Building the Kingdom Builder - Wrath of the Autarch Design Influences
Phil
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Wrath of the Autarch is a kingdom building game I’ve been working on in earnest for about three years now, although many of the ideas for the game stretch back much farther than that. No game is designed in a vacuum, and Wrath of the Autarch is no exception!

This list describes the games I played which had an impact on my thinking and affected Wrath of the Autarch. For each game, I try to describe how it had an impact, what pieces of the game can be seen in the DNA of Wrath of the Autarch. This list is partly a design journal and partly a nostalgic reflection on games I’m fond of.

I’m a big believer in the idea that if you want to design games, you need to play games! Most importantly, find and play games like the one you wish to design. What about those games do you like? What don’t you like?

Even more than that, though, spend a smaller amount of time trying a wider variety of games. Even games which don’t completely click can have elegant systems and ideas embedded in them. There are role-playing games, boardgames, and video games in this list. They’ve all had an impact!

I’m leaving off a very important part of game design - playtesting and networking, but I just want to focus on influential games. Suffice to say, playtest early and playtest often. Fail fast!

I remember when I first became enamored with kingdom building games. The year was...
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1. RPG Item: Dungeons & Dragons Set 3: Companion Rules [Average Rating:7.37 Overall Rank:241]
RPG Item: Dungeons & Dragons Set 3: Companion Rules
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Domain Management

..1986. A few years prior I scored a copy of the famous Dungeons and Dragons red box. Maybe for a birthday? I can’t remember. I do know that after that point I didn’t have much interest in playing games like Monopoly or Life! This was the game I was waiting for! There were now two sorts of games: good ones (Dungeons and Dragons and all the weird stuff that got advertised in the back of Dragon magazine) and bad ones (pretty much everything else).

We played Dungeons and Dragons constantly. Characters killed monsters, found traps, solved mysteries, and grew in power. Along the line I acquired Box 3: The Companion Set. And there it was! Right there in Book 2: Dominions and Mass Combat.

WAT? Stronghold building? Militia uprisings? Mass battles between armies? I was most definitely in! I created my own kingdoms, I rolled on charts, I tracked goods. The Confidence of your domain is now: Prosperous!

However, when I went back and tried to use all this stuff with our characters, it felt a little out of place. Why does Klandar the Halfling Thief care about a domain? Why does this motley crew of plundering dungeon crawlers care about the subtle diplomacy of a kingdom? They wanted to go back to traps and monsters. All of the class powers and abilities were about those things - not about ruling a kingdom.

So it got abandoned. But I never stopped thinking about it.
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2. RPG Item: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay [Average Rating:7.72 Overall Rank:65]
RPG Item: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
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Fantasy Europe, Magic Points

Fast forward some number of years. Lots of different role-playing games. Then came the age of Games Workshop. I painted miniatures. I played Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Played Space Hulk. And Fury of Dracula.

At some point, we started playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I loved the setting! I loved the idea of making a fantasy version of Europe. Dungeons and Dragons was always implicitly a fantasy Europe, but Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay took that and made it explicit.

This got played quite a bit. We had these WFRP miniatures and the rules let us use them, the career system was amazing and innovative, and we were really engaged with the setting! The Enemy Within campaign is one of the most impressive adventures for fantasy role-playing games ever written.
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3. RPG Item: Ars Magica (3rd edition) [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:173]
RPG Item: Ars Magica (3rd edition)
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Troupe Based Play, Central Organizing Theme, Mythic Europe

The are so many brilliant parts to Ars Magica, but the aspect that I latched onto was the concept of troupe based play. Up until that point I had assumed some measure of character monogamy in role-playing games: you play just one character. Ars Magica changed that equation. You alternate through a cast of characters, all centered around the organizing theme of a magical order of wizards.

This game is hugely influential on Wrath of the Autarch. It solves so many of the complications I struggled with when I first tried out the Companion rules. Different characters can be used depending on the particular task at hand. That gives tremendous depth and richness to the setting. It also makes this organizing force - the Order in Ars Magica or the Stronghold in Wrath of the Autarch - the main character. Other characters come and go, but this tethering anchor remains.
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4. Video Game: Civilization II [Average Rating:8.48 Overall Rank:15]
Video Game: Civilization II
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Tech Trees, Explore / Expand / Exploit / Exterminate (4X), Strategic Planning

O’ Civilization. Eater of time. Destroyer of productivity.

There’s something very compelling about realizing a grand strategic vision for your society! Of seeing the impact of these high level improvements and how they affect smaller tactical choices. I played quite a bit of Civilization. As addictive as the computer version of Civilization is, though, I still prefer the social interaction of sitting around a table.

It would be some time before I had the chance to play the Avalon Hill version of Civilization. Amazing game.

I really wanted this high level strategic vision in the kingdom building game. The difficult part was pulling out the interesting pieces in a way that’s manageable on a tabletop. My earliest efforts were very spreadsheet-y and far more suited to what a computer would do well rather than more abstract choices that a human could handle.
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5. RPG Item: Birthright Campaign Setting [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:153]
RPG Item: Birthright Campaign Setting
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The Land Matters, Warfare Mini-game

Birthright was arguably the definitive kingdom building game for quite some time. It probably still is (although see also Pathfinder Kingmaker and Domains at War for more recent forays into that field).

Despite that, I did not play Birthright when it came out. My tabletop games of choice at that point were Call of Cthulhu and Necromunda. But I did read it.

There are a few major improvements from the D&D Companion rules that started this affair: an incredibly compelling setting that ties characters to the land through bloodlines and regency as well as a warfare mini-game to handle the clash of armies. The rules also focus far more on domain management than those D&D rules did.

Some of the same issues regarding character focus and a tension between rules for domain management built on top of rules for dungeon crawling remained.
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6. Board Game: Warhammer Quest [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:847]
Board Game: Warhammer Quest
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Episodic Play, Campaign Structure, No Gamemaster

Before Descent there was Warhammer Quest. We played quite a bit of Warhammer Quest! It had this fun dungeon crawling game built into a longer term campaign. The events that could happen between adventures added charm and depth to the game. You could be hit by a tornado while walking back to the nearest town or get challenged by Griswold the Mad to a battle in the tavern.

The way Warhammer Quest is episodic made it easier to play sessions even though everyone had busy schedules (and I think I had a very busy schedule at this point). The game could continue on even if someone couldn’t make it!
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7. RPG Item: Contenders [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:981]
RPG Item: Contenders
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Competitive Role-playing Game, Card Driven Role-playing Game, Scene Currency, Action Economy

Fast forward six or seven years in time. I was playing quite a bit of D&D 3E. I was also playing tons of different sorts of boardgames. Somewhere around this time I became aware of a movement within role-playing games that was leading to some really interesting design thought.

At gaming conventions I purchased Dogs in the Vineyard, Wilderness of Mirrors, and My Life With Master. I was impressed by how laser focused these designs were! They honed in on a particular type of experience and worked to express it as succinctly as possible. They were the polar opposite of generic role-playing systems that were big and sprawling. It was inspiring to read them and think about what was possible in the form.

Contenders is a competitive role-playing game that tells the tale of up and coming boxers trying to make it in the world. It was the first time I had seen a role-playing game that was competitive, where players fight each other, and work to improve their boxers with a constant time pressure.

I loved the fact that all of the players contributed to the narrative. The role of gamemaster was democratized through the use of a scene economy and turn structure that helped propel a larger narrative forward.
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8. Board Game: Descent: The Road to Legend [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked]
Board Game: Descent: The Road to Legend
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Campaign Play, Asymmetric Competition

Wrath of the Autarch has asymmetric competition between the Autarch player and the Stronghold players. This one vs. many is a tricky pattern to manage. In player vs. player games it’s a little easier to design mechanism that allow the players to work together to prevent one player from gaining a large advantage. That isn’t an option in asymmetric games.

Fantasy Flight has a number of hybrid role-playing / boardgames that use this pattern. Usually, the sole player in the antagonistic role has more abstract tools at their disposal to create opposition. Some form of threat currency to build opposition with.

I used such a scheme in Wrath of the Autarch. The Autarch player gets points to carry out a variety schemes against the Stronghold. There were a few hurdles to making this work well: the schemes need to be interesting and impactful to the narrative, and the decision tree shouldn’t be too overwhelming.
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9. RPG Item: Diaspora [Average Rating:7.94 Overall Rank:62]
RPG Item: Diaspora
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Mini-games, Aspects

No game had a bigger impact on Wrath of the Autarch than Diaspora. Early on, I was basing Wrath of the Autarch on Song of Ice and Fire. Song of Ice and Fire was clever in that it had a clean way to handle all sorts of things: diplomacy, warfare, and intrigue. Song of Ice and Fire had a few elements that made it difficult to convert to the grand strategic game I wanted to make.

Diaspora is a space exploration game. A love letter to Traveller. It has these super cool mini-games for ship warfare, skirmishes, diplomacy, and large scale warfare. It’s a Fate game (it pre-dates Fate Core), and I became really impressed with aspects. Aspects are a way to take important fictional elements of characters and places and spotlight them during the game.

I ended up with four mini-games for Wrath of the Autrach (diplomacy, infiltration, skirmish, and warfare). Although the mini-games of Wrath of the Autarch drifted from those of Diaspora, they were a very strong inspiration. Most of the drift was for the sake of consistency and ease of set up. They couldn’t be very time consuming in WotA, because they are essentially only one third of the session (the other parts being building developments and creating narrative challenges).
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10. Board Game: Kingsburg [Average Rating:7.20 Overall Rank:341]
Board Game: Kingsburg
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Dice Placement Games

There are probably other games that could go here, but one of the better design choices during the development of Wrath of the Autarch was to handle the resource trading and building of Stronghold developments through the use of dice. A super fan on the G+ forums suggested using dice of different values for resources gained from various regions, which was a great idea.

That eventually got streamlined into different colors of six sided dice for each resource, which could further be allocated and traded. This scheme was inspired by games like Kingsburg, where dice are rolled and have a value, but also a role when they’re placed into certain spaces. In the case of Wrath of the Autarch, these slots are trading with allies, feeding people, and building developments.

This greatly simplified the early spreadsheet-y version of Wrath of the Autarch, replacing bookkeeping with a far more interesting trading game that involved everyone at the table.
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11. Board Game: Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game [Average Rating:6.91 Overall Rank:1198]
Board Game: Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game
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Diplomacy Mini-game, Influence System

The most painful mini-game to develop was diplomacy. The other mini-games seemed to come along quickly, probably because there was a spatial element that was intuitive and easy to leverage. They also had goals that were more clearly defined.

Early on I muddled with this idea that the goal of diplomacy was to gain influence from the leaders of a particular faction. So leaders had influence values, there was this complex track of total influence, all these ways to gain it. It was complex and sort of a mess.

At some point, I settled on the idea that diplomacy was about resolving issues. These issues could be differences between cultures, points of contention, tasks to resolve, etc. By abstracting out issues, each side in a diplomacy could work to gain support for an issue. This instantly clicked much better.

I decided that leaders placed influence and support on issues, essentially winning them for one side or the other. Call of Cthluhu TCG has this pattern, as do older games like Battle Line. It allows for interesting choices in terms of blocking support or gaining support, while not being overly complex or requiring as much tracking. Also, by making issues the most important, it provides a narrative arc to the story - unresolved issues can fester and recur later.
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12. RPG Item: Houses of the Blooded [Average Rating:7.53 Overall Rank:467]
RPG Item: Houses of the Blooded
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Focused Kingdom Building

Sadly, I found and read Houses of the Blooded a little late in the design process. It’s very close to the vision I wanted to create. It’s also influenced by the aspects from Fate, and features abstract resources and developments. It’s a true player vs. player game, where each player manages their own society and works against the others.

This game was an affirmation of some of the design decisions I had made. Seeing how it abstracted out the important part of building and managing a kingdom gave me more confidence to continue heading down the road I was on. Houses of the Blooded also has a rich theme that marries well with the mechanics, which I think is tremendously important.

Burning Empires is another strategic game that I think drinks from this same well.
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13. RPG Item: Wrath of the Autarch [Average Rating:7.50 Unranked]
RPG Item: Wrath of the Autarch
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I’m sure there are other games which have had an influence on the design of Wrath of the Autarch (partly because the listed games also have a list of games which influenced them), but these games have had the most direct impact. Even with all of these words, I didn’t get into many of the design struggles or trade offs in making this game.

Currently Wrath of the Autarch is running a kickstarter campaign (link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/295104591/wrath-of-the-... ) to get funded. If this sounds intriguing or interesting to you, please consider backing! It would be amazing if one day Wrath of the Autarch influences someone while they’re working on bringing their game to life.
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