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Designer Diary: The Sands of Time, and the Evolution of the Idea of a Game

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Come talk design at the Jeff's World of Game Design blog!
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Board Game: The Sands of Time
I've written at length about the design process that led to The Sands of Time, which releases in late March 2018 from Spielworxx, so what I'd like to talk about here is the history of the idea of The Sands of Time. By this, I don't mean how I came up with the idea for The Sands of Time, but rather the process by which I came to realize that discovering a game's central idea is an important part of game design.

Let me elaborate a bit on this point. The idea of a game is what the game is all about, its focus, its beating heart. We can approach this, Zendo-style, by first identifying what it is not:

X It is not merely the game's theme or subject. Sands is a civilization game, but it isn't about civilization-building.

X It is not merely the game's combination of mechanisms. Sands features simultaneous action selection, but it's not about this particular mechanism.

X It is not merely the game's premise or player representation. In Sands, you enter the role of a ruler of an ancient civ, but that's also not what the game is about.

A decent approximation might be to say that a game's core idea is the element of the game around which all of the player's decisions revolve. Perhaps it will become more clear as we walk through the history of this idea as it pertains to Sands.

From gallery of jwarrend
First Era: Sands Is About Differentiation

I began working on Sands in 2003 when I first heard about Mare Nostrum from Bruno Faiduti's blog. I was fairly new to design and the idea of a "playable civ" sounded like a fun challenge. The game's early life began in sessions hosted by Ernestborg9.

In its early stages, Sands was about...well, it was about five hours, actually, so a lot of the design effort was focused on cutting length to realize that civ lite goal. To the extent that there was a central animating idea, I think it was that in Civilization, the different civilizations all ended up feeling monochrome (and admittedly, I played Civ only a couple of times, so this might not be a fair impression). I thought a more sandbox-style game in which you could diversify your strategy to emulate different historical civs would be fun.

To promote this, the game had four different scoring categories, each loosely based on a historical civ's grandeur: number of territories (Rome), cultural diffusion (Greece), cultural achievement (Greece/Egypt), and wealth (Babylon, or perhaps Israel in Solomon's reign, if you accept the Biblical text at face value). However, the scoring in each category was rank-based, so I was ironically working against my goal of avoiding homogeneous civs; the game's scoring system was telling everyone to try to compete in as many categories as possible! There's a design lesson in there about incentive structures, but we'll save that for another day.

Second Era: Sands Is About Dichotomies

One contributing factor to the excessive length was the action system, which was an old school Avalon Hill-esque bullet point list of phases (see the player aid to the above right). Each step prompted every player for a decision, and serial player decisions are a game length killer. It was many years later that, at the suggestion of P. D. Magnus I realized that the actual solution to this problem was to parallelize these decisions. But at this early point in the design and as a nascent designer, the solution seemed to be to make the actions shorter and punchier.

From gallery of jwarrend
So I arranged the actions into a 4x2 grid, with each column representing a particular "prefect" that you could call on. (The player mat to the left shows this; also shown is a later iteration of an action selection board.) The catch was that each prefect could focus on only one thing, so your empire prefect could either go out and conquer new lands, or focus internally and reduce unrest, but not both. (In fairness, this wasn't a terrible way of speeding up decisions by reducing choice, since as the turn went on, you'd have fewer and fewer columns available to you.)

I realized that the action system was forcing players to make binary decisions: build or produce, populate or migrate, war or govern, chronicle or advance. Then I looked at the rest of the game, and there were a lot of other things that came in twos: two unit types, two resources, two types of structures. I had stumbled upon a game that was a study of dichotomies, and I realized that this was an overarching idea that lay behind the game's core mechanisms and that pulled them together in a unifying framework. I wasn't sure what to do about it and didn't necessarily build the design around this premise, but it was at least a realization that the game even had an idea.

Third Era: Sands Is About History-Making

Throughout the design process I had been struggling to get the scoring system right: When does scoring happen, and what authorizes you to score? In this era, we nixed the rank-based scoring and replaced it with "chronicle cards". A crucial addition to this idea was the somewhat later introduction of achievement tokens.

I had split things into three civilization categories — civil, cultural, and political — thereby quietly ending the dichotomies era of the game. This split imposed a nice overarching structure onto the game, with advances, buildings, actions, and chronicles all separated into these three categories. We added achievement tokens in these three categories as a currency that connected to the action selection system. There were cards that said, e.g., "If you win a battle this turn, you get two political tokens", etc. What I realized, though, was that these tokens could represent not just your achievements, but also (abstractly) your reputation — and that could connect to the scoring system; it could be that to score in a category, you had to pay a certain number of achievement tokens in that category.

