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Developer Diary: Crown of Emara, or Building a Game from Ship to Shore

Benjamin Schwer
Germany
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Part 1: Idea

The basic idea for Crown of Emara has its roots in various ideas I had while playing several rounds of World Without End by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler in winter 2016. The game rested on the shelf for a long time before returning to our table. While playing, the idea to design another game with event cards to influence the course of the game for every player came to my mind. I implemented the concept in my game Yeti in the form of a weather option that influences players and the game flow and is able to bring variety to the game.

As a game designer as well as a player, I like it better if a game is not fully predictable. In a game that is calculable, the player who is most familiar with the game usually has a major advantage. Unpredictability can raise questions about the course of a game repeatedly and make sure that players will not stick to the same game plan in every round.

That said, coincidences should not be prevalent if the game is not supposed to be one of pure chance, so the events were not allowed to be too powerful since one event should not be able to determine the outcome of the whole game. Furthermore, the players need to have the possibility of ignoring the effects of an event card without falling way behind the other players and having to watch the game without a chance of winning. Therefore, players were supposed to encounter a new event each round of the game. The events have, compared to event cards from World Without End, less influence on the game. However, the events have enough power to keep players from adhering to one strict strategy while still maintaining an overall positive feeling throughout the game.

I wanted to use action cards as well as a movement mechanism for the game. Operating through action cards always appealed to me, but I had not used it for prototypes in a while. In this case, I chose a small number of action cards — nine — that players could use for their actions in the game. I wanted to make sure that each player would generally be provided with the same actions, but these actions could not be used by all players at the same time. Hence, the players need to shuffle their nine action cards and play three cards in three rounds. Since players are not allowed to draw a new card immediately but only after they use all three action cards in hand, they need to react to the new action cards and incorporate them into their strategy for the game.

To equip the action cards with an additional meaning, they cause a movement action separate from their own function. Every player should be able to use this movement action as they please, so each player receives two game pieces to place on two roundabout-like game boards with different effect areas. One of these game boards was designed for the production of resources, the other one for workmanship, trade, or various other effects.


Actions in the countryside in what was then "Royal Builders"


Actions in town


All players share these two game boards and are allowed to place one of their game pieces on each board. For easy organization, I intended each player to have a player board for the three hand cards. Each time it's a player's turn, they play one hand card and place it on the player board. The position on the board determines how many steps a player is allowed to take with their pieces on the two game boards. Each position can be used only once. As soon as all three positions are taken, the player draws three new hand cards. This mechanism was eventually build into the final version of the game.


Player board from "Royal Builders"


At first, it was a concern of mine to design a game for two players, so I was able to have a short game length. After the first tests, I dismissed this idea and decided to design a game for four players. The first test rounds showed that the game was more fun with more players, which also increased the game length, but only to a reasonable extent.

The increased number of players also causes more competition for the cathedral and castle town locations, which are where players can donate resources for books or crowns to receive victory points. The number of resources that needs to be traded for a book or a crown increases with each donation, making it more difficult to receive victory points. This element of the game improved a lot with more than two players.

Since titles and topics are often interchangeable and I wanted to concentrate on the system of the game first, I chose a medieval setting and titled the game "Royal Builders". As for the game's content, the players are trying to gain the best reputation. The main way to achieve that goal was to get a title of nobility by trading one's resources for crowns or gold to receive a higher title of nobility.


First title of nobility in "Royal Builders"


Players received one crown through one of the action cards as I aimed to incentivize the players to choose this path for the game. Of course, the number of crowns you received through action cards was not enough. At the castle location, players were able to donate resources to get more crowns from the king.

On the other hand, I wanted to provide a possibility for winning the game without being dependent on titles of nobility. Therefore, I invented the citizens that could be used for additional actions and points, as well as factories where resources like cotton could be processed into clothing, which would also bring victory points, and much more.

The first test results were positive, and I was asking myself how I could implement more possibilities into the game. Each of my new ideas was followed by a positive reaction from players in the tests, so I kept looking for more ways to improve the game.

Part 2: Way to the Publisher

Originally I did not plan to show "Royal Builders" to a publisher right away. In mid-2017, I sent a different game to Ralph Bruhn. Ralph works for Pegasus Spiele as a freelance editor, and we had already worked together for Yeti, a cooperation that I thought was really constructive. In any case, I had already sent him one of my games and was eager to hear his opinion about it — of course hoping I could fascinate him with that game. After he received my game, we found out that he would visit my hometown, Leipzig, a few days later, so we made an appointment to test the game together.

If you have the possibility of meeting an editor in your hometown, it's a good idea to pack a second prototype that could arouse their interest. That's exactly what I did, which turned out to be a good idea a few hours later. After playing my first prototype, Ralph told me that my game was interesting, but that the current version needed some work. He and his wife gave me useful recommendations on how to improve my game, so later I worked on the prototype again. The next publisher I sent this improved prototype to was fascinated with the game, and we closed the deal.

Our evening in Leipzig still had a happy ending, though, as after the first game we played the "Royal Builders" prototype that I had packed as a back-up. Only days before, I had changed a lot of the design and hadn't even written down all the current rules. Ralph and his wife still really liked the game, so they took my prototype home.


