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Designer Diary: Paper Tales

Board Game: Paper Tales
How It Began

I started game designing in 2010. Around that time, the board game scene in Japan was growing rapidly; more overseas games were imported and localized, participants of Tokyo Game Market increased year by year, and so many new games were self-published by Japanese indie designers every year. That was such a good environment that I started trying to realize my boyhood dream: making and selling my own game.

At first, I tried to make a tableau-building game (like Race for the Galaxy) in which players assemble their kingdom by buying units and buildings from an open market (like Dominion). After several playtests, I abandoned the game because it was just boring. However, I liked a mechanism in the game, which was that units got experience counters and grew up through the game. I decided to focus on that. I thought the idea was a bit too straightforward — gaining experience was always good, and experienced units were always better — so I needed a small twist. I turned experience counters into age counters, and now aged units may be better, but units that become too aged must die.

Age counters brought a time cycle to the game. Units come, work, fight, then die. Since units constantly come and go, players must make their plan and keep managing their armies and workers. This idea became the core of the gameplay. It also had a strong feel of a story and defined the theme of the game: a hundred years war. However, I found that buying units from an open market was too slow in comparison with the aging cycle, so I wanted to change the method of gaining units from an open market to another that could deliver units to players more smoothly.

Just then, I heard that a game featuring CCG-style booster drafting had attracted attention in Essen. It was, yes, 7 Wonders. Though it was a little difficult for me to import it immediately, it reminded me of another drafting card game, one published in Japan in 2004: Fairy Tale. So I grabbed that game from my shelf and found that the drafting method would fit with the aging cycle of my game.

In these ways, the prototype got the two core mechanisms: aging and drafting. I renewed the list of units and buildings, then started countless playtests.

Designing Unit Cards

Being a long time CCG player, I wanted to make a card game with a bunch of cards, so I did.

At first, I defined a pool of 72 cards, considering shuffleability and printing cost. Then I divided them into three rarities (common, uncommon and rare) and four categories (military, income, production and others). I used this as a design skeleton and started to design individual cards for each slot. The first card designed was Knight (1 coin / 4 strength), and it became a scale of the power balance.

From gallery of dbs_curry

Since there are a bunch of cards and each player receives five cards at once in a draft, I thought that the majority of the cards should be simple, so most cards have only one role. By doing so, when drafting players can choose not a specific card but what they want to do.

The majority of the cards should be simple, yes, but the others should be something special, so I made rare cards that were powerful, challenging or different. Most of them cost a lot of money but had high potential. In particular, Relic and Kraken provided a unique path to win the game.

As a CCG player, I love combos, so I wanted to put combos in the game. To interact with each other as a combo, cards need some kind of a "common language" that is used by all cards and can be utilized or manipulated in various ways. In the game, there are age counters. All units receive an age counter at the end of a round, and age counters have a basic role of defining the lifetime of each unit. Aside from that, age counters can be placed, removed, counted or converted into coins or VP by abilities.

Thus, the age counters became a "common language" of the cards and made open-ended combos possible. Age counters basically just define a unit's lifetime, but sometimes they bump up strength, provide coins, produce resources, or can be harvested as VP.

Designing Building Cards

In this game, all men must die. To contrast this fatalism I made buildings, which never die.

At first, each building just had a single ability, and there were no levels. Players built buildings by paying resources, and buildings provided their benefit until the end of the game. No more and no less than that.

Trying to make it more interesting, I added three levels to them; the buildings were built at level 1 and could be upgraded to level 2 or 3 later. The higher the level, the more abilities the building has. I like growth, and upgrading is fun. But to indicate its level, each building needed level counters, which I thought were not elegant. After several sessions, I came up with the idea that levels could be indicated by just flipping the card instead of putting counters on it if I decrease the number of levels from 3 to 2. Since it seemed worth doing, I did just that. This change also helped to make each building simpler.

From gallery of dbs_curry

At that moment, putting aside their immortality, buildings still didn't have enough difference from units. I thought that since they last until the end of the game, they should be the axis of each player's strategy. As a result, I changed one of their abilities to something that continuously provides VP by meeting a condition during the game (and I cut down the base VP of the buildings that can be gained at the end of the game automatically).

Through this change, each building came to push players to a specific direction. It allowed players to select their strategy through the choice of a building.

