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Designer Diary: Creating a Row – Fighting for Your Domain in Principato

Touko Tahkokallio
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Microbadge: Eclipse fanMicrobadge: Math GeekMicrobadge: Constantly thinking about game designMicrobadge: Physics geekMicrobadge: Walnut Grove fan
Board Game: Principato
First, there was a mechanism.

The core mechanism, the backbone, for almost all types of board games is some kind of action selection mechanism. These days, many board games can be classified as worker placement games. In these games, players take actions from a common action pool, all players usually have equal access to the action pool, and each action taken usually benefits only that player who took the action.

One of my all-time favorite games, Puerto Rico, does things a bit differently. The backbone of the game in this case is a role-selection mechanism, in which the roles are chosen from a common pool. Unlike most worker placement games, the action dictated by the role is taken by all players. What Puerto Rico's role-selection mechanism does have in common with many worker placement games, however, is that the action pool stays more or less the same during the whole game.

In Spring 2008 I was thinking of different ways to implement action selection in board games. After some pondering, I wanted to try the following idea: Each player has a personal action pool – with the actions being represented by action cards – that no other player can access. In addition, all players share a common action card pool and can swap one of their personal action cards with one of these shared cards. An action card can be activated only from your personal pool, and a player's hand size is limited to two action cards. As a result, the common action card pool will change constantly, and players will have to think carefully which cards to hang onto and which to pick up.

Board Game: Principato
Board Game: Principato
Two of the action cards available to you

Putting this idea into practice, I decided that at the start of a game a number of action cards from a randomized deck would be turned face up in a row. These cards form the common action card pool. On each turn during the game, a player has two actions which he can use to either activate one of his personal action cards or exchange a personal card with a card in the common pool. At the end of a player's turn, the leftmost action card in the common pool is discarded and a new card drawn from the deck and placed on the right of the row. In this way the card pool changes constantly, while also allowing for some continuity.

Next Came the Theme – Yes, Italy during the Renaissance!

With the action cards appearing in random order from the deck, I decided that the number of different action cards should be limited to ensure the strategy space would not collapse due to the random order in which they come up. Also, I wanted the game to include both economic development and empire building – suitably compressed, of course – so what theme would best suit my needs?

Although I am well aware that Renaissance Italy is not the most original theme for a board game, I was drawn to it anyway. The setting seemed well-suited for the game concept, with players controlling their own city-state or principality. Each city-state is divided into three areas: a farming area surrounding the city, the city wall and the inner city itself. During the game, players improve their principality by developing these areas. The action cards allow players to build buildings, hire painters to paint paintings, recruit military force, produce food or coins, and so on.

Board Game: Principato

I think one of the reasons why Renaissance Italy has been such a popular setting for modern board games is that the era contains many of the elements needed or desired in games, like prestige, military, city-building and cultural achievements. Also, a wide audience knows the era well enough to have some feeling for how life was back then – the motives and goals for people living then differ from ours, but are still strangely familiar and compelling – which helps players immerse themselves in the game. Compared to the complex life we live today, we even might view this historical era as being more clear – purer almost – and somehow that can feel reassuring. Even more importantly, from a game design perspective the Renaissance age includes just the right amount of key ingredients to make for an interesting board game.

Fitting It All Together

I divided the game into three ages, with each having its own action card deck, thereby allowing for a different distribution of actions in each age and strengthening the game's story arc. What's more, dividing the action cards this way helps to control the game flow and ensure the possibilities for strategic game play.

In Principato players score victory points from cultural achievements and for exceeding the military strength of other players. The military is scored five times during the game – at the end of each age and once during the second and third age. I am especially happy with how the military works in the game: The condottieri and militia tiles in your principality each provide one military power – but only if they are, respectively, paid or fed. For each unpaid or unfed military unit, the player instead loses one military power due to the unit revolting. Thus, when hiring or recruiting military units during the game, a player needs to estimate how many units he can support during a scoring.

Board Game: Principato
Board Game: Principato
Two of the secret goal cards

The game also includes siege engines, which provide a permanent bonus for military strength but are more expensive to build. During the military scoring, what matters is not the absolute value of your military power, but how it compares to the strengths' of neighboring principalities.

Playing, Developing, Publishing, Playing

While I spent a lot of time thinking about what would become Principato, I had some other interesting things happening in my life as well. During Spring 2008 I finished my Ph.D. thesis in theoretical physics and landed a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Victoria in Canada that would start that fall. Over the summer, I made the first prototype of the game; it worked well from the start and the basic mechanism felt clean and fresh in my mind. Before leaving Finland for my new position, I was able to playtest the game with friends and local gamers – which meant that I could pack an already nicely working prototype in my luggage when I headed to North America.

My wife and I soon settled into our new life in Canada; we enjoyed the nice city of Victoria and of course played board games together in evenings. Apart from playing Race for the Galaxy and other games, my Renaissance-themed prototype soon become one of our favorites. We played it many times together as a two-player game, and I was able to fine-tune the card distribution and other small details in the game, thanks to my wife's interest. I got to know other gamers in the area and was once again able to playtest with more than two players.

In Summer 2009 we moved back to Finland, but now with an additional traveling partner – our three-month-old boy! As he was too young for playtesting, I again had to look for help from my old friends and gamers back in Finland. I received good comments and suggestions from local gamers, made a few changes, then went to Spiel 2009 in Essen with a few prototypes in my luggage, one of them being this Renaissance-themed game.

At Essen, I showed the game to a few publishers and received a very interested response from them. Actually two publishers expressed an interest in publishing the game, but after some mutual and friendly discussion, it was decided that eggertspiele would publish the game.

I am excited to see the game coming out, and I hope people will have a good time playing Principato! A single game does not take long, but it still requires some strategy and contains a lot of tough tactical choices. I think the game works well with all player counts, and even the two-player game is very enjoyable – you can ask my wife if you do not believe me!

Touko Tahkokallio
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