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Design Diary: Home Stretch

Hello, poets and musicians, artists and scientists!

I’ve been hard at work over the past few months on getting Nine Muses polished, both visually and mechanically. This board game has come a long way since the version that I entered in a small design contest last April. (Humble brag: it won 2nd place as a crowd favorite.) I’m proud of the game that it was, but I’m infatuated with the game that it is. And there’s still some work to do! Let me give you a brief history of Nine Muse’s design roots and how it evolved, with an update on what’s in store for the future of this game.

Nine Muses in its infancy

Last Feb-March, I began design on Nine Muses as an entry to a board game contest. The challenge was to design a game that used no more than 9 poker-sized cards and 27 tokens or other small pieces. As a history buff with a fondness of all sorts of ancient mythologies, I had to make the game about the Nine Muses of antiquity. I quickly got to work.

The game I had in mind was simple: You’re all philosophers competing to gain renown and ensure that your opponents become unknowns. To do this, you use the muses to exchange the three types of knowledge defined by Aristotle (Craft, Science, and Ethics). The muses served as an exchange market and as a means to gain victory points, with the first player to gain 25 points taking the win.

The original concept that I submitted had three muses that allowed you to exchange one type of knowledge for points, and the other six each had 3 options for you to exchange knowledge. The idea is that you’d want to trade up to Ethics to maximize your points, but you might need to take advantage of the muse available and turn in Science or Craft for points instead. Only a limited number of muses were available to you at once, but you could spend a Science to replace a muse to hopefully gain the options you needed.

The twist to all of this was that the knowledge was finite, and when the bank ran out of the knowledge that you were owed, you could pick an opponent to steal from! That’s where the tension was.

It was fun, and I’m glad it did well in the contest, but it didn’t have the replayability or dynamic strategy I’d expect in a game. I had to make it better.

Inspired to improve

I experimented with countless builds, some of which let you “claim” a muse and gain points at the end of each turn, which forced players to pay you if they wanted to use the muse you claimed. (Example of one of these muses below.)

This was all well and fun, but these versions suffered from “follow the leader” syndrome, and also stopped players from being able to make any worthwhile moves. Even after tweaking the costs and points, there was something missing. Something lacking.

The problem was that aside from being able to steal knowledge here and there, there was no extra “spice” to give players the impression that they could develop a unique strategy of their own with what was at hand. Then it came to me, if the players are philosophers, why not let them play as the real deal?

To think about thinking

First, I changed the win condition to whomever had the most victory points after a certain number of rounds.

After that, I tweaked the muses to give them unique powers along with their knowledge exchange ability. As you’ll see in the image below, I also went through major visual overhauls to thematically aid your journey to become a great sage.

Then, I created philosopher cards, based on real people who lived in the times of antiquity, that players could reveal during the game to gain large sums of points—if they played their cards right (pun intended).

The gameplay improved quite a bit! But there was still one issue: follow the leader syndrome. There were four muses on the board for players to exchange knowledge with, but everyone wanted to make the same exact moves. That told me that I still needed to open the game up and allow people to execute more strategies to gain an edge over their opponents. Back to the drawing board.

Modern solutions to ancient problems

After a couple of months of experimentation with the former build, I hit a wall. I rode my bike, watched some TV, and played some board games and video games, then I realized something. My former builds each had a piece of this design puzzle, I need only put them all together.

The current build of the game has muses as an extra strategic layer on top of the base element of exchanging knowledge and scoring points. Now, philosophers serve as your knowledge exchangers with the man himself, Aristotle, being that stoic professor you must demonstrate your knowledge to for points. Although gaining various muses also allows you to score points or gain a knowledgeable edge for future turns.

Now we’re cooking with metaphysics! In the current build, players have three philosopher cards to use over the round. They can discard a philosopher card to demonstrate knowledge to Aristotle or claim a muse, or they can play the card to perform its specified knowledge exchange.

Players can claim a muse by meeting the “Visits” condition, and they can also steal a muse from an opponent as long as they meet that condition. (You only need to meet the condition at the time of claiming the muse, not continuously throughout the game. Any ties mean the muse can’t be claimed or stolen.)

The game is now played over five rounds; the player with the most points at the end of the last round claims victory and leaves their opponents in the footnotes of the history books. At the beginning of each round, you gain three philosopher cards to spend and a new muse is revealed. Once all players have used all of their philosopher cards, the round is over. Once the last muse is revealed, everyone plays one last round. The gameplay is fast and smooth, with dynamic strategies that don’t require you to have a philosophy degree to comprehend.

Current playtests have been great, and I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback on the game. But I’m not done yet, there are still some tweaks to make before I can say the gameplay feels as best as it can.

Changes for the better

My recent playtests have surfaced a major piece of feedback: The trade ability on the philosopher cards is too situational to be used most of the time. As a result, players are discarding philosopher cards to perform other actions in the game with the same or a better effect.

I’ve also noticed that the bank or “central pool” of knowledge as I call it is too large and needs to be limited, likely to specific amounts per number of players. I want to give players more moments where they have to steal knowledge.

Two tweaks I’m eager to test are to skew the philosopher trades such that you spend less and gain more, and there are two trade options for you to choose from on the card. Fingers crossed that these provide more options…

What’s in store for the future?

Slight tweaks and playtesting are in order for Nine Muses. I also need to standardize and improve the elements of the design. Symbols are all over the place, design-wise, and the text for the muses is difficult to read. In short: some gameplay and visual polish are needed.

I also need to work on packaging physical, print-and-play, and digital versions of Nine Muses. Oh, and there’s the little matter of the launch date and where to purchase this game—which I’m almost ready to sign off on. I’ll make an official announcement about that in the coming weeks, I’m almost ready to release an announcement about my release announcement, heh.

But now it’s time for me to kick it up a notch in terms of branding and advertising. I have a lot of visual work to do there: ads to design, pitches to refine, and videos to divine. (Sorry, “videos to divine” makes no sense but I couldn’t think of another word that rhymes with “refine” and “design.”)

My philosophic conclusion

Don’t be frightened of me using the A-word.

To me, advertising isn’t about trying to sell you my game. It’s to spread the word that my game exists and let you know what kind of game it is, so you can be the judge of whether it’s right for you or not.

You’ll see more info on Nine Muses, like the official release date, gameplay videos, and more peeks of the artwork, in the coming months as this game gets closer to being ready to add to your board game collection.

Until then, keep pondering and wandering…

By Neutrino Burrito

A writer and board game designer currently puttering about the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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