Prototype of "Royal Builders"


One important step towards release had been taken, although as every game designer knows, an editor taking a prototype home is no guarantee for success. In most cases, the game comes back with more or less useful notes on how to improve the game. It was different with "Royal Builders".

Shortly thereafter, Ralph told me that he had various notes, recommendations, and ideas for the game, so we started focussing our work on the prototype. The players who tested the game thought it was "nice" and "harmonic", but it was missing a "special something". Moreover, the question was still open as to when — or rather if — the game would be released.

The first presentation at Pegasus Spiele was well received by the editors present. For us, that meant that we would definitely continue and intensify our work on "Royal Builders". I have never received a comparably huge number of emails from an editor before — that is an example of the meticulousness of our work on "Royal Builders".

At the beginning of December 2017, our game was presented to the business management of Pegasus Spiele and they were delighted, so we heard a final, "Yes, we'll do that!" Our work on the game increased again as the release was scheduled for SPIEL '18 in Essen.

Part 3: Fine-Tuning

All the details of changes throughout our work phase would surely not be fun to read, so I'll concentrate on the most interesting points.

In the beginning, a player's focus was on the collection of victory points, which seemed a little one-dimensional. Ralph criticized this direction of the game because it would enable simple winning strategies. I suggested a limit for victory points that could be increased by each player for themself during the course of the game. To achieve this, we had the idea of players collecting a particular fluid (i.e., victory points) that had to be stored in a special container (i.e, the thing that limited the collection of victory points) because otherwise the fluid would evaporate. That was an interesting approach, but unfortunately not thematically compatible with other elements of the game. We chose ships instead of a special container, and these ships have a limited capacity — with victory points as cargo.


Your initial ship, and the first ship you could buy in "Royal Builders"


This concept worked well mechanically in the game, but in the end all players usually turned out to have the same number of ships. We were looking for a sleeker solution, so we turned the ships into buildings and the victory points into citizens.

That also suited the topic and worked well with the game mechanism: Players now aim to get a high number of citizens who worship them as their noble leader. To ensure that citizens are happy at the end of the game, the players have to build enough houses for them. If a player does not provide enough housing, the citizens will leave them at the end of the game.

To keep score, players use two kinds of game markers on a scoring track: one citizen and one house in the color of the player's choice.




In a game round, players usually begin with a specific number of building points as it makes more sense within the world of the game that players can already provide some houses for the citizens yet to come.

Another important change concerned the event cards. We reduced event cards with a negative event more and more because we found them to have a heavy impact on the course of the game. New players could be hit particularly hard, and the positive atmosphere of the game could be ruined. Most of the negative events were banished from the game, and players did not really miss them.

We kept one negative event card as it does not have such a heavy impact on the game. Still, the event is able to force players to adapt their plans concerning building points because of an early winter.

Another problem we encountered was caused by some of our most interesting advisors. Since a player could take a long time to think about the perfect use of these advisors, other players had a long downtime. Because of this, we had to eliminate one of the most beloved advisors after a lot of consideration. This advisor enabled players to discard grain to get additional movement with a playing piece of their choice.

The next big change concerned the number of advisors that can enter a game. Initially, I had intended to allow only four advisors per game, but now you can have up to fourteen. Also, players were originally supposed to build a house for an advisor and choose one advisor from the ones on display. Now every advisor has its own price on a card and does not need a house.

It was clear that "Royal Builders" was only a working title. Since no existing country fit the peaceful character of the game, Ralph invented the fictional kingdom of Emara. I loved the idea because my daughter's name is Emma, a fact Ralph did not even know until then. Since the topic of the game was the succession of the crown, the title Crown of Emara was obvious.

The repeated adjustment of point values for event and advisor cards surely is no surprise. This fine-tuning can take even longer than the development of the basic game mechanisms, and it was not different for us. Ralph and I observed countless game rounds of test players apart from our own test games. We readjusted cards or even exchanged them for others. Interestingly, nobility and action cards were little affected by these changes and only minor adjustments were made.


Nobility card, and an action card for the red player


Part 4: Illustration

In the meantime, the amazing illustrator Dennis Lohausen agreed to work with us on the game. He had already done a great job with the illustration of Yeti, and I was eager to see how he would transform my functional prototype into actual artwork.

As the game designer, I became a spectator during the graphic design phase of Crown of Emara, but I was kept up to date with the different stages of development. The first draft of the cover was already heading in a terrific direction, and I enjoyed testing a version of the game with the first draft of the graphics. The clarity of the game was improved immediately, and a player was already able to encounter the world of Emara.


Cover draft


The development of the location game board was another big challenge. In our prototypes, the arrangement of the locations was always fixed, with labelling and symbols facing only one direction. While testing, it turned out that the arrangement of locations was important for some special strategies.

Ralph suggested that the game boards should be puzzle pieces and therefore variable in their order — but this caused problems with the alignment of text and symbols. Dennis thought of a solution and put the idea of a central overhead perspective forward. That was an unusual point of view, but it enabled all players to look at the game board without it being upside down. As a special service, Dennis designed the front and back of the game board in slightly different styles: one side is colorful, while the other has a pale background to highlight game elements.


One side of the game board...


In the end, I can say that I had a lot of fun developing Crown of Emara and that I still like to play it, even after countless test game rounds. I surely hope to have given the reader insight into how the game was developed, and I wish all players a lot of fun with the game!

Benjamin Schwer


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