Rusalka's Sorrow: Designer's Notes
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This weekend I have been asked to be a panelist at a forum on Board Game Design. I can think of no better means to organize my thoughts on the matter than through a GeekList.

The games that I have designed may be few in number, with most being Print-n-Plays, and I have had quite a number of ideas that I have simply given away to other designers. Some ideas that I tried to follow led to dead ends. Others are stewing away in the creative recesses of my subconscious. The thing I do know is what I like when I play games, having been involved in one way or another with the gaming hobby for well over 30 years.

About a year and a half ago I finally struck upon a board game idea that intrigued me enough to consider submitting it for publication. Currently titled Rusalka's Sorrow, it is a fantasy-based, Euro-style game set in Dark Age Russia. Presented here are my thoughts and notes as to what went into its design.
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Having grown up in the Shadow of the Soviet Union, the folk tales & legends of medieval Russia and the surrounding area were never far from my mind. The books I read were filled either with these stories or with indirect allusions to them. Thus it only seemed logical, having been suckled by such tales, that when I would design board games or write fiction their leitmotifs would come to the forefront of my work. They plowed the field from which Rusalka’s Sorrow would grow.
 
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2. Board Game: In the Year of the Dragon [Average Rating:7.38 Overall Rank:249]
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I had no intentions of designing a board game the day the idea came, like an unbidden visitor, to my door. Far from it. My intent was to re-read the rules to Stephan Feld’s fabulous In the Year of the Dragon so as to be able to play it again without getting any of its nuances and mechanisms wrong. And then it struck me.
 
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The beginning of In the Year of the Dragon states that the game has the following “rhythm” or Order of Play: first players select an Action, then they call upon Characters who aid either with a given Action or help deal with Events, and finally players deal with Events (most of which are bad). A thought suddenly stuck me: what if the players were able to summon Characters first, then use them to affect their Actions and ride out the tide of Events? I grabbed pen & paper, quickly getting my thoughts in order, and within 15 minutes wrote up the entirety of the game; mind you, a few things have changed within my rules-set since that brainstorm, but, for the most part, the initial mechanisms and game play have stayed the same. For me this meant that the foundation of the game was a solid one.
 
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So how does this work? I decided to have a five-part game turn and a game that lasted 10 turns with 4 players and 12 turns with 3-4, that way the time to play Rusalka’s Sorrow remained a reasonable one. The five phases of each game turn are: hiring Specialists; taking Actions; paying Upkeep for the Specialists; dealing with Events; and a game maintenance phase called Reckoning. The game’s delimiters in terms of turns are its Events. Most of these are bad (12 out of the 16) and serve as its random element, with the number of Events equal to the number of game turns coming into play. The players, at any given time, know what the current turn’s Event is, as well as those of the next two turns. Again, I decided to variate from Feld’s design. I did not want the players to over-think their game plans. Having a limited foreknowledge of what would affect them could allow players to prepare for the Events, but not knowing all of the Events could keep them on edge as to what might or might not come to pass.
 
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The advantage of seeing what Events are coming, especially early in the game, when the players are flush with Gold, allows them to make solid choices as to what Specialists to hire. These Characters are a form of risk management, as players must decide which ones will aid them best either with their use of Resources or in dealing with Events. Also, they must choose which ones they will pass over and allow their competitors to hire. I wanted to create a wide stable of Specialists to give players an array of Characters with which to pursue their goals. Each provides a benefit, at what I feel is an appropriate price. The Specialists also allow players multiple paths to getting to the same aim, such as additional Actions, without being equivalent. There are sixteen different ones to choose from, which gives a good amount of variance without overwhelming the players. Their costs also reflect their usefulness, so that a player may decide to go with many cheaper ones for greater flexibility toward their Actions or focus on a few key Specialists to gain greater rewards. It was also with these Characters that I was able to add my main Russian fantasy elements.
 
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Running parallel with the Specialists are the Buildings, some of which provide the equivalent benefits of the Characters. Like the Specialists, there is a limited number of each Building that any player may build. The reasoning behind this is that these are akin to licences that players, as Russian barons, must apply for with their liege and that each region can only sustain a limited number of them. Players must decide which ones, if any, to construct. Erecting each, though, costs an Action, as well as the required set of Resources. Buildings also, unlike Specialists, have three Events that could potentially pose negative effects to them, while Specialists have only one; this is because Specialists require Upkeep, while Buildings need only basic maintenance and so I chose to give players relying on them something to worry about.
 
