Game Design

So, I’ve been developing this game for the past year or so and…

I’ve started this blog a bit late in the game but as a wise person once said, “better late than never.”

…for bet than never is late.

—Chaucer, The Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale

That’s nice, but enough about you…what about your game?

My game puts you in the hot-seat as a Roman Senator at the time of the republic. It’s your duty to maintain the population, food, water, military power, and treasury of Rome through various crises that face the republic—all the while trying to pass your own policies that eventually strip the republic of its power and turn you into the first Imperator of a new Empire.

This was at the early stages of my development, although I had already been jotting down several ideas for this game. After one jam-packed game night of playing Bang!, Secret Hitler, Munchkin, and Bohnanza—my inner dialogue went something like this:

“That was a fun night, so many great games!”

“I can’t believe that I lost that game of Munchkin…I really just wanted the game to end and didn’t want to use my curse card to stop someone else to drag the game out even further.”

“It would be neat to play a game that combines some of the themes of Munchkin with that of Bohnanza…what would that look like?”

Please don’t make me read your inner monologue…

Fine. I went on like this inside my head for hours until I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted was a game that:

  • Forced competing players to work together to solve a collective problem.
  • Created situations where players had to choose between working together or breaking from the pack so they could win.
  • Caused a lot of negotiating and bartering between players.

I thought of my game as a type of Pandemic “lite” with only one player being able to emerge as the winner. Imagine a version of Pandemic where you’re all competing to be the top scientist to cure all of the viruses for fame and glory…would you let parts of the world suffer if it meant that you’d come out on top in the long run?—At the heart of it, I was attempting to invoke the best AND the worst in people within the span of one game.

Sounds intriguing, but how’d you get started?

After realizing, even on an abstract level, what the “goals” were, I had a basic formation of win conditions. Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning from Zeus Jupiter himself…what if all of the players were senators in the Roman republic that were trying to steal all of the power for themselves? It just fits.

I went to town on creating as many assets as I could think of—no, that’s not true. I extensively researched different aspects of creating a game. There’s not a lot out there on creating a tabletop game, specifically, but there’s plenty on creating a compelling video game. Buzzfeed title formation aside, I realized that there were five core elements to consider when creating a game—the last one will shock you! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

In no specific order, these tenets are:

  1. Create goals that the players must meet to win the game. (For example, players must obtain Object Z to win.)
  2. Create the mechanism for how they meet said goals. (Players must collect enough of Token X before they are able to obtain Object Z.)
  3. Put obstacles in the way of the mechanism. (Players mustn’t collect Fiddly Bit Y as it makes it more difficult to obtain Token X!)
  4. Do everything that you can to keep the player informed about the conditions of the game, including cutting elements that are too complicated to remember or fathom during gameplay. (Players should understand that Fiddly Bit Y is made up of 5 other Fiddly Bits noted Y1 – Y5. Each of these is collected based on 10 different rules that are clearly on this one reminder card so you should know to follow them all…I mean they’re on the card!)
  5. Tie all of this amazing stuff together into one beautiful theme. Theme is concept, setting, story, and emotion. Theme is artwork and mechanic, players reacting to other players and reacting to the state of the board itself as the game progresses.

I knew, personally, that if I could master these 5 tenets in a tabletop game, that I’d have a game that wasn’t just a cool idea; I’d have a game that made people not want to stop playing it.

That’s cute, but I already know that stuff. Stop patronizing me and get to the—

Look. Although this all may seem like common sense, typically when you get into the weeds of designing the ecosystem of a game, you may forget or misunderstand one of these five commandments. If you’re interested in traveling up the same river that I am, you’d do well to understand the basic navigation points.

Always refer back to these as your North Star. When you think about developing some cool thing about your game, think about whether it really fits within those tenets.

Tell me the truth, which of these 5 commandments did you break?

Number 4, on multiple occasions.

Thou shalt not make your game unnecessarily complicated.

The first alpha-version assets of my game were hand written on index cards. I had this concept of population, food, water, shelter, soldiers, navy, health, and money—different types of resources that players would need to keep afloat on their path to becoming emperor of Rome.

These resources changed when facing a crisis. Crises are presented as cards from the Crisis Deck, each crisis having “action card” type attributes that affect these resources:

  • Type of crisis (population, military, food, water, shelter, financial)
  • Effects of the crisis when the card is drawn (destroy 10 population, destroy 5 military, etc.)
  • Additional effects each turn that the crisis remains unresolved
  • What you can do to resolve the crisis (make population equal to water, train 10 new soldiers, etc.)

The way that players balanced those resources was through passing policy cards, to which players had a hand of at their disposal.

It worked. It worked well. “Too well,” I thought. And so, I made it more complicated.

That’s right, I didn’t make it more difficult, I made it more complicated. Violating #4, that’s a paddlin’.

These photos are of the first designed and printed version of the game. I took the simple “policies and resources and disasters, oh my!” to a thick turn-based-strategy-resource-management-player-against-game-player-against-player catastrophe.

Let’s open the vault…shall we?

Here’s a brief peek into the archive folder containing my first print ‘n’ play version of the game:

Let’s open the vault…

Each shred of paper represented everything from:

  • Policy cards
  • Special policies (your win conditions)
  • Resources (military, shelter, water, food, health, population)
  • Buildings that helped you grow resources (farms, aqueducts, barracks, trade posts, quarries, mines)
  • Crisis cards (these were actually hand drawn from my brainstorming phases)
My Latin skills need some work

Here’s an image of some of the Crisis Cards that I had. These were early mockups that I had from brainstorming in a perforated sketchbook.

Mithridates VI

It may be difficult to see from the photo, but that fellow with the wolf cap on is Mithridates VI of Pontus…one of the greatest kings of Pontus and the Greco world. He was, unfortunately, no match for the generals of Rome at the time, but he did play a part in their history. As such, I thought it fitting to make him a minor threat to Rome in the game.

Other sketches include a Trireme ship, and a statue of the Etruscan chimera in a crisis titled Last Stand of the Etruscans.

All of this was fun to develop but painstaking to actually play. Due to the many complications of buildings and a crisis begetting more crises, I lost sight of my #1 and #2 because of all of the #4 sins I had racked up.

OK, what did you do to fix that?

I’m going to pull a line inspired by the “I wrote myself into a corner” AND/OR “I’m too lazy to provide an explanation for this legitimate question” types of story writing and say this:

That’s a good question. But one for another time.

Thanks for reading—until next time!

Game Design

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton