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Designer Diary: Age of Dirt: A Game of Uncivilization

The Joker
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Age of Dirt: The Beginning

The history of human (un)civilization is not for the faint of heart, and to understand it a little bit better, we have to go back nearly a decade.

Back then, I had started helping out at White Castle, an Austrian-based game agency. As an aspiring game designer, I was haunted with many ideas, but I could follow only a small part of them. The rest remained fragments in my self-bound game design sketchbook:

The founder of White Castle, Ronald Hofstätter, wanted me to create a game with his and Hugelmann's "Power-Tower", a dice tower similar to the tower in Shogun or Wallenstein). This reminded me of an older idea in my sketchbook: A worker placement game in which workers were sent to areas, or to be precise into small boxes. Once you lost sight of them, the little wooden cubes surely would experience extraordinary things. They were supposed to work where you sent them, but they could also get lost or meet a bear and die a horribl—

I had a dangerous but vanilla fantasy world in mind, and only one thing was missing: a suitable randomizer. The tower brought the last ingredient, and the game soon took on a playable form. A worker-placement game was born, a game whose workers behaved very, very, very stubbornly — one could even say they behaved extremely stupidly — so I made a virtue of necessity and the little wooden workers became wooden stone-age numbskulls. The resulting game, called "Ugha!", played fast and fun, and you could see it as a light satire of the many, at that time fashionable, worker-placement games.

Since the resources were scarce and the workers few, the game created many emotional moments...or should I say frustrating moments? I had already feared and anticipated this (un-)luck element of the dice tower. I wanted to make it interesting for more strategic players (like myself), so I introduced a mechanism that allowed you to shake the tower.

Six years and a few false starts later, I finally connected with the publisher that would bring "Ugha!" to market: WizKids.

Over that time, shaking the tower — while initially a well-received mechanim — started getting more and more criticism from playtesters. The problem was that it was too effective; most of the time all the workers fell out, resulting in an unsatisfying flood of resources for all the players. In order to give only some workers a slap upside…erm, a rap on their fingers and help them on their way, I had to modify the tower.

I gave the players clubs and redesigned the tower (as a mountain) with flaps so that each level could be rattled individually. Now, a few skillful knocks let you show some, but not all, of your workers the way back to your cave.

Age of Refining: The Middle

In 2018, I received a five-page design document of suggested changes for my game. This was a surprise since the game had only six pages of rules!

WizKids had given my game, now called Age of Dirt!, to one of its developers to revise. Perhaps it was wounded inventor pride or I just wasn't expecting it, but I have to admit that I was more than surprised by how much about my almost ten-year-old baby obviously wasn't right — yet looking at some of the suggestions, I could see why the developer had implemented them.

Now, before I go any further, I need to explain briefly what the game is about: I always describe it as a worker-placement game with stupid workers. You play the chieftain (a prehistoric CEO) of a neolithic clan. You send your workers into certain areas to collect resources (or into the love tent for sweet multiplication), but they gather resources for you only when a player "calls back" all the workers from an area. That player throws all workers from that area into "the passage" (the reworked dice tower), then can drum with a club on the tabs that stick out of the tower to "wake up" workers at a specific layer of the tower. (This practice might improve modern work life as well.) You receive resources when your workers come back, no matter which player does the call-back action.

Calling back workers is necessary, but I had always envisioned it as an unfavorable move — something the player would postpone as long as possible, hoping that another player would take care of it for them. In this revision, a small reward was given to the player calling back workers to mitigate the downside and to keep the actions more in balance. I could see the potential and couldn't wait to try this change.

Another request was to make the Stone Age even more dangerous. In addition to the tiger in the plains, they wanted a bear as a permanent predator in the forest. Both could eat your workers unless you built a club to defend your cavemen. The problem: The club is made of wood, and wood could be acquired only in the forest.

Another idea was that during a building action (when you make great innovative stuff out of the wood and stone and herbs), something could go wrong and cause clan members to perish. The game was now less focused and more luck dependent. The workers often died faster than they could get to (reproductive) work, which was certainly thematic, but frustrating for less fortunate players.

In order not to be too susceptible to extinction, they suggested a limit on how many workers a player could lose. The player tableaus had an extra bar with spaces for workers who were not available. These spaces were filled with bonuses you earned when you placed a just-deceased worker there, with the final three being +1 worker. Therefore, one could never have fewer than three workers.

The problem: My test players would take those unavailable workers as if they were available without thinking. After all, those workers were "in their cave". Sometimes you don't just become desperate about the intelligence of your subordinate workers... Well, I confess that I also found it a bit confusing sometimes. Peripheral vision hasn't really improved in the last millennia.

Thankfully the solution was easy: Let's add an extra tableau, a kind of nirvana for the unborn and, uh, for those who returned. We removed the bonuses bit by bit, but added a victory point in the end for having all your workers in play. This made having large clans favorable and kept the love tent more attractive later in the game.

I also had to change the idea of the "dangerous building phase" that I liked in the beginning. The "hazard cost" unfortunately turned out to be more of an advantage than a drawback. When it triggered, you would throw two of your workers into the passage. Anyone who came out below died, so this action could kill your opponents' workers, too. For clans already shrunk to the limit of three, this wasn't a problem as their clan members were now immune to death — and if they didn't come out immediately, all the better since they would bring a resource with them later. This meant that you could get random resources without using any actions.

Again, the solution was simple: Someone HAS to die. (Don't worry, dear reader, I did not go on a rampage.) I integrated this loss as a cost on cards like "Patriaaargh" or "Sacrificave". In order to complete them, one of your workers has to die — the survival of the strongest in a nutshell.

As a human being, but especially as a game designer, I consider fewer rules to usually cause less confusion. I consider fair and simple rules to be desirable, but the not-so-easy part is to have the right simple idea that goes down well with as many players as possible.

Age of Reflection: The End

All in all, I have to say that being confronted with ideas that were so different from mine did me and the game a lot of good. It's easy to reject criticism and suggestions, e.g., a reward for calling back workers, almost automatically even if it comes from many different game testers. (The last sentence certainly doesn't shed a good light on me.) I wanted the game to be played in a certain way, and well, I didn't find it easy to accept another version — or another vision — of my game, but in the end I think it was all for the best.

Luckily, I became adaptable enough to appreciate and implement another great idea from one of my playtesters late in the design phase: What about needing two workers to carry stone? Ingenious! (Remember what I said about having the right simple idea?) It was dripping theme and helped the asymmetrical perception of the areas tremendously: forest was easy, mountains heavy, plains were dangerous, and the love tent a little dirty...

I'm excited that Age of Dirt is finally published. It really feels like I started it an age ago. Over the last nine years, a lot of my playtesters asked for it again and again. This was my motivation to work on it and improve it over the years, the notion that my games would bring joy and fun to the people I'm with, and although some of my thoughts might suggest otherwise, I am appreciative of all the criticism and suggestions.

Johannes Krenner

tl;dr: Fun game — coming soon — ugha — playtesting hard

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