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After players select to hire 0, 1 or 2 Specialists to add to their workforce, they get to take their Actions. Each player begins with 2 Actions and, early on, it is a race to gain their Third. It is relatively easy to get to the point of having 3 Actions, but gets much harder to gain a Fourth or even Fifth one. Most of the Actions deal with acquiring Resources – Food, Gold, Stone, Wood & Potions. A few allow the Resources to be spent on such things as constructing Buildings or Houses (necessary for additional Actions). Some aid with Events. There are a dozen different Actions available, but most of the time players will need to use those that bring in Resources or to erect Buildings & Houses, as the rest are of limited (though, at times, necessary) use.

Here again I deviated from Feld’s design. Within the scheme of In the Year of the Dragon each player selects one Action from a group of Actions each turn, and if other players want to use an Action within a selected group they must pay the bank to do so. First, I dispensed with the idea of a single Action. There is too much going on within my game’s scheme to limit the players that way, as they already have a short number of turns. I also wanted a means to allow multiple players to take the same Action as others (or themselves). My limiting factor was – and this is simply for the sake of game play – to limit each Action space to hold a number of Action tokens equal to the number of players; so that, in a 2 player game, if one player decides to Mine for Gold, the other can as well, or they can do something else, allowing the first player to Mine for Gold again (but not a third time).
 
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8. Board Game: Stone Age [Average Rating:7.60 Overall Rank:90] [Average Rating:7.60 Unranked]
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As I mentioned earlier, certain Specialists & Buildings allow players to improve the affect of Action spaces. However, each one must be applied toward a single Action space only once per turn. For instance: A player has two Miners (+1 Gold when Mining OR +2 Stone when Quarrying) and decides to Mine for Gold. He can add +0, +1 or +2 units of Gold to the initial unit gained via the Mining Action. If he uses both Miners to gain 3 units of Gold here, he will not be able to gain their ability if he also chooses to Quarry Stone. This makes those Specialists & Buildings of use, but does not let them overpower players without them.
 
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9. Board Game: Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:881]
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A key component of Russian medieval courts was the Company or Druzina. Each lord gathered friends, soldiers & specialists within their manor to provide him with prestige, as well as to have them on hand for times of need. To keep them satisfied, the lord would feast his Company and provide them with gifts, as this was a time-honored Viking tradition, from which the Kievite and Muscovite Rus descended. To reflect this within Rusalka’s Sorrow I decided to have players pay an Upkeep cost for their Specialists. They need to feast them with Food or give gifts of Gold. This makes it a necessity that players have those Resources on hand and so will likely need to spend one or more of their Actions on acquiring them. It also limits the size of each player’s Company in two ways: first, they need to afford this Upkeep cost or lose some of their Characters; and second, since every Specialist costs Gold (and some also require Food) to hire, players will find it difficult to gain very many. In other words, while it could be possible in a four player game for one person to wind up with a total of 21 Specialists, this is highly unlikely.
 
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Once the Specialists have been paid or fed, players must deal with the given turn’s Event. Some Events also have effects that impact the hiring of Specialists and/or the preventing of certain Actions, and so are partially resolved during those phases of the game turn. Events are further divided into 2 decks – A & B. The A deck is used for the first half of the game (turns 1-5 or 1-6) and offers slightly easier challenges & lesser benefits than the B deck, where they amp up as players generally have had time to build up their provinces. Dealing with disasters is a crucial feature in Rusalka’s Sorrow and it is generally the player who is best able to deal with those who will emerge victorious. Also, most in-game points come from how well players deal with certain Events, such as Battles.

Here again I used the opportunity to add elements of Russian folklore to the game.
 
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After the turn’s Event is dealt with, players move on to the game maintenance phase known as Reckoning. Here certain Specialists & Buildings will provide benefits and Potions can be sold for points. The current Event is discarded, the others move up in the time frame, and a new one is revealed. The start player then changes and the cycle is ready to begin again.
 
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While there are points to be gained during the game, most come at the end. A player who holds a prosperous Province rich in Population & Resources is rewarded. Specialists provide points as well, both in and of themselves, along with additional points for a select few, but also for the player who has managed to collect the largest company of Characters. The great Buildings that players have erected serve notice as to their greatness. All of this, added to any points gained in-game, shows which player has won.
 
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Above is a brief description of the game. While the initial inspiration caused the game to pop from my head like Athena from Zeus’ skull and be near complete in fifteen minutes, it was in the 4-6 weeks of play-testing that tempered the design and strengthened many of its elements. Without that and the victims, er play-testers, who put Rusalka’s Sorrow through its paces, the game would not be a finished product and certainly not be something I would be willing to share with others.

Among the playtesters I must thank are: Ruth Pinsky, Alex Bokman, Linda Balwin (bgg user Carmilla), Gil Hova (bgg user IngredientX), David Samuels, and Stephen Buonocore (bgg user evilone). Their comments and opinions were greatly appreciated.
 
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I hope my story inspires you in crafting your own gaming masterpiece.
 
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