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Designer Diary: A Tale of Pirates, or Isn't Turn-Based Real-Time Play an Oxymoron?

Asger Harding Granerud
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Board Game Designer
Early Flamme Rouge prototype
Microbadge: 13 Days fanMicrobadge: Flamme Rouge fan!Microbadge: 13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis fan!Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Flamme Rouge fan
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
I remember exactly when the first seed of inspiration for what eventually became A Tale of Pirates was planted. It was Easter 2012, and I had attended the Danish board and role-playing game convention Fastaval for the first time. While sitting around relaxing, I had a chat with Martin Enghoff, a fellow game designer and participant in the convention. He brainstormed an idea he had had for using sand timers as a "cooldown" mechanism in a board game. Basically you would place your timer on your intended action, but not get to activate it until the sand had fallen. I was immediately sold on that idea!

Disclaimer: Before anyone beheads me for misusing the term "cooldown" mechanism, I'll add that I'm well aware it isn't really what is happening. It was just the initial thing that came to mind!

I love working as part of a team in games, whether fully cooperative designs or other team games. Among my favorites are Captain Sonar, Hanabi, Magic Maze and Flick 'em Up! These four examples all take different approaches to handling the dreaded "alpha player" syndrome through a combination of limiting communication, adding time pressure, or emphasizing dexterity. When done successfully, such games can lead to the elusive and patented "high five moments", moments when upon the achievement of some goal the team erupts into...wait for it...high fiving!

Celebrating achievements in groups brings the pure unadulterated joy of gaming to the forefront. I literally love it! A Tale of Pirates is exactly such a game for me, and I hope you will find it is for you, too. I've played it hundreds of times and seen it played almost as much. When Daniel Skjold Pedersen and I sit down and play it together on the hardest difficulty, we almost move together as one silent well-coordinated machine. A few sharp commands to coordinate the crew's actions can be heard across the deck, but aside from that there are just the waves crashing against the hull. And we still high five after beating a tense mission!

The sand timers add the time pressure that is needed to curtail the alpha players, but does so without the full-on franticness that we've seen in other time-based cooperative games — and frankly a franticness that has previously scared away many "serious" gamers. I can't tell you the number of times we've heard testers say something along these lines: "I normally dislike games with time pressure, but this..." The 30-second wait allows just enough room to breathe, making it possible to talk and coordinate rather than just react. Moreover each scenario is (typically) divided into several chapters, which means you stop at key points throughout, again allowing you to take an even deeper breath and coordinate the next burst of actions. This is why I call it turn-based real-time gaming. It feels turn-based, and it feels real-time. Magic. Pirate magic!

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Timers and everything else ready for the first mission

But before the magic happened, hard work happened. This is without comparison the most complex design project I've been involved in. The game itself is fairly straightforward, but the ten distinct gaming experiences designed in each mission pulled out some teeth. We have worked hard to ensure that you aren't simply getting slight variations on the same theme, but actually giving varied experiences. I've been quoted as claiming that the basic scenario (#2) is something you could release as a game in its own right, but let's not stop there. Let's add that ten scenarios had to be balanced at three different difficulty levels? That each player count also poses a different balancing challenge? That testing this game became a nightmare because we wanted fresh eyes on the campaign and thus burned through testers faster than you can say "YAAAARGH!" Did I mention that all this had to be baked into an app that we didn't have access to for most of the design period? I've never had as extensive a Google docs sheet to keep track of these multiple overlapping layers, and all for the sake of what is at its core an extremely simple game. All that said, I'm super proud of what we've built and of how Cranio Creations lifted the challenge.

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates

Ten mission packs, a sneak peek at one of them, and the insert for holding cards after a mission has been opened

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Notes from the development of the app, scenarios, and more (A3)

The journey to get to this point took many years. It involved bursts of intense design, long period of waiting, crazy ambitions, and much more. At the top of the list it also involved Daniel and I for the first time collaborating with a third designer: Daniele Tascini. Daniele is best known for Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and The Voyages of Marco Polo, but has designed many other games. Note that those two games are very different from A Tale of Pirates; I want to state that loud and clear before anyone buys it hoping to find a heavy Eurogame. Tzolk'in is one of my personal favorite Eurogames, so getting the opportunity to learn how Daniele designs was a great experience!

