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Designer and Artist Diary: War Chest, or An Ancient Game in Modern Times

David Thompson
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War Chest is a bag-building game with Euro, wargame, and abstract roots. At the start of the game, you raise your banner call, drafting several units into your army, which you then use to capture key points on the board. To succeed in War Chest, you must successfully manage not only your units on the battlefield, but those that are waiting to be deployed.

Each round, you draw three unit coins from your bag, then take turns using them to perform actions. Each coin shows a military unit on one side, and it can be used for one of several actions. The game ends when one player — or one team in the case of a four-player game — has placed all of their control markers. That player or team wins!


A peak into the War Chest


This is a diary in three parts. The first is a peek into the design process by designers Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson. The second provides an overview of how the game went through development with AEG. The diary closes with a behind-the-scenes look into how Brigette Indelicato brought the game to life with her art.

•••


Part 1: Design by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson

We have been developing games together for a few years now, and this is what we've learned. We both love sleek, modern euro-inspired wargames (affectionately called "waros" or "weuros"). We both love deck-building games. And most importantly, we both love trying to mesh these two things together. War Chest is the successful output of this shared passion.

Having said that, let's get two things straight. War Chest is not really a wargame, and it's not really a deck-building game. Instead, War Chest is a lean, almost abstract, medieval battlefield game built around multi-use "coins" (beautiful, chunky poker chips in the final version) and a "bag management" system reminiscent of Orléans. Each coin in your bag shows a military unit on one side (an archer, a knight, etc.). You play these coins in order to command the depicted unit (to move, to attack, etc.) or to add new coins to your bag, but you also play these coins onto the board to become the units themselves. This core "play and command" mechanism has been with War Chest since its inception, but, as is often the case, it took quite a while to find the best way of showcasing this. This diary tracks some of the key stages in this design and development process.

How Do You Win?

Inspired by the theme and by other abstract-ish war games — Chess, we're looking at you! — the initial goal of War Chest was to capture your opponent's king. We quickly realized the game needed some focal points on the board, so we added strategic locations and a second alternative victory condition based on controlling them.

As it turned out, the kings caused all kinds of problems, so we dumped them, leaving the single, control-based victory condition. This worked much better but took us quite some time to get right. For ages, the goal was to control five of the eight strategic locations on the board. The problem was that it was too easy to get four, but nearly impossible to get five. We spent weeks, and countless clunky mechanisms, trying to hit this mythical sweet spot of four-and-a-half points. We added differential values to the control points, we added tracks to accumulate points over time, we (re-)introduced other ways of getting points, etc.

Luckily, we eventually stumbled on the most obvious solution. We increased the number of available control points from eight to ten and the victory target from five to six. It worked a treat! Lesson learned: Try twiddling existing knobs before creating new ones.


A very early prototype with the initial board layout; you can see the old king pieces for each player


How Do You Play?

Given that War Chest is a bag-building (or better, bag-management) game, we needed an economic system. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to keep the game as lean and elegant as possible, so we started with the constraint that all unit chips would cost the same.

We managed to keep this flat economy throughout the game's development, but again it took us time to settle on the final version. Remember the king? In the early days, each player started with three king chips in their bag. You could use these chips either to command your king on the board (move, attack, etc.) or to recruit another one of your units, adding its chip to your bag. This was actually a decent economic system, but we were forced to find an alternative when the king got axed for other reasons.

Our next solution was to replace the king chips with "coin" chips whose sole purpose was to recruit. (Think Copper cards in Dominion.) This wasn't great. Unlike the previous king chips, these coins had little value late game. And unlike Dominion's Copper, there was no way to remove them from your "pool".

The next (and final) solution came from fellow Cambridge-based designer Matthew Dunstan. Immediately after his first play of the game, he said, "Why not just let any chip be used to recruit?" Boom! That was it. Our old friend the multi-use "card" worked a treat, and we never looked back. (Okay, that's not strictly true. We did re-introduce a "coin" down the line, the "Royal Coin", in order to combat "small bagging", but that's another story...)