From gallery of jwarrend
This was something quite different from other games. In most games, you're told that thing X is worth Y points, and when scoring happens, you get all of the points you're entitled to. In Sands, chronicles represent boasts about your exploits, but what's important isn't only whether those boasts are true, but also whether people believe them, that is, whether you've established a reputation for the thing you're claiming to have done. Achievement tokens were the conduit for this, and this idea of needing to write your history and establish your reputation took center stage as the core idea of the game.

As I became aware that it was the game's core idea, I began building systems around it. For example, how do you build a reputation? Well, one way is through cultural exchange; your people carry stories of your deeds to foreign lands. Thus, trade routes entered the game as a way to capture this. Heritage was another, with the things you score for in one scoring round giving you an "achievement kickback" in future turns.

The culmination of all of this was the realization that Sands is a history-making game, a game about building and telling the story of a civilization as it unfolds. When I teach the game, this is always the first thing I say, and I hope that it comes through for the players as well.

The Idea of a Game

The aspects that became the ideas of Sands in the various phases were present in the game from its earliest time. The two-types-of-stuff that led to the dichotomy emphasis were in there all along, and so was the idea of history-making (originally in the form of a random event, the "historian" card, which triggered scoring).

The evolution of a core idea was in some ways, then, the moving around of a spotlight. My role as the designer was really to discover, over a long period of observation, where the game itself wanted that spotlight to be shined. It wouldn't have worked to have tried to impose a grand idea from the outset because that might have ended up suffocating the game. That's not to say it can't work this way. My good friend Seth Jaffee has talked about how Eminent Domain began as a study in letting the actions that players take directly improve their ability in that action henceforth, and TauCeti Deichmann (also a good friend) has talked in this space about how Sidereal Confluence (a.k.a. "Trade Empires") was his attempt to create a game built around positive-sum interaction.

But while it can happen that a grand idea is imposed from the beginning or discovered through iteration, I think what's probably more common is for a game to never quite find a central animating idea beyond its basic premise or subject or mechanical foundation. Of course every game has to start somewhere, and "I want to make a game about the westward expansion" or "I want to combine role selection with dice rolling" are perfectly good starting points, just as "I want to write a story about a young person who is given a strange ring by his uncle" is a good starting point for a book. But I think the games that go on to become classics may achieve that extra level of greatness and durability precisely because their designers found a bigger idea in the theme and the mechanisms that they were tinkering with, and that this enabled the game to transcend its theme and its mechanisms to be something bigger.

As I've worked on other designs, I've seen this same discovery process unfold, so:

A game "about" the Olympic downhill eventually became a game about risk management, specifically about modulating your exposure to risk as you traverse a course with easier and more difficult patches.

A game that began with "I wonder what a game with sand timers as playing pieces would be like?" ended up as a game about the temporal choreography between asymmetric roles (specifically in the context of a bustling French restaurant).

A game "about" the Thirty Years War became a game about conquest when the very act of combat destroys the territories you're fighting over.

And so on.

Finding the Game's Idea

If it's so important that a game have a central idea, how do we find it? The challenge is to be aware that focusing on a central idea is something that you want to happen. I can't prescribe a specific recipe or timetable for it to happen. It's a passive process, which is hard to accept as a designer, but I think two things can help.

sugar First, it helps to listen to one's playtesters. What are they saying about the game? What are they reacting to most favorably? What are they showing the most excitement about? What about the game keeps them coming back to it over and over? When they say, "Ah, this bit here is very nice!", what is the "this" that they're pointing out? Playtesting is so important to the design process, not merely because it lets the designer see whether a game "works" or not, but because it allows for the input from the playtesters to shape the game. Listen to your playtesters' suggestions, but listen more carefully to their observations. They're watching the game's development unfold along with you, but they see it from a different vantage point.

sugar The second thing is harder: Wait. So many posts in the BGG design forums read like, "I just had a great idea for a game that I'm hoping to Kickstart later this year." No! Give your games room to breathe — not just lots of playtests, but plenty of time, as in calendar time. There's really no rush. Plan on spending extended periods of time in which the game is marinating or sitting on the back burner. The perspective of time is important in articulating and clarifying what about the game is important or distinctive.

I've been told that in the automotive world, there are accelerated weather tests for paint coatings, but they are an imperfect substitute for the "Florida test", that is, putting the painted part out in Florida and waiting for several years. Game design is like that in many ways: There's no substitute for spending a long time working on a game, and doing so gives one the best chance of hitting upon a compelling central idea for the game.

Closing Thoughts

I'm glad to have gotten to work on Sands, and despite its long development, it was time well spent. I'm appreciative of the playtesters and am gratified to see that the time we collectively spent on the game has come to fruition. I hope that our efforts will provide you who play it with enjoyment and perhaps some interesting stories that you can proclaim for years to come!

Jeff Warrender

From gallery of jwarrend
Early stage cover art by my daughters, who are now teenagers; this game has been in development for a long time!
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