If you want to read more about the passages we had to navigate and the rocks we hit en route, then please proceed.

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates

A Tale of Pirates is a cooperative game for 2-4 players, ages 8 and up. Inside the box you will find a big 3D pirate ship, cards, and lots of counters. In addition, you get a free downloadable app, which will help you along! The game takes about 20-30 minutes per scenario, but you might not succeed at first. (If you do, consider picking a harder difficulty.) Of course we hope you want to play all ten scenarios, as the narrative, complexity, and craziness evolves at each step. The app will be available for both Android and iOS, and you can play using either a phone or a tablet.

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
Three screenshots from the app

This Is NOT a Legacy Game

Though A Tale of Pirates evolves, it is NOT a legacy game. Changes aren't permanent, and they CAN be reset at any time. However, as the campaign progresses, you DO open envelopes with new content: upgrades, enemies, and more. Each of the ten scenarios are unique, and the app helps handle the bookkeeping, introduces events, and manages reveals as you go deeper into the story. We compare it to a classic computer game in which you can always go back and replay previous levels, but you can't jump ahead until you've finished the level currently in front of you. (Well, you can, and we can't stop you, but we do recommend you try them in order as they wasn't chosen at random.) If you get far enough, you might even encounter whatever lurks beneath!

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates
The Kraken is (almost) always lurking beneath the surface

Getting from 2012 to the Present Day

When the initial spark of an idea first happened back in 2012, a whole year passed before I even considered starting the design. Martin Enghoff, who had shared his idea, wanted to build a game for the Fastaval convention the following year. I was so fascinated by the idea that I even proposed a partnership with him to codesign the game, but he declined. As it turned out — and as it almost always turns out — the idea that Martin brought a year later was nothing like what I had in mind. I've since learned not to worry too much about parallel designs as they rarely end up being parallel at all. Slightly different takes on the same idea typically result in vastly different outcomes after the many iterations a board game goes through, at least in my experience.

The spring of 2013 was also the year that Daniel and I started designing 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis together, and since then we have never really looked back. He was thus onboard from the first prototypes and ideas.

From gallery of AsgerSG
From gallery of AsgerSG
From gallery of AsgerSG
Three pictures from Fastaval 2012: Me in the white shirt playing Third Person Shooter,
the central hall where I first heard of the idea for cooldown, and my first boardgame design: [Mental]-Football

Is It Just a Gimmick?

The pirate theme had solidified one step at a time in my mind. We already had the core mechanism chosen, which was cooperative real-time worker placement. I figured that a ship crew having to cooperate under time pressure was an ideal fit. Pirates face lots of different challenges, so we wouldn't run out of material midway in the design.

The next thing this meant was building a 3D pirate ship. At a quick glance, this could look like a gimmick, but it actually had to be done for game design purposes. The ship is in the middle of the table, but is being swung around when you turn it. The sand timers fell over on early prototypes of the game, so making holes in the deck to hold the sand timers became a practical necessity to ensure a minimum of fiddliness. This is important in any game design, but putting fiddly in the corner is a prime concern when a game is played under any type of time pressure. We want players focused on the game and its choices, not lunging after bits and having their plans thwarted by a fallen timer.

Once decided, this also allowed us to use the 3D feature for a number of other things. The mast was installed as an intuitive place to set a sail, which helps keep track of speed. Hearts were attached to the ship as hit points (or rather hull points in this game), so everyone could see at a glance how good a shape the ship was in. And, assuming you get far enough in the campaign, you might discover other features that can be added to the ship at a later point.

Board Game: A Tale of Pirates

It has been a fantastic journey to get here, and I am proud of the final product the team has delivered. I think you guys are getting an innovative, eye-catching, and fantastic game with a bucket full of content. Of course I am also terribly biased, so for now I can only cross my fingers and hope to see you all make this a runaway hit at SPIEL '17.

Happy gaming!
Asger Granerud

P.S.: Daniel and I will demo and sign the game on both Friday and Saturday from 14:00 to 15:00 at SPIEL '17. Come see us at Hall 1: A118!
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