Trevor (l) tests War Chest with Chris Marling, another Cambridge-based designer, in July 2016, not long after UKGE


Asymmetry

War Chest ships with sixteen unique units: three mounted units, two ranged units, two battlefield commanders, and a slew of others (mercenary, war priest, and so on). This diversity was not our original intent. Once again striving for elegance (and again drawing inspiration from classical games like Chess), we originally gave each player a symmetric set of units: a king (see above), an archer, a cavalry unit, and a pair of footmen. While this played perfectly well and certainly helped in establishing the core systems in the game, we soon realized that the game allowed for, and indeed greatly benefited from, asymmetrical armies drawn from a larger pool of units. The problem then was balance. We wanted the winner to be the player who played better, not the player who drafted (or was randomly dealt) the better army.


Comparison of a prototype design and a final unit card design


Balance

Balancing units is never easy, but we certainly didn't help ourselves here. Our goal of keeping War Chest as clean and elegant as possible drove us to make core, basic actions in the game "base 1": all units cost one to recruit; they all move one space; they all attack with the "strength" of one, and so on.

Anything that breaks this rule of one, such as the light cavalry's ability to move two spaces, would be handled as an exceptional case via the unit's special powers/attributes. This meant we could (largely) keep numbers out of the game (yay!), but it also meant we had very little leverage when balancing units (boo!). Unlike most other combat games, we couldn't increase the cost of a unit or reduce its stats if it turned out to be too strong. All we could do was tweak the unit abilities themselves and add restrictions to more powerful ones (e.g., archers can't attack adjacent units). That being said, one advantage which we did allow ourselves was the number of coins a unit has available in the supply. Most have five, but a few of the stronger units have only four.

The Pitch

With the balance ironed out, we turned our attention to pitching the game to a publisher. SPIEL was approaching, and we studied the list of publishers with whom we wanted to meet. AEG was at the top of the list. We had worked with them in the past, and we knew they would be able to transform our game into an incredible product. We scheduled a meeting with AEG and met with Mark Wootton. The meeting went well, and Mark asked whether he could take one of our prototypes back with him to assess. He seemed to be keenly interested in the game, and we were hopeful AEG would decide to publish it.


The final prototype


We were thrilled to receive the news that AEG wanted to move forward with publishing War Chest. Working with them on this project has been an incredible experience and one we would gladly repeat in the future!

•••


Part 2: Development by Mark Wootton

War Chest is a game that immediately grabbed my attention when I first saw it presented by designers Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson at SPIEL in 2016. There is an often-used phrase of "simple to learn, tricky to master", and I immediately saw some of that magic after one playthrough.

After returning home with the prototype, I discovered that it had the capacity to also hold my attention as it constantly hit the table in my playtesting group. With each replay came a different combination of units and possible strategies.

I immediately set about seeing whether the rest of the Alderac Entertainment team felt the same way. My belief was that the game was incredibly approachable, even for people who were not hardcore gamers, but the challenge was how to show that to our hardened team of gamers at one of our company planning events. I did the only thing that you can do in such situations: I enlisted the help of our accountant, Taylor, who is probably the best definition of "extended gamer family" at our company – someone who is not an avid gamer herself, but who enjoys them enough to play something that is straightforward to learn.

Rolling out the game with her in front of the other staff was a great eye-opener. Having played one game, which I managed to teach and play in less than 45 minutes, she immediately asked to play again as she could see some new possibilities. After the third game (and double-checking with her that she wasn't just being nice to me), I was happy that my initial view was correct, and, importantly, the other team members were looking on with interest.

The team then played several games, both two-player and four-player, and the game was a success with the more seasoned gamers, too! From there development began.

It was during the development process that I came across this article: "Iconic Viking grave belonged to a female warrior." Although further reading ("New evidence of Viking warrior women might not be what it seems") brought up questions about some of the initial assumptions in that article, the initial announcement became a strong inspiration throughout the development process.

One of the things the original article cemented for me was the sense that this game could have been invented a thousand years ago. Yes, it pays close attention to modern game design concepts, and I am sure a thousand years ago cards might not have been part of the content, but it has that elegant simplicity underpinning the more modern designs, an elegance that gives it an almost classical feel.

When I discussed this with AEG CEO John Zinser, we developed the idea that the game would come in a box that looked like an actual chest, and John penned a brief story of how the game might have been born in medieval times. We wanted something that had a classical look to go with the feel of the game, and after enlisting the help of graphic designer Brigette Indelicato, we came up with a Celtic theme. The intricate patterns and rich imagery of the Celtic genre seemed to be a great fit, and the two kingdoms got the symbol of the wolf and the raven.