Self-Publishing in Japan

Playtesting the game was always fun. I tested it mainly with my friends from university. They were skilled gamers and gave much helpful feedback. We played from morning to midnight. Sometimes I missed the last train and had to walk home, but I was happy because it meant that the game was so fun that I lost track of time.

After playtesting for half a year, I decided to self-publish the game and bring it to Tokyo Game Market in Spring 2011. I named it [thing=130548]Vorpals[/thing]. I asked a friend of mine to draw illustrations, and I designed components by myself. It wasn't perfect, but that process turned out to be a great experience.

From gallery of dbs_curry

I printed only one hundred copies at first. Back in the days, even one hundred was a big number for Japanese indie designers (as many of them were making copies by hand with a home printer). As it turned out, the copies sold out in thirty minutes, and the game received many positive reviews.

From gallery of dbs_curry

Half a year later, I made the second edition. Some of the cards were tweaked for balancing, and a few new buildings were added. I asked Tori Hasegawa, who is a representative board game artist in Japan nowadays, to draw the new box art and redesign the board and counters. I printed and brought five hundred copies to Tokyo Game Market Autumn 2011. They also sold out in a day.

From gallery of dbs_curry

It was a great success for a beginning indie designer in Japan. Following this, I got to work on a small expansion, which features new units and buildings. To accelerate the development process, I made a small program to playtest automatically. A human playtest takes twenty minutes per game, but an AI playtest takes only twenty seconds and can be repeated all day long: Make changes, AI test, human test, make changes, AI test, human test... This process was iterated rapidly.

After another six months, the expansion was completed, and I printed one thousand copies of each of the base game and the expansion. I brought half of the copies I made to Tokyo Game Market Spring 2012 and sold another half to distributors.

From gallery of dbs_curry

I was very satisfied with both the base game and the expansion, so though they've been reprinted continuously, I stopped working on the game and moved onto the next one.

Catch Up Games and Paper Tales

After Vorpals, I designed a micro dungeon-crawling game, Dungeon of Mandom, and Oink Games published it in Japan. Then Yannick Deplaedt, an agent living in Japan, picked it up and introduced it to IELLO, and IELLO published the game worldwide as Welcome to the Dungeon.

Coincidentally, Yannick and I lived in the same city, Nagoya. Thanks to this opportunity, we became good friends and played games together on weekends.

A few years later, I co-designed a two-player card game, Twelve Heroes, with Takashi Sakaue. Yannick linked us to Catch Up Games, and they liked the game and decided to publish it in France. In addition to that game, they also showed an interest in my older design, Vorpals.

Vorpals was successful, but it was still available only in Japan, so I thought this was a good opportunity. Fortunately, they liked Vorpals, too, and I found that they were solid gamers who I would like to entrust the game to.

We started working together, and we exchanged many long emails.

First, they suggested changing the theme and the art. Vorpals had a dark fantasy theme because death and war were at its mechanical core. But to fit in the European market, they proposed paper-cut style art and a theme like a picture storybook. I liked the concept very much because it emphasized the storytelling feeling of the game, and the initial sketches by Christine Alcouffe were awesome. So the game changed into a different outfit and got a new name: Paper Tales.

Second, they asked for optimized two-player rules. Though Vorpals supported a two-player game already, it had fewer options and less surprise. Developing two-player rules was easy and fun since I could playtest with my wife every night. Ahead of this, I had developed two-player drafting rules for Twelve Heroes with Takashi Sakaue, and that experience helped a lot. I had learned that the important elements of two-player drafting are to 1) present enough options and freedom to players, 2) hide some information for hope and surprise, and 3) allow players to appeal or bluff in some way. We tried several methods and found the best way.

Third, we had to make the definitive card pool. Since there was both the Vorpals base set and the expansion, Catch Up Games could make the card pool for Paper Tales by combining them. Receiving their feedback, I tweaked the cards and the card pool one more time. The playtest program worked hard again. We fixed the final card pool and the rules. Some materials were spared for possible expansion in the future.

From gallery of dbs_curry

My job ended here. Even after that, Sébastien and Clément from Catch up Games worked hard to turn the game into reality. They did a great job on the graphical design in terms of ergonomics. Christine Alcouffe produced fabulous artwork. Now the printing process is ongoing, and I'm very excited. I can't wait to receive my copy and play with it... No matter how many times I've played, this game is always really fun.

Paper Tales will be available at SPIEL '17, so please visit Catch Up Games at booth 3:O108 to play!

Masato Uesugi
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