into the process.
I wanted just five powers. I didn't want a lot of card text. I didn't want cards within each faction functioning differently. I wanted each faction to play differently, but be easy to learn and play. Having fun the first game is important. I didn't want a bunch of different exceptions for each card. I wanted this to be a game that any lover of card games, whether they enjoyed modern games or not, could step into and learn quickly — but unique powers are tricky like that and are hard to master.
There was a core concept for these factions, and that was related to the end game condition. You win by gaining influence in three factions. Thus, I wanted each faction to have a unique strategy to win it, almost as if each suit had a unique mind game to collect them. This is how Claim turned into something special.
The Goblins and the Knights came first. They were fun to play off one another. Knights could instantly beat Goblins, which was simple to learn but tricky in practice. Since you have to follow suit, your opponent can pull Knights out of your hand early before you can use them to capture tons of goblins.
With the Knights having a distinct advantage over Goblins, the Goblin ability was tricky. I didn't want a circular rock-paper-scissors concept in which each faction had a priority as I find that's hard to track. In the end, I went thematic: Goblins aren't special, but there are a lot of them. This was balanced by putting in fewer Knights. So you have lots of Goblins and few Knights, but Knights instantly beat Goblins. This had a great flow and gave an extra twist to you needing to win a majority of the factions. A few Knights can win you a faction, but Goblins take a lot of work and planning.
The Undead were next. I wanted a faction that played around with the first phase of the game. The first phase is when you play tricks in order to win your cards for the second phase. Those cards are typically discarded — fodder for the drafting phase — but not the Undead. The Undead are the only ones you are able to collect for the end game scoring in the first round. This is super fun and added more meaning to the first phase. Now, if you want to win the Undead, you have to start thinking early, or else you'll start phase two already behind your opponent!
The Dwarves were a slightly evil twist since you can collect them when you lose. Thus, if your opponent is running away with a suit, you can play Dwarf cards and collect them for the endgame scoring. The winner of the hand still gets any non-Dwarf cards, and this adds a way to collect cards even when you are losing. Winning the Dwarf faction is something challenging but fun.
Last were the Doppelgangers. These are wild cards, so they match the suit played. This keeps all the other factions on their toes, and these cards are a hot commodity. You can use a Doppelganger to get a match in a faction you need during play, but they count as their own faction at the end of the game. Once again, a very tricky faction to get hold of.
With those developments, the end result was this lovely little two-player trick-taking game called Claim. It’s rooted in traditional trick-taking games, but it creates a fun little niche all its own. What I'm most proud of is how the winning condition of needing to gain majority in three of the five factions plays out. It's not as simple as trying to gain a bunch of hearts or spades in play. You have to start thinking during the drafting phase, and each faction has its own little puzzle to solve in order to win it, yet these puzzles conflict with each other. If you think you can win Dwarves, you need to lose tricks — but you need to win tricks to beat other factions. And, how many Knights can you spend to ensure you win Knights, while also holding some back to defeat Goblins? Do you want to use your Doppelgangers to boost a faction you already have, or do you want to lead with them to ensure they are on your side at the end of the game? These five abilities added to a streamlined ruleset make for a fun and quick game, and one I am proud of and still enjoy playing. I hope it's a game you'll all enjoy playing, too!