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Subject: RUS - Designing the impossible rss

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Mike Ibeji
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We’ve just launched the Print n Play beta-test of RUS: Age of the Vikings, and I thought people might be interested in the design philosophy behind it. So here goes...

When I sat down to design RUS, I had a whole bunch of mutually exclusive goals that I wanted to achieve all in one game. I wanted it to:
• Play like an elegant Eurogame but FEEL like a strongly themed Amerigame.
• Have very little luck but contain random historical elements that players had to adjust to.
• Have a combat system which was VERY quick and deterministic at the start of the game but which created last-ditch defences that felt like Helm’s Deep at the end of the game.
• And the combat system MUSTN’T be reliant on luck – your decisions as a general had to matter.
• Be a wargame which could be won by peaceful means and clever diplomacy.
• Be a game of conquest which didn’t eliminate players with weak military powers.
• Be a game where you could be in it right up to the end even if things were going badly – but which rewarded good and clever play.
• Have the depth and feel of something like Twilight Imperium without taking 6 hours to play.
• Most importantly – accurately reflect the history and culture of the Rus, whilst remaining first and foremost A GAME, not a simulation.

Now I’ll freely admit that none of the elements in RUS are game-changingly innovative. In fact, even the concept of combining Eurogame mechanics with Amerigame themes has been done before. I initially got the idea from TI3, when I had a lightbulb moment reading Christian T. Petersen’s design notes. In fact, RUS began as something of a reaction to TI3 because, much as I enjoy TI3, it takes too long and I HATE the Imperial card with a passion - it means that the first 2 Strategy choices in each turn HAVE to be Imperial followed by Initiative, which are the 2 most boring cards in the game. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to win an empire-conquest game by picking the same dull card every turn, I want to win the game by building armies and/or doing interesting stuff!

So in RUS, I took the TI3/Puerto Rico concept of card drafting and (hopefully) made it so that in order to win, you have to pick cards that let you do interesting stuff within the game. Card drafting was also a great way of making players prioritise their actions, most significantly warfare. In most games, you get to do everything every turn. In RUS, you don’t. You have to decide what’s most important to you – and that is key. It simulates the limited resources that Medieval rulers had and the difficult choices they had to make. Most importantly, it means that you don’t just go to war on a whim, you have to plan for it, prepare for it and then actively take steps to execute it.

A couple of playtesters have challenged me on this, and in my defence I always point towards the Hastings campaign of 1066. William built an army (the Recruitment Action), but storms in the English Channel meant he couldn’t embark when he planned (nobody took Campaign that turn). Because of this, Harold’s fyrd melted away as it went back to the harvest (next turn, Harold took Harvest instead of Recruitment) and when William invaded (by playing Campaign), Harold only had his ealdormen and their huscarls ready to oppose him. Let’s not complicate this example with Stamford Bridge: my point is, Action Drafting creates a realistic feel of tough decisions made with limited resources which fits well within the theme of the game.

Combat was the biggest challenge. Initially, I used dice, but a) I hate games dominated by dice luck and b) they just didn’t do what I wanted them to do. So after a long discussion at a Playtest UK session, I had an epiphany and completely overhauled the combat system into what I call ‘Smallworld with Scissors/Paper/Stone’. Essentially, the combat system works kinda like Smallworld UNLESS you are attacking a player, when both sides adjust their combat strengths by comparing secretly played Tactics Cards. This achieves exactly what I wanted it to: in the early game, combat is so simple you don’t even have to think about it as you expand your empire, but in the endgame, as the Muscovites march on Novgorod and the Mongols threaten Kiev, the ramifications of which Tactics Card you play are so mind-bending that we recommend a 30-second time-limit on card selection to prevent the game grinding to a halt due to analysis-paralysis. It also enabled me to build more military options into the Tech Tree by releasing new Tactics Cards without completely overbalancing the combat system.

The Vassal Rule was also important here. I wanted this to be a game of conquest which reflected the history of the Rus, but also to be a game where weaker powers (and players who prefer building up their Tech Trees rather than warfare) weren’t just rolled over by the Rus or the Mongols. The Vassal Rule enables you to surrender to an invading power, preventing them from conquering your territory and keeping you in the game. But the downside is it gives them a Victory Point and allows them to demand tribute from you in the form of Resources. It is incredibly thematic, perfectly reflecting the history whilst preventing the strong military powers from completely breaking the game.

I could continue and rabbit on about how Settlers influenced Harvest and Resources and Trade, how the Tech Tree enables certain players to compete fully without forcing them down a military route, how Politics brings Emerging Powers like Moscow into the game and adds to the historical feel; but I’ve gone on long enough. If you’re interested, check out the rules on our website at http://www.guntowergames.com/#!rus-board-game/cngp. The general consensus of our playtesters is that it’s an extremely well-balanced game that richly reflects its theme, and that there’s an awful lot of depth to get your head around in the first play-through.

I’d love to hear what you think.
RUS: Age of the Vikings
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