In later discussions with Todd and Mara, these became the clans Byrne and Faol, the former derived from Irish Gaelic meaning of "the family of Bran" (Bran being a raven) and the latter being the Scots Gaelic word for wolf.


The backstory for War Chest


Production manager Dave Lepore worked tirelessly to ensure that the components lived up to our expectations of a beautiful product.

Continued playtests resulted in one or two small changes in the abilities of the different units until we were happy with the final balance, with Nicolas Bongiu and Erik Yaple and their teams testing the game and its rules.

We added a snake draft mechanism for experienced players so that they can make more strategic decisions at the start of the game. In fact, the real secret of the "tricky-to-master" element is changing your gameplay from more tactical to more strategic. Players can move on from simple choices of dealing with what appears in front of them on the board to a deeper understanding of the composition of units in their bag, the importance of stealing initiative, the timing of attacks, the ability to capture key locations, and the knowledge of when to withdraw to safer ground.

And all the time you can sense the possibility that a game just like this was once buried somewhere hundreds of years ago with a Viking berserker, a Gaelic warrior, or a French knight...

In the end, we feel we have captured the essence of a slightly abstract war game that can represent the broad sweep of early medieval, dark ages, or even ancient battles, a game that might have been presented to a king, queen, or high-ranking warrior as a lesson in managing a battlefield and understanding the deployment, strengths, and weaknesses of different troop types.

•••


Part 3: Art Direction by Brigette Indelicato

I've been working as a graphic designer for the past eight years and on board game graphic design for the last three. Board and card games are some of my favorite graphic design projects as I enjoy the unique challenges and creative problem-solving involved with the process. (Being an avid tabletop gamer myself also adds to the appeal!) The graphic design for a game not only needs to be attractive visually and communicate information effectively, it also needs to be intuitive to interact with, function well in three dimensions, look unique yet appealing in a marketing sense, and enhance the general experience of playing the game.

Mark Wootton, the lead developer for War Chest, contacted me looking for a graphic designer to be part of the brainstorming and production of the final graphic design for the game components, including icons, game board, cards, box/packaging, and rulebook. The goal of the graphic look was to mirror the simple elegance of the game mechanisms and create a sophisticated and eye-catching end product.

I created a quick mock-up/inspiration board for a few of the theme ideas that had been discussed, including one for the Celtic approach:




After that was decided as our direction, I continued to amass visual research on Celtic symbols, patterns, design motifs, stone carvings, and wooden chests. I usually create a private Pinterest board for each of my design projects to keep all my inspiration and informational links in one place for easy referencing.

To bring in some of that thematic inspiration, I incorporated the "shield knot" into the game logo, box, and the back of the tokens. I also did some research about Celtic mythology to choose the raven and the wolf (animals associated with war deities) for the main symbols of the two opposing sides.




I created preliminary versions of the various game components, and through rounds of feedback from Mark and the AEG team, refined the designs until we had a polished end product. One of the main challenges was designing the fourteen unique unit icons; they needed to be simple and clean enough that they would work well on the unit token and as an icon on the cards. I also designed the colors and icons to be different enough to be easily distinguished from one another, while still feeling like a cohesive set. Another task was refining the wood and metal textures on the cards, board, and box to make the graphics visually interesting without being overly busy.

Here's an example of the design stages of one of the unit cards, from the early rough mock-up to final card design:




It was clear early on that the game box should be designed to look like a wooden chest, which informed the card and board design as well. The box of a game is especially important since it's the first aspect of the game a potential player interacts with and can set the tone and expectation for what's inside. I incorporated imagery from the unit tokens and the warring factions into the carvings to bring all the elements together. Even the box went through some iteration when AEG received feedback from partners and retailers that the box could be more colorful and easier to see on a store shelf:




War Chest was a fantastic project to work on with Mark and the AEG team, and an exciting opportunity to create graphics for an enjoyable and versatile game design. Every project is a learning experience of tackling new design challenges, and I look forward to taking the lessons I've learned from this to future projects!

•••


A final message from the design and development team:

Thanks for taking the time to read about War Chest's story. We hope you enjoy the game!
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