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Designer Diary: Back from the Dead, or Designing Gloomy Graves

Jeffrey Allers
United States
Flat Rock
North Carolina
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Microbadge: New York Slice fanMicrobadge: I speak GermanMicrobadge: Pandoria fanMicrobadge: Spielwiese fan - Boardgames Café BerlinMicrobadge: Gunkimono
Board Game: Gloomy Graves
Digging Up the Past

Flashback to 2009: Heartland, the first game that I had signed as a game designer (in 2005), was published in Germany, where I live. It was getting good reviews and was even selected for the German board gaming championships. It was also my fourth game published in a six-month time span (the others being Alea Iacta Est, Circus Maximus, and Piece o' Cake), and I had a new game designers' meet-up in the Spielwiese gaming café to test all my new ideas.

One of those ideas was for a follow-up card game to Heartland. I had already discovered that new limits could inspire new mechanisms, and I wanted to see what that might do to a board game that already worked well.

Heartland had players placing tiles onto the board — or onto other tiles — in order to create larger connected fields of the same crop, but everyone could score these fields when they added to them, creating a kind of piggyback game. The tiles also had barns on them, and instead of scoring points for the crops, players could move their markers along various tracks to score bonus points (if they were first, second or third), or, more importantly, to place their farms onto the board. Placing a farm meant that you claimed that entire field of connected crops for the remainder of the game!

Board Game: Heartland
From the Ground Up

Like most of my games since, timing was an important part of Heartland, and players faced the dilemma each turn of whether to score points now or build up to the possibility of more points later. This was what I wanted to capture in the card game, but the limitations forbade me from using any kind of tracks or markers.

I began with the "heart" of Heartland, which were the domino-style cards, and I explored different ways to place them. I wanted to maintain the (some call it "nasty") interaction of Heartland, so I kept the central play area where every player would lay their cards, piggybacking — or disrupting — the plays of their opponents. In this area, which I named "the communal farm", each new card needed to cover exactly one square field of a previously-placed card, which meant that the farm would expand by exactly one field each turn.

Since the game didn't have a barn track, I also added a "private farm" for each player to cultivate, i.e., a safe space that no opponent could mess with.

Quite a few games — especially tile-laying games — are classified as either "mean" (highly interactive) or "sandboxy", a.k.a. multiplayer solitaire puzzles. This game now had both!

This led to the theme of my prototype, which I called "Kolkhozes". These were the collective farms that existed in the Soviet Union and in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. In effect, players combined their harvest from these communal farms where everyone worked together with the harvest from their private plots.

Board Game: Rolnicy
"Kolkhozes" prototype

I did not want a game in which players had to write down points after every turn — I have no problem with that in other games, such as the excellent Qwirkle, but I wanted to avoid that with this design — so I created scoring cards worth different values, each of which required a different number of connected fields from both farms. Each player could score each crop only once, which made timing even more important than in the board game, and once you scored a type, you could try to block that for the other players — but only in the communal farm, of course! At the same time, you needed to transition your own farm in order to focus on the next type, possibly piggybacking on what other players are already doing in the communal farm.

As soon as one player scored all five types of crops — or the deck ran out — the game ended, and the player with the most points won.

My final addition to the game were bonuses for scoring three, four, or all five types of fields. This added pressure to the game as now it was not necessary to always score the highest-numbered score cards. A player could also try to score the easier, lower-valued cards of all five types and end the game before the other players could score enough of the high-valued cards to win. This is not easy to do as it takes time to transition to a new field type, but it adds more pressure to the decision of how long to focus on one field type.

The playtests were tense and highly interactive, and each game sped towards a climactic finish, but for years after it was finished, no publishers were interested in the game. Was the project dead and buried?

Out of the Grave

Board Game: Rolnicy
Board Game: Gunkimono
Several years ago, Nasza Księgarnia, the oldest children's book publisher in Poland, decided to expand its publishing to games. We met in Essen where they tested several of my prototypes, and soon they offered contracts for three games that had never been published by anyone else, including "Kolkhozes". The design was published as Rolnicy ("Farmers") in 2018, retaining the farming theme. [Editor's note: You can read more on the history of Rolnicy here. —WEM]

In the meantime, Heartland had found a new publisher, thanks in large part to Dan "Game Boy Geek" King, who was a big fan of the game. Renegade Game Studios released the new version as Gunkimono, also in 2018.

When Rolnizy was published, I sent copies to friends who were fans of Heartland/Gunkimono and my other tile-laying games, Citrus and Pandoria. These friends included game reviewers Chris Wray and Brandon Kempf as well as Dan King. The game was intended as a gift because I thought they might like it, and I honestly didn't expect them to write about it or tell publishers about it. I did send a copy to Scott Gaeta at Renegade, however, in case the company wanted to do a Gunkimono tie-in. It turns out that Dan loved the game and recommended it to Scott, who tested it and offered to publish it.

Death Becomes Me

It was fun to be able to work with project director Dan Bojanowski again after working together on Gunkimono. The Renegade team brainstormed new themes and decided on the Tim Burton-esque idea of a fantasy graveyard. I agreed that something more original than farming was needed to distinguish the game in a crowded marketplace, and I was also happy that it was going to be a separate theme from Gunkimono.

Board Game: Gloomy Graves

Gloomy Graves had, after all, become its own game that differed from its original inspiration. Aside from the mechanism of scoring areas of connected fields, Gloomy Graves has little in common with Heartland and Gunkimono. It is amazing how many different games can be made with domino-style tiles, and it was both enjoyable and rewarding to explore some of these possibilities over the past decade.

What's more, I'm happy that other fans of tile-laying games will now have the opportunity to enjoy this tight, tense, compact card game, either playing with everyone fighting for themselves or using the excellent 2-vs.-2 team variant.

Jeffrey D. Allers
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