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Subject: Designer Diary - Whirlybirds rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Sorry for the little delay in getting these diaries together. For the next few days I’ll be trying to do one each day if possible, but I had to take a break to help get a certain kickstarter ready. The game’s been doing well, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the support the game has received so far.

Today I want to talk about the second faction in Root, the Old Order of the Eyrie Dynasty. These are the former rulers of the great woods, who, at the start of the game, have rallied under a new commander and are preparing to retake their former position of power.


This is a prototype faction board. The pretty ones
are coming along nicely but I can't quite share them yet.


As you might have guessed from these diaries, making a highly asymmetric game is tricky, and it’s especially tricky when it comes to designing a strategy game. Most traditional strategy games at the same scale and weight as Root are asymmetric, but the asymmetry is small. One player might get a bonus to fighting, another might get a bonus to building shops. This commonality is great from the perspective of development because advantages and disadvantages like that are pretty easy to balance.

When I set out to make a highly asymmetric strategy game one of my initial concerns was that the two traditional powers (the Marquise and the Eyrie) would be too similar. Thankfully, in designing the Marquise, I was quickly reminded of all of my frustrations with the assumptions games make when they are about state-building.

So, before I set out to design the Eyrie, I revisited an old favorite book: Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). This is the kind of book that I feel like is commonly known among historians and graduate student types, but, for whatever reason, is almost never read outside of the university. This is a crying shame, because it’s an excellent book. Even if I don’t agree on some of the details, it has a way of sticking to your brain.

Here’s the argument in sum: there is a tradition in the writing of history that imagines the whole of the past as working at the service of the present. It says that history is the story about how our moment came to be. It tends to be relentlessly progressive and forward-looking. It’s also a very bad way of thinking about the past.

Now this may all sound terribly particular to the study of history, but there’s a good argument to be made that the “Whig interpretation of history” is an absolute mainstay in strategy game design. Part of this is to blame on our psychology as players: we want to feel like we are getting more powerful the more we play. Part of this is ideological: we want to feel like things are getting better and that the future is brighter. (For the record, I think the future is plenty bright, but I still try to recognize my own bias about such things.)

Okay, back to Root.

If the Marquise let me play around with a progression that was sort of Whiggish, the Eyrie provided me with a platform to undermine that progression as the only way a state might operate. As a basic model I originally turned my attention to Phil Eklund’s Origins: How We Became Human. Origins is a fantastic civilization game precisely because of the way it deals with progression. In Origins, player empires don’t grow so much as cycle through periods of innovation and ossification. Sometimes they change for the better, sometimes the worst. Better still, it’s up to the players to make those calls.

In order to represent these societal collapses, Phil uses a stability die which is rolled every turn. The more populous a player’s society becomes, the higher the chance it will fall apart. Falling apart isn’t a wholly bad thing in the design, as it allows your society to change rapidly whereas stable societies tend to get...well...stuck.

In early drafts of Root, I ported this system lock, stock, and barrel into the game. But, there were immediately problems. The first was a matter of chaos. I wanted Root to be more strategic than tactical, and many of the systems in the game, if a little chaotic, are built to allow players to hatch multi-turn plans. The second issue was time. Origins is a 3-4 hour game, so there’s plenty of time to watch your civilization crumble and rebuild itself. Root was always shooting for a 75 minute sweet spot. There simply wasn’t time for that much of a dynamic range in the game. So after a couple months of trying to make the system work, it became apparent that I needed to drop that mechanism and try something else.

Here I decided to use piece limits. While the game has hard limits on the numbers of pieces in play, most players are not punished for reaching those limits. The Eyrie is. If the Eyrie has to place a Roost or recruit a Warrior and none are in its supply (or, if there isn’t a legal place to build one), then their society collapses and they perform a partial reset. Like sharks, they have to keep swimming forward to survive.

But collapsing isn’t wholly bad. Collapses also allow you to get some of your pieces back that had previously been taking out of circulation and allow you to pivot from one board position to another. Furthermore, collapses allow you to pick a new leader.

Awhile back I mentioned that every faction uses the single deck of cards in a different ways. Well how the Eyrie uses the deck depends upon their leader. The Eyrie has four leaders, and each leader has a particular way they want to structure woodland society. For example, in some societies the mice will be spies, in others they will be Roost builders.

On the Eyrie’s turn, they will start by recruiting new warriors at every Roost. Then they will play a number of cards from their hand. What these cards do is wholly dictated by the structure of their society. A collapse may allow you time to reorder your society so those previously worthless rabbits that were clogging your hand might serve as warriors in the new order.

Of course, there’s a price too. Falling into chaos means that the Eyrie’s turn is over before they score. Unlike all of the other players, the Eyrie scores points each turn based on their board position. This means they are something of a game-clock. But, the other players can take a hammer to that clock if it serves their interest. And, one of the players most likely to do that is the Woodland Alliance. I’ll talk about them tomorrow.

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Lazy Mountain

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Reading the rules, I first wondered about the lack of a rule to return units to stock on demand (like COIN series games). Clever thoughts behind this partial collapse/ redistribution system, excited to experience how they play out.
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Ivor Bolakov
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Quote:
So, before I set out to design the Eyrie, I revisited an old favorite book: Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). This is the kind of book that I feel like is commonly known among historians and graduate student types, but, for whatever reason, is almost never read outside of the university. This is a crying shame, because it’s an excellent book. Even if I don’t agree on some of the details, it has a way of sticking to your brain.

Here’s the argument in sum: there is a tradition in the writing of history that imagines the whole of the past as working at the service of the present. It says that history is the story about how our moment came to be. It tends to be relentlessly progressive and forward-looking. It’s also a very bad way of thinking about the past.


That this viewpoint is still popular is crackers. I never thought I'd see this book mentioned on BGG; I've already backed the KS so there's nothing more I can do other than thank you for such erudition.
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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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I’m loving these design diaries and how they delve into and challenge assumptions about governments, history, civilizations, progress, and the general accumulation and projection of power.
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Thanks Cole.
I've used games - including yours and Phil's - in a historiography class, to examine the way historical perspectives enter into different aspects of life. Next time I go around I'm going to be using some of these designer diaries I think. Great stuff.
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adam wilson

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"Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them."

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
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Arthur Cormode
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Wehrlebirds?
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